From Nurse to Policy Wonk
Baker Donelson's Sheila Burke, recently named chair of its federal public policy group, knows how to take the temperature of a Capitol Hill conference room. But she could also take yours.
Sheila started off as a nurse, and through involvement in health policy in college got an opportunity to interview with Bob Dole. One year turned into nearly 20, the last 10 of which were as Dole's chief of staff. After that, she switched to education to be executive dean at Harvard's JFK School of Government (where she still teaches), and then to the non-profit sector to be COO for the Smithsonian. Then she moved to Baker Donelson, where she's been since '08. We snapped her in the firm's 901 K St office with Washington managing director Scott Campbell.
What's the focus for the public policy group this year? Sheila tells us they'll be handling a variety of issues: foreign policy, defense, immigration, trade, oil and gas, and any surprises that come up (eg, natural disasters). ACA is the gift that keeps giving and the tax folks are excited about the prospect of tax reform. And when the government's not always running smoothly, what's the key to doing effective public policy work? It helps to develop relationships, understand both sides of an argument, and communicate all the time, not just when you need it. Based on the photos around Sheila's room, she's developed relationships with figures ranging from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama to Margaret Thatcher.
Here's Senator Dole in his office. Sheila jokes that he's never happier than when surrounded by 70 people doing 100 different things. Sheila tells us she took away several lessons about successful leadership: your reputation is only as good as your word; provide an ethical environment, support, and guidance; and have clearly communicated and agreed upon goals, and a path to get there.
Sheila's a frequent traveler and was in Peru going down the Amazon River a few weeks ago. This photograph is by former Senator Majority Leader and Ambassador Howard Baker though, whose pictures line the office walls. (He's now a senior counsel with the firm, which was founded by his grandfather.) Sheila pointed out one of her favorites, which brings to mind a cultural festival about the Silk Road she helped put on while at the Smithsonian. (She also oversaw the opening of Air and Space's Udvar-Hazy Center, the renovation of the Portrait Gallery, and the completion of the Museum of the American Indian.) Like she says: set your goals high but accept any opportunities where you can learn from someone.