Welcome to the first episode of The Fire Show, where I interview people and build blueprints that creators and entrepreneurs to start and scale their work – like a audio incubator for creators.
Anyway, back to why you’re here. Today, I’m interviewing Mayor Steve Adler of Austin. We’re talking decision-making, processing information better, communicating with folks who might not necessarily agree with you.
- What does your morning routine look like? You know, the important stuff that happens before you reach the office.
- As mayor, there’s no way to be fully prepared for every issue that pops up screaming for attention. How does he quickly get up to speed on critical and urgent issues in order to make effective decisions.
- When you have such a public image and are looked up to as a leader, who do you reach out to when you’re having your hardest moments? What’s the most unconventional place you receive advice and grow as a person and leader? (Vi)
- What are your metrics of success? What’s the thought process look like of setting those metrics?
- What are your core values?
- How do you walk into a room that you know may not like you because of your political beliefs and manage to get your point across to a potentially hostile audience? (Lani)
Transcription of Interview:
Moby: And you can hold the mic like that and we can just casually chat.
Mayor Adler: All right.
Moby: How are you today?
Mayor Adler: I’m doing good. Nice to see a little rain coming down. That’ll cool things off a little bit.
Moby: That’s true. That might stop people complaining about the heat right now.
Mayor Adler: My day did startup at the legislature, so it’s at a perfect day.
Moby: It’s at a perfect day. Let me see real quick. So I actually posted about this interview in a couple of groups and I asked people for questions, and I got like 40 questions and it’s fantastic and people are super excited to learn more about you, how you make your decisions, and I’m also as I mentioned super excited to be here and super intimidated. This is great.
Mayor Adler: You should not be. I’m excited to be here too.
Moby: I mean, you’re a very friendly guy, so this would be great. So what does the first hour of your day look like? What would you do when you wake up? How do you get prep for so much information coming to you all day long?
Mayor Adler: Well, most of my mornings during the week probably start about 5:15. I usually spend the first 15 minutes in a quite dark place, not lit, and kind of think through whatever it is that … I mean, those thoughts that you get early in the morning. I like to actually be in a place where I can get them and process them and think about them. Then I read the newspaper, I read some blogs as the day is getting started. And then at 6:00 I’m working out most mornings for an hour.
Moby: That’s awesome. For an hour. What do you do to work out?
Mayor Adler: Well, a lot of it is body weight work and some machines, some running.
Moby: Just to get the day started pumped up. That’s awesome. So you mentioned that you spend the first 15 minutes in a room dimmed lit. When you go to sleep the night before, do you sometimes think about, “These are the biggest problems I have to tackle tomorrow, or these are the kind of information that I want to be thinking about all day?”
Mayor Adler: The truth is that I usually am reading the night. So I usually just kind of fall asleep. So I don’t really kind of review the day that way when I’m going to sleep, which is … this is why I do it in the morning when I get up. But I sleep really well.
Mayor Adler: So I’ll just … I’ll usually just fall asleep lots of nights when Diane will take a book off of my chest and put it away and turn off my lights for me.
Moby: Is that your way of turning off after a day or a week? What do you read before sleeping?
Mayor Adler: Mostly it’s city kinds of stuff. I missed being able to …
Moby: Free time.
Mayor Adler: Free time and recreationally read. Just because … I’ll never be able to read everything I should read for this job. So I’m constantly trying to catch up.
Moby: That’s awesome. So as a mayor, there’s new issues that come in town every day, every week, how do you quickly assess the situation or to make a decision? For example if someone or your staff comes in and says, “This is something we’re thinking about, and we have to act.” What’s the process of look at all sorts of information, dissecting them, and then making a decision? Can you walk us through your thought process?
Mayor Adler: I think it begins with having a really good staff. And I’m really lucky and the city’s really lucky for the staff that I have. So many times when something comes to me, it comes to me already with a recommendation as to priority, and a recommendation as to what I should do. And that’s really helpful.
Most of the things they were working on are things that don’t just happen in the morning that need a reaction, so most of the things that we do are things that follow from things that we’ve been working on for a while, our effort, so most of the things fit within a plan or pattern. Occasionally there will be those things that just happen, and then how they get integrated into what happens in that moment depends on what that is – how pressing that is, what the impact is, what the opportunity cost is, what the danger, and challenge presented is?
Moby: And so the key is to surround yourself with really people who are really, really good at what they do?
Mayor Adler: It has to be, probably one of the most important things.
Moby: And that’s especially true for a mayor for entrepreneurs. How do you assess how good people are at their jobs? Or how do you get a read on someone saying they can handle intense amounts of pressure or organize systems really well, or be able to structure source of information to get the right decision made in the right period of time?
Mayor Adler: I think the best evidence that you can get is someone’s ability to deal with pressure or to be able to perform or to provide any kind of work product or insight, or any of those things is how they’ve done in the past. So I think you look proven track record that someone’s been able to do things. It’s always good to have an assessment of that person’s ability to do that from someone that you know, if you can, because that means you’re getting really good advice or to triangulate to get view from several people that you don’t know that drives your kind of reoccurring themes or comments you get from unrelated people.
Moby: And that sounds like really tough just getting information from tens and hundreds of people about a certain topic and consolidating that to give you different perspectives in order to make that decision. I’m really fascinated by decision making because I’ve been indecisive for most of my life. And I’m finally being more decisive.
Mayor Adler: And when you look at this job, everything about this job is designed to make you reactive. So one component of this job is handling constituent matters. People from all over the city call my office with a problem – I can’t get a permit, I can’t get a pot hole filled, my water bill is twice as high as it’s supposed to be, whatever it is. And we get so many of those constituent inquiries that I could spend all of my time and all of my staff’s time doing nothing but handling those constituent calls or emails or whatever.
Of course you can’t do that. But it’s hard not to because we can help 90% of those people. So it’s a lot of positive reinforcement, and you can feel good because you can actually do things to help people. But I can’t spend all of my time and my staff’s time doing that.
On any given Monday there’s a list of things that show up on my desk that have to be resolved. Usually they don’t get to this level if they’re easy to resolve, so these are generally speaking harder things. And then I could spend all of my time and all of my staff’s time doing nothing but responding to that new list of things that have shown up on that Monday for us to deal with. And those things can be really important. I mean, some people might have been working on that thing, even though it’s new to me, and it just shown up, somebody’s been working on it for three months or six months or three years. And now is their big moment and it’s like really, really important.
Of course I can’t spend all my time and my staff’s time just on those things. But you really wanted to do is to be able to do proactive things. So as you work on affordability in the city and preserving communities or to help with mobility around the city. You want to be proactive on those things. And this job is a constant battle over dealing with all of the forces that want to make you reactive and trying to build the opportunity and space to be proactive.
Moby: So you’re in … talking about being proactive versus reactive. You’re in a very public position, and anything you do has a feedback like within minutes, anything in the public that you do you’ll get feedback on it, and that will make you react. Do you sometimes feel … do you have like … this is a weird question, but like an internal meter which you can tell, “Maybe I’m being too reactive. I need to just step back,” without the outside feedback?
Mayor Adler: Well, I think that meter’s running all the time, because it’s possible to be reactive all the time. But there are some things that happen that I try really hard not to be reactive to at all. I don’t read the comments at the end of newspaper stories.
Moby: I can totally do that.
Mayor Adler: And I recognize that a significant part of this job is that I will not please everybody with anything that I do. And it’s important for people to be able to criticize publicly what I do and to further the debate and the discussion that way. But I don’t get personally caught up in those kinds of things. And I don’t get personally caught up even in those comments that don’t address the things sensitively that are addressing me. I figure at the end of the day when I go home I know that Diane and my girls will still love me and in their eyes I’m still going to be okay. And that’s fine.
I’ve done this elected things later in my life, later than somebody who’s trying to make a career out of politics and starting in their 20s or their 30s who might be more caught up in on those kinds of reactions, you get a little bit older. It doesn’t tax you the same way.
Moby: So you’re developing a thicker skin every single day?
Mayor Adler: Every single day. But it is right, it’s very public and there was a real change for me given what I was doing and what I’m doing now. And it’s public because of the role, it’s public because a lot of people are interested and see what it is that you’re doing, it’s public because there are lots of people around that give me the opportunity to talk to people and be in front of people. That’s real good.
It’s public just in the rules that are set up. Not a lot of people or everyone knows that on any given item that my council is considering, I can’t have talked to more than four members of my council, because of the open meetings laws. It’s important that a major or a quorum of council doesn’t decide something in the evening and then come in the next day and announce what it was that was decided, and everybody goes, “Wait, what just happened? How did you get to that decision?”
But what that means is is that in most environments when you’re working something out with a group you often times will go talk to everybody involved in the decision and say, “So what are you thinking about this? And what’s important to you and what do you need to have happened, what are you scared of, what are your fears associated with this, what are the logistical or practical or political problems you have on this thing, and let me see if I can help you work through those things.” That’s how I would work with groups all of my life until I got here.
So I hear people all the time that watch city council meetings and they say, “Boy, that was messy. I watched you up all in the dais, it looked like no one had a clue as to what it was that you were doing, and it was just really messy and awkward.” And the answer is yes. It is messy and it is awkward, because no one on that dais was able to talk to more than four people before they got there. So I’m learning positions taken by colleagues as the rest of the world is finding out what these positions are. And we’re expected to be on that dais and actually work together and make group decisions.
Moby: And so when you find out about these decisions, like in that context or even like news from outside, how ever the years have you I guess trained yourself to remain unfazed and be objective about a decision you have to make? Because I mean, I hear news or something happens that I have to get involved in, and a lot of times like, “Okay, how to do this? How to do this?” How have you trained yourself over the years to not do what I do?
Mayor Adler: Well, I don’t know. I think a part of it is just experience and a part of it is just being through drills. For almost 40 years I was a courtroom litigator. That’s a fairly stressful place to be. It’s kind of like competitive teaching with like juries. And so I’m used to playing in a world that is primarily zero sums games, where somebody wins and somebody loses. And then within that universe I was a contingency fee lawyer, which means I got paid if I won. And if I didn’t win then I didn’t get paid. So there was always some measure of uncertainty in anything that I did about how it would end up not only for my client but for me.
So I think that I’ve just … I’ve just been in these situations so much. And then part of it is having a really good staff, both at my office and in the city generally, that will layout what the options are and what the ramifications are, and you make the absolute best decision that you can and then you go to the next thing.
Moby: So it’s a function-able time, and then putting … intentionally putting yourself for you both intentionally in being put in those situations, but for someone else a function of time and putting yourself in situations where you have to go through that process of intense pressure, lots of sources of information and making decisions that impact a lot of people. Someone asked me this question so they could ask you is, when you’re walking in a room and you know that a majority of those people do not agree with you or may even be hostile to you and you have to go and speak with them. What’s your mindset like when you know that these people are not going to take what you say very easily or readily?
Mayor Adler: The truth is is that if I walk into a room full of people that are predisposed, either not to like me or support me or to approve oppositions I’m taking? If I walk into that room knowing that I’m in that room because in the moment I get to speak to them, I feel a lot better than when I walk into that room and I know that I’m not going to be given that opportunity.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I would like to think that for most things I have a reason for the positions that I take or what I do, and I’m taking them for good reasons. And when you believe at some core place that what you are doing is in fact your best effort to do right and correct, then I appreciate having the opportunity to be in front of groups that don’t like mirror, don’t agree with the position that I’m taking so that they can hear why it was I did what I did or think what I think.
Usually at the end of those people will at least say, “Well, I disagree with what he’s doing, I think he’s trying to do he’s best or that he has a good heart even though he’s wrong.” But I’ll take that and I like being with people, and so that’s fine. I don’t mind walking into a room of people that disagree with me.
Moby: Could you for a second give … so for example if you were to give me one piece of advice for communicating reasons effectively to a person who might not agree with the actual decision, what would that piece of advice be?
Mayor Adler: I think it begins with trying to understand the person that you’re talking to or the audience that you’re speaking to. Because the thought or the message or the idea or where you start with what you’re going to say or what you emphasize in what you say, a lot of times it depends on who it is that’s listening to you. So the first thing is you have to understand the person who’s receiving your information as best you can because it might change the order of your presentation or how you present things, so I would begin there.
And then the second thing I would say generally is just be really honest. I think when you’re really honest talking about something, people can sense that or feel that, they know that. And I think that that encourage good favor. And then the last thing is have done your work before you get to that place. The more recent I am in what I’ve done the more confident I am when I’m explaining it to someone later, and the more effective communicator I am when I do that.
Moby: Also being … another aspect of that, being more objective in your reasons why you want to pursue certain decisions?
Mayor Adler: Sure.
Moby: Interesting. So I just ask you for a certain piece of advice, and also thank you for that opportunity. But who do you go for advice or mentorship when you want to just get your thought process out and talk to someone about a problem or something else that’s on your mind?
Mayor Adler: I … the truth is that for so many things that I do the advice that I follow was the advice from my father, who I think was a brilliant guy. He never graduated for high school, but he had … he was so street smart, but he died when I was relatively young. But there’s still a lot of him I think that is in me and around me.
Beyond that I am also really lucky to have a lot of friends, and I know a lot of people in a lot of different disciplines. So many times I’ll go for advice in most situations I go for advice. And who I go to, in part depends on what it is that I’m asking for advice about. And then I have certainly Diane who is not shy at all about giving me advice, and over time has been my most trusted advisor. She is someone that really does more closely than anyone else follow what I’m involved in, she’s sees the breath of what I’m dealing with, because she’s with me. And she’s also very confident as a woman who has owned her own company and run it for 30 years. And then I have friends that I regularly get together with.
Moby: That’s awesome. It’s always important to have a support. I mean, I’m not telling you, you already know this. I am the one learning this right now.
Mayor Adler: That’s true.
Moby: Yeah. That was something I learned this year was having that support networking and having people tell you when you’re messing up or when you just need to think something through. So what about … what are your core values? Do you have an internal road map that helps you make certain decisions or you can pin point and say, “That’s my north star.” Like what’s your metrics for success for yourself look like when it’s so ambiguous because you’re in charge of a city? How do you even start defining those?
Mayor Adler: I think global might be harder than specific ones. I try to be true to myself, which means I try to do right. Diane and I stopped what we were doing in our other life in order to do this. We were involved in other non-profits and boards in the past. In some real respects this is just another non-profit …
Moby: Extension of your …
Mayor Adler: Extension of that, and it’s just a little bigger non-profit. And now we’re doing this and we do this generally together. But the difference in this one is that I was elected by the community. So I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the people that have in trusted me with and gifted to me this job for a limited period of time. So I think it’s just really incumbent upon me to recognize that I am acting in a trust relationship with the community.
So the first one is to be true to myself and to try to do right, to do honor to the privilege that I’ve been given and the responsibility that I’ve taken with this role, and I think generally speaking if you’re constant motivating force is to try to do what is right, then generally you’ll be okay. You’re maybe wrong with some of the things that you do, but generally I think that you’ll just be okay.
Moby: Interesting. What non-profits were you involved with before?
Mayor Adler: Lots, I was involved in GEN Austin, the Girls Empowerment Network. A wonderful organization that deals with middle school girls, helps get them mentored by high school girls who get paid. So it’s kind of like an entry job program for them, but also helping with middle girls which is such often a difficult or awkward or challenging time. Diane and I have three girls, so I was with all three of them during that period of time.
I was involved with Breakthrough, a great organization that grabs kids in the 6th grade whose parents never went to college and mentors them through their next six years through high school, and then beyond. They help take kids who statistically might not be expected to go to college, to help make sure that they get the knowledge or insight or coaching that they’re parents may not be able to give them because it’s a track that their parents might not be familiar with or have experience with.
I chaired the board of Ballet Austin. I love that art form, an executive and artistic director. But it was always an organization that was … has much about access and opportunity as it was anything else. And it was an organization that used art as a convener for community conversations on things like prejudice and bullying. And I like that I was on the board of the long center as that was being built, that I marshaled that project through.
I chaired and was on the national board of the Anti-Defamation League, which dealt with civil rights issues, discrimination issues, hatred kinds of issues, lots of different things.
Moby: Lots, I’m sure. So working with these non-profits and they have a lot of impacts especially a civil rights lawyer, how did you see that translate into how you saw the role of this office when you started in 2015?
Mayor Adler: I think that this office has been an extension of things that I have spent my life working on. And in addition to the non-profits we just talked about I begun my legal career doing civil rights law, a lot of employment discrimination law, I was in Federal Court and State Court depending workers, women that had been sexually harassed in work force environments.
So I think a lot of what I have always done. I used to … well, my closest friends become a state senator from El Paso. And when he got elected I helped him organize his office and set up his office and I started as his chief of staff and general counsel for several sessions, working primarily on school finance issues and education issues, teacher salary issues, pay equity issues. I don’t know. This is just what I do.
Moby: And so every next step was an extension of the impact that you wanted to have. When did you … when did it clicked for you that, “I could have a lot more impact if I ran for mayor.” How many years before actually running was that, do you think?
Mayor Adler: Oh, it was a matter of weeks.
Moby: That’s great.
Mayor Adler: Yes, it’s true. When we were moving to the new council system, the 10-1 council where we were moving away from at large representation to district representation, there was a group of us that felt that there were going to be a whole new council because now we were electing by district. And a lot of the members of the old council were on the same district, which is part of the reasons why we needed a district council.
But it looked like there were going to be lots of new council members. And there were members that thought that in that environment it would be best if the mayor was also new, so as to ensure the greatest chance possible that no one would be saying an answer to any questions, “Wait a second. I know how to do that because we’ve done that for years. I know how to do that. That’s how it works.”
And I thought that it would be … a group of us thought it would be really helpful that a new system, a new council, a new mayor. So we went out and we went to recruit somebody to run for mayor, and we went to several people who would be great members, great mayors, and they were still my great mayors.
But everybody we went to said no. So eventually we kind of lock ourselves in a room and we said, “Hey, somebody has to stop what they’re doing and one who is actually has to go and do this.” And I drew the short straw which made me the one that would run for mayor and then got elected.
Moby: That’s awesome. So a lot of people look at someone like you in … especially people who are in their 20s, 30s, and who are just starting out and not sure what they want to do, still finding themselves, understanding themselves, where they want to have impact, what they want to be good at. And they see someone like you who’s in a very high up position, and they see someone else who’s a CEO of a company where they’re doing something else, and they think it’s all part of a grand plan. I’m realizing that’s not. But how much would you say, and this is for my own sake too, how much would you say is getting to this point was this incremental winds or accidents which you took advantage of and just was kind of luck?
Mayor Adler: At some level I think it’s a series of incidental accidents and luck. But it’s also picking up in that journey the skills or the knowledge to be able to recognize opportunity when you see it, and the ability to be able to capitalize on it.
I didn’t know what kind of law I would be doing when I graduated from law school. I had no real clear idea of what a path might be more than five years up. Most of the non-profit work I got involved in, I got involved in because I really like the executive director of that non-profit, I thought they were very good and maybe there’s something I could do to help catalyze their success in ways they might not otherwise have achieved.
But in most of those boards that I got involved if you would asked me a year before I would ever be on the board of that, I would have said, “Why?” So I think that at each stage it’s being open to change. It’s believing that we will be best doing something that if we like what it is that we’re doing, that we’re feeling challenged by. So in some respects it’s always been kind of a search for that. I’ve always been a very competitive person, so sometimes I get tracked on something that’s relatively short because I want to do that and I want to do that that well, but the over arch or the arch of life has not been planned or predicted.
Moby: And you can’t plan that. So what would be … so after starting this role, what would be … what is a skill that you had to learn that was really hard for you to do that?
Mayor Adler: A skill that I had to learn that was hard to learn. I think a lot of the skills that I need in this job are skills that were the ones that came with me. They weren’t hard, that’s probably one of the reasons why I found myself in the path that I’ve been on or taken the things on because they were my skills where were best applied. I think I’ve always been fairly patient person. This role in mayor is …
Moby: It’s a long term.
Mayor Adler: It’s … you have to be really, really, really, really patient I think to do this, at least the way that I’m trying to do it, and sometimes even as patient as I am that’s hard. And then I’ve been in kind of a private sector place where the pace of things happening is faster. I’m now in an environment where there’s a lot more transparency than what I had seen before. There’s a lot greater value placed on citizen and public engagement which is crucially important. So really seeing that from this vantage point and internalizing and learning that. But also recognize that it means that things may take even longer in order to be able to get that product forged that way has been sometimes draining.
Moby: So right before I let you get back to your very busy role, what’s a piece of advice or maybe even a book or a takeaway that you’d like to give the listeners before you go? Or a habit that you have that you think will have a lot of impact in people’s lives if they tried it or a book that they would read?
Mayor Adler: If you ask my girls what piece of advice I gave to them that sticks with them the most, I think that all of them would say the same thing, and I said this only because they’re older now and I hear it back. And that is is that to a large degree we are each individually responsible for what happens to us. But we are almost totally responsible for how we feel and who we are.
I think that something that has served me well is whenever I process what it was that just happened to me I always think about it in terms of what I could have done differently in order to change what it was that had happened. I don’t … very rarely will I look and say, “Wow, this happened to me because of there’s something this other person did or this situation.” I don’t usually go there. I usually say, “Given the fact that this other person was going to do that or this was going to happen. Did I respond in a way that was the best way for me to able to respond to that?”
I think that you wake up every morning and to a degree you get to decide if you’re going to be happy or you’re not going to be happy. And so I believe a lot in being able to accept and appreciate that you have responsibility over a lot at what happens in your life.
Moby: We can’t always control what happens to us, we can only control how we react to that.
Mayor Adler: Correct, yeah.
Moby: Thank you so much.
Mayor Adler: Well, thanks for the invitation.
Moby: Thanks for letting me just ask for some questions. It was fantastic.
Mayor Adler: No, no, no, I can’t believe we’ve already spent all our time.
Moby: I know. This is great.
Mayor Adler: But it was fun.
Moby: Thank you very much.
Mayor Adler: Thank you.
Moby: Thanks too.