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 Lisa Arie.
Described by Fast Co. magazine as the “CEO Whisperer”, today Lisa and her husband Jess Arie run Vista Caballo, an experiential human discovery center on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Using horses as the instinctive catalyst, Arie fast forwards entrepreneurs, c-suite executives, directors, managers, team leaders and individuals striving for change, to be aware that the next great leap forward in innovation is to innovate themselves. And the pathway to that innovation is through horses. As Lisa Arie wrote in The Huffington Post, “Some of my best teachers are not human. They are horses.”
Vista Caballo leverages the blood knot between horse and humankind to great effect. As prey animals, horses sense immediately if they should approach a situation, or flee.
Vista Caballo is a certified B Corporation and has been recognized consecutively as Best For The World since 2015.
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?
I grew up around the world in many different countries. My dad worked for Time Magazine back in the day and my parents leveraged his posts overseas to give us a truly unique upbringing. My first job was as a producer in advertising. My claim to fame was finding Tom Bodett in Homer Alaska and producing the famed Motel 6 commercials. My career took off from there. After just under a decade of working for advertising agencies, I had an idea for a better way to do things, borrowed $5k from my parents and launched my first businesses which turned into multi-million dollar successes. I loved my work and thrived in it. My work was my identity. It was my life. Until I was told I had a terminal disease and realized work was not my life — and that I had missed my life. That realization was the first step to my transformation. And what saved my life. If I was going to die was apparently not a question. The only So they questions remaining was how was I going to die. I realized I had not lived life — but survived it, albeit at a very high level. So before I died I wanted the experience of living life, not just surviving it. And, when I gave myself that opportunity, amazingly enough, I did not die. I took what I learned and opened Vista Caballo with my husband 15 years ago and have never looked back. I was our first client.
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?
Well, when I first started — although it was before I knew what I was really starting — I had to learn about horses.
So I went to horse school where I started my lifelong learning journey about these wonderful creatures. When school was out , a s luck would have it, I had a day to myself, where I was one of the only students left on campus. One of theAn instructors suggested I take my horse for a ride off campus by myselfon my own. I thought to it was a grand idea. So I saddled up and off I went. I got a fair way out of the gate and down the road when my mare started acting up a bit. I was quite confident certain that my confidence would lead us forward. While she was willing, she did her best to communicate with each step away from campus — her comfort zone -– that she was concerned. Until we took one step too many. She reared and bolted. I stayed on galloping with her back to campus. When she got back to safety — a green pasture on campus — she stopped so promptly I flew over her head. I lay face down with a mouth full of green grass trying to catch my breathe. She stayed right by my side munching away quite happily. I rolled over and sat up and looked at her. She walked over and nuzzled me.
In this moment I learned how important it was not to get ‘there’ but how we get ‘there’ together. Had I slowed down and not been focused on the ‘there’ but on the ‘together,’ part it could have been a whole different ride.
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?
There is a person and an animal who helped me get where I am today. My horse, or who became my horse, came first. Her name was Hakomi and she saved my life. She taught me about love, and truth, and honesty and trust, courage, how to be and stay present, and why it’s the safest place to be. This brought me back to life. Literally and figuratively. You can read all about our first meeting in Crossing The Silly Bridge. https://www.amazon.com/Crossing-Silly-Bridge-Lisa-Arie/dp/0615414885/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1444073877&sr=8-1&keywords=crossing+the+silly+bridge. From there, the magnificent man I married, Jess Arie, picked up the reins. He took me to a whole new level of trust — and exemplifies what it’s like to be comfortable in one’s own skin. When I first met Hakomi she was a lease horse that helped people learn how to ride. I didn’t know equine language so didn’t know she was very definitely telling me to go away and stay away. She communicated as clearly as she could without putting me in harms way and I was completely oblivious. As with Jess the only thing I saw was her incredible soft, big, beautiful, courageous heart. And like Jess, she was like a defibrillator for mine. She might have been trying to protect her heart as she had opened hers it to so many students and been left behind. I took her home with me. And the rest, as they say, is history. And became a great love story. And my sister. She’s younger and oh so much wiser.
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 and purpose was to share what I had learned with as many people as possible. What I had learned was to step over the edge of what I knew — to challenge my status quo — and to be fearless. What I discovered was a whole new world. A world of love, extraordinary fearless love. So the company provides experiential and digital simulators so people can experience stepping past their own edges, challenge their own status quos and discovering fearless love for themselves — and how that discovery can transform their life.
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?
My team starts with me. I cannot lead any team until I can lead myself. And what I have learned is that when uncertain or difficult times show up, they show up as that because there is an element of the unknown in them. And what I have learned is that really there is no such thing as the unknown. The only thing that is unknown is myself in new environments. So knowing myself and leading myself out of my comfort zone so that I can know myself more is a lifestyle. I can lead my teams with the certainty found in knowing myself and in trusting myself. And because of that, I am able to be present for them. When I stay present, I am able to empathize so we can find great solutions that work for everyone, together.
Personally I have to stay strong and focused. So I give myself time every morning to recalibrate and do my own work to make sure I have addressed any fear I may feel. Then I head out committed to be there for them 100%.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Did I ever consider giving up? Yes. But only fleetingly. Usually on days when I was felt really fatigued or frustrated. I have a small plaque on my desk of Winston Churchill’s saying : “Never never never give up.” So I read it a lot. But the motivation and drive to continue really comes from a challenge to myself. Since I was given a second chance I want to live the very best life I can live. Full out Helping people live their best lives full out is a great way to live my best life. We work with mission driven people and companies, and so my drive, and delight, is in equipping them to reach achieve their missions, which I in turns helps everyone. And physically what sustains my drive is to take very good care of myself so I can continue to show up fully.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to stay present, stay focused and stay connected. To provide a clear realistic vision. To tell the truth. To be courageous. And to stay in love.
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?
The future is always uncertain. A good morale booster is to remind our teams of that. And, that we make create our future with the decisions we make and the actions we take today. We can remind our teams that human beings are wired for adaptability and uncertain environments through the part of our intelligence system called our instincts, and engage them in conversations that include their instincts. And we can remind them that our thoughts determine our results and inspire them to think bigger, better and bolder. We inspire our teams by going first I in all of this, by walking the talk. By creating environments for them that are physically and psychologically safe so they can show up as their best selves and lead with us.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is with love. Always.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The first plan for every leader is to make sure their teams are safe — physically and psychologically. Knowing and accepting that we live in an unpredictable world where anything can happen at any moment is a healthy mindset to adopt and develop. From here, developing yourself and your teams to be present allows you to make plans in and for any environment. Then when the unexpected shows up — because it will — you can take it on as a challenge to solve rather than a calamity to overcome.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stop controlling and start connecting.
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?
If we are talking about COVID, I wouldn’t say these are difficult times. I’d say these are unprecedented times. So rather than look at if businesses are making mistakes, I think a better lens is to see how businesses are dealing with the crisies and what can be done to best support ourselves through the crisies. What are best practices?
The first thing to do is to acknowledge that it is a crisies.
From there you can assess if you are reacting or responding. Staying in reactivity is not sustainable. So what are you doing to move yourself to responsiveness? Do you have a practice of breathing? Yoga? Meditation? Prayer? Intention setting? Learning to be and stay present? This is real and proven by science to expand our resiliency which is the ability to recover from difficulty quickly.
Are you providing support for yourself and your teams? Often in times like this companies pull back on development rather than add to it. This is an opportunity to add in development to provide what is needed for the short and long term. If we are leading from fear it’s easy to forget it’s our people that will get us through this. So I need to double my supportive efforts.
If we understand what’s happening at the root — that as social beings we are being prevented from our natural way of being which is causing incredible stress, then we can create strategies based on love, empathy and compassion. We can acknowledge the reality of the situation. We can then create the basics of what we need — to pause, to breathe, to create routine, to lead with empathy, to develop patience. The pause is critically important. Taking time to input pause as a strategy is critical for success. In the pause we can reflect on where we are, and what needs to be focused on. We can celebrate the wins — no matter how small. Success builds on success, so celebrating small wins is another way to keep us focused and lead us forward.
It’s not easy but if we can stay curious, and use curiosity to lead, we are using the natural instinct inside of us that can lead us to greener pastures.
And be kind.
It’s also critically important to stay hopeful and to create new routines. One routine can be to spend five minutes a day imagining. Imagining as a team can not only increase energy, it can also be good fun and a welcome relief.
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?
For me the first step is setting the intention and making the decision to succeed. I let go of the ‘how.’. I focus on what people need. Then I step back to see how I can calibrate what I have to meet those needs. I look to see what I can create, invent, build with what I have to fill those needs. I assess who I can collaborate with to meet those needs. I stay open to reinvention. I look at every line item with curiosity and do my best to hold everything in place. For the turbulence will pass. That being said I look to see if what we have can be re-applied in a more relevant way for now. For example, with COVID if I have a travel budget and am unable to travel is there any area I can apply that to that can help stabilize us or get us ahead?. I also suggest engaging your teams to problem solve in turbulent times: to share where we are financially, where we want to be and create brainstorming session for innovative ideas to move us forward. Some other basic strategies start before you hit turbulence: not holding any debt and having good cash flow. But it doesn’t mean you can’t put those practices into place at any time. Sometimes in times of turbulence it’s easier to assess what is really needed and redistribute savings gained by pruning areas that are top heavy into cash flow or debt reduction.
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.
Step #1: Stay present and breathe.
The #1 most important thing a leader can do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times is to stay present.
How this is achieved is to know and develop yourself as a lifestyle, starting right now. We live in a world where anything can happen without warning. This has always been true. If you are not developing your ability to be and stay present, start now. If you have already stepped onto this path, consider dialing up your self-care so you can go the distance. When we don’t have the information we need and the present moment seems full of threats, we will want to reach for the safety of the past or race to protect the future. Which means we have left the present moment, leaving ourselves and our teams vulnerable.
It’s very easy to react in uncertainty. It’s better to respond.
Conscious breathing can impact our nervous system bringing us from a state of reactivity to a state of responsiveness. Our lungs span our internal cavities from the top of our shoulders to the bottom of our rib cages. So fill them all the way up breathing through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of six. You can visualize your lungs being filled up with a color. There are variations on this. Find one you love and do it several times a day, before your meetings, before you sleep. Then check if you are thinking about the past or the future and bring yourself back to the present moment. If you are resisting being in the present because you do not feel in control, let go into the understanding you are not in control of your environment. You can learn to feel in control in any environment by developing your ability to respond vs react.
As simple as this sounds, it is an important practice for any leader in any times.
Step #2 Connect, and stay connected, stay focused
It’s super important once you are connected to yourself in the present moment that you connect to your team in this moment, for this moment. All bets are off. Don’t make any assumptions. Unless you have practiced being outside of your comfort zones with your teams as part of your development, don’t assume you know how they will respond or react. Make sure you know what their needs are and if they are have been met. Then connect through an inspired vision. Connect through your common core values. Connect through what is important to them. Create psychologically safe environments for them so they can connect to you and each other. Check in frequently. Needs change, Adjust to what the needs are accordingly. Include your own. And stay focused. Stay focused on the positive. Stay focused on the whole picture. Make sure to keep communicating the vision and where you are going to your teams. Refer to #4 below for help with this.
Step #3 Make new routines
When routines have been ripped away we need to put new ones in place so we have places to pause and regroup. PWe have places where we can feel some mental and emotional relief. Routine provides this for us. You can make self-care and/or self-learning a routine which is a win/win for building resilience even as the routine provides relief.
You can start with the breathing practice mentioned above. Then you can use the current environment as a learning environment to develop yourself at your edge. You will learn what your my drivers are and why they are my your drivers which is what we need in time of turbulence to lead ourselves and others to safety.
Step #4 Put down your agenda and tell the truth.
Read your environment without any agenda and you will be able to see the truth. We gain feelings of safety from certainty. We can be certain in the truth. Tell yourself the truth. Tell your teams the truth. When you do, you can become the safe zone and your teams will follow you anywhere.
Step #5 Know your edge
As we know, our best learning is found outside of our comfort zone. And we can’t solve new problems with old thinking. We need the new thinking found outside of our comfort zone. Again best to become proficient at this before turbulence so you can use the turbulence to challenge yourself to new heights. That being said, when we are present and breathing, when we’ve connected and have created some sort of a new routine, and are willing to put down our agenda as and tell the truth, we can stand on our edge and take a step forward past it, out of the comfort zone. If you continue to put down your agenda you will be able to see and read the environment in a new way and gain the new learning that is found there. When you know your own edge and are proficient at stepping past it, you can lead others to do the same. Then the current environment becomes a learning environment to develop yourself. You and your teams can come out stronger on the other side.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have quite a few quotes that help steer me straight.
One that I reach for a lot is “Be Strong and of Good Courage.”
It’s simple and specific. In every moment I have a choice. This can be one.Choosing to be strong and of good courage is a choice I can choose to make. And I appreciate the specificity of the type of courage to reach for — good courage.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I love to hear from people. You can reach me at [email protected]. You can sign up for our newsletter on our website at vistacaballo.com. You can find me on Thrive Global: https://thriveglobal.com/authors/lisa-arie-1/ You can find me on medium: https://medium.com/@lisaarie You can find me on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/arielisa/