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The business of politics Featured

12:12pm EDT May 23, 2005
What's the difference between managing a corporation and managing a city?

Talk to Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken, and you'll realize that any differences are miniscule. CEOs and executives spend their days finding ways to manage thousands of employees, develop and grow their business, outwit their competition and keep the fickle customer coming back for more.

Charlie Luken and his executive staff do much of the same: Manage a staff of 6,000 employees, develop and grow the city, ensure Cincinnati remains competitive against the suburbs and keep the fickle voter happy.

Even the major issues a mayor faces parallel those that plague business leaders. While CEOs and managers worry about fraud and embezzlement and try to find creative ways to motivate their employees, Luken must deal with rising crime rates and find ways to revitalize and improve the city.

Given the strong correlation between running a city and a corporation, it's no surprise that Luken takes management strategies and lessons from business leaders.

"I know some of the way I do business now, after being mayor for 12 years, was developed from CEOs I've met, from people who understand the importance of defining goals, surrounding yourself with good people, and building loyalty, which I think smart CEOs understand and implement every day," Luken says.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati Law School, Luken was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1981. In 1984, his council peers elected him mayor, in much the same way a board elects its chairman.

After leaving his post in 1991 to serve as a U.S. congressman and then as news anchor for WLWT Channel 5, Luken decided to return to city government. In 1999, he was once again elected mayor of Cincinnati.

Since then, he has made safety and city improvement his focus. In his State of the City address in 2003, he identified crime as the city's No. 1 problem, and initiated the CLEAN program. CLEAN is an acronym for Communication (among the mayor, the city manager and the police staff), Leadership (from prominent religious, civic and political organization members), Evaluation, Allocation of Resources (including an increase in the police budget) and Neighborhood (involvement of and cooperation with neighborhood leaders). Luken also secured $100,000 toward the purchase and installation of thermal imaging cameras for Cincinnati's fire houses.

He's also developed initiatives to boost the local economy, attract attention to downtown businesses, and revitalize the Over-the-Rhine area. Under his leadership, the downtown Convention Center began an expansion and reconfiguration project. New housing and studios went up downtown, aimed at attracting artists and art organizations.

Under the Vine Street Initiative, the area will get a face lift and a Neighborhood Pride Center will be constructed, complete with meeting space for area businesses and city officials. Also in Over-the-Rhine, the Arts Academy is building a new facility.

None of these initiatives would be possible without the assistance of the business community. Smart Business spoke with Luken about the keys to managing Cincinnati and how the business community helps make it happen.

Q: You've led the city through crisis situations. As a leader, what do you think the primary responsibilities are in managing a crisis, be it in government or business?

The old expression 'Timing is everything,' applies here, and unfortunately, you can't pick your timing. Sometimes things that are really out of your control happen, and I think that the true test of leadership is to be able to manage in a difficult time.

The qualities that I have found most helpful are focus and perseverance. You have to clearly define your goals, and you have to decide on a strategy to accomplish them and then stick to it.

Sometimes people try to wear you out, but if you have the right tools -- focus and perseverance -- you will win out.

What qualities do you look for when hiring and building a senior staff?

Intelligence, creativity, loyalty. I think they're all important.

You need people who are bright, you need people who are creative and you need people who will be part of a team. And that means getting behind, being supportive and loyal to the objectives of the office.

How do you gauge that when you're interviewing a prospective employee?

I don't have any rules about that. Intuitively, I think you get a sense talking to people what their skills are, what their capabilities are. I don't have any hard and fast rules.

I've found that if you have a position and you have in your head a sense of what kind of person you want to fill it, then you can usually accomplish that through the interview process. But I think it's almost intuitive.

How do you manage the challenges of growth in Cincinnati?

Partnerships. Cities do not prosper without the involvement and support of their business community, and we have a very active, supportive one here in Cincinnati.

Relationships are strong. [The businesses] are involved in the economic development of the city, and their involvement goes beyond just the realm of corporate duties. They're involved in the day-to-day operations of the city.

Fostering this kind of partnership has a lot to do with developing relationships and clearly articulating your vision for what you want the city to be. You have to convey a sense that you have clearly defined goals and understand the importance of a healthy business climate.

And if you do that, there's plenty of goodwill in the business community to support the right agenda.

How do you balance the interests of the general public with those of the business community?

Well, that is very tough. And the reason it's tough is because the business community is out of touch with the folks on the street, and the folks on the street oftentimes don't trust CEOs.

So you have to do what you can to breed trust and understanding between them. They come from very different points of view, and it is always a struggle to blend the interests of the voters of the city with those of the business community.

Well, I think their interests are the same, they just come at things from different perspectives. And so you have to constantly intercede to keep people on the same page. But it can work.

For example, we have something here in Cincinnati called 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.). It's a nonprofit development corporation headed by A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble.

This group is trying to help develop downtown in one of our low-income neighborhoods called Over-the-Rhine. And establishing trust between some of the businesspeople who are in that group and the residents of the area has been a challenge, but by sitting down, face-to-face, and talking things out, we've reached a common goal.

People are supportive of that, and it has been a great success story.

What are the most crucial business issues facing Cincinnati?

Small business. I think it has to be small business, because we have done a good job of keeping our large corporate headquarters in Cincinnati.

But what I worry about for Cincinnati, or any other large city, is making new, emerging small businesses feel welcome in the city, and that is a challenge. So we have done things like revise our permit process and our regulatory process to make it more understandable for small businesses.

I just worry that a lot of the new small business growth is located in the suburbs.

What is your vision for the future of Cincinnati?

In a word, growth. I think the city's got to grow in the number of residents that live here, the tax base, the small businesses.

And I think cities are going to have to define themselves as places that are interesting and diverse, and if we do that, we will succeed, but if we don't, we will lose out to the sprawl of suburbia.

How to reach: Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, (513) 352-3250 or charlie.luken@cincinnati-oh.gov