Knowing Your People, with Sarah Clark
Episode 116: Knowing Your People, with Sarah Clark
After realizing that she did not feel complete at a job she loved, Sarah Clark, CEO of Mitchell Communication Group, left her job at Walmart to adopt her son and spend time doing what she really wanted to do - becoming a mom. Returning to work at Mitchell, Sarah talks about the importance of selecting the right people, nurturing leadership and growth, as well as how a company’s culture can make or break the work itself on this week's episode. She discusses the notion of being a caring leader, the important relationship she has with her employees, and shares her tips for the new and emerging leaders and managers; tune in to listen more about succeeding and failing as a team.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi, Maricella. How's it going?
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy. How's everything?
00:24 KW: Are you just on such a high from last week?
00:27 MH: I am. I am. It's... I'm exhausted, but I keep replaying in my head all of the really great moments, and it's good.
00:41 KW: Yeah. It was amazing. So I just wanted to say kudos to you and your team for all your hard work. It's... I think it's pretty spectacular to be able to work at a place where you love what you do and you feel like you're having an impact.
00:58 MH: Yeah.
01:00 KW: And you and Jess and Raquel and Tina and Elliot, everyone on the Ellevate team, Matt, Madeline, we have to call out Madeline worked really, really hard on this event, the Ellevate Action Summit that happened last week, and I'm just so inspired by our team and by the dedication and the passion for what we do. So thanks to you.
01:22 MH: No, thank you. It's awesome working with people who love what they do and who are great at it because of it. And it's also great to see everyone chip in for one common goal. It's not usually that we ask our developers to go and wrangle speakers and bring them on stage and prep them for calls and speaking.
01:45 KW: Yeah.
01:46 MH: So it's great to see everyone doing a little bit of that.
01:48 KW: Yeah. You know we've talked about this before, this concept of careers that aren't always straight lines, but it's hard to know what you like to do if you don't have exposure to different parts of the business and to testing yourself and pushing yourself to learn other things. So at Ellevate, we really believe in providing as much exposure as we can to our team. So, for example, we're doing a lunch and learn on how to code, so for all of our team learning how to code. We do meetings on other skills building if it's spreadsheets or PowerPoint, data, analysis. And then at the summit with everyone playing a role in the summit, you get to get your hands dirty in ways that are different than what you normally do, and I think that that's important.
02:41 MH: I think it's important. You get a lot of a different perspective on what other people on the team do, but also on what it is like to deal with these very high profile speakers, or you get a chance to meet people you admire too.
02:58 KW: Yes.
03:00 MH: So it's very cool.
03:01 KW: That's amazing. Well, speaking of someone we admire, our guest today is Sarah Clark, who's the CEO of Mitchell and to such an inspiration, she had a long career at Walmart, did some really amazing things, and then moved into Mitchell Communications Group where she's now the CEO. She's working hard. She's very dedicated to creating a great place to work and to really supporting the whole employee and what they strive to be both personally and professionally. So my conversation with her was inspiring and amazing. And I know you're gonna love it Maricella.
03:41 MH: I'm sure I will. Can't wait to hear it.
03:43 KW: Well, I hope all of you love my conversation with Sarah as well, and we wanna hear from you about it. So please feel free to email us at email@example.com or give us some love on social media. We're on all the major channels, and we would love to hear from you. Share your favorite moment insider tidbit and we'll make sure to retweet it or share it.
04:17 KW: Sara, thanks for joining us today on the Ellevate podcast.
04:21 Sarah Clark: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
04:23 KW: You've had just a really amazing career in corporate communications, and we'd love to learn a little bit more about it. I know many of our listeners are in that area or looking to get into corporate communications or even just incredibly fascinated about how you got to where you are today as the CEO of Mitchell, which is an award-winning public relations firm. So if you wouldn't mind sharing a little bit about your journey, we'd love to hear it.
04:50 SC: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I love to tell my story because it's so special to me. But when I first arrived at Mitchell, I was joining a team that included many team members that had been with the company since the early start-up days. And so, I have to tell you, being the CEO of this company with those people is a dream job come true. So I just love being here. So just to give you a little bit about my background, I wanted to share that I grew up in a family in small town Arkansas where strong work ethic and family values, respect, treating others with respect and by multi-tasking a lot. So I actually, I received my first communications job at Alltel. It was a telecom company right after I graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a communications degree. And I started as low as you can start on the totem pole.
05:43 SC: So I started at the bottom and I guess you could say I was lucky in that my manager left after six months, after I had arrived. So I had one shot to really prove myself. And I was given the opportunity to show that I had the skill set and the grit and hopefully the can-do attitude and willingness to learn. I was there for over 18 years. And during that time, I was promoted through the ranks and there was a position at Walmart that came open and it was perfect timing for me because I really wanted to go back to Arkansas, closer to where my family was, and it was also a great opportunity to work and learn from largest company in the world. So I took the job. I was fortunate to be able to lead National Media Relations, a brand reputation for Walmart. At a time when the company was recognized, number one, is the most admired company in the world, but it also brought with it extreme attention and scrutiny.
06:38 SC: And so it was actually one of the most challenging times in my career, but yet it was the most rewarding because that position actually exposed me to all kinds of different worlds, working on causes like Hurricane Katrina and victim relief. I was able to work on healthcare reform and job opportunity. Women's empowerment was also something that I was able to really focus on. All of that, it really expanded my capacity to dig deep in my soul in terms of looking for that purpose in my life and the ability to honestly love more. So because of my faith, I started questioning myself at that point in my career, my purpose and what was I really supposed to be doing. I was 100% focused on my career at that point. I love my job. I was making a difference. I was moving up. All those things that you really hope for in a career, but guess what? There was something still missing. There was a void in my life.
07:37 SC: And quite frankly, I didn't have a clue what it was. And so it was not too long after that that I was at a charity event with a couple who had just adopted two children from Russia. And upon hearing their experience and their joy, I just couldn't get my mind off of it. And I realized at that moment, I had almost missed the opportunity of my life and what I really wanted to do, and that was to be a mom. I wanted to learn it all, but I especially wanted to be a mom. So I ended up actually following my heart and I adopted a baby boy from Siberia because of that, being at that point in time at that charity, talking to these special people about their experience and realizing that was the void that I had been looking for. And so I traveled to Siberia twice. And by the way, yes, it is that cold. And with the support of my family and my friends and Walmart and all the people there, I brought home a beautiful boy, Eli Kennedy Clark from Siberia.
08:38 SC: So at 46 years old in my life, I felt almost complete and "almost" being the key word there. Because after a few months at home with Eli, I went back to work. And I realized, "You know what? This is great. I have everything, but there's still this void." Well, for all of, you all who are moms, you know you always have that guilty feeling. You feel like you're either cheating on your family or you're cheating on your job when there are things that you have to do in both places, and you always feel a pull and a tug. Well, I realized at that point, bonding with my son was non-negotiable. It was something that I was supposed to do, and again, I listened to that voice inside and it was saying, "Hey, this is Eli's time." And so I just knew I couldn't focus on the career that I needed to focus on and give Eli the love and bonding that we needed so badly at that special point in his life and my life, and I knew my heart was there with him.
09:34 SC: So I walked away from a great paying, rewarding job at a wonderful company following my gut instinct and my heart all the way, and it was the best decision of my life. I left an almost complete life, but it wasn't complete, and I chose a different kind of complete life. And I think that's the message here is you never know what those terms and curves in your life are gonna be, it's what you do with them that's so important. So during that time with Eli, I soaked up every minute I could with my son while I wasn't working, and I made great use of that time with him. After staying home several months with Eli, I realized it was time for me to go back to work, but honestly, it was time for Eli to have more interaction with other children. While he enjoyed being with his mom, I think there was something missing for him too, and it was just that social interaction. So using my instincts and my faith again as a guide, I sifted through several offers that I had received after I left Walmart, one of which was from Mitchell Communications Group, and I decided to take the one from Mitchell.
10:43 SC: Elise Mitchell was not only the CEO and founder, but also someone in the profession that I admired a lot. She actually understood my goals. She was another female late leader and a mom who got it. She understood the demands on female leaders in the workplace. And I knew Mitchell because I had been their client before at Walmart and I saw the integrity and the work ethic of that entire agency and especially with Elise. And it inspired me so much. And so I realized Mitchell was the place I needed to be. And so that landed me to be here, where I am. So they gave me an opportunity to really work hard and make meaningful change, add value from a client perspective because I had only been a client all my life, and so this gave me a chance to really bring that perspective into the agency. It allowed me to really grow within the company and form a strong bond with my son at the same time. It gave me the flexibility I needed as well. And so, here I am serving as the CEO of this great company with the best team in the world living out my dream. So that's really the story from a career perspective of how I got here.
11:51 KW: Sarah, thank you so much for sharing that story. I have to tell you, at many points I had chills. And I think your story and the way you tell it is so relatable to many of us in that the idea of finding a career where your work gives you meaning and purpose, and how do you balance everything. So you mentioned Elise Mitchell and how she was a leader who inspired you and that was one of the reasons you decided to take the opportunity with Mitchell, how would you now as a CEO, being a leader that's inspiring others?
12:34 SC: So that's a great question. As a female leader, you have to be able to really walk the talk. And so my style is one of accountability and trust. I really try to hire good talent, and then I get the heck out of the way. I think that's the best advice I can give anyone. I have truly found that when you prioritize its culture fit, you hire great people, you help them understand the vision and the strategy of the business, magic just happens. And so as the leader of Mitchell, I'm intentional about selecting those leaders who have long-term vision. I make note of people who have strong leadership potential and I work to help nurture their talents. I've realized over the years that if you provide good leaders with resources and mentorship they need, they're gonna succeed. And so my job is really to just to remove the roadblocks for the team and I don't give them any checklist to go by, but I do try to remove the roadblocks and the hurdles. And then you empower them to be able to do the job, and I think that's important.
13:39 SC: The other thing I would say too is I'm making an intentional effort to make sure we celebrate together. We succeed and we fail as a team. And so my job is to make sure that we also have a little fun, and we get together regularly, both formally each quarter and informally as needed to share kudos and celebrate at work and do all those things. The other thing I would say as a leader is it's important for you to know who the people are that work for you. You need to know their family members. You need to know who their kids are and what they enjoy doing. You need to know something about each person, because each person has a story to tell and you need to know what that story is to really be able to relate to them. That's important to me. I try to be a leader who cares and really knows who makes up this organization, because I think that says more than anything about your authenticity and the way that you care. Because if you're a caring leader, people will follow you and they will do whatever it takes to help your organization succeed.
14:44 KW: Well and that's, I think a big conversation that's happening today around people over profits and how you look at your workforce and you look at the people that are really driving the business, the innovation, the passion, the culture, the values and guiding principles and how do you make their success a top priority.
15:06 SC: Absolutely.
15:08 KW: And I would love to kind of dig in a little bit deeper into some of your points around managers and providing managers and leaders with the tools to succeed. Because I think that that's something that I've seen a lot in my own personal life and heard from others, which is oftentimes you are working hard at your career and you're striving for that management or leadership role, and then once you're there, you feel completely at a loss, right? How do you be a successful manager? What are the tools you need to succeed? What advice would you have for someone who is a new manager? But then also on the flip side, how can we as business leaders really provide that foundation and tools and support for the people that were elevating within the workforce to be their best selves and to succeed?
16:01 SC: When I first arrived at Mitchell... So I'll just tell you a little bit about being here. I mentioned earlier that the team, including many of the team members, had been with the company since the early start-up days, and that team was led by Elise Mitchell who is such an iconic leader and founder here in this company. The culture and the business were incredibly special to this team, who had been again with the company for a long time. They were some of the original builders and the shapers since the beginning. And so when I first came in, it was important for me to do two things, and I think I would encourage any new leader going into an organization to really do this. And number one was embrace those things that are special about that company's culture. And I had to do that here at Mitchell and realize the things that were important and really build on those. And the second thing is you've gotta earn the trust and respect of those ambassadors in your company of the work.
17:02 SC: And so you come in and for new managers, especially, you need to listen. You need to learn the organization. You need to be able to really learn from others. I will tell you, when I was at Walmart, one of the most important things I did when I went into that company was sit down and listen and ask lots of questions with those senior leaders there because that culture was also very, very special to that company and the beliefs that they had and the way they served their customers. And so regardless of what organization you work at, I think that that's my biggest and most important advice is go in and be a sponge. And throughout your career, be a constant learner. You need to always be listening and learning those special caveats of the culture, the organization, the business, all those things about the customers so that you can then entail, add your own value, do your own special things, but you're doing in a way where you keep everyone whole. You know the other thing I think, especially as a leader, because you have to earn that respect from the people you work with, you don't automatically just get respect with the title.
18:14 SC: And I think that's the other thing. A lot of people ask about, ask me personally about my job as CEO now and how that's different and what did you have to do differently with this job than I did before. And quite frankly, we had a good succession plan in place. We've been working for this for the last couple of years, and it worked smoothly for our team. And I think if you're being a successful organization, then your succession plan means no interruption whatsoever to those people in your organization. And so I have found out that that's so important. You also have to be a servant leader. You have to be authentistic. Authenticity is so, so important. And you have to be very authentic to your people and to your organization and to your clients. That's so powerful.
19:06 KW: When you were talking about your time at Walmart, you mentioned some of those causes you worked on and how much fulfillment you received from doing work that mattered to you and getting a paycheck and having that job. So what is it about Mitchell and the work you're doing now that is really meeting that need for you again and feeling like you're having that positive impact through the work you're doing.
19:34 SC: Yep. So it's a great question as well. Here it's about being able to... What I love about working at Mitchell quite frankly, it's the people. And so the culture is so special because we all win together and we lose together. You have folks who really care about each other and they care about the clients. They want the clients to win. So it is all in every day here. And so being able to see that passion... By the way, we have offices in New York, have an office in New York as well, as well as a presence in Nashville and Boston and other places. These are leaders that are scattered throughout the United States, and we all have the basic same culture that binds us together. And so that is so, so important regardless of where your location is. And when you've got that, you've got a winning team. And so I would first say to people, the people are what makes this company and why I love it so, so much. I've never been in an organization where I have seen such grit, flexibility, nimbleness to win. And so that's important to me. The other thing is we care about each other.
20:46 SC: And while that may sound very corny to others, it is really, really true. I'll never forget I interviewed someone one day and it was from the Northeast, and someone came in and they were just asking a lot of different questions about the organization and that person then went to lunch with some of the key leaders here. And one of the questions that this person asked, this candidate said, "Tell me something. What do you do when people try to steal your work?" To which one of our leaders replied, "Steal your work? We have so much. We don't wanna still each other's work." [laughter] And so the point being, that was just foreign. It was totally foreign to the people that worked at Mitchell is we don't even know what you're talking about because of the culture and the special nature of this place. And so again, everyone working together for the common cause of the organization is critical. The other thing we have, the other thing that's very rewarding, is we work on so many different industries that we support.
22:00 SC: I find that very, very intriguing and rewarding. So, for example, we focus on retail. We focus on CPG. We focus on food and beverage, travel, hospitality. The list goes on and on. And so being able to be disruptive and being able to be creative in all of those different industries and bringing your clients all these great ideas and those types of things, that's the passion that we all have. And so that's exciting. But when you tie all of that together with also that care and that nurturing that we have and also the flexibility to do what we need to do, to be that family person that we wanna be, you tie that all together and it's a pretty good gig.
22:40 KW: I love that. It sounds like a place I would wanna work. Fantastic. [chuckle] Well, Sarah, thank you so much for spending the time with us here on the Ellevate podcast today. It's really great to hear your story. As I mentioned earlier, I really think it's something that will resonate with our listeners as it certainly resonated with me. And your leadership style, authenticity, how you help your team be the best and the strongest that they can be, are all themes that are so important to us here at Elevate Network. So thanks for joining us on the Ellevate podcast.
23:15 SC: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be here.
23:21 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter at Ellevate N-T-W-K. That's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller. She rocks. And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.
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