Kate Duchene, CEO of Resources Global Professionals

As we introduce ourselves to Kate Duchene at her office in Irvine, California, her description of her “servant” style of leadership, which she gave in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, comes to mind. There’s a rapport between her and her receptionist—a genuine warmth behind their exchanges.

Little wonder: Duchene may see her role as that of servant, but as a female CEO who has assembled a senior executive team comprised equally of men and women, she’s also a beacon. And the message she’s transmitting to other women is simple: You can do this.

“It actually started with our founder, Don Murray” says Duchene, deflecting the attention away from herself for a moment. “I have a lot of gratitude for him because he recognised the power of women in business; of having different perspectives around the table when you’re trying to solve problems. He really laid the foundation. What I’ve done is encourage women to raise their hand for a position before they think they’re ready and to overcome the feeling that they’re an imposter.”

They asked me to run the search for a replacement and it just hit me: No, I’m not going to help them search, I’m going to put my hat in the ring!

She knows how that feels, too: Having acted as a close confidant to the former CEO, she was approached by the board to help find his successor when it became clear that a health issue was going to force him to step out of the role. “They asked me to run the search for a replacement and it just hit me: No, I’m not going to help them search, I’m going to put my hat in the ring!”

You sense that it’s right here, in figuring out what stops other women from doing the same thing, that Duchene’s real passion lies: “Last night I got home from work late and turned on the TV and caught the last question on Family Feud. They’d asked men and women to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 for their ability to put furniture together. The women had given themselves 3, and the men had given themselves 10. I was expecting men to think they were better, but I didn’t think the answer would be 10! Men are so much more likely than women to be over-confident and think they can do something. Maybe it’s because women aren’t raised that way, but part of the answer may actually be in the way that male and female brains develop differently. We need to encourage women to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.”

We learned to treat our family unit much like a business: We all had a role to play and a commitment to the enterprise we were building together.

In fact, Duchene has some disarmingly candid advice for women who are trying to figure out how to overcome the feeling that they’re an imposter: “Fake it ‘til you make it! Sure, there are times when you think ‘why am I in this room?’ But I think you have to tap into what you’ve accomplished and reassure yourself that you belong there and have value to add.”

So, did making it always look like this in her mind? Did she set out to end up as the CEO of a large company? “Oh, heavens no! After law school I joined a large law firm as a litigator and my plan was to stay there, become partner, and be a lawyer for the rest of my life.”

What changed the plan was the same thing that changes the plans of so many women: having children.

In the period of self-analysis that followed, Duchene realised that it wasn’t just her personal life that had changed. “I think you have to have an honest conversation with yourself, and for me it led to a realisation that I didn’t want to fight and litigate for the rest of my life. It just wasn’t what I was passionate about, so I figured I’d better start thinking about what else was out there.”

I remember the first time I had to tell a board member I didn’t know the answer to his question but would get it, and he was fine. And guess what—it didn’t start raining in the boardroom and the ceiling didn’t fall down.

Did that include the possibility of stopping work altogether? “No – for me it was never about stepping out of the workforce or even taking a reduced schedule, it was about reassessing what my priorities were.

Duchene now sees her career as being divided into three stages – one before children, one when the children were young, and the one she’s in now. Unsurprisingly, it was the middle stage that proved the most challenging. “That’s when the chaos starts! You’re pulled in so many directions, and it’s hard to feel as though you’re really being successful at anything. I think a lot of talented people lose their way, their sense of confidence and their energy at that point, and I get that. It happens. I have two kids who are both in their 20s now, but when they were younger it coincided with a part of my professional life that was very demanding, and where I was expected to be stepping up.

You’re trying to deal with kids who aren’t sleeping, while figuring out how to give back to your community and spend time with your partner, keep up with your friends, and hold down a job. It’s really hard to balance everything.”

Inevitably, some things fell by the wayside: “I’m a philanthropist now, but I couldn’t have been in that really chaotic period, so I deprioritised it. I deprioritised my friends, too. I have a lot of friends and value them, but I had to be honest about my priorities, and the reality was that when I wasn’t at work, I was going to be at home with my family.”

Family meant her daughter and son—both of whom are now in college—and her husband, Tim. “I had to hand over certain things to him—he had more flexibility and could spend more time with the kids. We learned to treat our family unit much like a business: We all had a role to play and a commitment to the enterprise we were building together. And I cut myself some slack: My husband can make cookies, and guess what—you can buy them!”

Not that Duchene sees that period of her life as an endless string of sacrifices for the sake of her career. “As I look around, I see a lot of young women who don’t have the same kind of access to their dads as my daughter does; their relationship is incredible. You have to find the positives.”

There must have been some dark moments though. “Everybody’s darkness is relative,” says Duchene. “There were times when I missed things that the mother in me thought were incredibly important, and that I could never get back.”

Such as? “I missed my son’s middle school graduation because I was on a business trip to Singapore. I was very sad about that. All my friends were there and were sending me pictures, and my son probably won’t even remember that I wasn’t there, but it was a moment when I thought: What am I doing? But you’ve got to pivot on what’s positive. For me, it was the fact that it was my first visit to Singapore. We were meeting a new company and thinking about moving into a new space, so it was really exciting. And I had the chance to learn about the culture and the geography, so I could share it with my kids when I got back.”

Perhaps it says something about the imbalance that exists between genders that our thoughts turn to Duchene’s partner—would we be asking a male CEO about his wife at this point?—but it seems impossible not to acknowledge the role he must have played. Duchene is very clear about that: “If you want to raise a family or do something else outside of work, then I think the support of a partner is absolutely critical. I was very lucky in that regard. Blessed.”

And what about support at work? How important is it, for example, to have a role model to follow? “When I was a litigator, one of our most successful and admired litigators was a woman with two kids, and I could relate to her. I remember being in trial with her when I was heavily pregnant with my first child; my shoes didn’t fit and I felt really uncomfortable, and she told me I’d be fine. Her compassion made my experience so much better.”

That seems important: Duchene isn’t simply describing someone who’s at the top of her game, she’s describing someone to whom she could relate and who could empathise with the experience she was having. It’s something she thinks is vital to other organisations if they, too, want to have a better balance of men and women at the most senior level. “At first, it might be about artificial promotion,” says Duchene. But your applicant flow has to be broad, and you have to be cultivating a diverse talent base. You need realistic role models. If the only women at the top aren’t married, don’t have kids, and just work all the time, then everyone is going to think the only way to follow in her footsteps is not to have a life.”

It seems reasonable to assume that as more women move into senior positions in companies, more of those realistic role models will become available, but are there other barriers arising for women? What, for example, will the impact of AI and robotics be? “I think in some kind of jobs, technology will narrow the pipeline. There are a lot of administrative jobs that are predominantly done by women, and I think they’ll be impacted. But I think that’s why women, now more than ever, need to be encouraged to raise their hand and try new things. I think that disruption is going to lead to companies needing people who are effective communicators, trainers, and change management professionals, and those are the sorts of attributes women tend to have.”

Are women also prone to being perfectionists, and does that get in the way of them raising their hand? “Yes, I think so. I think we over-prepare sometimes because we don’t want to be the person in the room who doesn’t know the answer. I remember the first time I had to tell a board member I didn’t know the answer to his question but would get it, and he was fine. And guess what—it didn’t start raining in the boardroom, and the ceiling didn’t fall down. It was fine.”

“I think we feel as though we’ve got to justify our presence at the table to an extent that men don’t, and I think that’s got a lot to do with the idea that we’re expected to be a minority. There’s a movement to get female representation on boards up to 30%. Why 30%? That just reinforces the idea that there aren’t enough seats at the table for us.”

This, more than anything else we’ve talked about, is what really fires Duchene. Far from resting on the laurels of her own success, you sense that she’s unlikely to rest as long as she feels that an imbalance persists. “Why are we perpetuating the idea that there are limited chairs for women? I think the aim should be 50% or more. As the saying goes, we hold up half the sky.”