Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Chief Financial Officer Mary Chisholm moved into the office that matched her new title in mid-August 2019. During her 13 years of employment with CPN, her promotions resulted in progressing up one side of the hallway in the accounting department and down the other.
“I will come out of the restroom and turn the wrong direction still. Old habits die hard,” she said and laughed.
Chisholm began in January 2007 as a general ledger accountant for several enterprises, including FireLake Discount Foods and the Grand Travel Plaza. After accepting the position, she dove into learning about the Nation, not only financially but historically and culturally. She took on the role of CFO after Susan Blair retired after more than three decades at CPN.
“I’m up to the challenge because I do feel like it’s some more to learn, and I do feel like I’m learning more about what Susan did for 30-something years. That definitely makes every day interesting. Makes you want to get up and come to work,” she said. “Not all jobs are that way.”
Certified Public Accountant
Although she held a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Chisholm began thinking about her larger career goals after several years’ experience at CPN.
“I knew that I couldn’t really go anywhere as far as sitting for the CPA or any more growth as far as position-wise without going back to school,” she said. “So, I decided when my oldest child went to college, I went back too.”
She committed to an 18-month graduate program at OBU in 2011 and balanced work, life and school.
“I just kept going until I was finished, and it was interesting,” she said. “I never thought I would go back to school in my 40s.”
Chisholm appreciated the unrelenting encouragement she received from CPN while she completed her graduate degree. The Tribe promoted her from accountant to general ledger auditor in 2014, and she later earned her CPA certificate.
“When I was able to pass and get that certificate, there was a sense of accomplishment, not just for me, but for the department cheering me on. Because really, to be honest, if I didn’t have that environment, I don’t know that it would have been that easy,” Chisholm said. “And it really wasn’t that easy to start with. That’s a very difficult exam.”
She now uses her expertise to ask questions from a tribal perspective among colleagues. Constantly increasing her knowledge and love for change keep Chisholm hungry for improvement, both at CPN and in the financial industry as a whole.
“As I’ve moved up, I’ve gotten more responsibility, more interaction with different pieces within the Nation. So, I’ve grown in what I know,” she said. “I may go someplace that I’ve been before and have a different outlook, too, just because I’ve learned something in the last six months to a year doing some new task that I didn’t do before.”
Growth and improvement
In the last 15 years, CPN has built grocery stores, added to Tribal services, opened a medical imaging center, and today, remains the largest employer in Pottawatomie County. Leading the accounting department means knowing the Tribe’s functions as a government, business and sovereign entity.
“It makes me think of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors because if you think of that in your head, there are 50,000 pieces to it, and it all has to be bound together in some manner,” Chisholm said. “I think that would be the best explanation. It becomes a very functional piece.”
She enjoys outlining that “functional piece” in the Tribe’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. CPN won the Government Finance Officers Association’s Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the 31st year straight for fiscal year 2018.
“The CAFR is almost like my pride and joy. … It’s an accomplishment. And it’s a toot-your-own-horn type of thing because you get to talk about what the Nation’s been doing, what the Nation’s planning to do, where we’re at financially,” Chisholm said.
The growth keeps every year interesting, according to Chisholm, and her pride for the Tribe meets its high standards.
“You see the good that can come from what happens around here. The good for the community, the good for the membership. It’s hard to put that into words,” she said. “You see it every day, and that’s just what it is around here — the positive impact of where I work.”
Chisholm realizes the benefits of good leadership as well, something she now considers daily in her new position.
“Part of my goal is to keep a good environment here — a good working environment — because I can’t do this on my own,” she said. “I want my staff to know that they’re appreciated and that I have confidence in their abilities. That’s why they’re here.”
Entering the accounting department 13 years ago, Chisholm did not anticipate the personal or professional development.
“I never even dreamed,” she said. “And as far as an opportunity, the Nation gave me an opportunity to grow because of the different jobs that I’ve held just within this department, and then to succeed. And I think that says a lot for an employer because not every employer is that supportive of advancing their staff.”
To read more about the accounting department’s achievements, visit cpn.news/accountingaward.