BOLD Leaders Step Up and Simplify: An Interview with Sara Gavin

Sara Gavin

Chris Malecek, an Aveus Advisory Board member, suggested I interview bold leader Sara Gavin, President of Weber Shandwick North America. I’ve known Chris and relied on his always clear, on point advice for decades. All that time, Chris has worked with and for Sara. So when he suggested her for this series, I was thrilled. Sara and I have known each other for almost as long, but neither of us could recall the last time we’d spoken, let alone crossed paths. I’ve known from our intersecting circles that she is a great leader. This conversation confirmed that she is also bold.

Bold leaders define and hang on to the core idea, no matter what.

When I asked Sara if she thought of herself as a “bold leader,” she said not if I meant in the more traditional sense – charismatic, larger than life. (I don’t.) She went on to say, if I meant in the decision-making sense (I do!), then, yes, she hoped that is how people see her. She said, “If it is deciding ‘We are going to be a great company, a remarkable organization with all that entails,’ as the leader you have to pull from as deep inside yourself and others as possible. The great leaders I’ve seen pull you back – or yank you back! – to the big singular idea.” They stay the course even on days when it would be much easier to say yes, they say no, and stay focused on the purpose, the core idea.

She went on to say that to get where you want to go, it requires “exercising a whole array of new muscles. You can backslide to the easy. You have to keep pushing yourself to iterate, innovate. Complacency is the enemy. The hard work is staying the course.”

Bold leaders have no room for negativity.

Sara called it “the Aveus bold leader rubric.” I love that! And I am going to use it! She was commenting on the definition I provided and some of the earlier interviews that she had read. “I don’t see in the Aveus rubric any room for negative, backward looking people. And you’ve got to be intellectually honest, so not blind optimism either.” She described looking forward with a positive orientation and a real belief in the art of what is possible. Even in the face of mistakes, Sara says she is constantly talking with her team about reaching up, pushing through boundaries, not settling and driving for great results. “I am extraordinarily proud of what we are doing, especially about our work. And, identifying what we can do better.” Cheerleading is important, but so is deconstructing the work and finding opportunities to do even better the next time.

“Regret is different than learning. I don’t think there is a lot of value in regret. I think there is huge value in learning: What did we learn? What should we do next time?”

Bold leaders are ready to learn and are superb listeners.

“I always walk in with the orientation ‘I’m going to learn.’ I’m always being open – seeing, listening, experiencing the work in action. Great leaders make me do better work. They keep pushing our standards.”

This comment prompted me to ask where Sara finds these leaders. “I’m very fortunate that I see many in my own organization and certainly among our clients. People that inspire me and others. Leaders are in lots of places around us. And, with the internet, I sometimes just try to open my mind and randomly jump into a TED Talk, an MPR interview, some long-form articles, or social media. There are endless opportunities to learn if you’re hungry enough.”

Sara observed that bold leaders listen very carefully to the smartness around them. They have the ability to lift up what they are hearing and connect one idea to others. While they are intelligent, smart, and have native instincts, “They listen super hard. They listen neutrally. They listen for what is underneath.” They do this to corroborate and to inspire connected thoughts. And as others have confirmed, the bold leader listens with the confidence that they can take the information in, figure it out, and act on it.

Bold leaders are rare – so it is lucky you only need one!

Through these interviews we’ve been testing and confirming that the kind of bold leaders we are looking for are rare. Sara agreed, “I think that is right. They are a rare breed.” Sara, like many I’ve spoken with, talked about experiencing a situation where she witnessed a bold leader completely changing the outcome for the better. One of her examples was when a new member joined the board of a struggling non-profit organization. Through his questioning, challenging ideas, decision-making and positive orientation, he completely changed the fortunes of the organization. She said, “I realized I was seeing the before and after happen right before my eyes!”

Bold leaders are true to themselves.

We talked about leading in both positive and negative situations. She said, “You will be consistent to who you are and how you operate in any situation. You will hang on to your own north star.” She emphasized that no bold leader is static, unchanging, but there is a core truth about who you are as a person, a consistency that people around you recognize day in and day out, in all circumstances.

Sara and I ended our conversation talking about humor and the joy of finding energy in the people around you. She is right. I have yet to meet anyone I would call a bold leader (in “the Aveus Rubric!”) that isn’t fun, energizing and full of good humor. They are definitely not cynics and also don’t take themselves too seriously. They are the best people to work beside. Sara is right about this, too: “When you find one, hold on to them! It is such a gift when it happens.”

Tell me about a bold leader that gives you energy, that you hang on to and appreciate.

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.