Tips From The Top: One On One With Michele Sullivan

I spoke to Michele Sullivan, former President of the Caterpillar Foundation and author of the upcoming book Looking Up, about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Michele: Thank you so much for having me. People always find it surprising that I was twelve years old before I ever saw another little person. Even though my parents would tell me otherwise, I honestly believed that I might be the only one! 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences have been most instrumental to your personal and professional growth? 

Michele: I got here by recognizing at a young age that in order to live a successful, fulfilling life, I needed to look up and lean on others because of the immense value they were investing in my life.  Physically, I didn’t have a choice in the matter due to my small stature, but once I realized the power of doing so in my personal and professional growth, I found my path forward to success. I pursued an advanced degree and a career with the largest earth moving manufacturer in the world, Caterpillar. Due to my success in the company, I was chosen to take the helm of the Caterpillar Foundation where I was really able to spread my wings and change millions of lives through our work.  I’ve been fortunate to have a big village of people who have helped me my whole life.

Adam: Your new book Looking Up has received high praise from some of the most prominent leaders in the country, including Michael Bloomberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Even Bono sings your praises. What inspired you to write it and what do you hope readers will gain from it? 

Michele: I am so unbelievably humbled by the praise Looking Up has received. I have known for a long time that I would some day write a book that not only told my story, but inspired others to lead a life with deeper, more meaningful relationships and impact. I want the words in my book to encourage us to tear down the unnecessary and harmful silos that society places us in and instead find the value in everyone that we meet. Looking up and seeing the value in everyone can literally change our world.

Adam: How did you cultivate relationships with Michael Bloomberg, Sheryl Sandberg and Bono? And how did you get them to endorse your book?

Michele: Our passion and efforts in social impact brought us all together. We quickly realized that working together was far more effective than siloed pursuits.  We built trust with each other through strategic collaboration, mutual platforming and support of each other’s work. I’m proud to call them friends and colleagues in making a difference for our world.  I think it’s vitally important for all of us to contribute what we can towards doing good. 

Adam: What are your main messages to audiences both in writing and in speaking? 

Michele: Every speaking engagement has unique audiences, so my style or examples may change accordingly, but my overall messages stay the same. I want to inspire people to live life with an elevated view of others. Find the value in those around you and don’t let assumptions and appearances define them. I also encourage folks to think about how our perspective impacts so many things and adjusting it a bit can have a profound impact.  For example, seeing a situation as an opportunity instead of a problem can make a world of difference.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Michele: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and other world-changers didn’t reach their accomplishments because they were good at judging character. They changed the world because they saw beyond stereotypes and snap judgments to the astounding value in every person. They were actually good at judging possibility. They were so amazed by the potential they could see in others that they fought for individual value to their own detriment, and they taught others to do the same. In some instances, they taught entire countries to see differently. Today’s leaders have the selfless courage to move toward people unlike them, people they don’t know, even people who evoke a sense of anxiety or fear and see the value in them, even if they can’t see it themselves.

Adam: What should leaders understand about corporate social responsibility? 

Michele: We all want to live in a better world. We also have the responsibility to make an impact in the world.  In order to create monumental and sustainable change we must dovetail business advancement with human and environmental progress.  ROI applies not only to the business, but also to the impact on people and our planet. Business advancement is not sustainable if people are not advancing. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Michele: 1. Ask for help. It is a strength, not a weakness. 

2. If you want to put a dent on the suffering in the world and if you truly want to elevate those around you, you can’t do it from the sidelines. Get involved.  Do something.

3. Choose intimacy over influence. Impact on others doesn’t happen from a distance. It isn’t based on hierarchy or position.  Proximity matters. Relationships matter.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Michele: The world is waiting for you. Run!

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Michele: Elevate and impact others, especially those who are underserved.

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