Before she became president of the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate, Donna Frett-Gregory worked for more than three decades in the territory’s central government.
Her intention was to work as a public servant for 10 years.
“As the 10-year mark came, I found myself really loving what I was doing, so I stayed in public service on various levels,” she says. “It’s all about really wanting to help, seeing areas where you can make a difference, and I wanted to jump in and work towards improving the islands.”
Frett-Gregory retired from government work in 2017, right after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devasted the Virgin Islands. “I saw that there were so many things happening where someone like myself could make a difference,” she says. She decided to run for office in 2018—“and, in my first shot, I won.”
This year, Frett-Gregory’s Senate colleagues elected her to lead the chamber. She recently spoke with NCSL about leadership, the value of government work and why she’ll never go zip lining.
What traits do you think make a good leader? Which do you excel at, and which do you work at?
To be a good leader, you have to be a good listener. I try to listen a lot. Collaborating is also important for me—it’s one of the words I use often when I work with my colleagues, especially at times when we don’t agree. I always try to find out how I can work with them. I also look for the best in people, even if they’re on the other side.
One of the things I’m working on is trying not to be that person in the room who knows everything. I want to allow others to express themselves, and then I try to jump in and be supportive of them. Basically, I believe everyone has something to offer and should have a voice.
You introduced over 30 pieces of legislation that were signed into law during your first term as senator. What experiences in your background helped prepare you to dive into your legislative career so decisively?
Before becoming an elected official, I served in government for over 30 years. This gave me a perspective on some of the policy areas that needed to be addressed in order to improve government operations and improve the lives of USVI people.
I made a point to work with a young team. I believe in millennials. They have a lot of energy, they put things together, and they make it happen. We laid out our agenda, and I worked hard to stay focused on my platform. I also believe in the art of collaboration. In an environment like this, if you want support for your legislative ideas, it is important to work with your colleagues. Essentially, I pitch ideas to my colleagues, and I asked for their feedback and their support. Don’t misunderstand me—there are times they send me packing!
I plan to do the same thing this term, but with a focus on bills that are a lot more significant, that are heavy lifts.
What book is on your nightstand?
Right now, I’m reading “Originals.” It’s a book about being a nonconformist, a book about moving the world. I like it because I see myself in the book. It gives you perspective on: how do you sell your story, how do you sell your perspective to others? I think that’s helpful when bringing a piece of legislation to colleagues and laying out the case for why they should support it.
What would surprise most people to learn about you?
I don’t like to take physically dangerous risks. I am a risk taker in policy, but I don’t like tall buildings, I wouldn’t go zip lining. I’ll take a financial risk, but a life-threatening risk? No.
What words of advice would you share for other legislative leaders?
As a legislator, you cannot work as an individual. You have to identify the people that you can work with. There are many times you may have to cross the aisle, and that’s OK. I think all of us want the same things, regardless of what side of the aisle we sit on. I’d also say to communicate with your community. Let them know what’s going on, what’s happening, what you’re working on. Keep your community updated on the happenings in the legislature and the happenings in your office.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted by Stacy Householder and Taylor Huhn. Householder directs and Huhn is a senior program specialist in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program.