I met Sarah in 2019 following her session at the SHRM Annual Conference, and we ended up talking for quite a while. She has been one of my all-time favorite humans since. I was so excited to learn that she doesn’t have just one, but TWO sessions at the upcoming 2023 SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas.
I had the great honor of connecting with Sarah for a virtual interview to discuss her background and little bit about her sessions, as well as a lightening round to get to know Sarah a bit personally. We spoke for over an hour, with a few tangents.
Here are the details about how to get in touch with Sarah, information about her book and podcast, as well as both of her sessions, along with the highlights from our conversation. (The full interview video can be found here.)
Sarah Noll Wilson, CEO / Chief Edge Officer
LinkedIn: Sarah Noll Wilson
Podcast: Conversations On Conversations
Book: Don't Feed the Elephants
Pre-conference Workshop: Building Powerful Teams by Overcoming Avoidance and Freeing the Elephants in the Room
In-person – Saturday, June 10th, 1-5pm.
Concurrent session: There’s No Neutral in Trust: Three Key Strategies for Forward Movement
In Person, Monday, June 12th, 1:30-2:30pm.
Book signing: Monday, June 12, 2:40-3pm – by the SHRM bookstore
Q: I’m so excited to connect to talk about your upcoming sessions at the 2023 SHRM Annual Conference in Vegas! Before we dig too deep, tell us a little about yourself and how you got into leadership development and coaching.
A: The short short story of the long story is, I was a theater major who moved to Des Moines to chase a boy. That worked out. In my theater background one of my degrees in addition to performance was theater education which wasn't teaching theater but using theater as an educational tool. So that was sort of my entry point into training. Over the years I just became really passionate and interested in that dynamic between leaders and team members. I also got my master's in leadership development. Then went on to lead the leadership development efforts at [an insurance company] where we got to do some really cool and progressive stuff.
I started a company just seeing if I could do it. And now it's exciting to be past year 3 when most companies fail. We're passionate about how to make work work better for humans.
Q: You have often said that powerful leadership starts with curiosity. Tell me more about that.
A: First let's define curiosity. For me, it's the belief in the understanding that there's always things you don't know. There's always things you don't know about a situation. There's always things you don't know about another person, and there's always things you don't know about yourself. If you look at the foundations of emotional intelligence, I can't be self-aware without some curiosity. I can't regulate, I can't be socially aware. I can't adjust and adapt to people. The thing that I always say is be curious enough to ask and courageous enough to listen.
Q: Let’s talk about your preconference workshop. You’ll have 4 hours with attendees… What can they expect?
A: Dr. Teresa Peterson and I will be leading them through conversations, exercises and explorations about how they can stop feeding the elephants in their organization. It's based off of my book, Don't Feed the Elephants. And we're really going to do a deep dive into how do we understand our own avoidance, how do we start to understand, appreciate, acknowledge, assess other people's avoidance, and then what does it look like for us to step in and speak and stand with courage? What does it look like for us to help other people do the same? And also when is it okay to not?
Q: In your book, you talk about various types of elephants: avoidaphants, deflectaphants, etc. Tell us more about the avoidaphant.
A: One of the things that I became aware of when I was just really interested in learning about how to move a culture from avoidance to having conversations, was redefining this idea of the elephant in the room. And the elephant in the room often is referred to as a person, right? They're pointing at the boss and saying, “Sir, we got an elephant in the room, and that person might be causing conflict.” And they may be an actual barrier to success, that's true. But the elephant actually gets created when we avoid acknowledging or addressing it. We have to realize, the moment we don't speak up is the birth of the elephant. And so that's just a little bit of a reframing.
Q: You have a concurrent session on Monday: There’s No Neutral in Trust: Three Key Strategies for Forward Movement. What do you mean by “there’s no neutral in trust”?”
A: One of the things that we're really passionate about is helping people think about how to assess trust differently and what they need to do to close that gap. The point of the title is literally every single interaction you have with somebody, even if it's somebody you're only going to meet once, you're either increasing trust, you're sustaining trust, or you're decreasing trust. There's no neutral. You may think it's neutral because you're actually just sustaining whatever level of trust you have, but the reality is, every single interaction, whether it's an e-mail, whether it's walking past somebody in the hallway, whether that is talking to them in the break room, sending them a Slack or Teams message…. You're having some kind of impact on that trust, whether you realize it or not. And the thing that we want to accomplish on Monday is 1) to help people think about that a little bit more deeply, but then 2) to give some really specific tools, because again, we're big believers that theory is great. Tools are better.
Q: What do you hope the attendees of your sessions will bring back to their workplaces?
A: I want people to leave with more confidence and how they can help coach other people, having difficult conversations and thinking about difficult moments, how to step into that courage and also to do that for themselves. Sometimes I think we don't know where to start. And it's easy enough to say, "Well, you just need to have the conversation," but what does that look like? How do we plan recovery when we know we're going to be having a difficult conversation? I want people to feel like they have more tools to really engage people in different kinds of conversations, to help them move from avoidance to a more intentional choice of showing up. I want people to leave 1) having some reflection of I probably don't think about my relationships as much as I need to, and 2) we as an organization don't either.
The reality is there's a limited number of time and hours we have and the impact we can make is finite. We will be showing you kind of behind the scenes: This is how we approach this, these are the actual tools, here are the handouts we use. My hope is that we can give them some tools to feel really confident.
Q: What book have your read in the last 2 years that was super powerful for you?
A: Color of Emotional Intelligence, by Farah Harris and Platonic, by Marisa Franco, PhD
Q: Worst advice you were ever given?
A: People won’t take you seriously if you don’t wear a suit.
Q: Call, text, email, or in-person?
A: Depends. And an option that’s not on there… As you know, I love a good voice note back and forth.
Q: Favorite show to binge watch?
A: Futurama and Call the Midwife
Q: What song have you most recently learned on the accordion?
A: Trying to memorize My Wild Irish Rose. Golden Slippers is without question my favorite one to play.
Q: When it comes to snacks: Sweet, savory, or salty?
A: Either salty or sweet and salty – like salted chocolate caramel or chips with dip. It’s about the dip. It’s not about the chip.
Q: Late night or early mornings?
A: Late night without question. Except Saturdays – I’m up and raring to go!
Sarah and her work have had an incredible influence on me personally and professionally. I am so excited to see her in person in 4 days! I encourage you to add her sessions to your conference schedule, and make a point to introduce yourself. I am confident that she will provide you with tips that will help you have profound impact on building relationships and trust in your organization.
For more information about the #SHRM23 Annual Conference in Las Vegas on June 11-14, 2023, visit: annual.shrm.org/ It's not too late to register! Hope to see you there.