Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s ok. I naturally want to be everyone’s best friend but in a leadership role, you are sometimes required to make decisions that not everyone agrees with. It can be hard to hear criticism and realize that you might not be someone’s favorite person. In the end, if you feel like you have been working from a place of the best intentions and made the right decisions, it’s ok if there are people who disagree or just don’t like you.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Gulbrandsen. Sarah has spent the last 15 years helping companies tell their story. As RingPartner’s COO & President, she leads day-to-day business operations, develops company strategy, and oversees RingPartner’s growth across departments. Sarah has worked in a variety of roles leading marketing communications strategy, including at digital marketing companies, a Fortune 500 retailer, and also a brief stint in television. Her uplifting and outgoing personality not only gets things done but motivates others to do the same.
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?
My career has had many twists and turns, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is the ability to choose roles that cater to my strengths. When people work from a place of strength and passion, it makes everything that much easier & more rewarding. I first entered into the digital marketing space about 15 years ago when I was given the opportunity to be part of a start-up that was eventually sold to a public company. It was there that I also met my current business partners & realized that I loved marketing & helping brands connect with their potential customers. After the start-up was sold, I spent some time working with some amazing teams in San Francisco. After a few years in the Bay Area, I realized that I wanted a change of pace and decided to move to the west coast of Canada. That’s when I started working with RingPartner and held a variety of different roles. Ultimately that’s what led me to my current role as President & leading the daily operations at RingPartner.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are so many stories that have happened since I began leading the RingPartner team. All of these stories revolved around either the people on my team or the clients that we work with. Our business is all about connections, both connecting our clients to untapped consumers and connecting our team members with opportunities to grow both personally & in their own careers. I would say one of the fondest memories I have is of our company entering our new workspace a few years back. The leadership team stayed all night to get the space ready & personalized. The next morning, we did an official ribbon cutting and one of our team members was actually in tears because he was so excited to be there in our new space. It was worth the sleepless night for sure.
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?
I once hit the dreaded “Reply All” to a large group of people at work. I replied with a very personal answer and didn’t hear the end of it from my team for months afterward! Lesson learned the hard way. I triple check before I send anything out now.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
Being an executive was never a priority for me. I worked hard and found that I enjoyed taking on more responsibility. I also enjoy people and the nuances of coaching & enabling a group of really smart people. I continued to say ‘yes’ to opportunities that seemed interesting & challenging (even when I questioned my capability to take on bigger roles). The things that led me to my current role still hold true, and I enjoy being able to see how all of the different departments and initiatives can work together for a common goal.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or 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?
Executives generally take on more of the risk that comes with the added responsibility. This can be in the form of legal risk and also their career path as a whole. When there are specific corporate goals in place and I do not hit or exceed them, I know that there is the potential for the board to decide that I am not the right person to continue to lead the charge.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I enjoy creating a culture where people have the opportunity to feel happy, fulfilled, and work from a place of strength. Seeing other people achieve their own goals is incredibly rewarding.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
One of the biggest downsides of being an executive is sometimes having to make tough decisions, knowing that it could impact people you like & appreciate on a personal level.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an Executive?
That you need to be an expert in every area of your business. Rather, it’s better to bring on other members to your team that are the subject matter experts. The executive’s role is to set the vision and clear the way so that others can do their best work.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have experienced gender bias in a number of different situations. While traveling with male colleagues, I have had potential clients or others in my industry assume that my male colleague was my manager or even my husband. When they learn what my role is, they are sometimes taken off guard.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When asked to step into my current role, I knew that the role would be what I made of it. I will admit that it’s both more enjoyable & challenging than I anticipated. I have had to accept that I don’t have all the answers and rely on the people on my team.
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?
I think the best executives are those that communicate clearly, stand-up for their team, and are not afraid to take action. An executive also needs to have the ability to take a step out of the day to day in order to see things at a strategic level. Individuals that are bogged down by details & are risk-averse may not enjoy an executive role.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think this can apply to all leaders. I would encourage a certain amount of transparency when leading your team. Yes, there are times when you will need to suck it up & put on a good face, but it’s important to also come across as human and share what information you are able to. Most people are not looking for a stoic leader that keeps their cards close, but rather a real person that can help them achieve their own goals.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Todd Dunlop, my current business partner, is a serial entrepreneur & investor. He has been a big part of my career trajectory. Todd provided opportunities early in my career at his first start-up and has been a huge support to this day. He likes to tell people that he stole me from the government. I had just accepted a government admin role when I first met him & he sold me on all the reasons why I should join a start-up instead. My life would look significantly different if Todd wasn’t willing to take a chance on me.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I personally use my experience to coach & mentor other emerging business leaders. RingPartner also works closely with a number of different nonprofit organizations within our immediate community such as our local food bank & different recovery & assistance programs.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s ok. I naturally want to be everyone’s best friend but in a leadership role, you are sometimes required to make decisions that not everyone agrees with. It can be hard to hear criticism and realize that you might not be someone’s favorite person. In the end, if you feel like you have been working from a place of the best intentions and made the right decisions, it’s ok if there are people who disagree or just don’t like you.
- It’s better to directly communicate about challenges rather than not address them. This goes back to my people-pleasing tendencies. It’s better to share difficult feedback or challenges right away rather than pretend that the issues don’t exist. Tackle the challenge head-on and start problem-solving to make things better.
- Protect your time. I was so flattered when invitations to different committees and outside engagements started to come in that I would overcommit myself. I’ve had to learn to say no to the good, and yes to only the best.
- Don’t be intimidated by another’s accomplishments. There have been times when I experienced imposter syndrome & was intimidated by the presence of accomplished CEOs and executives. I realized that we are all continually learning and everyone doubts their own ability at some point or another (even seasoned executives).
- The challenges make the good times that much sweeter. Rather than bail when things get tough, it’s worth pushing through and making things better. This applies to all things in life & business. Those tough times put the good times into perspective and make them that much more enjoyable.
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.
I live in Canada, but I’m an American. I had the privilege of experiencing parental leave in both countries. The difference was staggering, and not in a good way. The expectations placed on new mothers in the US is atrocious and does not allow for enough time for healed bodies & bonded babies. Parental leave legislation needs a huge overhaul. I would inspire a movement that looks to other nations where they have figured out that balance of extended parental leave and still empowering women to move forward in their careers (without sacrificing precious time with their babies).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for,” Oprah Winfrey. You have to start somewhere and give whatever it is you want a shot. Ask yourself what that worst-case scenario could be and based on that take action. Be brave enough to ask for what you want.
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
I would love to meet Sheryl Sandberg. I have followed her and her work for a number of years. I was at a tipping point after reading her book, Lean In. The concepts she outlined rang true for me and gave me the push I needed to pave the way for both myself and other female leaders. Her leadership at Facebook & strength in the face of personal adversity are inspiring.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.