My Story: From Oklahoma City Mayor to an Executive MBA at NYU

Mayor Mick Cornett addresses the crowd before the Milwaukee Bucks play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Chris Graythen)

Even as a public figure, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett admits he’s still a little intimidated by his Executive MBA classmates.

Mayor Cornett, a second-year Executive MBA student at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is not only a public figure, he is a business owner, successful journalist, and Executive Vice President at Ackerman McQueen, a marketing, advertising, and public relations firm in Oklahoma. “The advertising agency is sort of my day job,” says the Mayor.

As if juggling these demanding priorities isn’t enough, Mayor Cornett produces and co-hosts a local public affairs television program called The Verdict. The show has been highly successful, having aired more than 500 episodes since its launch in 2001.

Despite all of this, Mayor Cornett enjoys being “just another student” when it comes to his EMBA education. As he looks toward the future, he hopes his EMBA degree will help prepare him for life’s next chapter, whatever it may be.

His Story:

I spent 20 years in television mostly as a sports caster and news anchor in Oklahoma City. In doing so, I found myself working as a City Hall reporter covering city politics. In 1999, I left local television to start my own business, Mick Cornett Video Productions, which is a video production company that specializes in jobs for the legal and corporate sectors. During this time period, I also went back to my alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, to serve as a journalism professor.

In 2001, I returned to politics then ran for City Council for three years in pursuit of the Mayor’s seat. I was elected to my first term in February of 2004. Now, in my third term, I’ve held the position for seven years.

I’ve enjoyed my tenure as Mayor tremendously. I certainly don’t take credit for any of the accomplishments Oklahoma City has seen, but I proudly acknowledge that we are thriving. We have the lowest unemployment rate of any city in all of the U.S., our economy is flourishing, and we’ve been labeled an emerging city in a few different categories including sports and quality of life.

I can think of no major initiative that has failed while I’ve been mayor. I think our office has accomplished every goal we set out for. This isn’t because of me. The credit goes to all the men and women who work in City Council. Plus there’s a great deal of unity among the citizens. At the same time, however, we never allow ourselves to think we’ve achieved everything that needs to be done. There are still major issues that exist such as hunger, healthy living, and education.

The best part about being the mayor is that you’re in perfect position to make a real impact. So many politicians are well-meaning in the work that they do in public service, but they don’t feel like they can make a difference because politics stand in the way. This is what makes the mayor’s position unique; that you can really make a difference and get things done. Working together with the citizens and City Council, the Oklahoma City has been on a roll now for over ten years.

One of the highlights of my three terms as mayor has been working with the National Basketball Association to bring the NBA to Oklahoma City. In my effort to improve the brand of the city, I started going to New York to convince the NBA and NHL that we should be considered. I had some level of success and reception to the idea, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina hit that we got our opportunity. Damage from the storm forced the New Orleans Hornets to relocate. As they looked for a temporary home, my relationship with the NBA office served us well. The team stayed for two years. While they were there, we were able to prove that Oklahoma City is a profitable city for an NBA team. Then, when the Seattle Supersonics were searching for a new home, we were fortunate to have the team choose Oklahoma City as their permanent residency.

My least favorite part of the job is that it’s impossible to please everyone. You understand that not everybody is going to be happy with the decisions that you make. But the upside to this is that it forces you to confront and deal with really serious issues. I’ve been forced to have tough conversations and to get out of my comfort zone. There’s a huge amount of personal growth that comes out of this position.

Personal growth was the key factor in deciding to pursue an Executive MBA. That, coupled by the fact that I won’t be Mayor forever. I tend to think that whatever chapter is next, will lead me to something I can’t imagine today. I’m also a firm believer in lifelong learning. We should continue to pursue education our entire lives; I don’t think it’s something you ever complete.

With that said, I decided to go for the EMBA. But, I told myself that I would do it only if I could get into one of the top schools. At the top of my list were Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia, and NYU. I eliminated Stanford because I couldn’t take a direct flight to the Bay area. Then I visited Columbia and NYU and talked to people at both schools. What I noticed between the two was the age of the students. At NYU, the average age was 38; at Columbia, 33. I could see the maturity of the students at NYU and that was something that appealed to me. At the end of my trip to NYC, I decided I would apply. If I got into NYU, which was my first choice, then I was done searching. If not, then I’d apply to Chicago and UIC.

My experience at Stern has been wonderful. I find that the professors are extraordinarily talented. They have a way of making the material interesting and I find myself eager to come to class the next day. If the classes crept along and weren’t as stimulating as they are, I probably wouldn’t look forward to it as much. Furthermore, the way the professors teach makes me really respect what they do. I find it fascinating. The staff members at Stern also stand out for their outstanding service. They are very proactive and always seem to know what I’m going to need next.

As far as being a student, it had been 30 years since I’d last done this. I’d taken a variety of continuing education classes over the years, but nothing like this. Am I beyond my comfort level? Absolutely. Especially when I take courses like statistics. Here’s a class that I was afraid to take 30 years ago and now here I am taking it alongside men and women who are mathematicians in their everyday lives. Trying to compete with people with careers in finance and accounting and IT is intimidating, yet one of the advantages I do have is that I’d written so much as a journalist. When there are papers to be written or when we take courses like strategy, leadership, or entrepreneurship, I’m back on a level playing field.

Of all the classes I’ve taken at Stern, the most useful courses have been those dealing with strategy, leadership, and crisis management. In each case, I thought I knew a little something about the subject, but it turned out that the professors exceeded my expectations about what I would learn. I thought I had a certain level of knowledge, but everything I learned was new. I was amazed by how much I grew.

The most difficult courses for me were statistics, economics, and accounting. I was competing with a bright group of classmates, many of whom were experts in these areas. I’m taking statistics with mathematicians and I’m taking accounting with accountants. That’s not easy. But I chose this endeavor because I knew it would be a challenge. This is what attracted me to the EMBA.

My classmates are terrific and a group of highly talented individuals. They’re certainly aware of my role as Mayor, but most of them have never been to Oklahoma City so we’re talking about a place they haven’t seen. To this end, I enjoy the anonymity that I receive when I’m in NYC. Obviously, I’m treated differently in NYC than I am when I’m back home, but I like both. I’m well known and appreciated in Oklahoma, but at Stern I’m just another EMBA student.

Since I’ve been taking classes, there have been numerous occasions when I’ve been able to combine what’s taught in the classroom with my work as Mayor. From time to time I am confronted with business plans or I’m asked for advice from people who are interested in opening a business in Oklahoma City. The skills I’ve learned at Stern have allowed me to look at these plans in a whole new light. There’s a whole new level of questions to ask and risks to be prepared for. As Mayor, I also chair the audit committee. Having gone though the accounting class, I’m able to look at balance sheets and income statements and actually understand them.

My whole life has been an ever-increasing workload so I’ve learned to surround myself with really good people to help juggle all of it. Time management is key. It also helps if you love what you do. I may do a lot of things but, when you enjoy your work, you just crave for more.

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