If you have a dream, follow that dream.
The Well Done Man – Daniel Koh
Only from WDB, The Well Done Man is a biographical interview with a Bostonian who is doing exceptional things. It is meant to give our readers insight and knowledge regarding each interviewee’s vision of success and how, beyond their obvious talents, they have reached this point in their lives and careers.
Daniel Koh is Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Boston. As the point man on Marty Walsh’s staff he is part of a dynamic team that is bucking trends and reshaping the city of Boston – which just happens to be in the middle of a record growth spurt. At only 31 years old, Dan has amassed a diverse and impressive background that has in many ways prepared him for the fast-moving and unpredictable role as Chief of Staff. I sat down with Dan to talk about his past, present and future, as well as what it’s like to be at the center of this exciting moment in Boston’s history.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Andover. My first foray into public service was when I was 13 years old. I used to do sting operations in my town, meaning I would travel with an unmarked police car and try to buy cigarettes. That was my first job and I was pretty taken back by how many people would actually sell me cigarettes. It made me realize the value of government and the value of real advocacy around this work. A moment for me that was really touching and life changing was when I was 16 and they were holding a hearing in Andover with the board of health on whether to ban smoking in restaurants. Back then, everyone smoked, you were lucky to get smoking or non smoking at a restaurant. I remember all these restaurant owners standing up and saying that this can’t pass because it will destroy their business. At the end of hearing I actually got the courage to raise my hand and I said when I see older people smoke it makes me feel like it’s ok to smoke and I’m influenced by it. I said that I really wanted the ban to happen not so much because of the health risks but because of the impression that it leaves on people that smoking is the status quo. When they enacted the ban they actually said that my testimony was one of the main reasons why they did it. That was really touching for me because I couldn’t even vote but it showed that if I spoke up I could make a difference.
That experience made me really want to work in politics. I volunteered for 3 summers to work for Ted Kennedy and when I went to college at Harvard I joined the institute of politics. My first job in that role was to be the liaison to Harvard for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. So I got to see Ted Kennedy and Jesse “The Body” Venturea, two very different politicians and those experiences really showed me that you can make a difference in politics in very different ways.
After college I spent some time in the private sector and ending up working in consulting at Booz Allen Hamiltion in D.C. There I helped to design the five year strategic plan for the Gallaudet School for the Deaf. That experience really taught me the value of business and gave me the motivation to go back to Harvard and get my MBA. At Harvard they had a program that paid for someone to spend a year in in the Mayor’s office. At the time Mayor Menino was the in office so I was fortunate enough to get that job and spend time with him.
I was always interested in media though and wanted to spend some more time in the private sector, so out of business school I spent two years in NYC as Chief of Staff to Arianna Huffington. After two years, out of nowhere I got a call from Mitch Weiss who was Tom Menino’s Chief of Staff. He said Marty Walsh didn’t have a Chief of Staff and wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing. One thing lead to another and that’s where I ended up. I think it takes a special kind of guy to take a chance on someone they don’t know especially someone who worked for the previous administration. I got very lucky and I feel very lucky to be here.
Wow that is quite a path you took. What was it like working for Arianna Huffington?
She’s an incredibly intelligent individual she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She’s incredibly driven, not just her desire for media and truth but also social impact and not enough people give her credit for that. For example Huff Post was getting about 1 Billion+ pageviews a month and we really wanted to use that traffic to effect change for good. So one of the things we did was to use the site as a crowdfunding platform called The Job Raising Challenge. We’d work with job creating nonprofits, allowing them to write on Huff Post and leverage the platform to receive donations. We raised a million dollars that way and that was something that she made sure I was spending my time on. Arianna has a very strong social conscience and she is also very hard driving. If you send her an email and she doesn’t get back to you within 2 minutes then she’s either in the air or there’s something seriously wrong. She’s definitely a perfectionist and when you meet her you know right away why she’s so successful. She has that rare blend of intelligence and drive that you don’t see very often.
I’m sure a lot of people, including me, are wondering what exactly the Mayor’s Chief of Staff does on a day to day basis. Can you give us an idea of your responsibilities and a snapshot of your day?
There’s two main functions for the Chief of Staff. It’s too advise the mayor on decisions he’s about to make and when he makes them it’s my job to carry them out. Every morning around 6:45 we have a standing phone call. By then I’m expected to have read the news and be caught up on email so that I can understand where the issues may be and how to react to certain things. The call is to touch base and usually lasts only about 5-10 minutes so that we can go over the plan for the day. I then have a meeting at 8:30am with the senior staff and we come up with a plan for the day based on the mayor’s feedback. Usually the mayor is in and out of the office a couple times a day and leaves the office around 6:30 or 7pm. Around 10 or 10:30pm we have another call to debrief. The hardest part of the job is balancing the proactive and the reactive because there is so much coming at you that if you don’t have a strategy things can go by the wayside. That’s a typical day but it’s always different which is why it’s so exciting. I could be preparing for the State of The City one day or it could be that the Patriots just won the Superbowl and we have to plan the rally.
Although you’ve experienced a lot in a short period of time it seems like the Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Boston would be someone who’s a little more seasoned in public service. What about your upbringing, education or previous work experience has most prepared you to perform in this role?
I really got lucky at a young age. I worked very closely with my manager at Booz Allen Hamilton and it was a very small team so I did a lot of work above my pay grade. When I worked for Arianna she believed in putting young people in situations where they could prove themselves so I learned a lot there. Also it took a very open mind and a lot of guts for Mayor Walsh to appoint a 29 year old as Chief of Staff especially in his first term. The answer is you never really feel completely prepared for anything. Even if you’ve been on another job for 20 years it doesn’t mean you are going to be a good Chief of Staff. I was fortunate to be in the function as Chief of Staff before but for the most part there is a lot of learning you just can’t replicate whether you’ve had 20 years of experience or zero.
Did you have any mentors?
Certainly my manager at Booz Allen. Also, I worked for the New England Patriots for a short period of time and my boss there was named Jessica Gelman. She believed in mentoring deeply and I still talk to her about once a month. Arianna is also someone I talk to at least once a month and actually just saw her a couple weeks ago. Lastly the Mayor is not just a boss but a friend and mentor. I talk to him a lot about my life and longer term stuff. He’s one of those rare bosses that really wants to see you grow and to push you outside your comfort zone. He’s not just concerned with where I am now. I know he wants to make sure I’m positioned in a place where I want to go. I still don’t know what that is but I know that if I ever do get that clarity I know he will push me to that.
Did you look for bosses with those qualities?
I got lucky in that regard but I think having a boss who believes in you is really important to your long term success. At the end of the day, the connections and opportunities that are really special are the ones you get through proving yourself and knowing people through your work.
I won’t claim to be a political scholar but it seems like Boston has historically been a place where change comes about very slowly. Despite our history I feel like Mayor Walsh is really starting to move the needle on lots of issues. Why do you think the Mayor and yourself have been successful in creating change here?
I think it’s really a mentality that the Mayor has. People ask me if there are similarities between Arianna Huffington and Marty Walsh and there actually are. The mayor gets very frustrated when things don’t happen quickly and Arianna wants things done quickly too. I spent two years in her system and I knew that when she asked me to do something that it was my responsibility to get it done quickly. Personally, I’ve kind of internalized that private sector mentality of getting things done quickly. There’s a ton of stuff that I wish could be done faster but there is also a lot of stuff that is working and moving fast. I came out with this a few months ago but I have Attention Deficit Disorder and I can get really frustrated when things drag out because it becomes very difficult for me from a patience perspective and to pay attention. It’s just how I’m wired. I don’t like having meetings that last more than 30 mins because I get restless and the mayor in many respects is the same way.
What challenges specifically does Boston present when compared to other cities?
Boston is a world class city and it’s mentioned in the same breath as places like NY, San Francisco, D.C or LA but from a square mileage perspective and from a population perspective it’s not those cities. The challenge is how do you have events and do things here and push the city in a way that keeps us competitive without losing the character of Boston and causing disruption. It’s always a challenge. There’s always a disconnect between the younger generation that really wants new and innovative things and the established people here. Now that GE is coming there is going to be an influx of new people and there is even more attention being paid to that innovate mindset. The Seaport 10 years ago didn’t really exist so now there is a whole neighborhood of Boston that has a very different mentality than we are used to. I think many cities are facing that but in Boston it’s even harder because to remain competitive you need to be pro business and you need to see development however we don’t want that to happen at the expense of people who have been here their whole lives.
What are you most excited about with GE coming to the Seaport?
I think a couple things. People talk about how many jobs they are bringing in, I think that’s important but I think the ripple effects are what’s most important. First and foremost they came to Boston because they did a 40 city search and they found that they most closely shared Boston’s values of being innovative, tech focused, pushing the envelope and proving models. We’ve always believed that but to have that sort of external validation is great and it proves what we’ve been trying say about how special Boston is. On top of that, in Boston we have upwards of 50% of people leaving when graduating from colleges here. They come here from all over the world and they go to schools like BC, BU, Harvard, MIT and then they leave. The more job opportunities that are here in Boston the more people are going to stay but we need to make sure those jobs are ones that people are excited about. So what I’m most excited about are the after effects so that you have smart people who are coming to Boston and staying in Boston. It creates this whole ecosystem around GE and Boston that maybe hasn’t existed as much before.
I’ve read a lot about City Score and how you’ve been tasked with using analytics and data to help Boston run more effectively. How has that been received?
Very positively, it allows the Mayor to look up and say OK anything in the red means not good. If we see anything that is falling behind it can be paid attention to and corrected. This is on a day-week-month-quarter system. So if something in a day is under-performing that doesn’t really matter but if after a week, month or quarter it is still red then it means there are issues. We have worked very closely with the cabinet chiefs to prepare them for this so that they don’t feel embarrassed or upset when they are in the red but that they understand it’s here to more quickly identify where we are falling behind. The transparency allows people to understand and be more invested in their stats. Of course there are some people who aren’t thrilled about this but the Mayor’s office also isn’t thrilled to say where we are doing badly. The reality is that there are areas that need improvement and this allows us to be open with them and identify where they are.
Do you think City Score is here now because we’re now ready for it?
Absolutely. First of all the technology exists now. Any city can track at least some of the basic stats and the formula is literally just what’s happening over what you thought was going to happen. Any city with an excel spreadsheet can do something like this. You will see in the next 10-20 years constituents will expect to have something like this. Where are you on your targets is something that is asked of private sector people every single day, it’s just not expected or asked for in the public sector. Why? You have a 3 billion dollar budget in the city of Boston which would make us a fortune 1000 company in the private sector. It is taxpayer money which in theory should make it even more valuable than a shareholder’s stake but it’s not for some reason. This is our way of saying it should be and it should be approached with the same rigor as a business would do for private sector dollars. That’s what City Score is attempting to do. It’s a lot of work to do but we’re excited about it.
What’s your favorite part of this job?
I think the pace of the job and all the different areas we touch, everything from housing to economic development to technology to GE and all that stuff. Nobody in the mayor’s office can specialize in any one thing. It’s my job to know what’s going on all around the city and and it means that I have to read The Globe and The Herald and all the different media outlets every single day. Everyday I learn a ton so that I can talk to the appropriate people, who are the real experts in all this stuff.
What would you consider to be your biggest challenge personally or professionally?
I’m getting married in July and I worry a lot about how I’m going to balance family and work and all that stuff. I want to have kids. Right now I can answer the phone and at any point of the day if I need to be somewhere, I’ll just go. My obligation is to my fiance and to the mayor, it’s not to anybody else but when you have a kid you don’t have that luxury. I’m particularly concerned about how all that will go down. That is the biggest challenge and the next phase of my life. How I’ll balance all that. I love my fiance and I want to be an equal partner but there is this still this societal norm where guys get a pass on that. That’s not what I want to be.
How long do you think you can do this job?
I’ve had a blast for the first two years. I want to be back in the private sector at some point but I can’t imagine a job that gives me more satisfaction and responsibility each day. So I”ll be here until the Mayor tells me it’s time.
What do you do to unwind?
I play guitar and piano for fun. I do a baseball league in summer. I’m not very good but I try. I run Marathons. However, it’s all with the mentality that this job is first and foremost on my mind. Every Saturday I go for a long run and I like it cause it clears my head and lets me think about other things for a bit.
Any advice for aspiring public service professionals out there?
Yeah. It’s never a bad thing to get private sector experience. People who are political often think that you need to come in as an intern, stay in and work your way up. I’ve found far more value in going out and making connections and getting to know people rather than just staying in one job. I’ve jumped around and I’ve had a number of different internships in a lot of different areas basically because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life long term. Just because you don’t know exactly what you want to do, doesn’t mean you’re throwing it away because you want to spend a year working for the Patriots or a place like Lincoln Center. Jumping around is actually a good thing. Get the most experience you can, do the best you can at what you’re doing and good things will come.