Tanya Ott: You lived—and thrived—in a male world for the first 50 years of your life. Describe your life today.
Katie Dudtschak: I am a parent to four incredible children — two boys and two girls. I am also an executive vice president with RBC in Toronto, where I have the privilege of leading our personal and commercial advisers across Canada — more than 20,000 experts serving 15 million Canadians. But to understand me, we have to rewind 80 years.
My parents grew up in Germany during the second world war. My mother was a child refugee and my father was a Russian prisoner of war. They both lost their parents to the war. Unfortunately, when they immigrated to Canada they brought the trauma from the war and their own upbringing with them, and that created trauma for my siblings and me. We grew up in a home with a lot of anxiety and verbal abuse. I also had learning challenges as a child. I feel certain that if an expert assessed me today, I would be diagnosed as dyslexic.
I came out to the world as Katie on June 17, 2019. Given that I’m a senior executive with over 30 years of experience, you might ask, ‘Why, at this point of your life?’ The practical reality is that each of us are whole human beings. Yes, I am a woman with gender transition experience, but I am a woman first. It has taken me many years to get to a place of full authenticity and peace with who I am. Today, I’m at a point in life where I can honestly say that I love myself.
TO: Talk a bit about your journey as an executive and some of the lessons you learned along the way.
KD: When you are dealing with questions of gender and identity, you naturally become quite self-critical, analytical and self-reflective. At my core, I’m a highly sensitive human being. I never thought of myself as a typical leader or executive. I’m also quite analytical and curious, but I only learned about halfway through my career that it was okay to show sensitivity. One of the first times I cried at work was with a colleague who was 20 years older than me. He opened up about his own family experience, and I broke down and cried with him. What resulted from that moment was a level of emotional connection with a colleague that was completely different from that day forward. But that episode also taught me that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What we see of people at work is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are whole human beings underneath there.
When my gender issues came to a head, I had already coped with them for many decades. I remember poring over my mother’s jewelry box at age five; and at 12, dressing up like my sister and going to play in my sandbox. These female instincts were with me from childhood, but I suppressed them because I got really good at setting goals and staying busy. That served me really well until about five years ago, when my children got older and I reached a stage of maturity in my career. My job got easier, because I knew it so intuitively, and that’s when ‘the dam broke’: My gender feelings grew stronger and stronger, because suddenly there was space for them. I simply couldn’t ignore them any longer.
Unfortunately, like many people with transgender experience, as I figured out that my mind’s wiring was female but my physical body was born male, I ended up in a very dark place. About 80 to 90 per cent of us seriously consider suicide. It’s this conflict between knowing your identity and fearing rejection from the world — especially your family and colleagues. There was also great fear of hurting my children and my partner. That conflict of knowing your truth, but being so fearful of rejection and judgment, is what brings people to the brink from a mental health perspective.
I got to the point of sharing my truth only after hitting the darkest period in my life. Ultimately, being older, I have the benefit of a lot of really wise, loving people in my life that I had confided in on my journey. In October 2018, I made a promise to myself that I would be around for another 50 years: I would be there for my children, and I would find a way to embrace my true self in my job. At the time, I was leading 25,000 people. If I had to give that up, it would have been extremely damaging from a mental health standpoint.
TO: Once you made the decision to bring people at work into your journey, how did you go about it?
KD: I didn’t think it would go well at all, but the reality is, it went very well. In December of 2018, my partner and I told our children; and in February of 2019, I started hormone therapy and I told my truth to our CEO, the head of HR, and my boss. They responded extraordinarily well. I wasn’t in the habit of texting our CEO, but I sent him a message saying, “Thank you for being so compassionate and hearing me out.” He texted me right back and said, “I can’t get over your courage. I’ve got a lot to learn, but RBC is with you on this.”
Over the next few months, we built a plan. One of our senior HR executives was about to retire, but she agreed to stay on because she wanted to be part of this major life event for me — and for the company. We built a critical path that included telling the board of directors and senior management. Then we would create a video to make the announcement to RBC’s 80,000 employees.
Overnight, I had to get comfortable feeling vulnerable with 80,000 people. The blessing was that both my CEO and my boss volunteered to be in the video. Another blessing was that I had supportive e-mails coming in from thousands of colleagues. They would say, ‘Katie, you are going to save lives’; but the fact is, I was doing this to save my own life. I really hadn’t considered that I could be an example for others that might create hope.
The most humbling part for me was that countless employees started telling me their own personal stories. Because I had been vulnerable with them, they felt safe showing vulnerability themselves, whether it was a female employee who was being physically abused or someone from the LGBTQ+ community who was fearful of being ostracized by their family or their home country.
The leadership lesson is this: By showing vulnerability, you invite vulnerability. What we see of people at work is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are whole human beings underneath there, and in many cases — if not all — there are traumas or struggles that they’ve learned to suppress. I gained a whole new consciousness about the burdens people carry around.
TO: So much has changed for you; but what has remained constant since your transformation?
KD: What has changed is that my senior leadership team would describe me as better than ever — more authentic, more real, less anxious and more inclusive rather than directive as a leader. What hasn’t changed is that I still bring the same intellectual and experiential capital to my job as before. I have always led with a deep sense of personal purpose, and I’m very aligned with RBC’s organizational purpose. I believe deeply — now more than ever — that business must get involved in addressing the world’s biggest problems, from climate change to social exclusion. The way businesses run themselves over the short, medium and long term will be critical in helping us solve the big macro issues that we face as a society.
TO: You have talked about seeing things “from both sides of the spectrum.” Please expand on that.
KD: I’ve been in locker rooms and boardrooms, and honestly, I never felt like I fit in. My mind just seemed to be wired differently, so I worked hard to try to fit in and engage my left brain, so I would appear logical, linear and systematic. I’ve also seen, on both sides, gender judgments towards one another that are frankly uninformed, not grounded in real understanding of the female experience versus the male experience — which is why it is so critical to tackle unconscious bias as we build bridges. Today, I get to be my authentic self, partly because I’ve been to hell and back. At this point in my life I’m not going to be anybody other than who I am. I’m not a chameleon anymore. I’m just me.
Nowadays I use my right brain and my heart as much as I use my left brain. I’m not afraid to be passionate or emotional. Like other women, though, I’m sensitive to being judged by men who don’t think emotions or sensitivity belong in the boardroom. In actual fact, when you’re running a company with thousands of employees and serving 15 million customers, you had better have a healthy dose of empathy and values and emotional connectivity in your boardroom — let alone on the front lines.
I fundamentally believe that we’ve got to have more conversations between men, women and all dimensions of human uniqueness, to accelerate the development of a shared sense of empathy for different human experiences and what they can bring to the table.
TO: I’d love your perspective on the difference between diversity and inclusion, and why the distinction is important.
KD: My pet peeve is that we lump them together in the acronym of D&I, or we pursue advancing one important group of people and call that inclusion. Some organizations have reversed the language: They’re calling it inclusion and diversity, which I prefer. I actually don’t like the word diversity, because of how it’s perceived. If a white woman or man says, ‘I’m committed to diversity’, it’s perceived as embracing people that are different. But I hate the concept of difference. I prefer the following definition: As humans, we bring to life visible and invisible dimensions of human uniqueness. Invisible dimensions could include childhood abuse, mental health challenges or issues around sexual orientation. These are all invisible aspects of human uniqueness that combine to create a unique experience in life. If I have a different way of learning and communicating from you, that’s about human uniqueness, not difference.
I use the word uniqueness because it’s inspiring to me. When I hear it, I think of beauty. Like I said, we all have invisible and visible dimensions of human uniqueness that make us special. Yes, many of those come with hardships, but in most cases, it’s that hardship that makes us more empathic and socially aware. So is it really a weakness, or is it actually a strength? I believe it’s a strength.
Given my undiagnosed learning disability and the anxiety I’ve carried through life, I know from experience that when you’re living in fear, it’s not sustainable. Inevitably, you hold back, because you don’t want to be judged or rejected. You cannot give 100 per cent of yourself when you feel that way. You’re always holding back 20, maybe 30 per cent. What inspires me most about this mindset is the untapped human potential that will be available to organizations (and to society) if we can get ourselves to a more inclusive place.
TO: What do leaders need to keep in mind as they seek to support the full range of the employee experience?
KD: There are a few key lessons. First, the idea of leaving your personal life at home when you come to work is crazy. We might be able to suppress it, but the emotional burden of the things that have happened to us in our lives are always with us, and they affect our ability to give our whole self to our work. Similarly, if I’m not embraced as a whole person at work, I’m going to hold certain things back and it’s probably going to affect my personal life.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all part of a global community that is made up of many types of unique experiences. We won’t be able to create social or economic inclusion or solve climate problems unless we can come together and work towards common goals. That is the burning platform today, at a societal level and on an organizational level.
Leaders need to hold themselves accountable for building
a workforce that is representative of society.
So what should leaders do? They need to hold themselves accountable for building a workforce that is representative of society, from the board to senior management all the way to the front lines. In doing so, not only will they be creating hope for their employees, but we will also have leaders that can represent the varied perspectives of society and all the different thinking styles that exist.
TO: You believe we need to look at inclusion as its own pillar. Please explain.
KD: We need to lean into both the educational side of inclusion (anti-racism training, diversity training, etc.), and the experiential side. Every two months, I do a 15-minute interview with an incredible leader who has some unique aspect to their identity, and together, we unpack their life experience. This is done with compassion, curiosity and no judgment. We get around 3,000 employees tuning in. Whether I’m talking to someone who has come out as gay at work, an executive who lost his mother to suicide or members of the Black or Indigenous communities, I have not had a conversation that has not been mind-blowing and emotional.
Through kindness and listening, this practice builds a new level of awareness that moves us closer to a shared sense of empathy for different human experiences. Companies really need to embrace that. None of the work around diversity or inclusion is ‘once and done’. This is about cultural and societal change — and sustaining it over time.
TO: What do you hope the conversation around human uniqueness will look like in 20 or 30 years?
KD: First, as a human being and business leader, in 30 years, social and economic inclusion on this planet has to have made significant progress. In the developed world, the rich are only getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Unless we move faster towards social and economic inclusion and equality, companies won’t have a customer base, because the social divide will become too great.
The even bigger issue is this: If the social divide gets too big, divisiveness will set in and it may be very difficult to reverse. We will never solve the problems of our planet or society in that kind of environment. So in 30 years, I expect us to see the economic divide between the rich and poor narrow in a very meaningful way. I also expect to see human beings from all walks of life having access to education, healthcare and opportunity.
At a company level, I don’t think anyone has 30 years to work on this. Leaders have maybe five or 10 years. Every day, your workforce is becoming more unique and diverse, and your ability to build an inclusive environment and culture is the key to tapping into all that human potential. Without a concerted effort, you won’t have access to the best talent — and you won’t attract the increasingly value-driven consumers of the future, either. If the corporate community is going to make a meaningful contribution to climate change and social and economic inclusion, we have to get there even faster than our institutions.
Katie Dudtschak is Executive Vice President, Regional Banking, Personal & Commercial Banking, RBC Royal Bank; and Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Royal Mutual Funds Inc. She leads 25,000 personal and commercial advisers across the country. This interview started out as a Deloitte Insights podcast.
Share this article: