Dr. Sarah Stebbins: “A is for Acceptance”

A is for Acceptance. How much easier it is for us to accept the challenges in our lives rather than fight them! Accepting does not mean we necessarily agree with what is happening; however, accepting that a challenge or situation is beyond our control allows us to focus on what we can do to make […]

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A is for Acceptance. How much easier it is for us to accept the challenges in our lives rather than fight them! Accepting does not mean we necessarily agree with what is happening; however, accepting that a challenge or situation is beyond our control allows us to focus on what we can do to make things easier for ourselves.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sarah Stebbins.

Certified and Professional Coach Dr. Sarah Stebbins is an organizational change management consultant, as well as the author of “From Fire to Water: Moving Through Change: Six Elements for Personal Resiliency.” Dr. Stebbins is Adjunct Faculty at Portland State University in their Center for Executive and Professional Education. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, the Federal Government, colleges and universities, as well as non-profit organizations. Visit www.thebetterchange.com.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Thank you for having me! I chuckle when I reflect on my life and then think about the topic of my book: Resilience. Resilience has played an important role in my life…whether I was aware of it or not!

I was born and spent most of my youth growing up in Wisconsin and Michigan. During this time, I lived in eight different houses in four different cities. It seemed like every time I came home from summer camp, I was in a new house!

This pattern of moving followed me into early adulthood as within a short number of years, I moved to Montana, back to Wisconsin, then to Oregon, Arizona, California, and finally back to Oregon, where I finally put roots down. I have been living in the Portland area for over 30 years.

As a child, I was kind of considered an outlier in my family. The youngest of three, I rebelled against the family norms and charted my own course. With an academically successful older brother and sister, I resisted becoming like them and, as a result, barely got into college, where I almost flunked out twice.

Charting my own course does not necessarily mean I had a plan! I was a free spirit, following my heart and holding a strong belief that I could change the world. By the way, that belief has not changed!

Through several fortunate circumstances, including receiving wonderful mentoring along the way, I finally recognized my strengths and intelligence, which allowed me to successfully complete two graduate degrees. My education also allowed me to pursue a career in corporate healthcare and, currently, a successful consulting business for over 20 years. Isn’t it ironic that my specialty area is managing change?

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Sure! This story comes from early in my career and it stays with me because it was a turning point for me. It really laid the foundation for where and who I am today.

Several months after my college graduation, I worked for an organization serving youth in Wisconsin. Both the Executive and Program Directors wanted to attract older youth to the camp by offering a three-week Canadian canoe trip to the older campers. Knowing of my expertise in and love for this type of wilderness experience, I was asked to put this program together.

I dove into this assignment with a great deal of enthusiasm! Following weeks of extensive research, I presented my proposal to the Executive Director. In it I described the required logistics for a successful trip and the kind of leadership needed to make it happen.

Upon reading it, she looked at me and said “Sarah, I don’t think you understand what I am asking for…I don’t want you to hire the leader for this trip, I want you to be the leader. You have laid out in wonderful detail how this trip needs to happen; now I want you to make it happen.”

It took me a few minutes to process her message. I was stunned. I never really considered myself a leader and certainly did not believe I could be successful in this role! Well, this trip was, indeed, successful — as were the many trips I led in the years to come.

The lessons I learned from this experience were profound. It was clear that agency leadership saw something in me that I did not. It provided me my first mentoring experience. With my mentors by my side, I learned through trial and error how to become a leader — a role I have since embraced over the years. Knowing the power of mentorship, I have and continue to mentor others as they pursue their dreams. These mentoring experiences are a big reason why I became a professionally trained coach.

In addition, leading these canoe trips taught me much about leadership itself: the importance of working through others, collaborative decision making, and relationship building. I learned I am more satisfied with success achieved through community engagement than through solo effort.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think the learning experience of those canoe trips I just described addresses the uniqueness of my consulting business. My work is totally employee-focused and helps organizational leaders realize that their employees are the single most important resource they have. I tell leadership that at the end of the working day, their most important resource walks out of the office, and it is leadership’s job to make this resource, their employees, want to come back the next day. My business vision is “Creating healthy working communities.”

To illustrate my vision in action, I share this story. A few years ago, relatives were visiting when they happened to eat at a restaurant that was a former client of mine. They raved about the food and the wonderful service they received. When I inquired about the service, they said that the servers were genuinely excited about working there and loved how they were treated by restaurant’s management.

When I told my relatives that the restaurant was a former client, they looked surprised. I then said, “What you experienced was the direct result of my work with them. You now know what I do!”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I mentioned earlier that I was fortunate to have people mentor me throughout my career. I have two individuals who come to mind. These two mentors were present before and after I was going through a career change.

I was “asked to resign” (aka fired) from a position nine months after moving to a new city. It was a major crisis for me, as I had no support system there and felt completely lost. The one person I knew I could tell without being judged was my grandmother. Her response was what I needed in that moment: “Well, Sarah, they are pretty stupid people; it is their loss, you know. Maybe it is time to do something else?” Her response motivated me to follow other pursuits. In retrospect, I think my grandmother was the ultimate mentor in my life — a title I am sure she would be surprised to carry!

Her comment, however, finally led me to my first college teaching position and the second great mentor of my career. He was willing to take a chance on me even though I had been removed from my previous position. We re-established contact within the last year or two, which was wonderful! Unfortunately, he passed away before I could visit him. I will forever remember how he supported me in my new college teaching career.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I could talk all day on this topic! In simplest terms, resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back after an event even stronger than before. This definition can be applied to almost anything.

If we pause to observe, we can find examples of resilience almost everywhere! Because of my love for the outdoors, I can provide many examples. When Mt. St. Helens, in Washington State, erupted back in 1980, there were many who feared the flora and fauna of the area would never recover because of the immensity of the volcanic blast. Yet a year later, elk were observed returning and undergrowth being renewed. The forested lands returned with new vigor because of the newly enriched volcanic soil promoting its growth. This is a fine example of resilience: bouncing back even better!

For we humans, resilience has a different twist. We not only have the capability to bounce back, but we also learn from our experiences. What we learn contributes to the building what I call our “resilience muscle.” When we exercise this muscle, we can bounce back more quickly.

Here is what I mean. How many times have you had an experience that knocked you down? You said to yourself, “Oh, I have been here before!” and then allowed that past event to provide insights into achieving resilience in the current moment. In that moment, you have exercised your “resilience muscle.”

As I have studied resilience in others, I think these traits stand out the most: purpose, persistence, faith, and self-care. I address many of these traits in my book because they relate to the six resiliency elements.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

That is easy! The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg personified resilience in my opinion. She pursued a profession dominated by men at a time when there was little regard for the value of women in the workplace — certainly, that was very true in the legal profession! Her fierce persistence in supporting the rights of women was the hallmark of her career and she did so while raising children, caring for a sick husband and, in later years, surviving several bouts of cancer. Though she is no longer with us, I hold her up as an exceptional example of one individual’s resilience.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

With poor high school grades and failure to achieve admission to my preferred college, I remember my guidance counselor telling me I was probably not college material. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was either! However, her comment made me so angry, I felt I had to do something to prove her wrong.

I knuckled down, paid attention to my studies, and re-applied to my desired university. It was with a great deal of smugness that I presented my acceptance letter to my guidance counselor. Ah, revenge!!!

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I think I have already shared this story. Being fired from my job resulted in a very dark time for me. With no local support system and parents who were concerned yet unable to provide the emotional support I needed, I really had to figure things out on my own. As I indicated, my grandmother was my temporary “anchor” during this time.

When I cleared my desk out before departing, I grabbed a file I had been adding to over time. I called this my “personal resource file.” In it, I placed information that crossed my desk which was interesting to me yet unrelated to my job.

This file turned out to be a lifeline. Amid the sadness I experienced during this time, I found solace in the file’s contents. I allowed my curiosity to guide me as I read the pieces and I kept asking myself “What if…?” or “Where could this information lead me?” The piece that really caught my eye was a university program that trained students in the field of youth agency work.

My excitement grew as I sent off a letter of inquiry. The response was almost immediate: a new faculty position was being created in this program and was I interested in applying? Three months later I was hired, and my college teaching career was launched!

I bounced back better than ever from this experience and to this day I advise my coaching clients who have lost a job, “Regardless of how you are feeling, let your curiosity guide you because you never know where it will lead.”

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

Sure. I was bullied a lot growing up. Before I got braces, I had very buck teeth which made me a target for ridicule on the playground. My parents just encouraged me to walk away from the taunts even when the taunts became more physical in nature. I really felt confused by their strategy as it didn’t seem fair to me because I was the one getting beaten up!

One time, I was staying with my grandparents because my parents were out of town. When I was picked up at school by my grandfather, I told him that I had been beaten up on the playground. He was horrified that I just walked away. He said doing so just gave the bullies permission to keep doing it. He said I had to learn to stand my ground with them. One kid who was the ringleader of the “playground mob” was quite nasty. Both my grandparents felt it was time for me to give him and the others a taste of their own medicine. After my grandfather coached me on a few boxing moves, I was ready!

The next day on the playground the ringleader started taunting me which made the others join in. Once he got within range of my reach, I unloaded a punch to his chin that flattened him to the ground. The other kids, out of shock, scattered quickly and he, writhing on the ground in pain, started crying and screaming for me to stay away. When I saw no blood coming from his mouth or head and no missing teeth, I knew I hadn’t hurt him to the degree that he was screaming at me. I walked away feeling very satisfied! My gratification grew even more when, at school the next day, no one came near me!

That was my first lesson in how to stand up for myself. These days, I do not go around slugging people to defend myself. I have learned how to take a stand in more adult ways when needed. That experience told me I could take care of myself — an important lesson in resilience!

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 6 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Great! These six steps or elements provide the foundation for my book, From Fire to Water: Moving through Change; Six Elements for Personal Resiliency. Each element is represented the by a letter in the word “change.”

They are:

C is for Candor. I talk in the book about two types of candor. The first type is the kind of candor that is lacking, especially during times of rapid organizational change. Driven by leadership’s inability or lack of desire to be open about the changes impacting employees, this lack of candor leads to distrust and an informal form of communication based on rumor and hearsay.

I cite in the book the experience I had when I worked for a large healthcare corporation. I was charged with providing outplacement services for employees who were losing their jobs due to an organizational restructuring. While not my favorite assignment, I was going to pursue it with as much dignity and empathy as I could. The only problem was, I did not have access to the names of those who would need the services. When I inquired about the list, I was told it was confidential. The irony of this situation did not escape me. I was charged with this responsibility, not given the needed information to carry out this task, and — for all I knew — my name could very well have been on the list!

This story does end with me eventually getting the information I needed to complete my assignment. However, the lack of candor and transparency during this time created a distrust in leadership that lingered. Employees did not believe leadership when told organizational downsizing would not happen again.

The second form of candor is self-honesty. How often have we allowed ourselves to get into unhealthy situations because we were not totally honest with ourselves? Here is an example that comes from a good friend of mine.

Until she was honest with herself about how unhealthy her long-term relationship was, she was not able to make a change. The question she asked herself that finally led her to make a change was, “What am I pretending not to know about this relationship?” She was brutally honest with her responses and later left the 12-year relationship.

H is for Heroism. I would be willing to bet that if I asked you identify a hero you wouldn’t name yourself! It easy to look outside ourselves for hero figures, when there is a hero that resides within all of us. I believe throughout life, we demonstrate heroism every time we take a risk or are persistent in the pursuit of our passions.

I think of the young college basketball star who led her team to both the conference and conference tournament championships while grieving the loss her famous NBA basketball celebrity mentor.

I also think of the manager I worked with who took an enormous risk pushing senior leadership to renegotiate an aggressive service timeline because her employees, while committed to meeting the deadlines, physically and mentally just could not do it.

Lastly, I think of the 20-year-old friend who overcame health and emotional issues and is pursuing her degree in astrophysics.

Yes, we are all heroes, and we need to trust that this inner hero will rise within us when we are suddenly faced with an unexpected challenge.

A is for Acceptance. How much easier it is for us to accept the challenges in our lives rather than fight them! Accepting does not mean we necessarily agree with what is happening; however, accepting that a challenge or situation is beyond our control allows us to focus on what we can do to make things easier for ourselves.

I learned the power of acceptance on my Colorado River trip. Getting doused by the river while running rapids was part of the trip adventure that we all embraced. Because we were more wet than dry, I found it very funny when a rain squall hit the river…and us. People wildly scrambled to find their rain gear. I had no idea where mine was located and as I thinking about this, I suddenly asked myself the question: “Why bother? I am already wet, and the rain IS warmer than the river water!” And so, while others were in frantic search of rain gear that would not aid in keeping them dry at this point, I settled back and allowed the warm water to wash over me, marveling at how good it felt on my skin.

N is for Nurture. It is hard to bounce back when we do not take care of ourselves! I immediately think of a coaching client of mine who was experiencing great chaos after the pandemic closed schools and businesses. He was looking for work, creating an office at home, setting up virtual home schooling for his kids, and redefining parental roles now that both he and his spouse were working from home. He viewed all these tasks as top priorities. He was tired, out of energy and could not fathom himself as being able to accomplish anything.

When he realized that he had to take care of himself first before he could do the other things described above, he made himself priority one. He created time several times a week to pursue nurturing activities he had ignored when the chaos hit him. Sticking to a schedule of these activities, he completely recovered, which allowed him to focus on the family priorities.

G is for Gratitude. When a change or catastrophe hits us, we immediately focus on the bad things associated with the event. Part of our doing so, I think, is related to our natural survival instinct. We automatically try to avoid those things that may cause us further harm. Constantly reacting to potential dangers or being in a state of constant fear, however, can wear us down and keep us emotionally frozen in place. During these times, we are far better off focusing on what we do have rather than what we do not.

A most recent example of gratitude’s comforting support can be found in the stories of people made homeless by the massive and destructive Oregon wildfires last fall. Whole communities were burned to the ground, leaving residents with little or nothing. Rather than succumbing to the fear they had about their uncertain futures and complaining about what they had lost, when interviewed they expressed gratitude for what they did have — their “gratitude lists” transcended the most important one: They were grateful to be alive. This level of gratitude continued as they started the arduous task of recovery and rebuilding.

E is for Engagement. The pandemic certainly has had an impact on the mental health of millions due to the sense of isolation staying home has produced. Any major change or crisis such as this one really emphasizes the importance of this last resilience element: engagement. Staying connected with the important people in our lives has been critical to our managing isolation. Fortunately, technology has made it easier for us to stay engaged with others.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Wow! This is a great question! One of the things I observe in my consulting work is how many people retain a victim’s attitude when something unexpected happens to them. The victim mentality leads to blaming others for the current situation. I have learned from my life and my career that blaming does not resolve the issue and, in fact, can perpetuate it.

I want people to understand that even in the most difficult of situations, they have more control over their circumstances than they think they have. I hope that if readers of my book incorporate these six elements into their lives, they will feel more in centered and empowered to do great things!

If there is a movement to be had from what I have described, it would be Transcending Victimhood!

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Oh my, I can think of many people I would love to interact with — really? Only one? I will choose Dr. Brené Brown. I love her self-empowerment work and how she has changed the lives of thousands who are willing to listen to her wisdom!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My website is www.thebetterchange.com. There people can reserve a copy of my book: From Fire to Water: Moving through Change: The Six Elements for Personal Resiliency. They can also become familiar with my work and follow my blog. In addition, I am on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahstebbins.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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