Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Jo Ann Davidson Ohio Leadership Conference
Feb. 21, 2020

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, at the State Auto Insurance Building in Columbus, OH)

Good afternoon, everyone.

Thank you, Betty, for that introduction.

I know we are here to celebrate the work of Jo Ann Davidson, the first and only woman Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Betty Montgomery should also be celebrated as the first woman to serve as Ohio Attorney General and Ohio Auditor.

Thank you to Elise Spriggs of State Auto for hosting us today.

And thanks to all of you for the kind invitation.

I know Jo Ann can’t be here until a bit later.

That allows me to say all kinds of things about her out of earshot.

Actually, I have nothing but praise for Jo Ann.

The acclaim includes her long, long tenure in public service.

And, most important, the quality of her service.

Of course, I wouldn’t be describing Jo Ann if I didn’t also note the intensity of her service.

No one got things done and got down to business like Jo Ann.

That was true throughout her legendary career as an elected official, and it remains true today.

Jo Ann was finishing her speakership during my term as lieutenant governor.

I can tell you, just being in a meeting run by Jo Ann was an education in a lot of things ...

Politics, of course.

But more important – leadership.

Jo Ann exuded leadership.

Effective leadership is built on many factors. Jo Ann was an expert in all of them:

Knowledge, for one.

When you sat down in a meeting with Jo Ann, you soon found out that she had done all of her homework, and then some.

Application is another important attribute.

Jo Ann was always the leader in applying her knowledge of a subject – or of a problem – or a course of action that had to be taken.

Next would come reality.

Jo Ann would apply the reality of the situation to the knowledge and goals.

She would set a high bar but keep the goals in the domain of the do-able. The goals would be reasonable.

Here’s what followed all this efficiency: Results.

Jo Ann was all about results.

The term “results-oriented” has become a cliché, I suppose. But there really is such a thing.

Being focused on goals and how to get there is a great attribute.

It is a signature quality of great leaders.

I was asked to come here today to share with you some of my ideas about leadership. So, I will.

All of you have been receiving large doses of Jo Ann’s ideas and style these past several months.

We probably don’t agree on everything, but I think we would agree on these things:

Women need to step up and get involved.

That’s essential for our society. We’re half the population and we’re a diverse group.

We don’t always approach issues like men do, nor should we.

All of you know that the participation of women in the public arena is at an all-time high.

And yet, the Republican Party has a way to go to ride the front of this wave.

Following the 2018 mid-term elections, the number of women taking office on Capitol Hill in Washington reached 127 – a record for the House and Senate.

The party breakdown goes like this: 106 Democrats and 21 Republicans.

That’s 23 percent for the GOP, about the same as in the 50 state legislatures.

In Ohio, a record number of women hold legislative office.

In the 99-member House, 28 are women.

Of those, 19 are Democrats and 9 are Republicans.

For the Dems, that 19 represents half of their delegation because the Dems only hold 38 seats.

On the Republican side there are 61 House members, so the 9 women caucus with 52 men. 

Of the 33 Ohio state senators, 8 are women – split evenly among Dems and Republicans.

But again, the percentages tell a story.

There are only 9 Democratic seats overall, so 4 is nearly half.

The Republicans hold 24 seats, so the 4 women represent one-sixth of the total.

Having stated these rather bleak numbers, I have some other figures for you.

Not long ago, NBC News ran this headline on its website: “More Republican women than ever are planning to run for office.”

The article was based on NBC’s own reporting and figures from the non-partisan Women’s Campaign at Yale University.

Now, this isn’t a trend – yet. But the Yale officials called it significant.

They cited – interestingly – the success of Democratic women in 2018 for the rise in interest shown in the Yale program by women from both parties.

This interest has been captured by other news organizations as well.

Quotes from Republican women who want to be newbies in politics show a diversity of viewpoints on issues.

That would seem to be a page from the Jo Ann Davidson playbook.

Jo Ann once admonished women entering politics to, quote, “Be sure you stay in the mainstream, where the public policy is.”

Prejudice against women running for office will remain an obstacle for a long time.

Here’s a quote: “There are times when women have to be better prepared.” That was Jo Ann speaking long ago, but it remains so true.

I can tell you that in my line of work, preparation is everything!

You know that old notion, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Throughout my career, I have encountered some of the same challenges and triumphs that I am sure many of you in this room have experienced yourselves.

I went to law school at a time when there were few women taking that path.

I am one of only a very small number of women who have ever served as a county prosecutor in Ohio.

Progress may be slow, but it has been happening in Ohio. When I joined the Supreme Court 17 years ago, I was proud to be a part of the first female majority.  

While I was able to carve out a path of my own, I also can look back and recognize that I was able to stand on the shoulders of many who came before me.  

Florence Allen was the first woman to become a Justice of a state supreme court in America. Proudly, we can say, she was from Ohio.

Later, she became the first woman to serve as a federal judge, appointed by FDR to our home district, the 6th U.S. Circuit.

Progress continues with trailblazing women.

Last year our Court welcomed the first African-American woman elected to our bench by Ohio voters.

Justice Melody J. Stewart has been a welcome addition to our group of justices.

I might add that, we, as women, have held the majority of the seven seats on the Court at several points in the past two decades, and that is the case today.

I proudly sit beside Justice Sharon Kennedy and Justice Judi French, who are up for re-election this year, and Justice Stewart.

I echo Jo Ann’s vision about why she started the leadership institute 20 years ago.

We are nothing without mentors.

I would not be at this spot in my career if it were not for family, great teachers, friends and mentors.

These are lawyers and judges who I’ve been acquainted with, friends with, and have learned from.

On a personal note, I had two wonderful role models in my mother and grandmother.

I would not be standing here before you today had it not been for the love, support, encouragement, and leadership of my mother and grandmother.

They were women who led not by their words, but also by example.

Jo Ann Davidson is from that mold – and Jo Ann wants those attributes to grow among talented women, like you.

Running for public office and holding office honorably is such a high calling. That alone means women have a rightful place in the political arena.

All of you have received months of training and interaction with other talented women.

We raise each other up.

We teach each other how to master the art of public speaking.

And, of course, we help each other learn how to raise money to run for office.

The truth is, you cannot win campaigns without money.

Yes, you can tout your experience.

You can flaunt your resume.

But – as Jo Ann once said, You need to have the confidence and conviction to walk into a CEO’s office and say, “I need your help financially to help me win this election.”

Some of you may feel more comfortable doing so when you have a cause worth fighting for at the top of your mind.

If so, you might want to think about this – being a woman, you ARE part of the cause.

You are the cause worth fighting for.

Looking back at my campaign for lieutenant governor, for associate justice, and more recently, for Chief Justice, the gender issue was important to some audiences and irrelevant to others.

I always found it most useful to speak with voters on a personal level.

I told them about my experience and my views.

I quickly came to realize that for voters, “gender barrier” was a foreign concept. 

I hope not to be judged – and I’m sure all of you do too – not on my gender but on how well I get the job done.

So, how do you take that first step?

As Jo Ann has instructed you, you must get out there and volunteer.

You cannot wait, and be asked to participate, to run for office. You must show up.

I’m a big fan of showing up – not just going through the motions, but really getting into the trenches and participating.  

I can speak for those of us who are elected officials in this room when I say – there is nothing like public service that makes you feel like you have made a difference.

Even if you aren’t an elected official, there are things you can do right now at your job to get your ready to run for office.  

First, never be on time. That’s right.

Show up 15 minutes early for the workday and for every meeting.

Always be available and return phone calls.

Be prepared.

Do your homework on issues.

Sure, you have to be prepared to talk about yourself. You have to be comfortable with that.

But never forget to listen to voters. Ask questions about them. Show a personal interest in them, in their families, in their views.

That’s how you start a dialogue.

And dialogue leads to acceptance.

I’ve heard stories that when Jo Ann Davidson would walk into a room full of lobbyists, she had done her homework and then some.

I’ve always tried to do the same, when I sit before attorneys at oral arguments.

Experience, hard work, and diligence will close any perceived gender gap.

Take what you do in your job very seriously.

Find a mentor in politics – someone to look up to – someone who has been through the battles.

Their experiences about losing a campaign can be as useful to you as war stories about winning – maybe even more so.

Over time, you can succeed, be elected to office, and become a mentor in your own right.

When that time comes, BE that leader.

I think we can all agree that being a leader means many things to many people.

But, I would argue that there are a few common traits of effective leadership – despite differing leadership styles – that cross the gender lines and are worth pointing out.

You should lead by example and lead through listening.

Truly listen.

Don’t be ready to make that next argument.

Remember to give credit where credit is due.

Share the spotlight, and, in fact, let others shine.

Be slow to criticize – yet quick to praise, especially in public.

Being a good listener also demonstrates a capacity for – and an appreciation of – leadership.

Remember, a leader who doesn’t have all the facts cannot make an informed decision.

Effective leadership means hearing the pros and cons of an idea, even when the cons are the last thing you or your audience want to hear.

An honest leader also employs fairness and compassion.

It means making honest assessments.

When doing so, it’s important to deliver a negative assessment humanely and with a deft touch that appreciates the other person’s situation.

Leadership also means knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

Develop a leadership style that works for you.

As a leader there will be times when you fail to lead. You will assess your own performance and determine that you came up short.

Those times are opportunities for you to improve.

Ask others to critique how you handled a situation and how you could have done better.

Share your strengths with others, whatever they may be.

These are principles I learned over the decades.

They apply whether you wear a skirt or a suit and tie.

Employ discipline. Women tend to be reluctant to employ discipline to subordinates or to correct them a little.

I’m not only encouraging you to do it – you must do it.

How you go about doing it is important.

Do it in private, and ensure it is constructive criticism.

Be proactive, or at least don’t let the behavior or mistake linger. I can tell you, even today, I am always learning.

I offer you the advice that your education is just beginning.

Absorb what mentors and colleagues can teach you.

Learn about yourself through the eyes of others.

Learn as much as you can about your colleagues.

Learn as much as possible about public policy.

Whether it’s positive or negative, there are lessons to be had in just about every situation.

Excel in what you are doing right now.

Also, find comfort in your family and friends.

It’s important to have hobbies and to create a true work - life balance.

It makes you a more well-rounded person.

All of this will help you build self-confidence.

Don’t be afraid to take a risk and seize an  opportunity.

We need to have the confidence to say, “I can run for this office” ... and ... “I can handle this job.”

I want to share with you a bit more about my leadership career path.

I always say it’s been more like a winding road than a straight and narrow one.

I’ve had to explore my leadership potential and develop my own leadership style – even before those quote-unquote leadership roles materialized.

Obviously, my law degree opened many opportunities for public service – to work as a magistrate, judge, county prosecutor, lieutenant governor and justice and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

I’ve served in all those roles, but one job didn’t necessarily lead to another.

It might sound contradictory, but each of these unconnected steps prepared me for the next step.

I was fortunate to do well at every step so the doors of opportunity remained open.

I also paid attention and learned from my mentors and colleagues.

You will have setbacks.

When you do, it’s important to know how to get up and shake it off.

That sounds easier than it is, but you just have to commit yourself to it.

Setbacks will sting. But the lessons learned will make you realize the challenges have just made you stronger.

Believe that opportunities will come your way, because they will come.

Even if it’s a job that may not be your dream job, it can lead you to where you want to be.

Finally, it’s worth repeating.

Don’t be afraid to take a risk and seize the opportunity.

I took the risks. 

You can too.

Believe in yourself.

Believe in your destiny.

The sky’s the limit. 

Thank you for this opportunity.

I’m now open to answer your questions.