LDI 25th Anniversary Leadership Insights: Sarah Norton

  • Above all else, what do you believe is one key characteristic that makes a successful leader? I believe a leader should exhibit consistent behavior every day – your team cannot perform well if they don’t know “which Sarah” is going to be at work that day.
  • How do you apply this in your daily life as a leader in the workplace? Even though it is more difficult some days than others, I think it is very important to be even-tempered and approachable every day. That is not to say that a leader shouldn’t be firm when expectations are not met – but extreme mood swings keep everyone off balance.
  • How do you keep morale high and spark inspiration among your teams? I think it is important to thank people for the work they do and to ask them questions and truly listen to what they have to say. It’s important not to cut them off or appear distracted when they are providing information to you. They need to know that they matter, are important to the successful operation of the team and that you appreciate their work.
  • Tell me about a mentor who shaped your leadership? While I was working as a labor & employment attorney for Hilton Hotels, our General Counsel was my mentor. She taught me many valuable lessons that have served me well. I appreciated the time she took with me to when she had such a busy schedule of her own.
  • What values are most important to you as a leader? Honesty, hard work, and empathy.
  • What is a leadership lesson that you’ve discovered throughout your career that you wish you could have learned sooner? No matter how busy or crazy things get –try to remain calm. My mentor would say: “Never let them see you sweat!”
  • If you could tell your 20-year-old-self one thing, what would it be? Not to try and please everyone and learn that it is OK to say “no”
  • What advice would you give to professionals who are stepping into the leadership space? To learn something about about each of your employees
  • Leadership extends far past the professional landscape at work, but into the broader Memphis community. Why do you believe it is crucial to make time to serve in other ways in the 901? (Can include how you serve—other boards? Volunteering? Mentoring?) It is crucial to our city and it’s future to provide our time and talent where we can – if we don’t – Memphis will not become the best it can be. So many of us are blessed with education and skills that we can share with others – just as others have shared with us to help us achieve whatever we have achieved so far. I serve on the Regional One Foundation Board, Theatre Memphis Board – and most recently served for 5 years on the Memphis Area Legal Services Board.
  • Tell me about a time where you felt most challenged in your leadership? How did you rise above? When I was designated as the legal, subject matter expert in an area that had previously handled by males in this organization. It was a struggle to find my footing and gain credibility with this team – but persistence and not coming on too-strong seemed to have paid off. Also, I tried to show them my value and not be too sensitive when they left me out of critical decision-making and might come to me as an afterthought. Over time, this dynamic changed and I was thought of as one of the team and was able to lead in my area.
  • Why do you choose to lead in Memphis? I believe in our city and know that it will not be a place where young people will choose to return and raise families if we do not get control of some of our issues. I want to see Memphis grow – and be a place where others want to come here to live – and not a place where we can’t attract top talent to join us in our mission!
  • Leadership can oftentimes feel lonely, but it shouldn’t be. How do you believe leaders can best navigate and address this pressing issue? Seek out others who may be struggling with these same issues; invite a group for lunch to discuss – this is a great way to share ideas and get new approaches that may be successful in your role.
  • Share with us your biggest takeaway from your LDI experience and how would you convince another leader to take part in the program? LDI changed my “career life” – even though I was very seasoned in my career. I learned that I do have something valuable to add and that I had earned a seat at the table. I learned that I was harder on myself than anyone else was – and often expected too much from myself and others, too. The feedback I received from my peers via the 360 Feedback was invaluable – and to this day – I still pull that out on an annual basis and make sure that I do not fall back into old habits that were not healthy. I highly recommend this program and I share my positive experience with anyone who will listen!
  • The road to being a leader isn’t only paved with success, but a lot of trial and error. How do you adjust your next steps to combat failure? I try to have contingency plans now – having options is somehow liberating. If one approach isn’t successful – I am not stuck scrambling for a Plan B or C – I try to have those thought through in advance. Inevitably, there will be failures – and I just have to remember that if I am not failing or falling short sometimes – I am probably not working hard enough!
  • What is your hope for the future of Memphis? To be a top choice for individuals to live, work and even retire – because it is a safe place to live, job opportunities, excellent educational opportunities, state-of-the-art health care and medical facilities and a vibrant center for cultural offerings including music, dance, art, etc.
  • What has been your great accomplishment in your career or what are you most proud of in your career? Getting my law degree and passing the bar exam at the age of 30 – after having worked for about 5 years in a different area. It’s tough to quit your job and go back to school after being out of college and working for a while. But, I had a burning desire to get my law degree and to become a labor and employment lawyer – so I’m very proud of that accomplishment – and I am grateful to the people who helped me along the way.


Sarah Norton is Chief Counsel, Labor & Employment Law for International Paper, where she focuses on legal issues arising from the employment relationship including discrimination, workplace harassment, wage & hour, family medical and disability leave management and wrongful discharge. In addition, she provides legal counsel for all aspects of labor law, including collective bargaining, strikes, and NLRB charges. Sarah’s legal work also incudes providing counsel on employment issues arising in mergers and acquisitions and she frequently presents training on a variety of labor and employment law topics. Prior to joining International Paper, Sarah was Vice President and Senior Counsel for Labor and Employment for Hilton Hotels, where she was head of the labor & employment law practice group.

Sarah received her B.B.A. degree in business, with a concentration in Human Resources, from the University of Memphis and received her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Memphis - Cecil C. Humphrey’s School of Law in 1990. Prior to practicing law, she worked in the human resources field in both the hotel and healthcare industries.

Sarah serves on the Board of Directors and as Board Secretary for Regional One Foundation, is a member of the Board of Directors for the Counsel for Labor Law Equality, is Past President and a current Executive Board Member for Theatre Memphis and she provides pro bono work for Memphis Area Legal Services and is active with the Tennessee Access to Justice organization. She is a member of the American, Tennessee and Memphis Bar Associations and has served as Chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section. In 2013, Sarah was named a Fellow of the Memphis Bar Foundation.

Sarah has been married for 38 years to her husband, Dennis, and they have one daughter, Catherine Norton Simpson (Embark graduate, 2021). On January 3, 2022, Catherine and her husband made Sarah a joy-filled, first-time grandmother after the birth of their baby daughter, Natalie.


Posted by Anna Thompson at 13:13