Commissioner Mack Bernard and his chief of staff Wilneeda Emmanuel discuss how they built the strong relationship necessary to navigate complex decisions together.

While Wilneeda Emmanuel was studying at the University of Florida, her father sent her an article featuring now Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard. At the time, Bernard had just been appointed to the Delray Beach City Commission. Wilneeda recalls reading the article closely and thinking: ‘I want to meet him.’

Wilneeda would not only meet Commissioner Bernard but go on to manage his campaign in Palm Beach County and, eventually, serve as his chief of staff following their success in the 2016 election. Wilneeda pioneered the chief of staff role in Palm Beach County, creating and fulfilling a uniquely impactful position. After seven years of working in lock-step, the two have cultivated a close and supportive relationship. The unspoken trust they have forged is critical to Wilneeda’s success as chief of staff as she and the Commissioner navigate complex decisions together.

Laying the Groundwork

Wilneeda and Commissioner Bernard did not have the luxury of time when first getting to know each other. As Bernard’s newly appointed campaign manager, Wilneeda reflects ‘we had to become close quickly.’ In a county-level race, there is no room for ambiguity. Wilneeda needed to be in on everything.

However, this was met with resistance. As Commissioner Bernard explains, ‘our campaign operation is very, very secretive.’ When Bernard first brought Wilneeda on as campaign manager, his tight-knit team approached her with scepticism and were reluctant to supply her with critical information. Even the Commissioner himself was hesitant to open up to Wilneeda at first.

Commissioner Bernard is ‘a man of few words.’ With a knowing chuckle, Wilneeda refers to him as ‘very guarded.’ To successfully collaborate, Wilneeda had to break through to him. Frustrated with his wariness, she remembers telling the Commissioner: ‘We are going to work together. I am going to have to let my guard down and you are going to have to let your guard down. That’s the only way this is going to work.’ As Wilneeda succinctly puts it, they had to ‘allow each other to see each other.’

Committing herself to truly knowing and understanding Commissioner Bernard was integral to Wilneeda’s management of their successful county commission race and has strengthened her ability to perform as his chief of staff. As gatekeepers to their principals, Wilneeda advises all chiefs of staff to ‘actually know who you work for.’

Building Trust

To develop a strong working relationship, Wilneeda and Commissioner Bernard have established a foundation of trust. When asked how they developed this bond, Commissioner Bernard laughs and remarks that Wilneeda’s late mother ‘prayed for us a lot.’ Beyond prayer, both have taken concrete steps to prove their loyalty over time.

Wilneeda jokes that she doesn’t mess with ‘metallic bracelets,’ alluding to handcuffs. What she is really expressing through this quip is a promise to never jeopardise the integrity of the Commissioner or herself. Likewise, Commissioner Bernard emphasises the importance of respecting your chief of staff’s ethical boundaries. For both, respecting each others’ moral code is the foundation of establishing trust.

Commissioner Bernard also highlights the importance of supporting his staff’s interests. Bernard goes out of his way to encourage his staff’s professional development. Indeed, when Wilneeda approached him to discuss The Chief of Staff Association, Bernard was ‘one hundred per cent for it.’ In turn, Wilneeda reflects that she is ‘honoured and humbled’ to have ‘a boss who is supportive.’ She adds, ‘and not only a boss, he is a great person.’

Commissioner Bernard and Wilneeda demonstrate that trust is essential to efficient decision- making. The Commissioner does not ‘micromanage.’ Instead, he encourages his staff ‘to make tough decisions’ just as he does. Importantly, he notes that ‘even if they’re wrong, I still will support them because I gave them the opportunity to make the decision.’ This has always been Commissioner Bernard’s philosophy.

“Even if they’re wrong I still will support them because I gave them the opportunity to make the decision.”

Managing Differences

Commissioner Bernard describes the decision-making process in his role as ‘brutal.’ The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly challenging as the Commissioner and Wilneeda were confronted with many highly consequential choices that could significantly alter the lives of their constituents. When it comes to making these types of decisions, conflicts and disagreements are inevitable.

Wilneeda and Commissioner Bernard have very different decision-making styles and personality types. When making a decision, the Commissioner explains that he prefers to not communicate often, albeit by design. Instead, he tends to ‘go for it’ and explain his rationale later. Wilneeda, on the other hand, ‘loves to communicate.’ As a result, she has had to adapt to his style of leadership, which often requires that ‘you learn just by watching.’ Over time, Wilneeda says: ‘I had to realise that sometimes he can see further than I can and that he has a reason for everything.’ Although the Commissioner may not explain everything in real-time, Wilneeda has accustomed herself to this and has faith in his decision-making process.

“I had to realise that sometimes he can see further than I can and that he has a reasoning for everything.”

Similarly, the two also have different perspectives deriving from their generational gap. Wilneeda describes herself as a ‘millennial type A personality.’ She approaches problems from a contemporary angle that is often lacking in political institutions. For example, when considering potential vaccination campaigns, Wilneeda advocated for the utilisation of social media. She emphasised the importance of thinking beyond ‘traditional’ sites like Facebook and Instagram, highlighting other popular platforms like Snapchat and Tiktok. While she thinks these diverse perspectives are important, Wilneeda also acknowledges that she often defers to Commissioner Bernard and his practical experience.

Wilneeda and the Commissioner usually solve any disagreement with one another quickly. However, if a debate becomes more contentious, the pair have developed a forty-eight-hour no contact rule. Inspired by a professor who insisted that students wait at least forty-eight hours after receiving feedback to contact her and dispute grades, Wilneeda decided to implement a similar principle in the Commissioner’s office. As Wilneeda sums up, ‘it is a long road.’ To maintain a sustainable working relationship under constant stress, they had to find a way ‘to cool off from each other.’ If a consensus cannot be reached, Wilneeda and the Commissioner take forty-eight hours to reflect. As Wilneeda explains, ‘it just gives us both an opportunity to explain ourselves and make good decisions for all of our constituents.’

Mutual Respect

Wilneeda and the Commissioner have built a strong and productive relationship in large part due to their mutual respect for one another. As Commissioner Bernard describes ‘we’ve just developed a trusting relationship and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.’ They have both taken the time to understand each other fully. While their personalities diverge, they have a clear respect for one another that allows them to make decisions in harmony and resolve conflicts as they arise.

Wilneeda still holds on to the article her father sent her in college about Commissioner Bernard. It is a reminder of the journey they have taken together from their first meeting and first campaign win to the close bond they have today.

Wilneeda Anise Emmanuel is a champion for diversity and inclusion in politics and government. Professionally, she is the Chief of Staff to Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard and successfully managed his county commission campaign. Ms. Emmanuel was recognized and participated as One of South Florida’s 40 under 40 Leaders of Today and Tomorrow by Legacy Magazine, The Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida YoPro 40 under 40, Nominee of Young Professionals WOW Award by Central Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, Congressional Black Caucus Institute Political Development and Leadership Graduate, Anti-Defamation League Glass Leadership Institute, and Leadership Florida Connect Class 11. More importantly, she attributes her successes to her late parents, Anise and Willy Emmanuel.

Mack Bernard was elected in November 2016 to the Palm Beach County Commission, District 7. Mack ran for County Commission in order to put his experience to work for our community. He ran on a platform of creating more good paying jobs and job training opportunities; improving public safety and law enforcement relations; increasing small business, women and minority participation in county contracts; keeping taxes low; and advocating for more affordable and sustainable housing. Mack and his wife Shawn are raising their three daughters here and are very proud to be part of the Palm Beach County Family. As a real estate and tax attorney, Mack Bernard works to help others achieve the American Dream. Mack has put his life’s work into giving back to our community and serving this great country.