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Top 20 Training

Willow Sweeney Flaherty
Top 20 Training

Class of 2015

By Vicki Ikeogu

Originally published: January 3, 2016

Sometimes you just have to take that leap. And for Willow Sweeney Flaherty, that monumental jump came in 2006.

A high school social studies teacher at St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall, Sweeney Flaherty left her position to educate teachers and students on social and emotional intelligence. It was something she and her business partners Paul Bernabei and Tom Cody had been working on for over five years. (Later, a fourth partner, Kevin Brennan, joined them.)

The group's vision to help kids navigate the world of basic human interaction soon garnered national attention. With the development of Top 20 Training, the  business partners became authors, speakers and mentors on how to engage with others and develop a positive outlook on life.

Sweeney Flaherty works out of her St. Cloud home, devoting attention to a career that started with weekend and summer events.

"When you are a full-time teacher, it's really hard to be involved in professional development because your in-service days are their in-service days. And so I didn't go full time speaking until 2006."

Since leaving Cretin-Derham Hall, Sweeney Flaherty and her business partners have found themselves returning to the classroom, teaching educators about the importance of developing social and emotional intelligence in not only themselves, but in their students as well.

In addition to numerous speaking engagements in Central Minnesota, Sweeney Flaherty has also found time to be heavily involved in GREAT Theatre productions, including her role as Mrs. Brill in this month's production of "Mary Poppins."

With the work Sweeney Flaherty has done in challenging conventional forms of intelligence and her work with the local arts community, she has been selected for the 5 Under 40 Class of 2015. Sweeney Flaherty talks about her career in this interview:

Question: Can you describe that moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to pursue public speaking?

Answer: I remember exactly where I was. Tom and I were in Boston. And we had what I would call a big room, more than 200 people in a room. And once we started and they started receiving the content, it started to resonate with them. And they started to laugh and they started to engage. There’s something about the look in people’s eyes when they are with you. I knew that second I just wanted to do that forever. Because it meant something to them. It was really working. It was effective.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of your career so far?

A: Traveling. And that’s because I am a mom. There are times when I feel really pulled. Because my career brings me places and lets me do things that I never thought I would be able to do. And we’ve been able to, as a company, reach a level that I never knew we would be able to reach. And at the same time, my heart and soul lives on the south side of St. Cloud. So when my job is negative, and it’s rarely negative, it’s usually about the fact that I’ve been on the road two days and I want to be home.

Q: Why do you feel that your personal style of motivational speaking resonates with so many people?

Motivational public speaker Willow Sweeney Flaherty talks Friday, Dec. 12 at the St. Cloud Country Club where she volunteers. (Photo: Kimm Anderson,

A: I’ve never been afraid to bring humor to professional development. I think that I am a little bit of an open book, meaning that I always tell stories from my real life. I’m honest. I guess I’m, in that way, vulnerable. That was my grandma’s big lesson for me growing up. I had this fantastically over-the-top wonderful grandma and she taught us how to authentically be yourself and unapologetically. You don’t apologize for being authentically who you are. You are who you are. And I think I do that on stage very well. I also always do dramatizations when I work, which is right up my alley of the theater stuff.

Q: What sort of impact are you striving to leave on workers and teachers, particularly in Central Minnesota?

A: That the effectiveness of teaching and learning comes from the wholeness of the people involved. So administrators and teachers and students and parents are as healthy on the inside as they possibly could be. That could make all the difference in the world. Academics are important and skill sets are important and assessment is important, but they’re not at all as important as the inner lives of the teachers and the parents and the kids. And we have to honor that. In a new way. And so if there’s a stamp to leave in this community, I want that for us. I want that for our kids. I want that for my kids.

Q: What advice would you give to other professionals, especially to young professionals who are starting out on their career journey?

A: Surround yourself with people who will only make you better. And you’ll know who they are. But if you have a dream about doing something and you could put a lot of hard work into it, and you can surround yourself with people who will teach you and show you and call you out on your stuff when you need to be called out, I think you do anything that you want.

About Willow Sweeney Flaherty

Occupation: Co-owner of Top 20 Training, author and public speaker.

Age: 39.

Family: Husband Brian Flaherty; sons Cooper, 9 and Barrett, 6.

Education: Bachelor's degree in secondary education with an emphasis in social studies from University of St. Thomas.

Community involvement: Several productions with GREAT Theatre including the "Wizard of Oz," "Frosty the Snowman," Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and "Mary Poppins"; social committee member of the St. Cloud Country Club.

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