Last year, I wrote about the lessons Sesame Street can teach us about the ways we communicate at work. There’s great leadership advice from Elmo, Grover, Big Bird and more of the inspiring cast. This year, I’m sharing wisdom from the leader of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street. This is my conversation with Sherrie Westin.
In This Edition
📖 Telling mission-driven stories
💕 Helping us all grow smarter, stronger and kinder
🎤 Crafting leadership communications
Sherrie Westin is President of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street. Westin leads the organization’s efforts to serve vulnerable children through mass media and targeted initiatives in the United States and around the world. She serves as Sesame Workshop’s chief mission ambassador, raising awareness, developing strategic partnerships, and cultivating philanthropic support to further the Workshop’s mission to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.
Westin spearheaded a partnership with the International Rescue Committee to bring critical early education to children in the Syrian response region, which was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s first-ever $100 million grant, creating the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response. This work has expanded to reach children affected by crisis in Bangladesh, East Africa, Latin America, and how those who have been forcibly displaced from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Westin has held leadership positions in media, nonprofit, and public service. She was Assistant to the President for Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs for President George H.W. Bush, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and held senior positions at the ABC Television Network and U.S. News & World Report.
Westin was named a “Leading Global Thinker” by Foreign Policy Magazine, one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business”, was also recognized with the Smithsonian’s “American Ingenuity Award” and The Thomas Jefferson Medal for Citizen Leadership. A staunch advocate for addressing children’s needs, she regularly appears on major media outlets to highlight the value of investing in early childhood development, especially for the most vulnerable children.
Westin is Chair of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research and innovation lab named for Sesame Street’s founder, and serves on the boards of directors of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, Communities in Schools, and Vital Voices Global Partnership. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council, and the Early Childhood Peace Consortium Advisory Board.
Westin is a graduate of the University of Virginia and holds an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia College in New York.
In your role focused on social impact and philanthropy, what are a few of the projects you are most proud of accomplishing?
As I look back at my time at Sesame Workshop, there are so many powerful projects to highlight. I’ll share three of them that really stand out over the years. When I first arrived, I worked to bring Kami to life, the first HIV-positive Muppet in South Africa, who was created at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to break down the stigma and culture of silence surrounding the disease. More recently I'm very proud of helping to launch our “See Amazing in All Children” initiative with Julia, the first-ever Muppet with autism.
Third, of course, winning the MacArthur Foundation’s “100&Change” award was such an honor. This $100 million gift meant a lot to us as a nonprofit organization. It was incredibly validating because it enabled us to launch the largest early childhood development initiative in the history of the humanitarian response to address the Syrian refugee crisis. It is so important to reach young children displaced by conflict. This award made it possible.
You served as Chief Marketing Officer for many years. How did you help share Sesame Street's story with the world?
We have incredible storytellers at Sesame! I’ve always felt strongly that if people understood the depth and breadth of our work, it would give them a much richer understanding and appreciation of what makes us unique.
People who love Sesame Street often think of it as the iconic television show alone. But, many people may not know that we're a nonprofit educational organization and we measure our success by the impact we have on children, not by our return to shareholders.
I also believe it’s important to show how we work all around the world, especially in developing countries to reach particularly vulnerable children. Whenever we had an opportunity to highlight those initiatives, it would help add a halo to our brand because you could have a deeper understanding of the impact of our work.
Finally, by tapping into the relevance of timely issues, we are addressing them today and talking to children about them. We’re also very clever with pop culture by engaging musicians and celebrities to help keep us contemporary and relatable.
What are the lessons we can learn from Sesame Street and apply to the world of work?
Our mission is to help children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. We have always focused on a whole child curriculum — not only the academic basics, but the social and emotional skills children need to thrive.
By smarter, we mean the academic skills, such as literacy and numeracy. Stronger is about resilience, health, and not being discouraged if you fail. Finally, kinder is focused on empathy and understanding our differences. These are the most powerful lessons one can hope for as an adult or child.
Over the years, there are many powerful lessons that have helped bring this to life. Mr. Hooper’s death was one of those moments. We helped children understand Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back. We’ve had storylines that help children overcome challenges. For instance, introducing our Sesame Muppets to Julia, who has autism, and explaining that just because she doesn’t look you in the eye, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to be your friend. There are many lessons of acceptance, understanding differences, and coping.
Our teaching is always done with a sense of community — Sesame Street is coming together to help one another. I’ll never forget when then-President Obama taped a video message for our 40th-anniversary gala. He delivered a message just like what you wrote in your article:
“There are many adults who could stand to learn again the lessons that Sesame Street offers — lessons of compassion and kindness and respect for our differences.”
How do you keep your team informed internally of the impact you are making?
We strive to share outcomes, celebrate new initiatives, and discuss research on our learnings with our team. By discussing this internally, we keep people engaged, excited, informed, and proud. It is so important that our people are really proud to work at Sesame — they feel good about contributing to our efforts to make a difference in the world given all the challenges today
When the pandemic hit, we really worked hard on internal communications to make sure we knew how everybody was doing and that we were connecting with them often. Our CEO sent daily emails called “The State of the Street,” which were essential at the time. We learned just how critically important internal communications are to organizations, and as we enter a hybrid working world, we’re bringing this philosophy with us.
Sesame Street focuses on learning. What are the resources that help you continue learning and growing?
We have partners on the ground who we learn from an enormous amount, so I follow their latest reports, newsletters, and announcements. There are also many convenings that talk about the importance of early childhood development that I attend.
Personally, I'm very interested in growing as an empathetic leader, and I seek opportunities for inspiration and reflection. I also mentor young women from around the world through a program called Vital Voices, and I always learn more from them than they could possibly learn from me!
What is your communication style as a leader?
I always think my staff should answer this question, but I believe my communication style is personal and direct. I’m empathetic and interested because I care deeply about the people I work with. During Covid, we have learned to reach out more often to check on how others are doing—without prying, and making sure they feel really comfortable sharing. It’s important to check in on my team.
I pride myself on communicating when something is fantastic. But, it’s also important to be transparent. Today, I’m more effective at communicating opportunities where there’s room for growth. That’s easier to do when people know that you are really invested in their success as I am in my team, and especially my direct reports. I want it to be clear why I'm sharing constructive feedback. With my experiences over the years, I hope to share what I’ve learned to help others grow as well.
Fast forward to the future — what do you think communications at work will look like?
There is so much content, and it is impossible to absorb it all. I just recently read Smart Brevity by Mike Allen who founded Axios. I’ve rewritten a lot since reading this book. We're going to have to figure out how to cut through the clutter even more and how to communicate with brevity so that what’s most important is shared first and then you have the opportunity to go deeper.
When you think about how we write emails, the information is often buried at the bottom. Communications is going to be more direct, brief, and mindful of all of the things that people are juggling and consuming — whether that’s external or internal.
🖤 In Tribute
I want to take a moment to remember Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creator Sesame Street. He passed away at 93 years old. Sesame Workshop shared this sad news on Monday. Learn about his legacy here.
Will we see you at our first workshop on Jan.31st? Register for the event: Define Your Values.
Thank you for reading The Switchboard. ☎️ Every edition is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. Learn more about why I write. Review the Index of past posts.
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Such an impressive interview--and woman! I love that Sesame Street has added an autistic muppet. Nicely done, Julia!
Wonderful interview, Julia!