The Primitive Podcast: Ginger Nelson

Posted by Kade Wilcox | May 1, 2020

The Primitive Podcast: Ginger Nelson

Going from living in a small town to earning her law degree from Southern Methodist University has equipped Mayor Nelson with the ability to thrive when wearing a lot of different hats. But, as time has revealed, the panhandle has a way of calling proven individuals back to lead their communities, and Mayor Nelson is no exception.

Transcript

Kade Wilcox:
Welcome to The Primitive Podcast. I'm Kade your host. In today's episode we had the privilege of talking to Mayor Ginger Nelson from Amarillo. Ginger is a phenomenal leader and it has been for a long, long time so it was fun to hear about her background growing up in a small town in West Texas, coming to Texas tech, starting her law career, and ultimately becoming the Mayor of Amarillo. One of the things I really appreciated, I think you will too about this podcast is just how honest Ginger was about some of the challenges that she's experienced along with, some of the other leaders in Amarillo as they've gone through this transition of leadership. And so I think you'll really enjoy this episode and I certainly learned a lot.

Kade Wilcox:
I really appreciate you being here. I've gotten to know you just a little bit. A few years ago now, you came to a young professional event with Drayton and that was phenomenal. No offense to Mr. Pope, but it worked out great that he was out of town and, and you got to host that young professional event.

Ginger Nelson:
Oh, Dan knows I'm a better mayor than he is.

Kade Wilcox:
We'll see how he feels about that. But for those listening who don't know much about you, you're the mayor of Amarillo. You live in Amarillo. Why don't you share your story and your background and how you got to Amarillo and how you ended up Mayor and what that's like and all that good stuff.

Ginger Nelson:
Sure. Well I grew up in the Panhandle, in Spearman. And one of my claims to fame that I love to tell the story about, is that my husband and I don't remember meeting. We've always known each other. And so we both had the privilege of growing up in Spearman, truly just a quintessential small town growing up. Both of our parents were involved in the ag industry. My dad was also in oil and gas and our moms had retail stores. And so we just got to see them juggle everything. And they were good at lots of things, but living small town if you weren't involved in doing it, then it wasn't getting done. And so in a lot of ways that made Kevin and I really generalists. We played lots of sports. We did lots of outside activities, and had a very full experience in that small town.

Ginger Nelson:
And it really wasn't until I left Spearman that I realized it was a limited experience. Before the internet, before YouTube. So not really not connected at all. If it wasn't in Encyclopedia Britannica or on a limited cable channel, we just didn't have any exposure to it, which was fine. It's one of those things, you don't know what you're missing until you actually know what you're missing. But one of the things that I look back on my childhood and just what I would tell my 20 year old self, I would say take more risks because there's no downside to failing. Failure is all along at a continuum of a timeline. So you're the one that gets to decide when you call it a fail. Well just never call it a fail. Keep swimming until you make something out of it that you can point to and say that was a win.

Ginger Nelson:
So just coming out of that small town environment, truly out of the small pond, into anything bigger. We both came to Texas Tech, Kevin came first. I followed him. So I didn't choose the school, I chose the guy and that's worked out well for us. Or at least for me it has.

Kade Wilcox:
I bet you if he were on here he would agree.

Ginger Nelson:
Yeah. Well I hope so. So then I got an advertising degree and a Spanish degree at Texas Tech and we had a good time here. I worked hard so I could graduate the same time Kevin did. And then we went on to Dallas. He got a job at a big six accounting firm and I started law school at SMU. And then that led us back to deciding we both wanted to do law school and we could do that two for the price of one at Texas Tech.

Ginger Nelson:
So we came back to Lubbock and I finished law school.

Kade Wilcox:
I didn't know that part of your story. I was going to say, I didn't realize you had a law degree from SMU, but you left SMU and you came back to Lubbock.

Ginger Nelson:
Right.

Kade Wilcox:
So you have all kinds of Texas Tech running through you.

Ginger Nelson:
Oh my goodness, we are oozing. And we have fabulous Texas Tech heritage. Both our parents graduated from Texas Tech. All of our siblings graduated from Texas Tech. And when you go down Kevin's side, all of his siblings married people who graduated from Texas Tech and their parents all graduated from Texas Tech.

Kade Wilcox:
So not a lot of people rooting for other teams when Tech is playing.

Ginger Nelson:
No. We bleed red and black at our house and that is just fine. So Kevin and I always knew we wanted to be entrepreneurs. Just that's what our parents were doing lots of things, wearing lots of hats.

Ginger Nelson:
And that's definitely how we've made our life in Amarillo. And Amarillo has been so good to us.

Kade Wilcox:
So did you go from Lubbock straight to Amarillo?

Ginger Nelson:
Yes we did. We wanted to be close to our parents and we'd already gone off and done Dallas. And we're Panhandle people. We love the culture here and we wanted to build something here. So that's what we did. And I can't believe time flies by. That was over 20 years ago.

Kade Wilcox:
It happens fast doesn't it?

Ginger Nelson:
Yeah, it does.

Kade Wilcox:
How long have you been mayor?

Ginger Nelson:
I'm in my second term as mayor in my third year.

Kade Wilcox:
Okay. That's awesome. It's been a great experience? Exactly everything you thought it would be? Harder? You know, all of it.

Ginger Nelson:
I really had no expectations cause I didn't see it coming, so I didn't expect to be in politics.

Ginger Nelson:
And we saw a need in our community for some solid leadership with a positive vision and our community was really thirsty for somebody that would come in and speak hope over our community. And so it was very scary to step into that arena because politics right now is and maybe always, it's a quite toxic environment. And so to ask our family to step into that, and people say to us all the time and I would never do that, I can't believe you would do that. Why would you do that? And really the only reason that you can answer that is because we felt called by God to do that. Our faith is really important to us and it's something we had prayed a lot about for our city, to have strong godly leadership that speaks life over people, that creates an environment where everyone's viewpoint is respected and honored even if it's not agreed with.

Ginger Nelson:
And just in praying about that, next thing you know, we felt called to step forward and be a part of that. So on the hard days, that's really the only way that you can get through and justify it. And you miss things. I miss things for my kids and so the cost is high. The cost of public service is high. I don't see how anybody could do it for their ego or to build their resume or even for the experience of it, even though that's worthwhile and enriching sometimes. We're doing it because we feel called and we've seen a higher purpose.

Kade Wilcox:
Well, I think Amarillo and the whole region are lucky to have you. And for two cities have such significance in a region like Amarillo and Lubbock to have mayors like Dan and like you, I think we should be really grateful. And when you think about looking back in the future, I think all of us will look back on this that we're so lucky to have two really strong leaders in the Texas Panhandle at the exact same time leading cities. When you think about leadership as a mayor, what do you feel like your primary role and responsibility is as mayor, and the leader of the organization, and the way that your city government runs? When you think of your role, what are the things that you think about in terms of your leadership?

Ginger Nelson:
The role of mayor is really the role of connector. So I might hear of this person doing this project and then I'm out and about and I see this person who has this need. And next thing you know, they're connected because the mayor knew about it. And the mayor had contacts and relationships, and that whole web of all things in the city of Amarillo. So that's really the primary role. Now through those connections, the mayor can sometimes drive change. And sometimes it takes that, it takes that leadership to say, this is a problem and we need to bring some people around a table who have different opinions and let's start hammering out the solution for us in it. I really think at this point in time in politics, any elected officials role has got to be choosing that respect and honor culture development.

Ginger Nelson:
Right now we just live in such a culture disdain. Where the only way to put your viewpoint forward is to destroy the people around you rather than be in an arena full of ideas. We're just cutting off the legs of anyone who presents an idea that doesn't agree with us. And I don't know if that happens because of our insecurity or if it happens because we don't have the communication skills to actually put forth our idea in a way that we can convince and advocate others to join us. But either way, we have to have leaders who will step forward and will lead into the idea that we are better because we have different ideas. And that coming to the table with an idea is just part of the process and the idea gets better the more people that add onto it and the more fingerprints that touch it. Then it's a better idea.

Kade Wilcox:
Has that been hard for you? Coming from the business world and owning your own practice and your own business into an environment where the whole is more successful when you are more collaborative. Has that been a difficult process?

Ginger Nelson:
It's been very hard for me. There's been a lot of growing as an entrepreneur. We've always owned our own business, whether it was a hotel industry, we own My Place hotels in Amarillo and we have one in Lubbock also. We have a downtown office building. Obviously we make the decisions for that community as well. And then our law practice. So that's been a skill that I've had to try and learn and it's stretching me a lot. And then you combine that with the government is fairly inefficient.

Ginger Nelson:
Bureaucracy is a real thing. There's a reason we have disdain toward bureaucracy and how it slows things down. So learning how to operate in that kind of environment with a larger team, and you have to operate under things like the Open Meetings Act. Where I have a council of five people and that means I can only talk to one other person unless we're sitting in the council room in front of everybody. So it means you have to be a different kind of leader. You can't lead behind the scenes and then come together with it all presented nice and pretty. It has to happen ugly sometimes out there on the table. And then that leads to a headline and that's all kinds of social media chaos. And then you're dealing with the fallout rather than actually implementing a solution. So how you manage all of that time and energy is challenging.

Kade Wilcox:
What are some of the things you've done to learn how to address that? Cause I'm a complete control freak. So just like the challenge of really seeking out differing viewpoints and collaborating in different ideas. How have you nurtured that new skill set in this particular position?

Ginger Nelson:
I'm not naturally a communicator. I'm an introvert by nature. So, Kevin laughs, I'm a communications camel. I can go a long time without feeling uncomfortable for touches or communications. So for me, it is being intentional about communicating. Reaching out and trying to think around corners and think, this is the problem I'm talking about today, but two weeks from now that problem is going to morph into this and involve these people. So the sooner I can think and look around the corner, communications-wise, and get them at the table. And just the power of an intentional communication, whether that's a text that says, I was thinking about you today, I know you had your big presentation to this group, or saw this happening around town and know you've been working on that for a year.

Ginger Nelson:
You know, just thoughtful. That part of it is not hard. It's the execution of finding time to actually make all those touch points. When I was first elected mayor sat down with Betsy Price. She's the Mayor of Fort Worth and she's in her fifth term as mayor now. So I just came with a list. I had a notebook page and a half full of questions. She was so generous, gave me an hour and a half of her time. And I just asked question after question after question. And one of the things I took away from that meeting, she said, the more you can be with the people you represent, the fewer problems you will have to manage. And she's naturally an extrovert. So she loves being out and with all the people. But she's right. The more time you spend just listening to people, then they tell you what issues are coming.

Ginger Nelson:
And then you can begin to be intentional about getting people around the table, whether it's forming a task force or whether it's just inviting four or five people to come to lunch and say, let's talk about this openly and build some relationships around it. Communication is absolutely the key, whether it's happening publicly or behind the scenes. It's the currency of power these days.

Kade Wilcox:
You said something when we first started that there's no downside to failure. And so one of my questions for you is how you've personally handled failure. So whether that's in your personal life or the private sector or as mayor, how have you tried or how do you personally on a day to day basis approach failure?

Ginger Nelson:
So after serving the first year as mayor, it was a really hard year. A lot of learning curve for me personally, but a lot of learning curve too just in the city.

Ginger Nelson:
We turned over our entire council, so all five of us were brand new, had never had any city government experience. And our city manager was new. He'd only been on staff about three months. So everything was new and nothing was in sync. We were stubbing our toe. It's like when you first start to ride a bicycle, those first two or three turns, everything's wobbly. Well that was what it was the first year. It was so hard. And at the end of the first year I thought I need a better strategy for how we handle recovering from mistakes. How I recover handling from mistakes and how we handle criticism. And so I just sat down and I wrote out a written strategy. So I have a mistake strategy and at the top of it it says who am I and how does a person like me respond when I make mistakes?

Ginger Nelson:
And so I just thought I need to have a plan for how I'm going to handle that cause I keep making mistakes and if I want to be resilient through them, I need to know what I'm going to do. And then I asked the same question about criticism. Who am I and how does a person like me respond to criticism? And so I have a written strategy for how I will respond to criticism. And the mistake strategy is pretty short. It's just three points. The criticism strategy is eight or nine points and much more difficult to implement. But one of my main takeaways from that criticism is that receiving criticism is a skill. And just like playing the violin or shooting hoops, you get better at it the more you practice. And so it can feel painful to practice receiving criticism, but it's just a skill and you're better at it, the better you can receive it, the better you are as a leader.

Kade Wilcox:
That's phenomenal. That's really good. Thanks for sharing that. How do you approach personal growth? You've got all these things pulling at you. You got children, you got marriage, you got private business, you're mayor of a city, that's not a small city, and you have all these things, all these responsibilities, all these commitments. So how do you approach your own personal growth? How do you stay empowered and inspired? What's that look like for you?

Ginger Nelson:
Yeah. Everybody says, how do you keep balance? Well, I don't. So let's just get that right up front. Especially for every woman who's in a leadership or working outside the home mom position. Let me just tell you, it does not happen. Only Linda Carter was wonder woman. There's no such thing as perfect. It all happens in a balance. So some weeks are better than others. And sometimes I get too little sleep and then I have to try and catch up. But I love reading. I devour books about leadership. My quiet time is really important because I am an introvert. I have to recharge on that. And so I'm not a morning person, but in this season of my life, my alarm goes off usually 4 o'clock in the morning. And I have to have that time where I pray and get centered and regroup. And reading the Bible is really important for me in doing that. So reading those leadership books, having my quiet time, and making sure if I drop balls, which inevitably I do cause I have so many in the air, not my kids, and not my husband, because I'm uniquely called to meet those roles and I can't delegate those.

Kade Wilcox:
That's good. Thanks for sharing that. When you find yourself out of balance, which it sounds like is often, what do you do to rebalance to the greatest degree that you can? It totally resonates what you're saying. Maybe there is no such thing as balance, but what are the trigger points for you when you know you're left or right of center here. So what are those trigger points? What do you do to draw back to the middle?

Ginger Nelson:
Yeah. Sleep for me is a big one. So if I've been running several nights on only four hours of sleep, then I know. So just sitting down. I'm a big list maker and so I'll sit down and I'll say, this is what has to be done. And then I feel better if I can see it on a list, I give myself permission to do it next week. But it's just something about capturing it so I'm not afraid of losing it. So I know for some people the list just becomes like an idol and they just get consumed by it. For me, it's a great offloading tool. So when I feel overwhelmed, I will sit down and make a list and then I can divide and conquer it. I can assign days to it and deadlines and then I am better.

Kade Wilcox:
That's good. I think a lot of leaders aren't self aware enough to know when they are out of balance and so they end up living on a hamster wheel. And so I love that approach. I think sleep is really underrated. So I'm glad you brought that up. Thats's good. How do you practically manage your time? It sounds like you're a to do person, so are you a traditionalist and you like pen and paper? Do you have some fancy app that you use? Do you have an assistant that manages your schedule? How do you approach managing time, given all the responsibilities that you have?

Ginger Nelson:
I'm constantly trying new things because efficiency is one of my core values. So I hate wasting time, but really when it comes down to for me is I have designed my own form, a day timer type form that I print off. It's a week at a time and it's one page front and back and usually at the end of my prayer time every day, I sit and make some notes on that and I know how I'm going to attack it. I think everybody pretty much uses a digital schedule these days and I have to, because so many people touch my schedule and have access to it and help me manage it. So I run my calendar off my phone. But some events I do sit down and put onto that paper. Mainly things like when I think I've got to have time to read this book or read this report or summarize my speech notes. Things like that don't land on my digital calendar, they land on my daily to do timeframe. And that timeframe starts at 4:00 AM and goes all the way till 11:00 PM. One day I counted, I had 18 meetings that day as the mayor. Not every day is like that, but some days are just bonkers.

Kade Wilcox:
That's admirable. And it's probably why a lot of people only do it two or three terms. It's true because at some point you just, it's intense.

Ginger Nelson:
Yeah. And the thing about the mayor's job is it's just 24-7. According to polling, 90% of people in Amarillo know who I am. That was something that was unexpected for Kevin and I and our family was the notoriety. It changes things. And so it means that we're serving when we're at the grocery store, we're serving at church on Sunday morning, we're constantly serving. And it's a joy. It really is a joy and a privilege.

Kade Wilcox:
But you're human. Do you ever struggle with the fact that 90% of people in your city know you? Do you ever struggle with feeling the success too much or feeling the failure too much? Because you can't hide. Unless you leave town, it's really hard not to be known based on what you just said. And so is that really hard to stay level, to not be too high or not to be too low at any given moment because of all the activity and all the things happening to you all at once?

Ginger Nelson:
Right back to that criticism strategy for me. There's constant reminders that I'm making tons of mistakes all the time. So I don't ever feel that important because I know how many mistakes I'm making. So I keep a sign in my office from this last campaign, there was a very public group of people who put signs out all over town that said, "Anybody but Ginger Nelson for Mayor." And the first time I saw that sign, it was a real blow. You know, it was like Mike Tyson, everybody's got a plan till you get punched in the face. Right? So that first sign, the business owner said, they don't have permission to put that out there. They're taking it down and put it in the trash and I said, hey, will you put that in my car?

Ginger Nelson:
Can I have that? They said, sure. And I keep it in my office now as a reminder to me that I'm not doing this for anyone's approval. And so if somebody thinks I'm doing a great job, that's nice, but it's not why I'm doing it. If somebody thinks I'm doing a terrible job, I'm disappointed to hear that, but that's not why I'm doing it. And my identity is not tied to it. The value of who I am as a person is not tied to some performance poll or a public opinion poll about what kind of job I'm doing. I want to pay attention to those things because I represent voters and voters matter. But my identity is grounded in the fact that I'm made in the image of God and Jesus died for me. And I know how the end of my story will go.

Ginger Nelson:
I'm going to spend eternity in heaven. And so whether I failed today miserably as the mayor, or succeed amazingly as the mayor that doesn't change my value as a person. Nothing I do today or don't do today is going to make God love me anymore or any less. And operating off of that platform gives me a tremendous amount of confidence and freedom as a leader to succeed, but also to fail. And one of the things I've picked up the most out of this, I don't know who said it, but somewhere it stuck with me, that God allows you to be baptized by criticism in order to be inoculated against praise. And as a leader, you want to be right there in the middle, able to receive both, but not hindered by either praise or criticism.

Kade Wilcox:
That's really good. I hate to move on from that because it would be fun to unpack that. My last question for you is, well two more questions for you. So first one is who have been some of the biggest personal influences on your own leadership? You mentioned that you love to read, so maybe it's an author or maybe it's a mentor you've had or maybe it's your parents, you spoke a lot about them. But who are a few of those people who have had a tremendous influence on you?

Ginger Nelson:
Absolutely. My parents are big influencers. I'm so grateful for them. They're still very involved in my life, but my husband hands-down is the most impactful leader in my life. And the one who's taught me the most about leadership. And there've been a couple of dark days even serving as mayor. One day I said, that's it, I quit. And he said, really, you're going to quit? And so the way he challenges me and his leadership and wisdom are really deep. So I just can't imagine where I would be without his leadership and the way that he challenges me and supports me and teaches me still.

Kade Wilcox:
That's great. What would the Ginger now, who has experienced all these successes and losses, what would she tell the Ginger 20 years ago, what would you learn?

Ginger Nelson:
Absolutely it would be take more risks, think higher, think bigger. You can come up with a plan and you think, wow, that feels dangerous or that feels outside my comfort zone. Well growth only happens outside your comfort zone. And so I think setting your targets higher and being willing to only get to 80% of them still means that you are probably going to go further than if you just set that target where you thought you could achieve it at the beginning. And if you're not feeling vulnerable, you're probably not being used because if you're just relying on what you think you can accomplish, then you're cutting God out of the equation 100%. And it's only when you're way over your skis, that he's going to come along beside you and equip you to do a work you never dreamed you could do. And believe me, that is the small town, Spearman introvert, Ginger Nelson saying, I never would have seen myself able to serve in this role. And it's so rewarding getting to work with the people and it's so challenging getting to work with the people. I'm so grateful that God opened the door and gave us the chance to do it.

Kade Wilcox:
Really, really appreciate you doing this. And I know you're super busy, so I'm really grateful that you take time to be with us.

Ginger Nelson:
I know y'all are busy too. I'm glad it worked.

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