Sara Neel is CEO of One Advocate Group, a financial planning firm founded by Thomas Oliphant in 1990 and expanded in 2005 to also help family and closely held businesses with succession planning. She was hired in 2012 as an executive assistant to the founder, and was promoted to a management role within a year. In six years, she worked her way to the top spot by learning the business from the ground up.
Prior to her being hired, Neel managed logistics for a private defense contractor in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005, where she said she found a greater purpose in serving this country and its troops. When she returned to the U.S., she took six months off to contemplate what other work would enable her to continue serving a greater purpose.
Neel — mother of a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter — has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and an MBA in leadership from Grand Canyon University and is pursuing a doctorate from Walden University. She is a board member for the The Children’s Shelter, and in 2014 she formed the Grand Purpose Foundation, of which she is president, to serve women and children of neglect and abuse.
How do you make a big change such as changing careers? I think there’s a certain part of me that’s a risk taker. I’m willing to gamble, and I’ve always been told, brought up, that if you’re not going to try then you’re not going to know. If you don’t take an opportunity, you never know what you’ve missed.
How can a person maximize his or her role within a company? One of the things that helped, or one of the things that Tommy would say if he were here, is that "she asked me the tough questions. She begged to learn new things about the cases." I was always asking questions. Can you explain this? What does that mean on certain services or financial tools that we would be using for a client. And so, I was wanting to know more about it. If you’re at ground level and you’re starting off at X, Y, Z, those probing questions and being thirsty for knowledge is going to get you somewhere because that’s exactly what I did. I think for him, I think he saw I was willing and motivated.
Do you feel the work you do now is serving that greater purpose you were looking for? Yes. No. 1, I think it starts with my team. I pay a lot of attention to my team. I was counting up the hours that I actually meet with them throughout the week and believe in them as a leader ... cultivate skills that they probably don’t even realize they have and plant seeds for the future that I’m counting on them and they’re counting on me. That’s a rapport that’s built over time, so I do believe I’m changing their lives in that aspect. And then, two, on the client level, … nobody’s doing the type of work that we’re doing that’s changing people’s lives. It’s not about the dollars we are saving them or that we’re growing for them in an investment account. It’s giving them peace of mind through a rough, turbulent market, or solidifying the fact that we have a group of people who actually care and love them. We’re the One Advocate Group family to them. That’s a huge honor, and it’s also a huge responsibility.
What do you think of the journey? It’s been amazing. I’m a planner and goal crusher, but I didn’t come in with a preconceived thing that I’m going to come over here and take the [CEO job]. That’s not me. I came in and just wanted to work my butt off and earn my stripes and make a difference. Looking back now, it’s been amazing.
How do you manage work-life balance? Well, my good business coach Brian has told me, you need to give permission to yourself to say no to others, and that has really empowered me to say no, I’m not, I’m going to take these couple of hours or, you know, Wednesday nights are family night or whatever and not to feel bad about that. If I’m not sharp and on for the team and for the clients, than I’m not good. So being healthy and fitness and having an environment that’s flexible supports that. I had to learn that. I was a yes, yes, yes, yes, yes to everybody. Yes, I can do that, yes, yes, yes, and it just ran me ragged. So permission to say no was a big learning thing for me.
How do you manage stress? Working out. Being fit and healthy.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being CEO? I don’t know if it’s challenging, but it’s just the weight of the responsibility. My name’s on everything. It’s huge. … That’s the challenge for me. Am I being the best person and leader that I can be right now for this group and for the clients going forward? So balancing that in my mind.
What advice do you have for women aspiring to leadership roles? I think if you think something and if you know something is going on or needs improvement or there’s an opportunity for change, go for it. Go for it. Don’t hold back. Either you’re going to learn that that was a no or they’re going to embrace it and you’re going to guess what, take the project and run, take the opportunity and go forward. That’s your baby. You get to build that, whatever that opportunity is. I think having that confidence to be forward and not say, ‘Oh, that’s not really what they’re looking for.’ You have no idea. Don’t sell yourself short without trying.
What other characteristics do you think make a good leader? I firmly believe in servant leadership. So, serving others, they’re going to serve you back. And at that moment, you’re a leader and they’re a follower, and then you switch roles. You follow them in other cases.
What do you look for in a good employee? I always start with heart and character first. If we are connected through character and we have the same virtues, the virtues we have here, then we can teach skill later. Are we connected on that personal level? Are we driven in that same manner? So résumés to me are irrelevant. I really want face-to-face. Let’s connect. Let’s talk over a period of time. Let’s get to know each other, and if that’s a good fit, I do have a long vetting process.
Has there been someone in your life that you would consider a mentor or has helped you along the way? My grandmother was a reigning voice inside my head saying, “You go after it girl.” She’s a voice in my mind, and it’s kind of created who I am. She’s very black and white, very driven and successful.