Leadership Interview – Tina Smith, Pt. 2

[This is part 2 about my interview with Tina Smith. For part 1, click here]

First, a little bit of background information about Tina Smith:

Smith graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in political science in 1980. After she received her MBA from Dartmouth College in 1984, she moved to Minnesota to start her first job with General Mills. Then she worked at Marketing Insights, MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. From 2006 to 2010, Smith served as Chief of Staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. She became Governor Mark Dayton’s Chief of Staff in 2011. 

Tang: After Mark Dayton was elected Minnesota Governor, you were his first staff hired and announced on Dec. 10, 2010. You were highly praised by Governor Dayton as a “widely known and respected leader.” 

Prior to that position, you worked in private, non-profit and public sectors and held high positions. You founded a marketing and communications firm. You also worked on many political campaigns at the state and federal levels, including senator, governor or presidential campaigns for Ted Mondale, Walter Mondale, Barack Obama, etc. 

You have very diverse background and experience in business, politics, nonprofit, and government. I am interested in how you got actively involved in politics and various political campaigns, how you became a leader, what is your personal leadership journey like. 

Smith: I majored in political science and have an MBA. I had an interest in politics and business. My parents were very engaged in the local community and actively involved in politics which had an influence on me. After I graduated from Dartmouth College in 1984, I moved to Minnesota to start my first job with General Mills. We bought our first house in St. Louis Park.

I love politics. I started volunteering for Ted Mondale’s  state senator race (Ted is the elder son of the former senator, ambassador and Vice President Walter Mondale) by organizing apartment  buildings.  I also helped with Ted Mondale’s 1998 governor campaign. That’s how I got started in politics.

Tang: Who has inspired you to become a leader? Whom do you admire as a leader, and why?

Smith: Many people have inspired me. In addition to Governor Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Steven Bosacker is a great leader. Steven was Gov. Jesse Ventura’s chief of staff. He occupied this same office space where I am sitting now. He was the Minneapolis City Coordinator from 2006 to 2012. (In February 2012, Steven quit his high-profile, high paying job to spend a year traveling the world.)

Mary Brainerd, HealthPartner President and CEO, is another great leader.

Tang: Governor Dayton has a high number of female leaders on his staff, his inner circle. So you have a lot of exposure and experience working with leaders of both genders in your life. What would you say about the difference between male and female leaders? Do they have different leadership styles and lead differently?

Smith: I have seen both effective and ineffective leadership styles across the borders, regardless of genders. Speaking of my own leadership style, I am more collaborative and relationship oriented. I am not sure if this is gender related. I used to be a focus group moderator, so I learned to listen and pay close attention to what people have to say. I focus on people’s strength. I try to create a culture where they have autonomy to develop and grow to their full potential based on their strength.

Tang: As the chief of staff, you are the gatekeeper in the governor’s office. What has been the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?

Smith: My role as the Chief of Staff is to lead the work to advance the Governor’s agenda, do what he wants to do. I see more rewards than challenges. My job is very rewarding. I feel such an honor and privilege to work with the Governor, to have opportunities to meet and talk with many people. One of the challenges is to figure out how to pull resources and skills together to get things done, to help people understand that we can’t do things the same way as we used to and achieve desired results.

Tang: What do you see as your greatest accomplishments as a leader?

Smith: I don’t see anything as my own accomplishment. It’s all team accomplishment. I think putting together the cabinet members, the team of commissioners to lead various agencies is one of our great accomplishments. Another one was reaching an agreement for funding and building the new Vikings Stadium.

Tang: What are the most critical attributes to successful leadership?

Smith: Honesty, hard work, good listening skills, good judgment, and decisiveness.

Tang: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned as a leader?

Smith: Tell truth even when it’s uncomfortable. Admit mistakes. Not try to be perfect. Find smart people and do your best to keep them fulfilled and stay.

Tang: What types of things have made the greatest differences in your ongoing development as a leader?

Smith: Three things come to my mind – work with people with high integrity; learn new things constantly; and have a good laugh.

Tang: What was the hardest part of being a leader?

Smith: Making decisions that are very hard to make, sometimes not having all the information needed; telling things people don’t want to hear.

Tang: What challenges do you see that leaders face in government?

Smith: The increasingly polarized political climate. People fight against each other instead of working together to reach common ground, solve problems and get things done.

Tang: If I ask you for names of leaders to interview, whom would you recommend and why?

Smith: Sarah Stoesz – Sarah has been the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota since 2001. She is a strong leader. She has successfully led the organization in a hostile environment.

Lucinda Jesson – Lucinda is the Minnesota Dept. of Human Services Commissioner. She leads the state’s largest agency with an annual budget of $11 billion and more than 6,000 employees throughout the state. DHS is one of the most complex and expensive state agencies.


For other leadership interviews, click here.