“I’m sure there are others who know the city better, but I’m proud to have played a role in a lot that has happened around New York.”
Although understatement is not a trait always associated with New Yorkers, Dan Doctoroff is being entirely too modest. Doctoroff’s passion for his adopted hometown – he hails from Detroit – is woven deeply through a career that has taken him from the heights of finance to leading the city’s Olympic bid and serving under Mayor Bloomberg as deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.
He is now putting that knowledge to good use as the chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google that works with cities to create innovative new technological products for urban life. Their office is appropriately located in Hudson Yards, a 28-acre site of former railway yards and industrial land in the process of being turned into new homes, offices and retail outlets. “It’s America’s largest ever mixed-use development,” says Doctoroff proudly, “and exactly the type of initiative which we looked to prioritise during our time in office.”
“Greater than ever”
By a quirk of fate, this interview took place on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. Those terrible events preceded Bloomberg’s election by a few months and also provided the catalyst for Doctoroff’s switch to the public sector.
“It was a time when the future of the city was really called into question, particularly given that it is so well known for its openness,” he recalls. “In addition, Lower Manhattan had been destroyed, it was emotionally fraught, and the city was in desperate financial shape as businesses and people were going elsewhere.”
The city today is unrecognisable. The jobs market is booming, new businesses abound and – despite the high prices of real estate – it shimmers with that unique blend of magic and energy, beauty and diversity, which marks out New York as the capital of the world.
Its renaissance post-9/11 forms the basis of Doctoroff’s new book – Greater than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback. Part memoir, part manifesto, it charts the strategies and initiatives that underpinned Bloomberg’s time as mayor. But while this was a time of immense activity and impact, he is clear that it took a unique set of circumstances to persuade him to give up the private sector – he had previously worked in private equity – and head towards City Hall.
“I never thought I would serve in government,” he admits. “But Bloomberg was elected as a very unconventional politician who had not accepted any campaign contributions, because he funded everything himself. This meant he came into office beholden to no-one. I found this very appealing. More importantly, when I first met with him he talked about his management style: pick great people, encourage them, give them independence, but also expect them to do really interesting and important things. This to me was incredibly enticing at a time of the city’s greatest need. So, the combination of it being Mike Bloomberg at a time when the city needed to be rebuilt and make it greater than ever was pretty irresistible.”
Interestingly, Doctoroff’s description of working for Bloomberg replicates that of Joel Klein, who also worked for the mayor – as his top education official. When this is pointed out, Doctoroff professes little surprise. “We were always completely in sync – both strategically and from an execution perspective,” he says. “He lived up to his promise to encourage innovation, to be supportive, and being an advocate for our plans, especially when times were tough. He always had our back and this, I think, was a pretty remarkable exercise in leadership.”
Easing in, gearing up
After decades of rising up the ladder in the private sector, it seems pertinent to ask about how he adjusted to the culture shock of life in government. Doctoroff, though, is quick to point out that his time leading the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics had already exposed him to the machinations of the public sector.
“I had had to interact with government, as we were developing plans with leaders of city agencies and, in some cases, state agencies,” he points out. “This meant I didn’t come into the deputy mayor role completely fresh – I had experience and I knew a lot of people.”
He also says that the bid document formed the backbone of the Bloomberg administration’s work to transform large tracts of the city, including the now world-famous High Line. “We ended up getting the benefits of having the Olympics – at least from a physical perspective – without actually having staged the Games,” he says. “The bidding process also acted as a catalyst in terms of giving us deadlines. We had to get things planned and approved before the International Olympic Committee voted, and we were able to do this in record time.”
His collaboration with government colleagues also gave him knowledge of the rhythm of the public sector. “I think that to be successful in government you have to operate on two speeds at the same time,” he says. “The first is you have to be patient because there is process for everything. But at the same time, if you don’t act with a sense of urgency at all times, then everything will die of its own weight. Finding that balance is something that most people who come in from the private sector don’t ever really learn to master but, fortunately, I think Mike and I were both pretty good at it – and this was a big factor in helping us get stuff done.”
A time of surprises
Doctoroff served as deputy mayor for a period of six years and the pace never let up. “At one point we counted up every initiative we had going on in my domain – which was economic and physical – and there were 289 of them,” he recalls.
“Of these initiatives, 285 will eventually get done,” he continues. “The fact that we were able to get so much done was the biggest surprise to me. But I think we were smart in the way we went about it, we had amazing people and we learned as we went along and got better at it.”
The importance of storytelling in government is also something that he is keen to highlight. “I didn’t anticipate its significance,” he admits. “We had to be able to explain how each of these initiatives fitted into a broader strategy for the city – otherwise people might not have gone along with them. And a close relationship with the private sector was also critical. Our goal was to grow the city – in terms of businesses, residents, visitors – and the bulk of that was going to be done by the private sector.”
Doctoroff is now fully focused on his role at Sidewalk Labs, with a return to politics certainly not on the agenda. “I would make a terrible legislator,” he admits. “I just wouldn’t have the necessary patience.”
Congress’ loss is New York’s gain, however. New Yorkers and visitors alike can look around them today and see an abundance of attractions and developments that can be traced to his time in City Hall. And with future generations well placed to benefit from his current focus on urban technology, it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.
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