Sarah Clark: I had to get to a point where I realized that it’s ok to be vulnerable
Time Out with… is the interview series for inspiring leaders throughout Dentsu Aegis Network. In this edition we sat down with Sarah Clark, President of Mitchell as she joined Sarah Hood, Director of Marketing at Mitchell for a conversation about her career at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
So, Sarah let’s start at the beginning. Tell us where you grew up and how you got into public relations.
I grew up in a family in small-town Arkansas where strong work ethic, family values, and respect were all core to our being. My mom was a female store manager at Sears at a time when few women worked, much less had leadership roles. My dad was a Nabisco sales manager. Neither of my parents had a college degree, but they worked their way up because of that strong work ethic and by following through on their commitments, by doing the right thing, by treating others with respect and by multitasking — a lot.
I got my first job at Alltel right after graduating from Ouachita Baptist University with a communications degree. I started at the bottom of the PR structure and was lucky in that my manager left 6 months after I started and I was given the chance to prove myself. I was given the opportunity to show that I had the skillset, the grit and hopefully the can-do attitude and willingness to learn. Over my almost 18 years there, I was promoted through the ranks and was leading the communications and PR for our wireline, wireless, information services and publishing offerings in Atlanta.
How did you end up leading communications at Walmart?
There was a position at Walmart that came open and it was good timing as I wanted to come back closer to Arkansas where my family was, so I took the job.
I led national media relations and brand reputation for Walmart at a time when the company was under extreme attention and scrutiny. It was one of the most challenging times in my career and the most rewarding. My position at Walmart exposed me to different worlds. Working on causes like Hurricane Katrina, victim relief, health care reform, job opportunity, women’s empowerment — all of that expanded my capacity to dig deep in my soul in terms of looking for that purpose in my life and the ability to love.
Because of my faith, I started questioning myself, my purpose and what I was really supposed to be doing. I was working long hours and 150% focused on my career. I realized there had to be more. It was not too long after that, that I was seated at a charity event with a couple who had just adopted two children from Russia. Upon hearing their experience and their joy, I couldn’t get it off my mind or out of my heart. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I had almost missed the opportunity of my life to be a mom. So I ended up following my heart and adopted a baby boy from Russia. From Siberia, actually. I had to travel there twice and yes, it is that cold! The adoption process took about 9 months. With the support of my family and my employer, Walmart at the time, I brought home Eli Kennedy Clark — a beautiful healthy baby boy from Siberia. So after 46 years my life felt almost complete.
After a few months at home with Eli I went back to work and I found that something was still missing. A mom always feels guilty; you feel like you’re cheating on your family or you’re cheating on your job. Well I realized bonding with my son was non-negotiable. It was something that I was supposed to do and again I listened to that voice and it was telling me that this is Eli’s time. I knew I couldn’t focus on my career and give Eli the love and the bonding that we needed so badly. I knew my heart was with my son.
So I made the decision to walk away from a great paying rewarding job at a wonderful company, following my gut instinct and my heart all the way. I left an almost complete life and chose a different kind of complete life. I soaked up every minute I could with my son while I was not working and I made great use of my time with him, while I could. After staying home with Eli bonding for several months, it was time for me to go back to work and simultaneously for Eli to have more interaction with other children. Using my instincts as a guide I sifted through several offers and I decided to take one from Mitchell. Elise Mitchell was not only the CEO and Founder but also someone in the profession that I admired a lot. She understood my goals and appreciated my authenticity. I knew Mitchell because I had been their client and the integrity and work ethic of that entire agency, and especially Elise, inspired me and so I joined Mitchell. That decision landed me in a position where I could work hard, make meaningful change, add value from a client perspective, help grow the company and form a strong bond with my son all at the same time. That was the best decision for me and still is!
I love hearing that story and how public relations has been such a constant in your career. What do you wish that people knew about PR? What is the biggest misconception about the industry?
A couple things come to mind, first of all… I love it when I hear that someone joins this profession because you like to work with people. That’s the one that I have to laugh at. PR is not about spin, it’s about effective and efficient storytelling. It’s about clarity, it’s not the “no comment.” Just the opposite, it’s about engaging people authentically and directly. It’s about being a trusted advisor who combines all those fundamentals of integrity, judgement and of course powerful storytelling. Also I think consumers have lost trust in traditional PR because they have been turned off by corporate speak and meaningless press releases and all of those things that used to be the old world of PR. Gone are those days. It’s much more than a press release.
PR professionals now have the digital freeway. It has opened up a new way for creating buzz around product offerings through microsites, case studies, eBooks, blog posts, videos, infographics and even augmented reality. The list goes on and on. Influencer engagement is another area that we are deeply engaged with today. But PR as a field has more opportunities than it has ever had. Good PR is about creating thoughtful content and forming an emotional connection between the brand and a consumer. That’s it in its simplest form.
When you mention storytelling, I am reminded of where we are this morning. Why is this the perfect place to talk about you, your background and public relations?
Who would have thought that this would ever be in Northwest Arkansas. Crystal Bridges is such an icon in Northwest Arkansas. It symbolizes growth, it symbolizes this region’s dedication to the arts. It’s beautiful, just to take a look around. This is really an inspiring place to talk about the genuine storytelling heritage of PR. I just love it. Strategic, business-building public relations is a craft. It’s an art.
When I look around the museum, I have so many memories. I have sweet memories of bringing my son and my family here to visit and experience an incredible collection of artwork. I have proud memories of hosting clients and collegue events and meetings on these grounds. Crystal Bridges is truly a place of inspiration. I am in awe every time I walk through the doors here.
I agree, so you mentioned it but I want to go back to it, your role working with Walmart, with the world largest retailer. What was that like?
It was one of the most rewarding roles that I have ever had in my life. As a senior member of Walmart’s corporate communications team and officer of the company I was able to spearhead national media relations. Manage thorny situations, help frame public perceptions of a company. We faced criticisms facing our health care, our environmental practices, employment and many other things. When you’re the number one company you’re going to have a target on your back. And that’s exactly what happened and it was really really critical for us to do solid storytelling and we had a good story to tell. Walmart is a great company, so I led our war room efforts and I talked to the media almost every day to represent this story.
There were so many things that I managed the media on including being on the front line when Hurricane Katrina happened and the world was watching Walmart’s involvement as we arrived first on the scene with supplies. It was my team telling that story as openly and as frequently as possible. The job was a challenge but it was one I reveled in. It stretched me beyond what I could have imagined.
So over the course of your career — the experience with the client side and now as an agency leader — what is your biggest takeaway from seeing both sides of that equation?
I have the good fortune to be included in some important client service meetings, which is one of my all-time favorite things to do because I feel like I get to put my old client-side hat on, and I am reminded of the art of listening. When clients talk we should listen and be ready to do a 360 turn and pivot to address what they want and what they are telling us. Not listening and worse, not comprehending what’s being said is a surefire way to ruin the client experience or miss a great opportunity to position our experience. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that we shouldn’t spend our time on thinking about what we are going to say next or being so closely tied to our agenda that we can’t be flexible, because we’re going to miss something. We are going to miss a key point and we just need to constantly make sure we listen for information. I think that’s the main thing.
That’s a powerful reflection after being able to see it from both sides. How does that translate to a leadership style? When you look at your team at Mitchell, how does that translate?
Well I think you have to listen again for information. You have to look under the words to explore the implied meaning. A few things here, first listen to what is missing, second, listen to concerns that the client may have or what is important to them. The third is to listen for what they value. Then the last thing that I would say is listen for what they want and need in order to fill that gap between what they have now and what they want. It’s a learned skill. You have to practice this over and over. It will open up new opportunities and it will sharpen your listening skills. I encourage everyone from a leadership perspective to practice those skill sets.
So when you think about your career over the years in public relations you’ve got to have quite the collection of interesting experiences, is there one that jumps out as the most memorable?
So I would have to say it was leading Walmart’s media efforts with Hurricane Katrina. The world was watching and for me just being a part of a company who could use its size and logistics to truly save people’s lives and make a difference in those communities was so rewarding. Not many people have an opportunity to work for a company who can be the first on the scene with goods and supplies to save people’s lives. And then seeing how that moment in time actually changed Walmart itself was amazing. After that situation, Walmart’s CEO Lee Scott called several of us in and challenged us all to be that kind of company all the time — use our size to make the world a better place to live. That was the beginning of the sustainability movement at Walmart. Participating and being on the front lines of those kinds of conversations is definitely one of the most rewarding things that has happened for me from a career perspective. We were truly making a difference in people’s lives.
On another personal note, you’re a single working mom and you’re the president of a leading public relations firm. How do you manage it all?
Sarah Clark: With a lot of help and prayer. For me I had to sit back and realize some good advice from some key leaders who I used to work with who are moms, too. They said ‘you have to realize you can’t do it all by yourself’ and they were so so right. If you are a single parent, you especially can’t do it alone. So I had to realize that I had to allow others to help me with things like running errands or cleaning the house or picking up Eli if I found myself in a bind. I had to get to a point where I realized that it is ok to be vulnerable. It just happens, it makes us human.
It’s also all about flexibility. I think this is one of the most important things that I have learned that has helped me the most. When I am at work, I am at work. I work hard and I focus, I give everything that I can to my job, to my career at Mitchell and DAN. However, when I am with my son, I try to focus on him and only him during the time I am with him. I think that is really really critical and important. While I am not perfect at it, it’s a goal that I strive for everyday. I have learned how to truly unplug from the office. You don’t need to be connected 24/7. I spend quality time with my son and I encourage everyone to spend quality time with their children whether you’re at home or with them at an activity. Try to unplug, try to not constantly be looking down at your phone or computer. Let them see you be with them.
One of the things that actually woke me up one day was I was at home with Eli and he was young — I want to say he was 3 years old — and I had my computer in my lap and I was working away and we were watching TV, probably Sponge Bob or something like that and he’s sitting next to me and gently with his little-bitty hand just reached over and shut my computer. And a light went on and I was like ‘ok that’s right I was supposed to be spending time with him’! So that’s one thing I encourage is all parents to spend quality time with your children whether you’re at home or with them. Don’t let work interruptions taint your memories with your children.
Without Eli, I am confident that I would not be able to face and overcome the challenges in my professional life as I do today. The funny thing is he continues to teach me lessons every single day. So while there are ways that I am able to manage being a single mom in a career I truly love, there is a lot of give and take too.
How has becoming a mom changed your leadership style?
I could go on and on with that one. I have become more patient, empathetic, understanding. My son has taught me to become a better listener, to support other working parents better than I did before. I have recognized the need for more flexibly along with structure. I thought I was a very structured person before, but I didn’t have a clue. Becoming a parent does so much more than make your life more hectic. I learned how to better prioritize and to bend without breaking. I started allowing natural strengths and authenticity to shine resulting in a more fulfilling career and authentic me. I am a much better leader now as I am able to pursue all of my passions.
What’s your favorite way to relax? What does a perfect weekend look like?
So for me it is watching a movie, hiking, camping and traveling with my son, family and friends. I have watched movies that I never imagined that I would watch, like the most recent — monster trucks! We both love to travel and we’re fond of all things Disney. We are headed to Hawaii in May for some family travel time together.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to lead an agency?
Always look at what you do through the client lens. Great interactions and solutions are what clients need. Be creative, push the envelope, be passionate, empower your people, be an assertive leader, constant learner and always do the right thing.
When you look back at your career, what’s the biggest lesson that you have learned?
The biggest lesson is to give up control and trust others to do their part and give the recognition away. It is so rewarding to see what that freedom can do for your team members, your company and for you. So it’s really about ceding control, empowering your people. By doing that you will still be more successful than you ever thought you would be.
Thank you, Sarah!