July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Sara Wachter-Beottcher

Written by Steve Fisher

May 27, 2020

Video Transcript

Sara: It's really powerful when you decide, yep, that's a bit scary. And I'm uncomfortable. And also this is important. And I'm gonna do it.

Steve: Sara is an author, speaker, coach, and strategist dedicated to changing design and tech for good. She's the founder of Active Voice, a coaching and training company helping organizations build radical, courageous leadership practices.

Sara: Thank you, Steve. It's great to chat with you.

Steve: This summer at Design and Content Conference, you're going to be giving us a talk around design and content leadership and what it looks like.

Sara: Ooh, you know, I suspect that this talk is going to have a little bit of new meaning than I had originally thought. Right? When I was kind of putting it together and drafting up what I wanted to talk about. I wasn't thinking about going through this massive crisis. And economic crisis, and all of these stresses people are under, which I think absolutely impact leadership and really, what I think happens is it's like it all of the things that we maybe should have been doing all along become even more important. And even more crucial to our teams.

So I think right now, the really good leadership that I'm seeing, is when people are just very up-front about what is happening. And acknowledge how difficult it is and also acknowledge that their team is going to have needs that they don't necessarily understand. And is going to have needs that are different from their own. So being able to say, we need to have flexibility. We can't expect people to be quote unquote, as productive as usual, whatever that means. We need to accept that, you know, people are dealing with whatever it is that they're dealing with. From the sort of emotional turmoil to practical challenges to, you know, I have friends who are trying to handle having their kids at home and they're trying to get work done while their toddler is getting distracted every 30 seconds, and it's like, that just is. Right? Like nobody needs judgment for it, it just is. And I think being able to model that and to say, we are going to accept what is. We are going to try to support you the best we can. And we are going to support you at a policy level. And also not just making things available, but making it easy and acceptable socially to take advantage of those things. Because now more than ever, what we need are companies that are in recognition of how human we are. And how human everybody there is, and to just sort of like, let that exist.

Steve: Yeah, like, I really appreciate that point. One of the things that the company that I'm at right now, telecom in Canada called TELUS. And you know, we were all in our digital department able to go work from home, which feels like a really big privilege and continue to have our jobs. But also, it was one of those moments where we were kind of used to it and kind of not. And so needed to establish new norms and standards and not just assume that people knew them, but really communicate that out. And it was one of the things that was received so well by our team, because there was just like this collective sigh of relief. With all the other presses around. At least they didn't have to think about that adjustment and what was okay or not okay.

Sara: Yeah.

Steve: Or how to make that transition. Made such a big difference to the team at that time.

Sara: Yeah, I think that there's a lot of pressure on people still to fake it. You're gonna put your work hat on, and you're going to pretend that everything's fine. And that you're not actually in a cramped corner of your bedroom, or whatever your particular setup is. That you actually, you know, don't have a screaming child outside the door. And that pressure to pretend that things are fine. It's not sustainable. You can do that for like a day. Maybe you could do that for a week. But if you have been working at home under extremely suboptimal circumstances for months now. I think people really start to crack when they feel like they have to constantly put that face on.

And so what I think that leaders can really model is, being honest themselves about being more transparent about sort of what they're dealing with. And not necessarily expecting everybody's gonna disclose personal information to you, but by sharing a little bit of what you're dealing with, I think what you can really do is you can re-norm things for others as well.

Steve: How do you think we can use positions of leadership or whatever they happen to be with an organization to help change culture for the better to help really improve and move things forward?

Sara: This is something I believe really strongly, it kind of came out of the work that I've done over the years on inclusion, and bias, and tack and design, is really recognizing that we needed more people within organizations who felt prepared and capable of kind of standing up and saying, like, hey, this seems like it's not in line with our values. Or I'm not okay with this. And what I realized is that, of course, it's really hard. Right? It's really hard, particularly if you're not in a position of power.

But what I also started noticing is that even as you would go up the chain, and you would get to people who are in more and more levels of leadership, they would still sort of shy away from making a stance that was firm. Right? Sort of shy away from taking some of the political and social risks of standing up against something that was unjust. And what I really want to help people see is that even though we've moved up, and we are now in a leadership role, where we actually have a lot more power, we could take more risk.

But we operate as if we still don't have that option. We operate in a way that's maybe outdated to where we are. And we can get into that cycle of fear. Right? And what we end up doing is we often get into the cycle of wanting to maintain what we have. Right? So it's like I worked really hard to get here. I don't want to risk anything by speaking up for something even if I believe in it. There's a reluctance to speak up for it. Because of what it might cost you personally. And I don't deny that there are risks to speaking up, I don't deny that sort of the doing what's right isn't always, you know, the easy thing to do. But what I would say is that, if you're starting to take a look at your career and look at a trajectory that's moved you up a bit, I think it's also time to look at, well, what should my risk tolerance be now? And what kinds of conversations could I have now that maybe I couldn't have had last year or two years ago? And am I having those? And if I'm not having those, if I'm not being more courageous, more brave in those conversations, what's holding me back from that?

And I also think getting out of that mindset of being sort of afraid of what you might lose can help you recognize what are the things that I might gain? Like, what are the new types of perspectives, or the new opportunities, or the new sources of power and influence in my organization I might gain if I take this risk. And I think that that's a really important thing to keep in mind because so often, what you see happen is you get entrenched in thinking about the potential loss. And it makes it really hard, you're all focused on that. And it makes it really hard to see what you could gain.

And so that's what I really encourage people to think about as they kind of, like I said, move up the ladder or gain more seniority in their organizations, to really reflect on what's changed in terms of the power that they have, and what's changed in terms of how much risk they can take on.

Steve: Definitely when you move into a new position like that, taking ownership of that and taking those risks being courageous is sometimes a difficult step.

Sara: One of the really interesting things that I did in the past year was move from doing a lot of project work as a consultant to doing more leadership and development work. Right?

And so you mentioned Active Voice at the beginning. That is me launching sort of a new practice for what I do that is all about leadership development for people in tech and design. And so I've been doing all of this one-on-one coaching with people, a lot of them are in manager roles or senior manager roles, or maybe they are like principal or staff designers, like so they're like in a senior role in their specialty area in their craft.

For almost everybody that I work with, no matter how confident they might seem, they have the same and we all share a lot of the same doubts and fears. And we get in our own way, when it comes to kind of like stepping out and making a stance, you know, sharing a perspective. It's really powerful when you decide, yep, that's a bit scary, and I'm uncomfortable. And also, this is important, and I'm gonna do it. Right? Because that's I mean that's where the growth happens. Like your personal growth, and then that's also where you are able to have an impact on the world.

Steve: I do think it's so important too within those stages to have supports around you as well as, like I appreciate when I work with companies and see them supporting career growth in that way. When you move into leadership. It's not just like this void of well figure it out. There's this sense of you have like an executive coach, or you have a peer mentorship relationship. How can we better ensure we're conducting ourselves ethically to avoid past mistakes within all this too?

Sara: I think a lot about how do you build influence across an organization? How do you get more people to kind of come along with you? And I guess there's a couple things I think about.

One of them is people need a perspective that they can latch on to. They need something that, you need to give something, right? It's like, what is this vision? What is this sort of like change that you want to see happen? Where is the organization kind of missing the boat when it comes to an issue of responsibility? Inclusion? And what would different look like?

And if you can articulate that in a way that feels real and honest, authentic, compelling, not like necessarily shaming people, but you can communicate that in a powerful way, then people get a little bit interested. And so you need to get that confidence, right? You need to really understand why it matters so much to you and be able to speak to it in that authentic way. And then when it resonates with people, that's when you can kind of get them involved. If you wanna sort of sustain change, and if you want to really make an impact in an organization, I think what you have to be able to do, is make people part of it. So identify, not just like sell them on your idea, but actually identify where do you need help being able to execute on this idea? Or where are you getting stuck figuring out what would be next for making this real? And how do you get other people in there who can help you do that? Because once you have people who can kind of go, oh, wow, yes, I agree with you. And they can see a role for them and being part of it, then you start building a lot more momentum. Then you start building a lot more avenues to change.

And so I'm always thinking about things like identifying people in your organization who are really good at clearing roadblocks, who always seem to be super networked, who know people. Or who are the people in your organization who kind of like have their pulse on, like, where the high-level conversation is going? Like, kind of like teasing out this group of people along a lot of different axes. Not necessarily in your same field, not necessarily in your same team. And being able to kind of build that. I mean, coalition makes it sound formal, it can be very informal, but to build--

Steve: Right.

Sara: That kind of really representative group that's all willing to kind of put their actual you know, shoulder into it, they're working on it.

Steve: I love that approach. Like hearing you talk about it like that, like, the coalition.

Sara: Yes.

Steve: But really, the sense of that, you know, there are other folks out there within your organization or peer group or whatever it happens to be that can, that you can work with. That can not only help learn from but actually can, like you said, eliminate roadblocks, move you forward. And I loved when you are chatting about the like a message from leadership needs to have resonance.

Sara: This is actually where content people can be really effective. Because there's so many things that you know how to do if you work with content around, like crafting a message that is clear and concise, and really getting to the point. And being direct in language, like all of those kinds of skills. And thinking about how your audience is going to interact with it. You can apply all of those skills. And if you've done a lot of things like design workshops, you can apply all of those facilitation skills to that kind of co-creation process. And when you're pulling more people in to care about an issue, you can do that in a similar way as you would do if you were pulling people into care about a design problem

I think that there's a lot of overlap there, and because of that, I think I see design and content people being able to take a lot of leadership on where their organization is going if they kind of step up to that power that they have. Right? The skills that they have are really powerful. And it's choosing to employ them in ways that feel a little scary and a little different, but can actually make a huge impact.

Steve: Yeah, I love that. Stepping up to the power that they have.

What things do you look forward to both in just like the virtual events that are popping up but in particular, DCC going online?

Sara: This conference is full of heart and it's full of love, and it's full of people who want to make that attending experience amazing.

Steve: There's a heart to the event that I hope shines through no matter where or how we hold it.

Sara: I think that's the biggest thing. I think the heart is going to shine through even when it's weird. Even when you're trying something experimental. It's like that's what's gonna shine through, and that's what people are going to remember. And I think my experience has been with the crowd at DCC is that people come because they want that, right? They want that level of kind of like, I don't know, human connection from the event. And I don't think that that goes away. I think that's absolutely still there.

Steve: Right from the start, our hashtag has been better together. We're better together physically. Distance right now, but…

We're really looking forward to having you again Sara.

Sara: Yeah, I'm super looking forward to being back.

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