Real Answers

When Sarah speaks, she’s often confronted with hard-to ask questions – questions that seek specific direction and that could leave the “asker” open to attack or ridicule for asking or not knowing. “Getting these questions signals to me that I’ve created the environment I want – one in which we can ask the questions that move us to effective, sustainable change.” Some of these questions get asked repeatedly. Some seem isolated. All feel relevant. So, we thought we’d provide a place where you can read some of the questions & answers, as part of your exploration. Feel free to submit your own question if you like. Sarah often answers questions on leadership, corporate governance and workplace inclusion but feel free to ask whatever is on your mind. We only post a handful of the questions that get asked. Others we respond to directly. And of course, as the demand continues to increase, we may not be able to answer or it might be some time before we do. 

On this page Sarah invites you to submit your questions. She understands how hard these questions are to ask, and she delights in giving people a place where they can be candid, receive a suggested way to proceed, and hopefully spark the insight they need to create meaningful change in their work and personal lives around these issues. 

Submit your question here

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SUBMITTED QUESTIONS & SARAH'S ANSWERS

Leadership | DE&I/Workplace Inclusion

"Sarah, your life story is very inspiring. What advice can you give for minority men who are woefully under represented at the most senior levels in law depts."

- Person of Color, Man and Counsel at Fortune 50 Company

I’d suggest seven things based upon: (A) the assumption that you are consistently submitting or presenting high-quality work product, on time, that meets the desired goal and that you are responsive, proactive and strategic—I say that to all leaders who ask for advice, and (B) the fact that ALL personnel decisions regarding advancing leaders to senior levels in law departments are made by human beings:

  1. Get a sponsor – Whether formally or informally, I recommend connecting with someone in the organization who is in a position of power or who has power (see #3 below). People often advance based upon what others “believe” regarding skills, knowledge, experience & potential. Having someone with power who knows your capability is important and if you’re competing for a position, having someone with power advocate for you is crucial (advancing the “beliefs” that support you and pushing back against the “beliefs” that may repeatedly limit you). Plus, you can get useful feedback about what “beliefs” are limiting you if you find that you aren’t advancing. Personally, I select people who have power and influence, regardless of their gender, race, etc.
  2. Get a mentor – In addition to connecting with a sponsor, connect with someone who can give you a lay of the land, helpful feedback and constructive criticism. Your mentor won’t necessarily hold a position of power, but should have more time to devote to a relationship with you, providing detailed feedback and guidance. I tend to choose mentors who have similar experiences to me based upon gender, race, etc.
  3. Understand the system/get a lay of the land – Every system has a hierarchy of power, but different people may hold that power depending on the organization. Sometimes the people who hold the power and influence aren’t in the typical positions. Most successful people in powerful positions have trusted advisors (Sometimes it’s the person who speaks in a meeting that has great influence; other times it’s a subordinate leader who’s proven quite trustworthy.). Learn what you can about how decisions are made, based upon what, and by whom.
  4. Understand yourself, your skills and where it makes the most sense for you to excel
  5. Ensure you get noticed for the right things/Ask for a seat at the table – Especially when I am striving to advance, I ensure that I am engaged and noticed (e.g., show up early for meetings, ensure that I provide input or ask questions that demonstrate my abilities (know the difference between talking just to talk and adding value; if in doubt, ask your mentor or sponsor for advice/feedback)).
  6. Ask for a seat at the table – Discuss your interest in advancing with your supervising attorney or with your sponsor; ask for feedback on what you can do in the next 1-3 years to be best positioned for leadership.
  7. Don’t skip any of these tips or take anything for granted. A willingness to take these hard steps is what will make the difference.

DE&I/Workplace Inclusion

"I have found that being my authentic self can be used against me later. How do you deal with that, if that has ever happened to you?"

- Person of Color, Woman and Counsel at Fortune 50 Company

Yes, being authentic has been used against me and has created additional challenges—I’ve felt attacked and mistreated because of who I am, and felt as if others were making decisions that limited my options for career success. I’ve realized two things in this regard that have been helpful for me to advance and succeed while maintaining my authenticity:

  1. I get my sense of belonging, acceptance and being cared for from my spiritual centering, and from a few people who’ve shown what gifts they are in my life. Reminding myself of that is important and enables me to be my authentic self in a healthy way.
  2. Yet, there are times, even when I show up in a healthy way, where who I am is NOT a fit for some of those folks around me. Here it’s vital for me to remind myself that who I am (meaning my experiences, background, skills, and personality) WILL be a great fit in certain places but not everywhere. When who I am gets used against me,,  I process the feelings that come up (grief, disappointment, embarrassment) by speaking with people who can help me understand the situation. It helps me to ask the following questions:
    1. What loss do I believe I’m experiencing, and have I really lost it? Can I find what I was looking for somewhere else? 
    2. What really wasn’t working for me? Understanding this will help inform me whether or not I was in the best place (or on the best team/project) to excel and whether or not I might be a better fit somewhere else. 
    3. Are the detractors unknowingly pointing me toward even better greatness? 

If I’m in an environment where I’m being attacked and the system allows for that and doesn’t engage to protect me, or if I’m being undervalued and I can’t get anyone in power to best utilize me, I am not going to excel. I can only change how I behave and respond. I’m human. I’m messy. I’m also super skilled, engaging, feminine and brown-skinned. I’m absolutely going to make some people uncomfortable. I used to explain how people didn’t like me and I had a trusted friend reject that phrase and explain that I may intimidate them, invoke jealousy or trigger some other reaction, but it wasn’t about whether or not they “liked” me.

Leadership | DE&I/Workplace Inclusion

"Anyone else working in the legislative/political environment? Politics and controversial issues are heated and heavy and difficult – privilege, discrimination, and more. This is often not with our employer colleagues but ‘opposition’ and others. How can we be our best advocates for our company and be our ‘authentic’ selves?"

- Caucasian Woman and Counsel at Fortune 50 Company

For the most part, I have demonstrated the ability to engage and enroll others in various ways. Although I think people underestimate the skill of staying open, curious and nonjudgmental as the first step of a discussion, that is exactly why I believe I’ve had the success I’ve had in enrolling/engaging others. Rarely is my first move to persuade you of something, especially of something that is contrary to or not consistent with what you currently believe. I can’t think of it now but I recall seeing an article on social media earlier that explained how using hostage negotiation techniques was effective in difficult conversations around politics and other controversial issues. I’ve had more success getting others to concede a bit or even begin to want to hear a different perspective after I’ve created an environment where they aren’t so poised to defend their position. For me, it helps to stop thinking “right versus wrong” and instead I imagine we are sitting across a table from each other with a “9” draw on the table – I see a “9”; the other person sees a “6”. I can argue all day, trying to convince them, probably without success and most likely deteriorating the relationship. Instead, if the relationship is important to me, I focus on getting to a spot where we can each feel safe enough to actually hear each other’s points, then leave it at that, hoping that might be enough of a seed planted that the next interaction may water that seed. Sometimes, that’s the most I can hope for and I sure don’t want to miss that opportunity of planting the seed.

Leadership

"What has been the biggest challenge to transitioning to different business and communication models during the pandemic?"

- Attorney of Color at Fortune 50 Company

Initially it was getting myself and others to believe that we could still continue on effectively with business, “pivoting” as so many had to do. I saw organizations that didn’t pivot but instead canceled or put things on hold, believing/hoping the challenge would be very short term. This was true both organizationally and individually. As is often the case in life, it’s been more helpful to attempt to adapt and keep going than it would have been to push back & put things on hold. I recall over 10 years ago in my initial coach training, I pushed back on the idea that I could coach executives as effectively via the phone as I could in person. Yet, I adapted to do so for some executives, and I was shocked and pleased at how effective I could be by relying on other methods of “paying attention”. Being willing to adapt and try things has often proven useful. I always give myself a pat on the back when I’m willing to say: “you might be right”, or “I’ll give it a try”, and a double pat if I’m inside shaking my head but I’m willing to try.