#ASAE21 Keynote: It’s All About Perspective

Michele Sullivan—Fortune 100 executive, strategic business advisor, and author—regards the world from a different vantage point, which allows her to look for opportunities rather than problems, and to seek out the best in everyone.

Michele Sullivan has looked up to people her entire life—not by choice. Born with a rare form of dwarfism, metatrophic dysplasia, looking up has shaped her philosophy. “It taught me the greatest perspective, which is: I look up to everybody because we all have value,” says Sullivan, a keynote speaker at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting next month. “My view is that we shouldn’t be judgmental of anyone and that we should be open to everyone. I am very much a collaborator.”

Sullivan enjoyed a 30-year career at Caterpillar, both as director of corporate social innovation at Caterpillar Inc., and as president of the Caterpillar Foundation. When the position at Caterpillar Foundation came up, which is rare, Sullivan says she wanted to go for it because it combined her passion for both the nonprofit world and Caterpillar.

It’s OK to Ask For Help

She knew she couldn’t do it alone because she can’t travel by herself. She credits a kitchen table approach. Every night growing up she sat at the kitchen table with her family and her parents would ask the kids how their day went. “Of course, the most exciting part was when somebody puked,” she says. But the nightly gatherings also created a foundation she would draw upon both personally and professionally.

When she decided to go after the position at Caterpillar Foundation, she went to her kitchen table—which consisted of her mother and sister at that point—to help her determine if she could do it. “As a leader, you also have to have a kitchen table,” Sullivan says. “You have to be able to ask for help, because rarely in life do you do anything by yourself.”

She notes that many people consider asking for help as a sign of weakness. “I ask for help every day being four feet tall,” she says. “I know that it’s a strength because it takes a lot of confidence to say, ‘I need help.’” She emphasizes that you have to be willing to make the first move. And, as a leader, when you see someone on your team who needs assistance or they’re struggling, you need to ask yourself what you can do about it.

Seek Diversity

Sullivan has also always sought a diversity of opinion. Throughout her career she told her teams, “If we all think alike, then I don’t have the right team.” She looked for differences in people to better explore all opportunities and experiences. She knew that if someone grew up under completely different circumstances than her own, it gave them a unique perspective she didn’t have.

“When you’re building a product or marketing campaign, you want people who think totally differently,” she says. “You want to make your product as broad as you can so that it appeals to the most people.”

As the world begins to emerge from this difficult period, it will be essential for leaders to show that they are confident about figuring out what the new normal is. “Everybody watches you as a leader,” she says. “You can’t get anxious.”

Sullivan keeps all the recent challenges in perspective, of course. “It’s brought the world closer together,” she says, “because if this hasn’t taught people that we’re truly one world, then you’re living under a rock somewhere.”


(Handout photo)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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