Decisiveness — Your entire day as a CEO is spent making decisions.. I don’t think I understood the importance of this skill until I was in my first CEO role. As the person who has the final say in everything at your company you cannot be paralyzed about making a decision or you break the entire system you’ve worked so hard to create.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cathy Butler.
Cathy Butler is the CEO of digital agency Organic, where she leads the agency with over 20 years of marketing and tech experience. She has worked with brands like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and American Express in their ambition to be digital-first businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career beginning was unusual compared to most advertising agency CEOs. I started out with the goal to be a music journalist and my first job was at Rolling Stone Magazine. While I was there I helped the magazine move their content and experience online and in the process I discovered that “online”, whatever that meant at the time, was interesting. With some nascent online experience, I then went on to launch Epicurious, and e-commerce for Barnes and Noble and IKEA. It was really exciting to create anew, but also led to a deep but early understanding of online customer experience. I then jumped into agency land, working my way through roles in project management, operations, learned to run a P&L, and marketing/client service, leading bigger and bigger teams. It was this tour of duty that prepared me for being a CEO.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There’s been a few times, early on in my CEO journey and through today, where I’ve been mistakenly overlooked as someone who holds the decision making power. I’m a petite Asian American woman and, at first glance, assumptions have proven that I don’t ladder up to the look of engrained CEO expectations. It’s a reminder of the challenges that female leaders continue to face, and that we have a long way to go to reset expectations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gavin Fraser, now CEO of Small Planet, was instrumental in my early career. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without his mentorship, guidance and support. He really understood my ambition to lead a company one day and he helped me cultivate skills that I needed to become a CEO. Under his wing, I worked intentionally across every facet of running a company from P&L management through marketing to client services.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I sleep a lot, and deprioritize many things (TV bingeing, invites, life!) so that I can get close to a coveted 8–9 hours of sleep. I learned this the hard way, having spent a couple of years incredibly stressed and sleep deprived. Getting enough sleep enables me to feel healthy, happy, productive and able to manage the stresses of my job. I also like to have personal projects outside of work that require commitment and focus; I’ve run five half marathons and am currently training for my first triathlon.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As an Asian American female CEO, diversity is inherently part of my success story. so I am responsible for ensuring opportunities are available to future leaders. Equally important is our responsibility to create work that represents our world at large. People who are diverse create work that is diverse. It’s as simple as that.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Declare it as a priority and understand this challenge is much larger than you or I. We have to do everything we can at an individual and company level to ensure we’re cultivating an inclusive environment that strives towards a more equitable world. This isn’t about celebrating a DEI benchmark on paper or highlighting cultural history for one month out of the year. It’s about making conscious efforts each day to foster an environment where each voice is heard and respected so that we can all share in the benefits of diversity. At Organic, we host recurring “UnTownhalls’’ to create space for all voices to be heard and we coordinate regular 1:1 meetings between folks that don’t normally work closely together as another way to foster inclusivity and connection internally. Our goals for diversity will prevail if we continuously instill inclusivity as a belief system and exercise those values transparently.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
My main job is to set a vision and to simplify the complexities of achieving that vision. To do so requires a macro view of everything happening at our company — from our people to our clients, the work being produced to our fiscal performance. Details really matter to me, and my goal is to create a company that feels personal with great career opportunities.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Being the CEO can be a lonely gig. There is a perception that CEOs aren’t normal people and I spend a lot of time demystifying that belief. I try to make it clear that what separates me from everybody else is just my level of experience. I am not a super human. I make mistakes, I’m super clumsy and I have terrible ideas. I put in effort so that people really get to know me, and to know that I care. A lot. My goal is to talk to 3–5 employees every day. I have smaller breakfast meetings with specific teams and coffee with all new hires. I do whatever it takes for my employees to see me as a real person, not some distant, out of touch leader — even when it means getting out of my comfort zone as an introvert.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Career planning and skill building is so important for women. There is a lot of research pointing to the importance of women being proactive about their own careers. For example, if women aren’t managing somebody within the first three years of their job, their career path will be entirely different than a woman who gets that early management experience. Young women entering the workforce have to be their own best advocates, be vocal about their goals and own their career development.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I never considered how lonely the CEO role is. There’s a lot you have to keep close to your chest while making pivotal decisions every day.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Decisiveness. Your entire day as a CEO is spent making decisions.. I don’t think I understood the importance of this skill until I was in my first CEO role. As the person who has the final say in everything at your company you cannot be paralyzed about making a decision or you break the entire system you’ve worked so hard to create.
You also need to be capable of earning trust. My approach is to be completely transparent — I will answer any question that I’m asked. This is especially true if you are pushing for dramatic change in your company. When you are asking everyone to take a huge leap of faith in your vision, you have to be open and honest about what that means.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Your career isn’t a linear progression. You have to develop skills you need to get you to where you want to be. I recently interviewed a candidate for a HR position who never held any HR-specific roles however her entrepreneurial endeavours taught her skills that are invaluable to this particular role. The more time you spend on growing and broadening your skillset, the more opportunities you can create for yourself.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I make a point to get to know my junior staff and build relationships with each of them. A goal of mine is to foster an environment where we can all learn from each other and cultivate opportunities for the next generation of women leadership.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s not about climbing the hierarchy. It’s about preparing yourself for the expertise you’ll need to succeed in your dream role.
- Work/life balance is impossible. Set yourself up for success by organizing your priorities (and your calendar) while staying flexible instead of getting bogged down trying to strike a perfect balance.
- Perception is reality when you’re a leader and you’ll have to rise above those presumptions to be successful.
- True authenticity requires self-reflection. I carve out time each week to reflect on the days past and week ahead.
- Be receptive to change and committed to collaboration.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Building corporate cultures around the idea of Positive Intent. If we all believed and behaved in the best interests of each other — no politicking, not acting on our insecurities, and thinking about the greater good of the company — the fundamental DNA of your corporate culture would be built upon trust. Trust breeds great relationships and great work. And that’s important to all corporate futures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Are you a Giver or a Taker?” It’s a fundamental question that those on the cusp of or are in leadership roles really need to define for themselves as it shapes your leadership style. Adam Grant’s book (Give and Take) transformed how I defined the traits about being a good leader.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Barack Obama or Oprah. They’re both incredible listeners, great decision makers and very empathetic — all qualities that I admire in a leader. I continuously strive to hone those leadership qualities in my position.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.