As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Carmen Westbrook.
Carmen is the CEO and co-founder of Aina Giving, a socially responsible servant leadership development firm. As a diplomat, military spouse, six-year stay at home mom, marathoner, and entrepreneur, Carmen knows the ins and outs of leading a balanced, fulfilled life while also accomplishing the goals and dreams life has handed our way. Carmen is trained as a co-active leadership coach and developer, and has trained governments, international aid organizations, and mothers worldwide, and is currently planning to move to her fifth continent (Africa!) with her husband of 17 years, three wonderful children, and one fluffy dog.
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 an author, I love sharing stories, and especially those “beginning” stories. I grew up in relative poverty in Lincoln, Nebraska, raised by an amazing single mother, an older brother and sister, and (eventually) a wonderful stepfather. Having lived in both pretty extreme poverty and relative wealth (we moved to the upper middle-class neighborhood in town after my mom remarried), I have vivid memories of both — and I suppose my passion for social justice and socially responsible servant leadership began on those Nebraska windswept plains.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of my greatest leadership roles has been that of a parent, and oh, Lord. Have I made MASSIVE mistakes there. I suppose one of the earliest mistakes here is what my husband and I term “the great poop fight of 2006,” which was not (as you might imagine) monkeys flinging poop, but rather about how long we both got in the bathroom, now that we were parents. As my sister always says, when going to the bathroom becomes a rodeo sport — you know you’re a mom. That was such a good lesson for me in not only learning to carve out time every day for myself for self-care (because otherwise…poop fights ensue), but also to start learning the very tough lesson that, unfortunately, I am not in control of what anyone else does, and that the only thing that I get to change, grow, and/or adapt in situations is my self. Quite the powerful leadership lesson, that.
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?
My mom has been an incredible pillar of love, support, and encouragement for my whole life. I have been able to take risks and step outside of the “acceptable” lines in service to others and a better future because I know my mom is always there, championing me on. In particular, after I wrote my book (which is autobiographical and lays all of the mistakes of my life out for inspection), my mom called and told me how much that book touched her soul, has sold it to possibly everyone in my hometown, and spent hours talking through the parts she didn’t know about — not criticizing, just wanting to know more about me as a human being. That feeling of being recognized and valued sticks with me in everything I do.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When we started the company, we were looking for easy ways for people — and especially busy mothers — to include deep purpose in their lives, without going crazy. While we’ve broadened and pivoted a little from that, our core stays the same — we, as leaders of our families, communities, and nations, must practice socially responsible servant leadership in our daily lives. And we also must be valued and appreciated and recognized for doing so. For us, this is how we create long-term success for humanity…and that’s pretty important in our book.
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?
One of the things that I always like to point out is that the skillsets we learn and cultivate in one area of our lives are directly applicable to other areas of our lives. So, while I could discuss when we flew to Kenya with zero plans and had to navigate that landscape to set up our empowerment programs there, or I could talk about taking all of our products online due to the covid crisis…I think instead I’ll focus on our move to Japan that we navigated with three small children. My husband works as a military diplomat, and as such we’ve lived on four different continents over the course of seventeen years. We pretty much live every other year in an extreme state of uncertainty, as we are usually moving to a new place, new culture, new language, and new expectations. While moving to Japan, we had the added hurdle of a 2-month-old baby, a toddler, and an almost-kindergartener. I remember standing in the line with my husband, after going through an only-japanese check-in procedure, with a baby strapped to my chest and two small people running around, bags falling off our multiple carts…and looking at him and saying “isn’t this great?” And I actually meant it from my heart. We both kind of popped out of our own perspectives then and viewed the situation and realized how wild it was that we would think that this, even this, was great. And, for me, this was a powerful lesson of treating each new roadblock, uncertainty, and wild outlandish event as an adventure — and that our attitudes and emotions toward it would directly impact what our team (our children) would feel toward the situation as well. If we view it as an adventure to be delighted in, our children will as well. If we view it as the worst thing that’s happened to us….so will our team. It’s an incredibly powerful leadership lesson to realize that we can “infect” our team with our attitude.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Oh, I still consider giving up. Pretty much daily. I think it’s a fallacy for people to think that the successful, powerful leaders are just magically different. We’re not. We just got a few tools that help us to persevere — which means everyone can be a worldchanger.
Motivation is one of the biggest indicators of success, because success takes perseverance. It’s funny, we often think that figuring out that why one time (as in a personal or company mission statement) is enough, we can hang it on the wall and move on. In our experience with leaders around the world — and my own personal experience — this is almost never true. We must continually be reminded of our why in order to drive ourselves through resistance. This “Why” question is one of the most effective tools that we as leaders can use to move through, around, beyond, and over challenges. I often use the “5 why’s” game in leadership trainings and when I’m coaching my clients — asking why at least 5 times in a row to get to the heart of the motivation. I think for me, that why most often comes down to my children. To me, as a mom, my children are amazing and incredible lights in this world, and I feel it’s my job to lay down the foundations for their path — both inside them and out in the world — as much as I possibly can.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think setting the emotional tone through massive communication is the most critical role of leaders in challenging situations. In Ireland, for example, the public health minister went on Instagram live every morning during the lockdown to just say hi, let everyone know what he was working on that day, and also be authentic and real (his increasingly wild hairdo became a public conversation). His ability to demonstrate authenticity, openness, and willingness to work hard for the public good allowed his team — that of the whole nation — to trust and rely on his decisions, and be able to go about their own daily work.
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?
One of the most effective ways to boost any morale is with a coaching tool called “Championing.” It seems so basic — and it just works so incredibly well. Taking the time, as a leader, to notice the small things that each team member is doing to contribute — and then calling them out, publicly, and praising them, can make a team that is willing to lie down in front of trains for their leaders. We all so want to be seen, heard, and valued. When our leaders stop their busy lives to do so, it tells us that they can be relied upon…and spreads that feeling to the whole organization and/or nation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Most leaders thrive on a formula for this, and the formula I like to give is the “sandwich” formula. Usually, this is when we sandwich unpleasant news between praise and gratitude. If we start off with “I have been wildly impressed with our team’s ability to do x, and your specific dedication to y, and it has made a difference to me and the company by creating for us all z — thank you so much for your amazing support and dedication to our vision,” we’re going to get people seeing that we are on the road to progress (as we always are). Then delivering the difficult news in the fewest number of words possible, and wrapping it up with “we are always here for you, and see this gift in you (name the specific skill they bring to the world), and can’t wait to watch that grow and develop. Please let me know what I can do to support that for you, because you are such a gift to us.” (which, frankly, is always true of all of us).
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leadership advice from our military clients: Always make a plan, and be ready to throw it out the window. A wonderful principal here is the principal of detachment. We must make plans, because they help us to focus and clarify the ever-emerging vision. And we must be willing to throw them away the following morning as conditions have changed. Think of Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb, with 1,000 failed attempts. In times of uncertainty, an inventor mentality is so helpful — we are all just scientists, explorers, and inventors, finding the next experiment that will lead us down the path. Some of our company’s greatest breakthroughs came from repeated failures.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Oh, for this I love the concept of the “Infinite Game.” This is an economic principal of game theory, and it basically states that there are two types of games — finite and infinite. Finite games are those with a clearly defined ending, while infinite games have the ability to continue forever. We often refer our leader clients to this concept, and to Simon Sinek’s recent application of it to business, when they are undergoing change and are unsure of the future. The fundamental concept here is that, as a business or organization, if we want to continue through difficulties, we must bow out of trying to win at the finite game and instead play the infinite game. This helps us to understand that we can always continue through those ups and downs, as long as we are pointed, not at our competitors, but instead at our overarching principal for existence. Basically, it’s playing the game every day of simply and completely honoring our core values, as opposed to living each day with the intent of crushing our competitors and winning the game. It’s how businesses like Apple have survived — and thrived — through the turbulent times that are inevitable in any life cycle.
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?
Yep! I’ll discuss mistakes here and a basic frame that will help us avoid them…and then I’ll talk about some specific strategies a bit later in the article.
First: Task-Orientation. One of the most common mistakes we see is businesses starting to focus more and more on the tasks of the business during difficult times — like product rollout, or sales numbers.
Second: Command and Control. Another error that we see is getting more and more controlling as leaders. This is so very, very alluring during times of uncertainty. Control gives us the illusion of security, and that’s what most of us are unconsciously seeking when the future seems foggy.
Third: Paralysis. Our brains respond to uncertainty with three basic functions: freeze, flight, or fight. Freeze is that paralysis effect, and it’s when we just stop making decisions altogether.
Fourth: Blame. This can grow especially in an environment with low trust and communication, and does something that we in leadership call “falling below the line.” It’s an incredibly common response to stress, so if this is occurring in your organization, have no fear! It’s fine, and there are proven techniques to sort this out.
Fifth: Shame and Hiding. A common response when there is low forgiveness in an organization — for example, the Navy has a “zero tolerance” rule. This can result in leaders trying to cover up any mistakes that are made, and just propagating more mistakes.
A good rule of thumb is to create a culture where we celebrate our mistakes — that one simple brain shift can go a long way to correcting all of these issues. And the best way to cultivate this is to demonstrate it, as leaders, to our team. It’s fun watching them fall out of their chairs the first time the CEO says “here’s how I totally messed up this week! Hooray for me!”
I’m going to riff off of the mistakes question here to give these pointers, because we train people in leadership to celebrate their mistakes in order to learn from them. So, let’s go through those “mistakes” (or perhaps just experiments) and see what results we can glean from them.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
A great lesson I learned from my executive coach is that, sometimes, we as leaders need to get on the tarmac. The higher up we get in leadership, the more we tend to focus on the big-picture — as well we should. However, in uncertain times we need to jump from that 10,000 foot height and get down on the ground — and that means we have to go do the things that all of our team is doing to keep the business moving forward. This will help us to look and see what it is that we are doing particularly well, and how we can reposition and perhaps even reformulate that offering to continue serving our customers within the current constraints. Whatever we’re doing well — whether selling defense to the nation or bows to moms of toddlers — we can reformulate that into a product that is serving the current needs of our customers, like by having inspirational videos about how we, as a defense community, are working hard right now to continue defending the nation, or by selling do-it-yourself bow-making kits for toddlers to do without mom’s help. Both of those still hit the customer’s needs and play off of a strength of the business — and we as leaders can really only see that if we’ve got our boots on the ground.
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? Please share a story or an example for each.
First: Task-Orientation. During turbulent times, we need to focus the majority of our attention — about 80% — on relationships. This can be so very, very hard as leaders are watching sales dwindle…and it’s mandatory to stay in the game over the long haul. This is because our team knows and cares about our products and services as much as we do — and will be able to identify where we might need to pivot and change in turbulent times. However, they will only have the ability/capacity to do so if they have a bit of space in their schedules to ruminate, and will only be able to speak up if they have strong relationships with leadership.
Second: Command and Control. Unfortunately, control actually works against the long-term stability of the system, and tends to create an atmosphere of people fleeing from our organization, as opposed to feeling safe and wanting to enter into a business relationship. The number one thing that we can do to increase the security of our system is to create trust — and trust comes from communication and consistency. So we recommend that leaders not attempt to increase control — but instead increase communication at consistent times. If you have open office hours every week, increase it to twice a week at exactly the same time. It takes work and more time in your schedule…and it’s worth it.
Third: Paralysis. Especially when decisions are needing to be made at a rapid rate, we can get to a place of “decision burnout.” You know how Costco only has about 3 choices of peanut butter? They do this on purpose, because human behavior studies show us that with more options, the likelihood of actually choosing quickly goes down. Right now, this is exactly what we are seeing all over the place — leaders and all of us are having to make an almost-continuous stream of decisions as conditions are in constant flux right now. Is it shut down? Is it not? What’s happening in the economy? Has that person been exposed? It’s just decision fatigue, which leads to paralysis. A great way to counteract this is to set intentional time in the morning, at midday (2–3pm), and in the evening to stop for at least 30 minutes and feel gratitude for everything that we have and/or plan on accomplishing for that day. This does some reprogramming of our brains, and basically gives us a cookie for making all of those decisions — thus making our brains less likely to default to paralysis.
Fourth: Blame. Known as one of the “four horsemen” in ORSC (organizational relationship system coaching) leadership training, blame is a default response for many of us (including me!) in trying times. Simply knowing that this will be a default position for some of us helps to manage that — so when we start pointing at another person, or the world, or ourselves as the cause of all of the terrible…we can reset this and move to a more powerful position. A helpful exercise here is to depersonalize that voice — so make it so that it’s not tied to one person, it’s just a voice that’s in the team system — and playact with our team a funny scene with that blaming voice as one of the characters. For example, in one of our teams we make that voice be Rex in Toy Story 2 as he’s speaking with Zorg. One of us acts that out, saying all of the blame things that might have come up (“It is the fault of the government that I didn’t hit my target! They didn’t let me go to my meetings!” and “I must be the worst person in the world that I couldn’t juggle kids school, work, pandemic, and love life! What is wrong with me??”). Usually by the end the whole team is dying laughing — which is the point. Laughter takes power away from that position and shifts us into a new energy.
Fifth: Shame and Hiding. Anyone that’s ever raised a child knows ALL about this. This is what we do when we don’t trust that the system is going to have fair, reasoned responses to situations. This is not only in zero tolerance organizations, it’s also when there is zero enforcement of rules — so we need to find that balance. You know what’s the best way to deal with this? Cultivate a relationship with the people that influence your team members. Find that person in your team member’s life that has great influence with them (a partner, a parent, a friend, a child) and find ways to include them in the business. A few examples: zoom happy hours and game night for the whole team and their families, giving gifts to families for special occasions, taking team members and their partners out to dinner. This helps to increase the other benefits — those of love, being heard, appreciation — of each team member, which results in an intrinsic desire on their part to be open and transparent. The military was, in the past, especially effective at this — likely because they have many unpaid workers in the form of spouses — and we are now seeing that break down with the advent of more and more spouses working at their own careers instead of paying into the community. We train leaders to spend time and money on that community aspect, because it will pay off dividends in the long run — and most especially during uncertain and turbulent times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” You have to love Dolly Parton for her pithy way of describing reality. In the end, all creation has to be preceded by destruction — we’re just not that great at seeing it. In order to not be Mr Business from the Lego Movie and actually allow growth to occur, we have to let the lego pieces be occasionally broken and put back together. It’s the fun job of leaders to dream about how those pieces will be put back together — and help hold up those umbrellas during the rainstorm so the team is still with us when the colors light up the sky.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit us at ainagiving.com and you’ll get these 5 tips in a free pdf download. We care about our tribe and our community, and send out these types of tips to our leaders around the world every week, as well as updates on programs and webinars that you and your team can take advantage of. Effective leadership takes support, and that’s what we’re here to give to our tribe of phenomenal servant leaders.