Remember, you’re not a great leader despite being a woman. You’re a great leader because you’ve committed to constant learning. Please don’t check your womanhood or humanity at the door on the misunderstanding that it will make you a stronger leader.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Dawn.
Sarah is a small business expert who consults with entrepreneurs scaling their businesses. As a business owner and attorney, she has built a seven figure business and uses that valuable experience to guide other industry leaders. She helps her clients in growing their teams, launching new products and services, and optimizing operations — all while serving their customers at the highest level. She knows that sometimes it all feels like too much, but with intentional design and strategy, her people can achieve a business and lifestyle they love. You can find her at www.bizlifeinspired.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you! I started my career as an attorney. I grew up pretty poor and knew I didn’t want to struggle my entire life. I was also very assertive. If something didn’t seem right, I said something, as young as age 5 (maybe younger). I was told that I should be an attorney many times from teachers, family and family friends. I laugh realizing that probably wasn’t a compliment, but it was people getting comfortable with how I show up. It stuck with me in a positive way though.
In my career, I went all in but not always in a healthy way. I think I believed I had dues to pay to prove myself worthy of being successful. I had to do more, and give from an empty cup when my counterparts didn’t have to. I spent about a decade burning out, and the impact was finally big enough that I knew I needed to shift. I spent several years getting intentional and selecting all the parts of my business that I loved as an attorney, and started consulting that niche minus the burnout.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The power of connection is what comes to mind. In 2018 I moved across the country, and was starting the new focus of my business. That also meant I was restarting my local network from scratch. That felt scary, but I started by reaching out to the ONE person I knew — a woman who is a leader in the construction industry in Arizona. She introduced me to one person, who also introduced me to one person, all of them being well connected women business leaders. As vulnerable and scary as it was not knowing anyone, I kept showing up with every opportunity to meet new people, and kept asking for introductions. It probably only took about a month until I had made some of the most genuine relationships and started to build an amazing network again.
I love to share this story, because I honestly thought it would take years. I had spent my entire adult life in the community I built my first business in, and I assumed I needed the same kind of time. My number one advice to anyone else starting out in their business is to show up and ask for connection. People want to help you! Be genuine and keep showing up, and your network will grow exponentially.
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?
Hiring and leadership mistakes have the biggest cringe factor, but are definitely the funniest looking back. I’ll admit, I have had several over the years, but one that stands out was someone on our team who we asked to act as a translator when we had clients that primarily spoke her first language. It didn’t occur to me to do a trial run. I sat her down with the clients and she couldn’t translate a single phrase. She nervously laughed the whole meeting and kept asking the client to translate for her. My face tells all, and I know I was just staring at her and the client in horror. I couldn’t escape, I had to just let the storm run its course.
Later it occurred to me that when she was a child speaking her first language, it probably didn’t include the professional vocabulary we were using in the meeting. I wanted to die at the time, but the awkwardness is really funny looking back.
At first, I was so frustrated with her for over estimating her ability in that role. We looked ridiculous in that meeting. But the important lesson is that it was MY job as the leader to evaluate her capacity for the role. I’m sure she felt frustrated and blindsided too. When hiring or promoting, you have to make sure it is actually a good fit for both the individual and you. Bottom line, the mistakes can be horrific and turnover is expensive. These are people, not just butts in seats.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My educational background in psychology and law, combined with my decade plus experience in growing small businesses definitely makes my consulting services stand out. I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’ve failed, and succeeded. Because of that, I have a huge amount of compassion for what small business owners are going through, and intimate understanding of their goals.
Whether I’m working on growth, operations strategy, or leadership with a client, I always have a goal in the background to make sure what we’re developing is in line with a lifestyle my client loves. That was the longest lesson for me to learn as a business owner, to check my business priorities in alignment with my life as a whole.
I’ve had several clients that have worked with other consulting firms that insist on cramming them in a box. They have perfect formulas that their clients must follow exactly. It’s great to apply proven methods. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But there also has to be room for customization. I had a client come to me completely burned out and her business wasn’t growing. We dove in and discovered tons of busy work that another consultant had her doing that wasn’t authentic to her business. She was draining her energy and not even connecting with her perfect clients because the authenticity was gone. A month into working with me she was floored that she was spending less time in her business, but making more money.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m developing an awesome program for solo professionals that are hiring for the first time. I expect it to be ready by early summer! Many business owners make their first hire in a place of desperation. They are stretched thin in their company and are looking to “clone themselves”. This program walks them through what preparation they should make with their operations and individually as a leader when getting ready to hire. This will save businesses thousands of dollars from hiring, training, and ultimately losing the wrong people.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Not at all. The numbers suggest that only about a fourth of STEM careers are held by women, while women make up a solid half of people seeking those careers. That’s a huge fallout. It starts at the university level. I think the culture of STEM majors, particularly engineering has women as outliers. I’d like to see their recruiting efforts make more than a nod to women (such as women in brochure images), but a real intentional effort to recruit women in their programs.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I see women in STEM facing the same challenges I did in burning out. I think since they are underrepresented in their roles, they also feel pressure to work longer hours and put in more effort in ways that wouldn’t be expected of their male counterparts. Whether that pressure is internal or put on them by their industry, the result is the same. Women in STEM businesses often feel they have to earn dues that shouldn’t be owed.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I think a lot of what we believe about people in various careers comes from entertainment. In my career as an attorney, I was fed by Hollywood images of lawyers working late nights and missing dinners with their family. When we relate that to women in STEM, what do we see in entertainment? Usually an eccentric or socially awkward personality. The outliers. That’s a problem for both little girls seeing a future in STEM and what males expect working with women in STEM. We need to see a realistic vision of women in STEM: regular people.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Allow space for discomfort. As a leader, if we prioritize our own comfort over having hard conversations with the people we lead, the team will crumble. I had to learn this the hard way. When I started my first business, I was the manager everyone “liked”, but we had too much turn over and conflict among the staff. As a leader, it was my job to allow space to feel uncomfortable and have those hard talks with the individuals I was leading about expectations and their duties to the team as a whole, and vice versa. Creating space for that discomfort in a structured way makes everyone on the team feel more secure with the boundaries in place.
- Take action the first time. I don’t say this lightly. It’s emotionally draining to have corrective meetings with people you lead. But like any relationship, you teach people how to treat you. You teach your team what’s expected with every action and inaction. Someone misses several deadlines, but you don’t mention it. You might as well have told them it’s acceptable. It’s confusing and unfair to your team to blow up the 3rd, 5th, or 10th time in a row when you, as the leader have a history of accepting the behavior with your inaction.
- You have to assume people are at their personal best. Have you ever had an employee that constantly underperformed despite training, resources, and redirection? They are most likely at their personal capacity. Their performance is the best they can do, regardless what you think they should be capable of. Stop getting frustrated and align with reality. Now it’s time to either change the organization to fit this person, or find a person that’s a better fit to the organization.
- Be compassionate. The people you lead are choosing to earn their livelihood growing your organization, honor that! Compassion doesn’t oppose boundaries or the first three lessons, here. Actually, it compliments them. You earn mutual trust by genuinely caring for your team as individuals and being clear and consistent with expectations. Before starting my own business, I had two leaders that intentionally removed compassion from their leadership, mistaking it for weakness. By doing this, the people they lead had no trust or loyalty for them, and they constantly struggled with losing good people.
- Nothing is serious. We had a rule in our company that if anyone used the word “serious”, they had to put on “serious” glasses (which was a silly face using your hands to create fake glasses). It was goofy and intentional for 2 specific reasons: 1) if we aren’t here to have fun, what are we here for? The people you lead spend the majority of their day at work. It should be enjoyable. 2) Acting serious and taking serious action are two very different things. Acting serious does nothing to further the cause. It makes the actor feel better because they had the right attitude, but they haven’t actually done anything. Taking serious action doesn’t require a straight face, but you get results! You want serious action in from your team — not a group of people faking it with a stoic face.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Show your team with your words and actions that you believe they can excel. Commit your team to challenging things and tell them often you believe in their abilities. Remember, you’re not a great leader despite being a woman. You’re a great leader because you’ve committed to constant learning. Please don’t check your womanhood or humanity at the door on the misunderstanding that it will make you a stronger leader.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Have a clear structure for the team, and follow it yourself. That includes requiring the team to follow the set channels before coming to you. When we hired our first manager, it was really hard breaking my team of the habit of coming straight to me. Often, it was easier to just spout out a quick answer. But every time I did that, I undermined our team’s structure which also diminishes trust. Follow your own rules!
Create a setting (like a weekly meeting) that encourages disagreement and passionate discussions over sideline or whispers. Everyone gets to be heard. Everyone is safe to say their piece, so long as we’re talking issues and not attacking people. Make sure you follow your own rules on this one too!
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?
I’m grateful for every little nudge along my path, from mentors, my first clients who trusted me, and my friends that encouraged me. I’m even grateful for the lessons learned from the worst leaders in my career on how not to do things. However, the most influential person in my success is definitely my spouse. He’s never once expressed doubt or fear with the crazy big moves I’ve taken in my career and business. The people that care the most about us don’t want us to feel the sting of failure. I imagine he has felt that way a few times over the years, but he has always lead with encouragement, like he doesn’t believe I’m capable of failing. That’s a pretty incredible force to have behind you. I don’t know if I would have taken some of my most brave leaps if I didn’t have someone I trusted so deeply cheering me on.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I’ve been an example to other professionals, whether they are clients, people I have been in a leadership role with, mentored, or peers. I hope I’ve been an example of integrity in some really cut throat businesses. I’ve experienced some devastating attacks by competitors, for example. It brought me to my knees, and I shed plenty of tears. But I also decided early on that my values are not dependent on who is on the receiving end. I think I’ve been part of creating a culture that as a professional, you don’t need anyone to fail in order to succeed. In fact, the more we build each other up and support one another in business, the more expansive our growth will be.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
There has been a movement in my heart to positively influence teens who are part of the juvenile corrections system. Going back to the lesson that everyone is doing the best they can, I know that many kids in that system are perpetuating the choices they’ve seen from parents and siblings. They didn’t get a chance to choose their lifestyle before it caught up to them with legal trouble. I know because it was many of the kids I grew up with in the poor part of town.
I would love to be part of a movement that showed young women in juvenile corrections that they are talented, intelligent, and can still use that to make a positive impact on the world themselves. I would love to help young women getting out of the system to discover their strengths and turn it into a business or career they are passionate about.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it”. This is from the poet, Jean de la Fontaine. But I’ll admit I first heard it on the 2008 Disney movie Kung Fu Panda, and it shook me (I’m not joking, it really did!). I had set so many goals, and made so many massive life choices based on what I DIDN’T want. I didn’t want to be poor. I didn’t want addiction plaguing my family. I didn’t want to spend my life scraping by. What about what I DID want though? It’s a huge energy shift to move from pushing undesirable things away to going after your dreams. The quote reminds me that we’ll cross our destiny either way, but how do we want to feel when we do? I didn’t want to live a life of avoidance; never noticing the amazing experiences on my path.
We are very blessed that 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 if we tag them 🙂
I would love nothing more than to sit down with Brene Brown. I’ve been inspired for several years through her writings and talks. I love her no B.S., research backed, vulnerable approach to leadership. It flies in the face of the tough guy, no emotion, cold “management” methods that fail to build trust, loyalty, and happy people.