The golf principle, “Play it where it lies,” is a guiding life lesson
In your formative years, was there one person in particular who influenced you? It could be anyone.
I don’t think there was one person. Both my father and my mother had a great deal of influence on who I am today but in different ways. My mother had very high expectations for us from an academic perspective for sure. I never came home from school that she didn’t say, “How did you do on the test?” And if I said I made a 100, which I generally made pretty good grades because she expected it, next her question was always, “Well, why didn’t you make the bonus points?”
And your dad?
My father was very different. He also had high expectations, of course, but he was one of those fathers who, if we cried, he was probably going to sit there and cry with us because he was so empathetic and loved his two girls so much. And he didn’t force us towards anything.
How old were you when your father passed away?
I was 32.
And a life-altering experience?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, just one of those things, and I know everybody feels this way about their parents…. There are days when I say I wish, I wish I could talk to my dad.
What was your first job?
My first — it seems that I have always worked. I’ve never had a summer off that I can remember once I was old enough to work. In high school, I think my very first job, besides babysitting, was at a local store, kind of like a Ross sort of store. They hired a couple of us 16-year-olds to do some demonstrations on some photography sort of things. You know, not being in front, but demonstrating some photography equipment.
When you look back at your childhood and reflect on that period of your life, was there one influencing factor, and not a person, but a factor that helped mold you to what and who you are today?
I want to say certainly the high expectations were important, and I’m torn between that and playing golf with my dad growing up.
I started playing when I was 11 with him, and he would actually let me go with him and some of his buddies to play and to be with them, and that time certainly had a big influence on me. I, oftentimes, will talk about the fact that I learned — one of my guiding principles is play it where it lays. As a little 11-year-old little girl, I’d want to kick my ball out of the woods, and he’d say, “No, no, no. She’ll never learn to be good if she doesn’t learn how to hit it from where it is.”
I love that.
And so, he always said get out of trouble and then hit a great shot. Don’t try to hit a great shot first. So that’s a principle that I use in life: accept where you are. Play it, play it where it lays.
That’s a pretty insightful guide to life’s lessons.
It works in your marriage. It works in your work. It works with your children. It works in your sports. It works wherever you are. Just accept where you are and then figure out how do I get out of this situation, if it’s a bad situation, and then hit a great shot.
How did you end up working with Superintendent Nielsen?
Once elected to superintendent, in that transition period, as Barbara talked about what she wanted to do and what she expected to do, and I participated in the discussions. She said, “Oh, you know, she can do more than she’s doing,” and so she asked me to do so.
Were you deputy superintendent of the entire S.C. Department of Education or —
No, it was a Division of Policy.
And that was technology, strategy?
Technology, curriculum standards —
More linear things?
Yes. Yes, more implementation-type things.
And you stayed in that post until when?
1997. Then BellSouth, who is our former company that merged and became AT&T, asked me if I would be interested in being their sales manager for the education market.
So you left the Department of Education?
Well, I asked Barbara first, you know, “Are you going to hate me forever if I do this?” And she said, “No, I’m not running, take it.” I was in sales at that point. Sold to the school districts in the state, our products and services, and also to the colleges and universities at that point in time. And then, in 2001, Harry Lightsey was the president of BellSouth, and he asked me to come over from the sales group to be the director of government relations, to be their lobbyist. I had a lot of experience working with the General Assembly because I had served as the superintendent’s liaison to the General Assembly in the education committees and in budget debates, and other types of oversight committees.
And then he left that position, what year?
Harry left that position in 2006 when we merged and became the president over the Southeast. Then Gregg Morton came in and was president for eight months, when I was asked to be the president of AT&T.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m kind of in the in-between. My preference is — let’s put it this way. In my public life and in my business life and in my, anytime I’m outside my own house, I’m an extrovert. My preferred mode of rest is introvert. I’m just as happy playing golf on the golf course with just my husband and me, and I also can be happy playing golf by myself. But if there’s a group of people playing, then I’m very competitive. If it’s by ourselves, it goes back to the experience of my dad and I playing golf at 7 o’clock in the morning in the hot Alabama summers. We played early because it was hot, and also so he could play before he went to work. So the two of us — and he was kind of — he was not an extrovert at all. He was a very quiet person. So we had very quiet days on that course together. So that’s kind of my peace…
What brings you the most joy? It can be in your personal or professional life.
Wow. I don’t have children of my own. I have three godchildren. People think if you don’t have children, you need lots of godchildren. So they want you to be there as mothers. I love my godchildren dearly, and Gary and I have one niece. Gary has two children. So I have two stepchildren and five grandchildren, and I love them to death. So being with children. I love children and, you know, Gary says that all the time, “You really do love children, don’t you?” and I get a lot of joy out of them. So probably being around children. I don’t get to do that as much. I kind of substitute that now in my sixties and in this stage in life. I never turn down a younger person who says, “Can I come and talk to you?” If somebody says I want to come talk to you about my next career move, no matter who they are or where they’re coming from. I have five Liberty Fellow mentees. I never say no to younger people in general. If they want to talk, I never turn down those appointments. Janet, my executive assistant, knows those are a priority. Find time. So that gives me a great deal of joy, seeing the next generation come along.
It’s a common theme with women?
Governor Nikki Haley has made mention, in terms of women who have been supportive, that you are at the top of her list.
Well, that’s very kind of her.
That’s a good relationship. How did that come about?
Well, certainly because, when she was a member of the House, she was a good friend, very dear friend. We spent time together outside the session and in the session, and she was on the Labor, Commerce, and Insurance Committees, which we do a lot of work with. So I got to know her very well in that regard, and then, when she became governor, I was interested in supporting her and making sure she was successful and our state was successful. I’m on the Original Six Board, and we can talk about that for hours, too. Talk about great work going on in our state that nobody really knows about. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in that board and with those communities they’re serving in.
What fills you up?
What fills me up is seeing progress in our state towards these goals that we all talk about. What also fills me up is, sometimes I find myself in a situation where people talk to each other about important issues or solutions, but they don’t stop to listen to what others are saying. When I turned 60, I kind of made a promise, not kind of, I made a promise to myself, and I said I am old enough now to be everybody’s big sister and most peoples’ mother. So I’m going to call them on things when they’re not being productive with each other and in a nice way. So if I’m in a meeting and this person speaks up, and the people over here … start talking, and they start rolling their eyes or they start reacting negatively, if I’m in a position to do so, I try to take it upon myself to be a real dictatorial big sister, and say, “No, no, no, no, no, no. What about what he just said is it that you disagree with or that you think is the wrong way to go?” Just don’t let them get away with dismissing it out of hand and moving on to somebody else because, half the time, they’re saying the same thing… So I try to be an intermediary.
What kind of phone do you use and why?
I use an iPhone 6s, not the big one, the smaller one.
What’s your favorite book?
I would say E.B. White is probably my favorite author in the long run, both his letters and essays, but Charlotte’s Web is a great book.
If you could be any age for a week, what age would that be and why?
I would probably be 10 years younger, early 50s.
Because, in my case, once you get to 60, I’m 62 now, and so once you get to 60, as my 90-something-year-old grandmother use to say, there’s something new every day, and I’m not used to saying, “Oh dear, my back hurts,” or “Oh dear, my hips hurt.” That sort of thing. I don’t like that.
Who do you go to for advice?
Personal advice? I think Gary and I talk through those things.
Do you have a perspective on the concept, “pay it forward?”
I think that’s the way you pay it forward, as opposed to serving in leadership positions and doing the work that needs to be done in whatever that arena is to accomplish goals for that particular cause. Like transforming education. Like our economic development issues in the state or healthcare, whatever it is, that you need to bring people along with you as you’re doing that. Everybody needs a young leaders group working with them, and the reason I say that is because a wise man from this area, Bill Barnet, said to me one day, “My group did not bring you-all along. We just left.” And I don’t necessarily agree with him on that, but it made an impression on me. So I have sat down with several of my friends who are business leaders, not just women, but men too, and said, “Okay who’s out there, who do we need to have on the list of people that we need to be bringing into discussions, that we need to be checking with to get advice, that we need to be promoting for leadership positions on boards and commissions and organizations to make sure that there is no gap in leadership from the business community in our state in the next generation?”
What do you want to be remembered for?
If you had one wish, what would it be?
My one wish would be what Senator Lindsey Graham said one time. My one wish would be that our world, in general, certainly our state, would not be of the opinion that because we disagree on something that we have to also dislike each other.