Interview with Women in Secured Finance Conference Keynote Speaker Libby Gill

By Michele Ocejo


Michele Ocejo
You’re a self-described optimist and your messages often revolve around hope, which is something we could all use right now. Do you have any strategies for remaining optimistic and hopeful during this time of massive change and stress?

GILL:  Actually, I draw a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is a generalized feeling that everything will be okay, a sort of half-full approach to life. Which is fine, of course. But hope is situational and specific. It’s about linking belief to behavior and taking action to reach a desired future outcome. That’s not just my opinion, by the way, but a principle from the science of hopefulness, called Hope Theory.

To me, hope is the jet fuel for the journey of work and life. It’s about having an ambitious but attainable goal that is fueled by passion yet grounded in pragmatism. As an example, when we first went into lockdown because of COVID-19, all of the live events I had scheduled as a speaker were cancelled. Like everyone else, I had no idea how long this would last or how I might rebuild my business. But I decided to continue with my coaching and training because I believed in my work and also in people’s need for connection in a time of great uncertainty and fear.

After I got past my initial meltdown, when I was able to get a lot of that stress out of my system, I decided to continue on with what I was doing. I moved my existing clients to an online platform and I opened a weekly, live, no-cost coaching group to anyone who wanted to join.

OCEJO:  That’s great.

GILL:  It started as a response to COVID, with people sharing what was happening in their part of the world. We had people from Australia to Canada to Trinidad and across the US, and still do. We were all asking ‘What are you experiencing? What are you feeling?’ It's now four months later and the group is still together. And growing weekly. Now it’s about how we are changing the way we work and what we plan to do in the future.

People have redesigned their businesses and begun to think about work and life, including fitness and parenting, in completely different ways. To me, starting the group felt natural. It was like, “Okay, I don’t know what’s going to happen with my business, but let me do something that feels good to me and also helps others.” Truthfully, it was very nurturing for me, but it also satisfied a need I saw in others at the time. It’s an amazing group and I think it will continue as long as people want or need it.

People who joined the group were initially crushed by their circumstances, but they also said, “I can figure this out. I can move towards the future.”  And they wanted connection and community along the way. That’s really what hope is all about.  We don’t always know how it’s going to work out but having that clear vision you see for yourself gets you moving forward.

OCEJO:  Right, and I think for all this, being adaptable and flexible has been a very helpful quality to have.

GILL:  Yes, I do, too. And it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have our fears and doubts and insecurities, our meltdowns and our feelings, because those come as a by-product of dealing with something we’ve never experienced before. This is truly “novel” and brand new to each of us. But I always encourage people to go back and look at the things they have already overcome in their lives, because most of us have had to find some inner strength to deal with a loss of a loved one, a job, a nest egg, or just some kind of massive life change that threw them for a loop. So, we have to find that strength inside ourselves.

OCEJO:  Your most recent book is called “The Hope-Driven Leader.” What does it mean to be a leader driven by hope? What are some of the key takeaway messages from the book and what would you say to the naysayers out there who love to tout the “Hope isn’t a strategy” mantra?

GILL:  I love the naysayers and contrarians - they are always ready to point out an alternative perspective, which I believe is healthy. As for the people who say, “Hope is not a strategy” or “Hope is not a plan,” I suggest they try giving people resources or strategies when those people are feeling completely hopeless. It doesn’t get you very far. 

Leaders need to inspire others with their future-focused vision. In fact, they’ve got to be able to articulate that vision so vividly that people can see their own connection to the future on a personal and emotional level. We are animals, after all, and as much as we like to think we make logical or rational decisions, we are driven first by feelings which we then back up with logic. So, some of the best leaders are those who can paint that picture of change as being a positive opportunity for growth. “We’re all going to be stronger post-COVID has become a cliché by now, and nobody wants to hear that.  But they do want to hear a specific and actionable vision of the future, whether that’s for own family, their team, or their entire organization.

Instead of repeating the “hope is not a strategy” philosophy, I prefer to share my True Hope Process with people. It consists of four steps: first, to clarify the vision, making it crystal clear for yourself and others; next, to simplify the pathway to reaching that vision.  The world is complex, business is complicated, and lives are messy, so if we can simplify the route to getting where we want to go, it makes things start to flow. The third step is to execute the plan. It’s great to have that vision but you’ve got to be able to break it down for others into action steps with metrics and milestones attached, so they can start to move down that pathway. And then finally, we have to review, reflect, and refine, looking at what has worked for us and what hasn’t. That’s what being a hope-driven leader is all about, and it starts with taking that first step with courage and conviction and sharing the journey with others.

OCEJO:  That actually makes a lot of sense. And I have to say, you never really hear anyone talking about hope much, right?

GILL:  You know, I stumbled on this body of research because I grew up in a challenging family, I’ll tell a little bit of that story at the Women in Secured Finance Conference.

OCEJO:  Yes, I read about that.

GILL:  So, you know there were a lot of complications and chaos in my early life and they continued well into adulthood with an alcoholic parent, a schizophrenic brother, and the suicide of my stepmother. Yet I always believed that hope was what got you out of bed in the morning. It was my hard-wired belief that today was going to be a little bit better than yesterday. And then when I became an executive coach, I did my homework and discovered the happiness research, with which many of us are familiar. But that led me to the science and studies around hope theory. That’s when I thought, “Aha, that’s what I’ve been feeling instinctively and talking about all these years.” I had even written a book much earlier titled “Traveling Hopefully,” about my own process and what I saw as the pathway to letting go of that baggage of the past.

So, the science of hopefulness really resonated with me, and, as I studied, I could see the application of those principles to the workplace.  And I saw that among my coaching clients some people, once given a little direction, were able to soar. Yet, with others, it was so much more difficult get them to unlock themselves from their own little cages that they’d put themselves in.  And, again, it was all about having that sense of hope to drive you forward.  Because if you can’t say tomorrow is going to be better—and that doesn’t mean every day is going to be better than the last one—but that if you find the right action steps to overcome the obstacles in your path and to keep moving forward even on the bad days, then you’ll succeed.

I’ve met coaches who say, “I don’t believe in setting objectives,” and clients who say, “I just like to coast, I like to float along with whatever happens.” “That’s up to them, of course. But, personally, I don’t get it. I’ve always felt like I’ve got to be looking a step ahead to create my own destiny. To value growth and development and curiosity and excitement about the world, even this crazy period we currently live in.

OCEJO:  Absolutely.  Yes, I saw in one of your videos where you mentioned an oncologist who said when he gave patients too much information and statistics about their illness, they would often lose hope.

GILL:  Yes, that’s Dr. Jerome Groopman, who said that he would see his patients shut down, unable to participate in their own healing process. But if he gave them too little information, they’d assumed everything was fine, that’s where false hope lies.  Then right in the middle is what he called true hope, where you tell people the truth, give them a picture of what is, and yet don’t rob them of the ability to move forward.  That spoke to me. 

OCEJO:  Yes.

GILL:  And another researcher, Dr. Charles Snyder, a positive psychologist and professor from the University of Kansas who has since passed away, decided to study the scientific literature about hope while he was on a sabbatical and found out there was no research, there were no academic studies, basically no science around hope. He realized that researchers dismissed the scientific study of hope as something impossible to measure. So, like any good social scientist, he created an assessment called the Adult Dispositional Hope Scale, which I’ll share with your online conference attendees.

OCEJO:  One of the Women’s Conference panels is called “Congrats, you’re the boss! Now what?” What are the top qualities you think a person must possess to be an effective leader? Is it possible to acquire these qualities or is one “born with it”? Which of these qualities are the most important now during this crisis?

GILL:  Well, first of all, I love that title because I see that happening in the business world, where an emerging leader suddenly says, “What? I’m the boss now?” There’s a great study about what employees are looking for in their leaders. People were asked to think of a leader that had most impacted them, and then write down what they got from that leader. Then the study authors codified the words that came back and summed it up in the four characteristics employees most want in their leaders. 1) They want stability, which I think really speaks to this crisis now, even if you don’t have the answers, which nobody does, you’ve still got to be that rock.  2) Next is trust, that two-way street of honoring promises and doing what you said you would do.  3) Next is compassion, which I think people really need right now. Some leaders feel compassion for others, but they don’t necessarily show it in their language or actions. 4) Finally, the fourth trait they cited was hope. And that, of course, is speaking my language. But that’s what I think leaders can do during this process is to show courage, to show empathy, and to really demonstrate that sense of stability. I’ve got your back, you can trust what I say, I care about you and your family, this is more than just about the bottom line, it’s also about your safety. It’s about your parents’ and your children’s safety—that’s compassion.

I saw this quote posted: “Your grandparents went to war. We sit on the couch.”  And when I saw that I thought, yes, there’s a little truth to that.

OCEJO:  We sit here and watch Netflix.

GILL:  Exactly!  And we need to be tough, resilient, and hopeful right now. Humankind has gone through all sorts of tragedies and they’re not over. We’re still facing some huge battles with everything from climate change to healthcare in the COVID-19 era.

I think leaders need to default to the feeling side of their brains right now in order to help people through this. Even if you are one of those financial, strategic, analytical leaders, this is the time to show how much you care about and for the people you manage. And that’s just as important as the bottom line, especially when people are suffering.

OCEJO:  I’ve actually been impressed by some of the, at least anecdotally, things I’ve been hearing about, you know, large companies who just get their teams together on Zoom just to check in personally to see how they’re doing without any work-related objective.

GILL:  Yes, I see that as well, where leaders are asking about how you’re doing, how your extended family is faring, and making sure that if you have to come to the office, it’s as safe as it possibly can be. Leaders are seeing that many of us don’t actually have to be in the physical workplace, we can work from anywhere.  I think companies are accepting that work-at-home actually works for a lot of people.

OCEJO:  I saw a meme the other day that said something like I no longer feel like I’m working from home but more like I’m living at work.

GILL:  That is so true. I’ve had conference calls with people where their toddlers are in their laps and they’re apologizing, and I have to say don’t apologize, I understand that your husband’s on a conference call in the other room and you’ve got two little ones to entertain. We've got to cut people some slack.  Most are doing the very best they can under extremely difficult circumstances and it’s all showing right up there on Zoom.


About the Author

Michele Ocejo
Michele Ocejo is editor-in-chief of The Secured Lender and communications director for SFNet.