“Michele has the brain of a neurophysicist and a spirit the size of the sky.”
Michele L. Sullivan, a former executive at Caterpillar, is unforgettable. Over the last 30 years, her work has changed the course of millions of lives. A Fortune 100 business executive, author, motivational speaker, and strategic business advisor, Sullivan is the author of the book Looking Up: How a Different Perspective Turns Obstacles into Advantages (Harper Collins Leadership, February 2020).
From a young person born with a very rare type of dwarfism, who, in spite of being looked down upon by others, learned to look up: to lead with an elevated view of others, a philosophy that landed her at the helm of one of the world’s most prominent philanthropy organizations. With inspiring style, she offers a unique perspective and inspiration for individuals and leaders that attests to the fundamental role one’s perspective plays in their life.
During her 30 year career, she held various globally influential leadership positions at Caterpillar Inc., an American fortune 100 company. Retiring as Caterpillar’s director of corporate social innovation and president of the Caterpillar Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, at the end of 2018, Michele set out to share her stories and experiences with the world.
Along with the launch of her first book, Michele’s experiences include giving a TED talk at TEDWomen 2016, becoming the first Caterpillar employee to do so. In her talk, she speaks candidly about the challenges she has overcome in life, highlighting the importance of acceptance and helping others succeed in the face of their unique challenges. She was named by Inside Philanthropy as one of the 50 most powerful women in philanthropy and also served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She was recognized as a AACSB 2018 Influential Leader (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business). Michele is a member of the ONE board of directors and past chair of the Greater Peoria Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Advisory Board.
Michele strongly believes monumental and sustainable change in our largest global challenges can only happen through partnerships and collaboration between public, private and non-profit entities. This strategy resulted in the Caterpillar Foundation’s transformation into one of the most influential corporate foundations, and ultimately, the launch of the Foundation’s collaborative impact platform known as Together.Stronger.™
While Michele’s height presented challenges that are different from those most have experienced, it allowed her to see things, literally and figuratively, that others do not. Her unique and at times humorous style enhances her ability to share her story and experiences with audiences around the world.
The Power of Looking Up
Michele’s passage from a young person born with dwarfism, who, in spite of being looked down upon by others, learned to look up: to lead with an elevated view of others. This philosophy landed her at the helm of one of the world’s most prominent philanthropy organizations and ultimately changed the course of millions of lives. While Michele’s height has presented challenges that are different from those most have experienced (including uniquely humorous moments), it allowed her to see things, literally and figuratively, that others do not. With her “looking up” inspiring style and emotional storytelling, she offers unique takeaways for individuals, such as the importance of making the first move, being wrong at first, choosing intimacy over influence, and learning that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Yes, the world is at your fingertips if you are looking up!
Learning Objective: Seeing others takes sacrifice. There is a critical difference between having sight and actually seeing something for what it really is. Our sight fails us when we don’t look beyond the surface of the faces and figures we see around us. To truly see each other’s value, we must give up our preconceived notions of who they are or appear to be. We must let go of the premature belief that we have all the necessary facts to form an accurate conclusion.
Asking For Help Is A Strength, Not A Weakness
Rarely in life do you do anything completely by yourself. Michele’s truth is, she could not get through a day in her life without asking for help. A sampling of objects she cannot reach: elevator buttons for high floors, the overhead compartment on airplanes, the latch in airplane bathrooms, groceries above the second shelf, dead bolts, or parking tickets under the windshield wipers. While this existence may sound daunting to some, it is reality to Michele. In this talk, Michele discusses how being open to accepting help from others has impacted her life- so profoundly so that it led her to a position which enabled her to help millions of others. With her signature humorous style, she keeps the conversation comfortable without sacrificing significance.
Learning Objective: Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. The most meaningful life we can live is not an independent one- but an interdependent one. It might sound weird to say, but learning to lean on interdependence is a challenge in this current day and age. Independence is commonly seen as a sign of physical capability, an emotional strength, and even an innovative mind. But it takes more strength to admit your fears and insecurities, and to learn to lean on others.
We All Are More Than You Can See: Intersectionality & Diversity
There is no such thing as knowledge about another person at first sight. Because we live in a world that frequently rewards us for looking a certain way, we’re often punished––from being bullied to teased to overlooked––for not measuring up to certain physical standards. However, in our hearts I think most of us know that the real measure of any person has little to do with what can be gauged by a lens, ruler or scale. To see a person’s real worth, and to help him or her realize it, we must grow beyond a reliance on visual cues like height and weight or skin color and shirt labels. Michele’s inspiring storytelling will highlight how we all are so much more than we can see and why learning the skill of seeing past the surface of others leads to a more fulfilling life. After all, surviving isn’t the point of life. Thriving is. This requires embracing a broader perspective on others than the snap judgments our brains form at first glance.
Learning Objective: There are two kinds of growth—outward growth and inward growth—but one matters more than the other. How do you prioritize your own growth? Are you focused on the outside or the inside? Your answer is a good indication of how you assign value to others. We all tend to see and celebrate in others what we value most in ourselves.
The 2 F’s – Faith & Family
At the foundation of Michele’s successful and inspiring journey from a person born with a rare form of dwarfism to one of the 50 most influential women in philanthropy were two constants: faith and family. Recognizing and embracing this as a young woman enabled her to build a life worth living- to thrive, and to help others do the same. Michele will share with you her inspiring stories of support from her family- and the empowerment that accepting that support brought to her life. She will share her personal journey with faith and the keys to how she has kept faith with conviction.
Learning Objective: Recognize your core values and embrace them. We live in a time where we are constantly stimulated and exposed to the vastness of the world around us. But we must slow down, shut down, and focus in on what really matters to us most.
Leadership – Moving From Transactional To Strategic And Influential
Michele’s perspective on moving things – physically and mentally – is as unique as her high energy storytelling prowess. So how do you move anything within a large corporation from transactional to influential and strategic? Ha! You don’t! In all seriousness, it can be done. But it takes changing habits, the reliance of existing infrastructure, and most importantly- perception. Rallying the people around you to view things differently is an essential art to being a strategic and influential leader. When she took over the helm of one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, it was stuck in a mentality of ‘the way it has always been done’. In contrast, she strongly believed monumental and sustainable change in our largest global challenges can only happen through partnerships and collaboration between public, private, and non-profit entities. Michele will walk you through the challenges and strategies of transforming a large corporate foundation.
Learning Objective: Find a new line of sight. I wonder how often we miss solutions to problems and opportunities for progress because we have the wrong perspective to begin with. Our line of sight is often the only factor that determines whether we see a problem or a solution before us. When you look around at the faces in your primary environments, do you see problems or potential for progress?
Looking Up: How a Different Perspective Turns Obstacles into Advantages
We’ve all had moments of feeling like we didn’t belong, but imagine being born into a world where fitting in was never an option. Michele Sullivan, who has a rare form of dwarfism, shares how her physical posture taught her the most effective relational posture with others, which helped her become one of the most powerful women in philanthropy.