Be consistent: Align your words and your actions. You can’t say one thing and do another; people are too keenly aware when they see this happening. Everything you do is noticed. A cognitive incongruency immediately registers when your words and actions aren’t aligned.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Brown, CEO of Exponential Results.
Karen Brown is the Founder and CEO of Exponential Results. She draws on 30 years of success as a corporate executive with over 20,000 hours of senior executive coaching experience. Years ago, Ms. Brown discovered the key to greater performance and effectiveness: identifying and addressing blind spots — the repeated thinking patterns that impede success. Using a professional coach and science-based methodologies of how our minds work, she busted through her own blind spots to achieve astounding results. Her discovery led to the creation of Exponential Results’ proprietary Power Pathways™ method, based in neuroscience.
Ms. Brown is also a focused athlete, having competed, as an amateur, in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and numerous ultra-marathon and triathlon events around the world. Ms. Brown is the author of Unlimiting Your Beliefs: 7 Keys to Greater Success in Your Personal and Professional Life (Morgan James Publish, 2018), endorsed by Brian Tracy. Ms. Brown has a B.S. in Applied Management from National American University, ICF Executive Leadership Coaching Certification, Master Practitioner of NLP and Behavioral Patterns from Association for Integrative Psychology.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I have two things to share, one professional and personal:
- I have undertaken a major expansion of my business. This has been a massive undertaking involving a name change, new website, expanding programs to meet current and future leadership needs and modifying my sales approach.
- On a personal note (pardon the pun), I am learning to play the electric guitar. Interestingly, it’s not something I’ve always wanted to do — it’s an idea that just came to me recently, out of the blue!
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
Some people might throw out the name of a corporate hotshot who’s been massively successful, either from a company that has literally changed the world (Netflix, Uber, PayPal, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, etc.), or from one that has been in the marketplace for a very long time (Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Pepsico, Berkshire Hathaway).
But since I’ve never worked for any of these companies, how could I possibly know anything about the capabilities of their leaders? Everything I see is from the outside looking in, which I’m not convinced is an accurate depiction.
The leader I have worked with (years ago) who has influenced me the most is Gary Keller, Founder and CEO of Keller Williams Realty, International. This is a $270-billion global real estate company that he founded on his own and has been guiding for 50 years. He has been tireless in his pursuit of mastery leadership.
The ways he influenced me were through both small and large concepts — all values-based — that came through in his actions. He has always put the agents in the company first, even though they are essentially contractors; in my mind, it’s even more challenging to influence them because they can choose to work for any company they want. I have many stories to share, but the concepts that influenced and stuck with me over decades include:
- Know your WHY. Build it into your purpose and never waver from it.
- Do the right thing, always.
- Win-win or no deal — nothing is worth someone else losing for your gain.
- The 80/20 rule — 80% of the results come from 20% of your actions.
- Do the hard thing first.
- Manage your time well and stick to your schedule — I have learned this repeatedly and refined it over the years because it is essential to successful leadership.
- Set clear expectations and don’t lower the bar for people to meet them. Instead, find people who want to rise up and meet the bar and support them in doing so.
- Be relentless tracking finances; get good at it after you master being good at people. Because if you’re not good at people, you’ll never have money to manage.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
Believe me, there’s a lot more than one; I’ve made tons of mistakes! The thing is, I don’t dwell on and keep an inventory of them, because it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. What is useful is identifying the learnings from your mistakes and incorporating them into your routine, right at that moment. In fact, that has been the biggest discovery, one at which I’ve become very proficient: quickly seeing the learnings from mistakes and rapidly absorbing and incorporating them.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I think masterful leadership is both a science and an art — it’s knowing how to blend the two together. A true leader can take the science of behavior and how our brains work, and apply it artfully, situationally, experientially, and heartfully in any situation. Back in the day, a leader was seen as someone who commands respect, inspires people to perform their best, and accepts ultimate responsibility for failure. In that respect, nothing has changed. What has changed is how those qualities manifest themselves. Today a true leader can command respect without degrading team members or demanding alignment; inspire without using fear; and use failure to learn and innovate without feeling like a failure themselves.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
I stopped believing that people must earn trust before it’s extended to them. This is an old axiom, and once I learned the science of how trust really works (read the book Trust-o-logy by Richard Fagerlin) and saw it in action over time, I stopped it right away and incorporated it with clients and teams.
The truth about trust, as the book clearly points out, is that it can’t be earned, it can only be given. We have to choose to give trust, and if we are waiting to see how our team member behaves before we give it, the relationship is already doomed. Trust is an essential building block of successful relationships and let’s be honest: to achieve anything as an executive leader, you are leveraging results through relationships.
This, to me, is the next frontier, which is known as Relationship Intelligence Quotient, or RQ. This builds on EQ and takes it to the next level for how things get done in companies. What is the level of team results, and how well does your team engage in healthy debate, superb decision-making, and productive conflict? These are all parts of RQ, and the work we do with teams.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
There are actually two: flexibility and not judging behavior. In recent years, I have seen that to be a masterful leader, one must learn to be flexible. You can’t continue to move forward if you just keep doing things the same way over and over. It’s this flexibility that enables us to see new things, as well as gain a new perspective on older things. By adopting new behaviors, we find how we can be most effective. But it all starts with the ability and the will to be flexible.
Not judging behavior means that you stop making assumptions about why someone is acting the way are, as well as what it means. Suspend judgment and think of it as just something that exists; behavior simply is. Then seek to understand by using curiosity and open-ended questions. Think like a scientist, seeking to understand all facets of the behavior, rather than judging so you can tell someone what to do, make a decision, or create a policy. You have to find out what’s underneath it to be effective.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
I would let them know that there is a different and better way; all they have to do is open their eyes to see what’s really going on and playing out, then be willing to change their patterns. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but it’s really how our brains work. It’s our ego that makes it hard to let go of what made us successful in the past.
I would also explain that what made them successful in the past may not work today simply because the world has undergone such mind-boggling change. Whether it’s technology, workplace interactions, skill sets, whatever — the fact is, if the world has changed so much, how can you expect to remain the same?
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Be inquisitive, not assuming. Don’t assume anything. It’s far better to ask questions and inquire about what’s going on. Our thoughts and assumptions about what’s going on and about other people are almost always wrong, because they are produced from our own life experiences and filters, not those of the other person.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?
I’m actually going to offer six, because I don’t believe that any of them can be excluded from the list:
- Self-awareness: This is number one because I see it as the difference between a mediocre leader and a masterful one. Great leaders have high self-awareness of their operating methods and are constantly pulling back the curtain of self-discovery to understand why they do what they do — and find better ways to do it. It’s in this self-discovery that we uncover behavioral blind spots (things we don’t even know we do until a mirror is held up), which is where the gold of transformation and realizing your full potential lies. Ask for feedback! If you are the boss, you will have to ask more than once, creating an environment where it is OK for critical feedback to be shared. And, once shared, you must do something about it.
- Transparency: Be real with others! This doesn’t mean you can be a complete jerk It does mean sharing real things about yourself, who you are, your hopes, dreams, worries, etc. We are all human, and a leadership legacy that must be jettisoned is to portray yourself as a robot or a machine. You work with humans, and you are one, too. Share human things about yourself.
- Working on yourself: This is critical in the quest to become the best you. Full disclosure: it’s a task that can never be completed; you’ll always be a work in progress. I’ve seen so many senior leaders who are guilty of thinking, “Well, I’m good now, I’ve arrived, it’s everyone else that needs work.” If you are expecting team members to develop and grow, you should too. Be an example for them. Lead them, starting with yourself!
- Be consistent: Align your words and your actions. You can’t say one thing and do another; people are too keenly aware when they see this happening. Everything you do is noticed. A cognitive incongruency immediately registers when your words and actions aren’t aligned.
- Speak kind truths: This is a biggie! Speaking kind truths means speaking the truth but in a kind way. Yes, this means you can be direct, but use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. Your words will land much better and actually be heard, whereas “you” statements sound accusatory and will prompt defensiveness. This doesn’t come naturally and takes practice, so work with a professional coach on this.
- Navigate conflict productively: Unproductive conflict at work in senior leadership costs approximately $535 billion annually. That’s because leaders aren’t naturally good at this — it is a learned skill. You have to understand how conflict works and that each person has a specific conflict sequence they unconsciously deploy to try and resolve an issue. Once you see these sequences, it becomes easier to navigate, but that’s only half of the equation. The other half is learning how to “language” conflict to wade into and de-escalate situations to get to a productive place.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
For me, making each day my masterpiece is about doing something that advances my vision and mission, regardless of whether it’s something big or small. When I’ve done that each day, I consider it a masterpiece, because I am progressing, rather than standing still or simply getting things done. It makes an enormous difference in so many ways: physically, professionally, and emotionally.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I’d like to be known as someone who was able to pioneer the use of neuroscience techniques to enhance leadership development. I want people to understand that maximizing leadership potential is not simply a trial-and-error proposition. It is grounded in solid science through which we can understand exactly how our brains work.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
They can follow me on my LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/karenbrown/. They can also check out my new website at https://yourexponentialresults.com/, where I have contact information for them to reach me personally.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!