It happens all the time.
I introduce myself in a social setting and share my name. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately, no. Here’s how the exchange usually goes:
“Hi, I’m Sara Canaday.”
“It’s Canaday with a C.”
“Are you from Canada?” (usually accompanied by a chuckle and a wink)
“Well, no. But it’s spelled like Canada with a Y on the end.”
If I throw my maiden name into the mix—Navarro—I get more interesting questions. Especially since that name is now synonymous with a popular Netflix series called “Cheer.” For those who haven’t heard about this docuseries, it follows the nationally ranked, 40-member Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team from Corsicana, Texas. And no, I don’t know anyone from Navarro College.
For better or worse, our names make a statement about us. In fact, one of my colleagues recently suggested that I change the name on my website and marketing materials to be Sara Navarro instead of Sara Canaday. Why, you ask? To reveal my diversity and be more appealing to organizations looking to hire a minority keynote speaker. I got the gist of her idea but, frankly, that strategy rang hollow for me.
Despite what many think, audiences in the leadership space (and in general) don’t necessarily want the “token” minority speaker—a woman, Hispanic, African American, Asian, you name it. What they want is a speaker who understands them and can connect to their career challenges and vision. Someone who recognizes that, despite all of our different backgrounds and experiences, many of us want the same sense of satisfaction from our work.
The most effective keynote speakers offer timely, valuable, and readily usable strategies that audience members can use to rediscover the meaning that comes with igniting fires, not just constantly putting them out. They provide the tools to help leaders get traction on their individual goals and support others to reach theirs.
To find that kind of value-added speaker, organizations have to look beyond a name.
Like others, my ability to inspire audiences and move them to positive action has nothing to do with my last name or the color of my skin, hair and eyes. Audiences are much more interested in my unique but relatable stories, expertise and perspectives. Clients are more concerned with how I connect with my audiences and if I’m willing to be fully present with those I serve. Decision makers are more interested in whether my advice is relevant and helpful.
This was never more evident to me than when an audience member at a recent event approached me after my presentation. He told me that my message really resonated with him, and he realized he’d been undervaluing his own perspectives. He’d always assumed that other people wouldn’t understand his “story” or, worse yet, wouldn’t be interested.
“You’ve helped me see that some of my experiences and challenges are unique, but I generally want the same things as my colleagues when it comes to my impact as a leader,” he explained. “We all want to take back control of what gets our time and attention so we can better serve our teams and play a bigger role in the company’s evolution. Thanks for helping all of us see that—and for giving us ways to put that into practice.”
That’s the big take-away here. As a current or aspiring leader in any industry, your contributions aren’t defined by your name. Instead, they are created by the unique perspectives you provide that add genuine value for your team and your organization.
Do you agree? I’d love to hear how you’ve used your unique story to influence, engage and connect with others at work.
Sara Canaday is a leadership keynote speaker, consultant, and award-winning author who arms leaders with the strategies and practices they need to move from informed to influential, from doer to driver and from manager to leader.