Business leader, author, speaker, and political innovator.
"Life and impact begins at the end of your comfort zone."
Katherine M. Gehl is a business leader, author, speaker, and political innovator. Katherine was president and CEO of Gehl Foods, a $250 Million high-tech food manufacturing company in Wisconsin. Her career includes roles in the private and public sectors including at Oracle Corporation, Bernstein Investment Research and Management, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Office at the City of Chicago, and Chicago Public Schools.
In 2011, Katherine was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the Board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. In 2015, she sold her company to focus on the urgent need for non-partisan political innovation on both state and national levels. She is co-chair of the National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers, a board member of Unite America, co-founder of Democracy Found, founder of The Institute for Political Innovation and the CEO of Venn Innovations.
In 2020, she published The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy along with her co-author and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. In the book, Gehl expresses her deep concern over the path our nation is on, focusing predominantly on the inability of our political system to address the vulnerabilities threatening the competitiveness of our country. Katherine graduated from the University of Notre Dame and holds an MA from Catholic University and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
A TYPICAL DAY IN HER LIFE:
I am a single parent of 2 children (15 and 3) so my day, like for so many people, is just a challenge of managing all the things that are important to me in my life. I start my day with my 3 year old and stay with him for about 2 hours and then I head off to work. I work from my home usually and I focus on structuring my work day so that it provides at least one uninterrupted stretch of “deep work” (Cal Newport)—time for thinking, new ideas, getting good at what you need to be good at instead of being distracted by a billion different things—
I have planning meetings, lots of Zooms and interviews. I now work out at the end of the day and head back to my children for dinner, and I work again after my youngest goes to sleep. I LOVE my work, i have now gotten to a point where I really have the blessing of a great team of people in the political innovation work we’re doing and the key is to spend the right amount of time collaborating with these extraordinary team members so we can be maximizing our individual efforts and it’s really coming together.
YOU WERE A FORMER BUSINESS LEADER AND YOU LEFT THAT JOB TO WORK ON POLITICAL INNOVATION. WOULD YOU SAY THERE WAS MORE URGENCY BEHIND THAT PROBLEM?
Life is short. When I was 23, my mother died and she was only 46 years old and when I turned 46, basically I realized I’ve lived 23 with my mothers and 23 years without my mother. Even though she was 46 and 141 days old and I thought when I would be 46 and 141 days, and on the day she passed away I went and prayed in the room where she died. I was really reflecting that from whatever hereon was extra, she didn’t get that. I was really grateful for her being my mother and I was just aware of life being short and what I wanted to do with it.
I loved being the CEO of my company--350 employees, $250 mil company. It was fabulous, a turnaround, an enormous amount of progress and I loved it. If I thought I was going to be 150 year old, I would have loved to keep doing that for a while. It was wonderful being a part of that large team and miracles but of course I'm not gonna live to be 150. Some portion of time, urgency, and priority led me to think even if I could stay here, our political system is in deep trouble which means that results for people are not being delivered. And I saw not just what was unique to explain the problem but a real, powerful solution that I had learned about and put together in two pieces--now called final-five voting--and I just knew that we needed to do this for the good of our country and my children, and eventually your children. I knew other people could run my company but there were not as many as we need in this new field so I just thought there was nothing more important than essentially this effort to reinvigorate the American experiment.
One of the ways you overcome hard moments is by doing things that are bigger than yourself, where other people are depending on you so that even when you might quit for yourself, you would never quit because you’re part of a team. And so in the tough moments I have mostly been sustained by the mission and the team—what we’re doing is really important and I can't let them down. The team, in that spirit, is what provides the motivation we need. It’s not just up to you, you owe it to people! That’s where so much great action comes from: people fighting for their country, fighting for what’s important for them, fighting for opportunities for ppl in our lives, not just ourselves.
You’ve got to be working on something that's important enough to you that even when it's hard, it’s still worth it! If you don't care about what you're working on, who you're working with, or the results you’re trying to deliver, then when it gets hard, why would you keep working? Work with great ideas and great people before it gets hard so you keep going.
GETTING OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
The other way to keep going is by keeping your eye on the long term. You have to make the most progress by doing the things where you could fail. Early on in my career, I mostly did things where maybe they were hard but I knew if I worked hard enough, I would get it done and succeed. Whereas now, I do things where I might really screw up and be embarrassed by doing this big interview; I might put a book out that people don’t end up liking.
As long as you’re doing things at the edge of your comfort zone or where you might fail, then you’re doing things that are impactful and you just get better and better. Life gets more exciting; you just can't play it safe!
her words for you
When I was growing up, I definitely thought the battle for equality had already been fought and won and that I could do anything I wanted. I now see it's not the case and there's still an ongoing challenge of influence and credit for women. I really want to encourage women from a young age to be aggressively proud of their accomplishments and be phenomenal team players but at the same time be willing to fully live with the credit that comes from accomplishments instead of just saying, “Oh everyone else did that”; I do find that sometimes women don’t allow themselves to be given enough credit. Therefore, have the credibility to take on the next bigger challenge. Be willing to accept credit for legitimate accomplishments and give credit to others and constantly grow with what you are entrusted with.