Interview with 2019 Keynote Speaker Bonnie St. John

We're looking forward to hearing from Bonnie St. John, our Tuesday morning keynote speaker at the 2019 Annual Conference.

Oct 22, 2019 | ARTICLE

In addition to her success as a Paralympic athlete, Bonnie St. John is a Fortune 500 business consultant, Rhodes Scholar, former White House official, and best-selling author. St. John’s most recent book, Micro Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive and Energy, outlines tools and techniques to give you a competitive edge in today’s dynamic world of changes and challenges. We were eager to chat with her before the conference to hear how her message translates to local government management.

How can local government managers use the principles from your book, Micro Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive and Energy, to help make life better for the residents they serve? What are some specific lessons to keep in mind when it comes to public service?

Local government managers need micro-resilience because they are pulled in so many directions and deal with critical issues that affect real people every day. Small hacks can help managers to be less mentally drained, to be less exhausted by the inevitable series of local emergencies, and to tap into the power of purpose. Managers can combat decision fatigue, for example, by simplifying their routines, using checklists, and avoiding critical decisions when hungry or tired. Even though serving a community provides an obvious sense of purpose, it’s easy to get burned out from all the demands. Create a picture or a phrase to remind yourself of why you entered public service and put it on your screen saver, your phone’s wallpaper, or other places you will see it frequently. Having this small touchpoint can give you an energy lift in the middle of a tough day.

In your work with everyone from Paralympic athletes…to the White House…to start-ups, you’ve emphasized the importance of having a strategy to be adaptable as things change in life (which they inevitably do). How can this be translated to local government and how they serve their residents?

People in all walks of life struggle with the sheer volume of change in today’s society—and local government is a hotbed for these challenges. In Micro-Resilience, we developed a solution we call a “Joy Kit.” It’s like having a first-aid kit for your attitude; a font from which to draw positive energy whenever you need it. Some people use a drawer in their desk at work, a file on their computer, or a section on their smart phone where they go to access their Joy Kit. Whatever the container, fill your kit with things that immediately bring you joy—pictures of a happy place or loved ones, a jar of sand from your favorite vacation, a recording of your dog barking, etc. Every Joy Kit is unique to the user. It is important to note that the photos and mementos we have on our desks or on the walls around us are things that we see all the time; we become immune to them. A Joy Kit holds items we pull out and apply only as needed. If you can turn your own attitude around, you will certainly have more patience, more energy, and more inclination to open yourself up for more creative problem solving that will certainly better serve your constituents.

More and more, women are becoming a driving force in local government, but there are still more men than women in local government management positions. Are there any lessons found in your book, How Great Women Lead, that can speak to the rising female local government manager?

One thing my daughter and I learned while writing How Great Women Lead was the importance of finding one’s own voice. People often ask whether women lead in a certain way, and the reality is that we lead in a wider variety of ways than men do. Women rarely lead in the traditionally male style of tops down or command and control…partly because it isn’t always received well when a woman does it. Marin Alsop, the first woman to conduct a major orchestra in the U.S., talked about how she can’t even wave a baton in the same way a man does. Sharon Allen, the first woman Chairman of Deloitte, emphasized that women who go against their own personality and try to imitate a stereotypical male style don’t tend to do well. Women have to find their own ways of leading which actually frees them to innovate. Some women rely more on data and their quantitative skills for persuasion, while others use more collaboration-building to be effective. We interviewed a number of women in government-related fields including an activist in Mexico, Denise Dresser; Secretary of the EPA, Lisa Jackson; Ambassador Susan Rice; Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and others.

Darcy, my daughter, said at the end of our interviews with more than 20 women, “Every woman was both a leader and exactly herself. That actually shocked me. It profoundly changed me to meet them, see how they lived, and hear what formed their core values—whether it was the death of a parent like Denise Dresser, or training to be a chemical engineer like Lisa Jackson. Each person’s personal experience shaped them and made them a great leader in a different way.”

Your work takes you all over the globe, but everyone has a place they call home. How do you engage in your local community to make it a place you enjoy living in?

A few years ago, we moved into what had been our vacation home high up in the Catskill mountains. It’s an extremely rural area, so local politics are very local. We once voted for a friend of ours when she ran for town supervisor and she won by only 10 votes! So, Allen and I take our engagement with the community seriously. We attend meetings, support candidates, and do everything we can to participate.