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Character, Not Perfection: Leadership Lessons And Reflections With Cathy Saunders

Meet the Expert with Cathy Saunders

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Welcome to Season 3, Episode 12 of Meet the Expert® with Elliot Kallen!

Leadership is not just what you do when everybody is watching; it is also what you do when nobody is. Step into the world of leadership with Cathy Saunders from Putnam Investments as she explores the essence of leadership through the lens of experience and wisdom. Cathy shares valuable lessons from leaders like Howard Gardner, emphasizing the importance of reflection, leveraging strengths, continuous learning, storytelling, and the essential reliance on a supportive team. The discussion transcends corporate boundaries, offering practical insights for individuals navigating their daily lives, underscoring the enduring relevance of character and resilience in a world that demands both imperfectly perfect leaders. Tune in for a journey into the heart of leadership, where authenticity and intentional reflection pave the way for impactful change.

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MTE 12 | Leadership Lessons

Meet Our Guest

Cathy Saunders

As Head of Corporate Sustainability and Public Policy, Cathy advocates for all of Putnam’s stakeholders and leads Putnam’s corporate initiatives around environmental, social and governance issues as well as public policy. She is a member of Putnam’s Operating Committee, ESG Leadership Committee, Diversity Advisory Council, Pride Alliance and the Advisory Council for Women of Putnam.

Her current role has given her an opportunity to leverage her background in both Putnam’s retail and institutional businesses. Prior to her current position, she ran Putnam’s internal consulting team, served as Head of the Registered Investment Advisory Business/Private Bank and Trust, directed the firm’s North American Institutional Business and was a Regional Director in the West Region for Putnam Retail Management. She has also been a spokesperson/content developer on a variety of topics such as women and wealth, leadership, client experience, diversity, equity and inclusion, financial literacy and sustainability.

In 2017, Cathy was honored to receive the Top Women in Asset Management Award from Money Management Executive Magazine. She is a Co-Chair of The Wilson Center’s Policy Council, and a board member of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Greater Boston YMCA and Invest in Others.

Character, Not Perfection: Leadership Lessons And Reflections With Cathy Saunders

I’d like to welcome you to another exciting episode of the show. We are doing something very much out of the box and different. We have someone from Boston, Cathy Saunders, who is a living legend in the investment community. I don’t mean on my side of it where I’m dealing directly with the consumer. I’m talking about the high-end corporate side of it. Cathy, I’d like to welcome you to our show.

Thank you so much. It’s great to be reunited with you. Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Cathy has 37 years in this industry. She is the head of corporate sustainability and public policy. I’m not quite sure what that is. I’m assuming they like to sustain themselves so they can be in business, but I’m sure it’s something different than that. She’s also one of the top female executives in the United States in the investment industry. That’s pretty exciting.

If you want to reach us, we are at (925) 314-8503,, or Cathy, I have some questions for you. Cathy is an expert on leadership. That’s going to be our theme. Corporate leadership, individual leadership, and family leadership. We are going to try to get our arms around what that means to you as the audience. We know that the people who are tuning in to the show are people who are investing with us, thinking about investing with an advisor, and have curiosity about investing.

They are trying to make money. They are trying to feed their family. They are trying to get ahead. They are trying to create a successful retirement or whatever that may be to them and that’s what we do as a living. It helped people create successful retirements. Let’s start with defining what leadership is. Why is it important and why is it an important subject to you?


MTE 12 | Leadership Lessons


One of the things that we have had is the gift of receiving an opportunity to see in action so many leaders in our industry. Maybe I can go slightly off-road in answering your question and just mention this. You have known me for a long time and you have seen me do that commute between Boston and San Francisco many times. I will never forget one trip that I was making between the two cities, I was deeply ensconced in reading the Sunday New York Times. There was an article that caught my attention about a thirteen-year-old girl by the name of Natalie Gilbert, who was given the distinct honor of singing the National anthem at an NBA playoff game.

As you can imagine, this was a huge night for Natalie and her family. She was at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. It was the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers, and it was right before Natalie was supposed to go out and start singing the national anthem. One of the people standing next to her said, “When the lights start going down, make your way out to center court.”

A lot was going on. The Rose Garden was at capacity. Something like 26,000 fans. Something along those lines. Hundreds of thousands of people are watching on TV, and there it was. The lights started coming down little by little when finally there was one spotlight completely focused on her. As soon as the lights came down, the spotlight was there. She raised the microphone that she was clenching in her right hand to the bottom of her chin. She opened her mouth and nothing. The words to the national anthem were stuck in her throat.

One second went by, two seconds went by, maybe three seconds went by, and a guy by the name of Maurice Cheeks, who was at that time the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers levitated off the bench, ran out to center court, wrapped his left arm around Natalie Gilbert. He raised his right hand off the rafters. That night, he led 26,000 people, hundreds of thousands watching on TV to sing the national anthem with Natalie in his arms.

You are probably saying, “What does that have to do with leadership?” Leaders lead when everybody is watching and leaders lead when no one is watching. In those three seconds, maybe this girl was in need the most. This is somebody who exemplified and was the highest expression of both character and leadership. Those are two things that you can consistently find in all of the leaders that we have had the distinct honor and pleasure of meeting over our entire careers.


Leaders lead when everybody’s watching and leaders lead when no one is watching.


You have been doing this now for 37 years. It’s a nice and wonderful story. What does that mean to you and what does that mean to our audience here?

It’s interesting because if you take that story and apply it to the business that we are in, first of all, whether you look at our geopolitical situation and whether you look at the investment industry, we are in a time where leadership could not be more important than it is now. The times when you need leadership the most in our business are when markets get choppy and uncertain, when there’s uncertainty out there, and people need to make sure that they are sticking to their plans. That’s why it’s most important in our business. Those are the times when you have to have leadership navigating your financial future at every single turn. Those are the biggest applications as it relates to what we do every single day.

We brought up a great topic. We call that behavioral finance and managing motions. It’s helping our investors and clients to stay on track. It’s helping people stay on track with their life plans. That’s so important in leadership here, but from your point of view, you have been on and you are in the corporate world. You are in Boston. I love Boston. It’s my favorite small city in America. I’m shocked because Boston and Sanford score the same size and they couldn’t be more different in how they look, how they act, and everything about them. I was there in Boston with you. What’s been your journey?

When I started working at Putnam, I was answering the phones 37 years ago right across the street from where I am right now. In some ways, I haven’t gone too far. You are giving me way too much credit than I deserve. I was lucky enough to learn from a number of leaders at Putnam back in 1987, which I started a few months before the October crash in 1987. It was jumping into the pool at a time when leadership was also extremely important. I started out answering the phones. I worked my way up through distribution at Putnam for three years before I was asked to move out to San Francisco and eventually meet you.

I spent eighteen years out in the great city by the Bay, doing a number of different things, leading our financial institution’s division. I was out representing our firm as a wholesaler for many years, and then I had an opportunity to come back and run our institutional business with the firm. That was back in 2007. That’s what brought me back from San Francisco to Boston again. I ran our client engagement center for several years and our registered investment advisory practice.

Our CEO asked if I’d be interested in doing something a little bit different at the firm. That’s what got me into the public policy space and eventually corporate sustainability. You could say I have been on a 37-year rotational program. I’m always stepping into roles that I never thought I was qualified to do but as I went into each one of those ventures, I attached myself to great leaders and people who were experts at what they did and they have led me in the right direction and kept my ears open. They made sure that I was soliciting and taking a new ideas every step of the way. It’s been a lot of fun. That’s for sure.

All of us talk about leadership. I think of myself in leadership too as CEO of three organizations here and started and sold a few companies along the way. One of them is a great charity. That book called DRIVEN is my latest book, which is on the Amazon bestselling list. It’s about leadership and entrepreneurship.

MTE 12 | Leadership Lessons
DRIVEN: How to Elevate Your Success as an Entrepreneur

If you haven’t gotten it and you want it, give me a holler or go online to Amazon. It’s not an expensive book and it’s a pretty fast read. You could do it in one afternoon, but it is about the trials of tribulations of leadership and sometimes the failures of leadership too, because they have those too. All of us have been motivated and touched by leaders.

One of my heroes is Winston Churchill and we talked about that. From a book, I was amazed when I was young with IT&T, which I don’t even think exists today. They bought everybody out in New Jersey and owned Continental Baking with its hostess and ultimately, Drake’s. All these companies. They owned everybody. The biggest defense contractor and major companies made fun of them in a Godfather movie when IT&T gave a gold telephone to Batista in Cuba, and they did.

Even Mel Brooks made fun of them in a movie called Engulf & Devour because they were taking everybody over. I was amazed as a young person that they were so driven by their vision to become the world player in so many businesses. Eventually, it ate them up or they changed leadership hands. You have been motivated by someone you told me named Howard Gardner. Who was that and why is that important?

Before you even go there, I got my copy of DRIVEN delivered to my doorstep by Amazon. It’s coincidental that you brought up IT&T as an example because my dad used to work there. He worked there for nine and a half years. They also owned Sheraton Hotels if I’m not mistaken. We are on the same wavelength as far as books are concerned. I also got a Winston Churchill book from the library.

Howard Gardner. It’s funny that you bring him up because he is a Harvard professor, and where I’m sitting right now, it’s probably no more than 2.5 miles from the other side of the Charles River where Gardner teaches at Harvard. I went to a women’s leadership course at Northwestern University, the Kellogg School. It was the first time that I got exposed to some of the works of Howard Gardner.

He’s an accomplished guy. He’s written about twenty different books. He probably has the same number of honorary degrees. He grew up with a passion for history and politics. The thing that attracted me the most to a lot of what he did was exactly what you said, his research on leadership. He studied a number of different leaders from a variety of different generations, a lot of different disciplines, and leaders from all over the world. You would recognize every single name of the leaders that he studied in his research.

People like Eleanor Roosevelt  George Marshall who was the chief of staff of the US Army in World War II, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King who arguably changed the world with 1 speech, 11 minutes in length from the Capitol steps. Margaret Thatcher, Martha Graham the choreographer. Margaret Mead the anthropologist. A variety of different leaders.

What he wanted to do initially was extract as much learning as he possibly could and understand the stories of these leaders. The more that he got into it, there was this question that kept on coming back to him again and again. The question was this, “Is there a chance that there are things or traits that all of these leaders had in common?” The answer to that question is there was. That’s what attracted me to Howard Gardner. That was what he studied. I’d be happy to share some of the things that he extracted from all these leaders if you would like me to go there.

I would love that. Let me remind everybody that we are talking with Cathy Saunders. She’s with Putnam that Franklin has repurchased.

You are right.

She has 37 years in the investment industry at the highest possible end of the corporate level. A little bit different than what I do, which is day-to-day in the mud getting, sometimes, your nose blooded building portfolios. She’s the head of corporate sustainability and public policy and one of the top female executives in the United States in the investment world. The reason I find Cathy fascinating is she doesn’t come here or on any show with an agenda. She doesn’t say, “Buy my product. We have the best. We have the best large company value manager in the industry, ETF, mutual fund, or stocks. We look at them and we discuss them. We shake them out and we come up with the best.” That’s not Cathy’s agenda here, even though Putnam is a fine company and they have some wonderful products.

She’s much more involved in the leadership role at the highest possible end. We were talking about Howard Gardner, one of her mentors who wrote about the great thought leaders of that time. He goes back three generations or decades into people. As you study Howard Gardner, people can find his books and they can look him up. They want to know about leadership. You know there are lessons that he teaches and I know you are an expert at his lessons. There are 4, 5, or 6 lessons that you probably can extract. Why don’t you share with us what you think those lessons are?

He’s written a number of books as we spoke about. If you look through all of the books, there are five things that kept on coming up. These are common themes from the leaders that he studied or who he studied. First off, every single leader took time to reflect. They reflected every single day. Not once in a while and not when it was convenient, but they allocated deliberate and intentional time to reflection.

It was at that time that they said to themselves, “What worked and what didn’t?” For some leaders, it was a period of reflection by going for a run. Meditation and prayer. It could be spending an extra few minutes in the shower. It didn’t matter, but it was a way for each one of these leaders to turn up the volume and turn off the noise in their lives and take in what was working with them.

To put it another way, it was a way to slow their life down so they could eventually iterate and speed things up. The first thing which is so hard to do was they took time to reflect. Keep in mind, if you take a look at all five of these lessons, these are things that you can apply to your own life as a leader in your house and your community doing philanthropic work or a leader in your financial life as well.

Number one, taking time to reflect. Number two, every single one of these leaders leveraged their strength. They knew exactly what they were good at, and they knew exactly what they weren’t good at or those things that didn’t come naturally to them. What they did was they declared a major and they spent as much time as they possibly could in that area where they were strongest.

If you think about it, it was almost as if they were deliberate and intentional around making sure that they spent as much time during the day in the area where they were authentically aligned because it’s there that they could make the biggest contribution. They figured out what their passion and purpose were, and they spent their time in the area where they were most authentically aligned. That was number two.

Number three, every single one of them learned from experience. They remember their first job no matter how big or small it was. We talked about the career path that I have had here at Putnam, answering the phone, some of the biggest and best learning of my entire career was from those phone calls and the learning that I got from it. They remembered their first job, but they remembered what they learned from that first job along the way.

The fourth thing that every single one of these leaders had in terms of traits was that they were all great storytellers. It’s funny. We have always matched each other’s reading list if you will because we like stories. We like to get into the psyche and learn from the people around us. Every single one of them had a great way of taking a look at what they were most passionate about and wrapping it in a story so that they could make the unfamiliar familiar for those people whom they were trying to influence or get to be advocates for their work. The fourth thing is they were all great storytellers.

The last one and this is such a great example of it. Every single leader knew that they couldn’t do it alone. They had a team around them. They built relationships because they all knew that there were going to be those periods in life where they lost their energy, moxie, mojo, or self-confidence for that small period of time for many of them. They knew that they needed to have a team around them to remind them along the way that they weren’t crazy, they needed to keep going, and that they could do it and to help them be resilient in their work along the way.


Every single leader knew that they couldn’t do it alone. They had a team around them and they built relationships.


Those are great lessons. Let me ask you about a word that you left out there. I’m putting too much emphasis on this word, and that is character. I want to mention character and I want to take out the word perfection from that word character because if someone is looking for perfection, that’s not our species. We are not perfect.

We do a lot of things wrong every day. There’s rarely a week that goes by when I’m not apologizing. It’s somebody in my office for something I said offhand, a comment, or should have thought more about it or I wish I didn’t say that. It wasn’t meant to hurt, but it hurt a little bit because everybody can say that. I live in California where everybody is sensitive.

If you tell them the sun is shining and it’s raining, there are people that are hurt. From a human being standpoint, we are far from perfect, but character counts. I’m a big fan of character counts not perfection. You are working for a large company. You are talking about corporate sustainability and public policy. In the world of public policy and the world of the word of character, sometimes I feel they can’t even be said in the same sentence anymore, but it is the reality of the world we live in because our leaders, with 24-hour news, are naked. We are not meant to be naked as a species, and I’m not talking about clothing here.


MTE 12 | Leadership Lessons


When you talk about Gardner, you talk about leaders, and some of these great people, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King. They were very imperfect people doing exceptional work, even if you disagree politically with what they did, how they did it, and why they did it. You can’t deny that they did it and that there is a difference between that too. What do you think of that? Did he miss out on that word? For the people tuning in, does character matter in a very imperfect society?

It is extremely important. The place where the character comes out, going back to our initial story, is when things don’t go our way and how we show up in the world. One of the gifts of the work that we do together is as we are charting our course with our clients and at their side, there are periods where the news is great. There are periods when the news is more than great, but there are periods when markets move in the opposite direction. What that requires is sometimes we need to deliver bad news. I think that it’s at those times where our character is measured. More often than not, what people want to hear is the truth, and that’s what character is all about. It’s delivering that consistently, deliberately, and intentionally over time, but it’s a key component of leadership without question.

We have been talking about leadership, but let me ask you that question. I know you have some other comments on that. For people who are living their daily lives, they are going to their job, or maybe they are running a company. They are trying to do the right thing, they are trying to help their employees, they are trying to be a good spouse, a partner, or they are trying to do the right thing for the most part, or maybe they are trying to get through their day without incident, whatever it might be.

They are coming home and they have young kids, medium kids, or like me where I have lost a child along the way. You have to come home and feel that it’s hard to get by a day of a little bit of emptiness on there, but they are trying to get through the day. From a leadership standpoint, why should they care about the whole concept of leadership when we are trying to get through our day?

I will go back to the fifth point that Gardner identified, which is so fitting for your question. Every leader knew that they can’t do it alone. There is no better time to build that support system around you than now. You can’t make a friend when you need a friend. The more that we can prepare for those times that you are describing, the better off we are going to be.


MTE 12 | Leadership Lessons


We need that ecosystem and support around us. It might not seem like your point about getting through the day. “I don’t want to lead today.” You can almost say that. “I just need to get through.” Make no mistake. Every leader is constantly building that support system around them because they know they are going to get to that day that you described, and they are going to need that community around you in order to get through it and push forward to be the leader that you want to be on the other side.

It’s a great esoteric concept. Leadership and being a good and thoughtful leader. Whether we know it or not, if you are running a business and you listen to this, you are a leader. That’s why I wrote that book for people like you and that’s what Cathy talks about. If you are doing something greater and you are doing something in the communities, and you are running a charity or putting together a charity, or you are running for office or you are in office, you are a leader.

Everything you do affects somebody around you and it touches people. I’m amazed at how all of us touch other people. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George touches other people. All of us touch other people every single day of the week, both positively and negatively. I think that my job as a financial advisor and a CEO here is to motivate individuals, to feel good about what we are doing, and to know that we have got their back and we got them on the right track. I know from your point of view that you are looking at even on a much grander scale to wake up and trust your leaders or become a leader.

Put it into action.

Action is the best word. Inaction is not a good step. That’s one of my phrases. Inaction is not a good plan for you. We have been talking with Cathy Saunders here. She’s from Putnam Investments and they are a Boston-based company. They are a partner of ours in so many ways. Not a financial partner, but a strategic partner.

They have been wonderful in what we are doing. Cathy is head of corporate sustainability and public policy for Putnam, soon to become Franklin Investments, which is a California company. Hopefully, they don’t lose their people because they have some terrific people that we love in the field and managing money, and people like yourself. They are a house filled with character and integrity, and in a world that is pounded with somebody doing something wrong in our industry and makes the front page of the Wall Street Journal, character and integrity are so important. Thank you, Cathy, for being part of this.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

You are very welcome. This has been another episode. Have a great day.


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