Mindsets on Steroids: A Conversation with Catherine Cornelius Smith

In my Mindsets on Steroids blog series, influential leaders share their secrets to help you win by finding your inner desire to change, ignite your passion, and instill life patterns. If what you were doing right now would get you there, you would already be there.

Catherine Cornelius Smith is the CEO at TrueBlue Inclusion, a Washington DC based consulting firm that coaches global clients on diversity and inclusion. Smith started her career working on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign immediately after graduating from Texas A&M in 1991. She spent six years working in the White House on a wide range of projects before moving to the private sector where she has been an advocate for women, minorities, and the voiceless. In the interview below, Smith tells us her story, what motivates her, and how she stays disciplined.

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Tell us about your background and how you came to work on the Clinton campaign:

“I had just come out of Texas A&M business school and the economy was really horrible in Texas at the time, so I went to work on his campaign. I was the third employee in Little Rock, Arkansas. I went through the whole experience from the primaries through the convention. I never had any political experience but I knew how to work spreadsheets, so they thought I was a genius because I could manage all of this money. We set up fifty state operations and low and behold, come November, Bill Clinton was elected president. I went to the White House with him when I was 23 years old and worked in the White House or another 6 years.

“I think the most important message out of all of that is that no one ever told me I couldn’t, so I did. No one ever limited me; they just believed that I could do it. I could figure out block times for Air Force One. I could decide who the right people were to be on the airplane. I could manage large teams of people over the world as we deployed on foreign travel. I just did it. I always tell people I was way to young and stupid to know what I was in the middle of… I think it gave me a sense of fearlessness that anything can happen. Change is possible and it plays out as a theme throughout my career.”

Lasting change starts with inner desire. What internal triggers have set change in motion in your life? 

“I call myself a truth and justice person. I grew up never wanting for anything. I had a great childhood, I had great parents, attended private schools, and college was expected of me. I can’t really tell you I had a hard childhood, but I have this inner spirit that is driven by unfairness and inequity – I’m a bit of a protector. For me there’s a driving desire to right wrongs or prevent them from happening. That’s how I ended up working around advancing women in the workplace, as well as people that are different than others.

“If I look at all the things that have created lasting change, it’s all about empowering people who are affected by outcomes to have a voice in the process in the creation of the way things will work – really just engagement.”

A great example of this is when Smith brought farmers and trade negotiators together when the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being designed. She created a listening tour to bring policy makers around the country to talk to food producers about a piece of legislation that would have a tremendous impact on them. She was able to give a voice to American farmers and make sure they had a say.

“It’s really about giving people a voice in a process that’s supposed to serve them. I fight for that every day. I think that’s what creates lasting change.”

Passion fuels explosive growth. What ignites your passion?

“My passion is people – really individual people. I love to understand people. I seek to understand what they need and what they want, so I’m very driven by human connection. What can people teach me and how I can help them? That’s really my passion.”

Consistent life patterns are often the missing component to greatness. How do you find discipline in your life?

“By being married to a secret service agent (laughs). I’ve gotten much better at it. I haven’t always been good at it because I’m a creative spirit and I tend to get excited about all kinds of things that can derail me. In the last couple of years, I’ve been very focused on personal wellness to help structure my day. Just by injecting that accountability in my daily life it really helps me and my team deliver on behalf of clients on a regular schedule.”

What does a typical day look like for you?

“I spend the first two hours of my day – 8 to 10am – at home. I go over emails from clients. I’m a voracious consumer of information; I live in a twitter feed – I am constantly seeking real time input on people’s concerns, news changes, happenings… it helps me serve my clients best.

“I hit the office around 10:30 loaded with stuff to talk about. I have a team of four located here in DC. I pretty much take the first hour with them and we talk through all the things I’ve learned in the last twelve hours since I saw them, and they provide me feedback and we get aligned… we’re all very different from one another, so I ask them how they interpret things and tell them to let me know if I’m missing something. From that point on it’s really on the phone or delivering projects for clients. I usually take half an hour in the afternoon to work out. I just go across the street to the gym and it’s been a great thing. At least 2 or 3 of my team have picked it up as well, so it’s sort of fun. It’s really about feeling better because we have such high demand schedules, so it’s just about being well.”

What is one result of change, passion, and discipline in your life?

“One that I remember poignantly was my last year in the Clinton administration. I detailed myself over to the Foreign Ag Service to work on agriculture trade… I don’t know why that’s what I wanted to do, but I created all of these listening sessions across the country that brought producers in to talk to trade negotiators about how they felt about trade policy. They needed to have a voice, so we created a whole system.

“It became clear that this sort of tyrant executive in the Ag Service was really controlling all of the discretionary budget that could be used to inform producers domestically. He did not want to play nice, so I took him on, and in the end, our administrator called a vote. Women executives in that agency came in from vacation to make sure they were there for that vote.

“I developed a passion for a topic that I really didn’t know and spent my whole year with farmers and commissioners of agriculture all over the country. We created this buy-in and won a departmental award. I had women leaders come forward to support it before it had ever proven itself, so for me that’s sustained passion – creating passion around something you probably didn’t know about, but learning a lot and becoming vested in the outcome because you care about the people.”

Do you have any advice for people early on in their careers?

“Work for people who see your potential and not your accomplishments. It makes all the difference.”

You can follow Catherine Cornelius Smith on Twitter at @TruBluCatherine.

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