Plus, meet more women in this year's Forty Under 40 class
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Good morning and happy Monday! Here’s what you’ll find in this week’s newsletter:

I’m also excited to share that the Business Record is now accepting nominations for its annual Women of Influence award! Find more information about that near the bottom of the newsletter, or visit our website.

Have a great week!

– Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

Noll Wilson highlights how to avoid avoidance in new book
Sarah Noll Wilson's new book, "Don't Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships." Photo by Emily Kestel.
Say you’re in an all-staff meeting the day after a poor quarterly sales earning report comes out. The mood in the room is tense, but nobody’s mentioning it, preferring instead to focus on the sales team’s wins in hopes of boosting morale.

Or maybe you’ve got a meeting scheduled with your boss about a new project you’ve been assigned to work on, but just last week she denied your request for a raise. You don’t want to bring it up again because you don’t want to make your relationship more uncomfortable than you already perceive it to be.

Perhaps you and your partner have a mountain of debt to pay off, but you both choose not to acknowledge it with each other because you know that doing so will likely cause an argument.

Maybe your co-worker always comes into the office smelling like a pile of dirty socks, but no one wants to tell him because they don’t want to offend or embarass him.

All of these situations have a common denominator: Everybody knows it, but nobody is talking about it.

In "a love letter to my fellow avoiders," executive leadership coach Sarah Noll Wilson expanded on the common American idiom of "the elephant in the room" in her first book, "Don’t Feed the Elephants!: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships."

While an elephant in the room may be caused by a person or process, the actual elephant is not the noun in play – it’s the avoidance of the noun. "The elephant in the room is created when people see a topic, problem or risk that impacts success, but they avoid acknowledging it, do not attempt resolution, or assume a resolution isn’t possible," she writes.

I talked with Noll Wilson about the book, why people avoid hard conversations in the first place and what we can do to effectively address elephants in the room.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about why you decided to write this book.

This is a topic I've been exploring and experimenting with for well over a decade. It felt ripe. It felt like I had learned enough and gathered enough practices where it was ready to be shared with a broader audience. Writing it during the pandemic reinforced how important it was for us to be able to have the conversations that we were avoiding. There's a lot of really amazing books out there about how to have hard conversations or radical candor. One of the things that I heard a lot from people [through my job as an executive leadership coach] was, "We took this training but nobody's changed behaviors." So I got really interested in the avoidance side of it and how we can better understand that.

I noticed that you had a lot of Brene Brown quotes in the book. One is "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. They’re not always comfortable but they’re never weakness." I’ve got a quote of hers written on a sticky note on my desk that says, "You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t have both," that came to mind when I read your book because you wrote about how asking questions and exploring the unknown does require courage. Why do we avoid difficult conversations?

We avoid for a lot of different reasons. Maybe it's that we work in an environment or we're in a relationship where it isn't safe to challenge authority, disagree or speak up. Maybe it doesn't feel safe because of lived experiences heading into a conversation. Sometimes we avoid because it's more comfortable. We avoid because of past trauma. We avoid because we're protecting our power. We also tend to overestimate negative responses from people.

If I were to have a new edition, that Brene Brown quote I included that you mentioned would perhaps be swapped out for one by Minda Harts, who wrote a book called "Right Within: How to Heal From Racial Trauma in the Workplace." In a session that I got to attend with her, she said, "Nobody will benefit from your caution, but so many can benefit from your courage."

The thing I will say, though, is sometimes what I've seen is that people will sometimes swing too far, like, "Oh, we just need to call it out." There might be times where that's actually not appropriate. There might be times where I choose to consciously not engage, because it might not be safe. Maybe I'm just not in the headspace or maybe I’m just choosing my battles.

Some people hold intersecting identities where the stakes may be higher for them to initiate those uncomfortable conversations. Could you talk about the power dynamics that may be at play?

If you're an only female, if you're an only person of color, if you're an only LGBTQ person, there can be a situation where the risk is higher for you to speak up. You might be challenging something that is an accepted norm across the group. Whether we admit it or not, research shows that when women are more assertive and speak more directly, we're perceived as people who aren't as open to ideas. And then when you add on the intersectionality of a Black woman, for example, we know there's the stereotype of an angry Black woman. It also depends on the situation. Is what we're avoiding something to do with a process or does it have to do with something cultural about how we're treating people? Does it have to do with my sense of safety? There's those informal power dynamics that are very real and very much at play. And then there's the formal power dynamics of "You're the boss and I'm the team member, and the consequences of me speaking up are very different."

When people are reflecting on their own work culture, they go, "We can have difficult conversations," or "We can disagree." Well, who actually is allowed to? Who feels safe to speak up and disagree? For me the question is not "Do we make it safe or don’t we," it's "What ways are we unsafe? Do we create a culture that's unsafe for someone who doesn't look like, sound like, and have our lived experience to speak up and to be able to speak out?"

When we think about either a second edition to the book or even a whole different book, that's something I want to dig into more. I realized that while writing it, I was writing it through a process of a bunch of exploration for myself in that area, and I wasn't ready to share those stories, because I didn't feel like I could honor it well enough.

You introduce the concept of "Iowa nice" in the book. A lot of times people think Iowa nice looks like pulling over to help people on the side of the road, but there are more and more arguments coming out saying Iowa nice is really just this atmosphere where people avoid conflicts and avoid having those difficult conversations because they want to maintain that sense of politeness. How can we as Iowans overcome that conflict avoidance both in our personal lives and at work?

There's nothing wrong with taking care of your fellow person. Like you said, we're not talking about not pulling over. But there's a real consistent unspoken value of wanting to fit in, there's a real consistent value of sameness and keeping that peace and maintaining harmony. I once referenced the phrase "violent politeness" on Twitter and someone said they call it "weaponized civility." If I say something to your face that actually isn't accurate about how I feel about the situation, I'm lying. I'm not being truthful or authentic to myself or you.

I have to give credit to one of my colleagues, Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell, on this, but one of the things that we can do is normalize disagreeing respectfully. Not saying, "I think your idea is stupid," but practice the act of saying, "Well, actually I disagree with that," or "I have a different perspective," or "I don't see myself in that example." Another way is to invite different perspectives and invite disagreements. "What am I not seeing that could get in the way? What are we not thinking about that could cause an issue?"

I have a client whose boss has a practice in one-on-ones who asks, "What’s going unsaid?" There's something I really love about that. We have to practice being open and listening. When we aren’t used to having conversations of real feedback and conversations of disagreement, it can feel emotionally hotter than it needs to because we haven’t built up that muscle of "They’re just disagreeing with the idea. They're not negating me as a person."

The other thing I'm going to add particularly for Midwest women – and this is based on my experience – is we have essentially been conditioned to always nurture or take care of others and sacrifice ourselves. To be a martyr. To eat last. A really powerful thing we can do is to just ask, "What do I need in a relationship?" I can't tell you how many times when we're working with a group and we talk about that idea that when there's issues in relationships, it's because there's usually a need that's not being met and how many women go, "I don't even know what I need." So I think that there's an act of courage in reflecting on what I actually need in this relationship and am I getting what I need and reminding myself that I deserve to ask for that.

Meet 8 women in this year’s Forty Under 40 class
Twenty-four of the 40 young professionals in this year's class of the Business Record's Forty Under 40 are women. We'll introduce you to all of them in upcoming newsletters. To read their full profile, click on their name.
Abby Delaney, assistant vice president, corporate communications officer, Bankers Trust

What is it that drives you? To live a life worthy of the generosity others have provided me. From my parents to mentors to colleagues, I’ve been fortunate to learn from many servant leaders who inspire me to believe in my potential, take an active role in making the community better, and pay that generosity forward.

Veronica Guevara, director of equity and inclusion, Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence

What is it that drives you? My hometown experienced an immigration raid when I was in high school and I saw firsthand the devastating effects of our deteriorated immigration system. My family was directly affected and people I love were and continue to be deeply affected. I committed to do what was within my power to teach my community about their rights and advocate for themselves.

Majda Hadzic, market director, Iowa and Nebraska, JPMorgan Chase

What is it that drives you? As a refugee, fleeing war-torn Bosnia, moving numerous times, I’ve watched my parents overcome challenges. I always think if I were in my 20s with children, how would I handle being ripped from my home and placed into a foreign land, living in refugee camps, without speaking the language?

Christine Her, executive director, ArtForce Iowa

What is it that drives you? Growing up in Des Moines as a first-generation American to Hmong refugee parents, stories like mine are often not heard, taught or celebrated. It motivates me to continue showing up as a proud Hmong-American who celebrates my identity while also honoring and uplifting the identities of those around me.

Jordan Juhl, director of public relations, ChildServe

What is it that drives you? My family is the driver and motivation for all that I do. Losing my sister, Morgan, due to medical complexities at a young age, I recognize each day is a gift and each person is blessed with talents and abilities to share with others, for the betterment of others. And as a mother, I want to set a good example for my son and ensure he grows up in a vibrant community with opportunities for him and his own family someday.

Kayla Kovarna, communications, marketing and air service development deputy director, Des Moines Airport Authority

What is your biggest passion, and why? Traveling. I love experiencing new things with my family and friends, from the food and music to the people and culture. I find it recharges me mentally and creatively. Traveling is such a great way to enhance our cultural competency and bring newfound understanding back to our local community.

Meghan Malloy, lobbyist and general counsel, Heartland Strategies LLC

What is your biggest passion, and why? I am passionate about voting access, especially for marginalized communities. Democracy only works when people know their rights and can vote easily. This means supporting laws that do not place additional requirements on being able to access the ballot box, and supporting initiatives that help people get to the polls.

Tiara Mays, manager, contract negotiation, Aetna, a CVS company

What is your biggest passion, and why? My children and I have a saying at the beginning of each day: Time to get out and change the world. That is my passion: to wake up each day and do something that will leave the world a better place. Change does not have to be major and you may never get recognition for the difference that you make. But we can each do something to make a difference. We can help our neighbor, we can help our community, we can help our world.

Left: Actress Ariana DeBose. Center: Director Jane Campion. Right: LyondellBasell's Yarelis Hernandez.
In the headlines
Worth checking out
Women are calling out ‘medical gaslighting’ (New York Times). Ukrainian women are mobilizing beyond the battlefield to defend their country (Time). Jada Pinkett Smith shouldn’t have to ‘take a joke.’ Neither should you (New York Times Opinion). See which companies made the Time 100 Most Influential Companies list (Time). Some Starbucks workers forgo paychecks to access IVF treatments (NBC News). On living as a Black woman in Iowa (Men Yell at Me). The mysterious MacKenzie Scott: How the secretive billionaire quietly worked to give away $12 billion in just 2 years (Fortune).
Join us for the first event in our new virtual series called Fearless Focus, where you’ll have the opportunity to learn from and connect with people from across the state who are passionate about leadership, confidence and risk-taking.

On Thursday, April 28, from noon to 1 p.m., we’ll be addressing representation of women in leadership. Registration is free!

Details: Representation matters – especially in leadership. The latest data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that in Iowa’s private sector, women held 30% of executive-level leadership positions and 40% of midlevel management positions. Furthermore, women of color made up just 3% of leaders at the executive level and 8% in midlevel management. In this conversation, we’ll talk about why these disparities exist and what can be done about it. We’ll hear from female leaders about how they got to where they are and what support systems have helped them the most. The discussion will also focus on how male allies can support and promote women in their organizations.

Panelists include:
  • Amy Kristof-Brown, dean, Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa.
  • Kelly Winfrey, director of graduate education and assistant professor, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Iowa State University.
  • Tiffany O'Donnell, CEO, Women Lead Change.
  • Dawn Martinez Oropeza, executive director, Al Exito.
  • Evette Creighton, senior manager, talent, inclusion and diversity, Transamerica.
Nominations open for Women of Influence
For over 23 years, the Business Record has recognized women who have made outstanding contributions to the community in a variety of areas with the Women of Influence awards. Awards will be presented at a reception on Aug. 4.

The Women of Influence awards celebrate the work of women who have made a difference. They have devoted their lives to doing things most wouldn’t. They have spent countless hours on various boards and they are role models with impeccable ethics. They have blazed a trail either personally or professionally for other women to follow.

To be considered, please submit a resume and cover letter specifically addressing accomplishments that meet the judging criteria. Letters of recommendation, while not required, are also encouraged.

Candidates will be judged on the following criteria:

  • Success in their chosen field.
  • Lasting impact on the community.
  • Involvement with civic and/or nonprofit organizations.
  • Role model for other women through not only their achievements but also their high ethical standards.

Nominations are due no later than noon on May 6, 2022.

Meet Nalo Johnson, president and CEO, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation
Nalo Johnson says she’s been with Mid-Iowa Health Foundation long enough — since mid-November — that she’s gotten beyond the introductory phase and is "getting to the fun stuff now."  

Johnson, who has worked in community health leadership roles throughout her career, was most recently division director for health promotion and chronic disease prevention with the Iowa Department of Public Health. In that role, she oversaw a 100-member team across four bureaus and one office with a $100 million annual budget consisting of federal, state and philanthropic funds supporting programs ranging from maternal and child health to nutrition and physical activity, chronic disease prevention and management, disability and wellness, injury prevention, and oral health.

For Johnson, the "fun stuff" is applying a data-driven approach to identify health challenges within the community and developing meaningful interventions to address them, leveraging the funding raised by the foundation. She succeeds Suzanne Mineck, who led the foundation for more than a decade before departing to intentionally make room for a new leader for the grant-making organization.

In 2019, Johnson received national recognition for her work from the American Public Health Association, which presented her with the Henrik L. Blum Award for Excellence in Health Planning and Policy Development. The award recognized her leadership of the Johnson County Public Health process for the community health needs assessment, which she ensured represented broad community engagement.

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