CADILLAC — Don’t be afraid to fail.

That seems to be the motto for many female leaders in our area. As Women’s History Month continues, we highlight women in Wexford, Missaukee, and Osceola countries who are paving the way for the next generation of leaders.

Carla Filkins has been mayor of Cadillac for 10 years and was the city’s first female mayor when she was elected, she has worked at Munson Healthcare since 1980 as an inventory control clerk, before becoming the director of the supply chain for the south region.

Filkins decided to run for office after speaking with someone about the need for new leaders in the community and why Filkins should run.

At the time, Filkins said she had gone through a leadership program at the Chamber of Commerce where she had built relationships and developed her leadership skills.

With that question on the table, she decided to make a run for the mayor’s office but wasn’t elected. Filkins didn’t let that deter her from trying again.

“I was very passionate about trying to make a difference in our community,” she said. “I wanted to be a positive support for all the other leaders in the community. I wanted Cadillac to be a place that we could all be proud of.”

Though Filkins was the city’s first female mayor, said she was never concerned that her gender would affect how people viewed her.

“I was confident enough in my own abilities to know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female,” she said. “It’s about are you tooled up to be able to do the job, and with my education and experience, I felt like it was something that I wanted to do, and so I tried.”

Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Jennifer Brown’s education and experience prepared her to do the job. Brown has led the school district for eight years.

Brown said her leadership journey begin in 1998 when she started teaching English at Cadillac Junior High. She also split time in the high school as a humanities teacher. Her extracurricular activities included advising school clubs and coaching.

Brown said she never thought about pursuing an administrative role until the assistant principal job at the high school opened up.

“I was approached at that time by a couple of mentors who said they thought that it would be a really good fit, and they thought that I should apply,” she said. “So, I did.”

As the assistant principal, Brown said her responsibilities included course development, teacher evaluation, parent communication, professional development and discipline. Though she was ready for the challenge, Brown said she was cautiously optimistic going into her new leadership position.

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“I’ve always been very confident in my why,” she said. “Why I would do what I would do and in defense of what’s in the best interest of our students and staff. But, every time I entered a leadership position, I have learned a lot about what I need to learn.”

After eight years of serving as the high school assistant principal, the superintendent position opened up at CAPS. Having worked at the school for 20 years, Brown said she believed students, the district, and the community deserved someone who was invested in them.

“I wanted to make sure that we had the right person,” she said. “I don’t know that I was the right person at the time, but I knew that I was committed. I was committed for the right reasons.”

Once again, Brown entered the role with caution as the district was facing a facility audit and was proposing a large bond to the community. Years later, Brown would have to navigate the pandemic.

Challenges like these give her new learning opportunities. Brown said being superintendent has taught her that every day is different.

“You just have to be ready for it,” she said. “It will be OK. We’ll get through it. We’ll be stronger, we’ll learn, we’ll grow, and we’ll be better.”

Learning new things is what it’s all about for Missaukee County Administrator Elizabeth Vogel.

Vogel has served Missaukee residents in her leadership role for nearly two years, but how she got there wasn’t a straightforward path.

Vogel said in her mid 20s she was thinking about going into teaching when the Great Recession hit. This caused her to scramble for any job she could find and in 2011, Vogel said she started working at a beer company.

She joined the Rotary club in Clinton Township and the supervisor complimented Vogel on her treatment of people and offered her a job as his assistant. She took the job in April 2014.

“I think it was just the opportunity,” she said. “The job at the beer company was a great job and I was very lucky and fortunate to have a job when a lot of people still did not at that time. But it wasn’t a career path and I knew during the recession that teaching really wasn’t the career path I wanted anymore.”

Thanks to the township’s tuition reimbursement program, Vogel said she took classes between 2014 and 2019 to earn her Master of Business Administration degree.

“I enjoyed being in that line of work,” she said. “It’s an interesting line of work trying to solve problems and there were always problems to solve.

“It takes time, sometimes, and it can be tedious,” she added. “But it’s worth it in the end if you take everything into consideration, look at the whole picture, and try to come up with solutions.”

Vogel was promoted to township deputy. For the next seven years, Vogel said she worked with different department heads to solve problems and organized the strategic planning process. She was also a member of the local library board, where she learned about union negotiations and construction projects.

It created a rich learning environment, Vogel said.

“Lifelong learning is so important to me,” she said. “Any environment where I can always be learning something new and learn from mistakes, and grow and develop, that’s where I want to be.”

Vogel moved on from Clinton Township to take the Missaukee County Administrator position in June 2021. Vogel said she had a house in Reeder Township and because of her familiarity with the area, she decided to take the next step in her leadership journey.

With the county’s previous administrator having been a woman, Vogel said she knew the Board of Commissioners would have no problem envisioning her as their new leader.

“I knew when I applied for the job that at the very least the board of commissioners could see a woman sitting in this chair and so that was something that piques my interest,” she said.

The last year and a half have been a learning experience for Vogel. She has helped the county with multiple projects, obtain grants, put together several budgets, and learned about the county’s priorities.

“I’m much more comfortable in my own skin,” she said. “I’ve learned when to lead from the front, to lead from the back, and to lead from the middle. There’s room for leadership all along the line.”

While Vogel continues to learn about her job, Evart Public Schools Superintendent Shirley Howard has learned enough about her role to last a lifetime.

Howard has served the district for seven years and has nearly 53 years of experience in education.

After graduating from Central Michigan University in 1969, Howard said she was hired for a couple of teaching jobs before going to Mecosta County to teach kindergarten.

“Kindergarten is my love,” she said. “I believe in getting the students off to the best start. That’s how you have successful kids.”

When the elementary school principal job opened up in Weidman, Howard said she applied but didn’t get the job. Six months later, she has offered the job as the interim principal.

“I decided to become a principal because I would have more influence over more kids than I had being the kindergarten teacher,” she said.

“I had this feeling I could make a difference. I felt like if there’s trust and you build it as one team and you’re all working together, you can provide the best possible educational opportunity for the students.”

With that philosophy in mind, Howard would take on the superintendent job at the Chippewa Hills School District and held two jobs for several years.

Soon after retiring in 2015, Howard said a principal from Barryton called her about becoming the interim superintendent in Evart for six months. Her husband of 49 years encouraged her to interview for the job.

A day before her interview with the school, Howard said her husband passed away from cancer.

A week later, Howard interviewed for the position and the board asked if she would be interested in staying longer than six months. She said she had no clue.

Fast forward to 2023 and Howard has helped the school achieve numerous goals, including organizing a curriculum budget for new supplies, installing a consistent math curriculum for elementary and middle school students, putting in a safer pickup and drop-off loop, and bringing back industrial arts classes.

“It’s been a great journey,” she said. “It’s been a little tough for the last year. A lot of things have happened. But overall, I’ve had a great board. I have a wonderful office staff. I just have wonderful employees.”

Though it has been rare, some of these female leaders said have been treated differently because of their gender. Vogel said early in her life, she has been in a room where it was obvious people were only interested in the opinions of the men speaking.

She said those experiences hit her self-esteem.

“It’s a really weird feeling knowing that you are all educated and you all have similar credentials, but that it doesn’t matter what your thoughts are,” she said. “They’re not getting through because of your gender. It really does make you feel worthless.”

In those situations, Vogel said you have to trust your instincts. If there’s a sense you’re not being valued, she said the best thing to do is get out of the room and move on to a place where you are respected and your opinions are valued.

As leaders, these women have accumulated a lot of knowledge about what it takes to lead.

Brown said listening is important because it shows people that you value them and their opinions. She said this can help with problem-solving or making decisions for an organization. This also helps avoid making decisions too quickly.

Howard focused on building relationships. When she started a new job, Howard said she made sure to introduce herself to every single staff member and every new family who came into her school district.

“I knew that they didn’t know me,” she said. “I needed to build trust with them.”

For aspiring leaders, Filkins said you should focus on learning whatever you can every day to become a better leader. She also suggested surrounding yourself with people who can present different perspectives.

“Once you get in a leadership role, you can’t ever sit back and say there I made it,” she said. “You have to keep learning and you have to keep stretching yourself so that you can be better for the people with you.”