The game goes that you try to find six degrees of separation from Footloose legend Kevin Bacon. Any entertainer can eventually be linked to the actor in six moves. To anyone from the Great Plains region, the local version of the game can seem like overkill, with so many connections between any two people.
“Out here, it’s usually only about one degree,” jokes Sarah Nupdal, Fargo resident and Bell Bank senior vice president and banking legal manager. When Nupdal sat down to chat with another attorney at what would become her future employer, the two realized that the Bell attorney and Nupdal’s mother had attended middle school together.
The region may have a reputation for Midwestern nice, an utterly pleasant disposition and the downplaying of emotions, but during the interview the Bell attorney was uncharacteristically frank with Nupdal. “I had been working long weeks in private practice with a six-month-old at home,” she remembers. “He said he could tell that I was unhappy, and that, even though we’d just met, I belonged in-house at Bell.”
Nupdal may be early in her legal career, but she has found the perfect fit for her emphasis on culture, community involvement, and a vulnerable brand of leadership that made her a perfect addition to the local United Way’s “35 Under 35” leadership program.
Calling the Culture Bluff
While her introduction to Bell reads like a dream scenario, Nupdal was initially wary about making another career change. After leaving her federal clerkship with the encouragement of her judge mentor, she hadn’t yet found a place where she truly belonged, nor an organization where she had spent extensive time accumulating experience.
“I had been in private practice for less than a year, and so making another move was somewhat painful for me,” Nupdal explains. “I had spent a lot of my career up to that point questioning whether or not I was making the right decisions, but coming to Bell and being here the last five years has made me feel fortunate it happened this way and solidified my decision to take the risk.”
For Nupdal, it all comes down to the culture. “It’s hard to explain our culture, but that’s almost all you’re going to hear about from anyone that works here,” she says. “Your first instinct is to think that it has to be too good to be true—I wanted to experience it first-hand before I bought in.”
One of Bell’s defining differentiators, Nupdal says, is the bank’s commitment to the message that they preach. From community involvement to all the ways employees are taken care of, Bell’s culture commitment truly comes from the top-down—and Nupdal has the perfect example.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, employees were left scrambling finding a way to move their work home and were inundated, like the rest of the country, with headlines of unemployment and businesses going under. Bell employees received an email from Bell Bank president and CEO Michael Solberg with the board of directors copied on the message.
“It thanked us for our commitment during such a scary time,” Nupdal says. “And it gave all employees $1,000, just like that, for whatever it needed to be used for. They gave us another $1,000 to use in our Pay-It Forward program that allows us to go out in the community and support causes that are close to our hearts. Just imagine the uncertainty of that time and then receiving that email, it was incredible.”
Leading with Vulnerability
Nupdal says she has been able to evolve her own leadership in a way she’d never even thought of before, in part thanks to the resources she’s been given access to at Bell. “One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is the effectiveness of vulnerable leadership,” Nupdal explains. “It’s about being in the trenches with your people, whether that’s work or things they’re dealing with in their personal lives.”
In a company culture that so obviously commits to a family atmosphere, it makes sense for Bell to encourage this leadership style, but it’s not one that Nupdal was accustomed to. “Whether it was going to management school, minoring in business, or watching my parents run a business, this wasn’t something that was really on my radar,” she admits. “For a lot of years, it was work, work, work—asking someone about their weekend was taking away from the bottom line.”
The shift away from Nupdal’s comfort zone has been essential in developing a larger leadership perspective, she says. It also lends itself to her work priorities, which include finding the right cross-functional teams to deal with issues. When the job is bringing people together, vulnerability can go a long way.
Nupdal’s leadership has also extended into the larger Fargo community. She sits on the board for Bio Girls, a nonprofit whose mission is to raise the self-esteem of adolescent girls through empowerment of self and service to others. The lawyer also volunteers for the local United Way.
“I’ve learned some things in my thirties that I wish I’d known much earlier in life,” Nupdal says. “I just hope I can use my position to motivate future leaders and be a positive influence in their lives.”