Podcast
09 June 2021

RBC's Katie Dudtschak on embracing her whole self

Within reach: Conversations with leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry

09 June 2021

The road to leadership is different for everyone. For RBC’s Katie Dudtschak, it meant recognizing the full scope of her own uniqueness—and helping others see the beauty and benefit of their own stories.

Katie Dudtschak: When you’re running a company that has thousands and thousands of employees and you’re serving 15 million customers, you better have a healthy dose of feeling and values and emotional connectivity in the boardroom, let alone at the front line with customers. 

Tanya Ott: Today on the Press Room, the business case for leading with your heart.

Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott. Thanks for joining me today for the latest in our series on women in the financial services industry. My guest today is truly a pioneer. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first … I’ll let her introduce herself. 

Katie: Hi, everyone. I am Katie Dudtschak or Katherine Dudtschak. I am a parent of four incredible children—two boys, two girls. I am an executive vice president with RBC in Canada, and I have the privilege of leading all of our personal and commercial advisers across Canada and regions across Canada, which essentially is about 20,000 to 25,000 advisers that serve our 15 million customers in Canada. 

Tanya: To understand Katie today, we have to rewind 80 years. 

Katie: My parents grew up during the Second World War in Germany. My mother was a child refugee. My father was a Russian prisoner of war. They both lost their parents through the war. They struggled as farmers and small business owners in Canada. They brought with them, unfortunately, trauma from the Second World War, and their own upbringing that created trauma for us as kids growing up in a home with a lot of anxiety and verbal abuse. I also had learning challenges as a child. I’m sure if you assessed me today, you’d say, “You’re dyslexic.” So the important part is I’m a whole human being. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’ve also seen the other side of the tracks. And I’m proud of who I am. 

Tanya: The other side of the tracks, as she refers to it, is the fact that she lived in a male world for the first 50 years, until she could no longer bear her gender dysphoria and brought her whole self, Katie, to the world.

Katie: I am a woman with gender transition experience. I came out to the world as Katie on June 17, 2019. It’s important to pause, though. Given I’m a senior executive with over 30 years of experience, you say,“Well, why? Why at this point of your life?” And the practical reality is each of us are whole human beings. And what’s important and what I have pride in is, yes, I’m a woman with gender transition experience, but I’m a woman first. It’s taken me many years to get to full authenticity and peace with who I am. I’m at a point in life where I can honestly say that I love myself, and I’m at peace with who I am. 

Tanya: Your willingness or embracing every part of you and talking about every part of you is a really brave thing that a lot of people can’t do. But I can’t imagine that it was always so easy, and that it took some time to come to this place. 

Katie: I do believe it’s important that all of us as human beings self-reflect. I just happen to have several decades of self-reflection under my belt. When you deal with something like a learning disability or you deal with something as grey as gender and identity questions or as hard to nail down as gender and identity questions, you naturally become quite self-critical and analytical and self-reflective. But I would also say at the core of my being, if you think of the attributes you bring into the world—nature—versus the attributes the world teaches you, which is nurture, at the core of my being I’m a highly sensitive human being. I’m a very curious person. I’m a playful person. That curiosity and sensitivity has been with me for my whole life. I never thought of myself as the typical leader or typical executive. I’m quite analytical—back to the curiosity side—but I’m also quite sensitive and feeling. I learned probably about halfway through my career that it was okay to show sensitivity. I remember the first time I cried at work and ironically, one of the first times I cried at work was with a colleague that was 20 years older than me that opened up his heart to me about his own family experience. I broke down crying with him. What resulted from that one single moment was, one, a level of emotional connection with a colleague that was different from that day forward. But it also taught me it was safe; it was okay to be vulnerable.

The other part is, and it gets back to the dyslexic part, I’m visual and I’m verbal. Writing things down is not my forte. Talking things through is my forte. So when my gender issues really came to a head, I [had] coped for many decades with it. It was there. I remember poring over my mother’s jewelry box at age five. I remember age 12, dressing up like my sister and going to play in my sandbox. Like these feminine or female feelings were with me from childhood, but I suppressed them because I got really good at setting goals and I got really good at being busy. I said to myself, based on my other life experiences, “I’m going to prove to the world I’m smart enough and I’m good enough, and I’m not going to let anybody stand in the way of my family goals or my career goals.” That served me really well until about five years ago when my children got older and I began to mature in my career, where the job just got easier because I knew it intuitively. Then what happens is—some people in my community call it the beaver dam broke or the dam broke—the gender feelings got stronger and stronger and stronger because there was space for them. I couldn’t ignore them any longer. I began to research earnestly what the heck was with me. Unfortunately, like many people with transgender experience, as I worked that through and figured out that my mind wiring and emotional wiring was female, but my physical body was born male, I ended up in a very dark place. About 80% to 90% of us seriously consider suicide. It’s this conflict between knowing your identity and fear of rejection from the world, from your family, from your colleagues, fear of hurting my children, fear of hurting my partner. That conflict of knowing your truth, but [being] so fearful of rejection and judgment, is what brings people to the brink from the mental health perspective. I kind of got to the point ... no, not kind of, I got to the point of sharing my truth after hitting the darkest period in my life. Ultimately, being more mature and more senior, I have the benefit of a lot of really wise, loving people in my life that I had confided in in my journey. In October 2018, I made a promise to myself that I would be around for 50 more years. I would be around for my children. I also made a promise to myself that I would find a way to embrace myself in my job. The nuance of that is I was in this job, leading 25,000 people. I knew that if I had to give up my job, that from a mental health standpoint, it would have been even more damaging for me. 

Tanya: Katie, when you decided to share your story and bring the people at work into your journey, how did that go down? How did you do that? 

Katie: I didn’t think it would go down very well at all. When you’re in the depths of fear and anxiety … my therapist rated me at the 97th percentile of anxiety, so I didn’t think it would go well. The reality is it went extraordinarily well. In December of 2018, my partner and I told our children. In February of 2019, I started hormone therapy. In February of 2019, I told our CEO, the head of HR, and my boss, my truth. They responded extraordinarily well. You don’t text the CEO, but I did, and I texted the CEO and I said, “Thank you for being so compassionate and hearing me out.” He came back to me and said, “I cannot get over your courage. I don’t know how you’ve done this. I’ve got a lot to learn. And RBC is with you.” 

That’s what I needed to hear. I needed to know that they were willing to come with me on this journey. I didn’t make it a requirement that they come with me on this journey. I knew I had to face my own truth, but then they ultimately chose to come with me on this journey. Through the next few months we built a plan together. The plan was primarily driven by me, because it’s my story and it’s my life. But there was a senior executive who was retiring from the company in HR that agreed to stay on out of pride. That’s the most humbling thing. Her name is Teri Monti. She agreed to stay on out of pride, to be part of this life event for me and be part of this major event for the company. We built a critical path of how we would tell the board of directors and how we would tell senior management and how we would tell my senior executive-leadership team and then ultimately how we would create this video to tell 80,000 employees my truth. 

Candidly, the curse of my job was I had to get comfortable being vulnerable with 80,000 people. The blessing was that the CEO and my boss agreed to be part of the video. They volunteered to be part of the video. And secondly, the blessing was that I had emails coming in from thousands of colleagues saying, “Katie, you’re brave and you’re courageous”—which I still have trouble with. I did it to survive. They say, “Katie, you’re going to save lives.” Quite candidly, what I was doing was selfish. I was doing it to save myself. I really hadn’t internalized that it would be an example, I would be an example for others that might create hope that they could save themselves. But the most riveting for me and humbling for me was that countless numbers of employees started telling me their personal stories. Because they saw vulnerability, they felt safe to share with me their personal stories and their vulnerability, whether it’s a woman that was abused or whether it’s a woman who has several LGBT members of her family and was fearful of being ostracized from their home country. I’ve got countless stories I could share. What it gave me as a leader, and this is the leadership learning, is by showing vulnerability at that scale and then receiving vulnerability from so many employees back, what I got to see was that the human beings we see at work is really just the tip of the iceberg. That there really are whole human beings underneath that tip of the iceberg and in many, many human cases, if not all, there are traumas, there are hurts, there are struggles that somehow in society we’ve taught people, and in business we’ve taught people, to suppress it and don’t talk about it at work. I felt like I had this new consciousness around what’s really going on in people’s lives and the burdens that people are coping with. 

Tanya: In many ways, your interactions with the people that you work with changed. But what has not changed? What’s remained constant since your transformation? 

Katie: What has changed is my senior leadership team would describe me as better than ever—more authentic, more real, less anxious, more inclusive rather than directive as a leader. But I still bring the same intellectual capacity and experiential capacity that I had before. So what hasn’t changed is I never had a lobotomy. I still have all of the same experiences that I had. I’m still a strategic thinker and a critical thinker. I always have led with a deep sense of personal purpose. I’m very aligned to our company’s organizational purpose, but the reason it works is because my personal sense of purpose works with the company’s sense of purpose. I’m a very purpose-driven leader. I have been for a long time. I believe deeply as a business leader, and I have for a long time, but more now than ever, that the biggest problems of the world, whether it’s climate or social divide or social exclusion, are the biggest issues facing society today, and that businesses and the way businesses manage themselves and run themselves over the short, medium, and long term is critical in helping us solve some of those big macro issues that we all face as a society across the world. There’s a lot that hasn’t changed, but I would say that what has changed is that much deeper in terms of my life experiences and that much more purpose-driven and that much more empathic than ever before. 

Tanya: You talked about seeing things from both sides of the spectrum. I’d love to tease that out a little bit more. When you refer to it that way, what does that mean? 

Katie: I’ve been in the locker room. I’ve been in the boardroom. Honestly, I never felt like I fit because my mind is wired differently than some. I worked hard to try to fit in and be like the business community teaches us, like the rule of law teaches us to be left-brain, logical, linear, systematic. I’ve seen that tendency in terms of how men are raised and how the business world operates. But as I say, it never felt right. I’ve also seen, on both sides, gender judgments toward one another that are frankly uninformed, not grounded in real understanding of the female experience versus the male experience—which is why bias and unconscious bias are so critical to tackle [as we] build bridges. In my experience now, I get to be my authentic self, partly because I’ve been to hell and back. I’m not going to, at this point in my life, be anybody other than who I am. There is no country Katie and corporate Katie. You get Katie all day long, at work and at home. That’s why I’m so at peace with myself. I’m not a chameleon anymore. I’m just me. 

But the other side of it gets back to my personality and gender: I use my right brain and I use 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 some men that don’t think of that as good, that think that emotionality or sensitivity doesn’t belong in the boardroom. In actual fact, when you’re running a company that has thousands and thousands of employees and you’re serving 15 million customers, you better have a healthy dose of feeling and values and emotional connectivity in the boardroom, let alone at the front line with customers. I fundamentally think we’ve got to have a lot more conversations between men and women and candidly, all dimensions of human uniqueness, to begin to build or to accelerate the development of a shared sense of empathy for different human beings’ experiences and what different human beings bring to the table. 

Tanya: Earlier, you used the word inclusive. Inclusivity and diversity are really two different things. I’d love your perspective on how those two things are different and why that distinction is important. 

Katie: Thank you. It’s one of my most passionate topics. I’ve a pet peeve that we just lump it all together in the acronym of D&I or we pursue as company’s diversity initiatives to advance an important group of people, and we call that inclusion. I like to separate the two, and some organizations have reversed the language: They’re calling it inclusion and diversity, which I actually like better. I actually don’t like the word diversity, not because it’s a bad word, but because of how it’s perceived. If I’m a white woman or a white man saying I’m committed to diversity, what it’s perceived as is I’m embracing people that are different than me. I hate the concept of difference. What I do is I have a long definition that I use: As humans we bring to life visible and invisible dimensions of human uniqueness. Invisible could be, “I was abused as a child.” Invisible could mean, “I have mental health issues.” Invisible, to some people, could mean sexual orientation. There are invisible aspects of human uniqueness that create a burden for people, but also give them unique experiences in life. I have a different way of learning and communicating well. That’s a human uniqueness, not a difference. 

Visible is easy to understand: “I’m from the Black community.” “I’m from the Indigenous community.” “I’m a female.” The reason I use the word uniqueness is uniqueness is inspiring to me. When I hear the word uniqueness, I think of beauty. Human, for me, is that shared sense of humanity. I describe diversity as, if not all of us, most of us have invisible or 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 that human being more empathic, kinder, more socially aware. So is it a difference or weakness, or is it actually a strength? I believe it’s a strength. I know it’s a strength. Inclusion is a theme that cuts across all dimensions of human uniqueness. We all, as human beings, have a shared need for psychological safety and belonging. We all have a need as whole people, not the banker, as whole people for connection, to be heard and to be respected. The power of thinking of inclusion as cutting across all of us and all of our employees is [having] every employee feeling like they have psychological safety to put their ideas and fears on the table, that they’re being heard, respected, and connected to as a whole human being. What inspires me about it is the untapped human potential that’s available to companies and the society if we can get ourselves to that much more inclusive place. I know personally, given my learning disabilities and other anxieties I’ve carried through life, that when you’re living in fear—as much as fight or flight might be pushing you, it’s not sustainable. Inevitably you hold back. You hold back because you don’t want to be judged or rejected. You don’t want to lose your job. I went through a lot of those feelings as I went through my transformation. You can’t give 100% of yourself when you feel that way. You’re holding back 20, 30% of yourself. The power of inclusion, whether it’s social or economic inclusion at a societal level or whether it’s inclusion, which is psychological safety, belonging, respect, being heard at a workplace, there is a massive amount of human potential available to us if we can build that much kinder and much more inclusive world. 

Tanya: What do businesses and organizations need to keep in mind as they try to support the full range of their employees’ experience? 

Katie: There are several lessons. First, we talked about it earlier. The idea of leaving your personal life at home is crazy. I might be able to suppress it and not talk about it, but the emotional burden of those other things that have happened to me or in my life are being brought with me, and they affect my ability to give my whole self to my work. Similarly, if I’m not embraced as a whole person at work, I’m going to hold back at work and it’s probably going to affect me in my home life or my personal life because, again, I don’t feel like it could bring my whole self. 

The other lesson that is so important is human beings have emerged over the last couple of million years from a tribal beginning. You nurture to protect within your community, but you defend to protect your community. That’s grown over time as communities and groups of people became countries and so on and so forth. But the reality today is we’re a global village. And COVID-19 has taught us that we’re a global village. The pandemic of COVID-19 will not be done until the last country is done, and we will not have our personal freedoms until the last country is done. We’re a global community and that comes from many types of unique experiences. The point is we won’t solve social and economic exclusion or create social or economic inclusion, or we won’t solve climate problems unless we can come together and work toward common goals. Those are the lessons and the burning platform for today, whether it’s at a societal level or on a company level. 

So how do you deal with it? Companies and leaders still need to set goals for diverse groups, so that they’re measuring themselves and holding themselves accountable to have, from senior management and the board to the front line, a representative workforce of society. Not only are you creating hope for your employees, but you also have leaders that can represent as much as possible the different perspectives of society and different thinking styles. So setting goals and objectives around diversity will continue to be an important objective. Where we need to go is looking at inclusion as its own pillar and leaning into both the educational side of inclusion, meaning anti-racism training, diversity training, etc., but also the experiential side of inclusion. One of Deloitte’s dear colleagues, Heather Stockton, and I talk a lot about facilitating inclusion dialogs. I stole the best practice from Heather: Every two months, I interview a really incredible leader that has some unique part of who they are and we unpack that life experience or that part of who they are. It’s done with care, compassion, curiosity, and no judgment because we’re all human beings. Why I believe the educational component, plus the experiential component of these things like inclusion dialogs, is so important is it allows us to bring into conversation elements of people’s life and experiences that forever they’ve not talked about. I have not seen a conversation, one of these conversations, whether it’s with somebody who’s gay or whether it’s a white male senior executive who lost his mother to suicide or whether it’s a female experience with men in the boardroom or members of the Black community or Indigenous community in Canada, I have not had a conversation that has not been mind-boggling and emotional to the 3,000 people on the line that are listening to this simple, 15-minute conversation. What it builds, through kindness and through listening, is a new level of awareness that moves us closer to a shared sense of empathy for different human experiences. Companies need to lean into that. 

Tanya: So you do those conversations live with thousands of people listening in on it? 

Katie: Totally. I know people. I’ve been around my company long enough and I get to know people at a pretty deep human level, and I look for people that are willing and open to share. 

Tanya: That’s what I was going to ask ... how much convincing it takes to get people to share their stories in front of so many others?

Katie: Not much, partly because, it’s back to inclusion. The first part of inclusion is psychological safety. I’ve shown vulnerability. I host these calls personally. I really work hard to lead with kindness and a healthy amount of curiosity. I’ve interviewed two people from the Black community and the question is quite simple: “Tell me about an experience where you thought being Black hurt you.” And the stories are profound. They unpack that story, and they share the emotional aspects of that story. Then we end up on a question of what advice would you have for leaders around having more of these inclusion dialogs, and inevitably they’ll say lead with care and compassion and kindness. If you lead with kindness, 99% of the questions are never going to be offensive. If you’re uncomfortable, do it one-on-one rather than in a group. 

I found through doing this that even most senior leaders were uncomfortable having these conversations in the beginning. The reason I do it is to set an example of what it could look like, and to try to create not only psychological safety for the person I’m interviewing, but candidly, psychological safety for the leaders to be able to step into this more inclusive form of leadership. It’s surprisingly huge in terms of its impact that it can have on building a more aware and a more empathic community at work. And none of this work in diversity or inclusion is once and done. This is about culture change. This is about societal change. It’s all about sustaining it over time. 

Tanya: What do you hope this conversation around diversity and inclusion and human uniqueness looks like in 10 or 20 or 30 years? 

Katie: What do I want this to look like in 10 or 20 or 30 years? Firstly, as a human being and as a senior executive and business leader and community leader: In 30 years social and economic inclusion on the planet—at a minimum in Europe, Canada, the United States, but realistically on the planet has to make significant progress. Thirty years is a long time and in the developed world the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and marginalized groups are overindexed in the have-not community. I believe, unless we move faster toward social and economic inclusion and equality, that companies won’t have a customer base because the social divide gets too far apart. The even bigger issue is if the social divide gets too far apart, then divisiveness will really set in and it may [be] too hard to reverse. Divisiveness will not solve the problems of the planet or solve the problems of society. So in 30 years, I expect us to see the economic divide between the rich and poor begin to narrow in a meaningful way. I expect to see all human beings from all walks of life have access to education and access to health care and opportunity. That’s what I expect at that level. And at a company level, I don’t think you have 30 years. You have five or 10 years. At a company level, your workforce every day is becoming more and more unique/diverse, and your ability to build an inclusive leadership environment and an inclusive culture is your key to tapping into the human potential. You won’t have the talent, and you won’t have the customers of the future, depending on the industry that you’re in, unless you tackle this. My last point would be if the business community and the corporate community are going to make a meaningful contribution to climate change and social and economic inclusion, we have to lead the way, we have to get there faster. 

Tanya: Katie Dudtschak is an executive vice president with RBC in Canada. She leads 25,000 personal and commercial advisers across country. 

You can find more about women in financial services—there are reports, videos, podcasts, and all kinds of resources at deloitte.com/insights

The Press Room podcasts are available where you get your podcasts, online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks. 

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only, and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.

Cover image by: Jaime Austin

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