New HHS Commissioner is ready to serve


Nicole Anderson wasn't looking for a new job; she was happy in her role as Director of the Band's Four Winds Lodge Healing Center in Brainerd.

But one day she received a call asking her to meet with Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin because Nicole was being considered for the position of Commissioner of Health and Human Services.

"It was a very humbling experience," said Nicole. "Whether I’d been confirmed or not, I was humbled that my name would be put forward."

From there things moved quickly. Next she was asked to appear before Band Assembly, which ratifies nominations by the Chief Executive. "I put a lot of preparation into it, but you’re always nervous when you have to go in front of that panel," she said. "They were all really welcoming, and I guess it went well because I’m sitting here today."

Having worked for the Band in various capacities for years, Nicole came in with a wealth of knowledge about tribal government and the Health and Human Services Department. As Four Winds Director, she had attended many meetings with other HHS directors and knew them well — Behavioral Health Director Crystal Weckert, Community Support Services Director Kristian Theisz, and Medical Director Dr. Donald Gunderson.

Still, the first few weeks had a few surprises — including a trip to Washington D.C. her second week on the job.
"In my old job I was used to traveling around that state, but that was a huge change," Nicole said. "But the biggest surprise was just how fast-paced it is. There’s always something going on. I’m a planner and a structure person, but I'll often get a call and have to run somewhere."

As a result, she has to prioritize, delegate, and lean on staff like her Executive Assistant, Michelle Beaulieu, and her Executive Director, Jan Manary.

"Michelle runs my calendar and reminds me of a lot of things I need to be doing," said Nicole.

Jan, who is "phenomenally smart," helps Nicole keep things in perspective. One day she asked Nicole "How does one eat an elephant?" Nicole didn't know. "One bite at a time," said Jan.

"I know things aren’t going to move as fast as I want," said Nicole. "I'm a micromanager, but I'm trying not to be. You have to trust your employees to do their jobs. I believe in servant leadership. If you support the team, give them tools, and empower them, you’ll see them continue to grow."

At the top of her agenda is planning a move later this year to the new health center in District I — a "one-stop shop" that will bring most of the department's programs, including the clinic, under one roof.

At present, HHS staff are scattered among several buildings: Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic, the Family Services office in Onamia, and the old Public Health building two miles north of the casino.

The new location will be a huge benefit to staff and Band members, but getting moved and situated will require a significant effort.

Nicole and her staff will be visiting community meetings in coming months to get ideas and keep Band members informed on the progress of the relocation.

Well prepared

Nicole moved around as a child, attended Brainerd High School, and graduated from Onamia. She has worked at the casino, in the Behavioral Health Department, and in the Human Resources Department — experience that comes in handy as supervisor of a large staff in the Health and Human Services Department. Nicole earned degrees in management and criminal justice on her way to a master's in human services.

"I’ve always liked the human side of the working world," said Nicole. "In this role I might not be helping the individual, but if I can move HHS forward in a good way, that will help individuals, too."