Sarah Johnson Dayes is Chief Client Officer at Acceleration Partners (AP), a leading global performance marketing agency. She is responsible for the success of AP’s 140+ member Client Services team and the health and happiness of our global client relationships. Having served on AP’s leadership team for eight years, Sarah has been instrumental in shepherding the success of key client engagements, including Uber, Adidas, Target, and Airbnb.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In my first job out of college, I worked for Kaplan — a well-known name in test prep. I was drawn to the company because it had a reputation for allowing people to be entrepreneurial and grow fairly quickly. I worked there for a few years into my mid-20s. Then, instead of going to business school, I decided to open a retail store on Newbury Street in Boston selling handbags. I had a website, but retail was a very different online world back in 2004. In 2011, I decided to make a change. Even though my entire network was anchored in the fashion space, I made the jump into affiliate marketing and eventually found my way to Acceleration Partners when the company was still in its very early stages: only three people were doing consulting and client work at the time — and I have been there ever since. It’s been a great company to grow with and I feel very fortunate.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I don’t know if there is a single interesting story, but I can say that being with a company during a time that it grew from three people to more than 250 globally (as of today) has been quite a ride. One of the most exciting aspects of my job has been traveling internationally and gaining insight into how to navigate international business. I remember the first time that I went to London on business and realized there were significant cultural differences that I was completely unaware of. I learned quickly how to adjust my communication style with people in different parts of the world. That’s been a voyage, not a single story, but an ongoing one.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This isn’t necessarily funny, but it was a mistake I learned from. During my first management job at Kaplan, I was in charge of the company’s Boston office and oversaw a team of about ten people. A majority of them were significantly older than me and had been working there for substantially longer, so they had much more experience than I did (and strong points of view as well). I was only in my 20s and in the early stages of developing my leadership skills. I made the mistake of thinking that an authoritarian approach would be effective and enable me to get buy-in from the team. I came in and laid down the law as I saw it, which didn’t go over very well (it rarely does). Even though I was trying to grow the business and make us better, it didn’t work. I learned a lot, though, and that shaped the way that I choose to lead now.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There was a gentleman named Mark Ward, and I’m talking about early-career for this one. He was an executive at Kaplan and led my very first job interview out of college. He asked me the standard question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” And I gave him the typical response, “I’m a perfectionist, and I work too hard.” He said, “That’s not an answer. That’s an interview answer. Try again.” I think it was the first time that someone questioned me like that. He helped me realize you shouldn’t just say the things you’re supposed to say. You have to think for yourself and be honest. It was the first time I thought about authenticity in the workplace and what that might mean to me. Later in my career, it was Mark who took the chance on me to run Kaplan’s Boston center and own its P&L at age twenty-four, which was probably unprecedented. I’m sure a lot of people told him that that was a terrible idea. I hope I proved them wrong.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
That’s easy: exercise. But that’s not only for high-stakes meetings; I exercise every weekday morning before work. I feel it biologically prepares my body to deal with stress throughout the day. I also practice and visualize high-stakes situations. If I’m doing a talk, I will often get in front of a mirror and give the talk to myself first to figure out in advance all the things that may sound awkward before stepping on stage. You can practice a speech, but you shouldn’t memorize precisely what you’re going to say (it will come across as inauthentic). For me, it also helps to visualize my presence and how I want to come across to others during meetings. I remind myself that I am in the room for a reason, and they picked me to be here for a reason.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There are a couple of things. One, diverse points of view — which can mean so many different things — makes us all better leaders and allows us to run companies more effectively, period. I also believe very strongly that representation is essential. We need to be more inclusive and have more diversity in many different places in this country. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how you get there, to be honest. What is clear is that companies need representation at many different levels –whether it’s on an executive team or politically or anywhere really. And if children can’t see themselves represented in things, it is a much more arduous journey. One of the key puzzle pieces is to help underrepresented children understand that they belong in those boardrooms and deserve a seat as much as anyone.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Right now, there’s a lot of social pressure for companies to make specific posts on LinkedIn and address some of the terrible and inequitable things happening in our society. It should be evident that we stand against it. And we need to be vocal allies. But to me, words matter, but actions matter even more. I believe that it’s our role as leaders and humans to find ways to use whatever we’ve got. Maybe that’s money, and perhaps it’s time, perhaps it’s expertise, or all three to contribute to creating the society that we want to have and live in. We should all ask ourselves, “What am I best positioned to do?” Recently, one thing I’ve done is get involved with a nonprofit called the Duplessy Foundation. They provide coaching and support for women and minority entrepreneurs to help them to create sustainable businesses. It’s like the idea of ‘teach someone to fish rather than do the fishing for them.’ It works for me because I feel I have something valuable to contribute to those entrepreneurs and to the Foundation itself. If everyone were doing one meaningful thing that worked for them individually, in their own way, it would carry us a long way collectively.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The stakes are maybe just a little bit higher. As a leader at any level, you are leading and guiding people, and you are making a difference for people, which is essential. As an executive, you are still doing that, but at the same time, you’re also guiding and leading the direction of the company. You’re creating an organization that’s its own living and breathing entity, which should transcend any particular individual. Suppose I walk away tomorrow or my team all turns over tomorrow: I’ve done my job (or we’ve done our job as an executive team) if the company can survive.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There’s a myth that execs want to hear something in particular or want to listen to what they want to hear. Too often, when someone shares feedback they say, “I know that’s not what you wanted to hear.” That’s not the case. What I want to hear is the truth, the good, the bad, or the ugly.
People sometimes forget that executives are just human beings. We’re completely flawed and imperfect. My kids don’t listen to me sometimes. I wish my bathroom was cleaner. We’re just people, like everyone else. Nothing changes based on where you fit in the structure of an organization. If people talk to an executive, they tend to forget that it’s just a human on the other side of the screen or the table.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It’s cliche, but I think it is a true cliche. In my experience, and for most of the women I know, we are usually responsible for a disproportionate amount of work at home compared to male executives. I know this is a big generalization, and it’s not universal, but in my experience, many male execs that I’ve worked with during my career have spouses who work inside the home with kids and do a significant amount of the child-rearing. My husband and I work full time, and I’m fortunate that we contribute relatively equally to our household. But we don’t have help in our house. We both are juggling work commitments, raising two young kids, and keeping up with everything else. There’s not one spouse who’s solely focused on the household and the kids — and it can be a lot.
Secondarily, there are still times when women are structurally disadvantaged by being the minority in many rooms. I’ve been pretty lucky here. I’m in an organization called Chief, and I hear from many of my female colleagues who are much more heavily impacted by this, but it certainly still happens to me. I was in a meeting with two other women, maybe 20 men, and the man leading the discussion started the day with a reference that included the word gentleman. I wish I could ignore those things, and some women say that they can. I certainly notice. It’s not a big deal, but you hear stuff like that, and it can make you feel a little bit small at that moment. You work through it quickly. You’ve got to get over it, and I don’t let it affect me. But the men in the meeting, they don’t have to work through that.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I spend most of my time identifying future issues, making decisions, talking to people, and giving perspective. I don’t spend a lot of time executing big projects. If you’d asked me what an executive’s job is like ten years ago, I don’t think I would have realized the proportion of time that you spend gathering information from your team and contributing your thoughts — having conversations versus “doing”.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Good question. Hard to say if everyone is cut out to be an executive. Nature and nurture — that’s a whole other conversation. But you have to be very comfortable making decisions and owning them. You don’t get a magic crystal ball once you become an executive to know what will happen based on your choices. But you still have to make them and use the best information you have at the time, and then you have to own the outcome of your decision.
You also have to be pretty level-headed and not get emotionally up and down when things get hard or when you get thrown a curveball. Maybe that means being a little bit thick-skinned. At times, you’re going to make decisions people don’t like. I love the Steve Jobs quote: “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.” I think that’s very, very true. And certain people can do that more authentically and comfortably than others.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be human and authentic, as I’ve talked about a few times. Listen and be open and direct, and the last piece is the most important part. Again, I’ll overgeneralize and say that sometimes women tend to have a more challenging time having more difficult conversations. You want your team to thrive. You want them to grow. Sugarcoating things when you have feedback for them or seeing areas where they can grow isn’t going to help anyone. The sooner you can get comfortable sharing direct and open feedback and coaching with your team, the quicker you’re going to be able to help them succeed.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It is always a work in progress, but I have impacted many people, particularly women, helping them figure out that they don’t have to choose today. I believe we are so fortunate in today’s world. There are companies out there that make it so you don’t have to choose between having a great career and having a great personal and family life and supporting the people around you. All of us can accomplish what we want to professionally and still invest in our kids. In regards to making the world a better place, I hope if you ask me that question in ten years: I’d be able to pile even more on top of that. It’s a work in progress for sure.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
If you can figure out how to manage your time well, everything else gets a lot easier. For example, I’ve gotten a lot better at saying no to meetings or requests that I know I don’t need to attend. No one else is going to manage your time for you. You have to do it yourself.
Trust your gut in challenging situations. The only place I always say you need to validate your gut is in hiring. You don’t want to make hiring decisions based on only a gut feeling. You need to validate it. In general, if you’re dealing with challenging people situations, and if you’re getting some direction to do one thing, but your gut is telling you it’s not going to go well — then it’s probably not. If your gut tells you it’s not quite the right thing to do, I say listen to it.
I had a situation a long time ago where I needed to let someone go. Without going into the details, while I was certainly trying to be very humane and empathetic, the way that my team and I decided to handle it, in terms of some of the conversations we were having, didn’t feel quite right to me. I felt more senior people than I knew what they were doing, and they were saying this is what we should do. I went with it. Then basically everything I had thought might happen in my head is what happened. It turned into a bit of a mess. So, trust your gut.
It’s also OK to be authentic. The faster you can figure out what that means for you, the happier you’re going to be. And it’s essential to be happy and feel like yourself at work.
Another is you can’t be everything to everybody at the same time. I don’t mean just professionally. To me, there are all these different pieces of our life. There’s personal wellness and fitness. There is professional success. There are family and friends. If you try to be at 100% on all of those things simultaneously or even the same day, it rarely works. On certain days you have to decide and say, “all right, today is a family day. I know there’s some stuff piling up at work, but the computer is closed,” and vice versa for a workday or wellness day. You have to pick one focus at a time. You can’t be everything to everybody at the same time, or you’re just going to feel like you’re failing.
The last one is that everybody feels like an imposter sometimes, or maybe 99% of people. It’s easy to feel that way in a room and feel unsure what you’re doing there. It’s important to know that a lot of people struggle with that. If you are in a room, you’re there for a reason.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I feel strongly about improving social equity and opportunity, and there are so many layers to this. There are many stages of life where we need to lean in to support people and inspire that change. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which also ties into the representation that we talked about earlier, is what our kids are taught in school, particularly around history. Even though I went to school in a diverse public school district, we didn’t really learn about Black history. We only learned about a particular piece of American history. It is valuable to educate our children more effectively around Black history and the history of all the different people who live in the United States today. It would give us a solid foundation. Again, many other layers have to happen to get us where we need to be. I’m still working through how I can best influence this even locally as my kids enter school-age years. But I feel passionate about it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That’s an easy one. “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” It’s by Omar Khayyam, a famous mathematician, philosopher, poet, and astronomer. Sometimes I remind myself of that quote because, again, it’s cliche, but who knows what tomorrow or tonight or any of it will bring. Whatever you’re living through at this instant, that’s your life right now. It’s not the past or the future. The more you can embrace that and make the best of it, whether it’s good, bad, or otherwise, I think the happier of a life you end up having. And a happy life — isn’t that what we all want?
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
One person who has been very interesting to me lately is Bozoma Saint John. She’s the CMO at Netflix, and she’s just someone who has wholeheartedly embraced some of the concepts I’ve talked about today about being your authentic self and not being afraid of that. You look at her Instagram, and everything is not what you would consider being the traditional business leader. She appears to be kind of unabashedly not unafraid of putting herself out there, and she’s been super successful. That’s the kind of person I would love to ask some of these same questions, like how did she get there? What has she overcome to become who she is?