By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript, Okla.
Natalie Shirley is a working mom. She is also Oklahoma’s Secretary of Education and Workforce Development and the president of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City since 2011, the first female president in the OSU system.
“Some nights the kids eat tacos,” Shirley told the crowd during her keynote speech at the Norman Women’s Leadership Luncheon on Friday at the Assistance League of Norman.
It’s not all work and no family for Shirley, however, as she finds ways to create quality time with her family.
“I’m very good at mixing things,” she said.
If a child needs some one-on-one, she makes them come along on one of her twice daily, mile and a half walks with their very large dog.
Those walks allow for private conversations. She also makes sure they eat some meals together. She isn’t much of a cook, but she’s mastered five breakfasts.
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“I make a huge breakfast for my children every day because I want to lay eyes on them,” Shirley said.
The theme of Shirley’s keynote speech was leadership. Want to advance at work? Be willing to raise your hand and volunteer, even if you have a family, even if it’s tough.
“I’m not sure I buy off on this balance thing,” she said. “I just lower my head and get after it.”
Besides her incredible work ethic — she said she only needs about five hours of sleep a night — Shirley attributes her leadership success to experience.
“I’ve been leading organizations for almost 40 years,” she said.
At age 19 she became the director of the swimming program during summer camp.
“One of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned was at that swimming pool,” she said. That lesson still informs her leadership.
“Leadership is about people, and people are the same the world over,” she said.
That summer at camp, Shirley had to sort through who could swim and who couldn’t. If you could swim you could go sailing and do other water activities, so she lined everyone up and asked who could swim swim down and back across the pool.
Those who could, raised their hands. The others were sent to swim lessons. Those who raised their hands swam across the pool and once they passed the test were cleared for diving and sailing and other water activities, no big deal.
The system was working well until about the third week when a bunch of kids came from the inner city.
She asked who could swim, and everyone raised their hands. She lined them up, like all the other groups, and told them to swim across the pool.
Most of them nearly drowned.
What Shirley didn’t realize is that inner city kids were not going to admit they didn’t know how to do something. For all they knew, admitting they couldn’t swim might mean they had to get on the bus and go back home.
She had failed to give them a way to save face, and when they failed, she had not given them a soft landing.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then, but none of them was quite as powerful,” she said.
Leadership is about more than professional positions.
“Most of us travel in and out of leadership throughout our lives,” she said. “Each of you is a leader in some area.”
As a leader, Shirley picks team members whose talents will complement hers.
“I specifically hire people who are capable of leading me in areas where I’m not an expert,” she said.
Different issues require different skills, and she has several tools she uses in leadership from humor and timing, to her scary mom voice.
“The last tool in my toolbox is a blunt instrument,” she said.
While there are many obstacles out there, Shirley said we can be our own biggest obstacle.
“I learned a long time ago that when I lost my temper, I lost control,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she never uses “an apparent emotional response” in given situations.
At one point in her position with OSU, she had to fire some faculty who were using their work computers to pass around pornography.
“I wanted to send a message that there were things I was going to handle swiftly and brutally,” she said
In another instance, there was an employee who made a mistake that needed to be dealt with, but Shirley was hoping to give her a second chance while making it clear this was the last chance.
She set a meeting with the woman in three weeks, leaving her to stew. Then, while she knew the employee expected to be “yelled at” instead Shirley firmly counseled her and let her know this was the last chance to get it right.
Shirley said that women may not be lacking in leadership, but they often hold themselves back according to a recent study. She started in a male-dominated profession and worked and joked and cussed with the guys until they quit seeing her as “a skirt.”
“I will outwork you,” she said. “The reality is we (women) still just have to work harder. … There will come a day when we don’t.”
Being a working mother is a genuine challenge, she said, but you just have to do it. Working part time will not keep you in the game at the same level.
“It’s always a trade-off,” she said. “It can be done with a family.”
Shirley lived in Norman when she was first married and realized other people — like her husband — need more sleep than she does.
Still, she thinks women are up to the challenge of leadership if they don’t hold themselves back.
“Never think it’s not worth it, because it is,” she said. “I try to play at the intersection of expectations and reality.”
Shirley served as Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Tourism for former Gov. Brad Henry and has served as the executive director of the Department of Commerce, as well as president of ICI Mutual, an insurance company.
The purpose of the Norman Chamber of Commerce Women’s Leadership group is to gather local female leaders together to learn, grow and thrive as business persons.