05 Nov 2014
The Men Behind the Mayors: How Business Can Impact Government

Big change is coming to Washington DC after the midterm elections. But as political lion Tip O'Neill famously said "All politics is local." Today on "The Business," we find out why two MBAs have opted for Main Street over Wall Street.

The Business is a podcast from Harvard Business School that ran through 2015 and took a unique look at the business world through conversations with HBS faculty and entrepreneurs. It has since been replaced by Cold Call, a new podcast that distills the legendary HBS case method into digital form. Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.



Brian Kenny: Today on "The Business"- the road less travelled. Business school grads who choose City Hall over Wall Street. I'm Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing Communications Officer at Harvard Business School. It’s Election season, in case you didn't notice- and in this edition of our podcast, we're introducing you to two MBAs who have invested themselves-- in local politics.

Mitch Weiss and Dan Koh are driven to succeed. It's almost palpable, when you talk with them. They're also innovative, open minded, and accomplished. Mitch has been an investment banker- and Dan was deputy to Arianna Huffington, at the Huffington Post.

But it seems that both Dan and Mitch have found their greatest challenge-- and their greatest reward so far-- working in the public sector, at City Hall. Both are Harvard Business School grads. And both have held the same job in Boston - Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Boston. Actually, for TWO Boston mayors. Mitch Weiss was Chief of Staff to the late Mayor Tom Menino. The longest-serving mayor in Boston history:

Mayor Menino: You didn’t elect me mayor because I am a fancy talker, you elected me mayor because I care about Boston.

Dan Koh is serving as Chief of Staff for Tom Menino's successor, Mayor Marty Walsh.

Marty Walsh: We are a city upon a hill, but it’s not just the shining light of Beacon Hill, it’s Savin Hill where I live, it’s Bunker Hill and Bellevue Hill. It’s Copp’s Hill, Mission Hill, Eagle Hill.

BK: That was Mayor Walsh, who just started on the job this year, as did Dan.

Dan and Mitch were both part of the Service Leadership Fellows Program at Harvard Business School. The program sends graduates into public sector positions or non-profits to work for the CEO of those organizations. And some of them decide to stay.

As Chief of Staff for Boston's current mayor, Dan says he's got two main functions: Advise the mayor on decisions he's making. And then when he makes the decision, carry it out:

Daniel Koh: In a given day, I structure my day with the mayor. We talk every morning at quarter of seven about what was in the news and our plan for the day. I have an 8:30 meeting with our senior staff. So our chief of policy, our corporation counsel, who’s the head lawyer for the city, and our chief of operations. We come up with a plan for the day. By about 10:00 that plan's totally out the window, and there's a bunch of different things going on. And then the mayor and I usually are in a few meetings together during the day, and then touch base before bed and starts over the next morning.

BK: That's a big job. Those are big-- Mitch you mentioned before we sat down that you were 34 when you started that job. Those are big shoes for a 34-year old guy. I'm not going to say how old Dan is because he's even younger I think.

Mitch Weiss: Yeah, I mean I think they're big shoes, but in some ways you're an idea generator and I think that young people can be great idea generators. They can help the city move forward, help think about its future, and in that way I think you're well positioned, as long as you're humble enough to know that you don't know everything. You're well positioned to contribute with some fresh perspective. I think the main reason, the main reason, that Mayor Menino picked me, and that Mayor Walsh picked Dan was to try to bring some fresh energy to what they were trying to get done.

BK: Tell me about the sort of the learning curve for you, kind of stepping into this role and you had an added complexity in the sense that your mayor was taking over after the longest serving mayor in the history of the City of Boston. So, I think the pressure was probably a little more intense on your boss's shoulders perhaps than it might have been on Mayor Menino's when Mitch was there.

DK: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, look, to say that it was an easy transition in that the learning curve was zero would be a lie, but I think, again, what Mitch had pointed out, having the humility to go in there and admit that you don't know everything is really important. I'll give you kind of a fun story. I came in still developing my relationship with Mayor Walsh. I had met him for the first time December 21st of last year.

BK: Wow.

DK: Started with him in office on January 6th, so that's how quickly it happened. And one of the first things we did was we went to police headquarters to look at a city stat presentation. So, every couple of weeks different police officers get up and talk about their different districts, what Level One in crime, etcetera, etcetera. First of all, I didn't know, or even know what Level One crime defined was. I pretended like I did. From the corner, I just nodded like I knew what was going on. But, I'm sitting there in the back with a room filled with uniformed, seasoned police officers, and sitting in the middle was the mayor and Commissioner Evans, the new Police Commissioner. So, I'm standing in the back, you know, acting like I know what's going on, you know, nodding and trying to take it all in, and obviously not understanding most of the acronyms and all that. And I look over at the mayor, and the mayor is signaling to me, and he's pointing at a seat. And I go over to him and he says, ‘I need to leave, can you sit here?’

BK: Oh.

DK: So, this is literally my first week on the job. I'm 29 years old. There are these, you know, very tough looking police officers around me. I sit down and Commissioner Evans leans over, he says, “Do you want to say something?” And I think to myself, what the heck am I going to say to these guys? I really don't know a lot about what's going on. They know far more than I do. And so, Commissioner Evans said, you know, this is Dan, he's the mayor’s Chief of Staff. He wants to say a few words.

BK: Oh dear.

DK: So, what I said was exactly what I was thinking, which is I said, ‘Everybody, my name's Dan Koh. I'm really excited to be working with you all. I know I look young. I know that I don't have the experience you guys all do, but trust it when I say that I'm going to work so hard with all of you to make Boston better. I want to learn from all of you. You know a lot about crime and law enforcement that comes with experience that I don't have, that I want to learn. So for me, this is about proving to you all that I'm going to work hard to prove to you that I'm up for this role, and the Mayor and I look forward to partnering with each and every one of you to make Boston better.’

And I think that's the best you can do in those situations. If I had gone in there and said hey guys, you know, part one crimes did look high today and we should really make sure to get it down and I read in a textbook or at a case at HBS on how to do it, they would have laughed me out of the room, right. So I think knowing that you have a learning curve, acknowledging it, and asking for help, I think is the most important part of our jobs. And I think, when you go to somebody, you bring somebody into your office and you say, ‘explain this to me.’ I think they respect you more, because they know that you're not going to try to just tell them what to do off the bat, and try to impress them with your knowledge but you have the humility to understand that it takes listening before acting.

BK: And, that's counter to what you were trained to do here at HBS, which is, you know, you get ready for that cold call and when they call on you, you better have something to say. So your instinct kicked in there and it was the right one. That's great, thanks for sharing that.

DK: Thank you.

BK: Mitch, I know that under Mayor Menino’s administration, he placed a big emphasis on innovation. And, he wanted to reinvigorate the spirit of innovation in Boston, which we somehow lost that to Silicon Valley a while ago. But at one time, Boston was the epicenter of innovation and lots of technologies came out of here. You were sort of central to that whole thing. Can you talk about how does the mayoral administration partner with business in a way that helps to create that kind of environment?

MW: The very first thing that you need to do is lay out a clear, exciting mission to these business partners. I always tell people, of all the things that government offered to motivate them to move down to, for example, South Boston's waterfront, which we are trying to regenerate into an innovation district. It's a thousand acres, as a home of entrepreneurship and innovation and knowledge kind of companies. Of all the things we gave to people to get them to move down there, the most important thing was an invitation. These entrepreneurs we’re trying to attract. They like to build things. And so we said to them, ‘come help us be a part of this’. Ten years from now, when people write the history about how Boston again regained its standing as a global leader in innovation, would you like your name to be written in that history, and they respond to that. So I think oftentimes in government, we default to incentives or programs or grants. And instead, if we actually emphasize the vision, the forward progress, and the joint effort we can do together. I think you'll find there's going to be more people engaged. Certainly, that's what we found developing the South Boston waterfront and Boston more broadly.

BK: Did people treat you differently after? I mean this is for both of you. I'm going to have you both answer. Did you feel like people were treating you a little bit differently once you got this role, because it is, you're kind of in a position of power here. I would assume that maybe people, you know, who want to get close to the mayor might try to make friends with you.

MW: For the most part people treat you the way, you know, you'd want to be treated and that you'd treat them. You do have to be careful about what you say, because you do speak for the mayor. One time, I remember, I asked some folks whether or not, whether or not, I thought it was a question, we could have a peep hole drilled in the front door of the mayors office, so that when we were working late at night we could see if people, you know, who was coming to come see us. And next thing I knew, they had a drill with a bit as long as my arm going straight through this gorgeous wood door. And I said, I just asked whether this was possible. I didn't mean for it to be done. So, you know, people do respond to you. But, you know, you learn quickly to basically use that to invite them to be a part of something big and not to use it for bad reasons.

BK: So some people listening to this might think, gosh, why did these guys go to business school? Why didn't they choose to go to a school of government? We've got a pretty good one at Harvard University, the Kennedy School. Mitch, why did you choose to go to business school and, you know, were you thinking about public service or were you really thinking about I'm going to be a business person and public service sort of came along?

MW: I have thought about public service my whole life. I had a poster in my office that I had drawn when I was nine that said ‘I will lead my country like my mom leads me.’ So, it was on my mind for a very, very long time, including when I came to Harvard Business School. The reason I came here was that it's a leadership school, and that's desperately what government needs. I think also that business can have a lot to offer to government, especially it's more entrepreneurial instincts, especially nowadays what it is doing about building community and trust among people. I say that it's very, very ironic that hundreds of years ago, cities are the places that invented the notion of community and building trust and reciprocation, but that today, in many cases, it's the businesses that are most innovative on those fronts. I mean, we invented social networking in the public sphere centuries ago. We would do well to, I think, pick up those practices again from businesses, and I think that's part of what we can do if we bring some of, some of what you learn in a business education in the public sector.

BK: That's very interesting. Dan what kinds of things can the public sector reciprocate to business? So business people listening to this might be yeah, that sounds pretty one sided. They might be thinking it's all about government. But is there something that government can do as a way to really develop a meaningful partnership that matters both to business and to government?

DK: Well, I think what Mitch was discussing with regards to the innovation district and the work they did there, I think really is the key to success in public/private partnerships in the city. You can have as many incentive programs as you want, but if you're interested in that incentive program and you don't get a call back from the mayor’s office, you're going to forget about it and move on to someone else. I think the reality is being able to say ‘yes, we have great programs, when it comes to tax breaks or anything like that’, but at the end of the day when you call us, you're going to get a call back immediately. We're going to bring you into the mayor’s office, not when you're about to leave, but when you're in the city doing well and we're going to thank you for that. One of the things that Mayor Menino felt was very important, and when I was a fellow, I worked in the summer jobs program, was that we have a thank you event for all the people who were already hiring people for summer jobs. So, I think a lot of mayors would've had the mentality of let's have a, you know, a reception for people who are thinking about hiring. But Mayor Menino was saying let's have a thank you event, first and foremost, for the ones that are.

BK: There is a lot of talk these days about business in society and the trust that people have in business which is greatly eroded we know since 2008. And often we see in the headlines stories about chaos between government and this business developer here somebody who is trying to develop a parcel of land. Mitch, when you were in office, Boston went through a big, building boom, its ongoing to this day. It’s revitalized the city in a lot of ways. How do you guard against those kinds of things? Do you have a role in making sure that the people on your team, the people that you oversee, have the best interest of the city and the people at heart.

MW: The way I think that you make sure people make the right decisions is by reminding them why we are here. We are here to make the lives better for people who live in our city. And so long as that is top of mind all day, every day, I think that people tend to make the right decisions. We have exceptions, regrettable ones. And we have to hold people accountable for those.

DK: Well, I think I will speak personally. I don’t want to speak for everyone who goes into public service, but there is an incredible, intangible motivaton that you feel when you are working for something that is larger than you are. I would say a little bit of a fear that some people have is if I go into the public sector now, am I going to be able to have the chops, are people going to respect the fact that I went into the public sector and would that be relevant to the private sector. I would say especially in positions like the Leadership Fellows set you up for, absolutely. I would challenge anybody to find a organization more complex out of business school in a most senior level, as senior as the leadership fellows program put you in. Where you have to navigate large organizations, you have to motivate teams that may need guidance. You have to set agendas for your Chief Executive. Those skills apply all over public, private, nonprofit sector no matter where it is. So, I think that kind of insight that you develop. Not to mention the fact that if you go into the private sector, where you are working with the public sector, which to be honest if you are high up in any organization, you are going to be working with the public sector. Have the knowledge of what goes on there is invaluable to any private sector institution.

MW: Just one quick thing to add. There's a notion, Joe Nye, others have talked about this idea of tri-sector athletes. Folks have worked in the private, public and non-profit sector as developing a set of skills and knowledge that will do them very well over the course of their lifetime. You can move among sectors. And I think one thing for our young alumni to think about is; how they might cultivate themselves as being a tri-sector athlete.

BK: And I will say as a Bostonian born and raised here, it's a city that I love deeply and I feel like we're in pretty good hands, both with the mayors and with the people that are supporting them. Mitch, Dan, thanks so much for joining us.

DK: Thank you.

MW: Thank you for having us.

End Transcript


That's Mitchell Weiss and Dan Koh. Dan is Chief of Staff for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. And Mitchell was Chief of Staff for the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

When Tom Menino was memorialized at a church service this week, the Menino family asked Mitch Weiss to say a few words from the alter. He did. In a message to the late mayor he spoke about being part of a team.

Mitch Weiss: Team Menino loved you. They loved you when you got them into doctor's appointments and into schools. They loved you when you told them to get degrees, and if they replied that they had one. When You told them to get another one. They loved you because you shoved them into their future.

That's Mitchell Weiss, remembering his former boss, the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Mitch is now working at Harvard Business School, where he has created a course on public entrepreneurship. Its mission is to educate public leaders and private entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world.

“The Business” is the official podcast of the Harvard Business School. We publish twice monthly at hbs.edu/thebusiness. You can find all of our interviews there.

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