Sarah Elkins: Communications Coach, Storyteller, and Keynote Speaker at Elkins Consulting. She is the author of Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Sarah Elkins: It has to start at the top. The person who’s leading has to model the behavior they want to see in their employees. I found that most of the places I worked didn’t do that. They didn’t model it. Besides, it is always helpful to understand the strengths of the people that are working for you.
Allow people to use their strengths to find their own method of achieving their goals.
I recently became certified through Gallops StrengthsFinders. When people know their strengths and what they’re great at, instead of giving people a prescribed way to accomplish their goals, allow them to use their strengths to find their own way of doing it. I think it will make a huge difference in the workforce. Whatever assessment you use, it doesn’t really matter. Helping people understand how to apply their strengths to solve problems and get from point A to point B rather than telling them how to do it can transform the workplace.
On the other hand, some people are all about getting and wanting guidance. Being able to coach them to use their strengths to accomplish goals is another aspect of that.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Sarah: You have to care about them. If you care about the person, you want them to do well, and when they know you want them to succeed, they will succeed. You demonstrate that care. Some people won’t be engaged, and that’s when you have to care about them enough to let them find something else that will engage them.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Sarah: People really lack and long for meaning. I think not just meaning but support for what they believe. I can give you my personal example. When I was a public affairs specialist, what I lacked was support for my vision. I think my boss intuitively knew that I was right, but he didn’t support me in my efforts. Not because he wasn’t smart, but because he was so resistant to letting go of control of messaging.
People not only lack and long for meaning, but also support for what they believe.
The reality is we no longer have control of messaging. Just like when we talk about your personal brand, you don’t really have control over your brand anymore because it’s really how people perceive you. The only way you have control is by being intentional about how you want to be perceived.
The same goes for any company. We can’t control the messages that are being shared about our company, city, or country. What we can control is how we represent ourselves and in how we are ambassadors for that organization. I think he knew I was right in that, but he was so accustomed to the command-and-control leadership style he couldn’t wrap his head around what I was trying to accomplish. When I would say our citizens need to know what’s going on, he would say, “They don’t care.” He was right to some extent. They didn’t care, but not because they didn’t actually care. They didn’t care because they didn’t know what questions to ask. They didn’t have enough information even to know where to start.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Sarah: What can I do to make sure you’re successful in this position? What resources do you need that I can provide to help you be successful in this position? How do you like to be recognized? How do you like to be managed?
This was something I learned in my MBA program that really struck me. When a leader understands how a person works then, they can provide that resource. But if you don’t ask, you generally won’t know. As an employee, it’s my responsibility to tell my boss, “I need to hear it when I do a good job. I know you don’t easily praise, and that’s fine. But when I do a good job, please tell me I did a good job. I also need you to tell me when I could do something better.” So I think it’s really important to ask that question, what do you need from me?
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Sarah: How can I make you look good? I think the best leaders understand that when they manage well, it makes them look good. One thing I’ve seen, especially in the public sector after working there for nearly 20 years, is that the success of their employees threatens leaders. They miss this whole huge opportunity.
When your employees are doing a great job, and you acknowledge that, you look good. If you have a good leader, then you can say this is what I want to do in my job. This is how I want to make an impact. This is how I can make you look good. Is that what you want? Is this how I can make you look good? Is this your ultimate goal as a leader?
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Sarah: How am I being perceived by the people around me? How do I make sure I’m intentional about how I want to be perceived by the people around me?
One of the most important aspects of humanity and relationships is being self-reflective.
It’s not that I think anyone should care what other people think necessarily, but relationships are really the key to satisfaction and happiness in life. If you’re not aware of how you’re being perceived by the people who love you or the people you love, then you’re limiting your opportunities for connecting more deeply. If you are by nature negative, and that’s what you’re putting out there, at least know that about yourself. Understand why people perceive you that way.
And if you’re ultimately super positive and some people think you’re being a Pollyanna, at least know that. Be intentional with it. Know that that’s how you’re coming across, so you don’t take it personally when somebody calls you a Pollyanna. It’s kind of, “Yeah, that’s who I am,” and I own it because it’s the only way you will deepen your relationships.
Your LinkedIn profile says, “When we create an environment that encourages and inspires authentic connection, people find answers to their questions of success and happiness.” How did you come to that understanding, and how do you do that?
Sarah: I love that question because it really speaks to the heart of what I do to build relationships and how important that is. I came up with that just last year. I had been figuring out my business for about 20 years while working full-time jobs with different agencies in the public sector. Last year I had my second conference called No Longer Virtual, and just like the first year, everyone in that room left feeling confident, connected, and valued. I remember walking away from it that way, too, even though it was a hard work week for me. I had had all kinds of drama at home before we left. We had driven down to Denver from Helena, Montana, and it had taken us two days because the weather was so bad. I wasn’t in the best space in my head for the conference, and yet it still ended with that euphoric feeling for pretty much every one of the 28 people who attended.
The week before that, I hosted a workshop for a network marketing team to do a workshop on storytelling for sales. When I walked out of that room, women were in tears and hugging each other. I felt a different energy from when I had walked in two hours earlier. Afterward, one person said, “You changed my relationship with the women in that room.”
I remember walking out and sitting in my car on my way back because it was about an hour and a half drive away from home. All the way home, I was thinking about what made that happen? The week after the No Longer Virtual conference, the women’s leadership network here in town had a membership social. It was an event that included ice cream, champagne, and carousel rides. Almost one hundred women attended the event.
The energy again was so warm, encouraging, and nurturing. It wasn’t all me in any of these environments. It was the group that created a place of nurturing warmth, encouragement, and support. That’s what people were talking about. Non-members who joined the organization afterward talked about how comfortable they felt in that room and how unusual it is to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and feel that level of comfort. I remember having this lightning bolt moment about a week after all of that had occurred.
The common denominator was me, which is overwhelming to think about. The other common denominator was the environment—that warmth and commitment to supporting the people in the room. The only thing I could put my finger on was that the people who walked into those rooms self-selected to be there. They weren’t forced to be there. They wanted to experience this.
When you have an opportunity where people self-select, the simplest way to get people to feel that connection is to expose some level of vulnerability as a person, I’m not going to call it leadership because I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. But as a host and as a facilitator of the discussions that are going on in the room, I share a story at the beginning that puts me in a place that’s a little vulnerable. I’m not exposing a deep level of emotion or crying.
It’s really about sharing a story that allows people to feel connected to me and to each other.
I’ve been doing this now with the intention for just over a year, and I’m looking back at this pattern of doing it intentionally and finding incredible beauty in that connection.
You host a popular podcast called Your Stories Don’t Define You, which seems a title contrary to what many say about stories. Why did you create it, and what should we take from the title?
Sarah: It’s a funny story. I didn’t come up with that tagline first. I had other ideas like, “Your stories don’t have to be epic. They have to be meaningful.” Because I noticed that some people only share a story when it’s a big story, they make it a big story.
What I find is that it’s the pivotal small stories that really impact people because they can relate to them.
One time I was sharing a story with a group about when our first son was born. He was about seven or eight weeks old, and I’d gone back to work. I had just gotten back from work; I was sitting nursing him. He latched on, and I’m looking down at this beautiful face. I mean just a perfectly round head and big, big brown eyes and dark hair. I called my mom to tell her what I was experiencing and to have our conversation. We talked a couple of times a week when the baby was born. At the moment I heard her voice, I burst into tears. She’s a baby nurse, so her first question was, “What’s wrong? What happened to the baby? Is Jacob okay?”
I said, “He’s fine!” I’m sobbing, and I’m trying to get my words out. I’m not a crier, so she was distraught because she’s not used to hearing my sob like that. She again asked, “What’s wrong! What’s wrong?” Then she jumped to the conclusion I have postpartum depression, which is a serious issue. I said, “I’m fine.” I’m looking down at this baby. His eyes are closed, and his eyelashes come nearly down to his cheeks. I mean just this beautiful, beautiful being. Warm and snuggled on me. The tears dribble down my face again, and I said, “It’s just that now I know how much you love me!” Now we’re both bawling!
I shared that story at a conference in front of 300 people, and something moved everyone in the room. It occurred to me at that moment it’s not the story I shared so much that moved them, but how I shared it full of emotion. When I shared that story, how the people around me perceived me shifted forever. I think that’s a really important aspect of sharing a story. You have to be intentional about the stories you share because I could share that story, and it wouldn’t change anyone’s perception of me. But because of how I shared it, what I showed was warmth, vulnerability, deep love, and compassion for my mother⏤, which defines me, not the story itself.
Now that you’ve interviewed over 59 people for your podcast. What have you learned? Can you share three key takeaways?
Sarah: It has been such an amazing experience doing the podcast and having opportunities to ask questions to such a diverse community. I don’t pick people based on what they do, their title, or whatever level of success they’ve had. I select people based on the stories I believe they have to share. Stories will help other people trigger memories and understand how their stories from their past impact their present mindset.
People don’t realize how important it is when sharing a story to take a snippet of their life.
I’ve learned a lot more than three, but number one is that many people don’t realize how important it is when sharing a story to take a snippet of their life. Take one piece of a pivotal time in their life to dig into great detail. if I ask somebody a question like, “Tell me about a pivotal time in their lives?” they’ll tell me a whole era like, well, “Seventh grade was a big deal for me because that’s when my father died, and that’s when this happened…” While yes, that is a good answer to a certain extent, but that doesn’t really share a level of vulnerability that will encourage somebody else to share something with them. The whole point of storytelling is that it allows story sharing.
So the first lesson is, please come up with specific incidents in your life you can share in great detail. For example, one of my interviews was with the fitness celebrity and athlete Ashley Horner. She told the story of when she attempted suicide waking up in the hospital bed with her father holding her hand. She described the vivid image she has in her head from that experience. So yes, the whole experience was pivotal, but that moment is what she looks back at.
We deeply connect when we share stories that are not all about us.
The second lesson is don’t share too much detail and make sure it’s not all about you. That may sound counterintuitive, but when Ashley shared that story, she shared it also from her father’s perspective by telling the story the way she told it. It wasn’t just about her. It was about her surroundings. It was about what her father was doing, so I could ask her questions about her father at that point. When we share a story that’s all about us, it won’t generate memories for somebody listening. The whole point is to share a story that will then trigger a memory for somebody else to share a story. That’s how we deeply connect.
The third lesson is not actually from interviewing people, but my third lesson is when you take on a project like this, make sure you have the right support and resources around you. I hired Neil Hughes out of the UK to help me produce this podcast. I’m fiercely independent and what I realize more and more is that when I do that, I limit myself in huge ways. If I hadn’t asked Neil to help me, I would have limited my opportunity to acknowledge his skills that differ totally from mine and build a relationship with somebody by acknowledging that his skills complement mine. Also, I would have been struggling and spending a lot of time doing aspects of a podcast I don’t enjoy doing and have no interest in learning. That ends up wasting a lot of time I could invest fine-tuning my strengths and skills.