"Women don't need to be fixed to lead": Q&A with Cathy Burke June 2018


After 20 years' travelling across South Asia and Africa in her work as a leader of The Hunger Project, Cathy Burke took a break to decide how best to use the lessons in life and leadership she'd learned from the people she met along the way. Today, she is an author, speaker, mentor and leadership developer, working with organisations that are ready to support their female employees to lead powerfully. As well as publishing a book - Unlikely Leaders: Lessons in Leadership from the Village Classroom - Cathy now produces white papers - her most recent one being "Women don't need to be fixed to lead" - and a weekly blog. We talk to her about her firmly-held belief that we all have the ability to lead with confidence, compassion and inclusion.

Your recent white paper talks about women ‘being enough’ Why do you feel so many women feel that they aren’t enough?

Shortage of women leading is often explained as women not stepping up, and this is somehow internal to them, something missing in women themselves - inherent. Women internalise this: ‘if only I were experienced/confident/smart enough I would go for that promotion, or lead that team’. This perceived lack becomes something they need to fix. I call this the ‘not enough-ness’ paradigm. While personal and professional growth is always needed for men and women, it can be a breakthrough mindset for women to realise they are enough - just as they are - to step up, speak out, and lead.

This not ‘enough-ness’ mindset occurs within a context and set of systemic issues that need to be addressed. As McKinsey’s global executive survey from 2014 shows - “Collective, cultural factors at work are more than twice as likely as individual factors to link to women’s confidence that they can reach top management”.

How hard is it to change that mindset?

Mindset change firstly requires an understanding that your belief is a mindset – and not the truth! It can take months for a new mindset to take hold because its not about overlaying a positive thought on top of an existing one. That’s positive thinking and all this means is we now have a new thought operating over a deeply held, sometimes unconscious, world view. That won’t shift anything. We all have mindsets about all sorts of things. The ones that limit our potential can be hardest to shift because we have history and evidence of why it is true.

Do you have a view about why there are so few female CEOs in the finance industry?

Like every industry, there are few female CEOs because its tolerated and justified. It is an agreed to, but never stated, acceptable collateral damage. Otherwise things would change. We have so many great women in finance. They are not the issue. The issue is the mindset that has it be ok to overlook them for top jobs. If that was not the case we would see things change.

If you could give Hillary Clinton advice before she began the campaign against Donald Trump, what would it be?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing! I’d say “Hillary, never forget that we humans are messy, emotional creatures.” By which I mean anyone who appeals to sensibility and logic alone won’t engage the hearts and minds of others. Hillary overlooked and underestimated that chasm between what we know (policy logic and rationale) and how we feel (hurting, not listened to, afraid.). She focused on the former and dismissed the latter. Even worse, she ridiculed people who are feeling vulnerable and fearful about the rapid change in their country and workplaces as ‘deplorables’. Leading with clarity and compassion are necessary. She was clear on her purpose and agenda, but her inability to authentically empathise cost her the election.

You spent 20 years as the CEO of the Hunger Project, what was the impetus for that journey?

I’d heard about The Hunger Project when I worked for a Senator in Perth, and at the time I thought ‘no way is it possible to end hunger!’ The issue felt overwhelming and I felt I could never make any difference. That changed when I had my first child. I could not imagine the grief other parents went through losing their child to hunger, so I connected with THP. I fell in love with the approach – that there isn’t a billion ‘mouths to feed’ – but instead a billion people who are hard working, resourceful and most invested in their own future. Unlocking their capacity, and putting them at the centre of development is the answer. I’ve seen this play out over the years, especially when women are empowered.

Can you name a couple of the milestones during that time?

Pivoting to focusing on women’s leadership was an amazing thing to be involved with in the late 1990s. After the Beijing Women’s Summit of 1995 and the UNICEF report of 1997 that found empowering women was THE key intervention for poverty reduction, The Hunger Project radically overhauled its strategies. I remember looking at how this could happen in Bangladesh, a predominately Muslim country with severe restriction on women’s education and freedom of movement. There were so many reasons why as many women as men couldn’t be trained as leaders, yet we took the stand that a way had to be found. Subsequently no training could take place without 50% female representation, and the Bangladeshi team reoriented their outreach and way of doing things to meet this. Its still a resonant lesson for today, considering how often we justify reasonableness for a lack of diversity.

Working in Silicon Valley with the Global CEO of eBay on his organizational challenges, presenting to their 800 top leaders on mindset changes, and then leading an immersion to Africa for some of the team to learn on the ground was another highlight. I love working with businesses globally to help find and unlock the leadership hidden in their people.

Who has had the biggest impact on the way you have conducted your life?

I read a book by Joseph Campbell when I was about 27. At the time I was trying to figure out my place in the world and not just follow a career for money and a mortgage like my contemporaries were doing. I felt like an odd fish. In reflecting on his long life, Campbell wrote that it all turns out in the end. There was something so powerful for me in reading this. It gave me permission to chart my own unusual course, and trust and have faith. Additionally, I learned to meditate in 1987 and this has without a doubt been a cornerstone to my experience of happiness, service and being alive in the world. It allows me to feel and ‘be with’ me and who I am, without trying to fix or discard aspects of myself. It has given me an ability to confront some really terrible things in the world, and bring love and compassion.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in suburban Perth in the 1970’s. I am one of 7 kids, with 6 of us under the age of 7 at one point! It was pretty hectic, with lots of financial and mental health struggles for my parents. Both mum and dad were politically conservative, religious (mass every Sunday), casually racist and homophobic. It was only as I got into my mid to late teens that I started to think ideas and beliefs through for myself. That process of realising you can choose your own thoughts and behaviours irrespective of the cultural environment has been a real theme of my life and work.

If you could give one piece of advice to your 21 year old self, what would it be?

When I was 21 I was a bit lost. I was a very prickly person. I’d developed a shell as a response to childhood events, and I wasn’t very trusting. I thought emotions were a sign of weakness. My advice to 21 year old Cathy would be to have more self compassion. To know that I was worthy of love and kindness, and how I develop that is to be kind and loving to myself first. (I did learn this eventually you’ll be glad to know, and its now one of the things I teach leaders!)

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