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Deborah Gillis


Toronto, Canada

I am willing to bet that there is one thing that all leaders have in common. At some point, someone was our champion and they were prepared to do more than just talk to us.

Nothing in my background suggests I could become the chief operating officer of a global organization that works with some of the world’s most powerful business leaders.

I grew up on a gravel road in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, about as far from New York, London, Mumbai and even Toronto as you can imagine. My parents had very little formal education, no steady jobs and no connections or influence. Career ambition was secondary to the practical need to earn a living; very little was expected or preordained for me.

In high school, then later in university and ultimately at work, I began to realize that if I was a strong performer, I could achieve whatever I dreamed (and more). I also learned  I could not do it on my own; good grades, working hard and taking smart chances professionally was not enough. I also needed to surround myself with people who believed in me; champions who recognized my potential despite the unconventional background and packaging; mentors and peers who were prepared to step up and help, not just with words and advice, but with action and opportunity. And because they believed in me, I believed in myself, and my confidence grew. So too, did my willingness to push myself far beyond my childhood expectations.

When I made the transition from the public to the private sector, one of my mentors helped me secure the position. He cleared the path, making sure I was offered high visibility projects and opportunities—stretch assignments or “hot jobs” that could drive my advancement. The experience taught me a critical lesson: organizations – not just women – must also lean in.

My story will be familiar to some and very different than others. But whatever the starting point – a gravel road in Canada or bustling city street – I am willing to bet there is one thing that all leaders have in common: a champion. A champion who was prepared to not only talk, but also to make things happen.

It is my turn now to be a champion for ambitious women. My goal is to find talent in unexpected places, to nurture it, to build confidence and to reinforce the ambition to aim high. Catalyst, the organization I work for, shares my values and seeks to open doors for women and transform cultures that may be resistant to “non-traditional leaders.” I want to create a legacy that will change someone’s personal story forever, as it did mine.