What It Means to Serve
Women in Local Leadership

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In roles such as mayor, city council president and city administrator,  many women are leaders in Rochester. Some didn’t expect or plan to be a leader, but others always dreamed of it.

What is your background?

Kim Norton, Rochester mayor,  remembers, “I was so involved in  volunteering and the PTA.” She ran for school board because she wanted to see things run better and was on the board for eight years. Later, Norton was a state representative for 10 years, after which,  “The door was open to run for mayor, so I  ran. I was blessed to be elected.”

Brooke Carlson, city council president,  started a health and human services consulting firm, North Sky Health  Consulting, more than eight years ago.  “My previous roles helped me understand many of the key issues we are facing in our community, especially during COVID-19,”  notes Carlson. “These roles, along with  my skills in community engagement,  collaborative leadership, policy development  and facilitation, as well as a lot of great  women mentors, prepared me to run.”

Stephanie Podulke, vice chair of Olmsted  County Commissioners, explains, “We moved to Rochester to open our studio,  Rochester Stained Glass. I worked for 20  years in the field of behavioral health and  social services for youth.” She also became an in-home family therapist and worked in that field for 15 years.

Alison Zelms, Rochester city administrator,  has worked in city leadership roles for 20  years and has a master’s degree in public administration focused on local government management. “I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to learn and collaborate over the years,” Podulke notes. “I like a  challenge and enjoy solving problems, so I  often had the opportunity to step into project  roles or interim leadership opportunities.”

Heidi Welsch, Olmsted County  Administrator, has a doctorate in public administration and has worked in government at the city, metropolitan and state levels. “I have always worked in public agencies because the mission of serving the community is meaningful to me. I served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, as a young adult and worked on community projects,” she explains. Welsch has been in Olmsted County for eight years and has been the administrator for four years.

What do you enjoy or find rewarding about your role?

Norton says, “I love problem-solving and working with people of like minds. I  love learning. I love meeting with people  and listening to people and attending  community events.”

Carlson explains, “It is truly an honor  to represent our whole community and  connect regularly with so many residents  throughout the city—many of whom have not  traditionally been part of policy-making.”

Says Podulke, “Serving on the county board is an ongoing education in people,  politics, business, environmental issues,  trash, elections, taxes, public safety and public health. I enjoy learning how all  of our lives are woven together in an  interdependent web.”

“I love working with people,” explains  Zelms. “Seeing people, places and the economy become more vibrant is rewarding.  I really enjoy watching connections be made  in the community and seeing initiatives  succeed that positively impact people.”

Welsch says, “People (including me)  who are drawn to public service find great  meaning in working on projects and issues  that are important to the community, even  though it’s often very difficult work.”

What does leadership mean to you?

Norton says, “It’s providing the vision and seeing who’s got the talents and skills to do it. We can be there, bring people  together and form partnerships.”

“It means holding strong to core values to guide decisions,” says Carlson. “It  means setting aside any personal interest  or concern about my own career to make  decisions I believe align with these values,  based on the information I have available  to me.”

Podulke says that she sees leadership as listening to staff, being inspired by particular ideas, deciding on how to initiate projects, approaching other commissioners for input, telling the truth,  being patient but determined and giving credit where it’s due.

Zelms says, “It means being willing to make the hard calls when they come up, taking responsibility for things that don’t go well  and working hard to overcome challenges and find a pathway toward success.

Welsch notes, “I believe that public administration is a calling to serve others. My  job is to serve both the elected representatives  of the people and the staff in a way that  provides best service to the community.”

Words of wisdom?

“Don’t be afraid to go out and try new things. You can learn and understand roles before going into office. Get experience so when you’re ready, you can run,” suggests Norton.

Carlson notes, “It’s important to have compassion for people and their experiences and to really listen to what people have to say. We all have shared  values as a starting place for connection  and discussion.”

People (including me)  who are drawn to public  service find great meaning  in working on projects and  issues that are important  to the community, even  though it’s often very difficult  work. -Heidi Welsch

“I try to integrate the Four Agreements in all I do: knowing people can trust my word, not making assumptions, not taking things personally and doing the best I can with each day’s opportunities,”  says Podulke.

“Don’t let having never done something before keep you from taking risks and putting yourself out there,” suggests  Zelms. “Every new experience prepares  you for the next surprise.”

How do you handle the naysayers?

“If you get into politics, you have to have a thick skin. You need armor and friends,”  says Norton.

“Many issues we’re dealing with affect people in personal ways, and reactions can be very passionate,” explains Carlson. “I  understand the passion, and I am committed to listening to see how I can help. However,  I request that people treat me with the same  respect I promise to show them.”

“It is important to listen to naysayers,”  says Podulke. “They can point out where  I am in danger of causing unintended  consequences of my efforts.” “I appreciate different opinions and work hard to listen without judgment and to find whether there are points of agreement or ideas to incorporate,”  explains Zelms.

Welsch explains, “Sometimes the best decisions for the county and the community are decisions that change lives in ways that are extremely difficult. I  always work hard to make the best possible  decisions for the community.”

What does it mean to you being a woman in this position?

Norton explains, “I didn’t run because  I was a woman. I ran for the issues. It’s an  honor to be able to do this.”

“I’m grateful every day for the women who paved this road for women to be in office today,” shares Carlson. “We do  have a long way to go in acknowledging  the mental, emotional and physical load  many women carry.” Carlson hopes to keep being transparent about her experience in this role while raising two sons and running a small business.

Zelms considers, “With many of  our elected and appointed leaders in  Rochester being women, I get to ensure  that those other woman leaders have  a network and platform to bring their  talents forward and help ensure that  Rochester continues to thrive, building  on the success of the past and new ideas  for the future.”

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About Author

Alison is a writer and editor living in Rochester, Minnesota, with her dog and cat.

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