A USC Rossier Alumna Discovers a Love for Government
USC Rossier’s Online OCL program helped Georgia Steele EdD ’18 achieve organizational excellence
By Diane Krieger
In her climb up the public-service ladder, Georgia Steele EdD ’18 rose from call-center agent to the executive suite of Georgia’s tax collection agency—all before her 38th birthday.
Steele, who today is chief performance officer of the state’s Department of Revenue, is among a growing number of leaders outside the field of education choosing to build their skill set through USC Rossier’s online doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership.
Born and raised in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Steele grew up feeling both challenged and supported, surrounded by family.
Her hardworking mom moved to New York City when Steele started high school, seeking better opportunities in the health care industry. Steele followed her to New York for college. She received her bachelor’s in business information systems from the City University of New York in 2004 and a master of public administration from Long Island University in 2010.
During college, Steele took a job at 311, the call center that fields questions related to city services
“That’s where I fell in love with government,” she says.
Around that time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg set an outlandish new target for 311 calls to get answered within 60 seconds. Few imagined such ambitious efficiency goals could be achieved by a city-run agency, but Steele’s department met the benchmark.
“It planted a seed in me,” she recalls. “I wondered, ‘Could we bring these private-sector customer-service concepts into other areas of government?’”
She worked her way up to team leader before moving to the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission as a supervisor in 2007. She was quickly promoted to a directorship and, upon completing her MPA degree, to assistant commissioner.
In 2012, Steele left New York for a position with more responsibility in Atlanta. She also wanted to be closer to family and to provide better opportunities for her son. When she took the $45,000 pay cut to become assistant director of Georgia’s Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), “family and friends said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I had a very straightforward conversation with God. I knew I had a greater purpose, and I had to listen to what my heart was saying,” she says.
Within two years, Steele was named MVD director—supporting 200 offices that issue more than 10.2 million vehicle registrations statewide. At the time, Steele was the nation’s youngest person in that role. She’d just turned 33.
The people who pulled me from the edge were my classmates. They knew my dreams and aspirations. They knew the things I was capable of, and they pushed me.” — Georgia Steele EdD ’18
She didn’t need another degree to keep advancing. “But we all have that burning thing that we know we’re supposed to do,” she says. The doctorate in leadership “was calling.”
Steele was interested in studying the management of a multigenerational workforce in government. “I wanted to understand how to best support people regardless of their generational cohort,” she says.
The EdD, she knew, would be far more challenging than her master’s—and she’d wept tears of relief upon completing that program. Balancing raising a teenage son, while beginning the work of implementing the largest technological system upgrade in over 20 years, and the demands of leading the day-to-day of a complex division left little free time.
With USC Rossier’s EdD program, Steele found a good fit: live classes she could attend without leaving home and a program with national stature and academic rigor. “USC was doing this revolutionary thing. No one else had an academic program structure that was this robust,” she says.
Enrolling in 2015, she found herself embedded in a diverse learning community. Her cohort included education leaders, but also “police chiefs, counselors and classmates studying from as far away as Japan and Dubai,” she says.
There were some “exceedingly difficult times” when she contemplated taking a leave of absence. “I lost one of my aunts to pancreatic cancer during the program,” she says. Steele drove her 60 miles each way to receive weekly treatments. “The people who pulled me from the edge were my classmates,” she says. “They knew my dreams and aspirations. They knew the things I was capable of, and they pushed me.”
Last year, Steele was appointed the first chief performance officer in the Department of Revenue, which encompasses the MVD. The role is focused on strategically aligning the agency for the achievement of its goals and creating a culture committed to organizational excellence.
She’s now focused on creative ways to incentivize customer-service excellence in a workforce operating remotely. It’s a tall order to improve performance during a pandemic, but it’s a task that Steele is more than prepared to take on.
This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2020 issue as “Finding Her Calling.”