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Lessons from Leaders: Katherine Grainger, Partner, Civitas Public Affairs Group

April 14, 2021

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Lynne Gilliland

Lynne Gilliland Consulting

In this episode of Lessons from Leaders, Lynne Gilliland sits down with Katherine Grainger, a partner at Civitas Public Affairs Group. Throughout their hour-long conversation together, Lynne and Katherine describe the value of empathy, emphasize the importance of mentorship, and discuss professional vulnerability. Below is an abridged excerpt from the episode–watch the full video below!

Lynne Gilliland: Greetings everyone, Lynne Gilliland at Lessons From Leaders. This is part Oone of our discussion with Katherine Grainger, Partner at Civitas. Really a moving episode. Katherine talks about what empathy has to do with being a leader. She talks about having to learn to be vulnerable, and after many years of having to show up being strong, how she tries to be vulnerable and listen, and how those are really the strengths or the secret sauce of leadership.

LG: So let’s back up a little bit, or maybe it’s not backing up, but tell us how you got here. You have an interesting story to tell, that includes your mother, on your story of what led you to be doing the work that you’re doing.

KG: The thing that I want to reflect on as an adult and the reason that this story has become so meaningful to me  (the work that I do) is because I’m a student of power, who has it, who doesn’t, and how we can use it for betterment, and I believe deeply in possibility. Every day I get up because I think a better world is possible. And the origins for that, for me, came from—my parents are both politically active and have been since I was a child. And when Jesse Jackson ran for president, I don’t know how long ago that was, over 30 years ago, my mother was a delegate and we live in Littleton, Colorado. It is a white, at the time, very Republican area. My mother, who is Black—my father is white—raising four biracial girls in Littleton, was nominated to be the delegate for Jackson for the State of Colorado.

And we went all the way from our regional conventions to the state convention in Boulder, Colorado, and I walked into the room—it was in some hall. For me now, it feels like the biggest hall I’ve ever been in, but I’m sure it wasn’t in Boulder, Colorado. And I walked into the hall and the screaming and the excitement and the joy in the space, it was infectious. And I didn’t know exactly what it was, but at that moment, it felt like where I wanted to be and that kind of energy is what I always wanted to be around. What I discovered as an adult is what I was experiencing was possibility; the possibility to do anything that we wanted, and to make change, and using our institutions to do so. But my mother recently heard me telling this story; I was giving a talk for super majority in an organization I helped co-found with some other incredible women, and she heard it and she said, Well, you left out the best part of the story.

And I’ve been telling this story for years, and I was like, Well, what is it? And apparently, we were at the meeting where she was elected to be the delegate, and there was nobody who stepped in to represent or to say, I would like to be the delegate for Jesse Jackson. And I looked at my mom, I probably was about 12 at the time, and I said, Well, mama, if you don’t do it, who will? And it was at that moment that she stepped in the circle. And I still get moved when I talk about that, because what’s so powerful about that is, it’s actually what we were just talking about – we have to demand it, right? Leaning in, like she was looking at her daughter and getting the strength from me and me feeling that my mother could do anything in the world, and if she’s not going to do it, who will?

And so I think that’s my foundation story. That’s why I do the work that I do. It’s why I believe so much in our institutions, in our systems, and why I work so hard to change them.

LG: I love that story. And hearing it again I get more from it. And the part I’m hearing now or that is resonating with me is the getting strength from you, your mom. So how we get strength from somebody else that helps us go, Okay, I can lean in here. I can do this. We do better when we have others to help us support and say, Yeah, you. You got it. You’ve got what it takes, because a lot of us think, Well, because I’m not the right person here for this, this job. It must be you.

KG: The thing about that too which is interesting, I agree with what you said, is that I don’t have any recollection of saying that to my mother. And yet that is what my mother remembers from that story. It’s quite powerful that I just was like, My mother did this and she was a hero in my eyes because she did. And it changed the trajectory of my life. And she was like, My daughter called me in to do this, and I stepped in because of her. That’s very powerful. And also each other’s, our lived experiences, of that moment are so unique. And so I guess I bring it up again in reflection to your response, because you never know when you’re calling somebody in. This is literally just showing up for people and believing in each other, and it has a significant impact on the trajectory of our lives.

LG: So I’m writing that down, because it’s true, you never know when you’re calling someone in. Maybe you don’t need to know, it doesn’t need to be significant. Now, here I am calling you in. It’s just being there, showing up, listening, mirroring. I see you, and I think you’ve got this.

KG: It’s believing in each other.

LG: That’s believing in each other. So the work that you’re doing now is transformational. You’re always, as I understand it, pushing the edges trying to create new things, living your purpose. What did you have to learn along the way to bring your best self?

KG: That’s a great question. I think I’ll tell you something I’m very aware of now, which is I studied law, I worked in politics, and as a young black career woman in those spaces, there wasn’t a lot of room to not know the answers, to be vulnerable, to be tired, to have any human response. It was, and still, part of my success is that I work very hard, and that kind of work gets rewarded to a certain degree. The reason I bring that up is because what I am now dismantling is having a beginner’s mind, being curious, and starting every day with, I don’t know anything, and therefore you fill it all up with new knowledge. Being curious about where new knowledge comes from. You never know in what spaces you put yourself in where that knowledge can derive. And as a part of that questioning and curiosity comes vulnerability, because if you go into a space always saying, I have to command the room. I have to have all of the answers, then you miss a lot.

Stay tuned for part two, and in the meantime, don’t forget to listen to the full conversation here!

Check out the Lessons from Leaders series