Taylor Batten, editorial page editor at The Charlotte Observer, recently talked to Sharon Decker, North Carolina's new Commerce secretary, about her unconventional background.
Here's his piece:
You never know what Sharon Decker will do next. Then again, neither does she.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s selection for secretary of commerce, a divinity student bound for a university chaplain job, would be beyond unusual – if it were anyone but Decker. Given this 55-year-old’s unconventional career path, though, the unpredictable has become expected.
McCrory’s invitation has turned Decker’s life upside down and she now finds herself in a crucial role: leading the Commerce Department and creating jobs in the state with the nation’s 5th-highest unemployment rate. What, you may ask, does a former small-town pastor know about that?
Decker spent 17 years at what was then Duke Power and became its first female vice president. At age 39 she left for a vastly different role and one she thought she would keep forever: Leading the Lynnwood Foundation in Charlotte and its Lee Leadership Institute. Three years, one Charlotte Chamber chairmanship and one Charlotte Woman of the Year Award later, another change: She moved to tiny Rutherfordton to lead Doncaster, a women’s apparel line with $100 million in annual revenues.
Six years later, she zigged once more, leaving Doncaster and forming The Tapestry Group, a ministry for women. She also served as a part-time pastor at two rural churches and studied for her master’s in divinity from Gardner Webb. By the time McCrory called in December, Decker was preparing to move this year to Charlottesville, Va., to be a chaplain at UVA.
I talked with Decker last week about her career moves, what drives her and what her plans are for boosting North Carolina’s economy. Here are highlights of that conversation:
Q. Tell me about what drew you to Rutherfordton from the heights you had reached in Charlotte.
I was in a spiritual discovery place that was new for me. I had a hunch, intuition, spiritual insight, call it whatever you want, that there was something I was to be doing that was different. … The summary is, there were nudgings in me, an understanding that God was working my life to a deeper calling; my husband’s desire to be in a rural part of the state; it was a women’s company I had always respected; and they gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Q. You went there to run Doncaster but at some point your focus turned toward faith and spirituality.
The family regained ownership and in that process I began to understand God was calling me to something deeper. I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew was I had to take the risk of walking away from corporate life. There was an undeniable sense that I needed to be either all in or not. I felt like I had one foot in corporate life and one foot in ministry life. So the spiritual side really ramped up. Stephen Covey would say it’s easy to say no when there’s a bigger yes inside. There was this yes that I simply could not deny anymore. I recognized as long as I was a high-flying corporate executive I couldn’t do the deep spiritual work I needed to do. (She continued to serve on corporate boards, including Family Dollar, SCANA and Coca-Cola Consolidated.)
Q. What sparked conversations with McCrory about the Commerce job?
We worked together years ago, but I had not talked to Pat since last May. We had never had a conversation about this position until he called and offered it to me.
Q. And what was your first reaction?
I thought, “I’ve been running from political life all of my life.” There have been numerous efforts by both parties to get me to run for various things through the years, and it’s just not been something I wanted to do. But given the journey I’ve had, this is where I need to be, I’m certain of that. I come to this place for service. I love, love, love North Carolina. And I’m hurting for our state and we have a lot of people without work. We’re in an economic transition and a lot of change has to be made.
Q. Take me through your decision-making process. What questions did you need answered? Who did you seek out as a sounding board?
The first thing I turned to was prayer. I’m at a place in my life where I want to be at the center of God’s will and I know that scares people when I say that. I don’t think anyone would describe me as a radical religious anything. My relationship with God is a way of life. It’s how I choose to interact with people, it’s how I choose to love others, how I commit to live in a place of honesty and integrity, it defines who I am as a person. The second thing, I called two folks I have great respect for, people who pushed back on me from a spiritual standpoint. “You’re headed to the ministry, what does this have to do with that?” It forced me to think through that. Then I sat down with my husband and all four of my children. They were all in the boat immediately.
Q. What do you think drives you to pursue all these different career paths?
I’ve been establishing where has my heart really been singing, where do I never want to return. I realize the job in this life for me is where I could lead significant change and impact people, companies and communities in a positive way. My parents gave their lives to service. That’s how I was raised, what I saw them model.
Q. How do you see your role at Commerce? How will you approach the job?
We want to create jobs that employ people well in this state. The approach I take is to try to think about how we use the resources that exist in this state to grow this economy again. It means recruiting some new companies here, it means growing some companies organically. How do we ignite the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in an economy like this where people aren’t finding corporate jobs but have a dream of creating something of their own?
Q. Do you have specific priorities beyond that?
I don’t yet. I will. I’ll leave it general at this point. We need a strategic plan for growing the economy and we don’t have that now. We need to rebrand North Carolina. I don’t think the world knows how incredibly great this state is.
Q. What’s your sense of North Carolina’s economy and business environment? Are we failing or are we recovering?
I think we are recovering. I think it’s slow and we’ve got to be able to manage a diversity of initiatives to grow the economy more rapidly. We need to get better at a multi-pronged approach that makes it possible for many different industries to thrive in this state. Tax reform impacts all types of industries, so that’s a critical piece of this pie.
Q. Do you have any sense of the culture at the Department of Commerce and what changes it needs?
Flying in here on my scooter (she’s recovering from foot surgery), no one knows I’m coming, that probably rattled a few windows around here. I suspect we’ll move a little faster than we’ve historically moved. And we’re going to have a whole lot of fun. I don’t know how much fun they’ve had.
Q. What are your biggest concerns coming into the job? What do you most worry could keep you from accomplishing all you want?
I worry we will get caught up the quagmire of bureaucracy. I said to two friends, “I want you to hold me personally accountable that I not become a bureaucrat. When you sense I’m losing passion and energy raise your hand at me and say, ‘Decker, you’ve become one of them.’”
Q. Are there specific lessons or relationships from your time in Charlotte that you will be able to use in this new job?
[When the Chamber picked her as chair] that community gave a rookie a big chance and I will always be thankful. Charlotte looks for those people who have skills and ability and gives them a chance to show what they’ve got. Bill Lee and Bill Grigg did that for me at Duke, the Chamber did that, Pat McCrory did that for me here.
The other thing, relationships matter. Some people collect Beanie Babies. I collect people. I love people. I love learning about them. I love hearing their stories; that just turns me on.
There were leaders in Charlotte who said, “We’re going to make a difference here.” They decided they were going to do it and they did it. I just try to do the same thing.
Pat shared that one of the things he valued in me was my ability to put together partnerships around common causes to make it happen and that’s what we have to do here. Find those places and quit fighting and work forward together.
Q. Beyond running the Commerce Department, do you see yourself having more of a role in advising McCrory on all kinds of issues as a member of his cabinet? How well do your politics (she’s registered unaffiliated) match up with his?
I do think he’ll look to me for advice on a variety of issues as a third party, an objective party. I’m not a political animal; it’s not what motivates me and I think Pat respects that. Pat does value that. He knows I’m going to come at the issues not from what Republicans think or what Democrats think but as what Sharon thinks. I do my homework and research but it’s not based on party affiliation. I think he’ll come to me and he already is for an opinion and he knows he’s not going to get a party line.