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APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Leading Forward Legal Studies Podcast

Podcast: Balancing Career, Public Service, and a Pandemic

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Podcast featuring Cynthia Gentile, Faculty Member, School of Business and
Dr. Nicole Gillespie, Mayor, Moorestown, New Jersey

In January 2020, Dr. Nicole Gillespie began her appointment as mayor of a mid-size town in New Jersey. Anticipating the learning curve that comes with a new position, she quickly found herself drawing from years of business leadership experience in order to lead her town through a pandemic and civil unrest. In this episode, APU business professor Cynthia Gentile talks to her about the skillsets she found most important during this turbulent time, the innovative steps she took to get information to constituents, and how this whole experience has changed the way she measures success.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Cynthia Gentile: Welcome to the podcast, Leading Forward. I am your host, Cynthia Gentile. Today’s episode is the third in a series of conversations with women leaders on the personal and professional effects of the pandemic. Our conversations thus far have been a fascinating look at leadership in the wake of massive global upheaval.

Today, my guest is the honorable Dr. Nicole Gillespie, a nonprofit CEO and mayor of a mid-sized suburban town. Dr. Gillespie received a BS in Mechanical Engineering, with a minor in Russian, from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She served five years as an active-duty Naval officer in the field of cryptology.

After returning to civilian life, she earned an MS in Physics from the University of Washington and Ph.D. in science education from the University of California at Berkeley. As the president and chief executive officer of the Knowles Teacher Initiative, Dr. Gillespie leads the foundation and its efforts to strengthen the teaching profession and improve the state of United States STEM education.

In addition to serving as the CEO of the Knowles Teacher Initiative, Dr. Gillespie serves on the Moorestown New Jersey Township Council. She was elected to council in 2018, served as deputy mayor in 2019, and was appointed to serve as mayor by the council in January 2020.

Dr. Gillespie volunteers as a sexual assault advocate for Contact of Burlington County, New Jersey, where she was named volunteer of the year in 2019. Dr. Gillespie has served on the board of directors of BSCS Science Learning since 2015 and joined the board of directors of the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey in April of 2020. Dr. Gillespie, welcome to Leading Forward. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Cynthia Gentile: In this episode, we are expanding our conversation around leaders and leadership to include the challenges of leading a mid-sized suburban town during this extraordinary year. Nicole, in your role, you balance the complex needs of both your residential and commercial constituents, all of whom were affected differently during the pandemic. Before, we really dig into that balancing act, can you tell us a little bit about Moorestown and about your role as mayor?

Start a Business degree at American Public University.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: I would be happy to. So Moorestown is a town of about 20,000 people in Southern New Jersey. We are in the greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area, or Exit 4 off the Jersey Turnpike, depending on how you choose to locate things.

I’m a little biased, but it’s a really beautiful town. We’re known for our beautiful historic buildings and homes, tree-lined streets, and really great schools. We were named best place to live in America in 2005.

On average, Moorestown is a fairly affluent town and highly educated, but we do have residents across a wide range of socioeconomic status. Our form of government here, which is relevant to my role as mayor is called the council manager form of government.

So we have a five-person town council that is elected at large, and the council members select one of them to be the mayor. So in this form of government, the CEO of the town is really our township manager.

And, as mayor, my role is to preside over council meetings. I have authority to work with the manager to set the agenda for council meetings. I can sign contracts on behalf of the township, but only if authorized by council through a resolution. So even though I have the same title as mayor, as many other mayors in New Jersey, those mean a lot of different things. And my roles and responsibilities are very different than say the mayor of Newark who really does act as the CEO of the town.

Cynthia Gentile: Okay. Thanks for that background. That’s really helpful. But you’re still the face of Moorestown and its town government in a year that has been really challenging. How did you envision your tenure as mayor when you were sworn in back in January of 2020?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Yeah, that’s a great question. Not, not the way it turned out. That’s for sure. I had only been on council for a year when I was elected by my colleagues to be mayor. And I knew I was going to have a steep learning curve, but I was really focused things on like how to run a good meeting and how to use Robert’s Rules of Order.

And we had some big issues in the town that I knew that council was going to have to work on. So I was focused on those things. And one of the big things is, we’ve been wrestling with as much of the state of New Jersey is in adding adequate affordable housing to our community. It’s being handled in the courts in terms of deciding how much is enough affordable housing. That has been a huge issue. It’s been going on for many, many years, and I thought that we would be wrapping that up early in the year, and then we could get onto some other things.

But, you know, as you know, in early March, all of that changed and yeah, it slowed everything down. Suddenly it became this tremendous crisis that everybody was worried about. Nobody knew what was happening. Nobody knew how to deal with it. And in my role, as mayor struggling to figure out what authority we had, what responsibility we had as a municipal government, when lots of stuff was coming down from the state level, even the county. So it was, it was a real whirlwind of trying to manage all of that and learn how to be mayor at the same time.

Cynthia Gentile: I can imagine it, it was unprecedented and lots of uncharted territory in terms of who was making which decisions. So obviously your vision for how your tenure as mayor would look changed in March of 2020.

What did you do in the early days of the pandemic to serve your constituents? And I know you have obviously residential constituents—people with families, elderly folks who live in retirement communities or assisted living facilities—as well as business constituents that were hit in a very different way, especially early in the pandemic.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Right. Early on when it started, things started ramping up and it looked like it was going to be hitting New Jersey pretty hard, the first concern when I was talking with the manager was keeping people safe, keeping township employees safe, keeping residents safe.

And then, of course, there is a balancing act because if everybody was staying home, like we’re supposed to, that was really going to affect businesses, which affects the community, it affects our revenues. So all these things are deeply intertwined. And like I said, I had such a learning curve to understand how intertwined these things were.

But first and foremost was safety. And one of the things that I really struggled with early on was we have to communicate. That was the most important thing, was just getting information to people.

And in this day and age of social media and email and texting, you would think that would be easy, but the truth is, you know, not everybody’s on social media, not everybody is even on email. And how do we reach the residents who rely on the newspaper for their information?

So we worked pretty hard on that. Early on, I, out of almost desperation, started doing Facebook Live videos because I felt like I want to reach as many people as I can. And I know that videos get more attention on Facebook than just a post. So I started doing Facebook Live videos and that, to my surprise, lots and lots of people were watching those.

I also was writing columns in the paper on a regular basis. We have a small kind of hometown newspaper that comes out once a week. I was writing messages in there just to try and get the word out to people that this is real. We have to take this seriously. We have to stay at home. We have to social distance, we have to wear masks. So that was the focus early on.

Cynthia Gentile: And so when using Facebook and social media and that weekly column to communicate with residents, did you find that your message was landing where it needed to, do you think people were responsive to your message?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: For the most part, yes. I mean, I started hearing from a lot more residents during that time with questions, with concerns. A lot of times it was people really worrying about like, “Oh, I just drove past a park and I saw there’s a group of kids out playing basketball and they’re not wearing masks.” Or things like that.

Residents were really anxious at that point. So a lot of what I was doing was trying to mediate. I mean we really had questions early on, like, how do we even enforce these things? What do, how do we handle these?

So I, you know, I think we certainly increased our communication a lot. I think there would be room to do even more. But one of the things that we’ve realized is some of the steps we’ve taken will benefit us in the long run, even once this passes.

So, for example, we are now live streaming all of our council meetings so that the public can watch them from home. They can email questions and comments ahead of time. So this allows for much broader interaction of the public in government than we had before this crisis.

And that feels like, okay, that was a step we took. It was hard. We had to figure it out in a hurry, but this is good for the town in the long run. And we’ll, I think we’ll keep going with this because it’s just a better way for the public or a more expansive way for the public to engage.

Cynthia Gentile: Right, now that you’ve built that foundation, even if it was sort of under duress, it’s something to continue with moving forward. And I would think too, that putting your face literally on a video really helped make government more personal.

Local government tends to sometimes just operate in the background in a lot of people’s world, because while they maybe make the decisions that are the most impactful, they’re not generally on the news, unless they’re doing something wrong. Did you find that you were more recognized after those videos?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: I really did. And it kinda surprised me because like I said, I did those almost out of desperation. Like I really want to reach people. And somehow I knew that videos get watched more or whatever. So I’m like, let me try this. And  people come up to me and they’re like, “Oh, you’re our mayor. I watch your videos.” Which is sort of shocking to me. But it did seem to make a big difference.

And since the beginning I’ve had a Facebook page and I really strive to use that as a way to communicate with residents, to share important information, to promote good causes and good events in the community and keep the politics away from that page. And I think that people see that now, and they know that they can go to that page or go to me for information, which was what I wanted all along. I just, I want to be there. Residents elected me and I’m here to serve. So I feel like that helped establish that relationship.

Cynthia Gentile: So in a way, yeah, the pandemic sort of puts you at a position where by force really, you had to make, yourself more visible in every way, and maybe it helps you get to the goals you had for your tenure are maybe a little bit easier to navigate now.

So, in March we have the pandemic and then we have a lot of unknowns over that. And, especially in where you are in New Jersey, the numbers were pretty terrible in the beginning. And then in May, June, we hit kind of a peak nationally of some social and civil unrest. I don’t know if that was something that had an impact on a town like Moorestown, New Jersey or if you saw backlash from the restrictions that were put in around COVID-19, kind of dovetailing with that civil unrest. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Yeah. It did have an impact here and my guess is that, and I don’t really have data to support this, but I felt like people across the country were, because of lockdown because of the fear, there was this already like a heightened sensitivity.

And with the national unrest that came in, like you said, in April, May particularly with the murder of George Floyd and all the outrage around that, it felt to me like a spark in a stack of kindling, it really took off.

And generally, you know, Moorestown is kind of a sleepy, quaint little town. There’s lots going on. But I feel like we’re a tiny bit isolated. And then I find out in early June that there is a Black Lives Matter march being planned for our town. And I found out about it maybe 48 hours in advance.

Cynthia Gentile: Wow.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: And this was happening right on the time where there was a protest in Philadelphia. And, in addition, there was some rioting and looting and those things got conflated. So there was a lot of fear. There was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of misinformation.

So all of a sudden in the middle of a pandemic, I felt like we had just kind of started to figure things out. We had just gone back to figuring out how to do council meetings, the way we’re supposed to, where the public can be involved. And then all of a sudden this is happening.

So that was, you know, just another thing. It was like, all right, I’m going to have to deal with this. Like, I’m getting these messages from residents who are concerned and the people who are organizing the protest saying, “We want you to be here.” Now I was talking with the police about what they were doing.

And so that was a whirlwind few days. And I will say that despite all the anxiety we had, what I thought was a really beautiful, peaceful demonstration of about 500 people, which for a town this small was pretty significant and it was peaceful. There was, nothing went badly. All the fears that people had just weren’t realized.

And it was pretty powerful. And I was proud to be a part of it. I marched with them. I spoke, but I was also in communication with our police department almost through the whole thing. They, I will say, were tremendous. They were absolutely committed to protecting people’s First Amendment rights to assemble.

And, of course, that was a little complicated because people assembling in large crowds bring some danger with it when there’s a pandemic. You know, that’s one of the tensions, I think through this whole thing that many people in government are dealing with is fundamental rights in our constitution. And the need to protect ourselves as a community are at odds.

Now, I will say with that protest that I think I maybe saw two or three people without masks on the entire time. And a few of them, I went up to, they were young adults and I was like, “Please put your mask on.”

So I think people backed it in ways that were respectful of the fact that there was this pandemic and yet felt very strongly. And they were going to exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble and speak and they did. And they did it really well.

Cynthia Gentile: Today, we’re talking with the honorable Dr. Nicole Gillespie about her experiences leading a suburban town during these unprecedented times. Participating in that march, how did that lead to, or change, your approach to your goals for your time as mayor?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Yeah. So one of the things that really did was after that, and sort of leading up to it, people were talking to me, I started hearing more and more stories from residents in Moorestown about what it’s like for them to live in Moorestown. And it made it really clear to me that we don’t all have the same experience. And I’m, you know, I’m a middle-aged white woman. My experience of Moorestown is very different from that of a young black man.

Cynthia Gentile: Right.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: And I suppose I could have guessed that intellectually, but it really took hearing those stories, many of which I heard at that protest, people spoke very eloquently to a large crowd. It was very emotional. And I was like, I have to pay attention to this because whether these folks voted for me or not, they are residents and it’s our job to serve them all. And I need to understand how people are experiencing life in this town.

And in particular figure out, are there ways that we, as the government, are enacting policies that are creating problems here that we’re unaware of. So that was, that was a real eye-opener for me. And I started talking with people about: Do we need some kind of formal mechanism in this town for people to raise these questions? To raise these issues and make sure leaders in this town are aware of it

And it’s already happening. There’s some terrific things happening in our schools where a group of alumni and then a little bit later, a group of parents, started really stepping up and saying, “Hey, we need to focus on issues of equity and inclusion in our schools.”

They’re doing a great job, and I was like, “Hmm, that doesn’t end at the schools. I think there are issues we need to pay attention to.” And one of the stories that really struck me was the young woman who organized the protest, told a story of her brother. In the evening, he wasn’t home from school, his mother called and said, “Where are you?” And he said, “I’m still at school.” And she said, “Well, why didn’t you just walk home?” And he said, “Mom, I’m a black man. I can’t walk through Moorestown at night. People aren’t comfortable with that.”

And I thought, “Wow, we need to take a good, hard look at this and figure out what’s going on here. And what are we doing here to make this young man feel like he can’t walk through Moorestown because he might be perceived as a threat. People might call the police just because he’s walking through the neighborhood.”

So that led me to think we really need to have something in town. I’ve been discussing with a number of people about creating some kind of task force or advisory committee that would be responsible for collecting these stories and making sure leadership is aware of them at the township, at the school, police across the town. So that is in the works. And I’m hoping that’s something that we can get implemented next year.

Cynthia Gentile: That’s really a powerful story. And it does certainly support the need for that information to resonate with the leaders in the town. So your background is really diverse. You have served in the Navy, you have two advanced degrees, you run a nonprofit. What in your background, if anything, prepared you for the work that you’ve done over the course of this challenging year?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: My career path, if you would call that has been very windy. I didn’t really plan on any of these things, although I’m really happy with how it worked out. I think that the things that I feel really glad I have in my tool kit at this point are the skills of critical thinking and the ability to differentiate between data and inference.

And that comes out of the work I did, the doctoral work in science education. That’s such a critical part of science. And as an educator, trying to teach students science and trying to help teachers teach science. That just is so fundamental to that. And I thought, wow, I really, I didn’t plan this career trajectory but so glad I have that.

In this unprecedented global pandemic, or certainly unprecedented in my lifetime, being able to read a scientific article and understand really what it was that they measured and what the data was there and what conclusions they’re drawing, apart from what might appear in headlines, which are often misleading.

I’ve been very, very thankful for that throughout this whole crisis. And somewhat, I guess the flip side of that is I really, really struggle with the counter narrative that this is all a hoax, it’s fake news that has been really, really hard for me to deal with and hard to sort of roll with in a way that is still respectful of constituents. And, you know, trying to sort of understand where people are coming from. I think that’s important. That’s part of my role, but it is a struggle.

Cynthia Gentile: And having ability to understand the data is one thing, but being able to distill it into a narrative, a conversation that can be had either one-on-one or in a group or on a Facebook video or in a newspaper column, that’s a whole other skill. And it certainly sounds like that’s a bridge that you managed to cross, maybe surprisingly, in terms of, it wasn’t something you were thinking you’d have to do in 2020.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: No. It certainly wasn’t. And I’ll just tell one story that sort of comes out of science teaching that I use in one of my videos was when people were arguing about masks. I said, “Look, you can do an experiment. If you go stand in front of your mirror and you breathe on your mirror and it fogs up that’s moisture in your breath. Those are these droplets that we hear about. Those are the droplets where the virus, virus is in those droplets.”

Now, if you put on your mask and you breathe on your mirror, you’ll see little or no fog, that’s your evidence that the mask is working. So I had several people comment to me about they’re like, “I never really thought about that.” I’m like, “Okay.” Maybe you can get to the entire town, but that resonated with a couple of people. And boy that comes right from my science teaching background.

Cynthia Gentile: Yeah. It’s simple, accessible experiment. And, and even if, I guess you reached, you know, a handful of people in the immediate video or column they’re telling someone else. So yeah, I can see that as being really impactful.

So obviously your goals for 2020 changed as we’ve said, but how do you define success at this point in terms of your leadership in the town? What does it mean to you at this point to be successful in this term as mayor?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think when I first got into getting involved in local government, it’s really easy to fall into this, I’m going to call it a trap, of believing there’s right and wrong and the good guys and the bad guys.

And I would say that after two years, what I’ve come to realize is that there are decisions and decisions have consequences and they often have unintended consequences. So I think my definition of a success has evolved to where if I feel like I have taken the time to really understand consequences of a decision and try and figure out what the unintended consequences might be, and I go into decision-making with that mindset, having listened to people, trying to understand opposing sides as reasonable.

People are coming to these conclusions for reasons that I need to understand. You know, it sounds really wishy-washy, but I feel like when I know I’ve done that, I feel like it’s been a success and inevitably, you know, things happen that you didn’t foresee or whatever, but I really kind of landed at this place where my job is to try and understand all these perspectives and knit it together and make the best decision possible for the township as a whole. It’s not easy, but that’s where I am.

Cynthia Gentile: So it sounds like your definition of success is much more a reflective process and looking at your own personal decision-making and growth within that decision-making process, as opposed to we got X, Y, or Z done.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: It really is. It’s great to sort of finally sign off on something and say, this is happening. But what I’ve realized is that in government, everything is so much more complex than I thought it would be. And it got that way for good reasons.

People sort of grumble about bureaucracy, but what we perceive as barriers is often protections that are put in place to mitigate unintended consequences. I don’t really know any township staff where they feel like they are fully staffed and they have all the resources they need. So it’s governments acting on a shoestring, doing the best they can often looks like bureaucracy or inefficiency.

So as much as I like getting things done, I really do, it’s satisfying. I’ve realized that sometimes things slow down, they aren’t happening as fast as people want them to do, and yet that is the right thing for the town.

Cynthia Gentile: Right. I mean, the concept of bureaucracy or red tape can also be thought of as collective wisdom. It’s the learning of many different people over a lot of time that sometimes throw roadblocks up because we need to consider other consequences. So I get that, I get the frustrating piece and also the need to kind of step back and look at things from a different angle.

Do you have personal strategies in your day-to-day? You know that keep you focused on that definition of success, that very reflective and personal definition of success. What do you do to stay focused on that?

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: That’s evolving for me personally as well. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of my life chasing after a degree or a job or a position. And while that is satisfying to have those achievements, I think maybe it’s just part of being in middle age, maybe it’s because, the teaching profession and the, the teachers I work with in my, what I call my day job, we really support them to be reflective and think deeply about what’s happening in their classrooms. I think I carry that with me. So yeah, I do take a lot of that on, and you know, my role as CEO of Knowles is I’ve been there 16 years now.

So I feel that learning curve has flattened quite a bit. I’ll never be done, but I’ve gotten very comfortable there in this space of being reflective about the decisions we’re making, the impact it has, learning from talking to the person who maybe seems like they don’t have a stake, or they’re not all that wound up about it, but just finding out what are you seeing? What do you know? What do I need to know as a leader?

And that is a little counter to my nature. I mean, I kind of tend to want to get everything done and get it done now, that’s sort of naturally how I am. So bringing this need to sort of slow down and reflect, and I’ve seen how much more powerful things that I do can be if I take that time to slow down and reflect, it does bleed into all aspects of my life. And, like I said, it’s a struggle because that’s not naturally who I am. I want to get everything done right now.

Cynthia Gentile: Yeah. I can attest to that. It’s not naturally who I am either. And it’s something I definitely struggle with, but, find a lot of value in, that slowing down and looking at what success really means in each instance, rather than a global, “I did it” kind of momentum.

Well, Nicole, thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Your experience and perspectives have been really helpful. I think that we’ve added a lot to the conversation around leadership during these challenging times. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed this as well. And I appreciate the chance to talk about what this year has been like.

Cynthia Gentile: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. Be well and be safe.

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