Join Warren Miller, Fountainworks’ Founder and President, and Jessica Day, Town of Knightdale Mayor, in discussion about public leadership, as part of Fountainworks’ Public Leadership Conversations podcast (Episode One). Mayor Day shares about her journey to mayor, discusses how she makes tough decisions, highlights her leadership inspirations, and points out her go-to leadership practices/habits.
Listen here or on Spotify.
Warren Miller 00:00
Hello, everyone. My name is Warren Miller, and welcome to our conversation on public leadership. This is where we talk with leaders in the public sector, about their stories, the habits that make them successful, and what they’ve learned. We are here on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Hunt Library. Governor Hunt is a great leader in North Carolina. Very pleased to be here. And we are in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. And I am joined today by Jessica Day of Knightdale. Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica Day 00:41
Thank you, Warren. Glad to be here.
Warren Miller 00:43
So we’re here recording this in August. And it’s North Carolina in August. And it is hot, isn’t it?
Jessica Day 00:52
It is. It’s a little warm. Well, warm.
Warren Miller 00:56
Well, we are glad to have this conversation. And we’re gonna get right into it. So Jessica, six years ago, you decided to run for political office? Yes. So tell us about that. Tell me about your story.
Jessica Day 01:13
I get this question a lot. And did I always think that I wanted to be in this position that I always see myself here? And I have to say, no. I thinking back and I always had a vision board, I had a plan for where I was going to go, what I was going to do. This was not on my vision board necessarily of my plans. And in order to tell you kind of how I got here and the story, I have to rewind and tell you a little bit more about my background.
So I like to say I’m one of the rare ones. I’m from Knightdale grew up there. I’ve seen it grow from growing up there with about 1,500 people to now we’re at about 20,000 people. We were in a space where the highlights of Knightdale was Winn Dixie and Knightdale seafood and barbecue. And we had a Hardee’s; when Hardee’s came that was huge. And now I look across the street and there’s a Target, I can just walk to go to the restaurants and sit down. It’s amazing just to see the growth and everything.
But my personal story. I graduated from UNCG, went to Greensboro, and started working in supply chain and was thinking I wanted to do something a little bit different. In different I decided to get my real estate license, and I jumped into real estate. If I was going to do that, I wanted to move back home; I felt like I would have support if something happened. And so decided to make that decision to move back for a while and did new home sales. And in new home sales I was selling out of the community, actually an idea came to me and I thought about how do I find out more about the community? How do I find out what’s going on? Well, you go to town council meetings, so started going to town council meetings. And if you know me, I don’t know how to go to a meeting and just be quiet. I’m going to be the one that’s asking questions: “How? Why does it work that way? Well, what if we did it this way? What if something, what have we thought about this?”
So not only did I learn how things happen, but I also learned the power that we have when we bring our voice and we bring our thoughts.
And through that if you’re that way, too, you probably already know, you become that person where you raise your hand and somebody says, “You know what, that’s a great idea. Why don’t you do something about it?”
Warren Miller 03:42
There’s a big leap between going to a town council meeting and actually filing the paperwork to run for office. It is a big leap. So you know, one minute you’re at a town council meeting? Did you just get up in the meeting and file your paperwork? Or what was it that got you to take that next big step?
Jessica Day 04:06
So no, it was getting involved. And honestly, it was a mentor of mine. So my mentor throughout this process has been our previous mayor, James Robertson, who’s now our state representative. And I can tell you, like many others will tell you, that he’s been such a mentor for them. But he saw something in me even before I saw something in myself, and he said, “I think that you’d be great at Town Council.” I said no at first, but he continued to have those conversations with me and encouraged me and said if you decide to take this step, I will support you. I decided to do it. And I decided to run and I was on the council and I was on the council for three years. Then he was appointed as state representative. So I was appointed in the mayor seat and then decided to run for the mayor seat.
Warren Miller 04:58
And that was in 2020, or right around that period of time?
Jessica Day 05:08
2017 was when I was on the council. And then January of 2021, I was mayor.
Warren Miller 05:20
So right, right in the middle of COVID?
Jessica Day 05:24
Warren Miller 05:27
What was what was something that was unexpected? You know, did they have like a lot of snacks behind the dais? Were there just staff people everywhere brief with briefing books? What was something that you didn’t expect? Or what did you experience when you first took office that you that you’d like to share?
Jessica Day 05:50
That’s funny, because thinking about the information, and the processes, and what it takes to really make something happen, I think we automatically have these ideas of the change that we would like to see and what we would like to do. And I think one of the things that’s unexpected, when you do get into these positions is behind the scenes, all of the work that has to take place, all of the conversations, and all of the things just to make those decisions happen, the information that you need. I think that was something that was majorly surprising to me.
Warren Miller 06:30
So just on a lighter note, what’s, what are some of the kinds of requests that you get when you’re in public service? What, what’s what’s something maybe unusual, or someone might not think about?
Jessica Day 06:39
Yeah, there’s so many different when you think about requests that come. And some are just things that you really need to work on. How do we make things/how do we make change, it might be an issue that’s within the community. And some are just moments where you just get to enjoy and have fun with the residents in the community. So just yesterday, actually, I was able to go to a birthday party for one of our residents and the community, not just an ordinary birthday party. But she just turned 100, and she was doing great. She had the whole room laughing. And just to be there with her family, Miss Mary was is amazing person and just to be around her to be around her energy. And to be 100. Yeah, so we gave her a proclamation from the town official proclamation, the mayor of town. . So she was able to walk away with quite a bit. So it was it was just nice.
Warren Miller 07:48
What some of the things that people think about, particularly with elected leaders in our country, is they think about conflict, and they think about those kinds of conversations and arguments. I’m curious about the kinds of conflicts on specific issues; can you tell me about how you manage disagreements with your colleagues on the council, some of the some of the habits that you fall back to that you think are helpful for maybe others to learn a little bit more about?
Jessica Day 08:29
Yeah, I would say we work very well together. And working well together doesn’t mean that you don’t have conflict. It means that you understand how to have those healthy conversations. When we don’t agree, how do we talk about it? How do we share: this is my perspective and this is why, and then understanding the other person’s perspective. I think one thing that we’ve done very well, with the Town of Knightdale, is constantly talking about what’s our vision? And what are our values? What are our core values? What do we truly believe? And what do we want to see for the town that is ideal, not only aligning that with each other, but continuing to share it? So when we talk about something when we say something that may be an issue that comes up that we don’t agree with? Then we can take that back and say, but how does it align with our values? Does it fit? We said that we wanted to be an active and healthy community, is this something that gets us closer to that? We said that we wanted to be a safe community. We said that operational excellence is important to us. So this, to me, is about operational excellence and taking care of our staff and making sure that we are there and have the resources and everything that’s necessary for the community. So being able to constantly go back to that and being open. Sometimes it’s just listening. Instead of me saying you have to listen to what I’m saying. And this is what I exactly mean. When I’m writing. That’s it. It’s opening up and saying, “Well, let me hear your perspective and let me know why.” I still may walk away and still may believe my belief, but I at least walk away understanding why you believe what you believe. And usually, we can find a way to work together in a lot of cases.
Warren Miller 10:14
Yeah, really understanding where the common interests are. And the shared values.
I’m gonna ask you about your role as the first African American female mayor in Knightdale and what that means to you.
Jessica Day 10:36
Yeah, it means a lot to me. I believe representation is so important. Being able to, and it’s sometimes it’s just subconsciously, when we see somebody that looks like us, we believe that whatever that is, it’s possible. And so to think about that, there has not been anybody that has sat in the seat that looks like me, there may have been a doubt that: Is that a possibility? And so now for me to be able to be in the seat and to be able to share my hope: I might be the first but not the last. There are others that are coming up behind me that could be doing so much more and so great things.
I just love being able to go to have conversatoins, especially to the elementary schools in the area, and seeing the young girls that look like me, and they’re just looking up and saying “You’re the mayor. Wow.” I can just feel it. They’re saying,”If she can do it, then maybe I can do it. Maybe it is possible.”
Warren Miller 11:41
Yeah. And that’s, that is so powerful.
I’m interested in learning a little bit more about some of the practices that you have or what you do behind the scenes, that you fall back on. What are some of these good habits, good practices that you lean on?
Jessica Day 12:13
A few that I would mention is, one is grace and learning. So constantly giving ourselves grace, especially when we’re first new in a position, we automatically get into it and think that I should know everything, I should have everything I should be at this point. I had a mentor of mine, that gave me great advice. I said, I don’t think that I could do this, I don’t think I’m ready for this. And he said, “Yeah, the only reason why you don’t think you can do it is because you’ve never done it. You have to do it, and then work on it. You’re looking at people who’ve done this for 20 years, and you’re just starting.”
Giving ourselves grace, and then really taking that time to learn, has been big for me.
Another thing is my faith; my faith is very important to me. And whatever it is, however, you believe, but finding that spiritual ground. And for me, prayer is huge. And when I have situations where I have decisions, and I’m not sure what to do, my go-to is prayer; I pray about it. And I just take time and sometimes step away for a little bit to really think about the situation and pray for the answer of what’s the right direction and where to go next.
The other thing is reflection and thought: creating that space/creating that opportunity to think about and that’s thinking forward that strategy. I don’t know how many times when I start to get stressed, I step away. And then I prioritize what is going on in my life? What’s happening? What’s most important, what should I work on? What do I want the end goal to be? I’ll ask myself, a year from now, what’s going to be important? What do you want to say that you’ve done this year, five years from now? What’s going to be important, and then focus on those things. And that’s the forward-looking and then the backwards-looking is journaling. Being able to reflect on: “What did I do? What did I accomplish? What did this look like today? And what can I work on for the next day?”
Warren Miller 14:25
The practice of journaling gives you a chance to think about what you did, think about what you learned, and think about what’s next. It’s a powerful, simple habit, that that so many people rely on.
Jessica Day 14:43
It’s powerful when you go back and read your journals from a year or two ago when you were in this situation.
Warren Miller 14:51
I was that upset about that?
Jessica Day 14:54
Oh that? Really, whoa! I just didn’t know.
Warren Miller 14:58
Puts things in context.
So I understand that you’re quite a pickleball.
Jessica Day 15:05
I just started getting into pickleball, we definitely have some serious pickleball enthusiasts in the town of Knightdale. We have some nice courts too.
Warren Miller 15:11
When you’re playing pickleball, and you’re in a heated match, are people coming up to you and asking you about the police? Or about the budget or about trash collection?
Jessica Day 15:22
All, yes. And it gives space for those conversations. It’s a good space to ask: “What’s happening, what’s going on?” And for me to be able to answer some questions and give some perspective of our thought process and what we’re doing/what we’re working on, sometimes, it takes a little bit longer than expected to make some actions happen. So it’s good to be able to talk to people and tell them what we’re working on, what we’re in the process of, and what’s coming. But what I will say is the number one thing is when’s the next pickleball court being open?
Warren Miller 15:56
Sweeping across America: pickleball.
I’m interested in other public leaders that you admire, that you look up to, and we say look up to there could be in any direction, that could be from anywhere in your community, or across the country or, or across the world, who’s someone that you admire and tell me a little bit more about the kind of qualities they have that you see, that you think are really important?
Jessica Day 16:28
I’m thankful right now in the space that I’m in. And I’m surrounded by so many great public leaders in this Wake County area. And I’m sure there are so many everywhere. I touch base and work with several on a daily basis. And I admire them for what they do. And I’m constantly looking to see what I can take back as notes and things that I can do better when it comes to the mayors that are in the area, when it comes to our county commissioners.
When you asked me that question, the first person that came to mind was, and I mentioned him earlier, but he is definitely one of my mentors, and somebody that I look up to as a great leader. He’s now our representative, Representative James Robertson. And one reason why I say that is, not only is he a great leader, but if you ever get around him you ever talked to him, the number one thing he will talk to you about is leaving a legacy. I not only want to do this, but I want to help build up others. I want to help encourage others not only to do this work, but to do it well and know that I’m here as a support if you need anything. That’s why I’m here because I had somebody that wanted to pour into me and wanted to be able to help me. And I would tell you right now we have five council members. And all five of the council members probably at one point could tell you the encouragement that he’s given them and being in those positions. And that’s just one group, there are so many out there probably that could give you a very similar story. So I think about that a lot of cases when I think about a leader, and not seeing someone that’s not only working to make these decisions and do things for his community, but he’s also thinking about how do I build up other leaders behind me? I’m not always going to be in this position. So I don’t want to just leave this space. I want to build up somebody else that can take my my space when I move. It’s powerful.
Warren Miller 18:21
Switching gears a little bit, Jessica, tell me a difficult decision that you’ve had to make in office?
Jessica Day 18:31
There are a lot of difficult decisions that we make on a regular basis. And I say they’re difficult decisions, because I come from the private sector and this mindset if you just do the data right, if you just do the numbers right. In private sector, it’s does it make you money? Or does it save you money? If it does one or the other, then that’s probably the best decision you’re trying to get to which one, but in the world that we live in, there’s not necessarily this world of right and wrong, necessarily. It’s what are your true core values? What do you believe and what aligns with those values? So we’ve spent a lot of time and I talked about it earlier of identifying and saying what our values are, and then making these tough decisions. But they become easier because we’re able to filter them right back to that. And every day, whether it’s the approval of new communities, whether it is staffing and budget, how do we align and where do we put the money? Because when you’re shifting, you’re saying yes to one thing, you’re always saying no to something else, and it’s very difficult. You look at everything on the table, you want to do it all. I want to do all of these things. But you can’t, I have to say no to something. And I think on a daily basis that is difficult. And it’s timing sometimes.
Warren Miller 19:56
Every decision has an impact on someone in the community.
One of of the final questions that I have here is, what would you say to someone who is thinking about public service? You know, maybe in a phrase or a sound bite? What would you say to that next potential public leader out there that next generation?
Jessica Day 20:27
When it comes to public service, I say do it. Even when you’re scared? There’s gonna be that one time when you’re gonna say, I’m not ready. Can somebody else do this? I know this needs to happen. Somebody needs to. And at some point that somebody, we’re waiting on you, you can do it. Do it, even push yourself to say yes, I will step up. And yes, I will do this.
Warren Miller 20:56
Well, Jessica, thank you so much for this conversation. And thank you for all you’re doing. You’re an inspiration. You’re, of course, a tremendous pickleball player. But really, we appreciate the time, the insights, and the conversation today. And we look forward to all the great things that you’re going to do. Thank you. So with that, thanks, Jessica. And we will we will call it a wrap. Thanks, everyone.