036 : Navigating and Thriving in Moments of Change and Transition with Sara Whitman


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2020 has obviously seen big, often overnight changes that have completely disrupted the business world. At the outset of the pandemic, our guest explored the possibility of simply accepting—and even embracing—these challenges in order to maximize our focus on discovering opportunities amid these disruptions. “What if we could put our arms around that change and at least try to feel really comfortable with it? How can we go with the flow and evolve and transform with the times?”

In moments of uncertainty, pause and ask yourself, “What do I want to say about myself when looking back on this moment a year from now?” From there, you can decide how you want to show up right now based on what is most important to you right now. For organizations, this is a matter of looking at your intention and values as a business, and thinking through how those can guide you and your people. Both individuals and companies should always begin by taking the smallest, easiest, and most obvious next step, and work up from there.

Sara Whitman and Steve Chaparro discuss how to let your purpose and non-negotiables guide your path even in turbulent times, how to invite your team to help you as a leader in shaping culture, the power of expressing vulnerability as a leader, and self-care strategies to continue sustaining ourselves for at least the first quarter of 2021 as lockdowns and social distancing measures carry on.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Drastic changes in marketing and company culture trends in 2020
  • Discovering the next step personally, professionally, and industry-wide
  • Having your actions align with your purpose
  • Designing your company culture with the same principles used in client-facing tasks
  • How brands have adapted their ethos and messaging to today’s challenges
  • Staying mentally healthy as we continue to deal with COVID-related issues into 2021

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guest:

Sara Whitman is the Chief People Officer at Hot Paper Lantern, a communication agency that works with companies to solve unprecedented challenges and deliver impact at critical junctures of change. Sara is also the Founder and Transition Coach at At The Start, a coaching consultancy designed to support teens and parents through their major life transitions and into adulthood. Previously, Sara served as Managing Director and Chief Culture Czar at Peppercom.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature/Communications at Pace University and a Master of Arts in Public Relations at Syracuse University.

Full Transcript: Powered by Otter.ai


Welcome to the Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro 

This podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio. This is where I help creative organizations transform their cultures, from being controlling to being collaborative. Now, here are some of the things that I’ve learned. Your creative talent demands a co-creative culture in order to produce their best work. But there’s a problem. So let’s see if we can recognize some of these signs.

There’s no framework to move your culture forward. You have high turnover and low morale. There’s increasing toxicity across all levels. There’s team engagement and satisfaction that are on the decline. There’s a misalignment between the employer brand and the employee experience, and there’s poor communication about expectations and values. So if you want to learn more about how I provide facilitation and coaching for your creative team, reach out to me at CultureDesignStudio.com.

Our guest today is Sarah Whitman chief people officer at Hot Paper Lantern a communication agency that works with companies to solve unprecedented challenges and deliver impact at critical junctures of change. Sarah is also the Founder and Transition Coach at At The Start, a coaching consultancy, designed to support teens and parents through their major life transitions and into adulthood. Previously, Sarah served as Managing Director and Culture Chief Cultures rather at Peppercom. Sara, welcome to the show.

Sara Whitman 

Thank you so much, Steve. Appreciate it.

Steve Chaparro 

Well, I appreciate you coming on. I know we’ve we’ve had our conversation on the calendar for a little while. So I appreciate us being able to get together in this the craziness of all that we are experiencing today. So I’m appreciative of that

Sara Whitman 

Same here.

Steve Chaparro 

Well, I always wanted to ask our guests, you know a little bit more about your professional journey. I’d love to hear how it all started and you know, did you envision yourself as a Chief People Officer of a marketing agency or communication agency when you first started out? Or How did that go?

Sara Whitman 

Absolutely not. And in fact, I graduated from college thinking that I wanted to be a writer, and I, and really probably in the end, I’d rather be a reader. But in lieu of that, actually decided to pursue public relations initially. And I didn’t really know what public relations was at the time, I was an English major, who was looking for a job that would sustain me and fulfill me, but although I didn’t quite know what that would be. Right?

So, I started out in public relations and I was fortunate enough to start working at an early age as an agency in Manhattan and marketing, communications, and really flourished there. And realized, as I was getting into the professional world that I really cared so much about the people who I worked with, the organization I worked for, I had a wonderful culture, and really supported the people who worked there.

And I found myself volunteering more and more for internal projects, and things that had to do with training and development and management of personnel and in agency life, like resourcing, figuring out, like, how to line up skill sets with client needs, with availability, and make sure people had passion and excitement for the work that they were doing. At least a piece of it.

So about halfway through my career, I started to transition into more of an HR role, and then fully took that plunge about maybe six or seven years ago. And I’ve loved it, I’ve really loved it, I would never have thought that I would have been an HR that I would have been a Chief People Officer, but it really resonates with who I am as a person, the things that drives me the things that make me excited to work and to contribute, and seeing people find things about themselves that they didn’t know before and, you know, really grow and develop in those ways. I love it. And that’s actually what led me to coaching and becoming a professional coach. And I did that several years ago.

And as I was going through my coach training, I really started to think about young people and how much pressure we put on young people to have it all figured out by the time they’re 17 or 18. And looked at my own career path and how I kind of transitioned and a lot of different ways and felt like that’s there’s something about coaching that could really benefit young people and their parents, and to help take some of that pressure off, I think our kids are really facing a lot of anxiety and mental health issues that are brought on by this pressure that put on them at a really young ages.

And so I thought, How can I apply this to that population and really help young people. So I started a coaching consultancy called At The Start to help support parents and teens to develop a growth mindset and really think about the journey and not the destination and to have fun in that process. All together that kind of culminated and here I am at Hot Paper Lantern and loving my job loving doing that for professionals in the workforce too.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I think as you described, it wasn’t necessarily an intentional journey. In terms of from the beginning, you didn’t, you haven’t necessarily seen yourself in this role. But I think what I do see is that you’re making intentional decisions all along the way, as you maybe discover more about yourself some interest that you want to dive deep into and make some critical like a, like, if I were to take a forensic, you know, analysis of your LinkedIn profile, I did notice that transition from more account leadership to people leadership, and I was really fascinated to hear how that came about. So thanks, thanks for sharing that.

I can also like, like, I definitely see, I mean, I think you’re talking about kids that maybe are in high school, or 17 years old, who are trying to figure out their life. And I definitely have seen that sort of the younger generation in the workforce already, like, say, in their mid-20s, or even early 20s do have a ton of pressure. And I wonder if if that pressure is placed on themselves? Or is it society that places this pressure on them? Or is it even parents? Where does that the most of that pressure come from? Because I definitely have realized or had that sense that there is this desire to figure out their life story, you know, in their teens and 20s?

Sara Whitman 

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, this is not a scientific answer that I’m giving given to you. And I think every person is a little bit different. But the macro factors are all the same, right? So there is a societal pressure to get you out into the workforce and to get you kind of contributing and being productive.

And there is a narrative that we kind of tell our kids society level and parenting level about, you know, what do you want to be when you grow up? You know, that question alone is a very powerful question to ask a young person, and to be asked that from four or five, you know, onwards, it’s, there’s unintentional consequences to putting that kind of pressure on kids.

And I say “unintentional” because as parents and as a society, we want the best for our kids, we want them to have fulfillment and engagement and excitement about their lives. But the message that we’re sending is, you better figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Right?

So I think that those are the two major I think, parenting that you do have to play a huge role in the unintentional messages that you’re sending to your kids the quiet messages that you’re sending, and how can you even rethink your role as a parent, and transition your thinking, to be more about helping kids have a solid foundation for growth and development and encouraging exploration and experimentation in the way our kids think about their lives? And I think the same thing about our careers, and we get into a professional workplace, how we think about the trajectory of our career.

Steve Chaparro 

Right, that’s one thing I shared with you before we came on. That is I was looking at your profile, one of the things that I realized, or at least I surmise for myself, was that there was this theme of, of transitions in your work.

When I look at how hot paper lantern describes itself. It says it’s a communication agency, which works with companies to solve unprecedented brand challenges and to deliver impact at critical junctions of change. And then At The Start is to help teams through their major life transitions.

How much of that you think was intentional for you like it? Have you landed on that realization that helping people in companies through transitions? Was that like an intentional focus? Or is it just kind of like, you know, the universe has brought you to this point to realization.

Sara Whitman 

Yeah, so I think that for my coaching, consultancy, which is, you know, my company that I run and own and make all the decisions about the direction is very intentional, with Hot Paper Lantern and I’m part of a leadership team. So I can certainly contribute to that. But it’s a collective of our leadership team looking at the world and saying what is happening, what organizations need, and what are the challenges that they’re facing? How do we help them get through that?

And the truth is, they’re all living organisms, right? They’re all living things that are going to transition and change is the one constant that we can count on. And so it’s a happy coincidence that I’m in a place that has a similar belief system that I do. And of course, I’ve contributed to that. But I’m, I’m blessed to be surrounded by a like-minded team.

Steve Chaparro 

Well, to that point, I know that for me, I’m in my mid-40s and I and I look at my own career, it’s, you know, it’s been a meandering career as well. And I think that there has been definitely a red line that is carried throughout all of my work.

And I think, from what I understand Hot Paper Lantern is a relatively young agency and started, you know, several years ago, what was it about this idea do you think that drew all of these senior leaders who have had probably, you know, a decade or two of experience under their belt, if not more, to say, hey, we want to be a part of this new thing? This is what we see that we want to help with companies that are at these critical junctures. What was that common theme that lead to like-mindedness that you felt you feel that is brought to you altogether?

 Sara Whitman 

Yeah. And I would say, 100% has to do with the change factor that businesses are facing. And that’s just been like, exponentially, like, wildly changed in the last six months, right.

So but if you look at agencies in the last eight years, there was a shift in the way that advertising marketing communications, PR agencies were trending, and you couldn’t stay the same. And you’re receiving industry resistance to change, which is normal. Nobody loves change. And so we’ve had to dig our heels in when it feels uncomfortable.

But we all kind of looked around and said, you know, what if we could put our arms around that change and feel really comfortable with it, or at least tried, feel comfortable to change? What would that look like, for business for the market as a whole for our business for our people? And that common element of change? When you’re talking about transitions, that’s how it kind of evolves, there’s junctures of change. That’s how it evolves.

But it really started with the, you know, what if we could be something different, instead of, you know, hands up, and dig in our heels? We could say, how do we go with it? How do we go with the flow and adapt and transform, that we’re staying in that kind of vibrant space?

Steve Chaparro 

I’m getting goosebumps, because I think that, you know, the reason why that’s resonated so deeply with me is because I have, you know, people in my personal life, you know, people that in my professional life, who are experiencing some major transitions, I call it like, sometimes that we’re living in the in-between.

So it’s like, we’re not on either side of that transition yet. We’re like, we’re in the middle. Some of us are trying to figure out what’s next. You know, I think of like, people in their 20s, who are really trying to find their significance in the world. I think it’s sometimes for those that are maybe are in the last, you know, 10/15/20 years of their of their career, they might be battling about to find some relevance, you know, because they seem that this world has changed so much, and where do I fit in this new world. Then myself smack dab in the middle as a Gen Xer? You know, trying to figure out my place in the world sometimes, too.

I just feel like that there’s that question of where do I fit in? What’s next? What’s the next step? I may not know what the next mile is, next year or even five years? I just want to know, what’s the next best step? What are some lessons or some bits of wisdom that you might give to people who are trying to figure out what’s next, whether it’s personally, professionally, industry-wise? What are some thoughts that I can have?

 Sara Whitman 

Yeah, so I absolutely relate to what you’re saying here, right? This is like an in-between, we all feel that way, I think, to a certain extent, a little stuckness. Kind of processing still what we’ve been through and trying to figure out how do we move forward from here, right.

We all kind of very quickly changed our behaviors when we needed to. And we’re flying through it, kind of trusting our gut instinct pulling on people around us our support system, and really just saying, like, we’re in crisis mode, so we need to move through this and handle it accordingly. And now we’re not out of it. But we’re in a point of reflection. I hope that organizations and individuals are reflecting on what we’ve been through, and identifying the lessons in that and also using those as indicators of how to move forward.

So a few things that I could suggest certainly, and you can talk about this at an individual level, and then at an organizational level to, when you’re in that moment of uncertainty, to pause and ask yourself, what do I want to say about myself? When I’m looking back on this moment, a year from now? And how do I want to show up right now, what’s important about right now that I want to look back and be able to say, this is how I showed up, this is who I was, this is what I did.

And so organizationally, that kind of really looking at your values and who you are as a business, who you say you are as a business, and thinking through how you can let that guide you. And I think we’ve seen a huge move for organizations to be thinking about not just their values, what are your values? But how do I live that picture, I’m living them appropriately, and let that guide your action to a certain extent.

That I think is a big first step. What’s my intention? What’s our intention, as a business as an individual, as a young person? And then very slowly, saying, What’s the smallest thing I could do right now, to move in that direction? The easiest, smallest, most obvious thing that I can do, and that one step leads to another leads to another? And try to keep it as simple as possible, because it is overwhelming. And so if you can break it down into the tiniest little details, the tiniest little things, then it helps a lot.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I think to your, I think your second point about how am I actually living these out, you know, in terms of values, I think that has come to the forefront, like no time ever before in terms of what is the experience in terms of whether it’s the employee experience or the client experience, it’s almost like, I don’t care what you say about what it looks like to work at your company, I want to know that he like all of the fluff, and the frosting of an employer brand has almost like gone away, and people are left with the stark reality of what the experience is working with this brand or working at this employer has come to play.

And I feel like those values, the experience of those values has become paramount. And they and people. And I think they’ve been exposed both for good. And I like oh, this is really who we are. But I think in some cases for the bad as well, in terms of we’re not who we say we were. And so it’s been interesting, how have you seen that seeing that play out in terms of the revealing of who a company is or who a person is during this time?

 Sara Whitman 

Yeah, well, actions speak louder than words, right. So there’s a reason why we say that all the time. And I think organizations are really having to open their eyes and take a good look at themselves to say, are my actions aligning with what my values are, what our purposes, what we’re saying, we’re here to do.

Let’s think about this for a second. So here’s an example. In our organization we had one of our values is to unite as one team. And so we’re a multidisciplinary agency, and how we come together as a team to deliver an experience for our clients is really important. And yet, we’re scattered now. Right? So we’re not united physically as one team. What does that mean? How does that translate them to a remote work environment? And not thinking about how do we replicate our in-person culture in a remote environment? But how do we bring to life, this uniting as one team in a remote environment in a different way, but that still rings true for people?

So very simple things to get at, right? Like nothing, we’re just not, we didn’t like overhaul things within the organization. We’ve said, what can we do to really bring that place, we added an extra stand up meeting each week, we added opportunities, something that we called Me in Three, and said, you know, if we’re cloud, if we’re collaborating and joining together as one team, those relationships are really important, but the relationships become distant when we’re not seeing each other in person.

So in our weekly meetings, each person would share for three minutes, a slide or a few slides of photos from their lives and talk about who they are as a person, what they’re bringing to the table, what they were interested in for their career, what basically makes them who they are, what makes them tick. And it took us several months to go through those. But I repeatedly hear from our teammates that that was one of the best things that we did in this kind of quarantine, period, and it really did help unite people who weren’t seeing each other every day.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, and I think your point earlier about not necessarily trying to replicate, to have just a virtual replication of what you were in person. I think sometimes you almost have to think of it is what our, if we were to strip away sort of the old expressions of what that was? Because we were able to work in person? What are some new expressions of that value? Because I think people are trying to, in a sense, replicate in very, very explicit ways who they are, how they did it before. And I think that that’s where the stress and anxiety come in is because they can’t work the same way.

Steve Chaparro 

So it’s, it’s the same value expressed and maybe lived out in a different way in the virtual environment. I think that’s been sort of some of the hardships that I’ve heard from some agencies, but also some beautiful successes and stories that I’ve heard about people, companies being able to express those in new ways. And so that’s been awesome to hear about.

Sara Whitman 

Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think that initially, the initial reaction was to do just that. We would have, you know, we had once a month happy hours, we’re gonna do a virtual happy hour, you know, things like that. But um, you know, you do your first one or two, and then you’re kind of like, hmmm, let’s, let’s do something different. How do we try something different here?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, well, one of the things I want to ask you about so you know, my sort of passionate pursuit of being able to help companies and agencies, mainly creative companies design their culture comes from one an absolute passion for culture. But two was my background in architecture. And I noticed that a lot of creative firms that we would espouse a lot of human-centered types of principles and methodologies in our client-facing work, but many times did not actually turn around and use them for our own teams, we would deliver a frothy client experience, to the absolute detriment of our own employee experience.

So I’m really excited to hear especially for you coming in as a CPO at a creative agency early on, and it’s in his sort of lifespan, how have you folks sought to design create develop culture, using the very same principles that you use in your client-facing tasks?

Sara Whitman 

I love this question. Because it, you’re right, Hot Paper Lantern entered is a relatively young agency. We’ve been around for a few years, but our founding was we were part of a larger agency and we transitioned out of that and became our own entity. And creating something new from something that already existed is is a big challenge.

And so as a leadership team, rethinking what’s our purpose, what’s our goal? Who are we trying to be? What are our values? How are we going to do it differently? And how do we help our staff understand that when a good number of them are coming from a place that that is different, and they’re used to a certain culture and a certain way of doing things, and now they have to transition into something new, and be kind of informed about what that means so that they can then take it and create it, right?

Because culture is not something that we’re handing down. We’re just creating a framework for people to iterate and experiment and explore. And that was something really important to us that we brought to our team, and said, this is as much yours as it is ours. We’re telling you what our vision is, we want you to take it and bring it to life. It won’t happen if you can’t do that. Right. So that was, go ahead. I see you want to ask me,

Steve Chaparro 

I was just gonna say like I when you made the point about, you know, it’s very different from when you actually have an agency that is born out of another agency, many times the former culture is still in-house, because if it was born out of a different entity, it’s very natural to want to, or is to assume that their culture is going to be the same.

So it’s very different to come out, you know, to come from another agency to start something new versus absolutely starting from scratch. So I can definitely see how there would be some, in a sense, I think learning may not be the right word, but to not assume that what you had before is what you’re trying to build today.

So I think I how have you folks actually included your team members in part of the designing of that culture? Because I love that and I think maybe if you’ve, you know, if you’ve if anybody has kind of listened to the podcast before the idea of inviting employees into the designing of a culture, but being guided by the leadership vision is absolutely paramount. How have you invited employees to be part of that?

Sara Whitman 

So initially, it was a lot of like, okay, yeah, the proof is in the pudding. Right? So we were would say that these are values, this is the way we want to do things and there was a little bit of hesitancy at first is just okay, prove it to me. So one of our values is being bold and speaking up and sharing something you. You see something, say something, tell us what you’re seeing, tell us how that affects the work that we’re doing. Tell us how we can be better as an organization, I can tell you all those things. But until people saw us also doing that, it was hard to bring them along on the journey, right.

So initially, it was a lot of proving out what we were saying. And then we intentionally built-in opportunities for people to help design it with us. So we do monthly, what we call bold steps and misses meetings. And they’re essentially moments and opportunities for people to bring something to the table, something unique, interesting, different a way that they’d like to iterate and approach a process, something we do inside the organization or outside the organization.

And its employee-led, they could bring the topic in themselves, they can design the session themselves, solicit feedback, and then go forward and execute on whatever it is that they’d like to do from there. That’s been a really healthy way for us to kind of create a process around it. But also keep an eye on it. And not none, the consistency of it is really important, again, to kind of prove it out.

Sara Whitman 

So we’ve had people come in and do some really interesting things. And we’ve done some things at the leader level where we’ve brought people through and said, Okay, how do we build on the organization? How do we get better? And making sure that we’re holding sessions, design thinking sessions, right? What’s the problem? Let’s understand the problem, ask the questions, dig into it, explore it, and prototype it, and then see what we can what the outcome is, and kind of iterate from there. That’s been express. 

We’ve also done kind of quarterly focuses, initially, the first kind of year and a half, we did quarterly focuses each one on a different value set, and invited people into that process of sharing, sharing information, podcasts, articles, speakers, bringing speakers in all-around a particular topic that we’re trying to reinforce and culminate that with. Now, how do we, how do we build that into the organization? How do we take what we’ve been learning this quarter, and integrated it into who we are, and focus on continuing to get better? How did that focus help you as an individual get better? How is it going to help the organization as a whole get better? And so in that way, we’ve kind of continuously iterated in that framework.

Steve Chaparro 

It’s, it sounds so refreshing to hear how, you know, with the, you know, the US, you’ve been in business for several years, even though it came out of a new one, that has such a sort of at the beginning of this lifespan that you folks, I mean, you folks have looked at your website had tremendous, big, big profile clients that you’re working with. And I would imagine that there are a lot of transitions that all of those brands are experiencing now.

What are some of the I know, your your your your role is in the people function? So it’s it’s internally focused. But at the leadership level? What have you heard? And what have you folks seen in terms of what are the challenges that companies are facing from a brand level, especially in this environment? You’ve already touched on a lot of the people transitions, but what about brand transitions for companies? What are some things you say?

Sara Whitman 

Yeah, so I think we’re in a really, I mean, we are in a really unique and different time. And so my role is definitely internally facing, I do help some of our clients with our employee experience work. And so I try to get my hands in on that work when I can, I do love that. And it helps me bring things back into our organization too. So that’s definitely a big part for me. But for the brands, we’re facing this moment of internally, yeah, living up to who you are, but also externally, you know, consumers are demanding that you really live up to who you are and that you take a stand in matters of importance to you.

And they want to know, they didn’t they don’t want to get the email every week of like, this is what we’re doing through COVID. I think that was a lesson for brands, like over-communicating in areas that weren’t necessarily relevant for their audience. But they do want to know what you’re doing about social justice. They do want to know about what you’re doing, to help the world, and to do more than sell something.

And I think that’s something we’ve always known something that brands have always known, but they’re being held to the task now. You can’t just say it, you have to really act and show us what you’re doing. I think that’s been an interesting thing for brands, I think that brand relevance piece of it, how do you stay relevant, and protect the business and to stay in business and advance and become a more digitally adept business? All of those things are big, big challenges, but certainly brand relevance, I think is at the top of that list.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, you’re right. We’re at this time in history is such a, if you would, I don’t know how to call it but this perfect storm of major issues that are all swirling at the same time. You know, we’ve got COVID we’ve got the economy. We’ve got social justice. We’ve got the election, all of these, my gosh, 2020 will go down in history as one of the most just one of the craziest years. And that does bring a sense of people do want answers.

And I wonder, though, safer social justice and safer, you know, whether it’s the brand is for the COVID, or the economy? How much? Because I know that some companies may fall into the category of responding to some of these issues in the way that many companies in the past responded to corporate social responsibility. And I think in many cases, it was just a checkmark, like, okay, we’re going to have this statement, we’re going to have this set of things we’re going to do and say, but many people felt that some of those stories fell flat, that they were inauthentic. And they were just, it was more about the ops than it was about them actually doing things, you know, that those, you know, walking the talk.

So how can companies, whether it’s agencies, or whether it’s consumer-facing brands, how can they show, hey, this is not just talk, this is something that we’re who we really are and moving forward.

Sara Whitman 

Yeah, you’re 100%, right. There’s a movement, that I feel really strongly about for leaders of organizations. And we’ve talked a lot over the years about the importance of being of empathy, as a leader, that is still incredibly important. But there’s a next step to that. And that next step is really vulnerability. And being willing to show that you don’t have all the answers, you don’t know everything, and that you’re open to listening and learning and transitioning yourself in your own business. And to really come from that place of authenticity and openness.

And for a leader, that can be especially in a large organization, that can be very challenging. And as somebody who works in communications, historically, the role of the communications person has been to protect the leader from being vulnerable at all costs, right. And that has to change for the support around the leader and for the leader themselves to know, I need to do more and be more and it needs to come from in deep and as a collective. And how do we bring that out?

So when you think about designing a culture, at the same kind of principles apply, right, trying to understand what it is and be willing to say, I’m not 100% sure, let me ask about this, I want to know more about this, I want to learn more about this, and then do the hard work that is going to take to actually change. I think that’s really one of the only things that an individual leader can do. But then you do that collectively, and it makes for massive change for an organization.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, that’s been an interesting sort of discovery for me as well, that in the world of communications itself, I mean, I’m not well versed in it at all, but I’ve had a couple of experiences with clients where if there was something that was going on, and potentially negative, that could have impacted, you know, their customer experience in some way, that rather than sort of preempting the problem and kind of, you know, saying, hey, by the way, you may experience this moving forward, just know, that we haven’t handled.

But the approach that, you know, this one client took was, hey, we don’t want to alert anybody to anything, we only want to address as you know, things come up. And it seemed to me that it was more of a PR type of approach in terms of only address it as it comes up, but don’t broadcast it across, you know, all of your channels. And I just had this interesting sense like is that what PR is, is about protecting the image and the brand and not alerting people to potential problems.

But I love the approach of being able to preempt things and just let you know, express some vulnerability. And I feel like, especially in these days and times of vulnerability will go much further than trying to just protect an image. But again, I’m not in the industry. So I don’t know, what are your thoughts about that?

Sara Whitman 

I would say I mean, I agree that is definitely it’s a movement in and like I was saying in the beginning of when you feel yourself in that moment of transition, and you’re not sure what to do to ask yourself, who do I want to be what’s important right now? What do I need to bring and prove and show right now? And what’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can do? So, you know, kind of just being like, Here I am as a vulnerable open person. And I’m going to tell you like, all the flaws.

You know, it’s a big leap. And it’s not necessarily the right leap. But the steps towards that are really important. And to just make sure that you’re open to asking the questions and to asking why, you know, and if you’re if the response you’re getting is no, no, we don’t want to tell anybody about that. Okay, why help me understand why, what is it that you’re trying to do? And on the flip side, So what are you trying to avoid? But really, what are you trying to do? How do you want to come out of this on the other side? And then let’s figure out how to get there. From this moment.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, yeah. So good. I would imagine that you have colleagues or peers at different firms across the industry. And you’re hearing from, you know, Chief People Officers, or, you know, whatever title is, is similar in those respective agencies, what are some of the top challenges that you feel your peers are facing at other firms in the industry,

Sara Whitman 

There’s certainly a movement towards the remote working experience, and creating a remote work experience that supports the culture, that’s true to the culture. I think that initially, the like I said, the crisis management was meant you had to just like fly, you had to just go. And now there’s time to reflect and say, like, okay, we need to give people as much flexibility as possible. But also make sure that we’re getting high-quality work done. But also make sure that we’re building something a place where people want to be and want to work and do their best, and also manage through the economy. And also make sure people feel safe if they’re thinking about coming back into the office, right.

And also make sure that my leaders feeling really good about where we’re going, and that you’re a good counselor to them as they’re moving through this. And to making sure that you’re dealing with your own stuff at home with your kids or your, you know, other whatever family dynamics are happening or challenges that you’re facing. So it’s the confluence of so many different things, but really, at the heart of it is how do I help my organization move forward and move through this strong, and with people feeling supported? And that they’re helping each other through something?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I’ve talked with other folks, you know, kind of in similar roles as you and I have this sense that you’re CPO equivalents across the industry, and across all types of companies that the CPO, the Chief HRO are probably some of the hardest if not the hardest working person in that firm, because they’ve got so many things to consider.

Obviously, CEOs have things to consider as well. What you mentioned a little bit about what are some things that they should just possibly focus on in terms of even like self-care because I’m also hearing some stories of burnout? You know, because we thought we were going to be done with this two months, you know, into it. Now, it looks like, you know, the first quarter of, you know, 2021, possibly, what can we do now to sustain ourselves for at least the next several months, this is going to be our reality?

Sara Whitman 

Yeah. We talked about this, in the beginning, to write about young people and the pressure that they put on themselves, like, does that ever change, like, is there like a point where we’re like I’m not going to put pressure on myself anymore? It’s like, no, I feel like, you know, many of us are putting so much pressure on ourselves to be everything. And not giving ourselves enough flack for not being able to live up to whatever expectations we have for ourselves.  

And so I think there’s, this is a big thing that I focus on for myself, is acceptance. And there’s so much about the world today that we cannot control. And I don’t, I’m not talking about acceptance in a passive like a passive way of like, well, I can’t do anything about this. More of just, okay, this is what I’ve been handed, this is what I have right now. And I’m going to take care of myself a little bit so that I can think clearly so that I can help somebody else, especially CHROs and Chief People Officers like we have to support everyone within the organization.

And we can’t do that if we’re coming at a place of exhaustion and stress and anxiety, we have to come out of the places of feeling filled up and feeling like we have something to give somebody else. So I, it’s a hard thing to say like, Oh, just do that. Because it’s very hard when you’re facing all of the different challenges that we’re facing right now. But it’s a mental shift that you have to stay consistently focused on.

So whatever way that you need to do that, building in a morning routine for yourself, where you’re doing some things that nourish yourself, understanding what you love to do, and figuring out how to give yourself 15 minutes to have the meditation, read the book, go on the walk, roll around with the dog, like whatever, whatever your thing is. Put it on your calendar, and making sure that you’re giving yourself some quiet space if you’re that kind of person, which I am. Or on the flip side, if you’re someone who gets energy from other people, which is a hard thing to do right now. How are you going to do that? How are you going to get what you need to feel energized as an individual?

Steve Chaparro 


Sara Whitman 

Yeah, put a post it up. Remind yourself, put an alarm on your phone that says what I do for myself today. Whatever you need to do, find somebody out there who will call you every day and say would you do for yourself today?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, yeah, this is so good. Sara, I really appreciate our time together. If there was, is there any other topic that you’re particularly passionate about that we haven’t discussed yet today? What am I missing? Well, question, I didn’t.

Sara Whitman 

This isn’t something you missed, because at all, as I think we’ve covered a lot that was on my mind, I think the one thing that I really would love for your listeners to think about is how can they rethink their lives as an expert exploration, rethink their career journeys as an exploration? And to get really curious about what that looks like? And for businesses to how is this a journey that doesn’t end that keeps going and gets more exciting, more interesting, as we move on?

Steve Chaparro 

Those are such wise words, no matter what age you’re at, I think that to treat our careers and lives as a, as a journey of self-discovery is definitely one that I have found a lot of peace in, because I can sometimes look back at some decisions or some stages in my career and like, what was I thinking, but in hindsight, I definitely have learned a lot from those things. Even if it was things that I couldn’t control.

And I learned, I think, I think we will all if we have that mindset that you’re speaking of, we will all come out of this period of COVID-19, stronger, more resilient, and probably even a little bit more self-aware of who we truly are. And maybe we can sort of release some of the trappings of this world. Because they, we realized that they were no longer important or helpful, did not serve as well in our life. So thank you for those words. Sarah, thank you so much. If people want to learn more about you and your work at Hot Paper Lantern, how can they reach out to you?

Sara Whitman 

Sure, well, they could reach out to me through the website, HotPaperLantern.com. They can reach out to me by email [email protected]. And I’m also on LinkedIn and Twitter and all those fun places too.

Steve Chaparro 

Thank you very much, Sara. Appreciate you being on the show. Thank you.


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