Karen Brown of Exponential Results On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Embrace Uncertainty. Instead of roiling against it, turn uncertainty on its head by simply accepting it and getting comfortable with it. More is likely ahead, so look upon it as a fresh opportunity and the chance to explore exciting, uncharted territory.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Brown.
The Founder and CEO of Exponential Results, Karen Brown 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. Her discovery led to the creation of Exponential Results’ proprietary Power Pathways™ method, based in neuroscience. She’s 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.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As the founder and CEO of Exponential Results, I specialize in leveraging neuroscience principles to enhance leadership effectiveness and unlock potential. With a background boasting 30 years as a corporate executive and over 30,000 hours coaching executives and leaders, my journey has been one of discovery and innovation.
My breakthrough came when I identified the key to heightened performance: addressing blind spots, or the recurring thought patterns that obstruct success. This insight led to the development of our unique Power Pathways™ method, rooted in a substrate of neuroscience. Beyond the boardroom, I am an international-level, ultra-endurance athlete. My achievements include completing the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii; the Ultraman Championships; and numerous ultra-marathons and triathlons worldwide.
The Ironman was a transformative milestone. Previously, I was a recreational athlete, but this challenge stirred a belief in my untapped potential. In 2010, my exploration into neuroscience and human behavior sparked an epiphany. I realized that my own behavioral patterns were the barriers to my aspirations. This revelation is universal; we all encounter similar hurdles.
This understanding propelled me to become an expert in performance behavioral patterns; I apply this expertise to both my personal challenges and my clients’ journeys. Just two years later, at 46 and without prior marathon experience, I crossed the finish line at the Ironman World Championships. That same year marked the inception of Exponential Results, the culmination of my experiences and insights into human potential and performance.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I wouldn’t call them funny, since they seemed tragic back then. They were mistakes and great teachers for sure, but I did incorporate the learnings from each one. Here is a doozy that sticks out in my mind: I quoted an astronomical price to my first referral client, because my last mastery credential was super-fresh, and he and his team needed A LOT of help. Clearly, I valued my services more than he did! He emphatically yet politely told me to go pound sand (he used stronger language than this).
As a result, my referral source looked bad, was very unhappy, and never referred me again — even though my source had a large pipeline of leaders who needed help. Let’s just say I helped out another leadership coach that day, unknowingly giving them all this business. It still makes me cringe thinking about it.
None of us is 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 am deeply appreciative of many individuals, but Rae Wayne stands out as a pivotal mentor in my journey. Her guidance profoundly influenced my understanding of coaching’s impact and value. Rae expertly led me through the complexities of the business, emphasizing the importance of models and systems for consistent success. Although I had years of coaching experience, it was her steadfast support and belief in my potential that truly highlighted the extraordinary difference I could make.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I completely agree with that premise and still use powerful vision and purpose today, both of which have morphed and evolved from when I started:
- Exponential Results’ Vision: Elevate leadership effectiveness and performance, creating exponential results.
- Exponential Results’ Purpose: To help all leaders realize their full potential.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Later in this interview, I will list the seven most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times. These are the principles I follow with my own team and clients; the original core was derived from companies that have weathered worse storms over more than 100 years in business, so they’ve proven to be very successful. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so your readers will have to wait until they get to that section!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My rigorous training for the Ironman World Championships, coupled with diverse experiences in athletics, professional endeavors, and personal growth, has solidified my belief in limitless potential. It’s clear to me now: the only certain path to failure is surrender while perseverance — steadily moving forward — is the key to triumph. Challenges such as setbacks, course corrections, and mistakes are inevitable, but they can serve as invaluable learning opportunities.
I’ve come to understand that success is not an instant achievement; it’s a continuous journey without shortcuts. Embracing each step of this journey is crucial, and I’m fully committed to this process. By adhering to this disciplined approach, I’m confident that success is not just a possibility but an inevitable reality.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Attributing my transformation to a single book would be an oversimplification. In reality, it’s a mosaic of numerous books, varied experiences, diverse clients, and intensive personal development that have collectively shaped and inspired me. However, the pivotal moment in my life was not found within the pages of a book. It was my journey to and completion of the Ironman World Championships, a dream I had long cherished.
Despite being a very average, amateur athlete, I set my sights on a goal achieved by only a small fraction of people worldwide — a feat so demanding and rigorous that it becomes a lifelong pursuit for many, sometimes with extreme risks. This experience was a testament to the extraordinary potential within us when we dare to reach beyond the ordinary.
My pivotal moment arrived with the dawn of self-awareness. To achieve this, I embarked on a profound journey of introspection, necessitating a candid and deep personal exploration. This process involved identifying and confronting the behavioral patterns that were hindering my progress. Through this self-discovery, I learned to transform these patterns into ones that would enable me to achieve my goals.
While this might sound straightforward, the reality is profound: the fundamental workings of the human mind are the same for everyone. Gaining insight into this aspect of our psychology is akin to unlocking a vast realm of potential. The significance of this revelation cannot be overstated
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I can describe it in one word, though it’s a very long word that I made up. In challenging times, a leaders must “Staycalmseearoundcornersrallytheteamcommunitymaintainclearperspectiverestenoughforyouandforyourteam.” How’s that for a bold statement? This one statement embodies the critical role of a leader, not only during challenging times but almost any time. Here is the word broken down individually:
- Stay calm
- See around corners
- Rally the team community
- Maintain clear perspective
- Rest enough for you and for your team
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
LAUGH! Seek out what genuinely amuses all team members (keep it broadly appealing yet tasteful), and then indulge in deep, heartfelt laughter. Consider starting a meeting by asking each team member to show the funniest video they’ve seen recently (no more than two minutes each).
One year, a video parody of how Ikea was formed made the rounds and we laughed until tears streamed down our faces as we watched it repeatedly. Encourage your teams to do the same. While it’s common and understandable for people to approach their work and life with seriousness, especially during uncertainty, it’s crucial to balance this with moments of levity.
Allowing time for genuine, uninhibited laughter — not just a chuckle, but the kind that resonates from deep within — has tangible benefits. Physically, this act releases endorphins, naturally boosting your mood. Psychologically, it helps you and your team regain a balanced perspective, reminding everyone that while seriousness has its place, it should not overshadow the importance of occasional, hearty hilarity. It also facilitates seeing things from a different angle.
I realize there are an almost unlimited number of ways to boost morale, as well as inspire/motivate teams. However, laughter is one that is very effective but does not get nearly enough attention.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is comprised of five distinct yet interrelated parts: directly, kindly, openly, transparently, and responsibly.
- Directly: Don’t sugar coat it. If you do, you may not be adequately conveying the gravity of the news.
- Kindly: Clear is kind, so be really clear in what you say. Don’t beat around the bush or skip over the difficult part, hoping for inference.
- Openly: Don’t act as if you’ve got a hidden agenda that leaves the other party wondering what you really mean.
- Transparently: Let your team or customer understand the reason or motivation for sharing this difficult news.
- Responsibly: Keep sensitive information private and be responsible by not embarrassing anyone in front of their colleagues.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
During the unpredictable times of the Covid-19 pandemic, which encompassed every single day after March 17, 2020, devising and adhering to a single plan was a formidable challenge. We helped clients develop numerous plans, adapting to the continuously evolving situation. This experience underscored the value of flexible planning. Effective plans are dynamic, allowing for adjustments in response to changing circumstances.
We employed a strategy of creating overarching plans with core objectives that remained largely consistent. Within these larger plans, “micro-plans” — smaller, more adaptable components — enabling us to pivot as needed without derailing our primary objectives. These micro-plans, essentially the building blocks of our broader strategy, could be modified as required, ensuring agility without compromising our overall direction.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Embrace uncertainty and change; this principle is straightforward yet pivotal. Most businesses acknowledge the inevitability of uncertainty and change. These forces are relentless and largely beyond our control, occurring regardless of preventative measures.
While strategic planning can mitigate the effects of specific events, it’s important to recognize that new uncertainties and changes are always on the horizon. Accepting and preparing for this reality is key. Be ready to adapt and adjust your course as necessary. Remember, the challenges your company faces could ultimately lead to positive outcomes. Turbulence, while disconcerting in the moment, often leads to a stronger position once it subsides.
This concept echoes an age-old adage: “The wind does not break a tree that bends.” In the face of intense winds, a rigid tree may break, whereas a flexible tree can endure and withstand the forces. This metaphor serves as a reminder of the strength found in adaptability and resilience in the face of change and uncertainty.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
There are so many it’s hard to narrow them down, but I’ve chosen the six mistakes I believe are the most critical:
- Cutting the Budget: Many businesses see cost-cutting as the answer to every problem. Sometimes, a problem does call for reduced spending, but other problems may require additional capital. Don’t make cutting the budget your “knee jerk” reaction.
- Spreading Catastrophic Gloom: “Gloom and doom” are highly contagious. When someone throws these elements into the business setting, they are like viruses, infecting everyone in their path. In a turbulent period, you need team members who are optimistic, not despondent.
- Yelling or Raising Your Voice: This is a visceral reaction that accomplishes nothing other than disturbing your team members while positioning yourself as someone unable to cope with adversity.
- Overworking the Team: Some leaders believe that the harder people work, the better the results will be. That might apply to some scenarios, but it is not a universal solution. In fact, it can reduce team morale while creating physical and mental fatigue.
- Not Seeking Help: When you get everyone involved in working through a problem, you’ve got a much better chance of finding a solution. Remember, it doesn’t matter where the solution comes from, just that it comes from somewhere.
- Having a Fixed Mindset: Einstein once said, “We have to use higher thinking than that which created the problem.” If you keep thinking the same way, you’ll get the same results. A change in mindset can often help you see an issue more clearly while creating new neural pathways in your brain that open doors to innovative approaches.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?
If you’ll indulge me, I have seven things to offer:
- Embrace Uncertainty. Instead of roiling against it, turn uncertainty on its head by simply accepting it and getting comfortable with it. More is likely ahead, so look upon it as a fresh opportunity and the chance to explore exciting, uncharted territory.
- Pinpoint the Target. Identify a clear vision of where you want to be coming out the other side of uncertainty. Align this with your core values to keep you on course and not get redirected by chaos. You can’t hit the target until you know what it looks like.
- Nourish and Build Up Your Team. Institute regular meetings to support, build each other up, and brainstorm new ideas. Deepen connections by unpacking fears and feats (“What is your worst fear, and what is the biggest feat you think we can accomplish — and why?”). Ask each team member the primary support needed and then get everyone to provide for each other. Also, get ample rest (this includes you, CEOs and execs!). Your brain needs rest to work at optimal level, and when uncertainty hits, we often cut back on sleep and work more. Do the exact opposite.
- Shore Up Your Root Business. Get in touch with your customers and ask them questions like:
- “What can we do together to be successful during this turbulence?”
- “What can we do that will help you even more?”
- “What do you count on from us that we can expand?”
Often, this is where new, innovative ideas come from.
- Collaborate Creatively and Change Rapidly. Elevate and infuse collaboration with creativity to bring out fresh and different thinking and ideas. Use agility to change rapidly and catalyze lightning-fast execution. An example would be working with competitors.
- Tap Your Key Network. Reach out to key connections and compare notes. Ask questions like:
- “What are you doing to find success during this?”
- “What is the most innovative idea you’ve come up with?”
Then share your ideas in return.
Rinse and Repeat. Keep going through these steps as often as needed until you are through the uncertainty, and you hit the vision target set at the beginning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One quote that has resonated with me over the years is from Thomas Edison: “If we all did the things we are truly capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” This quote deeply speaks to the concept of “untapped potential.” There are countless individuals around the world who possess incredible skills and abilities, often unrealized due to lack of opportunity, self-doubt, or motivation.
The message here is about overcoming barriers to unlock one’s true potential. People might be astonished at their own proficiency, talent, and the significant impact their skills can have globally. This quote inspired me to venture into new territories, embracing challenges without certainty of success. It’s a call to action, encouraging us to step beyond our comfort zones. By doing so, we discover our capabilities and avoid a life of regrets and “what-ifs.” It’s not just about what we can do but about the surprise and fulfillment that come from realizing our full potential.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Karen Brown of Exponential Results On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.