Tiffany Sauder discusses the transition from ambition to leadership

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This is a podcast episode titled, Tiffany Sauder discusses the transition from ambition to leadership. The summary for this episode is: <p>Tiffany Sauder, CEO of Element Three, joins Tim to discuss her leadership journey. She shares how she's had to make the shift from ambition to leadership, her role in training decision-making, the importance of leading through the lens of your values, and more. </p>
Leading through the lens of your values
01:38 MIN
Train decision making
00:43 MIN
Moving from ambition to leadership
01:47 MIN
Speaking our full truth
01:34 MIN
Results are personal, feedback is not
00:57 MIN
Transparency and vulnerability
00:53 MIN

Tim Leman: Have you ever felt like you're on the edge of something great? You put in the work, you've done the hard stuff most people aren't willing to do, and now you can just sense a magical run lies ahead? This season, we'll talk to leaders across a wide variety of industries, to learn what it's like to ride the edge and own it. We'll hear what separates those special teams from the more ordinary experiences, the kind, if we're lucky, we get to be a part of maybe three or four times in our life. Join me, Tim Leman, Chairman and CEO of Gibson, as we discuss leading on the edge. Welcome to The Edge Podcast. I'm your host, Tim Leman. On this episode, we have Tiffany Sauder. Tiffany is CEO of Element Three, and on our board of advisors here at Gibson. I've had the pleasure of getting to know you, Tiffany, through YPO over the years, and I'm excited to have you on as our guest today, welcome.

Tiffany Sauder: Thanks, Tim.

Tim Leman: Hey, just quickly tell us what Element Three does?

Tiffany Sauder: Yeah, so Element Three, we're a marketing agency, and we do work really, in two main areas, in brand and demand. So we help companies get really clear about what's your message, what's your positioning? How do you talk about that to the world in a way that they understand, and then how do you turn that message into a demand- focused effort, so that you can monetize that position through an economic flywheel, like marketing actually generates leads and revenue, connect it to sales, business strategy, all that kind of stuff.

Tim Leman: That's not surprising you being in the marketing business, but easy way to say it, brand and demand. And I do have to put a quick plug- in for you, you guys did some great work for Gibson a couple of years ago as we went through this, and it's been so well received by our community and clients, and our employees too. In fact, literally about 30 minutes ago, I just got a email from one of our people saying," Hey, I don't have to have the Gibson brand red- tailed hawk. Here's one sitting in my backyard," and snapped a picture of it. So it was really cool.

Tiffany Sauder: That's awesome.

Tim Leman: Yup. Talk to me a little bit about your team at Element Three, so kind of describe your team there.

Tiffany Sauder: So we have an executive leadership team that represents just the functional areas, as you'd imagine, and then we have a mid- level director level inside of our team, so we're about 45 people. And I have actually since come to appreciate that that is the toughest job probably in the world, but in the agency, where they really have to understand the big picture strategy of the company, where we're going, the future, but then they also have to also manage the day- to- day, and implementing our processes and systems, and EOS language, LMA, at a really high level. And so, that stretching, I have the luxury of mostly just thinking about the big picture stuff. I don't have to know how to process an invoice or something like that. And so, the mid- level directors, they're awesome. They have a really hard job, and I can talk a little bit about like kind of three years ago when we were just on this growth tear, revenue was rocking and we didn't have the infrastructure to grow the people and the systems with it, and it was really because I didn't understand and appreciate the value of that team just being massively, not just competent, but successful. And then we have functional teams, we've got a creative team that does design, writing, conceptual, creative. We have a digital team and web development that's really together for us, and then client services, consulting, project management, kind of the thinkers, strategist managers.

Tim Leman: I think you hit a really key point on that, the mid- level managers and directors, they also have to manage up and work with crazy executives too. And so yeah, balancing those two worlds is really tough, I think, on the people front and in addition, all the technical functional knowledge they have to have.

Tiffany Sauder: Yeah. I think the technical knowledge in the job in my view, that's sort of theirs to keep being better at, they need to own that, and I feel like we've gotten better as a company, and that our job culturally is to help them be better leaders and better decision makers inside the framework of our values. And I think that to me has been another activation of, we talk about core values. I think, as I shared with you in one of our previous board meetings, one of my growth areas as a leader is, what does it mean to actually lead through the lens of your values? How do you do that, other than just pat people on the back when they happen? And for me, it's about the articulation over and over again of, what is the decision making that our core values guides, and how do we talk about those not only in practice, but in retrospect? So when things happen inside of clients, I want my mid- level directors to be making sort of decisions instantaneously that are connected to our values. One of ours is delight with excellence. What does that mean? It's like, well, you bring a service level into what we're doing. One of ours is look to truth. Well, that means that if the metric sucks, then you have to own that it super sucks, and you have to know how to have that conversation, and we're not going to tell half- truths, we're not going to sort of decide where we want clients to look. That's what look to truth means. And so, all of those situational applications of our values to me, has been a huge growth area. Maybe it's super obvious to other leaders, but in how do I practically coach and lead our values, other than just memorize them and like," Woo- hoo! We have a core values winner?" So kind of a growth area and area that I'm thinking about a lot right now.

Tim Leman: So Tiffany, on that note, you followed your values before, but you focused more on it over the last several years. Was there some time or training you needed to reinforce with those mid- managers that they do have the power and the ownership to go ahead and solve client problems? You talked about delighting with excellence. Did it take a little bit of time to say," I'm really able to solve this and just take care of it," or what kind of transpired and changed or has helped encourage that?

Tiffany Sauder: Well, I think I've given a nod already that we run on EOS, and as I play the visionary role in the company, for those that are familiar with that framework, which basically means most of my job is to think about the future, to reinforce our culture, and the kind of big client management. And so, once all of the chaos of the day- to- day was taken off my plate, I was like," Well, I mean, what do I do?" If I'm being just super honest, and I was like," Okay, lead the culture. What does that mean? What do I actually put behavior around?" And so, that was where I felt like I had to come up with a new daily method of operating for myself, of what does it look like to really step fully into this new role that isn't managing the scorecard day- to- day and making sure that we're prepped for presentation? And I really am out of that stuff. I have people who are way better at that, doing the day- to- day of it, and I started to realize my job is to just train decision making. How do I scale what it is that I would do in all of these micro and macro moments that I'll never actually sort of witness firsthand? And so, that was how I kind of gave myself, internalized for myself, what does it mean to lead the culture? And I think it's to train decision making. And so, then I was like," Okay, well, what decision making do I want to train?" It's like," Well, I really want them to just decide in alignment with the things that I most value, which are our core values. So how do I do that?" And so, I mean, I'm not great at it yet, but I'm practicing it and thinking about it a lot, and it's always the first step I think, to growing. So that's how I thought of it.

Tim Leman: I love that, and I can relate to what you said there is, we both use EOS and Traction, as you get that structure put in place, there's that moment of having some guilt I think, about," Okay, well, I've always measured my value because I helped us bring in a new client, or I helped participate in keeping a client, or I ran out here and did this." And so, stepping back and being a couple of layers removed, for me anyways, a little bit of what are others going to think, and then there's a little bit of self- worth in there also. Did you feel the same way?

Tiffany Sauder: Oh, totally. Well, I mean, I'm a high I, praise is my oxygen, and so the idea of these huge crescendos with clients and revealing the brand, and getting to work really intimately with executives and earning their trust, that was my fuel for so long in this business, and it's really hard. I think all businesses are, and agencies are really hard. And so, you had to fall in love with the problems you were solving, you had to fall in love with the people that you were solving them for. And so, when that was rightly taken away from me, the team says, " Hey, look, we really need you to lead us into the future, and you're the only one who can see what that looks like," and they had to sort of create the silence for that to be able to happen, you do have to get your strength in a different way. And Danielle, on my team, who you have worked closely with, she articulated it well when she said," Tiffany you're moving from ambition, which is about self to leadership, which is about team and others." And when I started to even say that to myself, like the early days were totally about my own ambition. I had a chip on my shoulder, I had a name to make for myself, I was going to show them that I had a seat at the table, and that served me, but only so far, and I think I started to feel that ceiling, and realizing that if I really wanted to achieve what is in my heart, that I was going to have to shed some of that affirmation fuel that came from being in it. I mean, you're in insurance, it's like a sale... I was on the sales side, I know you were too, and it's like," Hoo! Hoorah!" You knew if you had a good day in the market or not, and you do have to look for different evidence.

Tim Leman: Yeah, I think you nailed it on that, and team victory being so much more important and meaningful, and also that two or three layers deep and just knowing or feeling confident that the things that you might've helped move forward, you'll never know whether they ended up, but they probably did, they probably ended up helping and probably ended up doing everything. But I think it does bring a much more confident version of yourself out of all that stuff too, that you don't need all this outside affirmation, and it gets back to, yeah, it's amazing doing all the right things works out really well in the long run for everybody involved. So really neat story. Transition a little bit to your executive leadership team too, and how you all work together from a cultural standpoint?

Tiffany Sauder: Yeah, so there's six of us, and I can sort of maybe talk to you about the things we have to work really hard to get better at, which is another way of saying the things that they're hard for us, or we're not good at. We are a very nice, friendly bunch, and we really like each other. And so, we have had to work really hard at in the room, in the moment, calling people out, going back to our value of look to truth. Sometimes we can look to kindness as a veil for not speaking our full truth, and that really slows us down. And so, we've had to really get courageous in that. I think some of us are young leaders. Okay, I'm 40. I feel like I'm young, I'm not anymore, but this is where I grew up, this is the only spot. And so, sometimes I don't trust my gut the first time around, and just like ship it, and I think that comes with age and experience and just the courage of like," Oh man, I see that, I'm going to call it right now." And I think I got really comfortable in that hesitancy because I was a young leader, and so I used that as a mental excuse for a long time, which kind of trained the leadership culture to not be as I think direct and piercing as we needed to be sometimes. So we've had to practice that and we're getting much better, but that was a thing that we just had to become really conscious about, if we were going to get to where we wanted as fast as we wanted to.

Tim Leman: Yeah, I think some of that is this Midwestern nice or Hoosier nice too, the way we were brought up to don't make somebody feel bad, and actually when holding back like that, it lacks integrity, and you're actually not treating somebody with kindness by avoiding speaking the truth about things. So I can relate to that as well. I Put out a blog a few months back too about a bat in the cave, but basically, I'm going to be that friend that's going to tell you,"You've got a little something there in your nose," because I'd rather you be embarrassed with me if you are, and you don't need to be, than have you walk around in front of everybody else, and it's there. Right? So yeah. And by the way, you're fine right now, I can see you. But yeah, that idea of true love, true kindness is actually pointing some of these things out or talking about them, and it doesn't mean it's carte blanche, open season to rip somebody apart, it just means that holding back actually is you truly do care if that's where you're really doing damage. So love hearing you guys are focusing on that.

Tiffany Sauder: There's a quote that was a real startling realization for me, from actually somebody in my YPO forum, and he says," Results are personal. Feedback is not," and if I'm honest, for a long time, I operated on," Feedback is personal, results are not," meaning like," Oh yeah. External fact." I suck at accountability of holding people's feet to fire. I don't give a rip what happened, our job is to perform irrespective of the environment, that's what people do. And so, Jim Collins preaches about discipline in the 20 Mile March, and all these things are now imprinted on my soul. But in the early days, I did not think like that at all, and the inverse of," Results are personal and feedback is not," starts to I think reframe the right mindset, I'll call it the right mindset, from my worldview. And that was a huge change for me, from a leadership perspective, to lead that way, to believe that way, and to hold myself accountable that way.

Tim Leman: Yeah, and that's another good part of it too. I think as a leader, you've got to walk the walk as well. when you're doing that, you've been on a lot of teams over the years, growing up, different things, work and otherwise. Tell me about the best team you've ever been on?

Tiffany Sauder: So I actually, I haven't been on a lot of teams. As a kid, I wasn't real into sports. We worked a lot as kids. My dad had a rule in our home that we could play one sport only, for reasons that basically, because he was like,"Nobody's going to be a professional athlete in this house." I don't think he was super interested in driving us all around, and he had other things he wanted us to learn. And so, here I am. I know a lot about PNLs and business things as a result of those decisions that my parents made, so it's not all bad. So I really didn't. I played a little bit of basketball, but I made some bad social decisions, and so my dad decided to kick me off of the basketball team, which in a small town, is a very public event.

Tim Leman: Yeah. That's a big deal in Remington, right?

Tiffany Sauder: It's a really big deal in Remington. I'm convinced they still remember, I'm sure they don't. So not that I had inaudible, I just really didn't, I wasn't a team person. I was in BPA, Business Professionals of America, and things like that, and I had friends, but I really wasn't. And so, the idea of being a teammate, understanding locker room dynamics, and how the culture of winning and momentum, and all of those things I think people learn as student athletes or college athletes, I really didn't know it. And maybe that speaks to why the idea of individual performance was like kind of my worldview of, crush what you can in front of you, stand out so that you have opportunities, but the idea of running a play on a court in a harmonious way, was not really a thing that I had experience. 4H is an individual sport, so to speak, you get ribbons, and that was like, I was the fair queen. I mean, it's super silly, but those were all like, " How do I stack up, and can I outperform the people around me?" And that was kind of what I knew. So that backdrop, maybe you want to ask me a different question, or get a different guest in talking about teams, but I think I've had to really learn what it looks like to put together a team that has complimentary skills, and to lead in a way that they have clarity about what we're trying to do and what we're trying to become. So it feels trite to say that the team I have around me right now is the best team I've been on, but we've been on this ride of Element Three for 17 years. The first 10 was like," Holy smokes." The next three to four was like," Oh man, we might lose control of this thing completely," and then we, three years ago said yes to EOS, and the rigor that that's brought to me having clarity in what we want to become, the communication and the organization, the alignment, all the stuff that that promises, has made it so that my team knows what to do, and they can go execute that freely with all kinds of permission. And I feel like we are running plays in a way that we haven't been able to, because we didn't have those building blocks, and it's totally stunted by my own exposure, and experiences, and ability to be able to orchestrate that. So, I think I was an individual performer that was fun enough to be around, that people wanted to be on my team, but I really didn't know how to create vision, and I think I could get people excited, but that's different than getting them to take ownership of a vision, and so.

Tim Leman: Yeah, you got a lot of situations, I'm sure, where you had to kind of galvanize everyone, but what you just described there too, that, I mean, really interested me when you think about teams of knowing when you're on these teams, and large team sports, knowing everyone's role and what your role is in it and all that. And I went to a really small school, so I was fortunate that I got to play varsity athletics throughout high school, but I was never, ever even close to being the best athlete on the team or whatever, so drawing on those experiences of being a lot more of a role player back then and being in the team, captain role really great. I mean, I do think back about those times when really, truly, everyone was rowing in the same direction, and there was some level of innocence too, of you're pursuing something that definitely seemed way bigger than anybody else, and everybody was all in and fully, fully dedicated to it. So good lessons to learn and experiences, but I bet you've been on a lot more teams than you realized, and you probably didn't see it at the time, but maybe that's because you've always been positioning for or learning that role that you're in today, so that's cool. That's great to hear that that's where EOS has helped your current team and relationships evolve. So I'm going to switch gears to another team, your family, you and your husband JR, who I know, and great guy. You both have demanding professional roles, and you're raising four lovely young ladies, so how does the team of Tiffany and JR work?

Tiffany Sauder: Yeah, what a great question. I mean, again, that's evolved too. I think we have had to understand in a two career home, with two firstborn type A personalities, there can be a lot of collisions if you're not careful. And so, we have had to learn, we winning sometimes means that on that day, one of us needs to sort of sit in the back seat, and that still means that we win. And so, that kind of symphony of knowing who's in the front seat right now, and some of it is like, I've got a big project, it's going to last two months, some of it is he took a new job. He needs two years where he's going to travel a bunch. I. t's different periods of time, but us understanding there is room for both of us to do really cool things, but it might not happen in the exact same season both times, and I think that's been a key part of it, just tons of communication too. I mean, we actually just started doing a weekly L10, the two of us, not just talking about schedules, but like," What were your wins this week? How are we doing on the scorecard items that we're committed to?" And that can be like, we want to do one trip a quarter, and so who's going to plan that? Because that stuff just slips away with time, and with four kids in the house, there's always noise, and I mean that in like the best possible way. But if we don't create intentionality, we will be last in all engagements, and so we have to really force that. I also would say a good thing about our marriage that I've come to appreciate, is we're both totally good leaving our kids, and I don't mean that in a way that we don't want to be with them, but we do travel just the two of us. We do have things that we just do, the two of us, and because we're both outside the home all day long, it can kind of feel like," Oh, well, we should spend all our free times with our kids." And it's like some of that's good, but we really need to be sure we're keeping us a really fun thing too, and we have had seasons where that's leaked out and that never ends well for us. And so, that I would say is a part of our culture as a family, and he and I as a couple.

Tim Leman: I like that. It really is just that simple thing we always talk about, putting your air mask on first. You're on the plane, and that's what they teach you to do. You can't take care of everybody else, if you're not there to take care of yourself, it's a hard thing to learn, and again, I think it's some of those Midwestern values too, it feels selfish or all about you, but it actually is the thing that allows you to be best for everyone else. So that's really neat, I love it when I see people taking the whole EOS structure and kind of putting pieces of I tin their personal life. One person in particular on our leadership team, Ray Korson, that he and his wife, Mary, I mean, they're running these weekly L10s, and it's really great, and I find when that people get that intentional and purposeful, I have one of my inaudible in YPO that's super intentional, who I've learned a lot from. It really is, you feel like a nerd at first when you're doing it, and then afterwards you're like," Where's this been all my life?" It just made everything else go a lot better. So we try to do a pretty good job at doing Sunday night date nights, but I kind of speak to it as it's administrative date night, but it actually leads to having a really good afterparty date night too, because you get all the stuff cleared up and you're on the same page, and know who's traveling where, and when, and what, and everything all of a sudden feels a lot better, so that's really cool. So a final question before we go to our rapid fire, what would you say is your edge in life?

Tiffany Sauder: I would say it is transparency and vulnerability. For some reason, I just feel a responsibility to share what I've experienced in as unvarnished way as people will receive it. When I was young, I wanted to pretend I was successful, because I wanted to be successful. And so, the allure of making yourself perfect was there, and now that I'm older and people perceive I'm successful, you want to actually present yourself as successful, because but that also is not the real story. And so, I just am really passionate about living in a really transparent and vulnerable way, and I think that that creates closeness in my relationships that is a real part of my edge.

Tim Leman: What's kind of an example of something that's come out of that? Maybe it's a relationship, or a role, or a new thing you've done that you think kind of came out of deploying that edge that you have?

Tiffany Sauder: Well, I don't know if you're actually trying to lead into this, but my podcast, Scared Confident, was really about a very vulnerable recording my journey and chasing down fear, kind of once and for all, and deciding to record it, not knowing where it was going to go. None of it was rehearsed, I had not done any of it beforehand. And so, and I was so afraid that even people close to me would be like," Who does she think she is?" And people who I thought I knew really well, that I would say were really close personal friends of mine, the things that they shared with me after me putting out kind of that level of my journey, of what goes on in their minds, the things that they've experienced in their lives, it just is a game changer. And I think that that intimacy is just, it just makes you feel complete as a person, no matter how bad the circumstances are, when you have close relationships. For me, it's like an antidote to everything.

Tim Leman: Tiffany, that reminds me, I wrote my book in 2015, and so, I was in a Polaroid world back then, and you're Snapchatting these days. So a podcast makes sense, but it was the same kind of thing of sharing all these stories, and a lot of it was struggles I went through as a leader here and all the dumb things I did. And some of it probably didn't reflect perfectly well on Gibson and what we were doing at the time, and my predecessor, Greg Downes, who you know, I kind of walked through it with him and I'm like, " Oh my gosh. I mean, I don't think I should publish this at the very end. This is not good." And he's like, " Are you kidding me?" He's like, " Every single one of our clients are dealing with all the same stuff, probably worse, and they just don't talk about it, but I think they'll love us even more for kind of putting it out there." And so, he kind of gave me that confidence that we should move forward with it. Some of my partners didn't want me to at the end, and Greg was right, and all the feedback that I received from that, and the different things other leaders were struggling with. Yeah, it was so freeing and it's like," Geez, we should all talk about this stuff a whole lot more. We're a lot more human and normal," because all you do is you see what's on the news, or you see the big time CEOs that are celebrated, and it looks like everything always just works out right. There's none of the dirty laundry that comes out, and that's how you learn, right?

Tiffany Sauder: Totally. I read that book, Tim, before we knew one another, and I should show you my version of it, because I underlined, I think almost the entire thing, because it was exactly what I was dealing with, and you see these people who are seemingly untouchable and larger than life, and sort of good decision makers and all of this, and you're like," I mean, will I ever get there?" And it feels very vulnerable to expose the journey, the realness of the journey that it took to get that wisdom, and to get that intuition, and to get the data that leads you to sort of the decisions. And I think we don't take the time to write down that part of the journey, and so, what gets stored are the accolades, instead of the stories and the narrative of our lives, and the humanness gets lost. And so, yeah, once you get to know people like yourself, or have the courage to write books, you start to say like," Oh, that doesn't mean I'm on the wrong path. That's what I wanted to know actually." And so, it starts to normalize it, and I think it's so powerful.

Tim Leman: Okay. Let's shift gears to rapid fire. This is always my favorite part of the show. We'll start out with an easy one. What's your favorite color?

Tiffany Sauder: Oh, I live in a house of girls. They'd be like, it should be pink. Pink.

Tim Leman: There you go. What was your first car or buggy, Tiffany? I'm not sure which one you got first, but you can go with either one.

Tiffany Sauder: Actually, I had an Acura Legend.

Tim Leman: Oh, wow.

Tiffany Sauder: And it was pretty sweet.

Tim Leman: I guess so. I guess if you're like the fair queen or whatever, that you get free cars, but that's impressive. What's the most memorable concert you've ever been to?

Tiffany Sauder: I dated somebody in high school that went to a lot of Dave Matthews Band concerts with him, and so I would say memorable time of life, and also very memorable concerts.

Tim Leman: That's great. Very few people say they had a bad time at a Dave Matthews concert, so I get that. Which actor would play you in a movie?

Tiffany Sauder: Sandra Bullock.

Tim Leman: Oh yeah.

Tiffany Sauder: Every once in a while, my hair looks great, I get told that maybe there's some resemblance. Not a lot, for clarity, but every once in a while, I get Sandra Bullock

Tim Leman: I like that too, but you guys both have a lot of energy and all that. I think she could pull it off.

Tiffany Sauder: Yeah.

Tim Leman: That's a good one. Three people you'd like to have dinner with, and why?

Tiffany Sauder: So Angela Ahrendts is my first one. She is an Indiana girl, and was the CEO of Burberry, and then head of retail at Apple. So I love, and from the outside, very normal and stable. And so, I love that, kind of Midwestern roots, and went and did big, beautiful things. The second one would probably be Matt Damon. He's my favorite actor. I like all of his stuff, and I think he's really interesting and kind of left of center, and I think that's really interesting. And then probably Jim Collins, simply because I feel like I literally bleed his every word. And so, we're going to get the chance to see him speak, but to sit with him at dinner and to just fangirl like a crazy person, and get connected to his brain individually, I think would be really cool.

Tim Leman: I love it. Well, if you can get a plus one and JR can't go to any of those dinners, let me know, I'd enjoy sitting with you. Great people. And then the last one here, what's something big you want to do before it's all over?

Tiffany Sauder: It probably has more to what I want to see my girls become, which is maybe a real weird, risky thing to have your legacy be, but I think to see them be massively generous in heart, and time, and resources is just what I hope my legacy is about. I think it probably connects to one of my biggest fears, is that raising kids in an environment of means, and access, and opportunity, how do you help them keep an understanding that life is not about their own satiation of desire? And so, I just think about that a lot, so.

Tim Leman: Yeah, that's great. I share that with you. My dad grew up pretty close to the area where you grew up, so I kind of imagine you and I grew up in similar homes. And so, I kind of think about that, versus the lives our children are living today and all that, and yeah, I hope for those same kinds of things. So, hey, Tiffany, thanks so much for being on this show today, and I loved hearing about your leadership journey, it's awesome. Keep on being you, and just appreciate your time. Thanks for joining me.

Tiffany Sauder: Thanks, Tim.

Tim Leman: Thank you for tuning in today. I'm Tim Leman, and remember to own your edge. Subscribe to The Edge podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify.


Tiffany Sauder, CEO of Element Three, joins Tim to discuss her leadership journey. She shares how she's had to make the shift from ambition to leadership, her role in training decision-making, the importance of leading through the lens of your values, and more.

Today's Host

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Tim Leman

|Chairman & CEO, Gibson

Today's Guests

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Tiffany Sauder

|CEO, Element Three