THE BLOG
01/07/2015 08:37 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Dr Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, Founder and CEO of Excel Leadership Solutions

Dr. Deborah Schroeder-Saulnier, founder and CEO of Excel Leadership Solutions, is a highly sought advisor to senior executives. Leveraging her 25-year career in senior leadership and consulting roles, she partners closely with business leaders to solve problems, clarify focus, and accelerate the pursuit of critical market, organization, and leadership priorities. She has worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies worldwide, including Boeing, Citigroup, Bunge LTD., Scottrade, Danfoss, IPC-The Hospitalist Company, RGA - Reinsurance Group of America, Scottrade, and World Wide Technology. Deborah was previously Partner with The Clarion Group; Global Senior Vice President for Right Management; Director, Organization Development for Ingersoll Rand., and Senior Consultant for Boeing. Deborah's new book: The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to Uncover Radically Innovative Solutions, brings a counterintuitive approach to solving problems to help you face chronic challenges with confidence and uncover unexpected and infinitely better solutions. She is based in St. Louis, Missouri.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up with my mother, an artist; my father, a Lutheran pastor; and four siblings. Mom wouldn't let us have coloring books, paint-by-number kits, or anything with pre-drawn lines. Instead, she would give us all the paper, paints, chalk pens, etc. we wanted so we could draw our own lines and color inside of them if we wanted to. My dad started hosting faith-based tours once a year when I was quite young. I traveled with him to Asia and the Holy Land when I was in my late teens. As a result, I quickly embraced the differences in cultures and our shared humanity. These two experiences laid for me a foundation of boundlessness and global citizenship. I lead with respect and create opportunities that foster growth, new thinking, and tap hidden potential in people and organizations.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Excel Leadership Solutions?
There is a common thread that runs throughout my career. It is a passion for growth; growth in others, growth in organizations, growth in myself. A few key employment experiences have fostered this passion and, at the same time, set me up for success with Excel Leadership Solutions. My first entrepreneurial venture was Excel Consulting Group in 1989. I started the company with an awesome partner who stayed with me for the first couple years, then was asked to join a distinguished university and develop a learning center for them. I incorporated and my small boutique thrived for the next nine years - until my travel schedule took its toll on my family and I was offered an attractive role with Hussmann/Ingersoll Rand. I learned a great deal in those eleven years - clients expect immediate impact; leaders at all levels struggle with transitions and increased complexity in business; and respecting others and being your authentic self establishes trusting relationships that lead to commitment and loyalty. My role as Director, Organization & Leadership Development, at a time when Ingersoll Rand was focused on transforming from a portfolio managed company to integrated sectors, gave me greater opportunity to work with leaders in defining the new organization, developing newly integrated solutions, and enacting new approaches to leading people across the globe. When I was asked to join Right Management and open the St. Louis region as Vice President, Organization Consulting, I found I had a knack for creating market buzz and accelerating growth. My stock rose quickly with Right's corporate executives. They saw increased revenues and increased interest in the company by key talent in the market. They also saw my ability to easily engage fellow colleagues across the globe while introducing our value to global and multinational businesses. My roles and responsibilities grew steadily over my ten years with the firm as I stepped up the ladder to hold positions as VP and Managing Principal; VP, North American Center of Excellence - Leadership Development, Senior VP and Global Practice Leader.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Excel Leadership Solutions?
As with any new business, Excel Leadership Solutions has experienced both highlights and challenges. A first highlight is when I heard from my daughter that she had decided to join me in launching the business. This decision grew out of a plan developed when she was in her undergraduate studies. Over the past six years, she credentialed herself as a leader and a marketer, and therefore brought immediate value to the business. She moved from the west coast to St. Louis in late March 2014, just in time to drive the plans for the release of my new business book, The Power of Paradox: Harness the Energy of Competing Ideas to Uncover Radically Innovative Solutions. A few months later we launched Excel Leadership Solutions with long-time trusted partners that demonstrate collaboration. The next several months were a blur with book signings, presentations, new client work, prospective client meetings, and responding to a flood of emails. We quickly delivered on leadership team alignment needs with a national healthcare client, leadership team integration work with a new multinational client, implemented locally-based executive team strategic off-sites, and supported leadership transition needs within a global educational institution. The greatest challenges have been focused around managing time and resources - especially the careful balance of developing business while ensuring complete attention and valued services to solve client needs.

Tell us about your new book 'The Power of Paradox.'
I wrote The Power of Paradox as a "how to" business book, yet I consider it a "handbook for life," as the benefits of paradox thinking far surpass business application. Everyone can gain value by applying this thinking. It opens conversations. It impacts behavior. It changes the game and brings value to relationship building, to decision making, to driving accountability. I have thought in terms of opposites and contradictions for much of my life. Even as a young child, I saw stark differences in how my mom and dad parented. Mom was more permissive and dad was authoritarian. I recall choosing selectively what I would take from each and developed a very rudimentary approach to decision making around issues, challenges, and opportunities that went well beyond "either/or" thinking. Later, "both/and" thinking became part of an intentional skill set that I have used to help organizations of all sizes avert disasters and realize successes. My first foray into paradox thinking was guided by Russell L. Ackoff, who introduced me to "systems thinking." Years later, I met Barry Johnson, who spoke about "managing polarities" and infused my appreciation for paradox with language, models, and a practical way to help organizations use paradox thinking to their bottom-line advantage - turning around negative financial and personnel situations and putting themselves on a positive track to sustainability. Paradox management enables balanced management of conflicting objectives. It identifies pairs of opposites and determines how they are interdependent relative to a key goal. In business, inherent tensions are mistakenly viewed as problems to be solved once the "correct" answer is found. But if only one direction is considered - either A or B - only part of the picture is visible. The best and most innovative solutions are frequently realized not by choosing one option over another, but by pursuing two contrasting options at the same time. A company wants to be known for innovation/-change, at the same time customers embrace it for its stability, while it must thrill shareholders with strong short-term revenue results and concurrently take actions to ensure long-term health. The value of paradox thinking as explained in the book is being felt across the globe with recommendations coming from publications, such as: The Washington Post's Leadership Book of the Week, Forbes in Russia, CEO Magazine, Viet Nam News, Business Traveller, Investor's Business Daily, IT Business Edge, and more.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in consulting?
Explore, clarify, and validate the value proposition you bring to clients in your chosen consulting role. If management and strategy consulting is your goal, ground yourself in business and organizational behavior principles. Solidify your capabilities in economics and finance. Gain experience internationally or live in a country outside your home country. Sharpen your communication and presentation skills - especially listening. Show up as a paradox manager - driving growth and reducing cost, developing business capabilities from the outside in and inside out, leading and following, preparing and allowing for flexibility, honoring tradition and accelerating change. Demonstrate executive presence and leadership expertise.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I heard tragic stories from senior executives early in my career. This helped open my eyes to what might lie ahead. I must be intentional about where and how I spend my time and have a workable, flexible plan created collaboratively together with my husband. I've been in business leadership and consulting roles since before my two daughters, now 28 and 24 years old, were born. I love being a mom and have made the girls the center of my life. Over the years, I made it a priority to be a part of school activities, dance, sports, and their circle of friends, as well as placing a premium on communication - especially listening and mentoring. It hasn't been easy. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I proposed to my employer a "new" work model: job sharing. When that was rejected, I decided to go part-time for the first two years and worked so flexibly even my internal clients had no idea I had changed status. I did the same when my second daughter was born, though I had just started my first business and that made it easier. When I had heavy travel periods, I would get innovative with visual calendars, giving the girls pre-recorded books with my voice, and returning with educational surprises native to state or country I had visited. As the girls grew, I introduced them to my work and to travel. Both are dynamic young women, have had successful starts to their careers now, and have become experts in traveling internationally.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being "played" as a woman and not being treated as a professional. Early on in my career, I became aware of the gender inequality that still exists today. My formative years were spent working for a national food company where I was the only woman (and the youngest) on a male dominated sales team. Soon after, I held an internal consulting role with a global defense contractor and a heavily male dominated workforce. Above and beyond demonstrating competence, I learned very quickly I had to work harder and longer hours to prove myself. I dressed for success. I was careful not to talk about family too much. I found getting results while being authentic, inclusive, thinking creatively, acting with speed, and taking a "no fear" attitude to conflict and chaos became a recipe for my success. The bottom-line: take control of yourself and your future. The realities are real. Women still lack the opportunities men have in the states and across the globe. The salary gap hasn't changed markedly in 30 years. Choose your direction, know your audience, and make your mark. Don't lose who you are in the process - you are your greatest tool for success!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There are so many ways mentors show up in my life: formal and informal, in-the-moment and planned, intentional and unaware. I've experienced all of these and the culminating result had an indispensable impact on both my professional and personal life. They have reinforced my being, challenged my beliefs, given me a plethora of learning tools, and reminded me of the freedom to act - so I do, mentoring others along the way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Being such an eclectic individual, it's hard to narrow the field down. My mom, for demonstrating unconditional love. Mother Teresa, for setting the example of charitable living. Malala Yousafzai, for her courage and relentlessness in education, even in the face of danger and personal harm. Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Board Chairman, and other women who are the first women leaders in their roles. My daughters, as the next generation of leaders already making their mark and setting a tone of integrity and excellence in their respective circles of personal friends and professional colleagues. And Maya Angelou, for her gift of words: "While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God's Creation."

What do you want Excel Leadership Solutions to accomplish in the next year?
Quite simply, we want to help our clients get what they want and need to drive their mission and vision. Since we are entering our second year, this means accelerating the awareness of the value we bring to businesses and organizations in solving problems that address their toughest leadership, people and change challenges. It means demonstrating a solid foundation, building trust, and securing engagements with a greater number of clients. It means seamlessly collaborating with our strategic partners. It means delivering on our promise.