How choosing “elevate” as one of #my3words for 2023 was one of my best ideas yet

I’ve chosen three guiding words for myself in 2023: elevate, innovate and sustain. Every year since 2015, I’ve selected three words to guide my actions and choices for the next twelve months. Some people do New Year’s resolutions; I do Chris Brogan’s #my3words. I wake up every morning thinking about what I’ll do that day to advance those three words in my work and my life.

Today, I’m thinking about elevate in particular.

It’s been an important word for my entire career. I run my social purpose company, which aims to elevate women to corporate board positions. I wrote an e-book called Elevating Your Board Effectiveness. This year I wanted to emphasize the idea of elevating myself and my purpose and elevating others.

And it’s working.

Drawn to a higher purpose

I wanted to be a “businessman” just like my father when I was younger. The word “man” in that term didn’t faze me; predetermined boundaries would never define my path. I saw my father embrace the concept of serving—where sacrifice and leadership meet. I wanted to be just like him.

I always sought opportunities to be first, putting my hand up and saying, “I’ll do it.” I’ve never shied away from jumping into something unknown. I’m fearless. I was destined to drive change in the world because I’m not afraid to try something new. If I see a way to make a difference, why not dive in head first?

Through all that, I’ve always been drawn to roles where I could help others. I see myself as a community builder and a catalyst for change—I’m at my best when bringing people together to make a meaningful impact. And to be in an influential position where you can do that, you have to elevate yourself first, like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.

Sending the elevator back down

My father was my first mentor. In fact, throughout most of my career, the majority of my mentors and bosses were men. But about ten or fifteen years ago, something began to shift. That’s when several women leaders who believed in elevating others appeared in my life. They weren’t just out to “break the glass ceiling” and stay up there—they would send the elevator back down to lift other women. If they had an opportunity they didn’t feel was right for them or didn’t have time for, for example, they wouldn’t just pass on it—they’d name three other women who might be a better fit. These women were actively championing others.

Some didn’t do that and even discouraged me from helping others. One, for example, suggested I focus on my corporate director career rather than start my social purpose company, Women Get On Board Inc. (WGOB). But I chose to listen to my instincts and follow my higher purpose.

One defining moment stands out in my mind. It was 2009. I was on a corporate board with a woman business leader who was scheduled to present about getting more women on boards, but she had a conflict. So she asked me if I could step in for her. She recognized something in me, and she allowed me to shine. And it was perhaps a fateful decision that I titled my presentation “Women Get On Board” six years before I would launch my social purpose company by the same name.

Women like that, those who sent the elevator back down, made a tremendous impression on me. If these women believed in me, I had to believe in myself, show up… and then send the elevator down for others.

How to elevate yourself and others

In my e-book Elevate Your Board Effectiveness, I discuss the four Ps of finding your voice as a woman corporate director. As I say in a blog post, it can be challenging to find your voice when you’re newly appointed to a board with longstanding relationships or the “token” woman at the boardroom table.

The four Ps don’t just apply to board work; they can apply to any endeavour where a woman wants to find her voice and make a real difference. And they’re a roadmap to elevating yourself! The four Ps are:

  • Purpose: Why are you here? Why do you serve on this board (or take on this role)? Having a purpose that defines why you show up can help you identify where your efforts are best placed. You always want to look for board opportunities that align with your core values.
  • Passion: Why do you care about this board/role? Others will sense it if you’re not passionate. Passion gives you energy and drives you to do great work. And it’s contagious! When I was interviewing for the National Ballet School board, and they asked why I wanted to join them, I replied that while yes, I brought the necessary financial and governance skills, most of all I had wanted to be a ballet dancer since I was a little girl and that’s what drew me to the school. Without that personal passion, I would not have been as effective a board member.
  • Presence: Presence is how you demonstrate your purpose and passion to the other members at the table. Are you professional, engaging, and enthusiastic? Are you aware of how others are feeling and mindful of the effect of your words? Carrying yourself with the necessary presence may not come naturally to you; it may take work to cultivate it, and that’s okay. Above all, having a presence means standing up for what you believe in and never feeling pressured into anything you disagree with.
  • Power: Power is how you can make an impact and influence change. You don’t just automatically have power—you need to lean in and demonstrate it. That means being assertive—a leader rather than a follower. You can start by leaning in under certain circumstances, perhaps on a topic you’re passionate about. Using your power to bring about important change will elevate you in the eyes of your board colleagues or others. Two other important concepts I discuss in gaining power are learning up—seeking continuous knowledge—and sponsoring others. A sponsor is someone who talks about you when you’re not in the room, and our world needs more sponsors of women.

Recognition and validation

Over the last month, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to receive two incredible recognitions, each of which validates, in different ways, the work I’ve been doing to elevate myself and others around me. My reasons for doing my work have nothing to do with awards and appointments; rather, I am honoured to be recognized.

Honorary doctorate from Brock University: On June 13, I received an honorary Doctor of Laws from my alma mater, Brock University. I’ve been an ongoing ambassador for Brock since I graduated from its first co-op accounting program in 1984, and I’ve always focused on ways to help elevate students. In 2014, I worked with the school to create the Deborah E. Rosati Entrepreneurship Fund. I also funded the creation of the Deborah Rosati Women in Leadership Mentorship Program, launched last year, which matches mentees with experienced, knowledgeable and insightful mentors.

Being recognized with an honorary doctorate was a considerable surprise—when the President and Vice-Chancellor called and told me I was nominated, I was speechless (rare for me!)—and a tremendous honour. It’s incredibly gratifying to know my efforts are valued and worthwhile and make a difference in our future leaders’ lives.

Canadian Women Entrepreneur (CWE) Award for Gender Equality in the Workplace: On May 30, Women Get On Board Inc. (WGOB) was awarded this inaugural award. I couldn’t be more proud of our work to elevate women in senior leadership roles and get more women on corporate boards. Since 2015, we’ve built an 850+ member community of the next generation of women corporate directors. I’ve sat on numerous boards and have often been the only woman in the boardroom. Yet I’ve seen firsthand that boards with more women are more effective and drive better performance. I’m incredibly passionate about this and founded WGOB to drive change. Being recognized for this award validates our work toward empowering women through education, mentorship and allyship.

A lifelong mission to elevate myself and my purpose so that I can elevate others

To lift others effectively, you have to get to a place where you are your authentic self. You need to understand where your north star lies and be grounded in your purpose. Only then can you look around and ask how you can help others.

I’ve often said that if I can share one insight with one woman who might not have thought of it, I’m empowering her to get board-ready. That’s my purpose. I am extraordinarily gratified to have received these recent recognitions. Even more gratifying is seeing the number of women on Canadian boards increase one woman at a time and seeing our community of women corporate directors support and elevate each other.