Understand that when you set those high expectations there is a chance you might not achieve the fullness of the outcomes that you are hoping for. To me, if you set the aspiration high and prepare yourself for the worst, then you have the ability to recover more quickly and that recovery period is the most important thing.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing KC Estenson.
KC is the CEO of GoNoodle. GoNoodle is a fast-growing, media, and technology company committed to creating joy, health, and self-discovery in elementary-aged kids (and the adults in their lives). The company makes videos and games that get kids up and moving and developing their wellness, mental health, equanimity, and resilience. Prior to joining GoNoodle, KC ran CNN Digital worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I got started as a highschool teacher when I came out of college for three years. Being a teacher was some of the most rewarding work of my life, but I also realized what a financial struggle that can be. I went to grad school and was lucky enough to work for a few awesome companies like Walt Disney as a manager in their corporate strategy department. Gradually, I worked my way up spending 10 years there which then transitioned me into running CNN’s digital business globally. Throughout my time there I built all of the apps for iPhone, Android, and launched all of the social media presence across all platforms. I helped drive the organization through a lot of digital change in the mid 2000’s.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During my time at Disney, we acquired Pixar, and Steve Jobs became the largest shareholder of the Walt Disney Company. I was working for Ann Sweeney at the time who ran the television business at Disney and one day she came into my office and asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which would be the first NDA I had ever signed and was very unusual. The NDA was between Disney and Apple, Ann was there with Bob Iger and Steve Jobs and they showed us the very first video iPod. The idea that was put forth was if we could put TV shows/videos in the Apple Store to be purchased. At this point the only thing you could stream was music you couldn’t download or stream videos at all, the hardware and capabilities weren’t there, but Steve and the Apple team had solved a lot of the hardware problems. Over the course of the next five days we worked together to set the terms, technology, and process for putting TV shows/videos into the iTunes store.
It was a watershed moment for the media and showed Steve’s visionary status but also Bob Iger and Ann Sweeney really embraced that idea and encouraged us to be able to make shows available on the internet.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
GoNoodle is a one-of-a-kind company, it’s rare you get to work in a company that is genuinely set out to do good in this world. At its core, GoNoodle creates videos, games, and activities for kids and the adults they love built to discover the best in themselves, learn basic skills like movement and mindfulness, and bring holistic balance into their lives at the earliest age, when they are trying to learn their ABCs and 123s but also build some of the intangible skills that will help them as adults.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I mentioned Ann Sweeney earlier and I really consider her to be my first professional mentor. She was a visionary in her own right. She was the highest ranking woman at Disney at the time and what I learned from her was the ability to look around the corner that others might not be able to see and to move an organization in that direction. And, I also learned how difficult it is at the top of an organization. At that point in my career I had more hubris and belief that if you are smart and ambitious — you can do anything. What I learned is that by the time the decisions get to the very top of the company, a lot of really smart people have worked on those problems. And, as a result there are really no easy decisions at the time, because these really smart people have already tried to solve them, and haven’t been able to get to an agreement on the right path forward. So, nearly every decision you are facing as a leader is a hard one and one that doesn’t have a clear and easy answer. Being in my late 20s at that point and seeing the magnitude of those decisions and how difficult those problems were and how gracefully she handled those was something that I’ll never forget.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I think the analog to resilience is risk and sometimes there are risks you take and sometimes there are environmental risks — risks that come at you because of the nature of the work you are doing, the problems you are trying to solve, the people you are working with , etc. etc. Every path to growth and success is about taking risks, personally or professionally or otherwise. To me, the first thing is getting comfortable with taking risks and knowing that if you take those risks, no matter the consequences, it will always work out as it should in the end. To me that piece of resiliency is trusting in yourself and trusting that the intangible skills you have inside of yourself are going to get you through those difficult times. And, even if it turns into a setback — because if you are taking risks you are going to have setbacks — those setbacks probably have lessons in them. It’s the ability to identify those lessons early on and then acclimate those internally inside of yourself and be able to move forward.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
GoNoodle works with kids every day and I think of resiliency as being defined early in life and we see so many kids and teachers who are facing incredible environmental stresses and challenges. They can be geopolitical, they can be social, they can be financial and we’ve been through an incredible amount of change. Even pre-pandemic, the social political environment was one that came to make a lot of people feel like they were on the outside looking in. So, when you step into a classroom you see the human effects of that. That is very powerful to watch that play out because kids are having to acclimate themselves to who they are even earlier than ever before. Then you put the pandemic in it and you have all kinds of health worries, “am I going to get sick” “are my loved ones going to get sick” and then you have the day-to-day stressors, “can I achieve?” Can I make the grades?” “Can I be successful?” and you put all that together, not to mention the financial pressures on top of that — kids are able to feel, see and experience the stress endured by adults. I look at this generation as needing, more than ever, a whole new set of tools to help them, things that honestly, many of us learned later as adults, to regulate ourselves, and to get ourselves through hard times.
We need to give those skills to kids. I think that kids can get them and understand them but there is a really robust set of capabilities that successful, achieving adults learn. Older generations learned it through the hard knocks of life and that very much does encompass resiliency but the journey doesn’t have to be that hard. We can equip kids with these capabilities to understand who they are, to be able to navigate through difficult situations, to be able to regulate through their emotions, to be able to understand what causes stress and anxiety, to be able to better balance physical, mental and emotional health and to understand the dynamics of those, earlier in life. If we do that, those kids will be better and faster at adapting to change. If there is one thing I know about the world, it is changing at a more rapid pace, for the last 30 to 40 years to post World War II to now, the rate of change in the world, globalization, technology, societal, etc, etc, is requiring us to be more adaptive than we ever have been before. This modern world and these new times require our kids to be equipped with new skills.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Like 746,000 times before this interview! It happens all the time. You know, when I came out of high school, I didn’t have the grades to get into the schools I wanted to go to and I had to start my journey in junior college before I could transfer into St. Mary’s for my undergrad. When I came out of St. Mary’s, I felt a little lost and I applied to a lot of companies and I didn’t get the jobs that I was hoping I would get. But that led me into teaching, a profession I never thought I would do but ended up being transformative in my life. When I applied to grad school, half the schools I applied to didn’t accept me. I had some good fortune to get into Harvard and took advantage. When I got out of Harvard I applied to lots of companies to work for and ended up not getting a bunch of those jobs. I could go on and on. Every single phase of my life has been met with outcomes that were different than I hoped and a series of let downs. At the time, when I look back on it, I do think that the common thread was that I was always challenging myself to try to get to a level or a place or a role, that was just beyond my grasp. I do think that is a big piece of success — if you are resilient, you will take bigger chances, so it’s important to set your aspirations really, really high, much higher than what you believe because over time your results are going to be stronger.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Step 1: I pull from Brenee Brown and her book, “Dare Greatly”. It taught me how to set a really high expectation for yourself and those around you.
Step 2: Understand that when you set those high expectations there is a chance you might not achieve the fullness of the outcomes that you are hoping for. To me, if you set the aspiration high and prepare yourself for the worst, then you have the ability to recover more quickly and that recovery period is the most important thing.
Step 3: Recovery. How quickly can you get over something that doesn’t work out for you? There are a whole series of steps inside of that but the main focus it is being able to live in the now, that is the most powerful thing, and not dwell too much on the past and not spend too much time worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow but get granular on what you can do today.
Step 4: From there, it’s about learning. What did I learn from what I just did? How can I improve and get better? Get really tangible about ways that you can take the lessons from what you were just trying to do and convert them into actions you can take in your life moving forward because each step in the journey, you want to get stronger and stronger.
Step 5: Gratitude — really having a mindset of thankfulness and gratitude for what you have in your life, regardless of where you are or how much money you have, some of the happiest and most grateful people I know have the least amount of money but have strong connections with their families or their community or their friends. That mentality of gratitude is going to help you with your resilience because you are going to pin your self worth to other things rather than just external success. I really work hard on that and this may be the toughest one for me, just having a mentality of gratitude for all the things that have come through my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s GoNoodle! We are doing it! It’s the company we are running. I want more people to know about it, I want more people to know what we do. You can’t affect change in the world unless you are working with youth. These are longitudinal problems. It doesn’t matter if it’s climate change or it’s wealth disparity or racial injustices, these are problems that need different mindsets and you have to think about raising kids in a way that equips them to be more kind to themselves, more compassionate to others, more grounded in their self-identity and more accepting of others around them. Of course, then there are all the other facets: critical thinking, reading and learning and understanding — when you put all those pieces together, you are going to create a generation that can hopefully have a positive impact on the world. I think of it in these terms: these kids are going to create a world that I’ll live the back quarter of my life in, so I really want that world to be an awesome place with amazing leaders and fantastic people living in it who are kind and compassionate to each other. It’s my hope that doing the work that GoNoodle is doing we can create a GoNoodle generation of kids who really think of things in this way and genuinely try to make our communities better.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’ve got a long list — if I could sit down with anybody I think I would want to sit down with former President Obama — a pretty close battle between him and Beyonce. I want to learn from all of his time trying to be the leader he was in a world that didn’t always want him to be the leader.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!