NYC Recap: Changemaker Chat with Deborah Gillis

Deborah Gillis may be the President and CEO of Catalyst, a global organization dedicated to accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion, but she would have never imagined such a position as a small child, growing up poor in a fishing village in Nova Scotia. Deborah was expected to get a job that could support her family, and that’s it. “The idea that I would have a career was very remote,” she said to a packed house of Changemakers at Condé Nast’s offices in NYC. And yet, when recently rustling through a box of childhood mementos, she discovered that her interest in Catalyst’s work had deep roots, evidenced by old notes from her civics debate assignment. Her argument: Be it resolved that women should earn the same as men.

Don’t Rule Yourself Out
Asked when she first saw herself as a CEO, Deborah quipped, “the day I was offered the job,” and shared her experience of first applying to Catalyst. When presented with an opportunity to lead Catalyst Canada, she almost ruled herself out. She was convinced the job was out of reach, and focused on qualifications she thought she lacked, as opposed to the many she already excelled at. “It’s not going to happen…there’s no way they will hire me.” It’s a trap many women fall into, she explained, and yet despite these thoughts, with encouragement from her husband and a mentor, she applied and got the job. Deborah stressed the importance of confidence and shared that in her own career track at Catalyst, filled with numerous promotions ultimately leading to her appointment as CEO and President, she had to fight her inner voice of self-doubt every step of the way.

Mentorship v. Sponsorship
Speaking of mentors, Deborah gave us some tips on how to differentiate between mentors and sponsors and how to build those relationships. “A mentor talks to you, while a sponsor talks about you, lends you their credibility, and says ‘She’s ready.’”

In explaining sponsorship, Deborah challenged the old axiom – It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – and instead advocates: It’s who knows what you know. Sponsors often emerge organically by experiencing what you are capable of. In doing so, a sponsor will think of you the next time an opportunity arises. Deborah cited gender disparity in sponsorship: research shows men are more likely to benefit from sponsorship not only because they have more networking opportunities, but also because there are more men in leadership roles enabling their relationships with others who look and sound like they do. Sounds like another good reason to support women in leadership.

Regarding mentorship, Deborah encouraged women to connect with people we admire. Apart from scheduling conflicts, she assured that most people say yes to coffee. But the mentee is responsible for driving the relationship and using the time effectively. Research shows that women who have benefited from mentorship feel a responsibility to pay it forward. Deborah beseeched us to say “YES!” when others ask for advice. As a mentor, our role is not simply to be a cheerleader, but to give constructive feedback that helps mentees grow and be mindful of ways to play dual roles as sponsors.

Inclusive Leadership
Deborah is inspired by people who embody attributes of inclusive leadership: empowerment, accountability, courage, and humility. She admires leaders most who can admit when they do not know something or made a mistake, and also those who have the courage to stand up for what they think is right.

H/T to her Canadian roots, Deborah cited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a source of inspiration when he vowed to have his cabinet be 50% female. “It’s 2015… Duh.”

It’s not just individuals who can be inclusive leaders, but also corporate citizens. Deborah lauded business leaders who have stood up for their company’s values and demonstrated a commitment to inclusion. (Shout out to IKEA for expanding their parental leave policy). In such environments, someone cannot and should not be able to advance within the organization without embracing this core value.

On Gender Biases
When asked why there should be more women in leadership, Deborah has perfected the comeback: “You give me the business case for why an all straight white male Board makes sense, and I’ll give you the business case for why a diverse Board makes sense. You go first.” The research is plentiful but Deborahsays if they are still asking the question, it won’t matter how much data we present. Instead, she focuses on people and companies who are not asking “why” but “how” they can support gender equality.

Taking Care of Your Voice
Early in her career, Deborah worked with a boss who used fear to motivate – so much so, that Deborah felt unable to speak in his presence at times. She advised women in similar situations to find another place to grow – whether with a different team, department, or organization. “Pick your job not based on pay or title, but based on what you can learn and contribute. If you’re learning and contributing, you’ll be noticed.” Your voice is a way for you to contribute your perspective, and it’s not healthy to be made quiet. Deborah advised, “In circumstances where you’re thinking ‘how can I contribute?’ flip that around to say the very value I bring to a discussion is what I uniquely know.”

Now Is the Time to Rally 
Deborah described this moment in time as a rallying cry for women to take action. She spoke about the fact that for many millennials, the recent U.S. election is the first experience they’ve had to confront the reality that power is shared, and that it is not an equal opportunity world. “Now’s the time to double down on inclusion,” she said.

Over and Next
Throughout the Chat, Deborah reflected on setbacks and self-doubt: from bad hair days to poverty, breast cancer and fertility disappointments. In spite of obstacles big and small, she emboldened us to not dwell, but to cut ourselves some slack and move forward while learning from our mistakes. Her mantra: Over and Next! The most perfect words to conclude our last Changemaker Chat of 2016.

Thank you, Deborah, for your candor and inspiration. Over and next.