“I came out ready to prove something,” said Shelton. I wanted so badly to not have people take it easy on me or to look down on me and think that I was weak. So, I set out to do everything it takes to reach my full potential.”
Growing up, her mental toughness and competitive spirit paid off in many ways, including as an athlete. She participated in four sports during high school and played varsity tennis at Simpson. After a so-so season her first year, she went all-in to elevate her game.
Shelton spent the summer before her sophomore year hitting tennis balls every single night until dark. As she took the court for her sophomore season, everyone marveled at a completely different player. “My coach was like, ‘Holy Cow! What happened?’” Shelton became the Storm’s #1 singles player while earning team MVP honors three years in a row.
She says she learned early on to focus on the things she could control — such as competing on the tennis court or forging her way through the many challenges of organizational leadership. Her seemingly simple approach to creating change has produced profound results.
Scouting New Territory
When Shelton was appointed CEO of the Greater Iowa Girl Scouts in 2016, she came with considerable non-profit leadership experience, including as an Iowa director for the American Heart Association. But her working knowledge of Girl Scouts didn’t go much beyond a box of Thin Mints.
“I was not a girl scout and knew very little about the role,” said Shelton, who leads 14,000 Girl Scouts and volunteers from 70 countries. “In many ways, I think that really helped me ask the important questions in a fresh way and to look at everything from a new lens.”
Shelton quickly saw she was right where she belonged. She went all-in, becoming a troop leader and encouraged her two daughters to join the Girl Scouts. But she also walked into a tough situation. Organizational morale was low, turnover was high. Clearly, big changes were needed to turn things around.
“I talked to every employee one on one,” said Shelton. “I listened to what the hurdles and hardships were. I think that was a big first step in learning about the organization and what we needed at the time.”
Baby Steps to Transformation
Shelton took her team’s concerns to heart — thoughtfully considering, she says, feedback and ideas on everything from employee benefits to dress code. Her positive responses to seemingly small issues ultimately made a big difference. Workplace satisfaction rate rocketed from 19 percent to 97 percent and annual employee retention improved from 60 percent to 94 percent.
“I just want to be positive and help move the needle on how people feel more fulfilled. The incremental impact of saying yes100 times to the things that our employees want and value really drove the transformation of the culture here.”
Perhaps the most pivotal moment was Shelton’s groundbreaking decision allowing parents to bring their babies to work. When initially asked about the provision, Shelton said her instinct was a hard “no.” But after 24 hours of reflection and research, she did a 180 and implemented a pilot program in 2019 that proved wildly popular and successful.
Shelton’s Facebook blog post announcing the move drew 20,000 shares and likes. Good morning America, The Today Show and many other national media covered the story. She received an invitation to speak at the National Academy of Sciences Conference, where she shared how her team worked together to create innovative change in the workplace. Her life has never been the same since.
“It was an amazing experience that opened the doors to outlets and change makers who wanted to learn more about my leadership style and its benefits. I started getting more invitations to speak at venues across the country and it really hasn’t slowed down much.”
Shaped by Simpson
Twenty years ago, Shelton didn’t necessarily envision becoming one of the nation’s most in-demand experts on transformative leadership and empowering women in the workplace. She is grateful for the lifelong lessons learned while earning her degree in religious studies from Simpson.
“I had a tight-knit group of professors and peers, and learned about critical thinking, especially on topics that I knew very little about. I may not have a career in religion, but I learned a lot about the human condition and that’s something you can carry with you into any field.”
Those Simpson insights have helped Shelton become a shining exemplar of innovative, empathetic leadership. Having accomplished so much already with the Greater Girl Scouts of Iowa, she presses on with confidence knowing she is ready for whatever the future brings.
“I find great fulfillment in simply trying to be present. I can’t see around the next corner, and I don’t need to. I just want to be fully engaged in what I’m doing right now — that’s where I find the most joy.”