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Cultivating Culture and Partnerships with Fred Eisenberger, Mayor of Hamilton

Mayor Fred Eisenberger was born in Amsterdam and came to Canada with his family when he was 8 years old, settling in Hamilton. His Worship is currently serving his third 4 year term as Mayor, previously he served as a member of the Hamilton Council, as Chair of the Hamilton Port Authority and is President and Chief Executive of the Canadian Urban Institute, where he was involved in the development of leading edge progressive urban policy.

Mr. Eisenberger is an optimistic city builder, respected leader, and an empathetic listener. As Lou poses questions about culture, leadership and economic development, Mr. Eisenberger provides responses that encapsulate the traits you look for in the leader of a city. His knowledge and perspectives on cultivating culture and the collaboration that should exist between cities and their people and businesses emanates as he sits down with Lou during his third 4 year term as the Mayor of the City of Hamilton.

Topics discussed

  • Economic Development
  • Leadership
  • Empowering your staff
  • The importance of communication
  • The art of listening
  • Culture
  • Public/Private Partnerships
  • The effect of artificial intelligence on employment
  • Collaborating with municipalities


Louis:          We're going to talk about a few things. I'd like to start with the City of Hamilton which is so abuzz right now in terms of activity and energy. One of the things that we all know, as people in this community but those who are watching may not, is that Hamilton is a city with a remarkable industrial and technological heritage and legacy. Although it's experienced it's economic ebbs and flows in activity the value differentiating proposition for the region, to the world, has an area with incredible assets. It's very compelling. As Hamilton's chief global salesman describe for us, if you can, those assets and advantages that you feel strongly should attract investment here.

Fred:           Well, thank you. We kind of talk about that often in terms of location, location, location. But when you talk about location it's just not where you're positioned but what kind of integrates you into the major markets that we're going to have to deal with. The Buffalo side border and then we look to the Detroit side and the American volume of population, we're kind of right smack in the middle of that. Most of the train and transportation corridors come right through the center of Hamilton. We have and maintain an active, probably largest seaport, or lake port in the Province of Ontario, if not in the country, and the largest cargo port in the country, for sure. When you look at all at of the assets. including the natural environment assets, so the escarpment that runs through the middle of our city, we have unusually a two-tiered city, not unlike Pittsburgh and some in respects. The comparisons are often made. We have that cultural environmental capacity that lends itself to being quickly into some green space that is very attractive to people that live here. When you add all of that up we're now in a position where we see ourselves as the next wave of opportunity for future development and growth, in the Greater Toronto Hamilton area. That's starting to happen already. I would say starting. We're not at the end of it. We're at the beginning of it and we can really see the new cranes coming in and building some new residential. We see growth particularly in the commercial industrial side, which is particularly important for future employment, and we're really trading on all of those assets that lead to good transportation networks, good public transit on its way, all of the elements you need to have a vibrant, active integrated and sustainable city.

Louis:          from the perspective of economic development looking forward, what is or do you see, to be specific, focuses of the next 5 to 10 years within this region, in either terms of sectors or industries that are particularly of concern to you?

Fred:           One of the ones that we don't want to ignore and move away from is manufacturing. But the manufacturing of the future is advanced manufacturing. It's marrying the digital capacities, the technology out there, with manufacturing as it is today. We were successful in being part of the 950 million dollar Federal funding envelope that would advance advance manufacturing locally and the office happens to be at Innovation Park. That is a very important sector. It doesn't mean the industry of old. It means new advanced clean manufacturing, production that can be utilized right here on lands that we already have that need to be repurposed. All of that former industrial lands at the Harbour front is zoned accordingly and new clean technology that employs people is going to be a part of the future growth. We're heavily involved in the agri-food business. As you know, we're 75% agricultural here and food production to be used here, but exported around the world is very, very large. They take full advantage of our port capacity and even our airport. They need those facilities to make sure they can move their product where it needs to go. We have a great network developed for agri-business, that not only stores and transports at the port, but the production itself is quite officially done and managed. Then there's the whole technology side and I would say that we've not yet fully developed the potential of technology. One of the benefits of that is that it does lend to future efficiencies and the kinds of things that people would like to see improve. So, how quicker can I use an app to get my city services? What kind of new technology's coming down the pipe like automated vehicles and do we have test tracks? Which we do. Are we participating in that development? The worry on that side of the equation is how many people does it unemploy in the future and where does the next iteration of job come from? There's a space there that we have not yet figured out, that technology's going to actually challenge us with in terms of future employment, because technology, unfortunately, we all love technology but it does tend to unemploy people, or reduce the employment need. Therefore what is the next iteration of employment that's going to keep people sustainable in our own community? Something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Don't have an answer to it yet but I think over time it will probably awaken.

Louis:          Let's switch gears a little bit. I wanted to talk about, and explore with you, the subject of leadership. You're obviously the leader of this municipality and the question of developing and cultivating leadership skills is something important to either aspiration or current business leaders everywhere. We live, as I think you can appreciate may be more than most, in an unusually challenging environment with enormous demands on people's time and attention, and not the least of which is navigating a culture right now which can be quite polarizing and caustic. What was once talked about as having a thick skin now involves conversations around mental health and resilience. This is nowhere more true, obviously, then politics. But in terms of your managing and dealing with questions of resilience and navigating the stresses of leading an organization, how do you maintain equilibrium and optimism in doing that?

Fred:           Well, I mean, its two sides to that equation. On a personal level, if you get into politics or leadership and you don't know who you are and you don't have kind of a solid grounding in terms of what you're purpose is and what you're hoping to achieve, then things can get away from you fairly quickly. I'm pretty grounded in that sense. Certainly experience helps. I've been around this space for a while and so you kind of get a sense of what works and what doesn't work. But you know you're right. It's a much more transparent process that we operate under. Everybody's got eyes on and you are required to, and I think rightfully so, be pretty clear about what you're trying to achieve and how you're trying to achieve it. On the city side, having a great team, hiring the right people, empowering them to do their work and I think that's one of the political challenges because there's always this debate that goes on around who's actually in charge. Are the politicians doing the work, or is it the team, the 8,000 people that work for the City of Hamilton? In empowering the leadership in the community actually take hold of what they can do and giving them the support necessary to do that.

Louis:          Can I just interrupt you there? When you talk about empowering those within this organization, how do you do that, as a leader of the organization?

Fred:           Pretty much by staying out of the way unless there's a problem. We can interfere and micromanage these processes and there's always a tendency for politicians to do that. I think we've developed a culture in Hamilton that, and I think that's developing in most places as well, that we set the governance structure. We stay out of the operational. If we start to interfere on the operational is when things go wrong. Let's make sure there's pretty clear divide that on the governance side we set policy, the framework and you folks deliver, we count on you because we've hired talented people, to do this work and we're going to give you the support you need to actually deliver. If we don't do that then we're not only harming the organization but the city as a whole. I see empowerment as a key feature of letting people that you hire, ones that have the skills and the talent, because that's why you hired them, let them go and do the work they need to do.

Louis:          You in leading, obviously are the Mayor, the only elected official with responsibility and stewardship over the entire community. You've got 16 councilors, who in many respects might be seen as mayors of their particular constituencies, but you're obliged to have a perspective and think of the community as a whole. So making decisions that serve the community as whole requires the ability to create consensus and alliances, if you're going to be successful. Of course, doing that is a skill, it's a discipline, that doesn't happen by accident and I think is relevant to anyone, whether you're in politics or business. So what's your approach to securing consensus and building alliances? How do you approach doing that?

Fred:           Well, Lou, let me turn that on its ear a little bit because politics, by nature, is not a consensus building process. It is set up for debate and discussion and getting consensus, on all issues, is very difficult to achieve. Put that into context, most of the routine decisions that we make, and they would be routine decisions around where does the road go? When does the sidewalk get re-built? They tend to be 90% no issue at all, and you could call that consensus, but when it comes to the bigger issues there is robust debate and hardly ever do we come out with 100% unanimity on a course of action that we take. It is really governing by majority on those major issues. There's really two strains to this. There's the routine work that has to happen. I think there's hardly ever argument against that. I think the consensus building on that space happens long before you make a decision. Have we got a strategic plan sorted it out? Have we all agreed to the strategic plan? Has it been indoctrinated throughout the organization? So we're all clear about we're going and how we're going to get there. Do we have a zoning and planning map mapped out that tells us where things are going to go and when? If you have all of that in place then you've built in some already built in consensus on those kind of routine issues. Major issues, where does the arena go? Is it the mountain or is it the lower city? Or where should this stadium be? Those are great debates that hardly ever end up on consensus, and can get quite complicated, because there's different imperatives for different councilors that are at the table. My strategy is lead by example. Don't sweat the small stuff. We got a lot of good people working on those issues. Let's have the great debates on those issues but do it in a way that we're not personalizing those issues, we're not attacking one another, we're not pitting one area against another, which used to happen much more frequently than it does today, because we're much more integrated as a community. Are we then all going to, at the end of the day, support the decision that happens? And invariably 9 times out of 10, if not more, that's exactly how it plays out.

Louis:          So much, I think, that is embedded in that conversation has to do with how, whether it's somebody in your position or others in any kind of senior position, can cultivate trust which is a huge determinant of the health and success of a variety of relationships. Did you think about that? How do you approach that in terms of cultivating relationships in the community and being true to your word? How do you manage that?

Fred:           Building relationships is kind of the nature of the beast no matter what you do. For us, as we look for opportunities or we're looking at major projects that we're working on, partners that we're playing with, having direct relationships with individuals is still how it works. There's no other way to kind of work through those issues.

Louis:          You're not using an app for that is what you're saying.

Fred:           Yes. I know Lou and Lou knows me and we kind of know what we're about and you build that level of trust, not because it's given at the outset, but because it's earned over a period of time. Those relationships matter a lot in terms of how work gets done because it can go off the rails fairly quickly if that level of trust gets harmed in some way or another. Then the question becomes how do you adapt to that? What kind of changes or restitution are you going to make to get the relationship back on track? For me trust is an earned relationship. Working with many, many, many partners many things can go wrong. But if you've developed that level of trust throughout the organization, not only between you and I, but with the people that we work with, that you work with and I work with, and they're all kind of working from the same page and they've all developed relationships and they understand what the mission is, then I think we've got no lack of opportunity to kind of work together to make that all work.

Louis:          An aspect of that, which I'd like to talk about for a moment, is communication. Such a fundamental part of your role and responsibility, communicating to others, bringing clarity to a discussion or a topic, and you are, if you don't mind my saying, an exceptionally good communicator. It is a critically important skill though and something that all of us, at any stage in our career, have a desire to cultivate, some harder than others, to do that. Have you always been a very adept communicator? Did you have to work at communication? How do you approach that?

Fred:           Totally. I mean I've been at this for a while so you kind of get training, and help and assistance and you learn from your mistakes. I've made a pile and every time you make you know what not to do and how to approach that. Some would argue the notion that I'm a good communicator because if they don't like what I'm saying I'm a lousy communicator. If they like what I'm saying then he's brilliant, he's brilliant. You know what? I think I have the ability to tell people what I know. I think knowing your subject matter is everything when it comes to communication. The worst thing you can do is try and talk about something that you don't know anything about. If you're required to know what this organization's about you better know what you're talking about. I think most people are in that space. If they know their topic they could talk forever on that. You could probably talk about the law forever and not have a nervous moment or a minute where you would wonder what am I going to say because you know you're topic through and through. I take exactly the same approach. I want to make sure that if I'm talking about any topic that I fully know what I'm talking about. Having been around a while you certainly gain that level of experience. Am I what most people are which is public speaking you want to run the other way? I've never been afraid of public speaking. Doesn't mean that I've always been comfortable in that role but I've never been afraid of it. I've always kind of welcomed it because I see it as a great opportunity to share information with people. The larger crowd, in some respects, the better. But I know what you're talking about and the worst thing you can do is come out of it and somebody says, "What did he say? What did he mean? I didn't get it." I'm pretty confident in terms of my topic matter and always happy to talk about it.

Louis:          I suppose the flip side of that, in going back to this question of trust, is being able to admit when you don't know what you're talking about.

Fred:           Sure. Of course. Then you should keep your mouth shut. And I do. I do. But you know what? People have a pretty strong BS meter, if I can say. Most people can figure out when you're on the level and when you're not. When you're skating people can tell pretty quickly that you're not really talking from a space of knowledge. My rule is don't ever get into a space where you're starting to make things up just to fill up the space.

Louis:          The flip side, or the other bucket in a conversation about communication, the other bucket from talking is listening. Which is also a critical component in building trust and understanding, and a huge part of what you do in the community, and within your team. Can you talk with us a little bit about your perspective on the importance of listening and how you do that actively?

Fred:           It's totally critical. Our public engagement would not work if all we did was talk to people about what we're doing. We need to have an engaging process. In today's environment rightfully so. Engagement with either business sector, or a public sector or communities around in neighbourhoods, is really all about what is that you want to learn from the City of Hamilton. Ask us those questions and we'll try and provide some answers but also help us in the work that we're doing. The Neighbourhood Action Strategy that we have in the City of Hamilton, as a result of a code red and I'm not going to get into details about code red but you're aware, indicating that there's a life expectancy difference between the lower city and some of the more affluent places of some 20 years. The realization came to us that we can't march in there and tell these folks that we have all the answers and this is going to solve the problem. Quite the opposite happened, is we needed to go in there, sit down with a lot of people, and just listen to what their thoughts and ideas are, in terms of how we can empower them to change that dynamic which is that different life expectancy scenario. That has worked extremely well and it really is all about listening to them, giving them the tools they need to lift themselves into a different paradigm. A top down approach is long gone. Trickle down, in my view, is history. It's all about trickle up. What is the community at large looking to get? How are we going to help them get there?

Louis:          Is that a perspective that you'd say that you also aspire to cultivate within the organization, within the city staff itself,  in terms of listening and trickling up and empowering?

Fred:           Completely. It's front line services, that are out there every day, have a better understanding of what's needed out on the street. If the waste management folks that are out there working on the water lines and the sewers, they have thoughts and ideas about how it can improve, or change or alter, we need to hear from them as to what their thoughts and ideas are. Because, from where I sit, I have no clue. I rely on them to inform us in terms of how we can make those kinds of improvements. It's really the same idea that we apply in the neighbourhood strategy approach. We also apply in the organization itself. Empower people, get them together, have conversations about how things could improve, locally in their department or if they have ideas about other departments, please share them. Let's tap into all those great minds, 8,000 minds employed with the City of Hamilton, how do we mine them to make our city better.

Louis:          A very significant conversation within the business community, and within organizations, is this question of the importance of culture. There's an enormous amount of debate in the literature and within those communities about the competing tensions and differences between culture and strategy for an organization. When we talk about culture we're talking about many of the things that you're already discussed in terms of listening and empowering others. But of course, I think, most of us would appreciate that having a very positive culture is critically important to being successful. Do you have a perspective on the importance of culture? Perspective on the culture that you feel the city, in the city organization, possesses? And any thoughts on how you as a leader look to build a very positive and empowering culture?

Fred:           I think that's the key word is the empowering part. If you fail to do that then the culture is going to be disjointed and disassociated with where you're trying to go. For me it stems from a well thought out, interactive, strategic plan. When we talk about strategic plan, what used to happen is that the top executives would get together or the top management team would get together and say, "Here's the things that we need to do and how do we make that happen?" Quite the opposite happens now where the strategic planning process actually comes from the bottom up. Not only from the organization itself, and by virtue our leading a city, it comes from the city at large. We have the future Hamilton exercises that really talk about what are the people of Hamilton thinking our future city needs to be and what elements are they concerned about? How do we bring that into the organization and then let filter through the lower elves of the organization and then on up and to the senior management team and leadership team for final decision. It's a completely interactive process. They're not separate anymore. You used to see the public as separate from the organizational structure. It's now a completely integrated atmosphere and I think that's where it needs to be. That's where the public demands it to be. So we need to keep kind of filtering that through the organization as a whole.

Louis:          We'll change gears a little bit. You talked about the importance in this community and its development of partnership with the many institutions that you connect to, your constituents and, of course, you and your economic development team have embraced the idea of partnership with our firm and encouraging our efforts to leverage our global networks to assist and advance the city in cultivating investment and economic activity, with a view to helping to build this community together. Of course you, and a number of our colleagues, are off to India shortly to do that. Which we're all very much looking forward to. But this partnership in service of the city's interest is of course relatively new. Although there have been some early very positive returns from our perspective, creating some education and understanding as to why and how this type of partnership is in the best interests of a private organization like ours, is something that we need to continually talk about. Can you share with me your perspective on what might be in it for an institution like ours and working so closely with the city and this community in helping everybody?

Fred:           At a very crass level it's work, for you, but for us its taking advantage of your global reach and your global understanding of markets throughout the world that we need to tap into. India being a prime example. Other locations that as municipalities we're now taking advantage of that kind of level of outreach. We're not waiting for the Province. We're not waiting for the Federal government to tell us to go to India and look for opportunities. We know and we're developing relationships with municipalities and businesses on our own in partnership with partners that can help smooth that process. I'm being very selfish about this. We're using you to help us outreach throughout the world to help our business environment expand their opportunities for future employment and future sustainability. Obviously your firm would get the benefit of work and a growth and development in your network. I think the legal world has changed. I don't have to tell you that. I think there needs to be, I think for major legal firms, start thinking about how do they participate in city building as opposed to well, let's just deal with the legal issues that come up as a result of that. I think there's room for that level of partnership work collaboration all the way through the process. So city building is no longer an isolated adventure that the city just kind of steps into. It requires many partners and Gowling, and others, are very much a part of that equation. How do we use those resources that are already in existence to further that along? Or, how do we help organizations and firms like yours step into a different paradigm in terms of how their legal services are employed in the future?

Louis:          You know, we've come through a Federal election cycle, we're about to head into a US election cycle, and so much of that, indeed so much of the polemics in our society is very much tension and argument between haves and have-nots, between the 1% and the working class, and of course for you, particularly in this community, bridging the divide between those constituencies, making people understand that we're all in it together, that being hostile to business doesn't serve the health and wealth being of the community, it's an enormously challenging task. Can you talk with us a little bit about that? The importance of ensuring that you have a healthy and vibrant business environment but that you're also being mindful of the importance of bringing the least advantaged in the community along and how they're connected.

Fred:           Sure. You know, a job for anyone is a life affirming thing. I mean a decent job. There's many elements to that and not paying attention to kind of the work environment, the future employment opportunities. For a city like Hamilton that could be considered, at some level, to be a better community of Toronto, even though that's not our history but people conceive of it that way in some level. We need to pay attention to the future employment opportunities. That's really critical. Priority number one because that kind of economic trickle down matters a lot, in terms of what our future sustainability as a city is going to be. Even from a tax perspective. We need good, solid, strong, viable companies to help support our tax base. So commercial industrial tax base. Very important. But what keeps me up at night, and what municipalities don't have a lot of control around, is the employability of the folks, for whatever reason and we talked about this earlier, being left behind as a result of artificial intelligence, efficiencies, different ways of producing things that take less manpower, robotics, you can just add it up. Automated vehicles. Those things are going to change employment in the future dramatically. If we fail to deal with those that are either going to be unemployed or under-employed in the future, and we already see signs of that happening, then social unrest will ruin our cities, our Province and our country. You see elements of that happening in the United States already. Maybe even around the world where there is a great mass of people that aren't necessarily covered by the employment numbers anymore because they've given up. They're out of it. They may be working in precarious employment. Working two or three jobs. Might have spent 7 years in university and then end up working at Tim Hortons. I'm not saying that's the rule but it's happening more and more today. If we do not find a way of sharing the kind of the national resources with those individuals that are under or unemployed, we're going to have social strife in the future. Failure to deal with that on a national level, even a Provincial level, is going to be critical. It's why we were so keen on that basic income pilot test which really, in my mind, would have demonstrated that some upfront investment, giving people a decent standard of living, decent, you're not going to make people wealthy but you're going to keep them off the margins, giving them a decent standard of living will save us money in the healthcare system, will save us money in the social justice system. There's a real reduced cost if we do some upfront investing. That is an area that keeps me up at night and I worry about, not only locally, but nationally and if we fail to deal with that I think we're going to have some social problems.

Louis:          Apart from obviously the passive importance of businesses investing to help you along in that regard, is there any advice, or any direction, or assistance that you can provide us, as owners of private industry, as to how we can help with that project better?

Fred:           Advocacy. I think we need to come around to everyone coming to understand that there is a different paradigm coming our way and how are we going to manage that. Advocacy on the corporate side. A greater sense of corporate responsibility. It doesn't necessarily lie on your shoulders but certainly some of the industries that have basically pushed the pension and social responsibility onto tax payers, need to get back to a sense of looking after their employees for life, as opposed to we'll get rid of all the benefits that they can accrue, we'll try and minimize the pension that we're going to offer and put the onus all on the government. That's not going to work. That's not going to sustain itself. A greater sense of corporate responsibility towards employees, and those that we can employ, I think is going to be part of the picture. Not the only part. I mean government will have a role to play, but on the corporate side, there needs to be a greater sense of we are going to provide the kinds of benefits that will sustain people in a decent quality of life.

Louis:          When I sat to interview Rob MacIsaac, the CEO of Hamilton Health Sciences who as you know was also the Mayor of Burlington for a time, I asked him about the mediating role of government in private enterprise. You, that is the municipal government, you have many conversations with businesses, constantly, in which they're asking for something or help with something, whether it's a building permit or whether it's assistance in setting up a new business, but in terms of those conversations, what advice would you give the business community in getting the most of municipal government? And how they approach and talk to municipal government and collaborate with them in a way that is more likely to lead to success rather than combating and being aggressive.

Fred:           I would say understand the economic environment we're operating in. A lot of developers come to the table with grandiose schemes that are out scale, they're out of scope with what's happening in the community. The corporate side needs to intuitively understand where we are as a municipality. What our strategic needs are and how they can fit into helping that strategic need get developed. Our mission is be the best place to raise a child and age successfully. If you think about that, I mean that really covers the whole paradigm of one's life. What we want to have happen in our city is that people have a successful, decent, quality of life from the beginning of life to the end of life. How does the corporate entity, how do our corporate players here, participate in that kind of paradigm? To be a partner in that, whether it's giving back on the corporate side in terms of community, or being a stronger organization that provides benefits that maybe don't exist today. Or if it's advocacy towards the Provincial and Federal governments, to get into some basic pilot programs, or base income programs that will help sustain people on the margins, all of those are going to be important factors and I think the corporate sector can be a very, very strong player in making all that happen.

Louis:          Fred Eisenberger, I want to thank you for your time. We look forward to helping you with all of those things.

Fred:           Me too. Alright. Thank you. Great chat.