Sarah Noll Wilson

Being a great leader in times of change

27 Sep 2020   |   Leadership

Sarah Noll Wilson

Being a great leader in times of change

27 Sep 2020   |   Leadership

Sarah Noll Wilson, an executive coach, keynote speaker, transformer of teams, researcher, and soon-to-be-author, helps leaders positively and powerfully impact those around them.


Now more than ever, Sarah and her team are helping people navigate the complexity of this change so that they can thrive, not just survive.


Navigating the disruption


The disruption we face now is not just from a digital perspective, but a global perspective on multiple levels, says Sarah. People are chronically fatigued due to prolonged stress. As a result, we’re more reactive to the changes around us.


We have been adding layer upon layer of change that we’ve reached a point of system overload. Sarah admits that with everything that’s happening to humanity, helping lead people into this new world has certainly been challenging for her team.


Embracing change in the workplace


People don’t fear change, they fear loss (to quote Ronald Heifetz). Even though we fear change, it’s one of the things humans are amazing at. We’re constantly evolving.


For leaders, leading change can be particularly difficult at this time. Sarah’s colleague, Doug Kirkpatrick, a west coast consultant, shared an interesting stat— pre-COVID, only 30% of the workforce were remote, and three weeks into the pandemic that number doubled. This reflects the significant change going on in the workplace where things are becoming more digital than before.


As a result, leaders are slowly adapting to the changing needs of their employees and advocating for change that they otherwise may not have prioritized. It’s important for us to honor the needs of the people in these circumstances by considering different possibilities. So leaders find themselves asking the question—

If we had to do it in this world, what would it look like?

Focusing on value, not work hours


The time we spend in the office or online has little or nothing to do with the results we produce. We often confuse quantity of work for quality.


When asked Sarah what shift she’d really like to see in the workplace, she affirms that the practice of leaders placing importance not on working hours but on the value an individual adds to the business.


Disengagement in teams is high now because of the structure and system we’ve had in place for ages. While the system may positively impact work output, it negatively impacts the people who are doing that work.


To sum it up, by letting people manage their time and work, we improve their productivity and drive a sense of purpose and meaningfulness.



Today we have a very exciting guest. We have Sarah Noll Wilson on the show. Hi, Sarah. How are you?


I’m good. Neil, how are you? That’s a loaded question these days.



You know what I mean. I don’t want you to actually give an answer. But yeah, let’s really get into this. You have a lot of experience with particular companies that I’m excited to get into. But first, just give us a background of who you are. What’s the nature of the company you do and the work you do?


My team and I, we work with leaders to help them build and rebuild and usually heal relationships, and specifically helping leaders navigate that complexity of change and helping navigate people through that change so that they can thrive, not just survive.



In case people are wondering, we’re in 2020 still. It’s still going on.


Yeah, still!



It’s March or April? I don’t know. No, it’s actually more like August, September. But we’re all in this transition that we feel like we’ve been stuck in. It’s like this loop that we keep going through. And what I want to talk to you about is the nature of, we’ve talked about the five levels of digital workplace, and specifically, companies and individuals who find themselves in this level two state where they feel like they’re stuck, because I think a lot of the people listening to our show have moved beyond that. They’ve embraced the fact that we’re in a digital workplace. We’ve got to make the best of this. It’s actually quite exciting and different things. But they might have people on their team who are still feeling like they just got blindsided by this. Technology’s not their strong suit. They feel like they’ve built up a great culture outside of that, and they are just kind of regretting or feeling bad about what’s going on. So tell us about the type of work you do, the type of people you do and what’s your scene from your angle.


This is an interesting time, too, as people are navigating the significant disruption, not just from a digital perspective, but a global perspective on multiple levels. Right now we’re dealing with people who are chronically fatigued. Their brain is just under prolonged exposures to stress, which means they’re not necessarily going to be in a place that’s responsive or reflective, but more reactive. And so what we’re seeing to that point is that the stress response to some of those changes feels more intense in some cases because our brains are already in survival mode, whether we’re aware of it or not. And so then you add another layer of change onto that to the habits, to the patterns, what makes us feel comfortable, and it’s like system overload. We’re definitely seeing a challenge of the resistance to change can feel, and some cases, people adapted, they want to keep the jobs, we moved really quickly, and it’s more of a slow burn now. Whereas before you may have had a really strong, intense reaction to those change. Yeah, just seeing that the brains are really in a protection mode right now just because of everything going on, which just makes our job that much more complicated, helping lead people to this new world.



Give us some stories that you’ve experienced in your world about those leaders that you’ve interacted with that are good leaders. They know what they’re doing. They have good teams, but they’re just struggling with this. What is prompting them to want to push through or even making them resist wanting to push through this?


I think a couple of things. One of my favorite stories happened pretty early on and it’s a good example of how we get locked into these rules of what work should look like, rules about how we should lead people and how we should communicate. And instead of realizing that those are just possibilities, that was just one way of us working. There was a leader that I was working with and he was grieving, he was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t connect and communicate with his team members in the way that he preferred. And as we dug into it, what we learned is that he really liked to acknowledge his team members with food. Because this is a very sort of typical CEO, and to find out that his love language was food was, one, it was a sweet surprise, but he was so sad because he’s like, well, I can’t bring in brownies or whatever the case might be. And in his mind it was because the rule was, you can only do that when you’re in person. And so it was hard for him to be able to see other possibilities, which that’s just our brain when it’s in a stress response. It’s hard for us to consider other possibilities. And so, I just acknowledged him. I can hear your frustration. So that’s one possibility is you can’t do it anymore. If we had to do it in this world, what would it look like? And I think what’s important about this story is that, again, when our brains are in a triggered state, in a stress response state, and when I say stress response, it could be grieving, it could be actual stress because of the changes, we know that we lose access to our ability of creative thinking, of problem solving, of considering these new paths. One of the challenges I see is, again, this locking into these are rules instead of holding them a little bit more loosely as just possibilities of how work can be done. I mean, just another example was a leader who was, again, I described it as grieving, they wouldn’t say grieving, but I would describe it as grieving of, when we hire new team members, I’m really bummed that it’s going to be a very transactional relationship. And again, because the rule in their mind was you can only build transformational relationships in person. And so just being able to challenge and go, well, that’s one possibility. If we had to build transformative relationships digitally, how would we do it? And you could see the shift of hadn’t even considered that and then we’re able to step into possibilities.



Tell us about the brownie guy. What’s he doing now? How is he?


That’s a loaded question. No, he actually is somebody, when you talk about this time, this is a whole exploration like a values exploration clarification. He is somebody who’s gotten really clear about wanting to be as flexible and as adaptable for his team members as he can in this and so he’s stepping into advocating for things that maybe he hasn’t always thought about or prioritized or advocated before.



Even thinking about from the food angle, it’s one thing, nothing beats the homemade cookies that people bring in that you can share. You can’t top that. But you go to a store, and you recognize, wow, they have this really nice treat. I wish I could share this with everyone, well, you can do that. You can do some mass delivery that goes out to everyone. So that’s cool. I really liked this question you asked. If we had to do it in this world, what would it look like? I feel like that is one of the keys for people to cross that hump from level two to level three to really see the difference between, one, are we just going to replicate what we did before, which means I used to bring in food, so now I deliver food. Or I used to be able to do an onboarding in person, so now it’s just going to be text base, or maybe a video call type.


One of the things that when we think about the people who are struggling with this, our co workers because if we’re an early adopter, we’re all in and we don’t understand why people are coming into it. We have to understand it’s because, often people will say people fear change. And it’s not that they fear change, they fear loss, and they fear loss, whether that’s real or perceived or imagined. When people are experiencing resistance to some change, it’s not because they’re resistant to change. We change all the time. I’m a different person today than I was this week. We’re all different people than we were in March. We evolve. It’s one of the things that humans are amazing at. But when we’re experiencing that resistance, it’s not the fear of change. It’s the fear of loss. And it could be a real loss that we’re experiencing, or it could even be an imagined loss, our brain doesn’t know the difference. And so in helping people consider those possibilities, which is why I think that question of, so if we had to do it this way, is one way for us to honor the fact that this is a need for this person. This is important to them. So how do we do it differently?



And acknowledging, like you said, we can’t just move past the fact of, hey, you’re not together. So get over it. I was talking to a teammate recently that we on boarded literally the next week after we had gone remote. And it’s been six, seven months now. And we were talking about somebody else in the company was talking about something else. He’s like, yeah, I can’t wait to meet them. It’s like, oh, that’s right. You don’t, actually, like been physically present with these people. And I have all this context, because I’ve seen people in the office and been around them, but he doesn’t have that extra frame of reference and the frame of context to have.


What’s really important is if you are the one driving the change, or you are the one trying to move people to those higher levels is that, one, you have to understand that we often will fall into the trap that if I don’t agree with your loss, I won’t honor it. Or I might not respect it. And so people have to understand that taking time to honor and acknowledge someone’s loss doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. But if you dismiss it, well, you’re going to just set them even further back, because now they don’t feel heard.



We just threw some more examples of how we can see this and how you’ve seen it in companies about how a leader can reach out to somebody who’s struggling with this and say, look, I see what you’re doing, but let’s embrace this. Do you have any other stories you can share on those?


I have stories of what it looks like to not…



That’s good, too. We like that.


I think that it’s interesting, because especially right now there’s this tension. I’ve noticed that the tension is even greater that if you have somebody who’s ready to adopt this who’s ready not just because of the benefits of working digitally, but also the fact that we want to protect our people and we don’t want to add more stress to them and so they realize that the stress that’s happening to them or their team members is significantly impacting their mental health or well being. There’s these buckets of companies we’re seeing, we’re going to do what we need to do to keep people safe, we’ll figure it out, all the way down to the other end where it’s, well, we can just force people back into the office, just that suck it up, Buttercup, mentality. And the thing that’s important for people to understand is that, particularly now, that tension point is not even about work anymore. It’s just about a fundamental value of humanity. Those leaders who are coming from that place of, suck it up, Buttercup, what we’re observing is that the disengagement is even greater now than it was before. And people are questioning, somebody that I’m aware of that has this mindset of, well, we’ll just force them back into the office. I mean, they work for us and we just have to do that. And the team members feedback is I don’t know that this is a place I want to work anymore. Another opportunity comes up, I think I’m going to jump on board. People have to understand that there’s a real cost right now, just because of the nature of the pandemic we’re in.



Those people have real opportunities now. If you can find other things that you’re not stuck to your location, you’re not stuck to different things, if you really feel like this is something you want to embrace, then I feel like as a company, people could take that mindset before maybe the leader says, they got to do what I say because I’m the boss and they’re working for me. They’re my employees, slaves, whatever mindset they have at that time. But that’s gone in a lot of ways, right?


Yeah. I get excited about the work around humanocracy and self management and in neutralizing the layers of power, and not only that, but I mean, that’s another thing we have to be aware of is that because of the significant increase to move into the digital workplace, my colleague, his name is Doug Kirkpatrick. And he’s a consultant out on the west coast. And we were talking and he had shared with me this week that pre-COVID, only like 30% of the workforce was working remotely. And now within three weeks, we doubled that. But the reality is we’re never going to go back to the 30%. It’s probably going to be closer to 50%. So the fight for talent is going to look very different. So if you’re a company that’s not adopting, you can rest assure that there are other companies who are going to take your top talent, especially if those people want to keep working remotely, and working in a digital environment. Now, suddenly, if you’re in a mid size or even a small sized town, you can have access to companies you didn’t have access before.



Let’s talk about culture. It’s something that you work on a lot, relationships, the rules of how people get together. What do you feel like this time period we’re in, this pandemic, has revealed about companies cultures.


It’s revealed what their true values is. I think one of the biggest adaptive challenges we have is that so many companies have beautiful words up on their walls and they have beautiful documents and things on their website. And what this time has revealed very starkly is what do you really value versus what you say you value. I give a good example of that of, again, on one hand, hearing stories like, they say they value employees or they say they care about people, but they’re asking everyone to come in and take these risky decisions and their team members are like, that’s BS. Clearly we don’t. However, I’ve seen and I’ve had the opportunity, there’s one company in particular, where it is clear that their actions align with the values that they say are what is important to them. What that looks like is team members regularly saying on a meeting that has nothing to do with culture, they’re not prompted. They’re saying things like, this is why I love working here. This is why we have such a great culture. And that’s to me, one of the things that’s indicative of the quality of your culture is, do people talk about it unprompted in a way that’s positive? Or do they roll their eyes when somebody goes, well, here at Company X, we value X, Y, and Z, and they’re like, maybe, depending on the day? I mean, it’s definitely revealed, again, what is really the values of the leadership team?



Absolutely. I like how you’ve put that because it does just pull the mask off, pull the curtain back and say, what do you really believe about this when it comes to your value of employees, when it comes to your value of who gets to make the decisions, but both sides, like you said. If you just had stuff up on the walls that said, yeah, we value these things, but you didn’t, that became very obvious. And if you have the opposite side where you really did value those things and you really did look at that, then that became obvious, too. We’ve talked with a few leaders who really did embody that. I think we talked to Kristen Nunnery recently who runs a certificate of insurance company. And it was clear that she had made decisions which are very consistent with building great digital workplaces. But it wasn’t because she was trying to do that. She did that because that was best for the people that she worked with, and because as a culture, they had already valued those things, and it just made sense to go this route.


I think that one of the questions that, as we were talking that was coming up for me, when thinking about navigating people is the question of what’s the cost, because sometimes we can get so focused on what’s important to us or what keeps us comfortable, and to really ask it in a way that’s a fearless audit. What’s the cost if we don’t make this change? Or what’s the cost if we don’t commit to this, to our team members, to our perception, to our brand recognition, or how our clients engage with us? Because there will be a cost. I mean, it is inevitable.



Sarah, talk to somebody who’s out there, they’re leading a company, they’re trying to put in these changes, trying to move down the road to a digital workplace. If they have people who are struggling, who are digging in their heels, who seem like they’re not quite on board, can you give a framework for the type of people who, if you are empathetic, if you value the things they’re doing, they are going to come along eventually, versus the telltale signs like this is just not going to work, they’re not going to be able to make this change?


We’re a firm believer in taking the curiosity first approach. What that looks like is really taking time to explore the situation and exploring that through the lens of that person’s experience or what their challenges are. And one thing I want to just pause on is when I talk about honoring people’s values, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to do anything different. It’s just acknowledging it. It’s taking the time to say, hey, I know that this has been a hard transition, I know that you are the expert in X, Y, and Z. And I can imagine that moving to this might feel uncomfortable for you. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to change anything in our strategy, but we’re just honoring it. So I think that’s one point of clarification. And it’s amazing what can happen when people can feel just heard. And I think the other thing we have to keep in mind is if we are the ones making the decisions about the change, we have a level of authority and control in the situation that the other people don’t. It’s like if you’re working on some big initiative, and you’re part of the planning, but when you roll that out, you’ve had 18 months or 6 months or however long, not only did you have that long to already get comfortable with it, but you have the power to influence it that might not be true of your team member. They haven’t had six months. They’re just hearing about it now. And so we have to give them some grace to go through those stages of grieving and helping them navigate that. Simple questions you can ask is just, help me understand what are the things that, whether it’s questions like, what are some of the fears you have when you think about moving forward to this, just to understand that. Now, there does come a point though, where there is a more direct conversation,. And there does come a point where if somebody is consistently resisting, and not just resisting, but doing what they can to support the progress of it, at some point, then there needs to be the direct conversation of this is where we’re headed. And so at this point, there needs to be a decision. Do you want to go with where we’re going? Or is it time to make another decision, but I’m a big fan, in the first couple weeks or months or whatever the situation might be, allowing the space for people to share what are they worried about, what are their challenges.



Sarah, I really love your curiosity first approach. I think that needs to be standard in our thinking and something we try to promote within the digital workplace. As you personally look ahead, we’ve talked about these different levels, where do you see that level five? I know a lot of times you’re in the weeds of trying to help companies in the early part, but if you could just peer into the future, where do you hope that we move towards?


Specifically from a digital perspective or just the workplace perspective?



I mean, in many of our themes, between technology, between productivity, culture, what do you think is a good place to move towards to say, hey, if we get to this place, that would be great.


I would love to see us really shift to an environment where there’s a high value on not hours worked, not butts in the seats, but the value somebody adds, and that depending on the industry for me, my wish, when I think about a human-centered workplace is that people are able to do the work how they want to do, when they want to do, and that there’s an incredible sense of agency in that, that it is moving away from the old style of command and control, the old style of hierarchy, and really moving to more of the self management, flat organization. But I think for me, one of the specific details is, if somebody can get their work done in 20 hours and contribute a time, imagine what could happen not only to productivity, but also their sense of purpose and their sense of meaningfulness. I hate the term balance, the life balance, it’s not an either or, but there’s a reason that stress is so high. There’s a reason that disengagement is so high. It’s the structures we have now, the systems we have in place now, are fine for output, but they’re not necessarily fine for the humans who are in who are doing it all. And so, if I were to sum it up, I tell my team this, my dream for my company is that people have more moments than not where they go, I can’t believe this is what I get to do and how I get to do it. That’s the vision for me.



So when I hear you say like, especially the 20-hour example, it’s awesome. I think we need to totally do what we can to dismantle that strong connection between hours work versus livelihood type thing. But when you say, I can get my job done in 20 hours, then the typical response you’re going to hear from leaders is, okay, so work twice as hard. Imagine what you can do with 40. So how do you counteract that and just say, hey, it was good. Why can’t we just stop?


I actually have a really specific story to this. I ran a hypothesis. The curiosity first approach for us is explore, experiment, and then evolve. And I wanted to run an experiment at one of my former companies. And what I was curious about was, it was a processing team. They were processing contracts. So it was very quantifiable. You have to hit 15 contracts a day, period. I was curious of could productivity be impacted if instead of them having to do that over an eight-hour period, they got to leave as soon as they were done. And so we ran this whole test, and we increased it. So it was a stretch goal. So it was something like 18, which is a pretty significant amount of work. And what we found was that, if I remember off the top of my head, it was something like 30% of people were able to increase their productivity and get out of work at least one or two hours earlier. So which I thought was a huge success. But to your point, the response I got from leaders was, well, if they can do this and this, then they should be able to do 20 in eight hours. I’m like, no, wait, wait, wait, slow down, take a step back. The reason that they’re so motivated is not the number. It is because what they get on the other end is more time with their kids. It is time to be able to spend time with their family. So no, you’re not going to get that same kind of motivation. And then unfortunately, because it was a traditional insurance company, it got scrapped. But the team members engagement increased, productivity increased, it pushed other people, but because of the belief of, well, they should just be able to do this. No, you’re missing the point. That’s not what motivated them.



Yeah, I think that’s the conversation we need to be prepared for is not to be able to say, hey, people can do so much more. They can have all this type of thing. It’s to be able to say, and they shouldn’t be working as much and we need to reframe that, or I don’t know. We just need to be prepared for those conversations when they come.


Yeah, for sure.



Good. Sarah, it’s been fun to chat. And to get deep into these topics. Tell people where they can go if they want to learn more about you and your work.


They can go to our website, which is and they can connect with us on social media.



Cool. Well, Sarah, it’s been great to chat. Thanks for being on the show. We look forward to interacting with you again soon.


Yeah, thank you for everything you’re doing, trying to push us into a new world.


My first exposure to formal leadership development came as a camp director and ropes course facilitator. There I was, leading groups of executives through the woods, exploring communication and team building, and thinking to myself, “How can I help people build these skills for a living?” Keep in mind, I was a 19 year old theatre major at the time, so the idea of working in an office setting had never even entered my imagination!

After completing my degree in theatre performance and theatre education, I accepted my first job in insurance… mostly so I could have my nights free for rehearsals. In fact, the first time I interviewed for an office job, the hiring manager asked, “Do you think you could even sit still in a cubicle?” to which I eagerly responded, “I don’t know, let’s find out!”

I trained new hires for many years and then managed teams consisting of first-time employees as well as mid-career (go Team Awesomeness!). At this time, I went back to school for my master’s degree in leadership development at Drake University. This is where I truly fell in love with leadership studies and understanding the profound impact leaders have on the lives around them.

The rest is history. I continue to push my own leadership practices and deepen my learning through research, certifications, experiences, books, classes, conferences, and an inspiring network of people. So now you know the journey (at least the abridged version) of how this little chatty, curious girl found her voice on the stage and her calling in the cubicles.

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