Mar 26

Applying Team Leadership Skills to a Different Kind of Public Service

Mary_KolarComing out of a long and successful career in the military, some might contemplate a quick escape to the golf course; others, such as Captain Mary Kolar, USN (ret) took advantage of post-military life to take “public service” to a new level. Currently serving as Director of Public Operations for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA,) Mary is also running for a position on the Dane County Board of Supervisors.

VSB: Mary, anyone taking a look at your LinkedIn profile can see that you have not been sitting idle since you retired from the U.S. Navy five years ago. When you left military service, did you anticipate you’d soon be serving on multiple nonprofit boards and also serving as director of public operations for an art museum in Madison? What led you down this path?

KOLAR:  I knew as I prepared to retire from active duty service that I would live in downtown Madison. I was confident that with the many education, non-profit, and government organizations in town, I would be able to find employment. My priority was to find work I would enjoy, that would contribute to my community, and that would not involve a long commute. Serendipity led me to the MMoCA. As the Director of Public Operations, I am able to enjoy work, people, and art. Plus, my commute is a 5 minute walk from my condominium to my MMoCA office.

On active duty, I had been chief of staff of a major command, so 10+ hour days were routine. My husband complained I was wedded to my Blackberry as much as to him. I was looking forward to some rest and fewer responsibilities, yet at the same time, I looked forward to making a difference in my new community.

Within in weeks of moving full time to Madison, next door neighbors asked me to run for our condominium association board of directors. I was elected and was also voted by fellow directors to become the board President. I have since been reelected three more times. The feedback I receive most often is how appreciative people are about how I run meetings and that I “run the board like a business.”

I also became involved in veterans affairs. Wisconsin has a strong tradition of honoring and supporting veterans. One thing led to another and I was appointed to the Dane County Veterans Service Commission and the board of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Foundation. I have found working with veterans to be very rewarding and I recommend it to everybody leaving active service.

I now joke that I have successfully filled my days to be as busy as I was while on active duty. In place of the Blackberry, I have a smart phone. At least my husband can’t complain about it, since he bought it for me.

For however many years we were in the military, we were there to serve. The nonprofit sector is a way to continue to serve and on behalf of causes for which we have the greatest passion.

VSB: Would you recommend working in the nonprofit sector to senior military leaders currently in transition? What are some of the similarities and differences you see between the nonprofit sector and military service?

KOLAR: I definitely recommend working in the nonprofit sector. For however many years we were in the military, we were there to serve. The nonprofit sector is a way to continue to serve and on behalf of causes for which we have the greatest passion. My passion is for leading people to achieve a common goal. MMoCA and its art enable me to do so in an exceptionally beautiful environment.

At the museum, I am responsible for, on average, 14 people. These employees, most of whom are undergraduate or graduate students, are similar to a military division. We provide security and ensure our guests have a pleasant experience. Being able to develop a team, as I did in the military, is another aspect of my work that I appreciate at MMoCA. I have a much lower employee turnover rate than is the norm in the museum security industry. I attribute this to the environment I have been able to create. MMoCA leadership has enabled me to be a valuable member of the organization, and  through my military experience, I am able to do the same within my department.

One of the things I appreciate most about work in the nonprofit sector is greater recognition of commitments outside of the workplace.  While I wouldn’t trade my 28 years of active duty service for anything, I don’t miss the 24/7 expectation of availability. Another benefit is a more stable workforce, i.e., people aren’t leaving after two to three years. While I treasure the friends I made at every duty station, there are too many I have not seen in years. Now, I have friends and colleagues who have been at MMoCA for decades.  I have been at the museum for more than four years and, other than my part-time employees, I am still one of the newest staff members.

My advice for those preparing for transition is to be open to the unexpected possibilities.

VSB: If you knew when you were getting ready to retire from the military what you know now, is there anything you might have done differently to better prepare yourself for the transition?

KOLAR: My life is so good; I am having difficulty thinking of anything I would have done differently; perhaps if I had known I would be working in a contemporary art museum, I would have spent more time in art galleries and observing their security practices.

During transition assistance training, we are advised to make a list of our passions when considering future employment options. Mine were food, wine, and animals. Though I am not directly in the food or wine industry, so much of my post-military work and play activities involve sharing the products of the vigneron and farmer.

My family and I also volunteer at and sponsor Veterans Equine Trail Services, an organization that assists active duty and former military members with their transition to the civilian world. Being with the horses is very therapeutic for everyone involved.

My advice for those preparing for transition is to be open to the unexpected possibilities.

VSB: I understand you are currently running for a position on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. How did your military experience prepare you to run for office and do you see an expanded role for yourself in politics further down the road?

KOLAR: “Leadership” is the word I hear most often when people tell me why they are pleased I am a candidate for the Dane County Board of Supervisors. They see my organizational skills and methodical practices.  Early in my Navy career, I was rewarded for my work ethic and management skills. These same abilities are being recognized as voters prepare to go to the polls to select a candidate.

The same attributes rewarded by the military have also prepared me for service on the County Board:

  • Ability to lead when necessary.
  • Being a contributing member of a team that researches solutions to problems.
  • Capacity to work with others to develop plans to avoid future problems.  

My expanded future political role will be to help more women get elected…There needs to be a woman at the table for the female voice to be heard.

My expanded future political role will be to help more women get elected. The military services have recognized that 50% of the potential workforce has been ignored or minimized too long. This is true in politics as well. There needs to be a woman at the table for the female voice to be heard.

VSB: Any other thoughts you’d like to share with senior military colleagues currently preparing for transition into the civilian workforce?

KOLAR: Please ensure everyone has an opportunity to have transition assistance. I began preparing for my transition more than a year before retiring. I was able to enjoy an entire week in San Diego participating in the Navy’s transition program. My personal experience of an exceptionally smooth transition is an example of the success I experienced with this program.

I have assisted other organizations wanting to hire veterans. Too many times, I have seen resumes and applications that are undecipherable by a civilian. I have been able to help, but, for example, as a Navy veteran, I wouldn’t expect an Army veteran to know how to describe my naval duties and responsibilities. Too many veterans either don’t know how to write a civilian style resume or they have chosen not to listen to the advice they have been given. This ignorance is literally the difference between being hired or not.

Anyone making the transition needs to know how to communicate in civilian terms and manners of speech. Senior military should be prepared to do this and need to ensure that those for whom they are responsible are equally well-prepared.





1 comment

  1. Mary Kolar

    Vera, thank you for the interview. On Tuesday, April 2, I was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors representing District 1, downtown Madison, WI. District 1 residents supported me with over 70% of their votes. Mary

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