Keynote: Women in Public Service conference

Hello everyone. It’s great to be here with you today. Thank you for your invitation to reflect on my career in public service, things I have learned and some thoughts for women looking at futures in public service.

Public service has taught me so much about women in leadership roles and fine-tuned skills that I use not only at work, but at home!

I have spent the past 28 years of my career in public service. The first 26 years with the Public Health Service – Indian Health Service and the past 2 ½ years as President/CEO of Blandin Foundation. For the first 48 years of my life, I was happily single and then married – what a change! My husband, ex-marine and avid fisherman, has a certain way of doing things – as do I! I have utilized negotiating skills and crafted compromise – no doubt about that!

Public service – we enter, I entered, wanted to make a positive difference, to do good – to have a part in healthy, vibrant growth of our communities.

Ladies, the leadership skills and unique perspectives that we bring do make all that happen.

I know from personal experience that the so-called “soft skills” many of us possess – the ability to build consensus, to craft compromise, an instinct for inclusion, and a desire to nurture and mentor youth and talent – these skills are not signs of weakness but a source of great strength.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

I have this quote hanging on my wall. Doesn’t that sound like many of us? You’d never know that’s a quote from the great Sioux warrior Sitting Bull.

We often say at the Blandin Foundation that leadership is something you have to do yourself but you can’t do it alone. I know that as leaders you have a wealth of experience to contribute.

Leaders are people who get things done. It doesn’t matter if we are part of a big organization with many employees or in a remote office – maybe in rural Minnesota. We have important roles to play as the communities we serve become more vibrant, resilient, healthy.

Public service is not for the faint hearted.

It takes leaders who understand and commit to the missions of our organizations. Public service takes leaders who have a vision for where we could be, listen and work with our communities as decisions are made, learn from challenging experiences, and there will be challenges, and who work hard, because there is always much to do!

As women, we know what hard work is, and you know what they say about Ginger Rogers – she did everything Fred Astaire did – only backwards and in high heels.

And for those of us who serve the public, we also carry the responsibilities of stewardship and always a sense of urgency. We dance, if you will, with fervor and a strong hope for a positive change in the world.

Both as CEO of Blandin Foundation and in my 26 years with the Indian Health Service, I have seen, over and over again, that in order for the communities we serve to change, there must be hope!

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/and sings the tune without words/and never stops at all.”

Hope is believing that a different future is possible, for ourselves, our girls, our boys, our communities. Hope is being able to imagine what the future might be.

Wise leaders know that creating a shared vision for the future, a vision arising and embraced by the community, is the engine that powers change. People with hope accomplish amazing things.

In 2005, a 16 year old at Red Lake High School shot and killed 10 people and injured a dozen more. I was the lead in coordinating the Department of Health and Human Services response on the ground.

As an American Indian physician, senior executive and public servant, I saw the immediate challenges and needs. As a member of that community for years – growing up, graduating from Red Lake High School – I felt the pain and saw the raw emotions all around me…but leadership was needed – immediately.

Even in those days of terrible tragedy were the seeds of hope – the absolute commitment to protect the children, the urgency to comfort the families and community, the necessity to get the school back together, to create a promising future. The tribe, federal, state and private partners – we used all our leadership skills to work with and assist the community heal and emerge stronger than before – resilient and hopeful.

As women leaders in public service you have stories – your own stories in how you contribute your leadership to strengthen people, families, communities.

What would I say to young women contemplating leadership in public service?

1)      Roll-up your sleeves, this is hard, magnificent work.

2)      Be prepared to bring proudly to any table the special and unique skills that each of you possess.

  • Listening
  • Consensus-making
  • Ability to craft compromise
  • Inclusion
  • Mentoring

3)      Be committed, bring passion.

4)      Fan hope

5)      Face challenges and learn from them.

Public service is an honor and privilege and well worth it.

Celebrate successes – and there will be many.

Women leaders – we can and we do make amazing differences.

Thank you!