SkillThe Bigger Picture: How to Lead City-Wide Change

The Bigger Picture: How to Lead City-Wide Change

Abbie Harby
Abbie Harby
"If we were meant to stay in one place we'd have roots instead of feet" and so I move - in cities, between cities, up mountains (and back down again!). And all that using my feet as much as possible - the first mode of transport known to man and the cheapest! I love the outdoors and being in green space. I'm passionate about trying to protect and improve all that we've got and all that we could have to give every single part of nature the best life possible.

Adapting our buildings to be future-proof, incorporating greenery, using more sustainable materials: these are all great steps and ones to be encouraged. But, what about the bigger picture? If overall city development, urban planning, and wholescale change are your thing, stick around to get some top tips on how to lead it all.

We sat down with Soraya Axelsson, a guru in leading change in the urban realm, to talk about the necessary skills for someone already in a position of influence and for those who would like to be. In talking about her work as Head of H22 at the City of Helsingborg, Sweden, and how she has got to where she is today, Soraya gave us some helpful hints and nuggets of advice.

Whether you’re new on the CityChanger scene or you’re an old hand, perhaps the following tips from our expert will aid you on your journey.

1. Hold On to Your Hats, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

While this will probably go without saying if you’ve got any experience working with change, it is always worth remembering that this process is not going to be easy. “Change is never easy”, Soraya points out. But don’t be disheartened: you are involved in vital work, and it’ll all be worthwhile in the end.

Winding path
Image credit: Unsplash / Chris Henry

Working to change the entire city for the better will be a rough and winding path. Soraya encourages that “if it is a straight way and you don’t have any bumps on the road, then you aren’t working with change enough; then you’re taking baby steps instead of leaps”. The first step is knowing and acknowledging this. The second step is being able to move over, under, through, around – ultimately past – the bumps and move on.

Soraya’s personal preference: “For me, it helps to focus on the possibilities instead of the hindrances…There is always a way”. Look out for what is going well, what you yourself or your team can do, and for who else might be able to help. Which leads nicely onto the next gem of advice…

2. SOS

“If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid of asking for help”, says Soraya. Why sit and struggle when there could be someone right next to you who can help you out. Lead by example: would you rather a co-worker spends hours on end trying to find the perfect solution, or that they simply send one email or walk those few metres to another desk to ask someone else for help? We certainly know which we’d prefer! As The Beatles tell us: “I get by with a little help from my friends”. And you can’t expect someone else to admit when they’re stuck if you don’t do the same.

3. Know What You Don’t Know

With a little help from, well, everyone else, your limited skill set as an individual can be transformed into an eternal fountain of knowledge. By knowing your own skills, what you can do well and what you can’t do at all or struggle with, you’ll be able to find people to fill in the gaps, saving time and a lot of unnecessary effort.

Additionally, knowing what your weakest skills are, you can collaborate with individuals, organisations or businesses who have truly mastered these competences and you can learn from them. “A wise person once said to me; ‘if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room’”, Soraya tells us. She summarises her wisdom on this point by adding, “always make sure that you have people around you who are better on things than you are.”

4. Give Them Some Space

This one is, of course, personal preference as to what style of leadership you prefer. However, Soraya is clear that she goes for an open and unrestrictive leadership image. For her, “it’s all about leadership and how to let people grow”. What’s the point of having other people alongside you if they end up being clones of yourself?

Soraya suggests making sure your vision and what you want to achieve are crystal clear and then only collaborating with people who share that vision. Here, it is crucial that you don’t micromanage, our expert emphasises.

“Maybe it won’t be exactly as you thought, but in the end if you give people the possibility to be engaged and the possibility to be successful, the result will be much better than if you decide, and do, everything by yourself”.

5. Do It for Them

There’s no point trying to lead a city-wide change if you’ve got your own hidden agenda, Soraya maintains. There are so many other stakeholders and actors in the process that having your own preconceived desire for a specific outcome will only send it off track and make the whole thing unmanageable. “I think the most important thing is to not have your own agenda. I don’t have my own agenda. I have everybody else’s agendas instead”, she reports. It is important to be able to unravel the demands, wishes, and aims of everybody else involved in order to lead successful change in urbanism. Soraya continues by explaining, “every day I’m looking to see which agenda should be the first one to work with in this issue or on that problem”. Ultimately, it’s sorting out who to prioritise when, where and why, which could be made even more difficult if you’ve got your own personal or professional priorities on the side too.

6. Be Brave

Take a leap
Image credit: Unsplash / Walker Fenton

Just as Helsingborg introduced a whole new style of governance, literally “turning everything upside down”, as Soraya puts it, sometimes stepping away from the norm is the only way. By transforming the city into a laboratory for sustainable development experimentation and giving the power to the people, Soraya and her team had to take a leap of faith.

She advises, “be brave and test new ways, things, and solutions. You will not change the world by doing things in the same way that we did yesterday.” Imagine if Soraya and the H22 team had never had the courage to suggest such a new governance style for leading the H22 project…

  • They wouldn’t have seen the hundreds of initiatives and ideas that they’ve witnessed over the last three years.
  • They wouldn’t have 250 ongoing innovation initiatives and 70 different partners.
  • They’d not have a 35-day long expo in the making.
  • The city of Helsingborg would still be relatively unknown on the international stage.
  • They wouldn’t have been named one of Europe’s most innovative cities by the European Commission in 2021.
  • And they wouldn’t be in the finals for being named European Green Capital 2023.

It’s no exaggeration to say that courage pays off. So, whether it’s your own idea, a brainchild just waiting to be acted upon, or it’s a city-wide suggestion that runs against the grain, take the leap, and make a start. Sustainable solutions require innovation and novelty.

7. Adapt and Overcome

Leading change means being able to change. It will be a constantly evolving situation, which you as a leader, and your team working alongside you, will have to get used to and adapt to. Without being flexible, you could run down a rabbit hole that leads to nowhere, or worse, to a suboptimal solution. This could have negative consequences for the project and for the city, especially as you are working towards change on a larger scale. Soraya explains that although the way you did something yesterday was the best way then and you now have that structure in place, “tomorrow we’ll need to do it in a different way because something has happened that we didn’t know yesterday”. New ideas and pieces of information are available constantly.

“The H22 initiative is truly agile. I’m not sure how this project will look in three weeks or in two months or in a year”, Soraya specifies. This also indicates that while you can have a goal, the path to achieving this will be constantly changing. Just consider all those agendas, other people’s agendas, that you’ve got to incorporate and track. On all this, she tells us, “I would say that being agile is something that really helps”. Make sure that you’re prepared to change tracks and be flexible.

8. The Mistake of Year Award

Palle Lundberg, Chief Executive of Helsingborg City Council, also gave us some fascinating insights into how this Swedish municipality is run. He makes it clear that it has been essential to foster a culture which is accepting of mistakes. In fact, Helsingborg has gone so far as to create a Mistake of the Year Award. He specifies, “it’s not the mistake that we reward, it’s the lesson learned by the mistake”.

And how can you as someone in a position of influence support and encourage this culture of accepting mistakes? “First, you have to live this yourself…I have to make mistakes. My managers have to make mistakes”, Palle argues. He continues by saying that anyone in a leadership post has got to be open and honest about your failures, showing when you’ve gone wrong, “so that others also dare to do it”.

Palle tells us one of the winners of this prestigious award was a municipality department that decided to create a piece of art out of an old car which they placed in the centre of Helsingborg. Another department, however, did not class this as art and there was a huge scandal which finally came to a head and the car was removed. But “the lesson learned was that we have to communicate in a better way between the different departments in the city”, he explains. And as a result of this blunder, the city now has a project to develop internal communication. There’s a happy ending after all!

Of course, Palle has had his fair share of miscalculations too, but that doesn’t make them negative experiences. On the contrary, if you can learn from it, then it was a mistake worth making. And Helsingborg wouldn’t be where it is today without Palle’s slip up in a previous position working as Chief Executive for the Municipality of Botkyrka. He tells us, “I was so eager to develop the organisation, so I decided to reorganise the whole city. I thought I had a really good idea…but I got so much resistance and so I had to back off”. While the organisation’s confidence in him suffered temporarily, Palle has since moved forward and been riding a tidal wave of success. And the lesson learned? “Take it a little bit more easy at the beginning, listen a lot, involve the employees, have a clear goal, and then you can decide what you want to do”, he concludes.

9. Train for Gains

 The final tip from Palle concerns the development of yourself and all of those in leadership positions. At the end of the day, there’ll always be something new to learn and a way of bettering ourselves. In Helsingborg, they have taken this on board with a management training programme for all of their managers. Palle elaborated on how this works: “We start up with an analysis of what are your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. And then we create a special training programme for you. Then, we put together groups of 15 managers that go to a training camp to develop those skills”.

It makes sense. If we’re working on innovative ways to improve your city, then your organisation and its employees, from the very top to the very bottom, should be developing too. Nobody is perfect, but we can continue learning in order to be the best leader possible.

And they haven’t stopped there. To get the most out of the city, have the best ideas, and most pioneering and resourceful projects, all in the name of sustainability, the leaders of the municipality and the political system have come together. Palle clarifies, “my main management team has been on the same training camp together with the political system, and my chairman and his team have trained together with my team”. So, it’s not just the training that is essential, but also how and with whom it is carried out. Our expert adds, “we decided we have to train together to develop our cooperation because that is also key for our success in Helsingborg”.

“It has been so important to our success that all our managers have both developed their skills as a leader, but also trained to cooperate with different departments within the city.”

10. Have Fun With It!

We’re not going to sugar-coat it: leading from the front on changing the urban environment is not going to be easy. But everything will be easier “if you are having fun along the way”, Soraya exclaims. Enjoy every second of it, remember why you are doing what you are doing, “keep focus and have the grit” to carry on, she continues. You’ll meet some incredible people – fellow CityChangers, innovators, thinkers, leaders – and be constantly learning, all while making a real difference to your city and everyone in it.

The Bottom Line

There is not going to be one, single, easy-to-identify, simple-to-implement solution, but that’s why you’re there, CityChangers. Urban development is vital for a sustainable today and tomorrow, for us and for the next generation. So, just remember how valued your time, efforts, and ideas are and how appreciated they will still be well into the future.

CityChangers, you are the leaders every city needs: be prepared, communicate, share, admit when you need help, surround yourself with the best people for the job, be brave, be flexible, and love what you do.

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