PSS Winter '12

One Conversation at a Time

Getting Fierce with Susan Scott ’67

Susan Scott

Susan Scott ’67

by Belinda Littlefield ’11

A dialogue is a conversation in which two people enter in one state and emerge from it in a different state because they’ve been influenced by one another,” says Susan Scott ’67. The founder and CEO of Fierce, Inc., a global leadership development and training company, Scott has based her career around the idea that conversations drive individual and organizational success. “While no conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life,” Scott explains, “any single conversation can.”

The New York Times bestselling author of two books - Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership, Scott has spent the past 13 years leading CEO think tanks and teaching people around the world how to have what she calls ‘fierce conversations.’

“The next frontier for exponential growth for individuals and organizations, and the only sustainable competitive edge, lies in the area of human connectivity,” explains Scott, whose company, Fierce, Inc., teaches corporations and organizations how to have enriched conversations that lead to financial and personal success. Fierce, Inc. has worked globally with Fortune 1000 companies, including Ernst & Young, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, CARE and Crate & Barrel, in 18 countries.

Through her company and the principles set forth in her first book, Scott helps clients realize that we all suffer from some degree of alethophobia, an illogical fear of the truth. While not unreasonable, since, as Scott says, we have all seen some kind of backlash against those who speak forthrightly – a lost place at the table, a lost promotion or a lost relationship – Scott helps her clients to overcome this fear and engage in authentic conversations that address important issues without assigning blame, leading them to live successful lives.

Growing up in the 1960s, Scott could not have anticipated her current career. “When I grew up, I thought I had five career options: housewife, airline stewardess, secretary, nurse or teacher,” says Scott. “I wanted to be a high school teacher and became an English major at William Smith because I loved the subject matter and reading novels.”

Post-graduation, Scott worked for several years as a high school English teacher before moving to Seattle with her family in the late 1970s.

After working for several years as a headhunter and at an adult training organization, Scott began running leadership training sessions for TEC Worldwide, an international CEO-education and development organization. “It was an enormous switch and a little scary, but it appealed to me because I can only spend so much time in my comfort zone,” explains Scott. “I have a real lust for change.”

In her new role running think tanks, Scott engaged in more than 10,000 hours of conversations with CEOs and senior executives, helping them to facilitate better conversations, both within the think tank and in their own businesses. In the midst of working for TEC Worldwide, Scott had two epiphanies. The first, a result of a 1999 keynote speech by poet and Yorkshire business strategist David Whyte, proved that Scott is open to interrogating her own reality – a principle she would later outline in her first book.

“Whyte used the term ‘fierce conversations,’ and I loved those two words juxtaposed. It woke me up,” says Scott. “The next day I was scheduled to lead a training session for 16 international CEOs and that night, instead of going to the banquet, I sat in my hotel room, tore up the outline I’d been teaching from for years, and started all over.”

Scott’s second epiphany, which gave rise to the big idea that launched a bidding war among New York publishers for her book, happened while re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “A character is in a bar drinking with his friends and someone asks, ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ He responds, ‘Gradually and then suddenly,’” recalls Scott. “And when I read that I had a sudden insight: our careers, companies, relationships and, indeed, our very lives succeed or fail gradually and then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”

In addition to providing certified facilitators for hands-on training seminars, Fierce, Inc. also offers clients the opportunity to buy workshop materials they can use to teach their employees how to engage in the kinds of conversations that lead to success. Each of the workshops provides the tools necessary to facilitate enriched conversations. As a former high school teacher, Scott had long held the goal of getting the Fierce principles into the classroom, where they could really aid in the educational process. In 2002, the company started Fierce in the Schools (FITS), which provides students and teachers with the skills to enrich classroom engagement and make their conversations more meaningful and better aimed at achieving personal and professional success.

Today, Scott tours the world giving keynote addresses that highlight the methods that have brought success to multiple businesses during the past two decades. Among her most recent stops was a three-day visit at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she acted as the Centennial Center for Leadership’s Leader in Residence, meeting with groups from across campus as well as holding workshops for students, faculty and staff members.

Scott plans to continue giving keynote addresses to leaders and companies because, she says, “I love teaching. Anyone who teaches knows that they are the ones who learn the most. Our goal is to help change the world, one conversation at a time.”


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