Q&A with Deborah Gillis of Catalyst Inc.

Deborah Gillis is President and CEO of Catalyst, a leading international nonprofit organization working to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion. We recently sat down with Deborah to discuss her leadership style, spearheading the sponsorship movement and her work towards continued corporate diversity and inclusion.

Q: You’ve occupied many leadership positions during your career. Tell us about your leadership style—how would you describe it?

My leadership style has been shaped by lessons learned from leaders throughout my own career: both what inspired me and what didn’t. In the very early stage of my career, I had polar opposite leaders that I worked with. The first adopted an approach of “command, control, motivate through fear and intimidation.” The second was a leader who I would now describe as practicing Catalyst-style inclusive leadership behaviors of empowerment and accountability. And when I felt empowered, I was most creative. I would put forward ideas and I felt able to contribute. Looking at these leaders now through the prism of Catalyst research, the second leader facilitated inclusive leadership and created what the researchers call psychological safety that allows teams to feel that they can put things on the table.

My approach to leadership has really been influenced by those experiences. I try to practice inclusive leadership. If you don’t have the opportunity as an individual to contribute, to shine, to develop, to grow, the organization is not going to benefit from you. I didn’t have a label for it before Catalyst’s research.

I try to practice inclusive leadership. If you don’t have the opportunity as an individual to contribute, to shine, to develop, to grow, the organization is not going to benefit from you.

Q: Catalyst programs focus on male involvement in the inclusion effort—“Men and Equality” and “Men Advocating Real Change.” What are men doing right?

We have a list of 10 things men can do. They are simple things. Part of our research focus has been on identifying what encourages men to be champions of diversity and what holds them back. We’ve learned that what holds them back is fear—fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of how other men will view them. Men role-modeling behavior—that says: “I have as much at stake in the questions of equality and fairness and inclusion in our workplace as women or other underrepresented minorities”—encourages other men because it makes it okay. It normalizes the behavior and that’s exactly the place that we have to get to.

Some of the work that we’re doing now is helping men understand the privilege that they have in most workplaces. Identifying this privilege is the first step to making the transition to what I call “conscious inclusion”: an individual’s intentionality about their own behaviors around what they say, who they speak to, who is on their team and who they view as a “go to” person. That intentionality, as it becomes visible in an organization, is powerful.

There are so many examples of men who are stepping up and demonstrating qualities of inclusive leadership who are really saying, “I want to be part of it.”

Q. Catalyst spearheaded the sponsorship movement, drawing a distinction between mentoring and sponsorship. What are the tangible effects you’ve seen since this movement took off?

A mentor talks to you; a sponsor talks about you. That’s very different. What our research has shown is that sponsorship is often the differentiator in terms of who gets a promotion or senior opportunity. And my message particularly to young women is: There will come a point in your career when what you know can be less important than who you know. You have to assume you’re not immediately going to get offered a promotion or have access to a key file or engagement—those high visibility, mission-critical roles and international experiences—which prompts the question: what can women do to show off their skills to do the job? Everyone has the skills to do the job. But who is going to say, “I want her on my team,” or “She’s ready for the next opportunity?” Relationships become really critical and I think too many women fall into what I call the “good student” syndrome—work really hard, put your head down, show results, people will notice. We need to look at the whole issue of building relationships and networking as a critical competency to our business success that we spend time developing.

I’ve been really happy about the tangible differences we are seeing in organizations, understanding the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship—seeing them acknowledge that sponsorship exists, but that it has tended to benefit men more than women. Again, they need to have intentionality in either developing specific programs around sponsorship or, in some cases, really setting the expectation for leaders that are sponsoring diverse talent. It is a very different shift in the conversation from 20 years ago, when we all would have said that we needed mentoring programs for women. Mentorship is really important. But this distinction of how critical sponsorship is has been a really important contribution to our understanding of women in workplaces.

Q: You wrote in your blog that leaders should help “bust the myth that senior women have it all together.” You suggested that a leader should invite high-potential women home for dinner so they could experience the commute home and observe the leader’s “real life—kids, pets, dinner, etc.” We all sometimes wonder if the “I woke up like this/flawlessness” that can be projected by senior women has the unintended effect of discouraging those of us who struggle, at times, with careers, kids or other personal obligations. What do you do to bust this myth?

Showing young women, that we all struggle with managing families and dogs and commutes and whatever else is going on in our lives—regardless of our level—is important so that young women don’t have an unreasonable or unattainable view of what it means to be a leader.

When you think about it, in a law firm or another corporate setting, there are probably spaces in your offices where you don’t bring clients, right? The clients go to the nice conference room when they come for a meeting. You don’t go behind the screen and let them see the sausage making. I think many young women look at senior women and think, “Uh-uh, I couldn’t do that,” or “I don’t have it all together, it’s really hard.”

Too often we ask women these questions, “Oh, isn’t it hard?” “How do you balance work and life?” and “What are the struggles that you face?” That tends to be how the conversation gets framed and, of course, that’s not how it’s framed for men at all. We need to emphasize, “What do you get from being a woman in leadership, or doing work that is intellectually, personally and professionally fulfilling to you, and what does that bring to your life?” versus “What are you losing?” Shifting perspective becomes really important so that we’re showing young women both that we all have to figure out how to do this—no one is perfect, no one has got it all figured out, this is real life—as well as saying, it’s all good.

I think this also demonstrates to women that there’s not one path or one definition of what success looks like. You can have your own life as it’s defined and still be successful.

Q: How do you keep moving forward with diversity and inclusion when, for instance, some might look at the composition of the newest group of employees and say, “Ok, we’ve managed diversity and we’re inclusive because the junior class is inclusive.”

Diversity is a fact. It exists. Some dimensions of diversity you can see, and some you can’t.But inclusion is a choice. That is the intentionality of the behavior. Because you can have a diverse team and still not have an inclusive team. If you have diversity but are not interested in the piece of a person’s culture that is uniquely what they bring to the table, then you don’t have inclusion. Inclusion, as we define it, is the combination of uniqueness and belonging. I feel that I belong as part of a team and I feel that I am valued for the unique contribution, perspective, experience and point of view that I bring to those conversations. If you lose the uniqueness part of it, you’re not creating inclusion. Organizations need to understand that just because you’re diverse, does not mean that you’re inclusive.

At Catalyst, our perspective is that organizations have to shift from asking why diversity and inclusion matters to asking how. It’s an organizational issue. As I like to say, programs don’t make change, people do. It is the experience that you have with the people you work with that can either cause you in one minute to feel included or in the next minute to feel excluded. We are really trying to equip individuals with simple things that they can do or think about that will make a difference.

Q: What inspires you to keep going at times when it seems like the needle is not moving as quickly as you’d like with respect to gender and inclusion in corporate America?

In some ways, the data inspires me because there is still work to do. But really what inspires me most is when I see that the work that Catalyst has done causes someone to think differently and then to act differently. When I see that happen, those are the moments where I say, “This is what we’re here to do.” And particularly, as the conversation has shifted really significantly from that why to how proposition, that change inspires me and encourages me, it makes me optimistic that a really important change is happening.

I’ve seen this in men who have talked about the experience that they’ve had through our Men Advocating Real Change programs where they’ve had such important insights into their behavior and how it affects others. I’ve seen it in women who have been inspired by something we’ve said or talked about. I’ve seen it in leaders who have said, “We’re not doing enough and we need to take action.”

In one instance we had research that showed that there was a gap in pay for women from their first job post-MBA. When we first presented that research to a group of leaders, there was a lot of pushback. They said, “No, that can’t be right, we hire everyone out of college and we pay everyone the same.” At the next meeting, we got together and that same CEO said, “After the meeting, I went back to my organization . . . [and I said I] want you to go and look at our data.” And he said, “What my team told me was there was a difference between what we paid men and women and they could not explain why.” So he said to them, “Fix it.” Those are the types of experiences that inspire me.