Sarah Mensah is an Evolutionary

EVOLUTIONARY NOMINATION: Sarah Mensah is not just a Trail Blazer, she’s an Evolutionary!

It’s been a while since we nominated an Evolutionary. So, today I am talking about one of my favorite evolutionary women. I give speeches for a living. So do most the folks I work with. When we aren’t
delivering our own speeches, we are often coaching executives in speech writing and performance. So, I have seen a LOT of speeches over the years. Some good, some bad, and some brilliant. But the most memorable for me was totally unexpected. It happened a few years ago at a Girls, Inc Northwest luncheon where Sarah Mensah, the Chief Marketing Officer for the Portland Trail Blazers, gave a short talk. The mission of Girls, Inc is to develop girls that are “Strong, Smart and Bold.” Sarah definitely fits that description. She is also an African American single mother of an autistic son, petite, beautiful, and confident. Hers was not the most polished speech, but it was the most moving and authentic. Here are some highlights:

Sarah is the first woman to serve as a Chief Officer in any NBA organization. Recently when she attended her first National Annual NBA President’s meeting a CEO from another league asked her if she could go and get more cream for their coffee. He thought she worked as a waitress for the hotel. That’s just a day in the life for Sarah, as she is breaking the glass ceiling in American sports. But, she doesn’t let it get her down – in fact, it’s her positive, optimistic attitude that has made the biggest difference in her role. She has been with the Trail Blazers for 16 years, rising up the ranks, and is credited with putting
together the Marketing strategy that helped raise the team out of the depths of despair when a series of unfortunate behaviors by various members of the team left them with a strong negative public image.

Early in life Sarah knew she was capable of more than the traditional options offered for young girls. She clearly remembers filling out a journal page in the second grade (early 1970s) that offered choices for “what to be when you grow up.” It had two columns – one for boys and one for girls. Under boys it said astronaut, basketball player, policeman, businessman, and cowboy. Under the girls it said model, secretary, flight attendant, mother, and teacher. She chose flight attendant.

My favorite part of her speech was her description of writing it the night before. It went something likethis:

“I was writing this speech last night while sitting in my office listening to the game taking place outside and we were losing, so it was chaos. I re-wrote my draft several times, asking myself – is this too boring?Am I being too egotistical? Is this politically correct? Is what I have to say going to help? And then it occurred to me that this is something that women worry about all the time. We have so much going on in our heads. We worry if we sound too aggressive, we worry if we should speak up more, we worry if we said the wrong thing, we worry if we are smart enough, we worry if we are good mothers, we worry if we aren’t mothers, we worry if we spend too much time at work, we worry if we don’t focus enough on our work, we worry if we are too fat, if we eat too much, if we are not pretty enough, we worry if people will
think we are smart, we worry if we will be respected, we worry that we don’t deserve what has already happened in our careers, we worry if our partner is loyal to us, we worry if our friends are loyal to us, and so on it goes. We worry about all these things at the same time! This tape is playing in our heads all the time while we go about our days doing all kinds of amazing things.

I work with a lot of men. Male executives, broadcasters, agents, athletes, you name it, they are all men. I love working with most of them, and I love what I do. But, I can tell you that they don’t have this same tape in their heads. Their tape says, ‘Geez I am smart. I am so cool. I am so good looking – I just look so damn good right now. All these people respect me. What I have to say is important. These people just can’t wait to hear what I have to say.’ There is no other area where I will tell women to be more like men except for in this area. Stop worrying about being yourself. Speak out. Life is not worth going through without an opinion.” Sarah went on to explain that when the Blazers were going through hard times, with reports of violence, drug abuse, theft, cheating, you name it, people began to believe there was no way to turn things around. But there were some people in the organization that stood up, and called it out, and said “no more of this!” And these people did this at great risk to their own careers. She goes on to say that most of those bold people were women, and they led the way in turning the organization around.

Sarah’s story is a perfect example of the many ways that Evolutionary women can transform the culture of an organization to improve brand image, increase performance, and retain top talent.

Women are often not recognized for being bold. We are recognized for being smart, and nice, and fun. We get props for a beautiful smile and our “can do” attitudes. But when you mix bold, opinionated behavior and women, most people don’t like it. Most organizations don’t reward it. But, the highest performing organizations that we work with are better at recognizing Evolutionary women as the change agents they need to win in the transformational economy.

What are you doing to recognize the Evolutionaries in your company?

Compliment bold behavior when you observe it. Send a tweet or a text, give a shout out to say “I saw what you did, and it was good.” Or, “I saw you put your opinion out there and say the unpopular thing, and it was good.” Because no one tells us it’s good. And even the most developed Evolutionaries can use a little encouragement!

~ Carmen


Do you know an Evolutionary? Nominate them today!

About Carmen Voillequé

CEO of Best Practices Media.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Voillequé is a senior consultant and partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences and the CEO of Best Practice Media. Her background features deep experience in education, curriculum development, and management training. Voillequé works with a wide range of client groups including government agencies, financial institutions, and health care companies. Last year Voillequé completed a scope of work that allowed all of the public and private agencies who serve the needs of children in Oregon to plan and work together to maximize resources. She is also a sought after speaker and strategic planner with a reputation for tackling tough issues.