58: "The Gymnast" - Kat Gordon

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"The Gymnast"

This is my conversation with Kat Gordon - founder of the 3% Percent Conference and CEO of the 3% Movement. Kat started 3% in 2008, to highlight the fact that only 3 percent of creative directors at major ad agencies were women Kat is a change agent, moving into previously unoccupied spaces, doing things that hadn’t been done before. A revolutionary in a time of revolution. I wanted to understand where that willingness to take on the status quo in such a public and sustained way comes from. 


Three Takeaways

  • A willingness to embrace new challenges.
  • The courage to confront your perceptions of weakness in yourself.
  • A clear definition of right versus wrong.

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 58: "The Gymnast" Kat Gordon

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This is my conversation with Kat Gordon - founder of the Three Percent Conference. Kat started three percent in 2008, to highlight the fact that only 3 percent of creative directors at major ad agencies were women

Kat is a change agent, moving into previously unoccupied spaces, doing things that hadn’t been done before. A revolutionary in a time of revolution.

I wanted to understand where that willingness to take on the status quo in such a public and sustained way comes from. 

This episode is called “The Gymnast”

“I think about that a lot metaphorically, because I remember standing in that crouched position with her, my coach, saying, "Let's try it, let's try it." And the trust of the first time you did it was huge. And then once I did it, was I like, That's actually not even that hard. It's just a mental leap of not using your hands and being off the ground.”

The ability to recognize the need to disrupt your own environment is a leadership skill, in and of itself.

But the willingness to cross that chasm into a future that will be different than the past, requires courage that relatively few possess.

Those that make that leap are usually able to do so for two reasons. 

First because they’ve learned to instinctively test the limits in every situation. To find out where the edge of the current possibility really lies. Many times we anticipate opposition before it really shows up. 

Instead, push the boundaries of what’s possible in the current situation. Challenge yourself and the people that work for you to break your own rules and habits. 

I encourage a lot of my clients to follow Howard Schultz’s example and put together a disruption group. A monthly meeting of 4-6 people - that spends an hour challenging everything you think is true. Half the group are regulars. Half the group are outsiders who bring a disruptive and objective point of view. I do this for some of my clients with the sole intention of helping them to see that often what looks like an obstacle is just a habit or an assumption. 

The  second group of leaders that create big changes are willing to take the leap because they’ve already made it in their mind. 

They see themselves on the other side long before anyone else realizes there is a chasm to cross. And that mental leap, makes the result of the actual attempt a foregone conclusion, in their mind. 

Which after all is where leadership happens.

So when you’re faced with a change you know your company needs to make, ask yourself two questions. 

Have I done everything I can to reach the limits of what I can do from this side of the chasm.

And what will it look like from the other side when we get there?

Here’s Kat Gordon.

Charles:

Kat, welcome to Fearless, thank you for being here.

Kat Gordon:

My pleasure.

Charles:

When did creativity first show up in your life? What's your first memory of something striking you as being creative?

Kat Gordon:

Oh, what an awesome question. I remember when I was a kid, sometimes watching sitcoms, and I'd hear an expression I'd never heard before or a word I didn't know, that was colorful. Like, I have this recollection of watching The Odd Couple, and someone used the phrase "hold your horses," which I'd never heard before. And I'd write them down.

So I think from a very early age, I was intrigued by how language is colorful and interesting. That's one of my earliest memories.

Charles:

What an interesting reference point. Were you a risk-taker as a kid?

Kat Gordon:

A little bit. I was an athlete; I was a gymnast, definitely pretty fearless on the balance beam. I always wanted to try new things, but I was also very shy, so I needed encouragement, but I was a very curious person.

Charles:

What was it about gymnastics that drew you to it?

Kat Gordon:

I grew up in the era when Kathy Rigby and Nadia Comaneci were kind of becoming little celebrities.

Charles:

Oh, yeah.

Kat Gordon:

And I'm a small person, 5'2" and kind of muscular and so I just kind of had the build of a gymnast, and just played on the monkey bars on school and liked it and was good at it and kept doing it. It was just fun.

Charles:

Was it natural for you?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, definitely.

Charles:

So you never had that moment of standing there on the balance beam and thinking, "I'm going to fall from here?"

Kat Gordon:

No. Every gymnast has that feeling. I remember when I was in high school, I was on the gymnastics team and there were different degrees of difficulty for different moves. And you wanted your routine to have at least one of the hardest, and so my coach and I identified this move I was going to learn and it was called a free roll, where you'd basically be standing on the balance beam on one leg, you'd lean forward and you would literally just fall into a somersault without your hands and come back up.

I think about that a lot metaphorically, because I remember standing in that crouched position with her, my coach, saying, "Let's try it, let's try it." And the trust of the first time you did it was huge. And then once I did it, was I like, That's actually not even that hard. It's just a mental leap of not using your hands and being off the ground.

There's a lot of fear in gymnastics, but you kind of get over it. And everyone falls, and everyone bruises themselves, but it's fun and its usually not a terrible injury.

Charles:

What was the trust? Was the trust in the coach? Was it a he or a she?

Kat Gordon:

It was a she. Gloria.

Charles:

Gloria. Was it the trust that Gloria was going to catch you or that she was going to tell you how to do it well enough that you wouldn't hurt yourself?

Kat Gordon:

It actually had nothing to do with her. It was just trust in my own body to kind of ... And my own ... That it would propel you forward and that you'd be able to bring your body back up.

It was just a very different feeling. Most things you do on the bars or on the beam, you're physically connected, you're touching it with your hands, so this was a really different kind of sensation.

Charles:

So, part of her responsibility was waiting until she felt confident that you could in fact, do it, before encouraging you to do it?

Kat Gordon:

Right, exactly.

Charles:

Interesting.

How big a part was gymnastics threaded through your teenage years? How long did you focus on it?

Kat Gordon:

I was only on the team for two years in high school. By senior year, I had a job and a boyfriend and a car. I was no longer on the gymnastics team. Different priorities.

Charles:

Where did you go to college?

Kat Gordon:

I went to Gettysburg College. It's a little Liberal Arts college in Pennsylvania.

Charles:

Oh, yeah. Studying what?

Kat Gordon:

English and French, double major.

Charles:

And did you have clear ambition about what you wanted to do when you got out?

Kat Gordon:

Not at all. Not at all.

Charles:

Liberal Arts is good for that, right? I went to Liberal Arts and it's fantastic for saying, you don't have to know yet, here's all these electives that you can take and then you can figure it out later on in your life.

Kat Gordon:

Totally. No, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.

Charles:

So what did you do?

Kat Gordon:

My first job out of college, I worked at USA Today newspaper here in Manhattan, in the advertising sales department. I had been doing temp work, like secretarial temp work during my breaks, summers in New York City. I had temped at USA Today and then I heard they were looking for an assistant in the advertising sales department, so I applied. That was my first job.

Charles:

What was ad sales like back then?

Kat Gordon:

It was awesome. The summer I started there, Advertising Age named USA Today the vehicle of year, the media of the year.

Charles:

Yeah.

Kat Gordon:

It was at it's five-year anniversary.

Charles:

It was really good then.

Kat Gordon:

Business was profitable and it was kind of a new medium. Young sales staff and I had two female bosses that were complete firecrackers. I learned a lot from them. Obviously, I didn't end up in ad sales, but I learned a lot about ... I mean, it was my first introduction into the workplace, and they were really independent women, and ambitious and fun. It was actually a great first job.

Charles:

What did you learn from that?

Kat Gordon:

I learned to be prepared. I remember helping my two bosses that I worked for get prepared for big sales calls and making sure they had everything they needed, all the sales kits.

I also learned, and this is something I talk about a lot ... I was very shy, and I remember watching my bosses get ready to go give big presentations and saying to Andrea Greenberg, one of my bosses, "Don't you get nervous before you have to speak in front of this big room of people?" And she said, "No. No, I don't." And I said, "Yeah, that scares the hell out of me."

And she sponsored me to take a public speaking class and that was life-changing, because now, at my own conference, I speak in front of a thousand people. I love public speaking. It helped me sell my ideas, and as a creative director, not be afraid to be in front of a room of people, so that was another amazing intervention of someone, in a critical ... You know, the coach, now the boss. I had a lot of people guiding me in ways that were timely and important.

Charles:

You're right. Public speaking is a big problem for a lot of people. How significant of a probably was it for you? If you look back at it, was it paralyzing, was it uncomfortable?

Kat Gordon:

Paralyzing.

Charles:

Paralyzing.

Kat Gordon:

I mean I have a vivid recollection of that first night at the Dale Carnegie public speaking class. You had to just stand up and state your name in front of your classmates, and I almost left.

Charles:

Because of that request?

Kat Gordon:

My legs were literally knocking. I was petrified of public speaking. Ironically, I was in a couple drama productions in high school, and I think back to singing on stage and acting on stage. And I was able to do that, because I think I was inhabiting a different persona than being myself and trying to connect with other people.

I say this all the time to young, female creatives. Get over your fear of public speaking, because selling your ideas is such an important component to being in advertising. I'm so grateful I had that early intervention.

Charles:

I think it's a misunderstood, but also underestimated, skill that you have to learn. In fact, I interviewed Dan Pink on this show a few weeks ago, who wrote a book a couple of years ago called To Sell is Human.

He talks about the fact that we actually spend 40% of our lives selling, in the sense of trying to convince somebody else of something, to give us something that's valuable to them. It might just be their attention or their time or their support or their enthusiasm. But in every one of those instances, we are in fact selling.

I think as you point out, the notion of, how do we make sure that we show up in a way that maximizes our ability to convince other people to give us something of value. It's fundamental, I think, to business success these days. And perhaps, even in life, more broadly.

Kat Gordon:

Totally agree.

Charles:

What was the technique they used? How did you go from I can barely say my name, I want to run out of the room, to standing in front of a thousand people, as an original thinker, apparently fearlessly offering your point of view to the world? In a tough time to do that.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah. I'm desensitization. That's what anything that you're trying to overcome is. The first time they have you do an incredibly short speech. When it's over, you think, "Wow, I didn't die." The sky didn't fall. They gradually work you up towards doing ... I think at the end, you do a three-minute speech in front of your classmates.

Obviously, that environment, everyone's rooting for you. Everyone's there for the same purpose; it's a friendly audience, so that helps. And it's that easy and that simple. Just do it.

That's why I say often to ad agencies, "Don't wait for your people to have to sell the work at the actual pitch." Create these low-stakes environments, where people can, with their peers, be talking out loud and defending the work and deflecting criticism. Because, it's a muscle, and the more you use it, the more successful it'll show up for you.

Charles:

I imagine you saw yourself pretty differently coming out of that experience, and with the ability now to stand in front of people and speak and sell. Convince people.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, it's weird. Even sitting here with you describing myself in that moment. It feels like I'm talking about someone that's not alive anymore.

Charles:

Wow.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah. An old part of myself that I shed.

Charles:

Literally that different?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, no question.

Charles:

How do you judge that person?

Kat Gordon:

In a way, I guess, almost in a daughterly way, I think. What was she so afraid of? Because I always had good ideas to share. I'm not sure really where that come from, that shyness, but I'm so glad it's gone and I believe anyone can be a good presenter, just you have to practice.

Charles:

Were you encouraged to speak as a child?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah. I mean, I was in a big family, blended family, kind of a Brady Bunch family. I don't ever remember being shamed into silence; I think it was more a dispositional thing.

Charles:

Yeah, interesting. With this newfound skill and power and showing up as somebody that felt like a different human being, what did you do with that then? Where did you go from USA Today?

Kat Gordon:

I realized, working at USA Today, what advertising copywriting was. I didn't know that was a thing. They had copywriters on staff and I cornered one of them in the ladies' room, a new hire, and said to her, "Tell me about being a copywriter."

She's a friend to this day. She kind of coached me, and so while I was working at USA Today in ad sales, I was also going to night classes at School of Visual Arts and learning how to be a copywriter.

And, this is a funny thing. The guy who was the head of sales at the ad department, this guy named David [Obraski :15]. He was kind of a legend in the ad sales business.

I remember going to tell him that I wanted to be a copywriter. And he said to me, "A copywriter? That's like being a piano player in a whorehouse." Because he assumed he would be ushering me into sales. I always remember him saying that to me.

Literally the minute I heard that that was a thing, that was a job you could make money at, I was sold.

Charles:

What was it about that was so resonant for you emotionally?

Kat Gordon:

I talked about this just in an interview I gave to The Drum. I said, "The thought that you can get paid and make a living for being persuasive with words, was very compelling to me." Because I had always been a journal-keeper, I had pen pals. I loved to read, I still do. And so I always had such a deep appreciation for language and I also am someone who has a keen sense of what's right and wrong and justice. That's what I love doing pro bono work.

The idea that you can just use words to bring people over to your view of something was just amazing to me. It's just the simplicity and directness of it. And that you could make ... You didn't have to be a starving artist. You could be a commercial artist.

Charles:

Did you see, early on, the impact that your work had on people? Because there's a disconnect between being a copywriter, having work out there, and feeling, experiencing somebody's response and reaction to it. Because obviously you're dependent upon, did the product get sold? Did the service get bought?

How did you confirm for yourself that the work that you were doing was actually having an impact, that you were actually effective at that?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, that's a good question because it's not always as direct, and often, as you know, the lead times on projects ... by the time it's in the market, you're not in love with it anymore and you're almost barely remember authoring it.

I think, for me, it was a lot of pro bono work I did. As I was working in agencies, I was always involved in charities. I worked with a domestic violence prevention group in California. This big Aids fundraiser. I always remember writing their invites and things.

Those, to me, were the most gratifying assignments, because you felt like you were helping raise money for worthy causes. It's weird because now what I do, I'm not really a Creative Director any longer, I'm someone who's challenging my own industry, and it's makeup. There are far more instances when I get direct feedback on my work now, than when I was writing advertising.

Charles:

When you're getting that feedback these days, how much of it positive and how much of it negative?

Kat Gordon:

It's almost entirely positive. I would say 98% positive, and it's from everyone. It's from young people, it's from older creatives that had kind of put themselves out to pasture, and then thought, "Wow. You know what? I'm going to go back in and try to gun for the absolute top job." It's from clients, it's from industry people that are just grateful that we're making noise about this issue.

I get a lot of positive feedback on my work, and that's important to me. In fact, I remember when I was still in high school, I did an internship with my dentist, and I thought I might want to go into dentistry. And I remember, he said to me, "Let me tell you something, as a dentist, if you make a beautiful bridge for someone's mouth, all their going to remember is it costs money, they had to take time off from work, and they were uncomfortable. They're never going to thank you and they're never going to see the artistry in your work. So, if you're the kind of person who needs positive reinforcement, this is probably not a good career for you." What an amazing gift.

Charles:

Valuable insight.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah. Because I do need positive feedback.

Charles:

Like everybody else, I crave my [inaudible :12] work, but I'm certainly sensitive to positive feedback. I think, increasingly, I try not to be as I do more of what I do, because my job is to help people, not be told I'm helping, be praised for that.

I also find that the place I learn the most is when you get constructive criticism. Do you find, when you're in an environment in which 98% of what you hear back is positive, is it hard for you to figure out the ways I might be better? Can I improve? Where do you get that kind of stimulus from?

Kat Gordon:

Right. Yes, totally, and there have been a couple, I guess you would call them failures, on the 3% journey. One of which cost us a lot of money, and I remember talking to Cindy Gallop about it, and I said to her, "It's okay, because if everything I'm doing is a home run, then I'm not stretching and trying new things." By the way, I'm also married, so I get plenty of criticism there, at home, from my family. They keep me honest.

Charles:

Yeah, it's a great equalizer, isn't it? Thank you for keeping me straight.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, totally.

Charles:

I want to come, obviously, to 3%, but how did your journey transition from being a copywriter into 3%? What was that transition?

Kat Gordon:

I started a freelance copywriting business and then started an ad agency called Maternal Instinct. The genesis of that is I have two teenage sons, and when they were born and I was still working and raising them, I started to get all these clients that were targeting mothers and women, and I realized that this was a category that was hard to do well. Hard to speak to mothers, whether they're veteran moms or first-time moms, with the right sensitivity.

So it was in running my ad agency, I used to write a blog about marketing to women. And I would do a lot of research, and I was just really paying attention to consumer trends and everything was tilting towards women doing the dominant consumer set. Wealth amassment was tilting towards women, even tech-adoption and social media sharing. All the key metrics.

I kept looking back at every time I'd open an issue of Ad Age, it was just all dudes. Which I knew to be true, but somehow those two things were so incongruent to my brain, that I started to think about challenging that and what would it look like.

So I started a conference to build community around the issue and it just took off.

Charles:

I'm interested because obviously the conference was the third step, it sounds like, in what you just described, in the journey of starting your own thing. You started a freelance business, you started your own agency, then you started a conference.

Kat Gordon:

Yeah.

Charles:

Where do you think, because obviously not everybody is born to be an entrepreneur and a business-starter.

Kat Gordon:

Right, right.

Charles:

Where do you think that came from? When you went from the safe haven of paid employment to I'm going to do my own thing. What was the catalyst the first time for that?

Kat Gordon:

You know, I saw this quote somewhere that said: Entrepreneur is just a fancy way of saying someone who has ideas and does them. And I was someone who always had ideas. I think living in Silicon Valley, a lot of the freelance clients I'd worked with were startups, so I'd seen a lot of ideas be birthed and built, many of which I didn't think were that good.

I think it kind of made me realize, why couldn't I do that? I don't know. Of course there were some sleepless nights and a lot of, What the hell are you thinking? Who's going to listen to you?

Charles:

Was that your biggest concern, who would listen?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, it was kind of, what is it's a huge failure?

Charles:

Did you answer that question in your own mind? Did you go to the, I'll be sleeping under ... If you talk to people about what's the worst ... Somebody says, "I'd like to do this, but?" And you take them the progression of, "Okay, but what would happen in the worst-case scenario?"

All of us ... This is true without fail ... All of us can get to, "I'll be living by myself under a bridge. In five steps."

Kat Gordon:

Unloved.

Charles:

Unloved, unwanted.

Kat Gordon:

Penniless.

Charles:

Yes, right. We can all get to that place, in five steps.

Kat Gordon:

Right.

Charles:

We have to make a massive quantum leap. So I just wondered as you were starting on that journey, did you stop for a moment and say, "Wow, the worst-case scenario is I might end up living under a bridge?" Or did you manage to stop yourself before that?

Kat Gordon:

I did not with 3%, because I'd gone through that futile exercise with when I started my agency. And I remember at the time I was working with a coach, and she had me take out a piece of paper and make two-sided list. What's the worst thing that could happen? What's the best thing that could happen?

And I found that list when my agency was maybe three years old, and off the ground and doing well. And I laughed, because everything i was worried might happen, didn't, and the things that were a challenge, weren't even on my radar. I was like, "Oh, I get it. You can actually never prepare for what it will really be like."

So I think with the conference, I had already had that experience of kind of jumping with no net and I had some weird ... I mean, I did a survey to 50 female creative directors, saying would you come to this? I'd written up descriptions about sessions. And I got such a resounding yes, that I think ... I vetted it. It wasn't like I just was like, "I'm having a conference and everyone's going to come." I did a little research.

So it felt scary in terms of ... More kind of, I was not a household name creative. I was not some famous person. Now, I know everyone, but I didn't back then. So, that was more scary. Kind of, Am I going to be able to be believed, as the leader of this? Is there enough interest?

I mean, the response has been so much greater than even I could've ever hoped.

Charles:

You mentioned earlier on that you're drawn to right versus wrong. And you mentioned a couple of other issues that you got involved with earlier in life. I'm assuming that was a big motivator in this particular situation? Building a conference?

Kat Gordon:

Totally, and I feel like the thing that ... I was not motivated by, "There should be more women because I'm a woman. There should be more creative directors so I have sisters next to me." It truly was, from having run my agency, I was so horrified on behalf of women, how they were being disregarded by brands, or spoken down to, or misrepresented. And that, to me, was the big moral imperative. It was like, God, women deserve better and brands deserve better. I was like, If they only how misguided they're being by all-male creative departments. Not maliciously, but just not really connecting that, if you want to speak with understanding to a consumer group, you want to involved that group in the creation of the work.

Charles:

Yeah, absolutely. So you got the support of 50 women and decided this was something you were going to do. What did you think was the ... What was the best-case scenario that you thought at that point? What was your immediate objective?

Kat Gordon:

I don't think I even got that far. I think the best-case scenario was we wouldn't lose money, my husband and I. We're renting out this venue. That we just wouldn't lose money and I'd make some new friends. And lo and behold, we made money in the very first year, and there was all of a sudden so much interest in this new movement, that I was like, "Oh, I guess I'll have another conference."

I didn't know it would be an ongoing thing. And even now, I didn't know seven years in we would be certification and consulting and I would be going to Cannes and speaking. All of it's just been a present you keep unwrapping.

Charles:

How do you evolve it? Do you set goals every year? How does the journey work for you?

Kat Gordon:

It's far more organic than that. I am a listener and I listen to what the market is telling me is missing and where it needs help to move forward. We don't build anything because we think it'd be cool. We build things that people tell us, and they don't maybe even articulate that this is the thing that needs to be built, but they will say ... For instance, with certification, so many ad agencies I would meet with ... And they would say, "We have no idea how we're doing on this. How do we compare to other agencies we've met? What would healthy leadership look like?"

And I was like, Holy crap, there's no yardstick here, let's create one. So we did a benchmarking study with 31 ad agencies and found out where the watermarks lay and then we said, "Okay, based on this, where does leadership look like?" And then we started assessing agencies voluntarily on how they competed against this.

So, that's not something I thought would be part of my journey, but it was needed.

Charles:

Do you have more focus now, as you reach this point of development, about where you think it should go from here, or you still tuning in to the marketplace and letting them guide you?

Kat Gordon:

I think I do have a sense of ... You know, I often say the 3% conference, I think will be a footnote to the other services the 3% movement provides. Because we spend all year planning the conference and it touches 1,000 people. Many more via livestream, but you know, it's a lot of work per person that you touch.

But when you get inside an ad agency and you work closely with them and you tell them how to create and amplify what they're doing right, and create atmospheres of belonging, where people want to work and stay and contribute, that touches tens of thousands of people. That's where a real meaningful change happens.

So I do feel like the majority of our future is going to be around culture consulting.

Charles:

When we built a business, I was struck looking back after a while, that, there are a lot of things to your point, I was a lot more confident about. I also was struck by the fact there were some things that I never got over, I was always anxious about certain things. I think when you're in a service business, Where's the next job coming from, is just a fundamental component. You have a great year or great quarter, and then immediately, as a friend of mine once said to me, "You're back to zero, and you have to start again."

Are there things, as you look back now over the journey, that surprise you that they are still things that you have to grapple with? Are there things you still worry about?

Kat Gordon:

Not probably as much as I should. Thank you for making me consider that. I mean, yes, the more the team grows and I feel responsible for people's livelihoods, that's kind of new. I just really, truly breathe what I'm doing, and so I believe in it so wholeheartedly and I have so much contact with the people I'm serving and so much validation that this is necessary and meaningful and working, that I really just don't allow myself to get into that paralysis.

Charles:

That responsibility for others is a big thing, right?

Kat Gordon:

Oh yeah.

Charles:

Have you felt it change your decision-making?

Kat Gordon:

I think I try to be very measured. I make decisions based on what I believe we can ... I never do anything where I think there's a 50/50 chance that that person might be out of a job. I wait until I'm like, "We really need this person and they're the right person and let's go."

So yes, I think I do wait until I'm certain we can provide them some degree of job security. Again, I think it's living in Silicon Valley, you just see ... There's a different mentality about the lifespan of things and the risks that's inherent in everything we do that's meaningful. And so, I think I've kind of taken that in and it's just part of my being at this point.

Charles:

Yeah. How do you lead? As you've built this organization, how have you learned that you lead best?

Kat Gordon:

I'm definitely a visionary leader. I often say I'm more of a leader than a manager. I'm a true creative person that has big ideas. I have a very good gut instinct about what we should be doing and how we should be talking about it. So I think I'm the kind of person that people are enthused to be part of what I'm building. But I'm not always the best at the details of management, so the bigger the team gets, the more I count on others to also manage one another and be in communication.

And I would say that that's exactly how I parent as well. I'm fun and I'm paying attention and I remember things, but I'm not always good with the details of running a household.

Charles:

Is it easy for you to trust people around you? Because obviously-

Kat Gordon:

No.

Charles:

Oh, interesting.

Kat Gordon:

It is not. It is not. It is not. It's something that people have to earn my trust. I don't know where that comes from either, before you ask.

Charles:

How do you earn your trust? What's the test they have to pass?

Kat Gordon:

Showing up, being honest, that's a big thing for me. Telling the truth, being reliable, just matching my energy that I know that they care. That's pretty much it. And then once I see that I can rely on them and that they're contributing well, then I'm all in. Then you're in the circle.

Charles:

Given your description of yourself as leader-oriented versus manager? People that have listened to this podcast know that I think there is a distinction. I read a Tweet by, I can't remember who it was, but it was actually a very famous author, who said the notion that there is a distinction is ridiculous. And I thought, I just don't agree with them, because there's so many people that I work with that are liberated by the recognition that there is a difference and they can stop stressing over the fact that they don't do one or the other as well and they can lean into the part that they do well.

And I think your description is actually resonant for me, that there are people who are really good about saying we're going here and let's go and all that encompasses. And other people who are really good bringing human beings together, making sure that they're organized in the right way and doing the things on the right time.

So given your self description and given the fact that you have a hard time trusting, does that create a tension for you on a day-to-day basis? Because given the way that you approach leading and the fact you need people around you to take care of the details, and struggle to trust people innately, there's a gap there. How do you fill that gap? Obviously you bring people up if they pass the test, but how do you also deal with that dynamic? Does that make sense?

Kat Gordon:

No, it totally makes sense. And I just recently took a little leadership quiz to find out your conflict style and I'm highly avoidant and I wasn't surprised. I don't like ... I always hope that if something unpleasant is bubbling up, that it will just kind of go away on it's own.

Charles:

It quite often does, I hear.

Kat Gordon:

Yes.

Charles:

That never causes a problem, the avoidance process is really good.

Kat Gordon:

But it was helpful for me to see that in black and white, as a rating on my leadership style, and to think that the few times I have had to had a difficult conversation or question someone's belonging on the team, it's gone well. Because I think, if you can communicate what you're witnessing and your concern around it in a way that's humane, it's a gift to other person, whether or not they stay on your team.

Charles:

Where do you think your avoidance comes from? Do you have any idea?

Kat Gordon:

My mother was a major people-pleaser and that's one of the reasons I love her, but I've had to unlearn that. And I think as a woman, there's a strong narrative for that in our culture is that women is supposed to make people comfortable and warm and fuzzy.

So, I think my avoidance style is ... I want to be a strong leader but I don't want to have those hard conversations anymore than I need to.

But I'm getting to the point in my life as a leader where I realize, "Oh, that's just part of the game. It doesn't mean you're not running the company well. It doesn't mean these aren't the right people." Again, it's just like being married. I've been married for 24 years and I realize, every time that I have to bring something to my husband's attention or we have to talk about something that's prickly, I feel better when we get through it. It's better ... What's that phrase I just heard? ... Ending is better than pending.

Something that's an open loop in your head or you know is not right, I think it takes a toll on your capacity as a leader, because somehow you're giving it energy even without addressing it.

Charles:

Yeah. I think that's right. I think it's also interesting that I find quite a lot of people who have avoidance tendencies also tend to be mistrusting, because they use it almost as an insurance policy, which kind of makes sense, if you think about the fact that I know I'm not going to confront it, so therefore, I'm also going to mistrust it, because if I don't confront it and trust it, that's really gets me into trouble if I'm wrong. Right?

Kat Gordon:

Oh, my goodness, it's almost like a confirmation bias.

Charles:

Yeah, that's right. You almost kind of double down on it.

Kat Gordon:

Wow.

Charles:

So you've got these two issues in place because it feels easier in the moment than actually figuring out why am I avoiding the issue in the first place?

Kat Gordon:

Totally.

Charles:

Because then, if I can actually confront the issue, I could have more trust because I'd confidence if there was a problem.

Kat Gordon:

Oh my God, you're good.

Charles:

It's just watching people over time, you start to realize yeah, there's two things at play here, not just one.

Kat Gordon:

Right.

Charles:

You’re clearly at the epicenter of probably the biggest societal issue there is at the moment. Sexual harassment, women's rights, women's voice as importantly. What's your perspective at the moment about where the issue sits? Where are we? And as we look back in history, 30 years from now, where do you think we are in this particular moment and where this issue is going to evolve to?

Kat Gordon:

Right. I am so glad that you see it that way, because I see it that way, too. I don't see this as a blip or something's getting a tiny bit better. I see it as a major seismic shift.

In a way, some of the behavior or certain people in society, to me, feels like extinction bursts. It's an old way of being that it's it its last, dying breath and so it's expression gets more and more toxic. And women are being believed and women are being celebrated and women are asking for what they deserve and getting paid equally.

By the way, young people ... I have two teenage sons ... That's the world they expect they're inhabiting, so any company that wants to be future-proofed, you just got to get on board.

Anytime I hear someone talking about what women should do or how they should behave, it just seems like they're just wearing a badge of irrelevance to me. Why wouldn't you want every single person on this planet ... I always think about I want all the brains at full capacity. I want to kick cancer's ass as soon as we can. Why wouldn't we want that to be a young, Indian girl? Who cares? We all want the same things in the end.

I'm feeling, I'm so thrilled to be alive at this moment. My friend, Vickie Saunders has this quote in her email that she wrote in her signature and it says, Everything in the world is broken. What a wonderful time to be alive.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kat Gordon:

And I completely concur with that. We get to co-create what's next, and as a creative person, that's just mecca for me.

Charles:

What do you think the role of leadership, in general, is in this particular moment? What can leaders, what should leaders be doing, whether male or female?

Because I think women leaders are having as hard a time in this in certain respects, as male leaders are, because I think they've seen the world through a certain lens, they've reached this position through a bunch of extraordinary skillsets and through a real determination. And sometimes I think it's also hard for them to see what's actually going on. Or maybe not to see it, but to verbalize it in a way that's helpful to the next generation. My observation is that women leaders are grappling with how they show up in this environment as much as male leaders are. Does that resonate with you?

Kat Gordon:

It does. Just a few days ago, I was with the team in Chicago and we delivered man-bassador training to 12 male creative directs. And we had created this programming from scratch and it went over so, so, so well. And I realized that so much of what we were doing is providing a safe platform to talk about this nebulous middle place.

And we did actually get tactical as well, and gave them scenarios that had been reported, had happened at the company. Not shaming anyone or naming anyone. But is this clueless, creepy, or criminal? What can you do as an advocate? And it was such a rich discussion. Even the team and I, we were like, "There is not one answer. There is not one way to be a good guy here. There's not one way to be a good woman here."

But what's missing and imperative is open conversation and for people to be able to ask rookie questions and not be shamed. That, to me, is everything, is getting talking, getting people to believe good intentions of others. I think that goes a long way. Even if someone insults you or says something you find diminishing in the workplace, I think the magic first words to say privately to them is, "I value our working relationship. I value you as my colleague. This is how this struck me."

How can you not move towards someone that opens with that kind of energy?

Charles:

I'm curious to get your thoughts on this. One of the things that I've observed, is that when you get to a certain position in your career, you are asked to speak a lot, either stand up at conferences or send us your thoughts on, or we want to do an interview for a publication or whatever. There are a tremendous number of demands placed on leaders.

And I think that you develop a habit as a leader of how you respond to those things. And you develop whether they're formally constructed or not. More often or not, they're instinctive. What you describe is talking points or themes and you talk through the same lens. In some cases, I think those become problematic, because the world is changing so fast. If you're in the moment of trying to run a demanding company or trying to respond to all of these things, you don't take the time to think about, As this is all relevant, how would this now be perceived compared to how it would've been perceived even six months ago? So, I think that's part of what I see happening.

The other thing I think is that again, when you get to leadership position like this and you're asked to speak all the time, what you tend not to do very much is listen.

Kat Gordon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

And I wonder there isn't enough listening going on among senior leaders of either gender. What do you think of that?

Kat Gordon:

I think that's the beauty of social media, is it's a free focus group, global, that anyone can access 24/7. Anytime you want to know anything about any issue or public sentiment about something, just listen in on what's being shared on Twitter or Instagram.

I pay very close attention to ... I still author all of our Facebook posts, which most people assume we would've farmed out ... But, what I pay attention to is which things strike up a lot of conversation, a lot of emotion, a lot of sharing. That's my form of listening. It's like putting out a little breadcrumb and seeing who gobbles it up.

So I think you're 100% right is that people just ... they're so caught up in their own talking points, that they don't listen for how they can evolve whatever it is they're contributing. Again, to me, what the market is telling you, there's white space or there's a pain point. Listening is the only way to see that.

Charles:

I really think that the issues here are so profound and so substantive and are society changing. I believe that, fundamentally, that the faster we can get to a place where both sides are able to listen to each other and not just judge through our own lenses, the faster we'll get to place that is much healthier for everybody.

Kat Gordon:

Agreed.

Charles:

What do you think happens next? What will we be talking about a year from now if we're talking about this issue?

Kat Gordon:

I think we're going to be talking about ambient belonging, which is a term I've been using a lot. Which is diversity ... So many companies are thinking about diversity from headcount standpoint ... But the second part of diversity and inclusion, the inclusion part, is far more important and it doesn't matter how many people, how many women you promote, how many people of color you hire if they're not going to want to be there a year from now.

And so the far harder conversation to have and thing to measure is belonging. How do you create cultures where people truly feel that they know one another, that they can rely on one another, that they're seen, that they're treasured? That's where the magic is.

And the companies that figure that out ... And it's not something that's calculated; it's a much more open-hearted journey ... They're going to win the future. They're going to own the future.

Charles:

What are you afraid of, looking forward?

Kat Gordon:

I try not to operate from a place of fear. I think the thing that makes me angry is kind of the Mike Pence effect. The, "Oh, well I just won't be alone with women. I just won't mentor women. Well, we just won't hire any women." That is so not the answer and that is deeply frustrating to me, that rather than ... I mean, when you are the status quo, you are grossly unpracticed at self-reflection. The world is constantly mirroring that everything is spring-loaded in your favor. So this is a time when anyone who enjoys any kind of privilege, should be doing a lot of introspection about how have they contributed or not been a good bystander, even if they're not a perpetrator.

Those are the conversations that will change our entire society.

Charles:

How can you tell if you're privileged?

Kat Gordon:

Well, there's something super interesting called the privilege walk, that we did at our conference. Where, would encourage anyone to look up these list of questions, because a lot of people who are privileged and they think it means wealth or education. Privilege is any way the world gives you an easy-access pass. It can be having a name that people know how to pronounce when they see it on a piece of paper. It can be having parents that went to college. It can be ... Trying to remember some of the other things that were part of that exercise ... It's any way that you have a frictionless experience in society.

And by the way, there are people who don't have certain forms of privilege, but have others. It can be able to like, I walked here and walked into this studio today. That's a form of privilege.

I think that term ... In fact, I had this tweet that got retweeted a million times. It said two of the most misunderstood words today, privilege and patriarchy. Does not mean wealth, does not mean men. Again, this conversation is coming full circle. My fascination with language. Those words are so misunderstood and so flattened and one-dimensionalized when they're the beginning of a conversation that could be life-changing.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), that's really powerful. I wrap every episode with three takeaways that I've heard.

Kat Gordon:

Oh, and you're not even writing down. You have them? Like a shopping list, in your head already?

Charles:

Well, we'll see, right. We'll find out.

The first is your willingness to take risks and to lean in to what you haven't done before and to confront whatever the obstacles are that are imposed, that either are placed in front of you or that you perceive to be in front of you. Obviously, from gymnastics to public speaking to launching your own agency and the 3% conference. There is clearly a theme in that and the future doesn't scare you. The future, seems like, that could be interesting to see what happens in that.

I think the second part of that is actually your willingness to confront your own perceptions of what weakness looks like in those moments, and to take those on and to do real work around them.

I think the third is ... Well, there are probably a couple ... But the third, is the fact you are drawn to right versus wrong and that you're perception of injustice and your willingness and desire to do something about that. I think that, to me, is very much the definition of leadership.

Then I think attached to that is ... Not quite sure how to best put this ... I think you are willing to do the things that are necessarily to confront that, even if they might not be popular or they might be structured or ready. You're willing to create a future that's based around the fact that this is not right and I want to correct that.

Kat Gordon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

And so, I think you said you didn't really have a vision for the 3% conference, but I think in some respects, you do, because I think your vision is, I want to create a world that is actually fair and balanced and just. That's a very powerful vision. Do those resonate with you?

Kat Gordon:

Yeah, absolutely. You know, I don't have a ton of time for reflection and there's just so much. The treadmill moves pretty fast, so I don't have a lot of time where I sit back and connect all those dots, but I think, looking at my whole kind of life and the things that have always been interesting to me, I think you really hit the nail on the head.

By the way, I think a lot of creative people have a keen sense of justice and are highly observant. So I believe creatives can have a huge hand in what tomorrow holds.

Charles:

Can't put it any better than that. Kat, thanks so much for being here.

Kat Gordon:

Thanks for having me.