C-Suite Moms: “Think before committing” With Kitty Block President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States & Jesssica Abo

Jessica Abo
May 10 · 15 min read

Think before committing. It’s easy to say yes to doing something without fully taking into account what all is entailed. Before committing to something, think about if this is really something that requires your presence, and if so how much time it will take. If it can be delegated or parts of it can be, you can use that time to focus on more important tasks or have more time with family.

As a part of my series about C-Suite Moms, I had the distinct pleasure to interview Kitty Block. Kitty is the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and President of Humane Society International, the international affiliate of the HSUS. Block, an attorney, has devoted more than a quarter century to protecting animals. She joined the HSUS in 1992 as a legal investigator and was instrumental in bringing cruelties such as horse slaughter and the killing of dogs and cats for their fur in China to light. Her efforts led to major policy reforms, including European Union and U.S. bans on imports of dog and cat fur, and bans on slaughtering horses for human consumption. The protection of whales, dolphins, and other wildlife has also been a priority for Block. She has represented the HSUS and its affiliates in numerous meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the International Whaling Commission, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Block led the HSUS’s efforts to secure protections for dolphins with successful litigation and landmark dolphin-safe tuna legislation. In addition, she was one of the architects of a successful lawsuit over commercial whaling brought against Japan by Australia in the International Court of Justice. Block has testified before the U.S. Congress, worked with international governments and agencies to draft and enforce conservation and animal protection laws, and built coalitions with nongovernmental organizations and industry. She has served as an advisor to the White House on Trade and the Environment and has served multiple elected terms on the International Dolphin Conservation Agreement International Review Panel, which works with governments on monitoring violations of the agreement. As president of Humane Society International, Block oversees all international campaigns and programs for the organization. Block received a law degree from The George Washington University in 1990 and a bachelor’s degree in communications and philosophy from the University of New Hampshire in 1986.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?

In large part, it was my mom. She taught me that it wasn’t enough to just love animals, you have to get off the sidelines and advocate for them too. She instilled in my sisters and me both the compassion and the determination to make change, and led my example, calling members of Congress and attending rallies. I’ve always had a passion for helping animals, and turning into a career was a dream come true.

I first started working at the Humane Society of the United States in the 1990s as a legal investigator on their investigations team. The internet wasn’t around, and our investigative footage was one of the only ways to really show people the cruelty in the various industries. I got my first taste for the impact we could have internationally after we did the investigation into the horrific China dog and cat fur trade, which resulted in the European Union banning it.

I eventually moved away from investigations to international work through a newly formed department, which focused heavily on global agreements. This really opened my eyes to what could be accomplished by working internationally. Some of these trade agreements are a one stop shop for making change, like CITES, where protective measures can be adopted by 190 countries at once. This work eventually grew and moved to our global affiliate, Humane Society International. I was promoted into an executive role, overseeing global programs and campaigns and led the efforts to establish presences in new countries, and eventually becoming President of HSI in 2017.

Not too long after that, several women came forward with harassment and other allegations against the former CEO of the HSUS. The same day he departed from the organization, I was asked to step into the acting role. I accepted, out of a strong commitment to the organization’s mission of animal protection and to its staff. I also discussed with my family as I knew that it would not be business as usual and I would be spending a lot more time at work. My husband and daughter were both extremely supportive and proud. My 17 year old daughter immediately promised to do the dishes each night. Even though this gesture only lasted one week, the effort was still pretty great for a teenager.

Even with the support of my family, it’s been a very challenging year but we have come a long way. Earlier this year I accepted the permanent position and became the organization’s first female President and CEO, and I’m so honored to lead the organization to make it stronger and more effective.

Can you share with us how many children you have?

I have a daughter, Zoe, who is 17 years old. She is an amazing advocate in her own right, and I don’t just say that because she’s my daughter. She attended demonstrations when she was only four years old, and when she was ten she got her school class to raise money and make treats for a chimpanzee sanctuary. She also volunteers at animal shelters and tries to help in any way she can.

Where you were in your career when your child was born/became part of your family?

When my daughter was born at the end of 2001, my career was just starting to takeoff. I was heading up a new department at HSUS, called the United Nations and Treaties Department

We were a team of three and working on expanding our efforts, as the organization had been realizing the importance of addressing animal protection issues globally and the success we had been seeing from our work on trade agreements. It was an exciting time, and I was fortunate that many colleagues were also parents, so were very supportive and helped me during that time.

Did you always want to be a mother? Can you explain?

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to me a mom. Growing up I wanted to have a meaningful career and change the world for animals. After college I went to law school and right after law school I started working. But I realized when I was around 35 that it might be time. My husband and I discussed it but couldn’t come to a decision. Then a friend said to us that we should imagine our life down the path of having a child and then imagine the other choice. We both picked the path of having a child and have never been happier.

Did motherhood happen when you thought it would or did it take longer? If it took longer, what advice would you have for another woman in your shoes?

We were lucky, in that even though I was older when we decided to have a child, it did not take longer than expected.

Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?

I have always been an early riser, which has certainly helped when it comes to leading a global organization. I try to start my mornings around 4:45am, taking care of the animals, checking email and then off to the gym. Followed by more emails and checking in with our offices around the world (our international affiliate, Humane Society International, has a presence in more than 50 countries, so you can imagine the time zone differences!).

When Zoe was younger, my mornings would include getting her ready for school but now that isn’t needed (or appreciated, I’ll add), so I run through my e-mail and respond to anything urgent while she gets ready. My husband or I used to take turns dropping her off at school on the way to work, but last month she got her license. Another big change. So instead of needing the additional time to take her to school, I now fill that 20 minutes with a healthy dose of worry until she texts me and tells me she’s parked the car and at school.

At the office, my schedule really varies. My day may start with a television or radio interview, meeting a donor and talking about our work to provide access to veterinary care in underserved communities, and end with working with our experts on determining the best strategy to drive an issue forward.

It also depends on what case may be breaking. In the weeks leading up to the release of our undercover investigation that exposed Dow Agroscience (Corteva) for conducting a pesticide test on 36 beagles, my day to day was filled with related meetings. As a big tent organization, we try first to work with corporations to make changes, so when we do have to push that button to escalate an issue, we have to make sure that we’re doing so in the most effective way to both raise awareness and drive change.

Since we have a pets in the workplace program, my dog Lilly often accompanies me to work at our DC office which is a great stress reliever. She makes sure I take her for a short mid-day walk, even if I have to spend some of that on the phone.

Towards the end of the day I will check in with Zoe and Henry before heading home. We make an effort to eat dinner together in the evening, share how our day went and connect on schedules.

Has being a parent changed your career path? Can you explain?

Being a mom in my case strengthened my career path. Before my daughter was born, I built and incredible network of international colleagues who also traveled the world going to meetings covering global convention work. We started having kids around the same time so we would work out childcare together for our kids at these meetings. I wasn’t able to bring Zoe to every meeting, but when it did work, it was great traveling with my daughter and exposing her to a supportive international community. It wasn’t always easy but it made it possible for us to be with our children when they were young and when it was especially emotionally hard to leave them home.

It also made me want to be more effective. When I was away from her, it only made me want to be more effective in my job because if I couldn’t be at home with my family I was committed to getting the most done and using that time to bring about the greatest change. I didn’t want to waste a moment not securing the best possible outcomes for animals.

Has being a mother made you better at your job? How so?

Absolutely. Being a mother affects every part of your life, and there are multiple ways it has made me better at my job and as a leader. It’s great management training for one thing!

As a mother, you are always thinking about your child’s future, ensuring you are setting them up for success. As they get older, you have to trust them and let go a bit, allowing them make their own choices, even if it means they take a different path than you would. At the same time, you have to find the balance between empowering them to make decisions on their own, and holding them accountable so they learn from mistakes.

Learning this lesson and seeing the results has led to my placing a heavy value on empowering staff, working with them to find the best way to accomplish a goal, rather than dictating a path.

While I believed in giving employees autonomy prior to being a mother, motherhood has shown me it’s not just about giving them permission to make decisions, but giving them the confidence and knowledge to make the best ones.

Our work, our accomplishments for animals, are not possible without our employees, and their ability to learn and grow just as I did during my career, is imperative to our continuing to win the fights we take on for animals for decades to come.

What are the biggest challenges you face being a working mom?

It certainly does come with its fair share of challenges, but one of the biggest challenges is how to have a schedule that helps us plan efficiently but isn’t rigid. Particularly in mission driven work where curveballs are a common occurrence, it can be difficult to anticipate everything and plan accordingly.

Also very challenging at times is making sure I am present when my daughter is talking with me. Not doing work email, or thinking about what I will email. Just giving her full attention. Sometimes what I first hear is not what she is really trying to communicate. The only way to understand and be responsive is to stay present in these conversations. That can be hard when more often than I would like, a work situation is happening at the very same time.

Are there any meaningful activities or traditions you’ve made up or implemented that have enhanced your time with your family? Can you share a story or example?

I travel a lot for work, and over the years have made a point of bringing Zoe with me on trips that are fun but also allow us to spend more time together. When I went to New York for an Elle magazine photoshoot last year, she came along and we both really enjoyed it. She’s even joined me on some international trips. I think it’s important as a parent to make sure to take opportunities to broaden the perspectives of our children.

One tradition that Zoe and I started in 2016 was watching our favorite TV show, Shadowhunters, together. It’s something we both look forward to, and is also a nice way to spend time together but get a break from current stresses, whatever those may be. Of course the downside of this is that we’re now both very invested in the show and its characters, and are disappointed it is its final season. We also go out to dinner just the two of us one night a week where we order too much dessert and talk about whatever comes to mind.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers a 3–5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?

I think every parent struggles with this and it’s one of the hardest for me. But here are some of the strategies I have found most helpful:

Be engaged. Put the phone away when you’re having a conversation. Even if you’re not looking at it, having it on the table or in your hand can send a signal that you’re there — but only until the next email comes in.

Think before committing. It’s easy to say yes to doing something without fully taking into account what all is entailed. Before committing to something, think about if this is really something that requires your presence, and if so how much time it will take. If it can be delegated or parts of it can be, you can use that time to focus on more important tasks or have more time with family.

One size doesn’t fit all. Everyone’s situation is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. I think back to when my colleagues and I would arrange childcare together so that we could attend the international meetings but also spend time with our kids. It wasn’t the typical approach to solving the dilemma of finding childcare, but it’s what worked for us. I’m learning the same holds true for how to best be present for your kids as they get older. It’s important to take a step back and look at your unique situation and your children, and see if maybe you need to try something different or unconventional.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

When I stepped up and became acting CEO and President in the midst of a crisis, I was apprehensive and felt the enormity of the task. I talked to my daughter about it. It was in that moment I felt our roles switch. She said to me that I had worked for this my entire adult life and that if anyone could do it, it was me. She said that it was okay to be worried and even scared. She further said that she knew I would give it everything I had and that I would find the way forward for the organization, its staff and the animals.

I asked her how she could state all of this with such confidence. She simply replied, because that’s what you do, and that’s what you taught me. She reminded that I told her to work hard and give your best and when you commit to what you think is right — there’s no limit to what you can do. So that means that maybe she took onboard more than 50 percent of what I’ve shared with her over the years. Or more likely, it’s that she is smart and thoughtful enough to take onboard what was helpful and what resonated and gave me a pass on the other stuff.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

I recently read a good book, 10–10–10, by Suzy Welch, who was also previously on our Board and is an animal advocate herself. The concept is that when making decisions, you look at the impact that decision will have 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now. To some extent I already did this, but particularly the examples she gave of applying this approach when faced with conflicts between work and family commitments inspired me to look at decisions I make as a parent a little differently.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you share or plan to share with your kids?

I have several favorite quotes: “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” CS Lewis; “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good”; and lastly, “Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it.” I try to share the spirit of these with Zoe, but with a 17 year old daughter, you say it all and know maybe 50 percent sticks. She has her own drivers though, and sometimes I’m just in awe of her sense of self and the world around her. Not surprisingly, she has her own favorite life quote, one that other Marvel fans may appreciate: “Higher, Further, Faster.”

If you could sit down with every new parent and offer life hacks, must-have products or simple advice, what would be on your list?

The most important advice I’d give, is to learn from your mistakes and move on. It’s easy to drive yourself crazy reading parenting books or searching online. For every question you have as a parent, there are at least ten different answers, and many if not all of them will contradict with each other. Find what works for you and your child and enjoy the moments that are so amazing.

About the Author:

Jessica Abo is an award-winning TV journalist, social media navigator, author, and speaker. Her debut book, Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look On Social Media, sold out on its first day when it was published late last year. Jessica spoke about her research and her #liveunfiltered movement on The TODAY Show, Access Hollywood, ABC News, KTLA, and in dozens of publications including Forbes, Fast Company and SHAPE. Women’s Health Magazine named Unfiltered #1 on its list of self-love books, and it was chosen for the official GRAMMY Awards gift bag. Jessica celebrated her book launch with an Unfiltered collection of statement tees and hoodies that she debuted on a runway at New York Fashion Week.

With her savvy insights, practical advice, and heartfelt humor, Jessica appeals to people of all ages and stages, resonating with millennials and their parents. She is sought after nationwide as an inspiring keynote speaker and thought leader, and has presented at Facebook, Microsoft, Delta Airlines, Weight Watchers, TEDx, the United Nations and hundreds of conferences, nonprofits, universities, and schools. She speaks authoritatively on career building, entrepreneurial challenges, leadership, digital transformation, living and parenting in the digital age, creating community, effective philanthropy and activism, and many other topics.

A passionate philanthropist who believes “affluence is not a requirement for influence,” Jessica has raised more than $1 million for causes by organizing her own charity events. She sits on several boards and committees and contributes to their recruiting and fundraising efforts.

A multi-award-winning television journalist, Jessica was a successful television anchor and reporter at several media outlets, including NY1 News, for 15 years. She has appeared as a social media and relationship expert on The TODAY Show, ABC News and KTLA. As a VIP contributor for Entrepreneur, her empowerment, leadership development, and employee productivity and wellness videos appear weekly on Entrepreneur.com. Through her production company, JaboTV, she creates branded content for companies and profiles athletes, celebrities, CEOs, entrepreneurs and changemakers for her YouTube channel.

Jessica received both her bachelor and master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New Yorker at heart, Jessica now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their daughter.

To hire Jessica to speak at you event, please email jabotvteam@gmail.com. To learn more about Jessica, visit www.jessicaabo.com. Connect with Jessica online:

Instagram @jessicaabotv; Twitter @jessicaabo; and Facebook @JessicaAboTV

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Jessica Abo

Written by

Award-winning TV journalist, social media navigator, author, and speaker. Author of Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look On Social Media

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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