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Thought about running for office but worried you’re not qualified? Read this!

A conversation with Council member (and former Mayor) Kristen Petersen. Concrete tips about success, plus specific steps to winning elected office.

Kristen Petersen can teach us a lot about the future of work. Even though her career in politics stems from 4 generations in the beautiful oceanside city of Capitola, CA, her experience is the stuff of leadership books. Aside from the usual wonderful attributes--kind, loyal, generous, brilliant, driven--it’s Kristen’s perspective on what it takes to transcend others’ expectations that’s the real lesson.

I asked Kristen where her drive comes from. At 22, she thought, “I should run for Congress one day!” So she got a job working in a Congressional office and realized that exact position wasn’t quite right for her. A 4th generation Capitolian, Kristen started volunteering with the City of Capitola to experience different ways to be of service to the local community.

Sometimes she wondered, “What makes you think you have the right to step in with ideas about how to run our city?” But the Capitola community has taken care of her family for 4 generations. And her desire to sustain that lineage was stronger than her doubts. As she puts it, “I have a nostalgia for the place even though I’m already here”.

Thanks to her hunger to be of service, Kristen became the youngest woman elected to the Capitola CIty Council. She’s proud of that, not just for the position, but because it had a chain effect--Capitola now boasts a majority female City Council, with one election after another ushering in more young women.

That’s a proud victory in and of itself. But then Kristen became Vice Mayor in 2019 and her fellow Councilmembers elected her Mayor in 2020. (The Mayoral position has a one-year tenure, so she’s proudly been re-elected as Councilmember for 2021).

At this point in our conversation, I pressed Kristen on the challenges of being a woman in politics. Or in leadership, writ large.

“There weren’t challenges to my authority, but there were with my anonymity. On the flip side of people knowing my name, I also felt a pressure to uphold that name. If I make a mistake, will I ruin my family’s legacy? But very few people, to the credit of my community, told me I didn't know what I was doing.”

I wanted to know: Was there a secret to this? I wasn’t expecting her answer:

“People and places thrive when they are loved. Being able to see old pictures of my great grandparents’ coffee shop or pointing to the restaurant where my dad used to peel potatoes when he was a kid.... It was the community aspect of it--really feeling that in my veins--that prompted me to actually take action”.

Although moved by the sentiment, I interjected--Feelings are a huge part of social change, but practical steps are also needed. I asked how she channeled her feelings into action.

Kristen’s tangible steps are superb:

What you can do:

>> Support a candidate or get actively involved with a women in politics club or political community organization. Hold an endorsement program!

>> Pick whatever you’re passionate about and get involved with your regional version of that. There’s virtually no way that everything you touch can’t relate to community, politics, and policy. You can always be the one to speak for your community. Find out ways your local infrastructure branches out from that.

>> If you care about your community, you’re qualified. The thought “I don’t know anything about____” is irrelevant. Do you manage the strategic planning and finance of your own small business or club? Everything else you learn on the job.

This is gold! But Kristen graciously provided more specifics.

How to represent yourself on the fly:

>> Come up with a 30 second way to introduce yourself. 4 sentences: 1) I am 2) I come from 3) I’m running b/c 4) This is what I’ll accomplish if I win.

>> Try your pitch on camera. Record it and watch it. Then do it again. Show it to people you know who will be honest with you.

>> Be honest with yourself. Do you sound and look confident? Are you giving good information or are you just regurgitating something?

>> For specific issues, pick 3-4 things that really matter to you and come up with 30 seconds on each. With everything else that you haven’t prepared for, be honest about what you don’t know and use it as an opportunity to learn more about what’s important to others.

For example:

“When I first ran [for office], I was at a living room meeting and I was giving my elevator pitch to several prominent business leaders. Someone asked me, ‘What do you think about sea level rise?’ And at that point, I hadn’t gotten education about it yet. It’s not only OK, it’s a chance to demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and meet needs. I got to not only learn about the issue but to show that I was happy to learn about whatever is needed”.

After all, you don’t need any formal credential to run for office. Another thing Kristen taught me:

“You can get a 3-day crash course on everything government related, and there are so many opportunities for ongoing training that really the only thing required is an eagerness and commitment to learn. Lawyers are great, but we don’t actually need any more lawyers in office. We have general council on staff for that”.

OK, you don’t need a specific degree or to know everything ahead of time. But you need a lot of money, right? Don't you have to buy ads and pay campaign staffers? Kristen’s feedback on running without money or staff:

>> Money isn’t necessarily important. Capitola’s contribution limit is $200 and I ran my campaign on $5,000.

>> Specifically for women, groups like She Should Run and Close the Gap are designed to help.

>> The beleaguered politician is often a myth. I had help and generous people who cared, but it doesn’t take professional staff. Taking 5 meetings in 2 days in addition to your full time job or getting through a 300 page briefing in a day is where the expenditure lies.

As great as these tips are, sometimes things get personal. Kristen has several beautiful, visible tattoos. I wanted to know if she felt pressure to cover them or to dress a certain way. On her appearance, Kristen notes:

“I did worry about how people might perceive me. I wore a lot of long sleeves and covered up [to hide the tattoos]. But I also used it to brand myself--if you want to support someone who’s committed to justice, elect someone with lady liberty tattooed onto their flesh!”

That said, one male politician thought he was doing Kristen a favor with this instruction:

“I always wear a suit because I always want people to think that I take this job seriously.”

Ever on point, Kristen’s reply:

“What about these tattoos actually gives the impression that I’m not qualified?”

I feel inspired by this thought. Still, in 2021, women and people of color are taught implicitly and explicitly that we have to be better or more knowledgeable or more credentialed than our white, male counterparts. Even organizations that strive not to uphold this pattern do so unless actively and deliberately challenging it head-on over time.

Looking at Capitola’s City Council Kristen notes:

“When there’s only one woman, the misconception is that she’s too phenomenal. And then when there’s 2 women, we think, ‘well they’ve filled their quota.’ We’ve had a lot of very talented, smart, and capable men on the Council. But I don’t think that many of them have looked around and thought, ‘wow, I wish there were more of me in office.’”

I ask the obvious question. How do we support more women in office? Kristen’s take:

“Women supporting, encouraging, inviting other women--It’s not about agreeing or having the same agenda. We are not each other’s competition. Other women are going to try to be prettier, smarter, better, fancier. It takes a lifetime to unlearn. There’s almost always some hidden question of ‘what if I help her and then she outshines me?’ Or ‘I made her, I helped her get here. What if everyone likes her more?’

We have to fight that as hard as possible. We need each other.

So if you’re waiting until she--whoever she is in your life--to prove herself more or jump through another hoop or become somehow shinier and fancier… don’t! Your expectations of women are not what qualifies them for leadership”.

I honestly can’t think of a better way to wrap this up. If a woman in your life is elected-office-curious, send them this write-up so they can follow Kirsten’s tips.

But even more than that… Want more women in elected office? Or in leadership roles overall?

Support the hell out of women, whether that’s yourself, your friend, or your colleague. Women don’t need to be shiner. Their hunger is their qualification. Your role? Believe in them fiercely.

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