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She’s Looking Up Despite Challenges

How One Resilient Corporate President Turns Obstacles Into Steppingstones

Michele Sullivan Photo by Micah Kandros

We’ve all had moments of feeling as if we don’t belong. But imagine being born into a world where fitting in was never an option. As the first female president of the Caterpillar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the $46 billion manufacturing giant Caterpillar, Inc., Michele Sullivan was born with a rare form of dwarfism. She has spent her life looking up and used her unique point of view to impact countless lives around the world.

She helped transform the foundation into one of the world’s most influential corporate foundations, through the launch of its collaborative impact platform known as “Together Stronger”—a catalyst for shared prosperity that unites businesses, nonprofits, government and citizens to combine their strengths to alleviate poverty for millions worldwide.

As a child, Michele realized she had a choice to make life-changing decisions. She could (1) tailor her differences into something more suitable for the world, (2) hide from the world and live on the fringe, or (3) embrace her differences, turn them into assets and come to recognize that there was strength within them that could help others. She chose the third option. Today In: Leadership

In her new book, Looking Up: How A Different Perspective Turns Obstacles Into Advantages due out this month, Michele states, “For you, having a door held may be a very nice gesture from a stranger. For me, it is a requirement to enter most buildings that do not have automatic doors. It requires me to ask for a lot of help, and once I finally learned to embrace that reality, the universe answered back with thunderous support. Where I had once seen obstacles, I changed my perspective and viewed them instead as advantages. I now call this the ‘Looking Up’ philosophy, and it is how I live my life each day.”

I had the honor to sit down with Michele and talk about her story of resilience and how she made it to the top when many employees without her challenges fail to climb the corporate ladder. I was inspired by her story and how her wisdom is something all of us can use on a daily basis to turn roadblocks into steppingstones.

Bryan Robinson: Thank you for taking time to talk with me, Michele. Let’s start with a background of your story.

Michele Sullivan: I was born with an extremely rare form of dwarfism. And the doctors said to my parents, “Take her home and treat her like everybody else.” Back in the sixties you didn’t see little people except on TV or in the circus. My parents were very supportive and pushed me. They said you’re small, but you can do what anybody else can do. And education was important. I ended up going through with an MBA and then started my career at Caterpillar Corporation. Twenty-two years into my career I applied for the Caterpillar Foundation job. It’s a very visible job, one of the most influential corporate foundations out there, and everybody wants it. I was fortunate enough to get the job, the first woman in that position and also the smallest employee at “Big Yellow” (laughs). I took it in a totally different direction and created the Together Stronger platform. The foundation gave me insight I would’ve never had. I saw people living in extreme poverty, and they inspired me, as do all people. I’ve looked up to people all my life being four feet tall. But the experience also gave me the vision that I look up to everybody figuratively, not just literally because we all have immense value. And that’s what my book is about that we should look up to everyone. With the world being so divided, we need hope and need to come together and embrace our differences.

Robinson: How do you explain the fact that many people without challenges never make it as far up the career ladder as you did?

Sullivan: I never worried about moving up. I always did the job that was in front of me and the things I had an interest in. When you look at the job you have, do the best you can and collaborate with people, that goes a long way. One of the chapters in my book is called, “Asking for Help Is a Strength, Not A Weakness.” With my disability, I ask for help all the time reaching for things or opening things. I’m used to that. So when I was exposed to something new at work, I’d make the first move to find out about it. And when the opportunity came open, I was ready for it, but that’s really hard for some people. I have a tremendous village or kitchen table—the people around me who support me, push me forward and give me confidence. And I try to do that for others. I believe in being part of other people’s kitchen table and villages and support people. The confidence and support from others is why I got to where I was. Also people looked past what they saw. They didn’t just see a four-foot person. They knew my work and the vision for the foundation and gravitated to it.

Robinson: I want to come back to a point you made earlier. A lot of people feel diminished if they have to ask for help. Could you say more about that.

Sullivan: Growing up, people would look over me. We tend to think that bigger is better and more powerful when in reality some of those people are not confident and can’t ask for help because they think asking for help makes you weak. We thrive because of other people, not in spite of them. When you can let your guard down and be open with people at your kitchen table and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this. Or what do you think I should do?” The biggest life we can lead is an interdependent, not an independent one. Males especially have trouble because a “real man” isn’t supposed to ask for help. Being small, everybody’s big to me.

Robinson: There could be many employees reading this piece with aspirations but feel defeated before they begin. Or they have that negative voice in their heads. Can you describe your “secret sauce?” And what advice would you give them?

Sullivan: I’d say break it down into different phases of what it would take to go in the direction you want to go. And don’t try to bite off too much at first and go for the touchdown right away. I went down to the Caterpillar Foundation years before I was in a position to post for it. And I knew you needed a lot of experience and certain skill sets, and I created a roadmap in my head along the way. You have to go from inside yourself. Nobody is going to hand it to you. If you don’t talk to other people and share your skill set, then they’re not going to come knocking on your door.

Robinson: And your perspective is important, isn’t it?

Sullivan: Right. When you’re in the situation, do you see opportunity or obstacle? When you walk in a room, do you watch for someone you know? Or do you go up to someone you don’t know and start talking? Do you see people that could bring opportunity? Or do you say to yourself that you can’t break into that area or that you can’t do something? My mom always taught me, “Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can, but you can’t stand still.” Some people struggle with making the first move and knowing what to do. But you have to remember to do something and don’t be afraid to lean on people.

Robinson: Were you born with that perspective? Or did it develop because of the people around you?

Sullivan: My parents will tell you that I came into the world with the gift of gab. I don’t know if it was me being an outgoing person or that I learned very early if someone’s going to look past how I look. If they weren’t, why waste my time? But I also learned that if I started talking first, I broke the ice. I learned to make the first move because people would look right over me. Today if I go into a store, they look right over me, and I don’t get the time of day. I’m always the one to make the first move. If I start chatting, even in an elevator, people pay attention.

Robinson: What advice would you give to those who feel discouraged or hear that negative voice that says, “You’re not going to make it?”

Sullivan: I have those days; I get discouraged, too. I’m the first to admit it. I have a phrase that I say, “Look in the mirror because it starts there.” Internally, you have to grab the perspective that nothing’s going to change if I don’t do anything. So it’s a choice first. The second thing is to call your kitchen table together. If you don’t have one, then that’s the first thing you need to do: surround yourself with people who support you.

Robinson: I think it helps for people to know that most, if not all of us, have that negative voice that says you can’t do it. And I think it’s good for them to know that someone as accomplished as you have that voice and I do, too.

Sullivan: The voice is always there first and does take the lead. The question is, how do you lead that voice in a different direction. And what you tell yourself when you look in the mirror is, “How do I grab hold and direct it to where I want to go?”

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