Deborah Sawyer: The Focused Leader

Deborah Sawyer | Director | The Dubrof Group
Deborah Sawyer | Director | The Dubrof Group

In an interview with CIO Look, Deborah Sawyer, a Director of The Dubrof Group has shared a few key insights about her journey to become a proficient leader.

As a veteran of the executive search industry, Deborah has led several major global client relationships and worked throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including greater China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, where she lived for six years. Her international executive search experience also includes assignments in Africa, Costa Rica, London, Paris, Montreal and Toronto, as well as throughout the United States.

“I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.” – Maya Angelo

Below are the highlights of the interview between CIO Look and Deborah Sawyer:

Kindly take us through your journey on becoming a proficient leader.

My journey is a long and winding road, and by that, I mean it didn’t happen overnight. I started my career as an individual contributor, then moved to a team leader, later to a practice leader and on to leading an organization. Along the way, I was taught patience by supportive leadership who ensured I had the proper training and development to step into each role, as well as a road map to each successive step. I learned the tenets of servant leadership and the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) in leadership, both must haves for the proficient leader. The ability to empathize and handle professional relationships judiciously are particularly crucial skills when seeking to lead an environment that seeks to be more diverse and inclusive.

How do you diversify your organization’s offerings to entice the target audience?

I do one thing, executive search, and I do it well. My target audience is mid-cap companies. To entice them, I have to showcase my track record of placing diverse and inclusive leadership teams — period. For years, I have introduced diverse leaders into my client’s organizations and coached young women on my teams to achieve their professional goals.

Have you drawn professional inspiration from other women? Tell us about someone who has inspired you.

Yes, I have drawn professional inspiration from many women- not just in my profession, but clients, candidates and acquaintances alike. I am always in awe of female leaders who do what the men do but, like Ginger Rogers, backwards and in heels. The woman who inspired me the most is my mother, Billie Dove. I wrote a paper about her in college recounting all the ways she inspired me. The servant leadership I mentioned earlier was taught to me by my mom eons before we had it labeled. Another label she didn’t know she sported was “feminist.” She was a nurse who became a hospital administrator, the sole female voice at the executive table. Today, she is the only woman on her local county’s health board. She showed me that a woman in leadership could be firm, but still empathetic, human and vulnerable. She never allowed “being a girl” to stop me from pursuing my goals.

What have you learned about leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring others?

I have met hundreds if not thousands of executives over the course of my career, but only a few are true leaders. Most are competent executives, smart, wily, but lack emotional intelligence and inspiration. They are not leading, but achieving power. I believe that true leadership requires a blend of servant leadership, EI, inspiration, and mentoring. A great leader is a great mentor, and we need to seek them out so we can continue to grow and e volve the next generation of leaders. Entrepreneurship is an extension of leadership. Most people associate entrepreneurship with starting a business, but to me, it is about taking a risk, in vesting in yourself, it is the very essence of capitalism. To me leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring is a holy trinity. Having a (good) mentor can create a great leader and a great leader will take an entrepreneurial lens to a business, asking “if this was my business, where would I invest, who would I hire, etc.?”

What is one thing you wish more people knew about women in the workplace?

That gender does not define a person’s abilities and women don’t need to model masculine traits to get ahead in the workplace. Women are natural problem solvers and leaders, highly analytical, with a great ability to multitask. We also have the instinct to identify a situation that needs immediate attention and to create a solution to the problem before it gets out of hand.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

I am not certain any working parent achieves work-life balance, but it is an admirable goal. At age 40, I delivered a set of twins after already having a four-year old daughter. I probably lost all sense of work-life balance at that point, but I was truly fortunate to have a supportive husband, mother, sister and in-laws who stepped in to help so I could continue my professional pursuits. It does take a village, and I learned from other professional women that it is not only okay but a must, to ask for assistance. With my village’s help, I could bring home the bacon and the girl scout cookies.

How do you cope with capricious technological trends to boost your personal growth?

I have had to cope with capricious male managers most of my career, so what’s a tech trend or two to me? Seriously, we all have pivoted to new technologies to get us through this pandemic and digital disruption will be one of the pandemic’s silver linings. With ever-evolving technology, updated skill sets are required by employers and this is where I see a boost in personal growth. We all need to understand the impact artificial intelligence will have on our industry and our job and get smart about it. It is also a great time to boost our personal brand, for example, I am doing podcasts on digital disruption. Lastly, the various tech devices created over the years have made the life of humankind extremely easy. I am a big fan of IoT and have employed various machines/helpers to help drive efficiencies in my professional and personal life. These include the mundane (Siri, Alexa) to smart calendars, voice recognition/dictation, Uber to smart appliances. I believe the future of achieving work-life balance will be in smart devices, including autonomous cars/mobility.

What would you tell young women who are just starting to work? What would you like them to know?

The same thing I tell my three daughters:

  • Be patient, be the smartest person in the room, be empathetic and kind;
  • Bust the myth that it is rude to discuss money, especially our salaries. Women need to discuss what they are being paid, find and understand the discrepancies then demand more if necessary;
  • Take the expat assignment if offered, or ask for one. Expanding your knowledge of other cultures, people and business practices will boost your professional and personal growth;
  • Find a mentor and be a mentor. We need to continue to pave the way for those who come after us;
  • Never stop learning.

What are your future endeavors/objectives and where do you see yourself in the near future?

My future objectives are to continue to build on my experience and reputation as being the best in my industry and to pull others up along the way. I believe that what I do is a mission, I change peoples’ lives for the better. By improving the individuals professional standing, I also enhance the capacity of the hiring organization, and by extension its community.