Sarah Noll Wilson

Sarah Wilson
Class Year:

Sarah Noll Wilson

Chronically Curious

Every year potential theatre majors visit the department to learn about our program. Tucked away into every prospective student information folder is a one page handout designed to answer the question, the one that is asked by nearly every parent who visits with their student: “So, if this theatre thing doesn’t work out what else can my student do with a theatre degree?”

After spending an hour visiting with alum Sarah Noll Wilson (class of 2003), it’s clear the department can add Leadership Development Coach to the list. Founder and CEO (Chief Edge Officer), Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders understand themselves and their teams on a whole new level of understanding and closeness. Her goal is 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 both nationally and internationally, an avid reader and, researcher, not to mention soon to be author, Sarah helps leaders, mostly from the world of business, close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make at work and in life.

Through her workshops, individual coaching and small group work, Sarah creates a safe, honest environment that prepares people to deal with real-world conflict, have more meaningful conversations and create purposeful relationships.

Working with CEOs, HR leaders and organizations that care deeply about their employees and understand the connection between employee development, employee satisfaction and organizational success, Sarah specializes in transforming relationships from good to great.

At the center of Sarah’s work is a commitment to “staying chronically curious,” an approach to life, in and outside of work, that I believe Sarah has pursued since her freshman year at UNI! So, in the spirit of meeting her curiosity with a bit of my own, I spent an hour with Sarah this spring exploring questions I was curious about. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

How did your undergraduate degree in theatre contribute to your work today?

My studies at UNI included both Performance and Drama/Theatre for Youth. Both have contributed significantly to my career. Actor/theatre training is rooted in self awareness and that is the core of the coaching work that I do. The teaching and leading experience I got from my D/TFY emphasis definitely contributed to developing my self confidence when getting in front of a group, being in that moment so that I can respond authentically to the needs of the group wherever they are. It’s knowing that I can have a plan for a workshop or a coaching session, but that I have the ability to deviate from that plan in order to best support the work or conversation that is needed right then.

That happened all the time in my D/ TFY experiences and in the improv work I explored all through school and for a number of years after I graduated. All of my theatre training taught me how to tell stories. It taught me how to make learning engaging and active. TheatreUNI showed me so many ways to make connections to others: how to accept and share offers; how to “yes, and” an idea. Getting up in front of people or working with CEOs just doesn’t seem that different to me than my undergraduate work on stage, in an improv show or in a theatre for youth workshop session!

You know, I moved to Des Moines after graduation because I wanted to do some theatre there, especially improv. But, of course, I had to find a good paying job with some benefits. In Des Moines, that often means a job in the insurance world.

I landed a job at ING. At the time, I didn’t know that this world of professional training and education for business professionals even existed. I found myself required to attend some team building workshops and presentations and began to wonder if I could apply my theatre background to making insurance training more interesting; more engaging. When ING gave me the chance to do just that, I jumped at the opportunity.

I began to pay attention to power dynamics in the business world of work. I felt that there wasn’t as much humanity in the business world as I felt there could be. I felt that there had to be a better way to lead people. I decided I wanted to support leaders to be that kind of person. I enrolled in the MA program in Leadership Development at Drake University. That program really helped solidify ways in which leaders could be different. I got curious! How do we develop the whole person, not just a role/ position within a company. And that, with time, led to the development of my own leadership development company, Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc.

How do you stay curious?

I don’t even have to try; I am so fascinated by people and our complexities and understanding how we “show up,” that I am always reading things and talking to people. I am always trying to learn new things; to learn and develop new content. I am so hungry about learning about humans!

I have seen first hand the negative impact of people not being present; of not having conversations; of not being empathetic; the negative of what happens when people don’t fully show up at work. Courage, compassion and curiosity are at the core of the kinds of workplaces that I am trying to help.

What do you love most about the work you are doing today?

I love all of it, I really do. If I had to boil it down and choose just one thing, I would say I really love that I’m getting to build a company designed for humans that embraces the neurodiversity of the people I work for and with. I also love that “aha” moment when you see a person you are coaching behave bravely, take a risk; be courageous in their life.

In her spare time, Sarah is working on a book: Don’t Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships, which she hopes to have published sometime in 2021.