So I had to start the first post of The Funemployed at home with the coolest lady I know and the one who taught me everything. My mother.
Tell The People – Who Are You? * (Officially)
Shireen L. Dodson (aka mom for short) is the Ombudsman for the United States Department of State (DOS). Ms. Dodson not only assists Department managers and employees to resolve conflict arising in the workplace, she advises the Secretary of State and senior Department executives and managers on workplace conflict trends, conflict prevention opportunities and options to achieve cost-effective and timely conflict resolution. Formerly Special Assistant to the Director, Office of Civil Rights and Chief Diversity Officer at DOS, Ms. Dodson has over 30 years experience working with non-profits, corporate America, and government. Ms. Dodson is a trained mediator, facilitator and conflict coach with years of experience helping individuals work through conflict. Also an Executive Coach, Ms. Dodson completed the Federal Internal Coach Boot Camp and is a member of the Federal Coaching Network. She earned her Bachelor of Science Degree from Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland and her Juris Doctorate from Seton Hall Law School, Newark, New Jersey. Ms. Dodson is also a Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Certified Diversity Professional (CCDP). Ms. Dodson is an active member of the Coalition of Federal Ombudsman and the Intelligence Community Ombuds Forum. Ms. Dodson serves on the boards of Zion Baptist Church and MetroHealth (a nonprofit community- based healthcare provider).
Lastly, Shireen is an author of three books for girls: The Original Mother-Daughter Book Club; The Mother Daughter Book Club Tenth Anniversary Edition; and 100 Books for Girls to Grow On, all published by Harper-Collins. 100 Books For Girls To Grow On was nominated for a 1998 NAACP IMAGE AWARD – Outstanding Literary Work, Children’s. Ms. Dodson has three adult children. (Aka my siblings and I).
DCFunemployment: What does being funemployed mean to you & what was your path to funemployment? *
SD: That I truly love my job and I’m doing just what I want to be doing in this phase of my life. That, each and every day, my job provides me with a great deal of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. And finally, that I’m having fun and continuing to learn and have new experiences.
After a 30 plus year eclectic career in numerous industries, normally with one foot firmly planted in what I knew and the other foot often dangling in the unknown, a life changing event put my plans for retirement on hold. My marriage of 27 years dissolved and I found myself needing a job to support myself and my third child who was just starting high school. A very close friend of mine, who was at the time one of only six Under Secretaries, at the State Department got me an interview. That interview led to me being hired as a special assistant to the Department’s Director of the Office of Civil Rights. He charged me with helping him expand the office’s mission to include diversity and inclusion. As an African American female, I knew diversity but I didn’t know diversity. So I went to Cornell University and got certified as a diversity professional.
The Department had been without an Ombudsman for several years. The position had been previously filled as a collateral duty. Whenever a call came into the office looking for the Department’s Ombudsman it was given to me to handle. So I did what I always did I went and took every training on being an Ombudsman that I could find. I discovered that not only did I love the work but that I was good at it. When the Department got some pressure to have an Ombudsman there I was trained and experienced. I was appointed by Secretary Clinton as the Department’s first full time Ombudsman.
After two years as a sole practitioner I received the resources and support to expand the office and develop a fully robust Ombudsman program that now services approximately eighty thousand employees.
DCF: Who was your first cheerleader? *
SD: My first cheerleader was my grandfather whom we affectionately called Wawa. Wawa worked as a domestic and had less than a third grade education but he was oh so wise. He would sit in his rocking chair listening to the TV (never watching as the rocking chair was positioned to the side of the TV, something to this day I don’t understand) and I would sit on the floor between his legs ranting and raving about something or the other. He would calm me down and help me make sense of the situation.
The next cheerleader and also a role model was his wife or my grandmother. Nana was a registered nurse and a community activist. Something I really didn’t realize or understand until I became an adult. She and her best friend, a doctor, started the Mother’s and Friend’s club. The club had a dual purpose of women supporting each other and for giving back to the community. It’s no wonder I am a joiner of women’s organizations with those same purposes. (*DCF: See it’s in my blood people!!)
My first work cheerleader/mentor was a white male who taught me that it was a game and that I needed to learn the rules (culture) and how to play the game well and to NEVER take anything personally. Best lessons ever imparted and learned. I had an African American female cheerleader/mentor/friend that started her career as a GS 2 and when she retired she was the number two person at the Smithsonian Institution. She taught me how to be a strategic thinker and was someone who modeled grace and professional elegance at all times. She also taught me, through her unexpected and untimely death almost immediately after she retired, to not defer living for work. She never got to take her granddaughters on that around the world trip she had been planning for years. I choose joy every morning and try to live life to the fullest. I’ve also had several African American Male cheerleaders/mentors who reaffirmed that I belonged in the room and at the table. If you don’t believe you belong neither will anyone else.
And finally my diverse village of women friends, the love and support that comes from these friendships is one of the underlying facets to my happy life. Do make time for your girlfriends.
DCF: What experiences in your life prepared you for where you are now? *
SD: Every experience no matter how insignificant it made have felt at the time. Because I’ve had such a long and diverse career and have been a lower level employee to the boss and everything in-between I am able to relate to the varied workplace conflict situations that employees bring through the door. I bring my authentic self and unique background which helps me peel back the onion in a neutral nonjudgmental manner.
DCF: Where do you get your inspiration and/or motivation? *
SD: While I have a son and two daughters, it is my daughters that have always motivated me to do my best and model behavior that I hoped would serve them well as they grew into womanhood. The expression do as I say not as I do is not the reality. The reality is children don’t miss a trick and they watch, listen and learn from everything they see you do. Your actions speak far louder than your words. I just saw Cicely Tyson in the Gin Game on Broadway who at 91 is still gorgeous and doing what she loves. Talk about funemployment and motivation.
DCF: What does balance mean to you and how do find balance? *
SD: To me balance means understanding your priorities and when you have the opportunity to make choices you choose being true to those priorities. It’s also understanding that your priorities will and do change and that they are not inflexible nor stagnate. When I’m at work, work gets the 150% and when I’m at home, home gets the 150%. One of my children lives in LA and a few years ago she was in a fender bender. She called me in DC first before the cops or anyone who could actually get to her immediately. As a result I keep my cell phone on vibrate but visible on my desk and will answer it if she calls no matter who I may be meeting with. My children have always been a priority. Where possible I try and add some fun to work. For example when I travel for work to sometimes great places I try and add on an extra few days for me.
DCF: What sacrifices did you have to make to get here? *
SD: I really don’t feel like I’ve made sacrifices but rather I’ve made choices based on my priorities. I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I’m blessed and confident that I’m where I’m supposed to be doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
DCF: What struggles have you faced as a women in your industry? *
SD: I have been extremely blessed to have had outstanding supportive bosses and mentors throughout my career. Looking back over my career I can now realize some of the things that they shielded and protected me from that I was too young and naive to see at the time. For example as a young supervisory financial manager I was on my first road trip with my boss. I was making a financial presentation to a group that I was going to have to interact with on a regular basis. I was the only women, the only African American and the youngest person in the room. One of the older gentlemen challenged something I was saying. My boss interrupted and informed his peer colleague of the correctness of my position. As soon as we got in the car my boss told me that I was “as wrong as two left shoes” and that by the next morning I had to figure out how to correct the situation without making him look bad. If my boss had not supported me I would have never gained the respect that I needed to do my job.
I also remember many a time when I’d be the most senior person taking a group of male clients and or colleagues out to dinner and the waiter, even though I was the one communicating with him on say the wine and other details, would inevitably bring the check to one of the men. The awkward embarrassed looks around the table as whoever redirected the bill to me was always funny.
I’ve also benefited from having strong female bosses. It was a female treasurer who appointed me Comptroller and it was a female Secretary of State that appointed me Ombudsman. (*DCF: See supporting each other is soo important!!)
DCF: What is the early advice you didn’t listen to that you wish you had? *
SD: Keep some of your money aside in a separate account that your spouse/partner does not know about or have access too. After 27 years of marriage, steadily working, and more than contributing my fair share to the pot my ex-husband left when I was “semi-retired” without any source of income. I had no nest egg or rainy day fund and it was hard being financially dependent on someone about to divorce you.
DCF: What was your greatest failure and what did you learn from it? *
SD: I don’t look at anything in my career as a failure. That is not to say that there have been many thing that have not gone as planned but I have learned from every opportunity missed or realized.
DCF: What is your proudest moment? *
SD: It was during a senior staff meeting, that was being chaired by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and each office director in turn presented their accomplishments for the past year and goals for the next year. After my presentation Secretary Clinton said the following: “Shireen, people want to talk with you. You have the uncanny ability to get people to open up to you and to make change without making waves. Thank you for all that you do.” It was such validation, in front of my peers, for all the hard work in setting up the office and building the Ombudsman practice from the ground up in a culture that is very conflict adverse.
Hope you enjoyed!! Leave me a note and share who would be the first feature from your life and why??