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The queen of can-do: Judith Felton hasn’t met a problem she didn’t want to solve

By Elizabeth Exline

As any parent knows, car rides with kids often turn into some version of “20 Questions.” Except 20 is a laughably modest number and, instead of working toward one outcome the way the game does, kids’ lines of questioning usually take a lot of detours. The upside? Kids learn a lot this way.

It’s easy to imagine Judith Felton, MSP, as such a child. Felton can trace her insatiable curiosity back to childhood in a home that valued education and encouraged her to explore her interests. She has seen it inspire her to return to college as a single mother of two, to go right back and earn her master’s degree, to pursue her doctorate and to climb the corporate ladder all the while.

“I’m a problem-solver,” she says. “I look for problems, and then I look for solutions.”

That’s not to say Felton’s journey has been easy. In fact, life has given her plenty of opportunity to fine-tune those problem-solving skills. But it’s what she’s learned along the way that makes her a force to reckon with.

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The distinction between fear and intuition

Today, Felton is unequivocally successful. As a High Touch Operations Manager for Cisco, she’s like a consultant who keeps her eye on a lot of moving parts, understanding how they’re connected and how she can leverage them to support high-profile clients. As a mother, she’s raised two children to be educated and fulfilled adults. As a friend and co-worker, she’s a trusted source of wisdom

Dorothy Arthur portrait

“She’s got a wonderful skill of listening and understanding,” says her friend and colleague Dorothy Arthur. “She’s helped me numerous times to deal with personal issues, always being able to help me see things less emotionally without judgment and offering solid advice.”

Felton exudes calm assurance, a quality that has emerged through experience. She has learned to trust her instincts.

“Every time I ignored that small, still voice, I’ve either kicked myself or regretted it,” Felton says. “Because I know that whenever it pops up, I listen. And look where I am today.”

That instinct was what told her to go back to school in 2000. She came to University of Phoenix (UOPX), but the timing wasn’t right. She was working 60-hour workweeks and her two young children needed whatever time she didn’t spend at work. So, she stepped away from her program, devastated.

But that voice returned in 2013. And she listened, switching from an information technology program to a Bachelor of Science in Business degree with a focus on entrepreneurship, which she successfully completed in 2016. (The program she completed has since been retired.)

“I think it’s fear that holds people back from so many different things … and they don’t even know the fear is driving their decision to do something or not do something,” Felton says. “But I’ll tell you this about me. If I had to talk about fear, I would use it in the sense of, ‘What will happen if I don’t do something versus what will happen if I do?’ … You don’t know what’s going to happen if you do whatever the thing is, but for sure we have ideas of what’s going to happen if you don’t. You have to move forward.”

 

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Captivated by curiosity

For Felton, moving forward is a way of life, whether that’s progressing in her career or cultivating her knowledge.

“I’ve always been very, very curious about everything,” she says. “I’ve always asked those questions where people are like, ‘Why do you care?’”

Felton’s curiosity, combined with her self-described can-do attitude, meant she didn’t shy away from having a tough conversation with herself about what she wanted from her degree when she returned to UOPX. It had been 12 years since she’d stepped away from her IT degree program, and she needed to reevaluate where opportunity and her interests intersected.

“So often people pick degrees with an idea in their heart about what they want out of it, but they don’t know what’s going on in the industry,” Felton says.

In Felton’s view, organizations have always been inextricably linked with societies and will continue to be so, making a business degree something that would stand her in good stead for the foreseeable future.

Her bachelor’s program was a second chance as far as Felton was concerned, and she wasn’t about to waste it. 

Portrait of a smiling Judith Felton

Stepping away the first time crushed her, largely because Felton is not one to give up on anything, ever. So, when the epiphany came to return to school, she wavered only for a moment before committing.

“Sometimes the second chances do come around,” she says. “But if you don’t recognize it, you could let it pass you by.”

 

A lifelong learner and leader

Felton’s bachelor’s degree turned out to be just the beginning. Once she completed it, she returned to UOPX, this time for her Master of Science in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. The experience, she says, was not for the faint of heart.

“That was a tough degree. You had to step away from what you thought you knew to really expand and gain new knowledge,” she explains.

Felton persevered, because she saw the master’s program as a means of gratifying that curiosity of hers. She wondered why organizations were different and how people impacted those differences.

Her own experiences offered material she could draw on as she explored those issues. She has worked in various positions and in such industries as business, banking and biopharmaceuticals over the course of her career. This diversity of experience, combined with Felton’s education and clarity of purpose and vision, have made her a one-of-a-kind manager and employee. 

Portrait of Ash Watts

“Her managerial style is what I’ll reference as a rare commodity these days,” explains Ash Watts, a learning and development consultant at Cisco. “She approaches her work in an ‘open state’ and does so as objectively as possible. [She has] open eyes to see the landscape, open ears to actively listen, open hands to help out, an open mind to consider the thoughts of others and, most importantly, an open heart to feel when and where she needs to pivot.”

 

All things are possible

Felton also has, by all accounts, an impeccable work ethic. Whether she’s researching, mentoring or stepping up to help out, she brings her full self to every endeavor.

“Judith’s work ethic and morals are amazing,” Arthur adds. “She is a very hard worker, extremely thorough, works to do the right thing and does not give up on difficult or challenging projects.”

That explains her current enrollment in the Doctor of Management program at UOPX. Felton didn’t think she’d return to school after her master’s degree, but she realized the doctorate would marry together the disciplines and knowledge gained in her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

 

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This experience not only draws on her existing knowledge, it also gives Felton a chance to contribute something new to the conversations about workplace management. It will also develop her research skills, she says, which she can bring to bear at both Cisco, which is contributing tuition assistance toward Felton’s degree, and any future endeavors.

Cisco and University of Phoenix work together to make education and skills enhancement more affordable for employees.

Because Felton has plans. In addition to her business career, she wants to write a book about navigating the college system, no matter what your background is. And she wants to research and develop a hair-care line that caters to African Americans.

They are disparate goals to be sure and also distinctly Felton’s. Her energy, commitment and sense of humor make each of them feel not just possible but probable.

“Judith is able to look back at what she’s learned and where she’s come from and see how she’s being led to something greater,” Arthur observes.

Whatever the future holds, whatever that “something greater” might be, Felton is here for it.

“I’m living proof that not only does college change your life, it changes your outlook,” Felton says. “It teaches you to think differently. Can you advance your career? Of course you can. Can you make more money? Of course you can. But learning how to think differently from how you think today can change the world. Not just your life, but somebody else’s life too. And that’s the game changer.”

Felton, after all, likes solving problems, even if they’re someone else’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories since she won a writing contest in third grade. In the intervening years, she's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. Today, if given a free hour and the choice, she'd still prefer to curl up with a good story.

 

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