The Journey to #SHRM19 MEGA Edition: An Interview with Sarah Noll Wilson


We are a little over a month away from the premier HR event in the world; the 2019 Annual SHRM Conference and Exposition! On June 23, 2019, HR professionals/business leaders from across the globe will journey to Las Vegas with one shared goal in mind, and that is how we can all improve the quality of life for the people we’re serving by creating better workplaces. I’m grateful to present an interview with someone that truly leads the way towards creating those workplaces. And a Mega Session speaker certainly deserves a Mega Edition #SHRM19 Blog post!

For this year’s event, I wanted to interview someone that will not only help improve the lives of our people within the workplace, but also help them flourish personally as well. A speaker that can help someone build strong relationships both inside and outside of the workplace. Sarah Noll Wilson is one such incredible speaker! Coaching is one of the most critical roles we have as business leaders, as it gives us the chance to help our people use their own strengths to discover truly life-changing breakthroughs. Sarah is an expert in this area, and she’s genuinely passionate about making a difference for others.

I absolutely cannot wait to attend Sarah’s upcoming Mega Session in Las Vegas entitled “That Wasn't My Intention!”: A Coaching Framework to Close the Gap Between Intention and Impact. We’ll learn a transformative coaching framework to help our team members increase their self-awareness, explore possibilities and take action. Here’s a bit more about Sarah, courtesy of the #SHRM19 website:

Sarah works with entry level employees to c-suite executives who are ready to move from good to great. Sarah creates a safe, but unreservedly honest environment, preparing leaders to deal with real-world conflict, have more meaningful conversations, create purposeful relationships and develop adaptable workplaces. By blending principles from neuroscience, Adaptive Leadership, Conversational Intelligence, Appreciative Inquiry, Mindfulness, and improv, she helps people learn how to show up for life and find the best version of themselves. Her style has been described as “teaching from the soul.” Sarah is eager to help others have fun while doing the serious work to uncover self-awareness, make intentional choices, and co-create more meaningful relationships.

Sarah was so kind, gracious, and awesome to share her wisdom with all of us, and I’m just fascinated by what she has to share! In the following interview, we talk “plurpose,” personal and professional growth, and even video games, which you can read below:

First, I was browsing your website and “plurpose” instantly became one of my new favorite words! Can you tell us more about this, and why this is one of the values that embodies the work you do?

First, the definition of PLURPOSE, since I created this word: “To play with purpose.” This value of playing with purpose influences how I show up as a coach, a facilitator and a speaker. While laughter and joy have always been a part of my personal fabric, this idea of playing with purpose first emerged in college. One of my undergraduate degrees was in Theatre Education, which wasn’t teaching theatre but using theatre as an educational tool. Through this work, I was able to see the transformative power of play from a learning perspective. Students who normally weren’t engaged suddenly came to life and were making connections teachers had never seen before, simply because we were engaging all their senses. In school this is called Creative Drama, but in Adult Learning it’s known as Experiential Learning.

How does it show up in my work now? Most of my work with people and teams is tough and requires us to look at uncomfortable truths and possibilities. I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to explore tough concepts is with a little bit of intentional levity. That designed levity can turn those undiscussables into something less scary, less shameful, and something we can reflect on powerfully. For example, I work with a lot of teams building the skill to free the elephant in the room that is getting in the way of their success.

Sometimes at retreats I will bring a stuffed elephant to sit on each table as a reminder that sometimes there are things going unsaid that need to be heard. And what inevitably happens, without direction, is that people will pick up this toy when they are going to share something that might be difficult. It becomes a cue for everyone in the room to know we are freeing an elephant. Another example of plurpose is that I’ve created tongue-in-cheek phrases to help understand what type of elephant we are experiencing, i.e. “Avoidaphants” or “Blameaphants.”

I firmly believe learning should have moments of fun. That we can hold up a mirror to ourselves in a way that doesn’t shame us, but instead reminds us that we are beautiful, messy humans, and that sometimes we are ridiculous. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received from a client was, “Sarah, I love that your style is light-hearted but the information is not lightweight.”

HR professionals often perform work in varying and diverse areas. How essential do you see coaching in the daily work of an HR professional?

I’ve been fortunate to experience incredible training, but nothing has been as transformative for me personally and professionally as coaching. Based on my experience and the transformation I see in people I work with, I believe that coaching is essential not only for HR professionals, but for anyone who has relationships. Who couldn’t benefit from deeper listening, less advice-giving, and more curiosity?

When I say coaching, I am referring to this definition: Through deep listening and thoughtful questions, we help the other person increase awareness, explore possibilities and take inspired action.

Speaking specifically to my HR partners, our jobs require us to answer questions from all over the organization and to solve problems. Often our value is how quickly we put out and prevent fires. As a result, we can fall into the trap of being the one with the answer. A coaching mindset is critical because it shifts us from solving the problems and helps the others find the answers.

Can you describe how your coaching strategies lead to transformative growth on both the personal and professional levels? As a saboteur whisperer, how can you help someone identify those barriers to growth, and break through them?

I’ve had clients who have experienced transformation like going after and receiving a promotion they didn’t think they were ready for, moving from nearly being fired to becoming a senior leader, to others making career changes based on the clarity they discovered about who they were at their best. Rather than explore those case studies, I’d like to share a few of the practices in hopes it will serve those reading.

When I first started my company, my ideal coaching client was someone who had achieved a level of success and didn’t feel they deserved it. I was blown away by the number of people who resonated with this statement. We all experience barriers to what we want or the impact we want to make. While some of these barriers are external (money, education, location, etc.) the ones that get in our way the most often are our internal barriers. The thoughts we have about ourselves or the situation that limit us in some way.

These thoughts tell us we aren’t good enough, ready enough, or qualified enough. I call these thoughts saboteurs, because they sabotage us in some way. When I’m working with a client (or even myself) and I hear these saboteur voices, I find these strategies help to minimize their power:

  1. Name it. Yes, give it a name. This may seem weird, but naming the saboteur helps us take it outside of our own identity and externalize it to see it for what it is: just a thought. For example, I have a few saboteurs in my head. “Not Yet Nancy” tells me I’m not ready yet to take the risks I want to take. Or “Better Betty” focuses on all the things I could have done better instead of seeing the great things I did accomplish. Instead of thinking, “Sarah, you aren’t ready yet to write that book,” I can now say, “I hear you, Not Yet Nancy. Thank you, I’m good.”

It’s amazing how quickly someone’s relationship changes with this thought the minute they give it a name (even a NSFW name, which I’ve heard plenty). 

  1. Notice and track when that voice grows louder. Understanding what situations trigger a saboteur voice helps us understand what the ultimate worry behind it is, so we can work on that. A funny thing happens when you start to pay attention to these thoughts. You can fall into what I call a “Shame Shame Boomerang” (I dare you to say that outloud and not smile). Here is how it works: You notice that saboteur and you beat yourself up a bit (“Darn it, there’s that damn thought again”) and then you remember, “Crap, Sarah told me to celebrate the catch and not shame myself.” And suddenly you are bouncing between two shame thoughts, hence the Shame Shame Boomerang. 
  2. Thank the Saboteur. The saboteur is there because it wants to protect you when you start to play a bit bigger than you had before. Instead of wishing it away, thank it for letting you know you are playing in the right space. I know now that when my saboteurs show up, I am playing big enough.

One of the other values you list on your website is “rebel rouser.” How do you feel HR professionals can align their performance with this value to challenge the status quo and move our field forward?

HR Professionals are uniquely set up to have tremendous influence on the culture of the organization. I have had the privilege to work for, and now partner with, HR leaders who didn’t ask for permission. Instead, they brought competence and confidence when communicating or making decisions. A phrase that I often see come up (still) at HR conferences is, “How do we get a seat at the table?” It’s time for us to stop asking for a seat and to make one. 

There are several lessons I’ve learned along the way (sometimes the hard way) that helped me become a more powerful advocate for investing in and prioritizing humans at work. The first was learning to shift from a selling mindset, where my tactics were telling/selling/pitching, to a co-creating mindset. I would make arguments like, “We need to develop our team members,” “We need to do this…” “We should be doing this…” What I learned was the more I pushed, it almost always caused people to push back. Instead, I learned how to listen to what was important to them. By starting with their goal, we could more effectively help guide them to some of the best practices that they may have been initially resistant to explore.

The second lesson I learned from an incredible HR Director I reported to for several years was the art of the long game. I’m a sprinter. I like moving fast and making change even faster. Sometimes faster than others were ready. She taught me that sometimes to make big changes, we need to plant a lot of seeds through conversations with many leaders over time. While sometimes things didn’t move as fast as I would have liked, they nearly always ended up in the direction we were fighting for.

If you could identify one key takeaway from your upcoming session for attendees, what would it be? (Feel free to choose more than one!)

Since I have the fortune of speaking on two different topics, I’ll share an insight from each that have helped me tremendously, along with tools people will take away. My philosophy is that theory is great, but tools are better. I always want to give people specific practices they can apply immediately.

The first session Tuesday morning is called, “That Wasn’t My Intention: Closing the gap between intentions and impact

My aha – Sometimes our intentions aren’t as good as we might want to believe. We all have moments where our brain moves into protection mode, and that impacts how we might show up in a situation. I call these our shadow intentions because our actions come from a place of protection or power instead of partnering.

What will the audience gain? A coaching framework that can be applied when dealing with a conversation that didn’t go as planned, or when heading into an important conversation. I’ll also share specific questions I use with my clients (and myself) and share case studies of those questions.

The second session Wednesday morning is called, “The Cost of Distrust and How to Avoid It

My aha – If there are people I distrust, there are likely people who distrust me. This was a tough concept for me at first, because I’m a highly trusting person. It’s helped me approach conversations differently knowing that distrust can happen without us realizing it.

What will the audience gain? A deeper understanding of our brain on distrust. Specifically, people will leave understanding about the role our Amygdala plays in conversations and the corresponding stress responses when it is triggered. I’ll share strategies to build awareness in yourself and to help others when they have been triggered.

Tell us how we can keep in touch with you on social media, and if you have any projects you’d like to mention!

Yes, I love new friends! Please connect and say hello on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook. You can also check out my videos on YouTube and sign up for my newsletter/blog.

Upcoming projects – I’m finally writing my first book tentatively titled, “The Chronically Curious Leader.” I would LOVE to hear stories from people where curiosity served the situation OR a lack of curiosity impacted it. Feel free to connect with me directly if you have a good story to share!

Bonus Question: Favorite video game ever?!

Favorite solo game: Megamania on the Atari. I love it so much my brother bought my Megamania socks. 

Favorite partner game: Super Mario Galaxy. One of my favorite games to play with my husband Nick. We are a Nintendo family, and even had our wedding cake replicate the entire first level of Super Mario Bros with us coming out of a warp pipe as the topper.

Endless gratitude to Sarah for making this interview possible. I can’t wait to learn from her in person, and hope you’ll join me in Las Vegas for her sessions and what’s sure to be a can’t-miss event!


Sarah Noll Wilson will be joining us for a #SHRM19 #Nextchat on June 12!



The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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