I am the business.
That is the mindset I had for the longest time, for a couple of very literal reasons: my name is my brand, after all, and for most of the early years in the company, I was doing everything on my own. Creating content, generating invoices, building relationships, searching for new speaking opportunities–everything.
I had no choice but to be the business. Right?
I hadn’t come to this work with the intention of creating a company in the beginning. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. But as the business grew, it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to do all of “it.”
While I had the support of Rachel Peterson, my assistant Zachary, and husband, but I was dropping balls and burning out. I didn’t know how to set Zach up for success. The biggest reason for not delegating more, is I didn’t think about it and I didn’t want to burden others with tasks I knew how to do.
Building a business to include others when you aren’t clear about how to run a business yourself, is challenging for all involved.
Teresa and Kristin came on board when I needed people to help create order out of the chaos.
Eventually it became apparent that I needed to bring on another coach. I’d initially turned down several people who’d wanted to become involved because I felt overwhelmed —including Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell —but after some conversations, I decided to meet with her one day for lunch. I could tell immediately that we were going to click. She was kind, capable, and asked good questions.
I realized something in that moment: a small part of me had been dragging my feet because I knew how exceptional she was, and I was having some insecurity around what it might look like if someone I hired was “better” than me.
So, true to form, I told her that.
“I’m so happy you were even able to say that to me out loud,” she said.
It was a beautiful moment, and we both laughed. That honest conversation was a gateway and became a strong foundation for the work we still do together to this day. Luckily, she agreed.
There was only one problem: I had these great people, but I had no system and no clearly defined roles. It felt like a tornado most the time and people were just trying to find a place to hold onto.
My experience was in managing teams within systems that already existed. I’d never built one, and it was starting to hold us back.
It came to a head one night after I’d traveled for a conference with Kristin. She and I were sharing a 2am conversation in the kitchen of our little Nashville Airbnb.
“Sarah, you know I respect you and believe in what you’re doing, but none of us know how to contribute and we’re working in circles. We have to figure this out, because I don’t know how much longer I can stay working in this way.” Kristen said in her very direct, yet loving German way.
I was gobsmacked.
She’s right, I thought. How did I miss this?
The first step? Painfully obvious now, but back then it was a game changer: implementing regular team meetings.
When you are in survival mode, the obvious option isn’t always obvious.
The next was finally taking the time to clearly define roles and letting them . . . change shape. And in the most expansive way.
As structures became clearer and people started to better understand the work, I became reminded of Teresa’s deep knowledge of learning. She had her doctorate but her current role didn’t tap into her depth of wisdom. The more she started to offer insights into the content and my presentations, the clearer it became that we were sitting on a gold mine of knowledge and complementary skills and were not leveraging any of it.
Holy smokes, I thought. This woman is incredible. Why are we not having her help design and deliver learning?
Then, COVID. I don’t need to tell you that seemingly overnight, the world went virtual. Whereas Teresa hadn’t been able to travel before, suddenly could be everywhere. We could all be everywhere, at any time, through a screen. We started with baby steps, she and I co-facilitating virtually.
“I’m your Ed McMahon, and you’re my Johnny Carson,” she’d always say. And it worked wonders. She continued to thrive, taking her first clients on her own in 2021.
But, again . . . there was something more there, if I only released my subconscious grip that still, at times, whispered, I am the business.
That clarity came after a hurtful personal loss.
We had to put Seymour, our dog, down last February. Not that the timing could ever be “okay” for that sort of thing, but it really wasn’t: I had a huge series of presentations coming up for an event and was in no shape to prepare for them all. In fact, I spent the entire weekend too distraught to focus. Come Monday, I was emotionally exhausted and even more overwhelmed.
“How can I help you?” Teresa–who, at that point, knew me through and through—asked.
“Can you help me work on this breakout session? Opening and closing keynote are set, but I haven’t had a chance to prep the breakout session.”
“Sure. What else?”
“Uh, could you help me build the slide deck for that?”
“Sure. But would that really be enough? What else do you need?”
“Honestly, if I could have you at this event, that would be the boost of energy I need. I wouldn’t feel the whole burden on my own. But while I know you just got certified in this work, I also know this is content you’ve never delivered before, so I don’t want to put you on the spot.”
“Absolutely. I can do that,” she said, sounding like she’d known all along and was waiting for me to give myself permission to ask for that level of help. Which, in Teresa fashion, is probably true.
To this day, Teresa and I tag in and out of large presentations. Recently, we were leading a keynote in front of hundreds of executives, and I felt such overflowing joy being on that stage with her. We fed off one another. We made each other belly laugh. We went deeper than we ever would have been able to alone, thereby deepening the experiences of those in the audience. People see it, too, regularly commenting on how much trust we have in one another.
I have similar feelings about everyone on the team. Recall that conversation I had with Gilmara about feeling intimidated by her greatness?
I’ve gone from: “you’re better than me, which feels threatening in a way,” to, “you’re better than me, so please lead me, teach me, and let’s see what we can create together for these people who deserve the best of all of us.”
The road to this point was worth it, but it wasn’t always easy. When I did start to bring people on board as a relatively young company, I caught my fair share of flack. Some of that was self-inflicted. It felt risky, after all, from a financial perspective. I was a small business, not funded by anyone. It wasn’t like I had capital to pull from. I thought hiring people part-time was the best route because it felt more cost-effective (spoiler alert: it wasn’t, in the long run), but it wasn’t until I became willing to invest in the right full-timers that we started to make meaningful movement. To do this, I had to open my mind and quiet my ego. What was a short-term financial stressor has been the fuel for long-term exponential and personal growth.
Instead of me, alone, pedaling a bike, we’ve built an entire engine. We can go farther, faster. Isn’t that incredible?
The more incredible thing, though, is how it feels. Building something bigger than you is profoundly more satisfying than doing everything on your own.
Every day, we have access to more joy, more satisfaction, and more challenges that yield room for growth, understanding, and connection. We are better together, and we deliver more value as a unit.
As we continue to grow, we know that bringing on people who bring different gifts, different lived experiences, and different perspectives will push us to be better. Better for our clients and better for ourselves.
I want to hear about your journey in the land of team-building and delegation. What challenges have you faced? What lessons have you learned? Comment and share your experiences, and let’s connect.
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.