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 Kay Bretz.
Dr Kay Bretz is a facilitator of transformation, executive coach and inspirational speaker. As the founder of Turning Right he draws on his experiences as a corporate leader and as an Australian representative at the 24-hour world championship.
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?
After 15 years of leadership positions in retail and at McKinsey, I launched my own business ‘Turning Right’ last year. After becoming the fastest-ever Australian at the 24-hour world championships in 2019 (259.67 kilometres), it was time to integrate my life as an elite athlete with business. Now, I am a leadership and mindset coach, helping executives and businesses thrive. To inspire a wider group of people pursue their passion, I’m now also an author and have captured my journey in the recently published book ‘Turning Right — Inspire the Magic’.
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?
On my journey to become an elite ultramarathon runner, I signed up a 250-kilometre stage-race called ‘Big Red Run’ through the Simpson Desert. For six days we had to run up to 84 kilometres a day and I was completely new to what appeared crazy distances. On day one, I was not only in the lead by more than 40 minutes but shortly before the finish line even overtook the guy who was marking the course. Everyone thought I had committed rooky-mistake number one, which is going out too fast. But I backed up my performances on the subsequent days and improved the race record by over five hours, so my take away was to trust my intuition and not always overrule it with reason and logic.
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 mentor Martin Fryer helped me to step up from a good runner to becoming one of the best 24-hour runners at the world championships. He unlocked a 22 percent improvement step-change within half-a-year of working with him. When I told him that I was not talented enough to ever make it into the Australian selection, he put on his serious voice and shared his secret of what it took: leave my ego behind and run with grace, gratitude and guts. Being supported by people who believe in us can be all it takes to change our trajectory.
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?
My vision is to make those peak experience accessible to leaders and businesses without the need to run crazy distances. We are all so much more capable than what we dare to believe and will only find out by immersing us into challenges which are scary and might seem impossible to master when we set sail. As mentioned, my purpose is to inspire the magic. By that I mean tapping into something bigger than us and bridging the gap between what we feel we are capable of and what the world requires of us. That’s what fills me with energy.
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?
I’ve lead teams up to 100 members in business, but let me share one of my biggest running challenges which was a non-stop 350-kilometre race through Western Australia in the hottest part of summer. The team consisted as me as a race participant and Rebecca and Gary who were my support crew members but who also ran 200 kilometres with me. We were out there for more than 68 hours and barely no sleep and the uncertainty whether we would ever see the finish line. What made the difference was when I let go of any need to control and instead started blindly trusting my crew to make any major decisions on food, hydration, rest and strategy — I just had to do the running and therefore felt much lighter.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Major challenges always get to the crossroad where giving up seems the easier option than to keep going without an end in side. A couple of months ago I ran a race, where there winner was ‘the last one standing’ — that is the only person who had not given up. We were in our second night without sleep when I just wanted to go home. When another competitor asked me to tell him about my book, I found new energy. Instead of fighting and trying to be tough to push myself, I started to be gentle with myself. That shift made all the difference.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being mentally agile enough to reframe the perception. When we get stuck, it is only because we cannot lift our view beyond the problem itself. To get to high-performance requires we need the ability to shift our consciousness as required. For example instead of worrying about the outcome and therefore fearing failure, we can ask ourselves what growth and meaning we can find in the challenge.
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?
Responding with what might feel like counterintuitive can be very helpful: When the challenge urges us to speed up, why not slow down? New options emerge when we are open to seeing them. Or instead of continuing the grind and forcing our way forward, why not take a break? With a bit of distance no situation is as grim as when it holds us in its tight grip.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I am the firm believer in honesty and generative listening. As a leader we have to say what needs to be said and then the best is to stay present and see how to best respond. We don’t always need the answer upfront — especially if we have the ability to listen and explore new paths jointly.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’ve learned that there are two types of mistakes: not enough planning and too much planning. What I do is to plan for the expected, so I don’t have to waste precious energy on basic tasks when in the midst of a challenge. That gives me the ability to deal with the unexpected. Curveballs always come our way, so it helps to not have to worry about the fundamentals we can take care of through upfront planning.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
When incremental improvements don’t cut it, any of us can step-change their performance through transformation. By that I mean leaders working on themselves and letting go of whatever keeps them stuck. In my case that would be reactive patterns such as controlling, overthinking or emotionally distancing myself. Therefore the ‘number one principle’ would be that when we are the caterpillar, don’t learn to crawl faster but become the butterfly and lift yourself into the sky.
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?
Common mistakes I see are increasing bureaucracy, blaming, risk-avoidance or short-term thinking. All of them lead to a decline in cultural values. To avoid that downward spiral the key question I would ask is: ‘Are you motivated to not to fail or motivated to succeed?’
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?
I launched my new business just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit and at first got extremely worried. I knew theoretically that every challenge also brought new opportunities with them, but I had to remind myself to shift my perspective from contracting within my fear to opening to new ideas. In my case, the two biggest opportunities for executive coaching and transformational work were to a) offer my services online and b) therefore gain access to markets way beyond Melbourne or even Australia. In spite of never having met some of my clients in person, I’ve built trust-based relationships with them.
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.
Lesson #1: Assemble a strong team around you. High-performing teams will always outperform individual efforts, as my above example from my 350-kilometre race demonstrated. We need diverse thinking and different perspectives to best deal with the unknown when under pressure.
Lesson #2: Drop your ego. Far too often do I notice that I’m wasting energy by comparing my situation with where I want to be. At the 24-hour world championships, I slowed down my pace in the early hours of the race because of the heat and dropped to 102nd position. That took a lot of self-discipline, but allowed me to be strong in the later stages of the race when most others slowed down and work my way to 11th place by the finish of the race.
Lesson # 3: Trust your intuition. If something feels wrong, it probably isn’t. Yet, our thinking mind often overrules that gut feeling because we cannot explain it. In one of my races when I was overly tired, I stopped because I felt that something was wrong with a stick on the ground I had almost stepped on. It turned out to be a venomous snake.
Lesson # 4: Be kind to yourself. I have learned that once things get tough (which is unavoidable in major challenges), it helps to cherish the little things. Whether a hot home-made soup in the middle of the night or a fortune cookie when our fate seems sealed, the trick is to always stay open for what the world has on offer. It might be all it takes to re-energise you and get you around the next bend.
Lesson # 5: Take breaks to maintain momentum. Whatever we challenge we are facing, they are more like ultramarathons rather than sprints. The best advice I have is to allow ourselves to fully disconnect regularly instead of constantly thinking about the challenge. When we are elite at taking breaks, we can tap into our full potential when we need it most.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the wise words from Robert Frost: ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’
He describes exactly what I experienced one day at my garden gate when I accidently turned right. Every single time beforehand I had turned left as if on autopilot. It perfectly summed up how I had been living my life: full of discipline, self-control and cutting myself off from a world I would never enter. Metaphorically speaking, I decided to turn right more often, that is switch off my autopilot, make myself vulnerable and explore paths which seemed scary. One of the many examples was leaving a secure corporate leadership position to find meaning in running my own business.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please visit my website http://turningright.com where you’ll find more about what I do and how to contact me directly or via social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.