Karen Diver: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairwoman Karen Diver shares her Top-10 list of the things she wished she knew before she took office as chairwoman of her nation, stressing the need for leaders to create capable governance systems and build capable staffs so that they focus on identifying and advancing nation-building priorities.

Resource Type

Diver, Karen. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 24, 2010. Presentation.

"We hear such good things from the Harvard Project and NNI. I've been so fortunate to be able to study with them in my academic career, have felt it has been really important to have my tribal council hear these messages of building systems. And with the Bush Foundation's help, actually investing in the tribes in the upper Midwest, I've been trying to go through some of this with my entire tribal council, and you are going to hear about that in some detail for two days. And I actually thought I'd take just a little different of a tact and give it to you just the way it meets you at the door every morning when you show up for work. And I was actually glad to see some of you in the room who are not yet elected officials, because hopefully a few of these things might be helpful to you.

The first one is around the line of getting a thick skin. The people who didn't vote for you -- some of them really hate your guts. Politics is personal in Indian Country, and after you win, there is no magic that will make them all of a sudden like you. They are going to keep hating you, and they didn't like you before and they are not going to like you now, and that's just the way it is. So get used to it. The other part of it is they are still your tribal members whether they like you or not, so it's your job to get over it, because they still deserve your time, attention, and your work as much as all of the rest of them, so you need to own the fact that they have a right to their feelings, but you still have a job to do.

Number nine on my Top 10 list: Some of the people that hate your guts, they are your relatives. 50-50, maybe. You are going to get taken off the Christmas card list. Some of your relatives think things will be different for them when you get elected because that's the way it used to be. 'Let's elect someone from our family, now we can get stuff.' Well, if you're really about the changing of the government and the way it serves the people, part of that is prepping your family beforehand to let them know that you plan on governing differently and they need to change their expectations, and if they cared about you and the tribe they wouldn't put you in that position. Some of those relatives? It doesn't matter -- you are not going to change their mind. They still think you should give them stuff. Prepare yourself, some of the family gatherings will be a tad uncomfortable.

Number eight: Too many people will want your time. Period. Tribal members, of course, have to be a priority. The federal agencies, especially with [President] Obama making tribal governments and communities such a priority, you could actually spend 100 percent of your time consulting with the feds, because there is something happening weekly where they want tribal consultation and they want elected tribal leaders there, not necessarily staff. The local jurisdictions will come calling. Of course, they see us doing well and building stable communities, basically most of them want to dip in your pocketbook because although they didn't do crap for you the last 100 years, now that you are doing okay, they think they deserve some of that. Prepare yourself. You have all of your employees, and then you will be just lousy with vendors wanting to sell you stuff. Once again, they haven't been a part of building tribal communities' success, but they will sure as hell be wanting to sell you something now. Now where else in America would a vendor think it is appropriate to call the CEO or governor directly and not try to work through one of the staff? But people don't get Indian Country and our level of responsibility, so you need a good gate-keeper to help you prioritize all of this. Obviously, your tribal members, your employment, the people that you need to do your work everyday -- don't feel bad for telling someone, 'No.' They don't get face time with you. You get to decide that, and you don't have to justify it. I have a guy that does that -- you need to talk to them first. Prioritize your time. Well, you might think I'm being a little harsh, or maybe a little high on my horse, but there is work to be done. Is that 15-20 minutes you're getting pitched for office chairs really going to make a difference at the end of the week? No. Prioritize your time and you don't have to feel bad about it.

Top 10, number seven: This is one of my favorite sayings, and I'll admit that I'm guilty of it myself, because we had a real stable government for about 20 years, and then we had about four years where it was different. And whether you thought it was good or bad, it changed a lot of things, people weren't always happy, and then we had a turnover again -- a lot of people who ran on a change agenda. It doesn't matter that I didn't like what was there before I was there, because it's on my plate right now and I need to own it. You only get about six months to a year of saying, 'Well, the previous council did that.' Well, you are the council now, are you going to whine about it or are you going to do something about it? Right? It's on your plate and you need to own it, and if you ran or it's your priority that it should be changed, then get to work because it's yours now. And when you come up for that re-election, that argument of 'I've been here for two or four years but the previous council did it' -- no one is going to buy it, it's yours.

Top 10, number six: Admit what you don't know. The breadth of tribal government is so huge: environmental, public safety, education -- there is no magic wand that makes you know all of this stuff once you are elected. I keep saying that, you know, 'I got the title, we got a nice little meal, but nobody gave me the magic wand to fix all of that.' Well, your magic wand is the people you bring in to help you and the ones that are there already. I have environmental experts. I expect them to teach me and be a good voice. Mostly what I can do for them is advocate for them. If I'm sitting with the EPA and my top notch environmental staff is there, my job is to tell the EPA, 'You listen to my people because they are advocating for my tribe.' You back them up. You don't have to do it.

Also, when you're bringing in people, it's not always your staff. You bring in advisors -- some of them are vendors that are coming around now and want to sell you on all kinds of stuff, but you also have legal council right? You might bring in a financial consultant to look at fees or some things like that. Remember that when advisors give you advice, they don't make a decision. You don't have to listen to them. Their job is to teach you so you understand. Their motive is supposed to be to help you, and to help you learn and grow and make a good decision. If they are telling you what to do, get new advisors. I had an argument with an attorney once and he was saying, 'You know, I really don't agree with this decision, we've been going down this path.' I'm like and I explained. 'This is what I understand.' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'The way I look at it, this keeps you in the job for a little bit longer. Adjust, advocate for your client's opinion, or get the hell out.' You're paying him. Are you going to pay him to argue with you? No, you pay him to teach you and help you make a good decision, so keep your head about it. Just remember that it is not a weakness to ask for help. It is a weakness to not seek that help out and not get what you don't know. Ask the questions, teach yourself.

Number five, and this one may sound like a stupid one. Maybe it's geared more towards chairs and presidents: Read your own mail. Yeah, you're prioritizing: all these people are coming in, you will get so much email and mail, it's just crazy. I find out so much really cool stuff reading my own mail, I know it sounds kind of silly but it's true. I heard for years that there wasn't a chairman that didn't open their own mail. Well, guess what? You sign almost every grant and contract that goes out of your agency. Guess who official communication comes to? You. It might say HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and you might not even open it and route it over to the housing director or maybe you'll have your secretary do it, and maybe that letter told you that you were non-compliant in 72 different areas, and they were thinking about putting you on probation and sending somebody in to do something. You don't know. It helps me hold my staff accountable, it helps me set their priorities because I hear about opportunities that are coming up, we are able to have a seat at the table because we will be able to delegate that and send someone to it. By the time it gets routed -- I don't know how big everybody is, everybody's different, I have 2,000 employees -- by the time it gets where it needs to go, that might have been a time passed. There is a reason they are communicating with the chair. You prioritize whether they get your time and attention or not, but at least you know what to expect out of the people around you.

Number four on my Top 10 list of things: Keep political drama away from your staff. Whether I'm a council of five -- some of you have larger councils -- your staff, a lot of them will last longer than you in their positions, and a lot of them have been there longer than you have been there. They deliver services to your tribal members, they are knowledgeable about your different systems, whether they are education, whether they are health and human services. None of them deserve to feel vulnerable in their positions just because their leadership has changed. They are your assets. You let them do their job and they don't feel like quitting, or god forbid somebody gets elected who hates them and they are trying to fire them. Having good people around you makes you look good. It's a fact. Keep the drama away from them. People work because they have real lives and real bills. They shouldn't go home from work at four or five o'clock and really worry about whether or not they are going to be able to pay their bills because they don't know if they are going to have a job next week. That is not conducive to doing their best job, and if you care about your people, you don't undermine the system that serves them. 

Number three on my list: Being on tribal council doesn't need to be a way of life. And I've heard that for years, 'It's way of life. You're on call 24/7.' Well, no I'm not. When I get home, I'm a wife, a mother, a daughter. That's not to say I won't pick up my phone if you need me, but I've just been at work from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30, 6:00 o'clock. Boundaries, people! We are elected officials, not your mother. But first of all, you have to show up for work, and no offense to anybody, but we've seen the people that don't show up to work. This is a job. They are expecting you to do a job. If you are there and you treat it like a job, you can have people teach them to have the boundaries that treat it like a job. What I tell people is, when I get home at 6:00 and I'm being a wife and a mother and all those other things, that keeps me healthy, so when I'm back there at 7:00 in the morning I can do my best job for you. It's changing the perceptions of how people see tribal council. I am not there to fix your whole life. I'm there to run your government and create systems that help you do the best you can. But I am not your social worker, your therapist, your bail-you-out-of-jail, your fill-your-propane-tank-at-two-in-the-morning person. You need to keep some boundaries. First of all, so you can be healthy and do that best job. Otherwise, who wants to do this work? But most of all, it is because tribal council is what you do, and it's not who you are. Keep in mind who you are, because it is your heart that will serve your people. Don't let them wear it out.

Number two (I'm amost done): Communication matters. Talk to your people in as many formats and ways that you can. We actually had quarterly open meetings, we started doing them monthly. I was actually elected to a partial term in the beginning, so I was like a vulnerable candidate right off the bat. It was the worst year and a half of my life. I got yelled at frequently by some of the people who hated me, but it didn't matter. I sat there once a month and I let people tell me what they needed to say and I listened. But there was never a question -- unless it was about personnel matters or legal matters -- it didn't matter whether they snarled that question at me or not, I sat there and I answered it and I did it with respect. I started putting a column in our monthly paper. I actually did a column recently. It was one of my best, well-received columns of 'Rumors I've heard around the Rez: Is the grapevine accurate or not?' 'You gave yourself a big raise.' 'No, we didn't. We have a committee of citizens who set our salaries, we're still following it. Number two...,' and I went through all the rumors that I had heard. People appreciated that, you know, I didn't let the grapevine get out of hand and let it spread. But basically that there was nothing that was sacred. If you wanted to know, this was your government, then you deserve to know. And you can stop all of the political behind-the-scenes stuff just by telling people, 'You can ask me. Ask me as often as you want and I'll answer you in a public way.'

And my oumber one on my Top 10 of What I Wish I Would Have Known, and this one actually came in handy, and I think I borrowed it from a movie line. I can't tell you which one. I told people in that first year and a half I was going to focus on doing my job instead of keeping my job. I had to run for re-election and I was actually okay with not winning, but I had that year and half, and I was going to make it matter. Because if I didn't get four more, there was some things I wanted to accomplish, and that was cutting off some of the graft that was going out of the door. That was political freebies in the forms of emergency assistance, comping rooms, all kinds of stuff. I wasn't going to be a part of a system that did that, because I actually think I managed the people's resources, and if I can't share them equitably, I wasn't going to do it at all, and it meant telling a lot of people, 'No.' Some of them people who hate my guts, who were really loud, yelling at me once a month. But I needed to do a job, but I always did it with the most respect I could. What I told people is, 'I'm not going to comp hotel rooms, because if I can't do it for all 4,300 of my members, then I can't do it for you.' And it's a business. We're supposed to fill it up with people who pay. 'No, I can't give you an emergency food voucher, because that's a hundred dollars, and unless I can give every single band member a hundred dollars, then I can't do it for you. But what I can do is set up a program at social services.' Because there's a bigger story here. 'You're having an emergency need, right? Something got you to this point where you have an emergency? Somebody needs to hear your story, because there might be a bigger fix we can help you with. And I can give you food today, but how can I make sure you're not going to be hungry again in two weeks? And unless I hear that story, then I'm doing you a favor, I'm not providing you a service, and I would rather provide you a service.' So it's not just saying 'No,' it's telling people you care enough, but I'm actually building the institutions that provide that safety net for our people back home. But it's fair and it's equitable, and it doesn't matter if your last name matches mine or not. Your job is to build the systems of governance, and you heard that from the slides earlier. Build systems of government. It's not about making decisions, just decisions. You can make a list and check everything off everyday, but have you created an equitable and just and transparent system where everybody knows how to play by the rules? Too often we think we have to solve that thing that's happening right there in front of us now so it goes away and I can get on to the next thing. No, sometimes 'No' is the best answer because you can step back and think, 'Is this a part of a bigger picture that needs fixing?' That's where you get the lack of transparency, the lack of consistency and the perception by the tribal members that things aren't done fair, because they weren't done by the systems, they were done by the decisions.

So with that, that is my Top-10 list of practical advice that either one, bit me in the butt already and I learned a lesson, or we've learned from being there, that tribal members appreciate in terms of doing a good job."

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