Women's History Month: Suzanne Hilser-Wiles Q&A

This Women’s History Month, we are pleased to celebrate all of the women at GG+A who do exceptional work on behalf of the firm and our clients, and we especially want to recognize the tremendous leadership of our president of five years, Suzanne Hilser-Wiles. 

Women in leadership for Women's History Month

A seasoned consultant, Suzanne’s extensive experience includes service within arts and culture and higher education institutions, including fundraising and leadership roles at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, CancerCare, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.  

Here, she shares advice for up-and-coming leaders, honors the mentors who have encouraged her along the way, and explains the values she brings to her role as GG+A’s first woman president.  

Aside from serving as GG+A’s president, what has been your favorite job or role? 

Being a consultant! I love the opportunity to work with clients. I have learned so much both about and from clients. It is the job that challenges me and feeds my intellectual curiosity like none I’ve ever had. 

How has philanthropy changed in the past decade? 

In our business, there is a growing understanding that donors want to give to places, institutions, and projects where they’re going to have an impact, and I think there is also a growing understanding from institutions that they need to define and report on that in much more robust ways. 

There is also a growing appreciation for why diversifying our profession is critical, not only for the future and to better reflect our constituents, but also to be better at the work. The need for philanthropy has grown so much that [organizations] need more people doing it, so there’s a practical consideration. And I think in general, the world has gotten a little smarter about the fact that institutions that have a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and people make better decisions and have better business outcomes.  

What is some advice you would give to future women leaders? 

I’m going to paraphrase some advice from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which is – choose your partner well. Because if you want your career to be a big part of a full and fulfilling life, and you choose to have a partner, that person has to be someone who shares that vision and is supportive of it all along the way. It’s really hard to get there without that [support] if you’re in a long-term partnership. 

I’m personally not a big fan of this idea of “work-life balance,” because to me it’s like a scale, and there’s an equilibrium, and you either have it or you don’t. Instead, I recommend taking some time to think about, What is the life I want to be living? And where does my career fit into that? That [vision] may morph and change and look a little different in different phases of your life, but this [exercise] helps you think about what’s next and be ambitious while also understanding that work is just one part of a fulfilling life. 

And finally, don’t be afraid to raise your hand – to ask a question when you don’t understand something, to volunteer for a challenging assignment, to indicate that you are ready for something new, or to share an opinion. People get so nervous about looking foolish or not having all of the answers, but I think the most effective leaders are often people who have made themselves vulnerable by putting themselves out there. 

How do you handle the pressures of leadership?  

I love my job. I’ve always been very driven, but I also have a very full and rewarding life. I am an avid arts patron and sports fan, I love all sorts of outdoor activities, I have a wide circle of friends, I’ve been happily married to my college sweetheart for a long time, and I have close relationships with my family, especially my daughter and my sister. I have other interests, and I think that grounds you. Also, as a young adult I was very sick, and while it’s a terrible way to get perspective, it does give you perspective. So yes, [leadership pressures] can be really hard, but these are fixable problems.  

What is unique about the female experience in leadership? 

We have made wonderful strides in the last few years, but the math is still that most of the decision makers – in our client institutions, even – are older white men. I was just in a conversation about this with a group of women who are around my age, in leadership positions. And we talked about continuing to feel like [women] have to work a little harder and be a little smarter to have the same opportunities, and I know that would be even more acute if I were a woman of color.  

It is important to me to try to create a place where people can be honest and open about what they need to be successful. And again, that goes back to how we champion a diverse group of people being successful. 

And so, I think the experience of being a woman in leadership is that you just never take for granted that somebody is going to listen to you and take you seriously, no matter what your title is or what you have achieved up to this point. You show up overprepared and ready to answer every question because you don’t think that anybody is going to give you the benefit of the doubt. That may sound dispiriting, but the question is what is unique about this experience as a woman, and that is my honest answer. 

At this point, because I’ve been given the chances that I have and have held the position that I have, I feel that it’s my job to be my authentic self and to try to help others be successful while being their authentic selves. I feel a responsibility to do that because if I’m in a meeting with the president, the vice president, and the board chair of one of our major university clients, I’m still frequently the only woman in the room. But I have had so many advantages in life, and so if I think about that – that it’s hard for me, with those advantages –  I sure as heck better be advocating for people who have not had those same advantages. 

What are the values you bring to your leadership at GG+A? 

I would say empathy with accountability. I have high standards for people, but I also understand that they’re not going to do the work in the same way that I would do it. It is important to me to try to create a place where people can be honest and open about what they need to be successful. And again, that goes back to how we champion a diverse group of people being successful. We have to be willing to listen and have hard conversations, hear hard things, and say hard things in ways that are respectful and professional, so that people feel like you’re on their team as much as they’re on your team. 

Who are some key women who have been instrumental in mentoring you and encouraging your career? 

I can give a specific list of women. But I also want to point out that it has been incredibly important in my career that I have had support, mentorship, and advocacy from men, because [men are often] the people who hold the power. Having a group of mentors that have a broad range of experience and different perspectives has challenged me and my thinking – not just people who look like me and have trajectories like mine, but also, in some cases, those who just have more access to sponsor people who are working for them.  

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by a number of people. When I worked at MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art], I would point to the head of our department, Mike Margitich, and my direct boss, Lisa Mantone – both of whom continued to give me opportunities to grow in different ways. Then I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My direct supervisor was Kerstin Larsen, who’s now at Princeton, and the two women who oversaw our department, Nina Diefenbach and Emily Rafferty, are people I’m still in touch with, who’ve continued to take an interest, not only in my career, but also in the careers of a lot of people who worked for them through the decades at the Museum. They’ve been champions and mentors and have given the kind of hard feedback you need at times.  

And in my current job, the one thing that gets [CEO John Glier] really annoyed at me is when I say nice things about him, but I’m going to. His support and his coaching and the opportunities that have been afforded to me at GG+A have been extraordinary. And I feel incredibly lucky. I have worked in some places where I do not think it was a level playing field for women, and so it was an exciting opportunity to come into an organization where I genuinely feel that your willingness to work hard and do exceptional work is what makes you stand out. 

Learn more about Suzanne and her role at GG+A. 

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