Vested interest Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Michael Coleman has big plans, but he knows he can’t make them happen on his own.

The mayor of Columbus wants to make 2012 “the first year of Columbus’ golden age,” but he understands that he’s going to need a lot of help to make that a reality. And as a starting point, he began asking people what kind of city they want to live in and what values are important to them

Next, he hired a consultant to distill the thousands of ideas — he calls it “input on steroids” — into community priorities. The results will be used to create a bicentennial blueprint that he hopes everyone can buy in to.

When you want to implement change in your organization, Coleman says you must get everyone to align their vision, bringing people together to solve tough problems, then following up and executing to achieve the goal.

Smart Business spoke with Coleman about how he solicits input, communicates a clear vision, and gets buy-in from his citizens, the city’s corporate leaders and his 9,500 employees.

Sell your ideas. If, morning after morning, you get up and say something different — a new goal — the people will start scratching their heads and saying, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ You need to have a collaborative environment to achieve things sometimes.

Nine times out of 10, we’ve been able to achieve goals by bringing people into the room and saying, ‘This is our goal, and this is our mission. How do we get there?’ It helps to leverage talent and engage a strong dialogue, and it also builds a sense of investedness of those who are in the room.

First, I do some good research. I’ve got a clear idea of what direction I want to go, and I provide good research to explain why this issue’s real important: What is the impact of achieving this particular goal? Why does it make a difference to the people? When people are vested in your idea, your ideas are going to be more successful than not.

Be passionate. You have to believe in your idea — know it backward and forward — and you have to understand how you’re going to achieve it. But, to reach the goal, you never get there by yourself. You have to use your powers of persuasion and powers of information.

Be a salesperson and a visionary at the same time. Believe that you can achieve these things, and then it starts happening. Push it, nudge it, and keep it going.

You’re the bus driver.

You’ve got to persuade people to get on that bus, and then you’ve got to drive it all the way to your destination. If you’re driving that bus and nobody’s on it, you’ll get to that destination and you’re on that bus alone.

It’s much better to have people working with you to achieve the goal so that everybody benefits.

Consider the greater good. My ideas are never about me, they’re always about what’s the best for this community. I’ve done a lot of things and accomplished a great deal.

But in each and every one of those instances, it was about, ‘Here’s the goal. Here’s the vision. Now, I need you to buy in to this vision and help us to achieve this because it’s good for you, and it’s good for others. This isn’t about me; this is about you.’ It’s achievement through collaboration.

Hone your listening skills. You have to be able to listen to people’s problems, ideas and concepts. You have to be able to translate it; what does it really mean? You can’t have a deaf ear. Listening is a skill that some people frankly don’t have.

You have to understand what people want. Where is the psyche of your constituents? What are the desires of the people you represent? If you don’t understand that, it’s going to be very difficult to establish a vision that people will buy in to. Don’t go down to specifics, stay at the values level — the umbrella level — and develop your ideas from there.

I bring neighborhood groups into the mayor’s office. We’ll sit down, and I’ll say, ‘What’s going on in your neighborhood?’ Or, I’ll go out in the neighborhoods and ask what’s happening in their community. They’re most likely to tell me what their problems are. I often have to come up with the solution, but I want them to help achieve it. If they’ve got the problem, they need to be vested in the solution.

Be visible. It’s important for people in the community to see me listening to them. Oftentimes, leaders sit in their ivory towers and never get out to talk to the people that work for them and their customers. Sometimes, people just want to know that you’re listening to them. It makes a big difference.

It helps you adjust along the way what you’re trying to achieve, and it helps you fine-tune some things. If you’ve got a product that you think is the best thing in the world but it’s not selling the way you thought it would, you go out and talk to your customer base. They might say, ‘We like it, but we really don’t like the color of it.’ You change the color of it from green to blue, and, all of a sudden, it’s the hottest thing on the market — just by listening to your customer base.

That’s not a bad thing to do.

HOW TO REACH: City of Columbus, Mayor’s Office, (614) 645-7671 or