Monday, June 29, 2009

Denver Brewpub Advice For The Next Memphis Mayor

To continue the theme that we began yesterday on what it will take for Memphis to recruit the kind of candidate that can become a great mayor, here's the abbreviated advice from one of our favorites, Denver's John Hickenlooper:

LESSONS FROM A BREWPUB:
The John Hickenlooper Guide To Civic Success

We started our Profiles in Leadership: America’s Great Mayors series to answer a simple question: what does a great mayor look like?

We weren’t expecting to find out that, sometimes, a great mayor looks like a brewpub manager. But John Hickenlooper is used to surprising people.

He surprised his friends and family in Narberth by morphing from an awkward, unambitious kid into a dynamic, successful businessman. He surprised his bankers by turning a risky brewpub venture into a catalyst for a neighborhood’s development. He surprised everyone in Denver by beating the pants off of a field of well-established politicians and becoming mayor.

And he surprised our audience by explaining that restaurants and city halls aren’t that different. “I think that any candidate is greatly improved by having spent a few years running a big, popular restaurant,” he said. “Whether it’s the restaurant or a big city, you never have enough money. You have a diverse group of people you’ve got to weld into a team. And the public is always ticked off about something.”

In 2003, Hickenlooper rode a wave of ticked-off voters to victory. Public frustration with Denver’s political establishment had opened the door to an outsider candidate like him. Hickenlooper seized the opportunity not by railing against his opponents but by presenting a positive vision for the city. He emphasized the need for teamwork. He vowed to improve city services and balance the budget. He promised to end the old-school game of political insider-ism and put the best possible person in every city job.

So far, he has delivered enough that his re-election is virtually assured. He balanced the budget despite declining revenues. He passed key civil service reforms. He reached far beyond his circle of friends and supporters to find qualified, diverse appointees. He helped end years of city-suburb political warfare, paving the way for a groundbreaking regional transportation initiative. TIME Magazine has called him one of America’s top big city mayors, and he faces no significant competition for his second term.

How did he do it? He turned to the lessons he learned on the brewpub floor.

Lesson One: Listen

As a candidate, Hickenlooper listened to local businesspeople and found out that tax revenues were more likely to shrink than to grow. That allowed him to craft a smart budget that helped him win early endorsements from the local papers. He listened to leaders in the towns and suburbs surrounding Denver. That helped him end years of animosity and start money-saving, region-growing regional projects. He listened to average Janes and Joes all around Denver, and that helped him grasp the importance of improving city services and restoring faith in government.

And from the minute he launched his campaign, he listened to his own gut instincts. “At that first meeting, we’re sitting there with a bunch of political consultants,” he recalled. “There’s six other candidates- it’s almost like a made-for-TV movie – there’s the Greek former police chief, the Latino former city auditor, the African American state senator – all the way down the list. And one of the people said, ‘You’re at 3 percent in the polls. If you’re going to distinguish yourself, you’ve got to pull down one of these frontrunners.’ And my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well that’s exactly the direction we’re not running.’

“We never did opposition research. We never did a negative ad. We never attacked. We tried to run a campaign where we said, ‘We’re going to hire the best person for the job for every single job in the city.’ We were going to focus on being transparent, inclusive, and collaborative in a way that no one in the city has seen.” The message worked: Hickenlooper won 65 percent of the final vote.

Lesson Two: Know Your Real Budget

One of the first things that candidate Hickenlooper did was make the rounds of local businesses. Based on what he heard, along with other research, he decided that instead of tax growth, Denver was about to see a significant decrease in tax revenue; so he made up a budget, took it to the newspapers, and won early endorsements.

The next thing he knew, he had jumped to 33 percent in the polls, with his nearest competition at 15. “I still remember my wife reading the details,” he said, “and she was not terribly happy about this. She lowered the newspaper so just her eyes were above it and said, ‘You never told me you were going to win.’”

But he did win, and his projections proved correct. But he arrived armed with the mandate he needed to make tough budget cuts.

Lesson Three: Know your Real Competition

When Hickenlooper opened his brewpub in a half-forgotten downtown neighborhood, his employees thought he was crazy when he put ads for other local restaurants in his restrooms. “The other restaurants couldn’t believe it. Our staff came up to me and said, what are you doing?” he recalled. “I said, they’re not our competitors. You’ve got to look at our self-interest in broader way. They’re really our allies. Our competitor is the TV set. We’ve got to work together to get people off the couch and out to enjoy life.”

That attitude helped revitalize what’s now known as LoDo – for Lower Downtown – and Hickenlooper brought it to the mayor’s office. One of the first things he did was throw a party in his loft for every regional county commissioner and their spouses. “I gave a two-minute speech: ‘The history of divisiveness, and us trying to get benefit at your expense, is over. And from now on, the City of Denver will do everything we can to help the suburbs,” he recalled. “I got a huge round of applause. There was this tremendous hunger there.”

Similarly, he reached out to the Republican governor, who’d had epic battles with Hickenlooper’s Democratic predecessor, Wellington Webb. “On my first day in office I walked across the green. I spent about an hour and a half with him, and I said, ‘I guarantee you I will never embarrass you for political gain. We agree on about 90 percent of the stuff. It’s crazy for us to get in fights over these other things."

Why reach out? Because just as a successful brewpub needed a successful LoDo, a successful Denver needs a successful Colorado. “Denver doesn’t compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego,” he said. “We’re competing with metropolitan Shanghai. And metropolitan Bombay. If we don’t begin working together at a much higher level, we’ll find that not just our grandchildren’s jobs but our children’s jobs will have gone away.”

Lesson Four: Never Stop Building Your Team

Don’t ever expect to see Hickenlooper pat himself on the back. As he talks about Denver’s successes, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisors, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.

Restaurants depend on a team of diverse people with many backgrounds and skill sets, all of whom have particular needs if they are to get their jobs done. Cities depend on the same thing. When he came into office, Hickenlooper made sure that he brought in a staff of appointees who were not only highly qualified, but diverse and representative, with connections to all parts of the city’s social and political culture. He appointed one of his competitors for mayor as a leader in his transition. He established transition teams that could reach far beyond his personal circle to find qualified candidates for appointment in all parts of the U.S. He made a highly visible effort to put a team in place that Denver’s citizens could trust.

And he never stops building up his teammates, listening to their needs in private, and praising them in public whenever he can. He praises the city employees who helped him trim Denver’s budget. He praises the suburban officials who helped make transit reform a reality. He happily declined to put his picture up in the Denver airport, substituting pictures that celebrate regional landmarks.

“Symbolic stuff really matters,” he said. “You end up coming out better in the end. By taking your own picture down, it’s as if you had a bigger picture up there.”

9 comments:

toltecs said...

Wow. This is an excellent idea for a series. Reading this post and seeing how people in Memphis think Herenton was a good mayor really shows me that Memphians have no clue as to what is possible if we had some leadership in the Mayoral seat.

Anonymous said...

Denver has a large number of college-educated, intelligent voters who understand that cities are competing differently now. Memphis has a large number of uneducated, unmotivated, ignorant, and highly provincial voters who believe if someone else prospers, it's at their expense. It's all about a pack of dogs fighting over an ever smaller rotting carcass in this benighted burg, while people of intellect, drive and ambition leave for other metro areas daily. Memphis is doomed. Herenton leaving won't make any difference, the new mayor will be subject to the same "special" Memphis influences that kill any progressive instincts. This is my hometown, but I refuse to wear rose-colored glasses. If my family situation were different, I would leave yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, this post makes me want to put Denver at the top of my list as a possible relocation site.

MATAlac said...

Hickenlooper is a great guy and the Wynkoop brewery actually feels like someones living room/game room.

I think the subtext here is that a catalyst for change in Memphis may come from an unexpected place, rather than an heir apparent.

To be a game changer, one needs to see all the decisions at least 20 years down the road. The past has been mined too many times. Memphis is a polarized society on many levels and future leaders see beyond this.

Anonymous said...

Basically, Hickenlooper applied lessons learned from a successful non-political career toward a vision for serving his city. For him, becoming the Mayor was almost incidental to his other accomplishments.

For others, unfortunately becoming the Mayor is the life accomplishment and the vision has become incidental.

The outcome of the last election clearly shows that our next Mayor will be African American and that having a vision is optional. Let's hope our next Mayor is both.

Zippy the giver said...

I think you should stay on this theme till we have a new mayor, very seriously.
Who else can keep the focus?
The man you described took his own needs and saw a pattern that he could then template over Denver and it was deadly accurate. Without results he would have been blown out in no time. That's where we as Memphians miss the boat, we don't blow out the rubbish. We give no mandates because we are so distracted by the latest stupid statement or unfathomable deed that we are polarized, traumatized and victimized by the merely clever.
Keep on this theme, please, for Memphis' sake.

Zippy the giver said...

Edmund Ford Sr. can keep the city focused on being a hotbed of racist hatred, woohoo, bye bye Memphis, I'll drive the bulldozer if he runs and wins, all day and for free!

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