Rewind – Why Everyone Needs to Think Like a Fieldworker | Sarah Kotva


What does it mean to be a fieldworker?

This week, we revisit my conversation with Sarah Kotva, a fieldworker who helps CEOs answer big questions.

In this episode, she shares problem-solving strategies for the successful leader—and gives her take on remote work, participatory leadership, and what leaders face in the current state of the world. 

Listen to learn:

  • The importance of knowing a little about a lot

  • The meaning of mirroring communication

  • Why there is no substitute for planning 

  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Sarah Kotva: Sometimes their timing is not right. And so that doesn’t make you a bad leader. It doesn’t make you, you know, it just you have to go back and recycle your ideas. We do that all the time. A lot of times we have great ideas and the timing isn’t right.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast with leadership speaker and consultant, Nicole Greer. 

Nicole Greer: Welcome everybody to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast. My name is Nicole Greer, they call me the Vibrant Coach. And I am absolutely delighted to be here today with Sarah Kotva. Sarah is a proud fieldworker. And before March of 2020, she was on the road making meetings happen and connecting the dots for her valued clients. She keeps the details organized and loves to help in meetings, do site visits and run projects smoothly. And she loves to get a chance to solve any market research coordination challenge. No piece of scratch paper is safe. She has lots of notes, lots of love to do lists and checklists. And Sarah is here today to explain to us what a fieldworker is and how she operates in terms of leadership. Sarah, I’m so excited to have you here today.

Sarah: Thank you so much. I wish I could show you all of my little scrap pieces of paper. For that is definitely true for me. I like to write a lot of stuff down.

Nicole: Yeah. And I you know, I think if you have a system, and it’s your system, and it works, that’s the system you should stick with. Absolutely. So we all organize ourselves differently. But I think it’s important to make lists and check things off. You know, they say that when you do that, you get a little drip of dopamine right here from back here in your hypothalamus gland, you start feeling really good, get marinating and a lot of good stuff. So if your system works it’s absolutely the way do it. So So tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing right now, Sarah?

Sarah: Oh, gosh, wow. That’s such a great question. Fieldwork is, you know, historically a qualitative research partner, we help our clients with recruiting certain demographics of respondents, we host in facility research, we also do remote research, online research and sort of a hybrid of both of those, in addition to just basically coordinating the logistics. A little about what it talks about, in my bio, I think fieldworkers in general are basically problem solvers. Because there’s gonna be problems when you’re working on any type of project, and you just sort of don’t always know what they might be. So being able to be flexible to customize the solution for our clients is I think what we do best?

Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. And so as I understand it, somebody who’s doing this field research and finding out things, solving problems, this is a key thing that most CEOs, people that run organizations need help like that. So how do you see your role as leadership, even though you might be doing research that serves maybe another set of people who are in leadership?

Sarah: Sure, fieldwork is definitely the support system for those particular leaders, like you said, the clients that are trying to determine their brand’s value fieldwork is here to support their efforts, their methodology, their research. So yes, we are there to help all different types of leaders. I would say for from my perspective, from my group, in terms of leadership, I think the biggest thing that you can do is participate, especially now that we’re more disconnected than we’ve ever been. The fieldwork culture has been extremely important to retaining employees. And I think giving, you know, our team, some fulfillment, and what they do, it’s not just a nine to five job. And this has to be something more, in my opinion, for you to just go to work. And that’s fine if you want to just, you know, go to work and get a check. But I just think that life is a lot more enjoyable, work is a lot more enjoyable when you can collaborate, when you can be around people that are like minded, and also different that challenge you to think a little differently. So I think really participating is sort of what I have found in this environment to be the best way to participate in leadership.

Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. And you were talking earlier about how you used to be very much in person, but now you guys are working seriously remotely. I think that’s happening to a lot of people. But yeah, you’ve got some insights about that. Share with us how you guys are doing that super effectively.

Sarah: Well, we are still doing in person research for our clients, but they’re definitely coming to our facilities since May and June of last year, but because of the restrictions, safety, putting our clients, our respondents and our employees first, we have been also working remotely as a group. So the way that we found to be connected is just to do things like this. The Zoom. We meet weekly, the project managers, about 60 of them around the country. And we just come and we connect. We talk about you know, in the beginning when there wasn’t a lot of activity when there wasn’t a lot of business. It was hard because people were, you know, they were they were worried they were upset they were concerned and just being able to come together as a group, and talk about those concerns has been so helpful. You tried to reach me a little earlier today by phone. And that’s actually the meeting I was on, I was on our office hours call. 

And I feel like by continuing to bring that group together, and by being on a specific day, at a specific time consistently, for way more than a year, it’s probably been, you know, closer to 13-14 months now, I think it’s just been really great for us. I think it’s just a place to find comfort and seeing other people’s faces to celebrate even the smallest wins. And we’re really starting to see some traction with the in person element to research, I think because of COVID. And because being in a situation that was so different for all of us, I’ve never been in an environment, I’m sure the same for unikl, where it’s being around people was a real problem, it was a real concern. So we had to, we were forced to find a different way to be successful. And because I think we’re problem solvers, and we’re trying to do what we can to service our clients, our clients had to go on to so we just we continued to work together. We continue to share operational best practices, and we continue to recruit for our respondents as for responding to our clients as they moved their research online, temporarily.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. So I’m hearing that you guys are super agile. And you keep referring to this idea that you guys are problem solvers. So I’m wondering if you could share with us kind of the principles that your your organization operates by that helps you be such good problem solvers? Like what are some activities or habits or things that you put into play that help you solve problems? 

Sarah: That’s a very, very good question. I think because we are, so we see so many different types of projects. I mean, I talked a little bit in the beginning about, you know, historically, being a qualitative research partner a support system, I mean, that even pre pandemic, we were seeing our client personas change, we were seeing different types of industries. So I think our group is great at problem solving, because they know a little bit about a lot of things. And their job is to be naturally curious. Their job is to ask questions, to learn a little bit more to be the experts in in the logistics fields, share those tips and tricks with our clients to help set our clients up for success. If they’ve never tried something, I often think about the fact that because we have to research and find a little bit of information out about so many things, we’re a lot, we’re on Google a lot. 

We’re on social media a lot, we get paid to be on Google and social media. And some of the things that you have to Google to learn would probably be you know, blocked by many other organizations. But these clients are all different shapes and sizes are looking for financial services, people, they’re looking for people that buy toilet paper, they’re looking for very specialized, you know, medical conditions. So it’s just kind of across the board. And I think that’s exciting. I also think the fact that the project lifecycle is anywhere between, you know, two weeks, and perhaps a month, you’re kind of on to the next thing. 

So even if you have a difficult situation, it can change so quickly, you can figure you know, you can, you can start getting the rhythm of your project. And so what was not going your way is starting to go your way and the next day, you know, you’re dealing with a new set of problems. So I think that’s what helps, it helps. There’s just an energy, I think about being a field worker and being naturally curious, and just really being interested in solving our client’s problems. And trying to customize that solution. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of different ways to do things. So I do think that being open to just that communication, back and forth, I think that’s what helps.

Nicole: Yeah, so you could actually take what Sarah is saying, and think to yourself, inside my company, we’re gonna be fieldworkers, right? We’re gonna be people who are naturally curious, I also heard a great deal of like, resilience and diligence. And like, we’re not gonna stop until we figure it out. Like there’s a lot of drive inside of what I heard you say too. So I love this idea of the fieldworker who is somebody who just does not stop till they figure it out. That’s beautiful. Well, inside of that, you know, you have to exercise a lot of self leadership. And also, you know, whoever’s in charge of that particular client’s project, they’re demonstrating leadership, the project manager is definitely is definitely doing leadership during that whole process. So how do you guys define leadership? How does Sarah define leadership?

Sarah: You know, again, a great question. I really just think about leadership as participating. Being involved thinking, listening. I think when you are in a position to make choices help with guidance or suggestions. You know, listening is really important because you are passionate. Fieldworkers are also very passionate about what they do. And they want to be helpful. So you have these, you have just a bunch of people that want to be helpful. And sometimes you think that you have the solution. And I think calming down taking a deep breath and making sure that you are listening to all the options, because like I said before, there’s a lot of ways to do things. And sometimes you have to try something and it doesn’t work. And you have to try it again. So that’s what I would say.

Nicole: And I love your definition. So I’m going to repeat what she said, because I think it’s really good we could, we could really hone in on a couple of things. One is, is that she said, you know, if you’re a leader, you’re participating, and and I think that is so essential. You know, I know that inside some organizations, people are the leader, and we don’t see them. We don’t hear from them. You know, they’re they’re not giving us feedback. They’re not involved. So definitely participation is key. I also love the fact that you said, is there helping, right. You know, just getting in there and helping me get things moved along. As well as taking risks. You said, sometimes you try stuff, it doesn’t work, you just keep trying, you keep taking the risks until you get the reward. 

So I love your definition, Sarah, beautiful. Well, when you look at the work that you all are doing, what are the skills that are so important, you’ve mentioned, you’ve mentioned listening several times, so listen, people listening. Okay. And I think it’s this level of active listening, right? Where I’m not just listening to Sarah, and thinking, while she’s talking what I’m gonna say next, it’s like really taking into consideration what this person is saying in front of me. And then being able to ask good questions. I also heard you say that, but what other skills besides listening are really important to take the lead on a project or to help a customer research what it is they need to know.

Sarah: I think another huge one is just communication. I think the back and forth, I think you should mirror your client’s communication. I feel like I’m in personal information overload. I feel like people are texting, me pinging me on messenger, emailing me calling me Zooming me, leaving messages on social media, it is just crazy. So I just feel like you really need to mirror your clients in the way that they choose to communicate. And I think that you also need to stop and think about how your messages read. Because we are all being inundated with so much information, it is very easy. 

And I find myself I’m guilty of doing this all the time. It’s a quick response, because I’m just trying to move it along. I’m trying to answer a question. So I don’t hold somebody else up. And they can do their their part. And I can continue on with my Zoom. So I just think it’s important to make sure that you’re mirroring the communication, and you’re really trying to respond and you’re thinking about how you’re making the recipient feel. Instead of going so quickly. You need to say, you know, how are we doing? How’s the weather, I mean, anything to just really try and have some sort of a connection, and not just information? 

Nicole: Yeah, I totally agree. So don’t miss what she said. She said, you need to slow down and mirror your customer. And I think that’s huge. So a lot of times, like it’s just a simple phrase, like what I just heard you say was this, this and this, did I get it right? Because just that little, you know, 30 seconds. I don’t even think it was 30 seconds. 10 seconds. And the person’s like, she heard me, I can rest.

Sarah: Yes, yes. And I feel like if you can do that, if you can set your client up for success, and they feel confident that not only are you going to try and help them solve their problems, but you’re also engaged in solving their boss’ or their client’s problems. They’re gonna have this level of comfort, where it’s sort of like it’s off their plate. I mean, we all send emails to infoboxes or people and it’s something kind of important, and it’s, it’s never off your mind or off your list until did that person receive that email? Are they going to respond? I mean, rather much rather get an email that says, hey, listen, Sarah, you know, we’re a little we’re a little behind here, but we’re on it, we received it, you’ll be hearing from us soon, then me feeling like I have to just continue to follow that to help solve my own problem. So yeah, I think that, you know, laying it out for your, for your client in a way that is helpful information to them. And perhaps that would make an easier case for them to help, you know, sell your services or your business.

Nicole: That’s right, that’s right. You know, if you can give me peace of mind, yeah, I can give you a piece I can give you a piece of business called a referral. Right? So I absolutely love that. And don’t also don’t miss what what Sarah said about you know, it’s it’s like how you make the customer feel. Like I can respond to the customer. But I can also respond and intentionally try to make them feel something right. Like in in, in this case, a lot of times there I talked about with my clients, you know, leave people better than you found them, you know, take them up the feelings. You know, and something simple like you said, you know, asking about the weather or trying to, to phrase it in a way that it doesn’t seem too quick. It’s just the right amount of, you know, rapport building with the information that they need. So it’s an art, it’s actually an art form, don’t you think?

Sarah: Yes, it has to be an art form. And we have so much longevity. And so many of our fieldworkers and those skilled workers have client relationships for years. So it’s different levels, you have to use your best judgment. I mean, sometimes there’s wedding invitations or baby shower invitations. That’s how that’s the kind of rapport that people have built with, you know, these particular clients. And it’s not always like that. That’s why I think that in the beginning, you should mirror the behavior of your clients, and then you you hopefully build that rapport. 

And you know, that you’re you’re top of mind. Fieldwork’s top of mind. Project Manager in Atlanta is top of mind, it’s a great feeling and, and a referral. That’s the best thing that you can do for a business as you can give a personal referral. So I love that it is I agree with you, I think it is an art form. But I do think you have to slow down, because it’s just there’s so much going on. And I personally am guilty of that all the time. And, and I love your your comment about the scale. Leave them better than you found them. I love that because that’s exactly what I mean. That’s a great way to articulate that. 

Nicole: Yeah, I think, wasn’t it Maya Angelou that said, people don’t know how much you know, they only care. They only want, they want to know how much you care, something like that. Like, it’s more about like, they feel that you care instead of you know that you’re the leader. And you’re the boss, because your boss, right, right? Yeah. Okay, so So you’ve, you’ve been doing your work a long time, you’ve been around different leaders, you’ve seen leaders of all these different companies who are trying to research trying to get the information they need, so they can be sustainable in the market. So when you we kind of looked out over all the leaders you’ve experienced in your career, and you’ve worked with, what what makes certain ones successful? You know, like, there’s different characteristics or things they do, have, they might have, and then other people struggle. What do you think the difference is between that that really great leader and the one that’s like on the struggle bus?

Sarah: Well, I think great leaders have an opportunity to prepare. And what I mean by that is really sit down and think about what you want. What do you want your team to look like? What do you want your culture to be? What do you want people to say about your product and how you take those smaller steps? You know, there’s no substitute for hard work. There’s no substitute for doing the work, the planning. And so I think that really great leaders, they they feel a passion for what they’re doing, because they really have thought about what they want. I mean, there’s a lot I mean, I, there’s a lot of parts of my life that I’m sure I couldn’t answer, right, in this moment, what I want. I would need to sit and think about it. And I think that great leaders really do sit and think about that. I also think, you know, we all are doing things passionately. 

And you can only do so much what you need is a great team, you need a group of people that support you, that help you that genuinely want to do well for themselves in your business. And that’s hard. That’s why I think that, you know, these remote situations are difficult in building culture, or continuing to build culture, because I just think that that in person, human human connection, to sort of see somebody do the work, to participate, to listen to communicate all of those things. So, yeah, I think that I think that the team that you work with is just as important as anything else. And I think when you’re sitting to think about what you want, I think you should be thinking and manifesting about, you know, the ideal team.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. So Sarah said the word, think about 50 times. Well it wasnt that many, but if there was a lot, and the reason why I exaggerate is because, you know, I have said this too many people, you know, what’s the difference between success and struggle is about the quality of your thinking, you know, and she’s like, you got to think about the culture, you got to think about taking the right small steps, you got to think about planning, planning is all about thinking. And you have to think about a great team who is genuine and who will support you, right? And so I, I do think slowing down to reflect and have quality time in your day, when you’re really being intentional. You know, Sarah, a lot of leaders will say to me, I don’t know why my people don’t think like I think, you know, like, why don’t they get it, they just don’t get it. And I’m like, well, the reason why they don’t is because you aren’t telling them what you’re thinking or the whys behind your decisions or your thought process. So I couldn’t agree with you more that thinking is absolutely imperative. It sounds weird, but it’s like so true. You have to be intentional.

Sarah: Well, and everybody has an opinion, right? So if you do have this great team that wants to get involved, they want to be a part of it. So explaining the why in the thought process helps them feel a part of it helps to understand and you said before, there’s a lot of leaders that aren’t seen or heard from and people wonder what the heck is that guy doing all day? What’s she up to? And they think you know who even knows. Here I am, you know, pounding the pavement and that person isn’t available. So I think involving your your team is so very, very important to some of the decision making to I mean, there’s things that you’d like to shield them from, of course, there’s a lot of not funding to operating a business. But I think in any time that you can explain why I think it just, it just removes that, you know, that that shield or that layer that’s unnecessary. A distraction that it doesn’t need to be.

Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. And so, you know, you could be that leader that says, You know what, I’ve got Sarah on my team, I got Nicole on my team, I’ve got George and John and Joni on my team, and they all have genius. And if I will invite them into the process, I still get to make the final decision about things. But why don’t I sit Sarah down and go, okay, here’s what I’m thinking, what do you think about my thinking, right. Poke a hole in my theory, you know, invite them into the process. So you’ve got something to say about that I can tell.

Sarah: I just think there’s nothing more fun than collaborating on a project, especially when you’re collaborating with like minded people. And I don’t mean that they have to think and do everything that you do. But just people that have the same vision and the common end goal and the and the twists and turns that that takes to me, I just that that fills my bucket that lights me up. I just love that I love the group of field workers that I get to interact with every single day, because that’s it I’m not, I have plenty of flaws. So many, and it’s just nice to be able to be myself to share those flaws and to ask for help. And it’s just it’s a really nice feeling.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. 100%. All right. So when you look out, you’ve got these different customers you’re working with, you’re helping to research. You’re helping them to solve their problems. So what are like the big challenges that are out there that you’re seeing? What are leaders facing today?

Sarah: Oh, well, we’ve talked a little bit about culture, I think it’s really hard to have the same type of connection, I can’t I said it a million times, I’m sure you’ve said it, I’ve heard it many times, and I just can’t wait to see you, I just can’t wait to be around you again. So I think that’s one of them. I think hiring is going to be you know, a pretty significant issue as hopefully that the economy surges, I hope that there’s a lot of employment opportunities, but that’s going to cause that’s going to cause some hardship. But I do believe pretty strongly in terms of, at least for fieldwork, you know, we do what we can to provide a great culture and pre pandemic, we spent a lot of time together, we spent a lot of time in internal meetings, breaking bread, sharing great ideas, having a lot of fun. And I just want to get, I want to get doing a getting back to that, because I just I feel like that’s such the glue that that that held us together. 

And if people want want to jump the ship, because of you know, a different offer, I always, you know, want to congratulate them because you can’t force people to want to stay, I really want to work with people that that want to be here. And like I said, that share a common vision. And I think the way that you involve people you share the why you communicate all the things that we’ve been talking about is how you you’re effective in that manner. And I think that there’s, you know, there’s always challenges, there’s always challenges, I can’t even imagine what the boardrooms of, of Walt Disney or, or, you know, the Las Vegas casino looks like when they were shutting the lights down back in, you know, March of 2020. Those are lots of very, very big decisions. But even the little choices, and the little decisions that you make, as leaders are, are very big, they can have a great impact.

Nicole: Yeah, I agree. And so I I’m kind of hearing you say that, you know, just, I think the first challenge leaders are going to have is like getting back to a new normal, like, like, there’s not gonna be back to normal, but there’s going to be back to a new normal and and then I love what she said she she said, don’t miss this, everybody, she said that we would have a collective vision. Like, it’s not just the leaders vision, but it’s like everybody’s in on it, right? We’re all contributing to it, and have it in common is understood. And I think that’s really what sets one leader apart from the other is that you could walk up to somebody on the team, and you could say, do you know where we’re going? 

Yes, in the next five years, we’re gonna accomplish this, this and this, and you know, the goals and you know, how your work is aligned with those goals that are out there. And it just all the puzzle pieces come together, right? We are talking about Disney, I just saw the greatest commercial I don’t know if anybody listening or if you’ve seen it, Sarah, but they’re using The Incredibles to talk about what an incredible time you can have at Walt Disney even though it’s the same message six feet apart, you know, and I’ve got the mom’s arm you know, way out in front six feet, you know, and, and they’re talking about wearing your mask and all of that, but you know, we can still have a sense of humor. 

And and we can still get to Disney, we can still get on the teacup ride or whatever. right time, if we just take on the challenges to right taking them on instead of being upset about them, I think it’s important. All right. So let’s say that there is a, this is my favorite question. I’ll end with this. You are mentoring a special listener right now. And you were like, you know, I’ve got good experience. And if I could leave you with one thing, this is the one thing I would tell you to think about for the rest of your career, this little piece of leadership advice, what would you tell to them?

Sarah: I think I would say, keep going. And it goes back to something that we talked about, you know, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re not going to always have even though you might feel full of passion, and this is the right thing to do. It may not. And I’ve always said that life is about two things. It’s about feeling and timing. Feelings and timing. And I just feel that, you know, sometimes our timing is not right. And so that doesn’t make you a bad leader. Doesn’t make you you know, it just you have to go back and recycle your ideas. We do that all the time. A lot of times we have great ideas, and the timing isn’t right. So my advice would be to keep going and when something doesn’t go your way to remember a great piece of advice that I’ve heard, which is you may never know what your bad luck has saved you from your worst luck. 

And I have definitely seen that happen in my career time and time again, you know, a big plan. We’ve been plotting, we’ve been planning we’ve been preparing, we’re so excited. And at the last minute, it doesn’t launch, it doesn’t work. And it’s such a drag. It’s just is such an emotional disappointment. And then you look back and you’re like, wow, I’m so glad that didn’t work out. So my piece of advice would be to keep going to keep trying. And just to be prepared to understand that there’s lots of different ways to do things, and maybe you’re going to try it. And if it doesn’t work, you’re going to try it again.

Nicole: That’s awesome piece of advice. Would you say the part again about your bad luck and your worst luck? Will you say that one more time for us.

Sarah: Sure. You never know how your bad luck has saved you from your worst luck.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. I love that. Yeah. So you know, there’s always the silver lining and the gray cloud or whatever, or you know, a problem or it could be a blessing. So I totally agree, you can tell that Sarah is a passionate spirited gal. And I am absolutely delighted that she joined us all the way from Chicago, Illinois, and you can check out the work that she does at and Sarah would it be okay, if we told everybody to check you out on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter? Would that be okay?

Sarah: I would love that. I’m definitely most active on LinkedIn. I’m a big fan of the digital transformation. So I would love to connect with anybody there.

Nicole: Okay, so you can find her at All right, everybody. It’s been an absolute delight to have you on the Vibrant Leadership Podcast. Sarah, you gave us great bits of wisdom. So everybody do this. Mirror what people are saying to you be an excellent listener, be somebody who is actually participating. Hello, get in the game, and then take risks. And always remember, it’s about feeling and timing. And just kind of be someone who’s diligent to keep on rolling. The bad could have saved you from the worst. Alright, Sarah, great to be with you. Thank you so much.

Sarah: Thank you, Nicole. It was great.

Voiceover: Ready to up your leadership game? Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her unique SHINE method to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Email Be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at

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