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Women in Leadership: An Interview with Matrice Ellis-Kirk

By Natalie Snyder Bode and Emily Hoffman

Welcome to the first interview in our new quarterly blog series, Women in Leadership. We’re pleased to kick things off with Matrice Ellis-Kirk, Managing Director of the executive search firm RSR Partners, where she is a senior member of the Board Recruiting and Chief Executive Officers practices. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ellis-Kirk has more than two decades of industry experience. The former First Lady of Dallas also has an extensive track record of public service, including her current roles as chair of the AT&T Performing Arts Center and board member of the DFW Airport Authority.

NATALIE SNYDER BODE: I always love to ask leaders about their dream jobs. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

MATRICE ELLIS-KIRK: My daughters and I were just talking about this the other day. When I was young, I wanted to become an architect. I had read a book called Fountainhead and fell in love with what [the lead character] Howard Roark was thinking about. He was an architect, and I was inspired by his belief that he could have the ability to change the way we view life. I was 9 years old when I read that book. A year or so later, I switched and decided I wanted to be an investment banker. My grandmother introduced me to the world of finance, and I thought I could have an impact by working as an investment banker. Looking back, it’s funny to realize that architecture is on one end of the spectrum and investment banking is on the other end. Even back then, I apparently had many and varied interests.

EMILY HOFFMAN: It sounds as though your grandmother was an important influence in your life.

ELLIS-KIRK: Very much so. She and my great-grandmother raised me. I grew up with a house full of opinionated matriarchs. We owned a family dry-cleaning business in Cleveland. I would go into the business with my grandmother and we would count the money. Her dream was that I would be financially stable as an adult. She would take me with her to the bank to make deposits and she would talk with me about how money multiplies. She would read The Wall Street Journal, and I would read it with her. I ultimately achieved the goal of becoming an investment banker.

HOFFMAN: How did you get to Dallas?

ELLIS-KIRK: I came here because it was the place to be.

SNYDER BODE: What are the best and worst decisions you’ve ever made?

ELLIS-KIRK: The best decision was moving to Dallas. It’s where I met my husband [former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk], and where we had our children.

HOFFMAN: How did the two of you meet?

ELLIS-KIRK: We met at a benefit, a gala event for the Junior Academy of the Black Arts & Letters. We became friends and then a year later started dating. And, the next-best decision I ever made was to say “yes” when he asked me to marry him. Moving here really was the catalyst for a lot of things; Dallas is such a can-do city and it’s very welcoming to newcomers. … As far as worst decisions, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions, about people, about choices, but each one has taught me something. Ultimately, bad decisions are lessons. You deal with the consequences, learn from the mistake, and move on.

HOFFMAN: You’ve accomplished a great deal, but the path to the top isn’t always easy. What’s the greatest obstacle you’ve encountered, and how did you overcome it?

ELLIS-KIRK: I’m still overcoming them. I’ve also come to realize that many of the barriers I have personally created, by telling myself I couldn’t do something or I wasn’t good enough or trying to measure myself in an exacting way. This is a message I try to share with other women, because I think it’s something many of us struggle with.  As women, we have been told for so long that we have to be exceptional in order to accomplish our goals. We look at the success of our male counterparts and try to mirror that, as opposed to bringing our authentic selves to the process.

Self-doubt can be a tremendous obstacle. I see it in my work. Often, when I interview women, we look at a position specification and say, “I do this well but could do this better, and I could learn more here.” But when I interview men, they say, “I don’t need to go through the position spec; I can do the job.” It’s a fascinating dynamic. When I was raising my daughters, I always tried to make sure to teach them to never use self-doubt as an impediment.

HOFFMAN: How else do you see gender differences play out, in terms of the approach to business?

ELLIS-KIRK: I think confidence is at the core of everything—confidence and fear. You can have confidence and still have fear, and you can be fearless and still have little confidence. I think men and women probably have the same level of fear, it’s just not necessarily demonstrated in the same way. From my experience, the confidence level, generally, is much higher in men.

SNYDER BODE: In your opinion, what is the most significant barrier to achieving more parity between women and men in leadership?

ELLIS-KIRK: There’s still a societal barrier. Women are measured differently than men. They’re judged on their success as a mother or a wife; rarely are women expected to be the revenue-generator or breadwinner in a family. I love the Most Powerful Women conference that Fortune puts on because we talk about women as leaders and the fact that when it comes to business, expectations of men and women are the same. But there are pressures to be a “whole” woman. You still have to deal with your roles as a mother and wife while you are in a leadership position. I mentioned earlier that barriers are often self-inflicted, but the societal barriers are real. And I think it creates an impediment for men when it comes to seeing women in leadership roles. Some men are not as enlightened, but other times, they are. I’ve seen men have tremendous courage in terms of mentoring and supporting and promoting women. Some of my mentors and biggest advocates are men.

It’s important to remember, too, that there are variables in barriers. I always put a “but” on it; there is no barrier that can’t be penetrated. If you’re not having satisfaction or fulfillment or accomplishing your goals when you are knocking at one door, they you go to another door or knock it down. We have the power of choice.

SNYDER BODE: You mentioned the multiple roles women play and the challenge of balancing it all.

ELLIS-KIRK: I don’t know any women who manage to balance it all. If there was such a person, she would be filthy rich because she could tell that story, bottle it up and sell it and make a fortune. The truth is, you can have it all, just not at the same time. I used to speak about this when my daughters were younger; they’re now 28 and 25. When they were growing up, periods of their lives and their youth are kind of a blackout to me, because I was trying to do it all. I was a mother and a wife—the First Lady of Dallas while Ron was Mayor. I was involved with many nonprofits—too many nonprofits—and I was working full time. I remember going to bed and waking up but never feeling as though I had a restful sleep. I tried to do it all and I had no satisfaction.

Now that I no longer have those daily parenting obligations, I’ve found that I am a much better friend and employee. I’m a better board member because I have more time to give to the cause. When I was raising my daughters, that part of my life was critically important to me, and that’s where the focus was. Still, I remember my oldest daughter telling me, “When I become a mommy, I’m not going to work. I’m going to be there for my kids.” I remember how it hurt me to the core, but she was only 16 years old at the time.

Three years later, she came back from college and told me how glad she was that I worked, because it showed her something different than her friends’ mothers. I appreciated the honesty in what she was saying. I admire women who do stay at home full-time, but it wasn’t right for me. I needed to be OK with that. Work is a very big part of my DNA. It goes back to being honest with yourself and knowing what is important to you. Although kids are very important to me and my children are my life, my work was important to my personal identity, too. I just needed to deal with that and be honest.

HOFFMAN: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women coming up behind you?

ELLIS-KIRK: That’s a very interesting question. I look at the younger generation of women working and think, “wow.” I don’t know how they do it. The speed of things today, with digital and social media, is spell-bounding. When I was raising my daughters and working, we didn’t have email. The need to respond within four hours of receiving an email must be a nightmare for women and men who have families and lives outside of work. It’s like being on call 24/7. People of my daughters’ generation don’t look at it that way; so, the way we learn is a factor, too. The rules of doing business are being rewritten. Today there’s more activism and transparency. Women have more opportunities to engage with and learn from other women. The challenge is to navigate ambiguity between what we have in front of us today and what younger leaders will face tomorrow, including different skills you will need to have.

I am mindful of telling my girls and the women I mentor, “Take what I am telling you and apply it to today’s situation. Understand the parameters in which I am telling you this and know that when you apply it tomorrow, you may have to tweak it considerably. Be OK with that.” Sometimes we can be rigid with rules and don’t understand the ambiguity or the circumstances in which those rules exist, and those circumstances are going to be different tomorrow. The way in which you will navigate the waters will change. Some of the rules that apply today will not necessarily apply down the road.

SNYDER BODE: What advice would you give a woman who wants to advance into an executive level role?

ELLIS-KIRK: My advice is always the same for both women and men: Understand what it is you want to do. Whether your goal is to become a CEO, a CFO, or a salesperson—whatever your aspirations are—think about your big picture. Know what you ultimately want to do. This may change along the way, but it is important to start with a specific goal in mind, so you can become a domain expert in whatever you’re pursuing. Become a thought leader, write about it, and be sure people know about those accomplishments. Celebrate your wins and ensure that others are aware of what you are doing. Write a case study that says, “This is how we accomplished it.” Then go back to the person you worked with and ask for a comment or a quote. It quantifies you as an expert as you move along in your career. You are able to point to something and demonstrate success. It’s one thing to tell me what you do; it’s another thing to tell me what you have done to help that company in some success.

After you have three or four accomplishments, share them with your leader or investor and say you are ready to move on. It is time for you then, to stand on the edge of the diving board with your toes at the end and jump! Be willing to take a risk on yourself; that you are ready to do something that is bigger and better than what you are doing today. If your goal is to become something broader than that domain area that you are in, and its general management, for example, start taking on added responsibilities. I always tell women, “Don’t stay in that one lane. Make sure you swing out into additional lanes to gain experiences in something that will broaden you.”

HOFFMAN: What has you most excited about the future?

ELLIS-KIRK: I am excited about your generation. You have been given a world that has the makings of absolute greatness. You have more transparency and more opportunities to engage with people and get the best out of everyone. We live in a great country with tremendous possibilities in a global society. The way in which we will excel is by working across our borders and building a global economy. You all are much better traveled than people in my generation; you speak more languages than we do, and you do a better job of having relationships with people that don’t look like you or sound like you. That’s going to be the success of this next generation. I look forward to your generation taking over and running things. I think that people in my generation are becoming isolated protectionists. It will be up to you all to manage us out of that.

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