To honor Black History Month this February, Noodle is celebrating a number of our Black colleagues in a series of “Profiles in Diversity.” We are incredibly grateful to our colleagues who have shared their stories with us here. We hope they inspire you like they inspire us.
Sonya Spann leads us in Noodle’s mission to lower the cost of education, enrich our culture, and catalyze change in higher education. Sonya has spent nearly a decade partnering with domestic and global foundations, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions to extend their brands into the digital space through multi-channel marketing, advertising, and fundraising initiatives. She has also led small teams through the product development life cycle as a consultant with a focus in user research and user experience strategy. In her role as Director of Operations at Noodle, Sonya partners internally across all functional business areas to support the launch and ongoing functioning of our online programs on a regional level. She believes that technology used ethically is a key to providing equitable access to education.
Meet Director of Operations Sonya Spann
“If we are all defining success in the same way and everyone knows what role they play, we can all be moving in the same direction and be better positioned to set each other up for success.”
What elements or traits does a great leader exhibit? In other words, what makes a leader great?
The baseline for great leadership is integrity and passion for the work, but on a deeper level, trust is integral. Leaders need to trust their judgement and that of their teams, but also seek to verify and validate. They should also commit to continuously improving, or Kaizen. You can’t reach perfection, but you can always improve by sharpening your skills and encouraging/supporting opportunities for your team members to improve, too.
When you think of great leadership, who comes to mind? Why?
The first name that comes to mind is Maya Angelou. I think about her journey, about the history of her life. The way she trusted in her own abilities and constantly worked to get better. You start where you are, build your skills and eventually you will improve. Maya is someone I studied as an English Literature major, and I still look to her writing, interviews, etc., for inspiration, and ways to express some of life’s intangible things. A quote of the many from her that resonate with me is “When you know better, you do better.” She embodied that.
How has your personal leadership style evolved over time?
For a long time, I was very type A and quite rigid. I thought that I had to be at the tip of the arrow to achieve anything. Over time, I’ve learned to trust the process more, and focus on the aligning of goals. If we are all defining success in the same way and everyone knows what role they play, we can all be moving in the same direction and be better positioned to set each other up for success. It all begins with alignment, though.
What is it about your background or career experiences that successfully positioned you for your role at Noodle?
No matter the industry or stage in my career, education has always been the through line. I started out working in public schools in East Harlem as an assistant literacy coach and I managed an after school program that was designed to improve student retention. After that I transitioned into corporate event planning, an experience that first exposed me to online education, when personal technology and social media were just beginning to explode.
I later worked for a non-profit dedicated to developing creative approaches to meeting the complex challenges faced by foster children and the system that serves them, primarily by providing supplemental educational opportunities and support services to social workers. Immediately preceding my work here at Noodle, I joined an agency where most of my clients were non-profit organizations or higher education institutions, and I got a lot of experience managing client relationships, vendors, and a small team of creatives. All these experiences have allowed me to collect and hone many of the skills I use regularly in my current role.
How do you build momentum as a leader among diverse stakeholders at Noodle?
I build momentum through consistency, genuine enthusiasm, and communication. When you’re genuinely excited, it shows. I think people respond well to and trust people who demonstrate discipline and are consistent.
How do you support the success of your team?
Day to day, some of the ways I support the success of my team include operationalizing requests, acting as a sounding board and thought partner, helping to streamline communication between partners and internal workstreams, making sure team members have the information they need to deliver for our partners.
Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places, or experiences.
Exposure to diverse people, places and experiences helped broaden my perspective, and that invites a deeper understanding and leads to better discernment. The author Zora Neale Hurston said, “You have to go there to know there.” And it’s true, but not just in a literal sense. Over the years, I’ve learned that you get to “go there” by learning from people with varied backgrounds. The relationships you make provide a broader understanding of how things work. It’s impossible to physically be everywhere but having the skills to access a diverse group of people makes it so.
What are some of the most effective tools in your leadership arsenal?
For myself, I rely on movement (exercise, jogging, or dance), any type of physical activity where I can focus for a sustained amount of time to help balance my energy and feel more connected to my body. The more connected I feel to my physical self, the stronger my intuition and ability to focus and the better my decision making.
Tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.
For the past four years, I’ve made it a ritual to go tandem skydiving in the Fall. It helps reorient and bring me back to an awareness and understanding that you can choose peace during something as terrifying and chaotic as falling out of a plane with a stranger you are trusting to help you land safely.