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Sarah Parsons of Pink Shark PR: “Stop asking for permission”

Stop asking for permission. Plain and simple. This is something I’ve noticed is so ingrained in how I think that I often don’t even realize I’m waiting for someone to give me their blessing before I move forward. Whether you’re leading a team or not, it’s important to become comfortable with giving yourself unlimited permission to […]

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Stop asking for permission. Plain and simple. This is something I’ve noticed is so ingrained in how I think that I often don’t even realize I’m waiting for someone to give me their blessing before I move forward.

Whether you’re leading a team or not, it’s important to become comfortable with giving yourself unlimited permission to do the thing, try, and know it’s not always going to work out, but that’s okay. When I experience these moments, I remind myself we’re all just making it up as we go. So, whose permission is more important than my own?


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Parsons.

Sarah Parsons is the COO of Pink Shark PR, an LA-based PR and influencer marketing agency where she works with her team to grow the online presence of thought leaders, tech companies, and consumer brands.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My trajectory to the C-Suite is about as unplanned as imaginable.

I’ve always been a creative who dreamed of moving to Hollywood. So, it was no surprise I was dead set on becoming an actor. I started my journey at the age of fifteen by studying theatre arts at a local college in Ohio and then transferred to CALARTS in Los Angeles.

Like so many who land in LA, I jumped from job to job while pursuing my passion, adding new skills to my “toolbox” along the way. Eventually I landed on freelancing as an Online Business Manager. This experience gave me a firsthand look at the needs and unique rhythms that make up the life blood of a company — specifically startups. I discovered I had an intimate ability to understand and anticipate what was required for a startup to efficiently expand, without sacrificing their mission. This is a key component of leading a company in the role of COO.

At the birth of Pink Shark PR, I was already working for the co-founders as the Chief Operating Officer of an online coaching startup called Six&Up CEO. Once they decided to launch Pink Shark PR, I was honored to be invited to help them grow the legacy of this truly incredible company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The first time I accompanied our President, Jenny Beres, to a client dinner was an experience. I was a last-minute addition (stepping in for our CEO Alex Grizinski), and the dinner was with one of our most loved, all-star clients at a very chic celeb hangout. Needless to say, I was incredibly nervous. I kept wondering what I would say, what I should wear, and if I’d seem “professional enough.” All of these B.S. imposter syndrome thoughts raced through my head the second I got the invite. But instead of listening to them, I graciously accepted the invitation and did it scared.

The dinner went swimmingly, and we even had a George Clooney sighting that night. I was able to show up, support Jenny, and do what I had to even though my head told me I should be terrified. For me, this is when I learned the value of “doing it scared.”

We talk about imposter syndrome so much (especially women). However, continuing to focus on it as an issue rather than talk about how we can overcome it, only prolongs its presence in our lives. This experience taught me to do things scared and to be okay with “imperfect.” As long as you show up with an open heart, nine times out of ten you’re going to amaze yourself at how capable you really are.

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 laugh now at how terrified I was the first time I had to hop on a cold call, spur of the moment, with an important contact as COO. I was convinced I was going to completely F’ it up! But, while it was not my most eloquent phone call, I survived it and our professional relationship with this contact was solidified.

It’s so funny to me now because, almost two years later, I’d hop on the phone with the Queen without even thinking twice. It’s small moments like these that show us our own growth and it’s both humbling and encouraging.

One of my favorite things about Pink Shark PR is that while we’re very committed to delivering the best for each of our clients, a popular saying around the company is, “We’re NOT doing heart surgery!” This perspective has truly given each of us the grace to bounce back from any missteps by allowing space for the team to be creative and empowered to try or do new things that may not always work out.

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?

We’re often told stories about great visionaries or entrepreneurs who did it all alone. While I commend the grit and perseverance these kinds of stories are meant to convey, I also feel they leave out a key element to success — having others around you that you can rely on, grow with, and who keep you accountable. After all, even Walt Disney had his brother Roy.

My life would certainly not be the same if I’d never met Pink Shark’s CEO and Co-Founder Alexandra Grizinski. We met about a decade ago when we were both cast in a local play in Ohio. Through Alex, I met her fellow Co-Founder, and current Pink Shark PR President Jenny Beres. I shadowed Jenny and worked with her closely for about two years before taking on the mantle of COO. What I’ve learned and am continuing to learn from these two women is beyond anything I’ve picked up from any book or class. I’m incredibly lucky to be a part of the legacy they’re creating with Pink Shark.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Learning to manage stress effectively is one of the most important processes we can develop for ourselves in business and in life. Years ago, I trained to become a certified yoga teacher and that experience solidified for me the importance of being grounded in both my body and breath.

For me, this starts with a daily fitness routine that I switch up based on what my body needs that particular day. I’ve recently been loving Obe Fitness. I then follow exercise with “just-sit-there” time (a phrase our CEO coined years ago), which is a kind of quiet hour meditation. I use these practices to help me tap into my peace of mind before any client onboarding call or company meeting. I take 5–10 minutes to sit, be fully present, and focus on my breath. By bringing my full attention to the present moment I am able to better serve our clients, team, and my fellow C-Suite members.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity and inclusivity shouldn’t just be at the executive level, it should be across the entire team. It’s an on-going process and should be a series of conversations we continue to have because it’s vitally important to the well-being and success of any company.

While good intentions are admirable, without the actual inclusion of diversity in key leadership positions it means very little. A lack of diversity in opinions at the top means there are going to be massive company-wide blindspots simply because the right person is missing from that team. Diverse and inclusive executive teams can quite literally save a company from potentially devastating results — especially when it comes to navigating PR.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

First of all, I highly recommend looking at the works of experts like the Time’s Up Foundation, Ibram X. Kendi, and Ijeoma Oluo.

Next, from what I’m continually learning, the first step we all have to take is staying committed, engaged, open, and willing to make mistakes. If we don’t approach this vitally important issue with adaptable care and responsibility, we have to ask ourselves if we’re really making any difference at all.

For me, when I’m looking to bring on new team members, I consciously cast a truly wide net that is open to different perspectives and experiences. This is so inclusivity is present at the very beginning, on both sides of the hiring process, and remains there every step of the way.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

The role of CEO is definitely a well-known and highly visible position that’s pretty familiar to many, but the role I serve at Pink Shark PR — Chief Operating Officer — is one that sometimes slips between the cracks. I like to describe the COO as a company’s personal and professional jack-of-all-trades. COOs ensure that the company workflow is at top capacity to sustain daily operations and make way for continual growth and expansion. It’s extremely valuable.

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

As someone who never even imagined being an executive, this is a topic I’m definitely passionate about. I think there are so many outdated myths proliferated around being an executive or leader of a company that have kept it a “good ol’ boys club” for far too long, and one is the myth of needing extensive degrees and education.

It’s high time we fling open the doors to the C-Suite and executive positions and welcome diversity of leadership and experience that doesn’t just come from Ivy League schools. I firmly value education and understand that universities can provide a necessary set of skills in some fields. However, my personal observation is that boots-on-the-ground and life experiences are far more valuable and need to be regarded as such.

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

In my experience, sexism is still unfortunately very much alive and well. It’s so deeply ingrained in our behaviors as a society that they often go unchallenged or unnoticed altogether.

While I believe in many cases sexism in the workplace may be benevolent, it is still damaging. I’ve personally witnessed or experienced sexism that is ambivalent and sometimes hostile. Working in a fully female founded and led company, this has shown up most often in the demands placed on myself and the women I work with. Our male counterparts are not asked for additional proof or verification that they “know what they’re doing,” and rarely receive complete dismissal. Sadly, we do.

As we move forward and continue to address the reality of the major role sexism plays in the workplace and our society at large, it’s important to know that we’re going to invariably make mistakes. However, if we take responsibility and face it head on, it will no longer linger in the shadows. We can’t just hope it will go away or sweep it under the rug.

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

The perception I had of who an executive was or what they did was so off base before I took on my role. When I first stepped into the role of COO, I’m not ashamed to say I was more than a little intimated. I’d been asked to oversee and ensure all the operations of a company I cared about very much ran smoothly so it could expand. I was immediately overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know.

I quickly learned that being a COO isn’t about seeming like you have all the answers all the time. It’s about objectively looking at where the company is and where it’s aiming to go. Once you have this foundation you can engage with and truly listen to your team to see how to create a system that best guides the company towards this goal.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

I was never someone who set-out to be an executive, and yet I’m here and loving it. So, I’m going to shy away from ever discouraging anyone to avoid aspiring to be an executive or anything else they desire to be for that matter. I truly believe we each have the ability to have, do, or be exactly what we want.

That being said, I do believe the key to stepping into any leadership role or dream vocation is taking massive responsibility. I won’t pretend that it’s easy or that it happens overnight. Taking full responsibility for your actions, presence, and leadership is vulnerable and often uncomfortable, but without it you’ll never fully or honestly grow. Also, being able to step-up and take ownership without qualifying, explaining, or excusing is a massively valuable trait that I believe will benefit anyone at any given point in their journey. At Pink Shark we hold this as a foundational value for all our team members, especially executives.

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

Stop asking for permission. Plain and simple. This is something I’ve noticed is so ingrained in how I think that I often don’t even realize I’m waiting for someone to give me their blessing before I move forward.

Whether you’re leading a team or not, it’s important to become comfortable with giving yourself unlimited permission to do the thing, try, and know it’s not always going to work out, but that’s okay. When I experience these moments, I remind myself we’re all just making it up as we go. So, whose permission is more important than my own?

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

As an executive of Pink Shark PR, it’s very important to me that the press we engage with and garner for ourselves and our clients is always honest, transparent, inspiring, and coming from an appropriate source. It’s important now more than ever that the media we engage with be held to the highest standard. For my part it’s been an honor to support this in a very tangible way.

From a personal perspective, giving back is a value I hold in high regard. I make it a mission to find a new charity or cause to give back to on an ongoing basis whenever I meet or surpass a personal goal.

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

  1. Stop asking for permission. I can’t tell you how big of a stumbling block this has been in my experience and that I’ve witnessed in fellow female leaders. I’m not telling you to bulldoze over your teammates with an “I’m not going to listen and just do what I want” attitude, but what I am saying is to notice the things you’re asking for permission around and start asking why you feel you need that validation. The act of asking for permission is sometimes sneaky. It doesn’t always take the form of physically saying, “Can I do this?” For example, putting off making a decision or taking the next best move by waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay is a form of asking for permission. So keep checking it, keep getting curious about why, and most importantly keep giving yourself permission.
  2. You don’t have to be nice. Being a “nice girl” is a very multi-faceted trap, one that I fell into for a long time. In some cases “being nice” does keep us out of potentially dangerous situations, but when it comes to the workplace there is no room at the table for it. What I offer as a replacement is kindness. Kindness comes from a firm, open, rooted place within ourselves that isn’t looking to appease others. It allows for tough conversations, disagreements, and sharing what we really think — all important aspects in a leadership position. You want to be able to share the truth and be someone who can hear the truth from your fellow leaders and team, and kindness makes this possible.
  3. Leading isn’t about having all the answers. There’s this inaccurate perception around leadership that the person who is a “leader” has all the answers. In the beginning, I put a lot of pressure on myself to know it all. Over time, I began to understand that this is a vastly ineffective form of leadership. Being a leader means stepping into a bigger and more visible role of being of service to your team. One of the most inspiring and effective ways to do this is to listen to your team. Remember you are there to serve. Your duty is to empower each team member, not to have them hanging on your every word.
  4. Sometimes it is better to do nothing. As someone who’s always been motivated to perform at the highest level, this was tough to wrap my head around. However, the more I practiced and engaged in “doing nothing,” the more I realized how vital it was to my own success and the success of our company. Our CEO, Alex Grizinksi began this practice years ago that she calls, “Just Sit There Time (JST).” You just sit with no distractions, no list making, no active journaling prompts — you just sit, and boy does it move mountains. I can’t tell you the number of creative resolutions, new ideas and initiatives we’ve had from this practice. Leaders need to engage with their own practice of just being so they can operate from this place regularly.
  5. It never ends, and that’s a good thing. About two years ago, I had a serious coming to terms with the fact that our work — especially in PR — is never done. At the time, this felt insurmountable and suffocating because I was equating “never done” with “not good enough.” Then I realized that when it ends, it’s over. So, it’s imperative we learn to embrace and build a practice for ourselves that keeps us thriving in the space of “it never ends.” For me, this required creating firm boundaries and making self-care (the deep stuff not just fun face masks, though those are good too) absolutely non-negotiable.

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.

What drives me in all my work, whether it be at Pink Shark PR or in my personal creativity through acting, producing, and painting, is the mission to impress upon each person the innate, inalienable value their stories hold. I truly believe that in doing so, we’ll be able to create and mend the deeper human connection we all so desperately need and want.

In a nutshell, my movement would be around empowering people to own and share their stories to create a culture of true connection. I can’t tell you the number of times reading someone else’s experience, listening to their story, or reading their poetry has kept me hopeful and afloat through rough times. If I can help create a space where others feel they can openly experience and share this, I would be over the moon.

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

This is difficult to narrow down to just one quote, because words, quotes, and stories are something I keep very close to my heart, but I’ll share one that’s really meant a lot to me at the moment. It’s from an interview with Dr. Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

This resonates so deeply with me because it encompasses the idea that when you belong fully to yourself, and take full responsibility for who you are, you are truly free to have, do, or be anything 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

First, Brené Brown. Her work always blows me away and I find myself underlining basically every line in her books. Also, Neil Gaiman. His storytelling is incredibly human in its revelation of our shared nature and emotions, even though the setting is often fantastical.

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

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