Cathy Salit on Defying Expectations and Learning to Grow

March 06, 2018

Cathy Salit

We're so excited for Cathy Salit to speak at the 2018 Simmons Leadership Conference!

As CEO of Performance of a Lifetime (POAL), Cathy Salit heads a team of coaches and human development experts who help companies and individuals grow, learn, and develop as leaders. 

Was there a moment in your career when you made a move to disrupt the status quo? How did you come to that decision?

Yes, there have been many moments – I’m sort of a professional status quo disruptor. But the first one was when I was 13 years old. I dropped out of junior high school, took a couple of dozen kids with me, and we started an alternative school in an abandoned dry cleaning store in Manhattan.

Which female leader do you most admire? In what way has she driven change?

So many to choose from! But I’ll pick Lenora Fulani, the activist and developmental psychologist. She’s not very well known – but she made history when she ran for president of the United States as an independent candidate in 1988. She was the first woman and the first African American to be on the ballot in all 50 states. She’s also creator of the “Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids” program of the non-profit All Stars Project, which has broken new ground by using performance to foster positive interactions between the police and inner-city youth.

What would you say is the most daring move you've made in your career?

When my team and I decided to bring one of our signature exercises into a leadership development workshop for a group of the most senior, C-suite executives we had ever worked with. We directed each of them to get onstage and improvise a one-minute “performance of their lifetime.” We really weren’t sure they’d agree to do it; we thought they were too set in their ways to take such a risk.

What did you learn from that experience?

Since they performed with no hesitation and great gusto, I learned that we had seriously underestimated these leaders’ zeal to grow. Our big lesson was the same one the executives took away: when we’re constrained by what we already know and know how to do, we can’t grow – we can’t see, act and think in new ways. But in doing this “impossible” performance (really – how can you perform your life in one minute?) you see new possibilities, you break from your tried and true script, and you see yourself and others like you never have before. By the way, this was almost 20 years ago, and this “impossible” thing has now been done by thousands of people, in front of their colleagues and their teams.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve gotten along the way?

Don’t fret too long over this storm… the next one is just around the corner.

If you could change one way women support other women on their path to success, what would it be?

To form groups/ensembles that are made up of women from different walks of life and who are different economically, ethnically, by age, and by sexual preference. We need to be with women who are different from us, and support each other from where we are to help each other become who we are not... yet.

Any tips for work/life integration?

Oy. I wish I did. I mean, I know the right things to say...but I struggle with this. Biggest idea? Have pets. At a minimum you have to say silly things to them and pet them a lot.

If you could dine with anyone, past or present, with whom would you dine and what would you like to ask him or her?

I would dine with Harriet Tubman. And I would ask her to speak at an event that I was organizing filled with people from all walks of life.

Fill in the blank. People would be surprised to know that…

I can only see out of one eye. Late last year, I discovered that I had a large cancerous tumor in my left eye. I had plaque radiation therapy, and the prognosis is guardedly positive, but it’s been and continues to be an intense, life-altering experience. I’m only just beginning to talk about it publicly.


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Valerie Plame

Simmons Leadership Conference

Every spring over 3,300 women come together for a transformative experience with celebrated role models and experts in their fields.