Our President & Chief Executive Officer Deborah Gillis is the fourth President in our 52-year history, the first from outside of the United States, and the first internal successor to the office. Deborah ascended from COO to CEO of Catalyst in January 2014. In this month’s Ask Deborah, a column we created to help readers get to know her better, we asked Deborah to share the most important lesson she’s learned in her first year in the top job.
You became CEO of Catalyst one year ago. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your first year on the job?
There’s a long list!
First, I learned more from listening than I did from speaking. While transitioning into my new role, I had individual meetings with every single Catalyst staffer. I also met with most members of the Catalyst Board of Directors, our Boards of Advisors, Catalyst donors, and other critical stakeholders. I’ve worked hard to ensure that I’m accessible to my staff by, among other things, creating a millennial ERG and holding regular “office hours.” Mechanisms like these are crucial as you advance into senior leadership because they protect feedback from getting distorted before it reaches your desk. It’s important to hear from staff members directly.
Second, I learned how crucial it is to stay focused on priorities. As you advance to leadership, it’s amazing how quickly everyone else’s outbox becomes your inbox! It’s very easy to lose control of your agenda when you are being pulled in so many different directions at once, so it’s essential to be clear with yourself and others about what’s the most valuable use of your time at any given moment.
Third, even CEOs need mentors. This may be surprising to some, but I never stopped needing advice and feedback—and neither does any leader who wants to keep growing. I have been very lucky to have a group of trusted mentors—my own personal advisory board—to whom I have turned throughout my career. Their support has never been more valuable than it was in my first year as CEO of Catalyst.
Fourth, it’s important to take time to recharge in order to be maximally effective at work. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily demands of any job, particularly one that’s high-level and high-stress. Recently, a friend called me up to ask if I could spend a weekday afternoon celebrating her 50th birthday. My first impulse was to say “no”; I had a packed schedule. But I thought about it and decided that while my agenda on that particular day wasn’t urgent, my friend’s milestone birthday would only happen once. I cleared my schedule and we had a lovely time. Making sure to take an occasional step back and remind myself of what’s really important, in work and in life, is a lesson I have to re-learn whenever I’m faced with choices like these. Sometimes you really can’t take that extra-long lunch—which is why it’s so important to say “yes” when you can!
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