The popular New York City mayor chats with BusinessWeek about the differences and similarities between business and politics
With all the buzz about a possible White House run, BusinessWeek decided it was time to chronicle Mayor Michael Bloomberg's five years as chief executive of America's largest city. After all, the mayor seemed to have fans—his approval ratings have been in the ballpark of 70% since November, 2005, the political equivalent of a bull run on your stock. Our mission? To see if it is possible to run Gotham like a company.
BusinessWeek senior writer Tom Lowry sat down twice with Bloomberg himself during the past months, including one session at Tom's Diner in Brooklyn, where the mayor had two bowls of chicken noodle soup and opened up about his business-first approach to government. The following are edited excerpts from those talks with the mayor:
On the differences between government and business:
In business, you have a good product line or a bad product line. You move resources from the bad product line to the good product line, maybe even going out of the bad product line's business. In government, you never go out of a product line and you move resources from successful programs to unsuccessful programs. Why? Because there is nobody demanding more resources for the successful ones.
On how he arrives at a decision:
Generally, you try to arrive at a consensus. You try to have other people make the decisions you want. That's what a successful manager does. They build consensus, and if the ideas come from other people, that's so much better. That's an executive's job, to build consensus. If at all possible, have the ideas you want come from [your team]. But when it comes time, you have to make the decision. I have never had a problem making a decision.
On making mistakes:
At the beginning, I went out there and I made mistakes every day and people laughed at me and they criticized me and called me this and that. One time one of my daughters asked me, "How do you put up with this?" I said don't worry about it. Every day I am learning. Some day I will stop making mistakes and they won't remember they laughed and say instead, "You've gotten so much better." After more than five years at this, it would be really disappointing if I wasn't getting better at it.
On the challenges of pursuing innovation in government:
Innovation is a lot easier in the private sector because what innovation is really about is not knowing who is going to use it; you don't know what it's going to look like; you don't know how it's going to work; you don't know what it's going to cost; you don't know whether anybody is going to buy it, but you just sort of have this feeling that this might work, and if we don't try, we'll never know. In government, that's harder. You have to justify, every day.
On whether he sees himself as a politician:
I don't think so. I think I have learned a lot about politics. I think I know how to get things done in a political environment, the horse trading and the necessity to give due deference to those people you want to come along. But politics, no. I can't say I have a great deal of respect. I would go to non-partisan elections in a second.
On the importance of research in making decisions:
Our operations method is to try things and to see whether they work. Research will never tell you that. I do know that if you don't try, you will never find out. And you can give us a lot of credit for being intelligent. Another answer is that you can give us credit for just being lucky and you make luck by increasing the number of times you flip the coin.
On why more chief executives don't go into government:
The biggest impediment to going into government for people in the private sector is the loss of privacy. It's not so much that they follow you around to see where you eat, or who you are married to, or whether you are single, it is that they will look into your business dealings and hold you accountable for everything that went on in companies where you had worked in the past, no matter whether you had anything to do with it or not.
That's a very big problem. I have had friends who have said they would like to volunteer or do something in government but they had to pass because you have to fill out these forms. They say, "What? What? I don't want to tell anybody what investments I have, or how much I set aside for my kids, or how much I made last year." And you can argue the public has a right to know, and that may very well be, but one of the costs is that it takes a whole group of people out of consideration.
On valuing his own privacy:
I'm not terribly interesting to write about. I live with an age-appropriate woman. We don't do coke. We don't go to crazy places. So it's not interesting. Nevertheless, I might not have known what it was really going to be like. The press didn't know—what does a billionaire do? Do they put on their pants one leg at a time, or not? Do they eat with their fingers, or a knife and fork? It was at that level.
And then when I said I wasn't going to tell where I was going on some weekends, The New York Times went ballistic. But after three or four weeks they went on to the next subject. You know, even [former California Representative] Gary Condit gets off the front pages eventually. You don't think so at the time, but Monica [Lewinsky] disappeared finally. It took a year, but Monica eventually disappeared.
On what he hopes to leave his successor:
I would hope that the public finds a mayor who is better than me. That would be a wonderful feather in my cap. In business, you measure a manager by how well they pick a successor. I say to a manager, "Who in your organization can succeed you? Well, nobody. O.K., well, you're not getting that promotion. Next…I think a lot of elected officials are afraid to develop somebody under them because that person might come along and challenge them.
That tells you something about their confidence in their own abilities, I suppose. But nevertheless, it's true. I would like to leave a culture of responsibility, accountability, excellence, and honesty. Me and the 300,000 people I work with gave this city a roadmap. We took it partway down that road. But wouldn't it be wonderful if my successor continued on it?