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Five Ways Champions Changed My Life (And How They Can Change Yours!)

Deborah Gillis never expected she’d make it from a gravel road to a corner office. We asked the president of Catalyst to share her strategies for getting ahead.


I grew up on a gravel road in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, about as far from New York, Mumbai, Tokyo, Sydney, and even Toronto as you can imagine. My parents had very little formal education and no connections or influence.

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I helped pay for my education by washing dishes, cutting grass, and working in a toilet paper factory. Back then, the idea of a career and professional success took a backseat to my immediate need to get a job. I truly couldn’t have imagined I would one day run a respected global nonprofit organization like Catalyst.

How did I do it? Here are five lessons that helped me along the way. If you apply them to your own experiences, I believe they’ll help you too:

1. Getting ahead takes more than hard work. Beginning in high school and university and continuing into my early working life, I realized that although getting good grades and being a strong performer are critical to success, they aren’t enough —it’s also crucial to forge networks of support.

2. Find a sponsor. For women especially, it is critical to surround yourself with champions who recognize your potential and are prepared to step up and help by taking action and providing concrete opportunities, not just offering encouragement and advice. In short, you need sponsors as well as mentors. I found my first sponsor when I was completing my Master’s degree and working as a legislative intern. His introductions and endorsement led to opportunities I would never have had access to otherwise. How can you attract that kind of sponsorship? By working hard and making sure—gracefully—that the right people know about your accomplishments. This can be a challenge, especially for women. I was once visiting a Catalyst member company when my guide for the day began describing how she earned the support of a sponsor who ultimately changed the trajectory of her career. She turned an informal conversation into an opportunity to highlight the impressive results of a project she’d been working on. I remember thinking what a smart way it was for her to highlight her achievements without coming across as pushy or arrogant.

3. Go after the job you want—strategically and with intention. When I first heard Catalyst was hiring, I told my husband, “There’s no way they’ll hire me.” Left to my own devices, I would never have applied for my original position—and I certainly wouldn’t have gone on to become Catalyst’s President & CEO. Luckily, both my husband and one of my sponsors encouraged me to go for it and, days later, I had my dream job. I’m incredibly grateful for their support, but all the support in the world wouldn’t have gotten me the job if I hadn’t also positioned myself as a serious candidate. I recently attended a roundtable where the CEO of a large company described his own journey to the C-suite. Like me, he’d come from humble beginnings. But a school guidance counselor suggested that he start thinking about the bigger picture and from that point on he did everything he could to get the future he wanted. He didn’t just dream of a better life—he took concrete steps to build one.

4. Build strong relationships with your colleagues. I joined Catalyst in 2006 as the head of Catalyst Canada and eight years later became its fourth President, the first internal successor to that office, and the first from outside of the United States. I couldn’t have done it without the support and championship of our last President, Ilene H. Lang, who mentored me, sponsored me, and encouraged me to believe I was qualified to follow in her footsteps.

5. Champion others. It’s important to excel at your work and highlight your own achievements, but it’s equally important to recognize and celebrate the achievements of others. I remember one of my early bosses telling me that he practiced the “Vidal Sassoon” theory of management: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” I have followed his example throughout my career. Figure out what makes your team members stand out from the crowd, and never miss an opportunity to publicly credit someone who helped you with a project or did outstanding work on an initiative of their own. My career is a testament to the fact that women DO help each other; paying it forward not only helps bust the myth that they don’t—it pays back in the form of career advancement for both the champion and the person whose work is being acknowledged. Plus, it makes people feel good!

We do not all start out with the same advantages in life, nor do we have identical skills, interests, and abilities. But I firmly believe that by advocating for yourself, identifying champions who can help you pursue your dreams, and helping others to follow theirs, you, too, can build a happy and fulfilling career.

Attend the Deloitte Women of Influence Luncheon Series featuring Deborah Gillis on June 9 in Toronto for invaluable inspiration and practical advice on moving your own career ahead. Register today. Limited tickets remain!