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LEVERAGING PROVINCE’S DIASPORA TO CONNECT

Sara_ehrhardt

Dave Veale interviews Sara Ehrhardt, Executive Director, 21inc as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

After interviewing Sara Ehrhardt, what I found remarkable was how much life experience she has crammed in so far. Sara was recently appointed executive director of 21inc a leadership development organization for people aged 20-35, that focuses on turning Atlantic Canada’s new and emerging leaders into the best in Canada. This appears to be the perfect role to attract a leader of Sarah’s calibre back to New Brunswick and, as we talked, it became evident that Sara is a fabulous role model for 21 Inc’s philosophy of ‘smart leadership – a combination of hard skills (management and political awareness), soft skills (vision, communication, emotional and social intelligence) and context’.

Sara, originally from Riverview, has alternated between the nonprofit and public sectors and has recently returned to the region. She has degrees in engineering from the University of Waterloo and public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of sara ehrhardt.jpgGovernment. She has also worked in places such as New Orleans, Western Africa, Southern Ontario and the Yukon.

For her early contributions to public service, Sara was awarded the Public Policy Forum Emerging Leaders Award in 2009. She understands the challenges, as well as the potential, for young leaders in our region and has a progressive view of the possibilities to grow economically by staying connected – a fresh perspective on how we can leverage, rather than lament, people leaving Atlantic Canada.

I began our conversation by asking Sara what brought her back to New Brunswick.

A: A few things drew me back. One is that emotional tug my mother calls ‘the pull of the potato’, the desire to be home. People from this region that I was meeting during my travels were telling me about really cool things – interesting ideas, initiatives and challenges – happening here. That lit a fire in my belly.

Q:What excites you most about the opportunities available to Atlantic Canada?

A:We have a diaspora that is the key to success right now. Recently I was reading about the strength of diaspora networks and I was thinking,’Wouldn’t this be a fun thing to think about in the context of Atlantic Canada’. That is one thing I haven’t heard much about – rather than shake our heads and say, ‘everyone is leaving, what do we do?’why don’t we look at it as a huge opportunity – we have people that feel the pull of the potato dispersed all over the world. They have networks and connections that we can build from.

Q:How do you view your role with 21inc?

A:I am in a privileged spot coming in as executive director and following a great idea that was incorporated in 2004. I see it as a dual role because I am inheriting something great, I am taking it to the next level and then, hopefully, passing it on when it’s at the next phase. I am torchcarrying in my current role.

Q:What are the most important lessons around leadership that you’ve learned?

A:My most important leadership lesson has been that you need to use a combination of your heart and your head. To accomplish anything in any practical length of time, you really have to take the time to get to know what others value and be pragmatic enough to say, ‘We value this. but do we have the time and resources to do it’.

Q:It sounds like you have an appreciation

for balancing the hard and soft leadership skills. Where does this come from?

A:I started my career in engineering, but I have also done social justice work and non-profit management, so I’ve flip-flopped in terms of having to be the one to bring the soft skills in the room or the one bringing out the hard skills, depending on the situation. Sometimes I am the financial statements person and sometimes I’m the person who says,’no, I need to be more consultative’.

Q:You mentioned that your experience as a dancer has taught you a lot about leadership. Can you elaborate?

A:I have been dancing for about 10 years and I am totally a ‘type A’ personality – female engineer – so I learned to be very assertive throughout my career. But in dance I had to learn to be a follower. For example, swing dancing is a dance where people learn to both lead and follow irrespective of gender. Good dancers learn both roles and when I learned the lead role I saw how to follow as well. I learnedthat I also had to develop trust and that is something that has carried on with me.

Q:What do you anticipate as the biggest challenge ahead of you with 21 Inc.?

A:At 21inc we’ve got lots of momentum now, but these are tough times for all of Canada and we are a non-profit organization. We will always have to be open and creative in looking to support the others around us, the other great initiatives, because our program is not the only thing that New Brunswick needs to succeed. We are part of it, but we are not the whole thing.

Q:From your perspective,”A leader’s job is to …”
A: A leader’s job is to empower.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every month. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca

Published Thursday February 9, 2012 in the Telegraph-Journal

Photo of Sara Ehrhardt by Jamie Roach, Telegraph-Journal

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