Sarah Phelps with her dog, Kaana, named after a trip to Kaanapali Beach in Maui, Hawaii.
Sarah Phelps with her dog, Kaana, named after a trip to Kaanapali Beach in Maui, Hawaii.
Inside the Stagecoach
March 22, 2022

Sarah Phelps: ‘We do everything we can to ensure our customers have a fantastic experience’

A Q&A with Sarah Phelps, a multifaceted leader for Wells Fargo Consumer Lending whose team’s programs have been recognized as top in the country.

I sat down with Sarah Phelps, head of Loyalty Solutions for Wells Fargo Consumer Lending, to learn what leadership means to her, her advice for a successful career at Wells Fargo, and why she’s passionate about rewarding customers.

Q: How would you describe your role?

My job is to, through partnerships and other avenues, provide rewards and value back to the customer. The team I lead focuses on a customer’s digital experience, evolving our programs and doing a lot of great things for customers. If you have a Wells Fargo credit card and you get cash back or reserve a flight, my team and I helped make all of that happen. We do everything we can to ensure our customers have a fantastic experience. That’s what we’re gunning for, and we’re constantly and rapidly evolving to keep pace with, and try to exceed, customer expectations.

Q: Understanding no two days are alike, can you piece together a typical day?

My typical day includes a series of meetings to ensure everyone is aligned and we’re all moving in the same direction. Meetings and communications are of primary importance, and then, because nothing ever goes as planned, in any given day there’s a situation or a problem that arises that I immerse myself into to help resolve. Today it’s ensuring that customers are clear on where they stand on their rewards bonus. On any given day, my role is really to make sure that my team is in sync with all of the surrounding support areas. I spend a lot of time on the phone, collaborating and communicating with key stakeholders to ensure they’re getting the support they need and my team is receiving the support they need while maintaining momentum.

Q: You manage about 50 people. What do you find the most challenging part of managing a large team?

Flexing your management style in the moment to ensure that every team member can be successful. It’s a good manager’s job to ensure that people can perform at their best. The most important thing a manager can do in a large team is get people the support and guidance they need to succeed. It’s certainly not easy and requires the manager to read the situation, constantly pivoting and changing their style.

Q: What are three skill sets or qualities you think make a strong leader?
  1. You have to seek a basic understanding of how things work. Your leadership effectiveness is greater if you know the difference between what’s easy and what’s hard, what’s possible and not possible, so that you can direct your team to achievable outcomes and then how to measure those outcomes.
  2. The next thing is a natural level of curiosity. One of the first jobs I had was as a legal assistant. They put me in a room with something like 50 boxes of paper representing the assets of 11 TV systems, and my job was to organize those documents into file cabinets. Now, I had just graduated from college and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. What I did in organizing those materials was to figure out the difference between the different contract types, and by understanding that, I became invaluable as those transactions progressed. Because of the way I showed up, the lawyers started requesting my help on future transactions, so that natural inquisitiveness led to career growth, which then evolved into me getting an MBA, then going into consulting, then leading a team.
  3. The third skill that is critical for a career at a large company like Wells Fargo is strong communication skills, both verbal and written. People can underinvest in communications and then wonder why they have trouble garnering support for key initiatives or keeping the full range of stakeholders moving in the same direction.
Q: What is something about you that people may find surprising?

I follow politics like some people follow football; it just fascinates me. I watch movements in culture and how it impacts elections. I follow the primaries and the elections: how politicians position themselves, what groups they’re trying to draw in with various statements, and things like that. In the same way that movies have skilled writers, I see the same strategic positioning in our political process and enjoy watching this real-life game of chess. It’s a passion.

Q: Answer the following with the first thing that pops into your head:

What motivates you and what inspires you?

What motivates me the most is seeing – and creating – progress. I love to set goals, finish things off, and put them behind me. What inspires me is looking at the current situation, looking forward and knowing where we could be. What also inspires me is the way that my team shows up every day.

What is a book you wish you’d written?

The book I wish I had written is Tuesdays with Maury, because it passionately shows an appreciation of life. Maury the professor was an enviable character — not due to his experience with cancer, but in the way he realized that there are beautiful moments in life, and we need to appreciate these to live fully every day. The most recent book I read is The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson, about Churchill’s leadership. It places you in the U.K. in the early stages of WWII and the difficult decisions he had to make to lead his country through this period.

If you were to work in a different department or industry, what would that be?

Financial education — and maybe this will be something that I pursue in retirement. I would dedicate more time to making sure people understand financial management and savings: what loans are, how they work, how to manage money and debt, etc. I would love to help people with upward mobility through better financial management.

What has brought you joy in the last year?

We joined a wine club that delivers Napa to our doorstep, we have had more time with our dog outside, and we have had more opportunities with our kids, who are going through bold milestones as they pursue college applications and assessments.

Where are you signing off from?

Outside my window, our birdfeeder lets me see different birds and animal activity on the lake behind our home during the day. If I’m lucky, there’s a chipmunk – or even a toad – in the pool, which is kind of entertaining, too. Overlooking Lake Norman, it’s like a scene from National Geographic in my backyard.