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Sabrina Williams: “Build relationships before you need them”

Consider the implications of “not” doing something. I was asked by my manager to work with the marketing team to come up with a plan to expand our employment brand. The marketing team was busy and since I was a newly minted MBA, I figured I would just do it myself. In the presentation to […]


Consider the implications of “not” doing something. I was asked by my manager to work with the marketing team to come up with a plan to expand our employment brand. The marketing team was busy and since I was a newly minted MBA, I figured I would just do it myself. In the presentation to my manager, she stopped my half way and asked where the marketing team was and why they were not here. I told her I had did it myself. Instead of being pleased she was very upset. She said that my job was not to do the work ( boil the ocean) but instead was to get the marketing team to engage and partner with me. Lesson learned… Just because you can do something , ask yourself is that what I should do.


As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Williams, Chief People Officer at Curriculum Associates.

Sabrina has over two decades of experience in human resources. Throughout her career, she has worked as a powerful change agent, laying the foundation for long-term success through the implementation of comprehensive strategies that put in place people, systems and organizations that enable new business capabilities and revenue opportunities, cost savings, leadership development and pipelines, succession planning, cultural transformations and best-in-class internal service delivery. In heading up HR departments for companies such as Brigham Health, Tufts University, Hill Holiday and more, her transformative efforts have been rewarded with numerous awards, including the Boston Business Journal’s Best Companies to Work list, The Rosoff Awards, and the YWCA Women Achievers Award.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in public housing, going to public schools and realized early on the power of education to change the course of my life and that of my family. I immigrated to NYC from Jamaica West Indies, and my mother was consumed with us “getting” an education. She was one of 13 and did not have the chance to go to school beyond grade school. Unlike NYC, Jamaica did not have a public education system beyond grade school. I honor her by making education a priority, and being at CA is an opportunity to see the power of education on a national scale and change many lives, including my own.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your role at CA?

In the short time since I’ve started working at Curriculum Associates, the thing that strikes me the most is how in tune the company is with the humanity of its employees. In a few months, I’ve had more experiences around the human condition than at any other company, and the vulnerability that the company culture encourages is truly impressive, whether it’s about personal challenges, helping each other through crises, or even discussing religion and life philosophies. In fact, one of the first conversations I had with the CEO was about our personal spirituality, and that was one of the first times I had that kind of conversation in a workplace. In most workplaces, it would be years before a subject like that is broached. But to experience that and see how the culture encourages that openness while also balancing respect of differing beliefs and experiences really shows the emphasis the company places on the whole employee, not just viewing them as disposable worker bees.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started my career in HR, I was working at a big company in a relatively junior-level position. Things went great at first, and I was promoted in less than a year and given the opportunity to work on several important projects. So when the EVP of HR called me in for a meeting about a year after I started working there, I presumed we were going to discuss my next promotion. However, I was shocked to find that the meeting was actually to discuss her disappointment with my performance due to what she perceived as a lack of engagement and contribution in meetings. I was utterly unprepared for this, and immediately responded defensively, but she told me to take a moment to think about her feedback and consider whether this was the job for me.

I walked out of that meeting angry and embarrassed, and immediately pulled out my resume to start applying for new jobs, as I was convinced I no longer wanted to work there after what I perceived as a lack of acknowledgement of my hard work. But then I talked with my older sister about the situation, and she shared some insightful wisdom that I adhere to to this day: It’s not about you, it’s about how you make others feel when they’re with you. As I mulled this over, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking about how to be of service to the people around me. I hadn’t been asking my boss how I could help, sharing takeaways from meetings, etc. Instead, I had been focused on making myself shine to the detriment of my office relationships. This became a defining moment for my career as my focus shifted from myself to being of service to others. I ended up sticking with the job, and my boss even became a mentor later on!

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CPO that most attracted you to it?

I grew up in public housing, going to public schools, and realized early on the power of education to change the course of my life and that of my family. I immigrated to NYC from Jamaica West Indies, and my mother was consumed with us “getting” an education. She was one of 13 and did not have the chance to go to school beyond grade school. Unlike NYC, Jamaica did not have a public education system beyond grade school. I honor her by making education a priority, and being at CA is an opportunity to see the power of education on a national scale and change many lives, including my own.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

An executive’s job is to be of service to others, creating a vision that people can lock into and helping to connect everyone’s work together to serve this higher purpose for your company. It’s also about being willing to make the tough decisions; you have to be willing to walk away from what’s right for some people if it’s not what’s best for the majority of people in the company.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

The thing I enjoy most about being a Chief People Officer is the ability to make things happen. I enjoy seeing things from concept to implementation in real and tangible ways.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The downsides are that you sometimes have to make the “unpopular” decisions and take the blame, regardless of whether you made the mistake or not. Another downside is that it can often be lonely.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that working hard is enough. It is table stakes; what you need is some luck and strong relationships. No one is successful alone.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest challenge faced by women executives is being seen as deserving of the role. Women are often viewed as the “only” or token executive.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think the most striking difference is that the job is really about the people. Oftentimes you are given a title, but the job does not really marry up. I am shocked by how much my job is about putting the people of CA front and center. It is refreshing that I get to do a job that truly makes me proud of the impact we make every day on people.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

A successful executive has to be passionate, humble, discerning, and able to see the big picture. If you’re not convinced that what you do matters, you won’t have enough gas left in the tank when things get tough. This also applies to people — if you don’t believe in your team, they’ll feel it and their performance will suffer as a result. Discernment is huge; you need to be able to balance so many things and know when it’s time to delegate and what questions to ask so that you stay on the right path. Humility is also important, as good leaders need to be able to take not only the glory, but the accountability and responsibility for mistakes as well. Careers stall when you’re too mired in the small details to see the big picture.

If you don’t develop these traits, you’re not going to succeed as an executive.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Remember the value in diverse voices, and own your unique perspective — especially if you’re the only woman in the room. That may make your coworkers uncomfortable at first, but your team needs to know that it’s ok to address that elephant in the room. In order to build a team that trusts one another and thrives, you need to create a safe environment of vulnerability and authenticity.

On the other side of this, don’t be afraid to have high standards. As women, we’re often worried about being perceived as aggressive if we expect top level performance from our team, and often instead fall into the trap of being too “nice” and accommodating. But you don’t need to defend or justify your high standards — that should be the default for female leaders just as it is for male leaders.

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 about that?

One of my former managers gave me great advice.

I was asked to work with the marketing department on a campaign for our diverse customers. This was outside my HR wheelhouse, but given my recent MBA, I was excited to take this on. I was unsuccessful in getting the marketing support I needed, so I did the work on my own. At my meeting with the head of HR (my manager), I presented the work. My manager was silent. She asked if this was based on marketing’s input, and I told her “no.” I assumed that she would be impressed that I did it myself, and she was not. She told me that effective leaders inspire others to do their best work, not do it for them. That changed my view of leadership and my role as a leader. It was a paradigm shift.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Every day at work I get to help advance Curriculum Associates’ mission and change the world one student at a time. As Chief People Officer, this has meant implementing diversity, inclusion and company culture-focused initiatives to make the company even greater. Outside of work, I volunteer for numerous nonprofits focused on education, the arts and economic empowerment for those less fortunate than myself, including as the board chair for United South End Settlements (provides social services), the treasurer/board member for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (helps people improve their lives and build stronger communities through free education, job training, and placement), and a board member for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Listen more, talk less. Example: Early on in my career one of my mentors told me that my worth would not be measured by what I did but in a lot of ways by what I chose not to do. I was at a conference and was giving a talk on inclusion and I realized that I was not “modeling” what I was espousing. I was doing all the talking, I was not engaging others, I was preaching not leading. Mid-way I remembered what my mentor told me and took the talk into a different direction at the break. I asked others to share their thoughts and perspectives and I just listened. I was more impactful by allowing my lack of action (talking) to inform the session. I learned to be still and just be in the moment.
  2. Consider the implications of “not” doing something. Example: I was asked by my manager to work with the marketing team to come up with a plan to expand our employment brand. The marketing team was busy and since I was a newly minted MBA, I figured I would just do it myself. In the presentation to my manager, she stopped my half way and asked where the marketing team was and why they were not here. I told her I had did it myself. Instead of being pleased she was very upset. She said that my job was not to do the work ( boil the ocean) but instead was to get the marketing team to engage and partner with me. Lesson learned… Just because you can do something , ask yourself is that what I should do.
  3. Success is relative. Example: Looking back at my career, many of the achievements I used to consider my big wins are just window dressing at this point. The real successes are the intangibles — relationships with your coworkers, watching a team member you mentored going on to do great things, etc. My success isn’t just about what I do, but about how I’ve invested in the people around me.
  4. Words matter. Example: I once gave a presentation and used some incorrect terminology. My colleague called me out on it, but instead of admitting my error and moving forward, I dug in and threw off the flow of the whole presentation as a result. The issue wasn’t so much that I used the wrong words, but that I was unwilling to take criticism and responded in defensiveness. No one is always right — admit and learn from these situations and move forward. People are paying attention not only to the words, but how you say them, so it’s important to be intentional with communication. How you choose to communicate speaks volumes more than what you say, so make sure you’re choosing the best method, not the most convenient method.
  5. Build relationships before you need them. Example: I once interviewed for a position that instead of calling the references I gave them, reached out to random people in my network. Suddenly I was getting calls from people I hadn’t spoken to in years, and it quickly made me realize the value of cultivating and maintaining your network so that everyone has a lasting positive impression of you, as we’re all more connected than we realize. So take that call from the colleague that needs something, and never be too busy to help someone out. You should be serving the people in your network much more often than you’re asking them for a favor. Aim for a 3:1 ratio.

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

If I could inspire any movement, I would campaign for free education all the way through college. The positive impact of access to quality education is transformative not only for individuals, but for society as a whole.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorites is “ no surprises.” Given my professional role, it is critical that I embody transparency and discretion. It is crucial that people know where they stand with me and vice versa.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 if we tag them

There are three people I’d love to sit down with: Bill Gates, Pete Frates, and Jay-Z.

I love what Bill Gates is doing with the Gates Foundation, and I’d love to hear more about that. I am also incredibly impressed by the way Pete Frates, who recently passed, took his A.L.S. diagnosis and instead of sinking into despair like the rest of us would, made it into a cause that was so much bigger than himself with the Ice Bucket Challenge. I hope that I could be that selfless were I to be in a similar position one day, and wish I could have met him. A New Yorker myself, I’m also phenomenally interested in Jay-Z’s rags to riches story. He’s also recently become a voice in the movement addressing incarceration of young men and the impact it has on generations, particularly in the African American community. I’d love to talk with him about his work in this area and how he uses his influence as a famous musician to bring about positive change.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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