True servant leadership means leading from behind. Just because you’re the leader, that doesn’t mean you can’t help your people out. Every employee comes to you with a dream to fulfill in that business. It’s your job to help them reach that spot. You need to remove the obstacles in their way and lead from behind like a true leader. Join Alicia Couri as she talks to the founder of the Catapult Leadership Group, about the true meaning of good leadership. Catherine is also an experienced executive, speaker, writer, and passionate business coach with 35+ years of experience. Learn how to develop your people by communicating with them. Teach them about the business and how finances work. Help them achieve their goals by leading from behind. Be the leader you’re supposed to be today!
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Leading From Behind With Catherine A. Fitzgerald
Servant Leadership Is Leading From Behind
My guest is Catherine Fitzgerald. Let me share about Catherine, and then we’re going to have a quick little chat with her. Catherine Fitzgerald is a Californian UCLA grad and the Founder of Catapult Leadership Group. She is an experienced executive, natural leader, speaker, writer, and passionate business coach with more than 35 years of experience and a proven track record in developing people, performance and profits. Her focus is on building and scaling strong businesses by helping employers to engage and align their employees.
She has served in many capacities in a variety of industries from banking to health insurance, and from choral music to feeding the hungry. The common thread throughout Catherine’s life, both personal and professional, is servant leadership. We’re going to dive into that because our topic is going to focus on leading from behind, being that leader that pushes people in front, and leads them by coaching them through the process. Thank you and welcome, Catherine.
Thank you so much, Alicia. It’s so good to be with you.
We had some chats before we got together. I love your philosophy on leadership. I love your philosophy on how you have developed as a leader. I’m going to start there. Give us a little bit more background on your leadership journey.
You and I bonded over this. I’ll start out by saying that early in life if you are an achiever, you’re labeled a leader. You’re left to your own devices to figure out what that means. For me, it was always that I had to be the best. I had to work hard and I had to get the accolades and collect all the gold stars. You did it right. You did it perfectly, and all those things. You become a leader in an adult concept. I have to say that I learned the hard way that I didn’t do it well.
Unpack a little bit of that.
In the process of developing, we are given these parameters of leading people. I think for me, my concept was I did this well so just do it as I do it and you’ll be good too. The reality is that nobody tells you that you give up the right to be the doer or the achiever when you take on the leadership role. Your role becomes the developer of doers, the person who runs out in front and moves all the obstacles. I had to learn that the hard way.
I wanted to ask you. When they’ve given you a leadership position and now you’re you have people that report to you and you said you didn’t do that well. How discouraging was that?
In the rearview mirror, I achieved things, but I look back at the rearview mirror and I think I could have done that better with an eye on the people that I was leading more than the achievement that needed to happen. When your ego or your value is tied up in what you do and how you perform, then the people become a piece of the pie, but they’re not the focus. I look back on it now and regret that. Some of the things I’ve done, you mentioned feeding the hungry. I was the CEO of Catholic Charities for the diocese that I lived in for five years, and it was in a financial turnaround when I got there.
I went through a lot of trials by fire in that they were four years behind in independent audits. They had 42 checking accounts that hadn’t been reconciled in three years. They were financially and reporting-wise about to fall off a cliff. We went through a lot of tunnels and people worked hard, and we did it. The ship was righted and the agency is continuing. We served many thousand people in that environment. Success was not the determining factor when I look backwards and say, “I didn’t do it very well.” When I look back, I didn’t focus on developing the people and removing their obstacles and understanding that I should have allowed them to develop to their fullest potential instead of trying to say, “Here’s the bar and here’s how you should get there,” which tends to look like micromanaging.Allow your team to develop to their fullest potential, instead of saying, Here's the bar, and here's how you should get there. Click To Tweet
Even though my intentions were good and positive, I could have done it better. As I look back at my age, as we were talking about, I feel like I could have done so much more if I had had a better idea of what real leadership is about. Some of my leadership heroes are Simon Sinek and Brené Brown. I’ve immersed myself in that and worked hard on understanding the psychology behind being a good leader, and what it means to give people the freedom to lean into their own strengths if they are given the outcome that is expected and then supported, as opposed to, “Here’s your list of to-dos.”
“This is what I need you to have done by this date and this time.” The work that you’re doing now is building confidence with leaders with that hindsight approach, knowing that we need to help create more leaders under you and give them the freedom to become great leaders, instead of directing the pieces and telling them, “You need to do this and you need to do that.” That’s not leadership. How do you help your clients now see that that’s how they need to transition into leadership if that’s what they want?
It’s interesting. It’s like when you’re trying to go through marketing and figure out what your story is, and you don’t know what your gift is. Everybody around you ends up reflecting on what your gift is. You finally figure out how to relay it in a concise manner. I’m still working on that, by the way. Many of my clients come to me with the complaint that they’re feeling overburdened. Their team isn’t engaged at the level they want them to be. Their accountability isn’t there. They don’t get it. There are lots of different ways that are said, but the reality is when I start to talk to them about it, I have real empathy because I was there. You sleep with and eat with it. Every day and every minute, you’re looking through the lens of your business to know how to keep that plane you’re building in the air while you’re building it.
You have that passion that drives you for whatever it is the business is about. You know how to keep that plane in the air even if it gets into a nose dive. You’re going to know. Gut instinct, you’ll be able to jump in there and pull it out because that’s what an entrepreneur, a leader or an executive who has been in this business for a long time or has a deep passion for it does. What happens is you expect that of your team without clear communication because you become the equivalent of nose blind, only you’re really blind in terms of the lens that you look through every day is everything. You hire someone and you give them a job description. You sit them down at their desk and you say, “Here are your to-dos. This is your goal.”
Even if on the first day you walk them through the company and say, “Here’s the vision and here’s where we are going,” and all of those things, it’s like that first day you started on a new job. It’s like, “I’m drinking from a fire hose today. I need it smaller.” You get to your desk and you think, “I can do this. I can move this piece to this piece, but I don’t get this piece.” What happens is there’s a disconnect in how my desk fits into the landscape. The leader is living with the landscape. They’re telling themselves, “I don’t get it.” These guys are not invited to lift their eyes to the landscape unless the leader does that.
We have a long conversation about where they’re at, what their idea is, what would be perfect, what’s terrible, and how we move these things out of our way. Oftentimes, we end up in the prequel conversation. That is when you started your business, is this what you imagined? Is this what you wanted? What is the real vision for your life? If all the stuff was working perfectly, where would you be today? Is it driving your life? That comes from me because in my life I never stopped and thought about it. I’m going to get choked up here. I have three grown boys and their men. They would hate me to say boys but they were my boys.
I look back at the times when I was the regional sales manager for a marketing arm of the principal financial group. I was a vice president of a bank. I was the CEO of Catholic Charities. I had a very hopscotch industry career, but I was always in a leadership position. I think about the number of times that I chose my job and the agency or the people that I worked with over the softball games or the water polo games. I will tell you, I was the birthday queen though. My kids all had extravagant birthdays, but that’s a whole other story. I have those moments where I feel like, ” I wish I could go watch my oldest son play water polo again in high school because I missed a lot of those.”
He doesn’t feel cheated but I do. I look at the end of my life. What is the most important thing? What is it? It’s the quality of the experiences and the people and the relationships that I have in my life. If I can help a leader to step back from the landscape of the plane in the air for a minute and get some life balance, and some vision about where they want to be and what makes them happy and fulfilled.
Once you get that vision and it’s clear, then the business decisions become very easy because it either supports that vision or it doesn’t. You also learn how to recognize that you shouldn’t be on the back end of the bumper of the pickup truck that’s your business holding on for dear life. You should be able to be living your life and have this truck be the engine that fulfills your dreams. That’s the prequel. We then get into teamwork and work on relationships and communication.
That is beautiful because so many people get lost in the minutiae of every day and forget why they started it in the first place.
They get disillusioned. They don’t get into business to be an accountant or an insurance expert or an HR person. They get into business because they have a passion for their product service, etc. Operations are tough. They feel tied to it.
They end up tied to it. They don’t end up getting what it is that they started off that mission for. It’s very important to have your vision, your mission, and your purpose out there, or even if it’s not the mission and the purpose, to know why. As Simon Sinek say, know why you are here doing what you’re doing. You can build a mission and the vision on the way, knowing that deep reason why. It’s important to come back to that because that is your foundation of confidence.
If you are firm on that, then you can lead from that place. I love that you say that when you have clarity in this area, the business decisions become so much easier because if it supports it, it’s a yes. If it doesn’t support it, it’s a no. For so many leaders, the clarity becomes muddied in the people problems, the business problems, the supply chain problems, and all the fires that you have to put out. You lose sight of that thing.
That’s great. That’s one reason to have an executive coach, someone with a different lens, which is what I was trying to get to. When you say you were a leader and you were doing all the things that you need to do to keep the business afloat and to transform because you were transforming an organization when you were working for the Catholic charities. You were transforming from a mess to creating prosperity again.
That’s hard work, and we get bogged down in the hard work. You need that lens of someone else to help pull you out of it so that you can continue to do the thing that you’re doing but from a different perspective. Thank you for sharing that. That’s important. Closing communication gaps is one of the key areas that you help business owners work with. What are some of the challenges that you see or mistakes that leaders are making in that communication process?
Beyond the invitation to look at the big picture and see where the individual employee fits in and where their team fits in, there’s a lack of understanding in our entire country right now about financial literacy. The word profit has become a very negative connotated word. We think of it in a negative way because of all the people over profits or profits over people, and the judgements that are going on around things.The most important things in life are the experiences, people, and relationships that you have. Click To Tweet
It’s like the scales of justice. You cannot have a sustainable business if you do not have profit. To think about sustaining the lives of your employees, I don’t know how many business owners I speak with that carry that responsibility very heavily of making payroll every week, and knowing that they’re supporting families. That worry that everything has to come together and they have to be able to make their commitments is a huge burden.
There are people out there that value money over people, but I don’t think that’s the common denominator of business owners, especially not people that have founded and have a passion for something. The intent is always positive. At least I’ve grown up always thinking I’m going to assume positive intent in my conversations and interactions. What I do think is that the financial literacy piece is not conveyed very well.
One of the things in having this for-profit and non-profit experience in life and leadership is watching the door at Catholic charities and the line around the block and down the street. Probably my most meaningful interaction was in maybe the 4th or 5rh week that I was there. You can imagine I was working very long hours and there was a lot. I was going home late one evening and this little boy rolled up on his bike. He said, “Do you work in there?”
I said, “Yeah, I do.” I was in the parking lot. He said, “Do you know if they’re going to have Christmas presents this year?” It was August. I looked at him and I got this lump in my throat because I have three little boys that don’t think about Christmas until the lights go up and they know there’s going to be Christmas presents under the tree. I looked at him and I said, “I am sure we’re going to this year.” I got in the car and I thought, “I have no idea if we do that or not, but we’re going to have to do it now.” I guess the point is that I was always trying to make that line shorter and to work us out of business. That was my goal
I found that the programs, the system, and all of the different ways that people are given assistance don’t give them any tools to change their life. They give them a handout. They don’t always give them a hand up. We condition people, generation after generation, that this is the best you could hope for. I hate that. I then went to work in the for-profit world. I actually started out as an assistant vice president of the bank. I then became a vice president in a particular department, which was the payments department. One of the things that the bank that I worked for had was what we call an open book management company. They talked about how the bank made money as a matter of course. We learned the financial flow of what revenue was, what profit was, what liability was, and how that all worked to serve the good of the bank’s security and, therefore, our jobs.
It’s a wonderful way for people to begin to understand that their paycheck is their revenue, and their overhead is their rent and their car payment. Their direct expenses are food, clothing, entertainment, and all those kinds of things. Without putting them in a class or requiring them to attend something in order to get their aid or whatever or manipulation that happens in the world of saving the poor. They taught people how money flowed and they took it in. Without anybody ever saying, “This is your paycheck and this is how it works,” they learned. You see people changing their lives because they understand what cashflow is. If I pay off my debt, I have more cash every month.
If I manage that cash by investing in real estate or some other means, that savings account will be there. It changes lives. For me, I got passionate about giving employees more information. They don’t have to know the bottom line and every single check that goes out of the business or anything about that. They need to know a general idea that if I make a mistake and it costs the company money, how much revenue has to be generated to offset that mistake? How does it impact the net profit if I save some money in the beginning? If I save money in the middle, it goes straight to the bottom line. If I can do my job more efficiently and help the company to be stronger, then I have more security.
If I’m doing that, then I’m going to be rewarded as an employee because I’m accountable. I’m engaged, I’m caring. It’s all of those things. It has to be an environment that encourages that dialogue. We know there’s a C-suite dialogue and there’s a team dialogue, and there’s not always a lot of communication between them. There are not very many people on the team that want to be the canary in the coal mine and go tell the C-suite what they think. The best way to start that dialogue is at the C-suite and that’s why I am coaching in that frame.
There’s one more question I’m going to ask you and then we’re going to go into the rapid fire. Get yourself ready. From your perspective, being that CEO and being that leader that you were all those years before, looking at the environment of work now and what’s happening post-pandemic, what do you see for the future of work and the future of leadership?
The first word that comes to my mind is hope. The pandemic had horrible ripple effects. Lives were lost. My dear friend passed away in the first wave. I have great empathy for all the losses that happened, but I will say working from home allowed us to discover each other’s humanity in a way that we would never have if we were all still meeting at the water cooler. I don’t know how many conversations you had where somebody’s child or their dog or somebody ran into the picture. We got to see people at work and at home and in the context of their real life, not this bifurcated worker bee.
There’s so much more compassion that we gained.
For me, we have hope that we’re going to find a way to remember the humanity of each person within the context of the work environment as well, believe in each other’s goodness, and develop conversations around how we can support each other, not just get the work done. Leadership is about supporting your team in a way that we have not seen in the last four generations of the workplace. We’re in a unique situation where we have five generations in the workplace right now. We are being called by the younger set to open our eyes and to make life and work integrated and fun. People make fun of the Millennials and they always want to have fun. You know what? They have it right.
We need to learn from them because the whole idea of living your life to the fullest, whether you’re at work or at home is the answer. When you were talking earlier about when it feels right and you’re aligned and all those things, I reminded me of Alicia Key’s book and the story she tells about her that if it’s not a resounding yes or hell yes, then it’s a hell no. We lose our power in that when we try to fit into the productivity mold.
Kids that are growing up, I have three of them in college and graduate school, have defined their success based on money. Money and going for money is a means goal. It’s not an end goal. We can parlay people’s vision into looking at what is the end result here. The end result is to live each day to the fullest. Be grateful for what you have and enjoy every minute, not just the ones after 5:00 PM and before 8:00 AM.
I know I said that was the last question, but that prompted another one for me because the generations as well have this idea of service, and businesses should be in service or have a bigger mission. They’re very mission-driven. In addition to the fun, there is that mission-driven, whether it’s dealing with the climate or dealing with race. This younger generation is like, “Let’s put the issues on the table and solve this once and for all. Let’s not continue this mess going forward.” That’s very encouraging to see that their eyes are open. They’re like, “We’re not doing business as usual.” The question that it prompted me was have you found that more leaders are open to coaching than ever before?
I do. It’s funny. I am caregiving for my 86-year-old mom. I’m living with the end of the World War II era and thinking as we’re talking about the way they approach life. What is good? What is right? What are honesty, loyal, truth, and all that? They have definite hard lines about what is acceptable to need help with and what is not. That’s another thing that I love about the Millennials. They’re constantly improving. They’re always looking for the newest and best thing. They’re pushing the envelope. When we were talking about purpose, they’re calling us to accountability not to each other and not to the business but to humanity. It’s accountability to our humanity and to each other and to the future of humanity.If people can be accountable to one another and give each other the benefit of the doubt, the future will be a better place. Click To Tweet
In terms of constant improvement, you can see it in KPIs, agility, and all the different things that are supposed to be the newest and best way to get people moving in the right direction. As I say it, rowing all of them in the same direction. That visual to me of a crew on one of those long thin boats, and they’re all rowing and you get somebody with their oar like this. They were trying to get everybody moving in the same direction. That’s a goal of humanity right now.
How do we make this world a better place? With all of the things that are happening around us that are tragic, mental health-related, polarizing, and all of the things that are happening, if we each just do our best to pay it forward in a positive way and in the best way we can, it’s all going to be different. The landscape of the world is a patchwork quilt. We all bring something different.
If we can find a way to be accountable to one another and to humanity, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, be better listeners than we are judges, we have a great future. There’s hope. Ultimately, I’m very excited to be in this role at this time in my life because I feel like I have enough mistakes behind me, enough experience, and enough humility to say, “I don’t have all the answers but I’m sure I’ve walked a few rocky paths.”
I can’t close this down. I love interviewing you. I’m getting to the rapid-fire though, but what have you taught your boys about leadership? You’re a working mom, a leader, and a CEO. What have you taught them about leadership and respecting everyone in that process, whether they’re women or they’re different? Tell me.
The first thing I’ll tell you is have you ever heard the saying you’re not a prophet in your own land? It’s only probably now that they’re all over 21 that I’m beginning to hear the fruits of my labors in that regard. I was very proactive about finding good male role models for my kids when they were young. There were lots of complicated reasons for that, but I will tell you that was important. I’m happy to say that all of them get it. They hate this when I bring this up, but all three of them are Eagle Scouts. I do that only because as a mom, you get the first one over the line, then you let peer pressure take over. It’s like, “You don’t want to be the one brother that didn’t do it.”
That experience of scouting was impactful for them because of the men that were the leaders, and they were old-fashioned good guys and accountable. In terms of who they are as human beings, they are three very different people. They have incredibly different gifts but they are bonded. That’s the biggest gift I gave them. They’re eight years apart, the oldest and the youngest, and the one in the middle is four years, the sandwich kid.
As they were growing, they would squabble and stuff, the typical boy things. I would sit them all down and I would go, “Okay, listen to me. The only person that’s going to be here, cradle to grave with you is the one on your left and the one on your right. If you screw this up, you never get another chance at it because nobody else knows what this house was like but the three of you. It will be important as you get older.”
I did it regularly because that’s something I lost. I lost a brother who died at eighteen. I lost my father at 27. I had my mom and my sister and that’s it. That vacuum of what happened in our childhood and that coming together of knowing those things, I lost. My sister and I were pretty far apart. I impacted that. Now they come and it’s rare when they’re all three home, but when they’re all three home, nobody can get a word in edgewise. I sit back and I go, “Was this a good idea?” At the end of the day, I know that they have each other’s back and that’s the thing.
That’s all you can hope for your children. It’s to be best friends with each other. That doesn’t always happen.
I tease them like they’re sorority girls because you can’t tell one without the other one knowing within five minutes
It has to be intentional. I love that. That’s great. Mine are like five years apart, so it’s ten years from the first to the last. They’re all very close and connected.
It’s a good thing that you were intentional with them that far apart. It’s an easy thing to let go and excuse by they’re never in the same thing at the same time. They’re not in the same school at the same time. I had one year in their childhood where they were all three in one school. It was kindergarten, fourth grade and eighth grade. That’s it. The rest of the time, I was running ragged between three different schools.
They were never in the same school at the same time, but they are very close and bonded. I’m so grateful and thankful that they do have that kinship. I have two girls and a boy. Their brother isn’t left out of anything. He’s in the mix with them. He’s great. No more questions for me. I’m going into the rapid fire. I can talk to you forever but we only have a certain time. I love everything that you’re saying. Here we go. What’s the biggest leadership mistake you ever made or was the victim of?
It’s mistaking my role as a leader as the achiever and not as the person in the back, helping them get where they need to go. You started that one.
What’s the best advice you ever got that you still implement now?
Listen more than you talk, but I try hard. I have it actually listen more. It’s hard. You can tell I love to talk.Listen more than you talk. Click To Tweet
It’s a challenge. You have to sit on your hands and bite your nails when it’s like, “You know what you need to say but I can’t say it. I need them to understand and get to the right decision.” This is an interesting one. If you were a castaway on a deserted island, what three things would you hope washed ashore or were airdropped to you that you couldn’t live without? One of them cannot be a cell phone.
That’s exactly what I was thinking. Moisturizer. That’s my number one. Moisturizer or sunscreen or both. Let’s see. My pillow. I like my pillow and can I have a pad of paper and a pen?
We can say stationery. That covers a stamp pad, paper and pen. That will work for me. This is another very fun interesting question. We talk about having fun. If you were a song, what song title would that be or what song would that be?
It is a stumper because I am a student of lots of different music.
Is there something fun or something?
Can I look at my phone?
You can look at your phone all you like.
I tried to think of what is my thing. The very first thing that came to me was Come Away With Me by Norah Jones. The other one is BeBe and CeCe Winans. I have the relationship CD of BeBe and CeCe Winans and I cannot think of the name. It’s like stop and listen to your heart. When we do that and when we all are aligned, it goes back to talking to leaders about what is your vision for your life and what is the vision for your business. Is your business driving your life or your vision, or are you being dragged along behind your business and hoping to squeeze in life at some point? When we are aligned at living 100% in the essence of who we are created to be, then all that other stuff comes together.
The last rapid-fire question I have is what book are you reading now?
It’s called Doesn’t Hurt To Ask by Trey Gowdy. It’s by a former Congressman, but it’s not a political book. I was listening to it. It’s about persuasion and questioning. I’m in the very beginning of it. I’m reading a book club, but it’s about the way you persuade people to open their minds and that it is through questioning. It is not through telling.
Thank you for that. Thank you for being so open and generous with your time, your intellect, and your experience. I appreciate it. Thank you so much, Catherine.
I am giving you a virtual hug and extending the Fitzgerald hospitality. I always say this to people, “If you come to California and you don’t call me, I will be upset.” You need to come. I love to cook. I love to host. I’m in a spot in California where you can get to about anywhere in half a day.
I will be there in January. Maybe before, but I definitely will be there in January. I will look you up. You can reach out to Catherine on her LinkedIn. Check her out. Make sure you let her know when you reach out that you heard her here on the show.
Thank you so much, Alicia.
You’re welcome. Everyone, thank you so much for joining us and we will be back with another episode. Go ahead and lead yourself, lead your teams, and lead your organization with audacious confidence. We’ll see you next time.
- Catapult Leadership Group
- Doesn’t Hurt To Ask
- LinkedIn – Catherine A. Fitzgerald
About Catherine A. Fitzgerald
Catherine Fitzgerald is a Californian, UCLA grad, and the founder of Catapult Leadership Group.
She is an experienced executive, natural leader, speaker, writer, and a passionate business coach with 35+ years’ experience and a proven track record in developing people, performance, and profits.
Her focus is on building and scaling strong businesses by helping employers to engage and align their employees. She’s served in many capacities in a variety of industries from banking to health insurance and from choral music to feeding the hungry. The common thread throughout Catherine’s life both personal and professional is servant leadership.
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