Oneida Nation Business Committee Secretary Patricia Ninham-Hoeft reflects on her experience as a leader of her nation, and shares a list of the five leadership skills she wished she had mastered before she took office.
Ninham-Hoeft, Patricia. "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 25, 2008. Presentation.
"Good morning. My name's Patty Hoeft. I'm the Tribal Secretary on the Oneida Business Committee, which is a nine-member committee that's elected every three years. We are facing elections this July, and it's my first time serving for my tribe and so I'm entering or finishing up my third year. Why I ran for tribal secretary is something that I always wanted to do since I was a kid, and I always wanted to be on the Oneida Business Committee. My mother served three terms on the Business Committee and she and another woman founded Oneida Bingo back in the mid "˜70s, and so I've always been involved in tribal politics. But the situation I inherited or stepped into when I won was very different than what I thought it would be. I thought that before getting elected that I was energetic and enthusiastic and I had big dreams and I was going to help make positive changes. I was going to help deal with the frustration that has been running through my community for the past 10, 15 years or so, and right now we're seeing that frustration I think starting to climax a bit. I'm hoping it's climaxing, and I think the frustration is just from tribal members who want more from their tribe or expect better performance from the Business Committee or the people that they elect. So I came to the job, took my oath with all of those ideas, and instead after three years I find myself in tears wanting to quit, wanting to rip out the part of me that feels Oneida and walk away from it. I feel very overwhelmed and it's been very hard and so I've been trying to search for reasons to explain why it's that way, because it's not just that way for me. My mother talked about it all through her terms, and I remember the difficulties she had -- nine years on the council -- and the people that would come up to her and asking her, "˜Sandy, you can solve this, do something about it.' And when she didn't, even me, her daughter, turned my back on her, and I find myself in that situation now: dear friends of mine feeling disappointed in what I didn't do or didn't do enough of.
So things that I wanted to talk about that I think I would have liked to have known before I ran I think start with leadership skills, and the second area are roles and responsibilities of the council itself and the importance of visioning and strategy setting. As tribal secretary, I came into a job that has a dual role. It's both a management position because I am supervising a staff and we have a specific function to carry out, a constitutional function, and that's to organize the council's meetings, take the minutes, maintain the official record, and do that not only for the council but for the General Tribal Council. And the General Tribal Council is when 75 voter-eligible members come together for a meeting and they form the council, which in the last couple of years has been setting the course for what's happening in Oneida. I'm the tribal secretary. My dual role, I have to be a manager, an administrator, and also a leader on the council, a policy maker. As the tribal secretary, I inherited the staff, I inherited a staff that was not content with their position. We had complaints about the individual performance of staff. We had complaints about the function of the office itself, that it wasn't performing. And so I came in with a vision for the tribal secretary's office based on my background as a journalist. I worked as a newspaper reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette for a few years and covered the tribe a little bit, and always the frustration is the lack of openness and transparency in Oneida. So I really saw the tribal secretary's office and function as a way to start initiating good government ideas. How to make sure that the business and the affairs of the council, of the government, were available and open to the constituency that we served.
So leadership skills? There are five of them that I think that I wish that I had spent more time knowing more about before I took the job. They seem to be five that I stumbled across throughout the last three years that I saw myself, I think, naturally engaging in. The first is a catalyst. It's leading innovations and managing change. It's skill in motivating and promoting change. It's being future orientated and inspiring and having a vision. And I see myself when I first took office as really taking a catalyst role, coming in and changing a mindset, changing expectations and changing...challenging the status quo. And so a lot of that meant motivating others, persuading them to understand what I was seeing, and trying to persuade them to jump on and help me pursue this vision.
The next is collaboration, and that's building community through inspiration, empowerment and really working together in partnership with not just my fellow peers on the Business Committee, but also the tribal constituency themselves. And I felt, growing up in Oneida, that a lot of times things were done in a vacuum, ideas were done in a vacuum. And so this was a way to kind of try to find ways to reach out in helping people help themselves. And I think the collaboration skill is important because there seems to be, in Oneida at least, this dependency mindset, that everybody sits back and they wait for the Business Committee to solve all the problems and come up with all the answers, and it's really trying to tell people that my role as an elected official is merely to represent and reflect the will of the people, that it's up to you to organize at a grassroots level and come up with ideas and then together we will put them into action.
A communicator is the next skill, learning how to deal with interpersonal relations, how to be in a public speaking situation, and also how to deal with personal attacks, and verbal judo I think is a course that I would recommend for anyone because the attacks come from all over the place, and I've learned just recently after surviving a round of personal attacks that how I reacted really helped move it into a more positive path. And I think that starts, too, with having self-discipline over your own emotions, that you really have to hang on to your gut and have faith that it will pass and it will get better, and so that's been really important. In fact there was one evening where I stayed up I think until 3:00 a.m. searching the internet for verbal judo lessons to get through a round of attacks.
The next is just be a competent practitioner, knowing the difference between effective governance and managing and having knowledge about the tribal, your tribes' rules and processes and culture, the constitution, the by-laws, ordinances. And you also need to know the rules of the surrounding municipalities that you will interact with.
And then the last one, the fifth one, is just personal, the cornerstone of personal leadership, growth and development. These are things that I've been dealing with in a personal way and it's my tone. I came in as I said very enthusiastic, I was going to make change, I was going to challenge the status quo and I wasn't afraid to do that and I wasn't going to take any prisoners, and so my tone was very angry and harsh. And when I realized -- after coming down from some of these episodes -- that I was dealing with people who I grew up with. I was dealing with older folks who were my mentors when I was a kid and here I was using this harsh tone on them and not realizing that we all make mistakes and that we're all trying the best we can. So over the last three years -- and I'm still having difficulty with it -- is trying to temper my tone so that it's more productive and still passionate, but not so damaging. And having patience I think, where you're in it for the long haul, that the big changes I thought were going to happen I'm going to have to settle for small ones and be satisfied with that. But having patience that it will work out. And then making sure that when you make decisions that you're able to live with yourself about them and that you choose your battles wisely.
Leadership skills, and there's five of them that I think are ones that I wished I would have spent more time honing before I took office, but it's the catalyst and it's collaboration, communicator, competent practitioner, and the cornerstone of your own personal leadership and development. Then I just wish our council spent more time early on getting to know each other. When we first came together, it seemed that we spent a couple of days kind of having a really quick overview of the tribe as an organization itself, trying to see what departments and divisions were doing, but then it seemed like the nine people just broke up and everyone went their individual ways. I think it would be important that when you start that you sit down and you clarify roles and responsibilities with each other and expectations -- not just as a council as a whole, but each individual person on it. And then learning to identify the kinds of decisions that the council is expected to make, because there are decisions that the council shouldn't make, but people would like you to make them. And knowing the difference between governing and oversight and setting direction versus getting involved in the day-to-day matters and micromanaging. That's a tough one, and I think it stymies a lot of folks in knowing the difference between it. I see extremes. I see some council members who say, "˜I'm not getting involved in day-to-day matters,' and so they also throw out the responsibility of oversight. Let managers decide that. Well, there's a difference and I think knowing...talking about it upfront so that everyone's clear is important. And then group think, learning what group think is, how to avoid it, how to set up a process among your council so that it's okay to speak out and disagree with each other and that speaking out doesn't mean that you're disloyal to the group or that you're trying to shake up the balance of good feelings that everybody has, but that it's important to disagree.
Then I also wish that our council spent more time getting a comprehensive look at the organization itself and focusing on visioning and strategy, "˜cause too often today we get caught up in the bickering and the fighting and the power struggles, and it's like...it's these power and control struggles. It's like playing Monopoly with family once a year and everybody comes to the table with their own set of rules and you never get to finish the game "˜cause you're all bickering over what the rules are. It's really important I think to come together and look at the organization and find out what do we do and how are we doing and who do we serve.
There are just so many things I think in Oneida that we're responsible for as elected leaders, so many services. There's public safety, long-term care, health care, environmental protection, land use and planning, relationships with surrounding municipalities. Then you have investments, you have the annual budget and then you have the golden goose for Oneida is our gaming operation and knowing how to manage that. It's sitting down in the beginning and getting a good comprehensive look at all of that before you start off I think is important.
Bottom line is you can't do it alone, that change is slow and I wish I would have started small. I wish I would have valued relationships more in the beginning. I'm trying to go back and repair some of those things. Learning to fight the right fights, knowing when to fight is important. And visioning -- trying to get the council to focus on visioning versus managing, and really trying to answer the question, 'What do we want to be 100 years from today?' And for Oneida, we're eight miles west of the City of Green Bay, and we're surrounded by municipalities and we have a major fight with a village that lies entirely within our reservation boundaries and they just hired an Indian fighter from the CERA [Citizens Equal Rights Alliance] group. I forgot what that stands for, Equal Rights Alliance. So we've got some major battles ahead but it's exciting, I'm glad to be a part of it and I just know it will...I just have faith it will work out. Thank you."