Stand and Deliver: Embrace Your Inner Unicorn with Michelle Guillermin
by Lisa Gable · 06 Aug 2022 · 10 min read
My Stand and Deliver series highlights women who lead through inspiration and aspiration. Today’s article is about how to embrace your inner unicorn to achieve inner significance.
I chose to interview Michelle Guillermin, because she is a woman known for pursuing the unexpected while applying the mind of a sharp strategist and tactician. Michelle is the CEO of the Akili Group, which provides executive level support for nonprofits. She has operated in conflict-affected countries to support women at risk, restructured a billion-dollar government agency in crisis, and captured the grandeur and danger of wildlife across the globe through her award-winning photography.
Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your career and what excites you about your current stage of life.
I feel like I am on the precipice of yet another change. I’ve had a long and rewarding career in public accounting, banking, government, professional services, and most recently, the not-for-profit sector. While I would like to tell you that each transition was planned, I must admit that most moves I’ve made, whether between employers or sectors or roles, were much more an opportunistic move – almost always when I saw that making a change would expand my knowledge or experience into something new that would challenge me and keep my interest.
As an example, I left banking when an obscure piece of tax policy I wrote for the George W Bush campaign pushed my resume to the top of the pile—and I made a significant transition to a Presidential Appointment to a C-level role at the government agency that runs the AmeriCorps and VISTA programs. Little did I know then that this new experience would be one of my hardest, but most rewarding roles as I felt, rather than Mr Smith goes to Washington, Barbie went to Washington. All those rosy ideals I had about the way the government worked were tested by the reality of identity politics, budgets and the real clash that is created by our separation of powers. I emerged, a bit battered, but with a much stronger sense of my ability to do whatever I set my mind to and the strong ethical compass that had never been tested—but survived intact.
I eventually made my way into the nonprofit sector, working with several issues, including the Digital Divide, health and wellness, women’s rights in countries that gave them none, tobacco policy and disaster relief. I am now consulting to boards and leaders of nonprofits, helping them define and execute strategies, even while the world shifts beneath their feet.
And that change I feel is coming—I would like one last leadership role in a large, dynamic organization that is truly impacting individual lives, and doing so with integrity, grace, and professionalism.
Tell us about a major transition period in your life (major move, career move, family, unique opportunity) and what prompted the change.
One of the formative experiences I had was when I exited the workforce entirely for a year, put on a backpack and made my way around the world, sleeping in mud huts, building schools, and working in mobile health clinics and experiencing life in a way that most Americans can’t even imagine. I made my way, traveling east through Europe, Africa, India, and Asia before coming back to, what I expected to be, the continuation of the job I had left—operational consulting to financial institutions.
Instead, what I returned to was a consulting practice that had changed without me, and a new outlook on the value of climbing the ladder vs. fulfilling my personal goals. I found that levels in an organization didn’t matter to me as much as learning something new and excelling in unique and challenging environments. I did go back into banking, but joined a startup bank where the only limit to your job description was what you didn’t ask to be involved in. I moved in and out of consulting, doing the jobs that no one really knew who to hire—but needed someone who could look at a problem, identify the unique elements of the problem and design a bespoke solution—that also included economies and efficiencies of scale. Taking away the boundary of “the next job must be a promotion or make more money” allowed me to ease the concerns of a board of directors of a Kenyan wildlife conservancy and helped them understand that the American way of doing things would never be right in this situation; it gave me production credits on a movie with Hollywood stars and directors with a strong message to an underserved community; it allowed me to launch a European outpost of a company side by side with one of the heroes of the Velvet Revolution; and it took me to the dusty streets and thatched roofs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helping women who had been victimized by the worst of war crimes, but still had hope for the future.
What are the three top tips you have for a woman trying to assert her influence and ideas?
Pick your battles. When you find that hill you’re willing to die on, people will notice. Too many of those, and it will just be noise.
Be prepared to defend your position, but use the characteristics that women are valued for—collaboration, listening and strong negotiation to a shared success.
Don’t focus on the injustices that have been done to you, but instead on how you rose above them and won at the end of the day. Your example will shine brighter and lead others if you focus on the victories.
Above all, do each of these things with unwavering integrity.
How do you help unleash leadership at all levels?
Trust people—to want to do the right thing, to know the answer (even if they don’t realize it) and to make good decisions. Give your team a bit of rope and allow them to make mistakes, but always be there to catch them. Be brutally honest with people—about their skills and opportunities, as well as the environment in which they work. That trust must flow both ways.
Tell our readers about a passion project of yours, why its unique or special, and what attracted you to it.
My absolute deepest passion is the preservation of wildlife and the wild places in which they thrive. I classify myself as a conservation photographer—that genre focuses on storytelling to engage people in the support of wildlife conservation, so I write articles and publish photographs with strong descriptors and calls to action. I am fortunate to have backstage access to a few elite community-based conservation organizations in Africa and can bring potential champions into a deeper understanding of the challenges facing both people and wildlife in today’s world. I have a strong personal network of people who do deep wildlife research, zoologists, conservationists, and veterinarians.
I must admit, my formative years were spent watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Flipper—and since childhood have always been interested in the environment and its impact on animals. My eyes were opened significantly by Peter Beard’s book, The End of the Game, which gave me the first multifaceted view of conservation (hint, it's not all about poaching) and showed me the impact of visual images on viewers.
If I can influence one person the way that Peter Beard’s work influenced me, then I will declare success. But I hope I can do more.
Who inspires you today and why?
I believe firmly in the Power of One. There are unsung heroes—individuals—who follow their passion, do extraordinary work and are truly changing the world. We may not hear about them like we do the people who always make it in front of the cameras, but I guarantee, each of them is impacting the world in a unique and substantial way. These people are all around us—we see them often in the nonprofit and conservation sectors, but they also are your next-door neighbor who quietly befriends a homeless person, gets them to safety and helps them along the way. To quote Dr. Seuss — “To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.”
What is a future aspiration?
I am looking past my next work role to retirement, where I can take all these passions that I have done “on the side” and make them my full-time existence. I see myself living part-time in Africa, participating in wildlife conservation in some hands-on and meaningful way.
My key takeaways:
What strikes me the most about Michelle’s interview is her ability to recognize those inflection points in her life that signal the need to not only embrace change but drive it in the direction that fits her passion.
“I believe firmly in the Power of One. There are unsung heroes - individuals - who follow their passion, do extraordinary work and are truly changing the world.”
In my years advising and working alongside Fortune 500 CEOs, Presidential appointees, and other C-Suite executives, I’ve seen many talented individuals fall into the trap of being defined solely by their position, rather than their legacies of amazing outcomes. Michelle chose to take a different route–one defined by pursuing opportunities that expanded her knowledge or enabled her to excel in unique and challenging environments.
Ask yourself. Is it time for you to develop a new outlook on the value of climbing the ladder versus fulfilling personal goals? It may be the moment for you to explore a new route too—plus, you may have no choice but to do so. With mergers across industry and the dizzying pace of innovation, what you planned to do may no longer be an option—or it may not be the best option to accelerate you to the top.
If you are facing great change in your industry or aren’t satisfied with where you are today, focus on the possible by identifying your skills, interests, and the processes you learned that can be applied in other areas of business, government and philanthropy. Be planful, agile. Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner unicorn.
What lessons did you learn from Michelle’s interview? Let me know what inspired you by connecting with me on Instagram or LinkedIn. You can also sign up for my newsletter and buy my book, Turnaround: How to Change Course When Things Are Going South, at www.lisagable.com.