Carol Comer is currently serving as the Director of Missouri Department of Natural Resources. She talked to us about her inspiring personal story and what she enjoys most about serving the public.
What made you decide to get involved in public service?
I often say “I’m the accidental director.” I never considered government service until a tragic accident changed my career path.
I am a lawyer by education, and I began my practice at a small environmental law firm. Although the firm only had 25 lawyers, it was involved in virtually every important environmental case coming out of Indiana. It was a great place to learn environmental law.
For lawyers, however, the definition of having “made it” is to practice at “the big firm.” So I set a goal of joining the environmental law department of a Big Law firm, and I ended up being recruited by one of the largest law firms in the West, headquartered in Phoenix.
But in a cruel twist of fate, the day I got my offer letter, was the day my sister was killed in a car accident. I was suddenly in a situation where I couldn’t pack up and move 2,000 miles away, but I had also already quit my job. I hastily looked around, and there was a position open at the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission as an administrative law judge, which I accepted.
A year later, the Phoenix firm called back. They said, “We understand why you couldn’t come last year, but we’re still interested in you joining our firm.” I agreed and moved to Arizona a few weeks later.
The problem was the one year I spent at the Utility Regulatory Commission had ruined me for private practice. I loved being a judge. I loved public service.
So after two years in Arizona, I quit the firm; I quit private practice; I gave up two-thirds of my income; and I dedicated my career to government service. And I have never looked back. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling career than public service or a more fulfilling position than the one I am honored to be in now as Director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
What’s the biggest challenge or setback you’ve faced?
I’ve had setbacks and failures too numerous to mention. I’ve lost jobs. I didn’t get positions I’ve wanted. I’ve worked for supervisors that actively tried to hold me back. And I’ve been rejected time and again. But I’ve always made it a policy to “fail upward.” When one plan or goal didn’t work out, I just started working on my next plan or goal.
One “setback” stands out most because it set me on the course that led me here. When I returned to Indiana after leaving the Phoenix firm, I spent several years as an administrative law judge for the Board of Tax Review. During my time hearing tax cases administratively, the Indiana Tax Court Judge retired and the position came open, which was an Appellate Court position.
I desperately wanted that job! I spent hours and hours putting together my portfolio, and I interviewed my heart out, but I didn’t get the position. Later one of the members of the interview panel told me that the committee was impressed with me, but they were concerned about my lack of “demonstrable leadership skills.”
Instead of mourning my “career failure,” I attacked my “lack of leadership skills.” I came up with a three-part plan: I had to show civic involvement; I had to show subject matter expertise; and I had to get politically involved so the decision-makers would know who I was the next time around.
The first year, I got appointed to the Board of Directors of a local food pantry, and I worked on a single campaign. I wasn’t able to find a teaching position, so I started a tax blog. The next year, I sat on three Boards of Directors, was asked to work on multiple campaigns, and my blog was the go-to source for local tax practitioners.
Within a few years, I had met and worked with hundreds of local civic and political leaders. It was through one of those contacts that I learned the position of General Counsel was open at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).
I spent two and a half years as General Counsel at IDEM, before being promoted to Chief of Staff, and, when the sitting Commissioner retired, I was appointed IDEM Commissioner by (then) Governor Mike Pence. And when Governor Pence became Vice President Pence, the former Governor of Missouri invited me to come to join his administration; and I was blessed to be asked to stay on as a Cabinet Member by Governor Parson.
I did not plan this path. I did not expect this path. But had I not “failed” at my attempt to become the Indiana Tax Court Judge, I never would have had the chance to lead two agencies and serve three Governors!
What is your advice to others, especially women, who want to get involved in public service?
First - networking is critical to your success. I think networking is harder for women. We haven’t been conditioned to be assertive, to ask for what we want, or to make acquaintances or build relationships that will benefit us professionally. But if no one knows who you are, no one knows what you can do. So join a club, attend a political meeting, volunteer, because every group, club, or organization you work with expands your network. You never know which of your acquaintances – whether you volunteered at a food pantry with them, you worked on a campaign together, or met in a leadership class – will be the one that connects you to the opportunity that changes your life.
Second – never say no! I know there are thousands of self-help books about setting boundaries, being good to yourself, and learning to say no, but I’m not talking about over-extending yourself. I’m talking about taking risks. If someone suggests a project or position or opportunity to you, take it! Women in particular tend to believe we’re not qualified for something unless we are experts in the field. Other people may see qualities and talents in you that you don’t see in yourself. Say yes to the job or project and then make it a priority to gain the skills and gather the knowledge that you need to be successful.
Finally – accept that not every undertaking will succeed. But if you’ve never failed, you haven’t reached, stretched, or challenged yourself. Failure isn’t failure unless you fail to rise again. So be bold. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take risks and know that failure is an inevitable part of the process. Leadership is not a straight line. Your career will likely take many twists and turns along the way. That’s okay! Each detour brings new experiences and a new perspective that will prove invaluable to the decisions you make and the way you lead.
Is there anything that has surprised you about public service?
I am always awed by the talent and dedication of the state workforce. These folks have a passion and a drive to make a difference. They are incredibly talented, well educated, and highly skilled and have chosen public service as a career - despite the pay and the criticism and the hard work - because it means something to them. I am proud and honored to work with them every day.
What’s your favorite thing about serving in your role?
My favorite thing about serving in this role is the number of lives I get to touch – from recognizing an employee for a job well done, to investing in our existing parks, to making certain our smallest water providers have the resources they need to meet their environmental obligations. In the end, what we do impacts the quality of the air, land, and water, provides recreational and learning opportunities, and preserves our natural and historic places for all Missourians. It’s a huge responsibility! And I take great pride in the progress we are making toward ensuring a healthy environment and a vibrant parks system for all of our citizens.
How has your background shaped the way you serve your constituents?
I came from private practice and represented companies on environmental issues for almost a decade. In my experience, most companies want to comply with their obligations. They are just looking for common sense and flexibility in meeting regulatory requirements.
My experience as a lawyer helps me bridge the gap between the agency and our regulated public. We have the tools and the flexibility to come up with creative solutions, and we get to compliance faster if we treat our regulated entities as partners.
And the data bears this out. When I stepped in to this role, 94% of Missourians on public water systems had drinking water that met every health-based standard. By December 2018, that number was 99%. This summer’s flood affected that number, but without the flood impacts, we remain close to 99%.
Also when we started this journey, Missouri had more than 2,000 expired permits – some of those permits were decades out of date. In two and a half years, we’ve reduced that backlog by more than 80% by working with the permit holders to come up with practical, achievable requirements that provide for a healthy environment while promoting economic growth and investment.
Have you had a mentor, or someone who inspired you?
One of the partners at my first law firm probably had the biggest impact on me. She was the only woman in a partnership full of men. She was the soul of the firm and the firm’s conscience. She taught me about environmental law; she taught me about leadership; and she taught me about standing up for what’s right (even when it wasn’t a popular opinion).
She also taught me about living life – and that’s the lesson I thank her most for. Sue Shadley passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease soon after she retired from the practice of law. But she never waited until retirement to do the things she wanted to do. As a practicing attorney, I watched her run off to Africa on safari and spend summers on Cat Island. She never put off traveling or experiencing the world.
As I continue through chemotherapy for metastatic cancer, I could not be more grateful for her counsel or the example she set. I never waited for a better time, or for when I had more resources; I just traveled. And whenever I had the opportunity, I took my nieces and nephew with me. Those are the experiences I will never forget, and I hope my family will remember their entire lives.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Life is short. Do what makes you happy. Set your sights on what you want – regardless of whether you believe it’s attainable – and find a way to make it happen! Life is a journey, and sometimes, while you’re reaching for your “goal,” something even better comes your way.
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Our Change-Maker Profiles feature elected officials, civic leaders, and everyday citizens who are working for change in Missouri and Kansas.