California State Controller Betty Yee and her chief of staff, Karen Greene Ross, exemplify the power of an effective relationship between a chief of staff and principal. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and with different leadership styles, the strength of Betty and Karen’s partnership is born out of their complementarity, not their similarity.
The California State Controller is one of the most powerful figures in global finance, with jurisdiction over what would be the fifth-largest economy in the world if it were a sovereign nation. The State Controller’s office has fiscal control over more than $214 billion of budgeted public funds, over $50 billion a month in borrowable funds and serves as the state’s independent fiscal watchdog. The Controller also has broad policy reach, including her role as a board member of the country’s two most significant public pension funds and several financing authorities.
There is perhaps no greater example of the crucial role of a chief of staff, and the importance of the relationship between a COS and Principal.
Betty’s Journey from Small Business Bookkeeper to State Controller
Betty is a native of San Francisco, a daughter of immigrant parents who moved from South-Eastern China to the United States. Her family owned and operated a laundry and dry-cleaning business. She was introduced to the world of finance at a young age, acting as the business bookkeeper at just seven years old. She managed all the family’s expenses, and with six kids to feed, the money was often tight. It was life’s introduction to handling a business.
At thirteen, Betty was responsible for delivering a message to the local San Francisco school board on behalf of four Chinese-American families in the neighborhood. Convening to discuss the implementation of a bussing program, she delivered a message of support for its goals. It was a significant initiative for the families of small businesses, who often lacked a vehicle license and, with seven-day working weeks, would be required to use public transport to get to their children’s school if an emergency arose.
She fought off nerves and delivered the critical message to the board. The program was subsequently implemented. It was an achievement that made a significant impression on her – a realisation that she was a voice for someone. Even now, she remains committed to ensuring that a range of voices are being heard and believes strongly in the positive impact of diversity on effective policymaking.
In her early days of schooling, Betty was active in student government and knew that she wanted to work in the public service. At graduate school in California, she honed her already developed finance skills, focusing on case studies of local government policy responses in light of severely curtailed property tax revenues due to California’s enactment of Proposition 13.
She then went on to work as a senior staff member to several policy and fiscal committees in both houses of the California legislature, followed by a two-year stint as the chief deputy and chief of staff to her predecessor on the state’s tax commission. Her experience working in a chief of staff role impressed upon her the need to be several steps ahead of the principal. Notably, she was always aware of trending events and carefully considered how they might affect and influence her work.
After varied high profile experiences in the California Department of Finance as Governor Davis’s Chief Deputy Director for Budget and as an elected representative on the State Board of Equalization, Betty assumed the role of State Controller in 2015 and has never looked back.
Discovering her Purpose – Karen’s Journey to Chief of Staff
Karen grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and attended college in Florida before following her family to Los Angeles, California. Her post college jobs in finance, customer service and securities, left her unchallenged and uninspired.
So she decided to go to law school and got her Juris Doctorate from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. After law school, she clerked for a bankruptcy judge and enjoyed the combination of law and business. She worked as an attorney, practicing bankruptcy and state law at Perkins Coie’s Los Angeles office – a challenging and fast-paced role but one that still left her uncertain about this career track.
Karen remained on the lookout for a role more suited to her interests and personality. Even before entering public service, she had a keen interest in politics and regularly read about critical state issues. However, her introduction to the role of a chief of staff occurred more by chance than by design. While attending an event with other former law clerk friends, Karen overheard a conversation that a friend’s fiancé was having with another guest that changed her life. He friend’s fiancé was a chief of staff for a newly elected California state assembly member and he was discussing an opportunity within the office to work as a committee consultant.
After signaling her interest in the role, things moved quickly. Karen flew to Sacramento to interview for the position. She was excited to accept the offer to serve as the Chief Consultant for the Assembly Banking committee given the variety of issues and people she would interact with in this role. Once offered the job, she made the bold decision to move to Sacramento, leaving her friends and family behind.
From there, she worked in various legislative and fiscal policy roles. She worked as a senior policy consultant in both houses of the California legislature, for Governor Davis as Legislative Director for the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, for Governor Brown as Assistant Chief Counsel for the California High Speed Rail Authority, and as Deputy Controller of Investments for former Controller Steve Westly, before assuming her current role in 2015
A Relationship Founded on Respect
Betty and Karen’s relationship originated in the 1990s where they met while working as staff members in legislative policy committees. Their first project together was to address issues that contributed to Orange County’s bankruptcy. With Karen’s background in bankruptcy law and Betty’s experience in local government finance, together, they helped devise a plan that included long-term revenue pledges and changed state law requirements for government investment options.
Since they reunited as State Controller and Chief of Staff in 2015, their relationship has gone from strength to strength. As chief of staff, Karen deals with a vast array of issues that emerge on any given day. Betty explained that Karen is highly proficient in distilling the information that she needs to hear. She “sets the tone of how we operate”. Her work has contributed significantly to their reputation of being problem solvers that “don’t let things languish”. Karen explained that her background in law has helped her remain calm in the face of unprecedented issues. She half-jokingly notes her experience as a parent has been helpful as there are occasions where she has felt like she needed to act like a parent. Every person on their staff has a different skillset and adds something of value to the team as a whole. It is Karen’s job to hear, understand and know to deploy these skills to different situations.
Karen says she could not do her job without their team of incredible staff, including those they recruited and those that were here when Betty’s tenure began. She credits this to Betty’s leadership and personality, which helps them attract and retain talented staff. Betty’s energy and empathy are ever-present. She cares deeply about her constituents and uses this to guide policy development and implementation at every step. Karen has a more assertive personality and leadership style, while Betty is softspoken but clear, confident, articulate, and highly adept in diplomacy.
In combination, their diverse personalities work in sync and allow them to elevate the skills of their staff. Betty and Karen have also developed some guiding principles, which drive their approach to their positions. Perhaps the most important of these is collaboration. Many of the issues that they deal with are interrelated, and it is only through partnership that they can best devise a solution. Betty strongly believes in the philosophy “do not work in silos”. Each of their senior staff’s work is enhanced by purposefully sharing the important issues of what is happening across business functions. Both believe it is mutually beneficial for senior staff to discuss key cross cutting issues and get input from diverse perspectives.
Betty notes how important it is to always remain present and visible, particularly in an executive role. However, she also stresses the importance of delegation; and revealed it was one of the most difficult skills that she has had to develop. Significantly, Betty emphasises that even when delegating, you should remain present and aware of the work and perspectives of your staff.
Ultimately, Betty believes the most crucial leadership attribute is to be authentic. Vulnerability demonstrates empathy, and empathy creates a greater connection with constituents.
Trailblazing Women of Influence
Betty and Karen are high-profile female leaders in an industry that is still a maledominated field. While women are still underrepresented in politics, Betty speaks often on the need to re-think the way we assess women’s viability to serve in these types of roles. For example, when running for statewide office, most people judged her suitability on how much money she could raise. Moreover, in 2014, she entered her campaign as the underdog. Still, she was supremely confident in her ability to do the job and put all her energy into gaining the trust and confidence of voters.
To instill real change, Betty thinks women need to define the rules of the game and not be dictated by them. “Women often undervalue their own experience and what they can bring to the table”. After all, equal gender representation leads to a broader lens through which we view how policies will affect the community.
Karen has seen first-hand the challenges that women in politics uniquely face. In particular, she recalled a specific board meeting where she called out one of the members for constantly interrupting Betty while she was talking. Nevertheless, Karen looks to the fantastic female leaders emerging in politics as evidence of the growing prominence of women in the industry. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and recently elected US Vice President Kamala Harris are all incredibly effective leaders in their own right who exemplify the value of female voices in politics.
Commitment to Public Service
In a globalised world where the private sector has become an enticing prospect for young people entering the workforce, Karen and Betty explained why working in the public service is an exciting and rewarding career. Karen believes that young people are increasingly concerned about the multitude of problems facing the world, and a career in public service allows them to help address these challenges.
Betty noted that it is only in the public service that you can experience the intersection of issues all in one place. In an era of finite resources, young people will need to lead the charge in finding more effective, efficient and sustainable ways to deploy financial resources. It is not only about the issues we are facing today, she says, but also about having the ability to influence what their futures will look like sustainably.
Transcribed and Edited by Jeremy Costa, The Chief of Staff Association.