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 Mark Carter, an international keynote speaker, trainer and coach. He has over 20 years’ experience as a global learning and development professional. He’s worked with companies in many industries, including global projects, establishing learning capabilities across pillars such as leadership, culture, onboarding, sales and operations. His TEDxCasey talk ‘Paws and Effect: how teddy bears increase value perception was the movie trailer for his latest book Add Value. You can contact Mark at www.markcarter.com.au or his book site addvalue.markcarter.com.au
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?
My first role in learning and development was with Contiki Holidays, part of Travcorp. I’d already worked in countries on location and as a tour leader for a couple of years. My boss invited me to lunch to say she wanted me to be her training manager the following year. It was seen as a somewhat prestigious role, plus afforded the opportunity of playing in a soccer match in Florence. I said yes and recall saying something like ‘it will be fun’. She leaned across the table replying ‘no, you’ll do it because you belong to people and this is what you should be doing.’ Fast forward now over 2 decades and I’ve been, in the main, working across learning, development, people and behaviour ever since. My path opened up because someone else saw that potential before I did.
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?
My early mistakes as a trainer, facilitator and educator primarily happened in the four years I ran training programs developing leaders for Contiki, or within Travcorp sister companies. This was also before I’d completed globally recognized tools or certifications too such as MBTI, DISC, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) or others. When I look back now I can see I got better each year. Some of the mechanisms I developed or used back then I still use today. That said I can also see, with others, I’d be more careful or selective in their use. For example using mirrors as a daily trophy inscribed with ‘have a good hard look at yourself’ for whoever was deemed to have messed up the most! Even though it was a little tongue in cheek fun in what was, at times, an intense learning environment. Two decades later though I’ve developed more sophisticated, or perhaps kinder, tools encouraging self reflection that aren’t perhaps quite so brash or in ones face. There are many situations that spring to mind the lesson is the same: Be more selective where brashness is required and one can be candid and simultaneously still be kind.
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?
In my first book ‘Ignite Your Potential’ I dedicate a closing chapter to a Florentine, Señor Paolo Fortini. He was a larger than life character. An ambassador, supplier, fixer for Contiki and Travcorp. Their main man in Italy so to speak. Paolo a deep voice that demanded attention, a booming laugh and a magnificent expressive face. Features such as a thick moustache and bushy eyebrows that he deliberately raised for wide attention during storytelling, he might also dramatically slam down quicker than garage doors. All that and a playful big kid at heart. He is one of few people I consider a mentor of sorts and his philosophy for life was to achieve three things: write a book, plant a tree, raise a child. Each being symbolic of not only the literal thing itself but other significant traits or life milestones. I continue to learn from many people, I’m selective who I choose to listen to or learn from. Especially in a digital age where charlatans easily pump up the volume of their own ego or where self proclaimed genius or information abounds that’s about as substantial in reality as candy floss.
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?
This is a theme I’ve been writing or contributing to greatly of late. My immediate vision or purpose back then hasn’t necessarily changed so much. Perhaps the manner with which I strive to achieve it is grander in design or scope: to ensure people I impact daily are positively enriched as a result of that experience in a way that adds value to their lives. I’ve also learned this may happen and you may only hear about it years later, or perhaps not at all. Simultaneously, not everyone is going to love you, so what I can control is the intent with which input and interactions are given. How they’re received is beyond my control. Of course there are now other aspects to this such as alignment with organizations, philanthropy, specific businesses or causes making a massive positive difference in the world.
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?
The single skill I’ve learnt, during many scenarios, to work with people on in my own sphere, or the organizations I service, during difficult times is that of adaptability. Even in a world pre-covid, things change so rapidly that greater adaptability is required. Leading people through uncertainty or difficulties I have learned to help the individuals navigate the path of change, to break their fixed mindsets, the meaning (often negative) they may give to situations, or to adopt a more open mindset. This may include retaining traditions or routines that still serve a purpose yet to do so in an updated fashion or be open to new ways. I work with the layers that make up each individual simultaneously arming them with practical skills such as creativity, adaptive thinking, communication skills and tools for continued personal and professional development.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes. Plenty of times in the past and there are still times now where I may shrug and ask myself, silently internally or aloud in draft, why am I even bothering doing this?! Is it worth the pain or hassle. Even highly motivated, purpose driven people have moments, even days, of doubts. It’s part of the human condition. I often share a concept that no matter what is going on I can still choose to be my best. Whilst simultaneously appreciating ones best is not always equal either so it’s important to also be kind to oneself.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think James Allen said it best back in 1903 in the small book ‘As A Man Thinketh’. The principle is one I’ve learned time and time again when faced with challenges as a leader. ‘Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.’ I would say calmness is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times. The gravity of a situation may be diluted, its pull altered, or any forces threatening destruction become less so when the central role of leadership is one of calm. Calmness then is no different than the sun in the center of our own corner of the greater universe: where all else becomes infused with its light or beckons and heels to the call of its gravitational pull. Calmness of mind is a priceless gift, one mindfully gifts to self.
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 best ways to inspire, motivate and engage a team is firstly to appeal to the motivation, drive and inspiration of each individual of the team. When they feel you know them and help them continually with their own unique, individual learning pathway, any collective team messages or sessions also become more powerful. Help navigate each individual from problem to solution thinking. The skill to learn here is learning to ask your team, individually or collectively, better questions that allows them to see fresh perspectives or self discover solutions leveraging their own strengths.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Authentically and candidly! Be authentic, be real, be candid, don’t sugar coat stuff. Take responsibility or accountability. Where needed, be humbly contrite. No one is perfect. Do that and at the same time demonstrate an intent and willingness to navigate any difficult news or challenge at hand to the best of ones ability. ‘This too shall pass’. All difficulties do. Until the next one! And so flows the light and dark cycle of life. All of which is a gift that allows us to grow.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I love this conversation. Especially when you accept the only thing one can ever truly control is ones own mind: thinking, choices or actions. Everything external is beyond our control. That said there is a magic to clarity, genuine positive mindset or even creative visualization. When you plan for the best and move towards it with firm belief, commitment and conviction, the external world often yields. I think an older Nasa philosophy was along the lines of expecting the best yet planning for the worst. I’d flip and adapt that a little to something like plan for the best, expect the best, then, through adaptability and calmness, know with a humble quiet confidence you are armed with skills to navigate the worst if needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
That number one principle is the whole reason for the title of my latest book. Add value. When a business is genuinely, consistently, adding value to all its key stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, communities, shareholders or even wider global communities and countries) then the turbulence of times, the ups and downs, become steadier, easier to traverse or not quite so detrimental in the long run. Even where you get things wrong, where intent or reason to add value is sound, forgiveness is also more forthcoming.
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?
When things are difficult, especially in tougher or down turn type markets, businesses often cut some of the most important mechanisms that will deliver better results: such as continued education and training. Keep investing here even where, especially when, difficulties exist. Businesses may also choose to apply extra effort or resources to creativity when difficulties emerge, yet they are doing so due to reactivity. Creativity and reactivity are the same letters: yet acting creatively, reactively, may also prove to be more hit and miss at a time you can ill afford the failed practice. Don’t wait till difficulties arise to dedicate time or resources to ongoing creativity or innovation.
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?
In a difficult economy it’s a great time to revisit your points of difference and re educate market or potential customers. What is unique about you, your product, your service or your team that less than half the competitors are doing. Simultaneously what is valuable: put yourself in your customers shoes. Does this feature or aspect of your service resolve a significant pain or fulfil a sought after desire? When you can re educate aspects that are both highly unique and highly valuable there is a greater chance of standing out. This principle is aligned with concepts from solution selling. Become more targeted in who you focus and dedicate time to. Not every customer is one you need to win. It’s important to know which opportunities or avenues not to chase as much as which ones to go after. That said, you may find that pillar of adapatability opens up new avenues that previously didn’t exist.
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.
Remain calm. Calmness is power. I have so many stories from leading groups for Contiki where this applied, from serious injuries and health risks to annoyances such as breakdowns, missed ferries, extensive border controls or major delays. Calmness is infectious. So is stress. Whatever you’re kicking out energetically as a leader, you’re being a tuning fork and you can expect to see lots of that resonance bounced back to you in kind.
Be adaptable in everything: small to grand. I’m a classic suit, European sort of guy. Yet it’s not the first time I’ve forgotten to pack cufflinks for that daytrip or overnighter for a keynote. It’s amazing the things one can use instead of Swarovski accessories: sugar sachets and rubber bands included. There’s always a way through or around, no matter the problem. Focus on that.
Know thyself. Wise words that legend has it once sat above the temples of Delphi. Know thyself and then be willing to listen to your world around. After my first ever tour as a leader for Contiki several clients gave the same sort of feedback. ‘Mark’s an awesome guy but shows some favoritism’. I don’t, I wasn’t, yet that wasn’t the point. Rather than write that feedback off I asked myself a better question: what am I doing that makes people think I’m showing favoritism? And then it hit me. It’s basic DISC profiling, how people function, sort of stuff. I was gravitating naturally more towards the extroverted, cheeky, creative talk aloud types, leaving the introverted folks a little more in peace so as not to disturb their space or equilibrium. They were interpreting it as favoritism.
Be the best you can be consistently. The question I’m often asked most as a keynote presenter is where do I get my energy or creativity from. To which my answer is simple yet real. I choose it. It doesn’t matter if the session is 8am, noon, 5pm, midnight (especially virtual with the other side of the world), or whether it’s themes I’ve covered elsewhere before. This group haven’t heard it, certainly not today and may never again. I need to be present, be my best and give my best, whatever best is for that day.
Judge less, accept more and be patient with people. Some of your team may leave things to the last minute to get things done. Which I know from coaching and developing managers and leaders annoys the hell out of some of them. Others will break things down and deliver steady components consistently. Which also may annoy some managers or leaders more inclined to spontaneity. This is a simple example only of the greater theme. People work best in different ways, perhaps not like your own. Keep learning about people, judge less, accept more and be patient in developing and harnessing the gists, skills and perspectives of others. To do so pays dividends of all kinds in the long game.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
An epic quote from Epictetus: ‘It’s not what happens that’s important, it’s how you choose to respond.’ And that is always in our minds and hands. When I really grasped this concept it has helped over the years in many ways diffuse stress or reinstate serenity. Late flights, meh. Whatevs. That person doesn’t like you. Okay, sometimes it hurts, badly. Yet it’s okay. Not everyone is going to love or even like you. Not everything will be peaches and cream. Sometimes a beetroot will find a way to stain that lovely fresh clean shirt (that’s a metaphor by the way, where the beetroot clearly represents a mess or drama and the shirt is your own peace of mind). You can change your shirt (change your headspace) or accept that a few stains in life, no different than the inclusions (or flaws) within diamonds, don’t distract from their beauty or ability to shine. PS. You’re the diamond!
How can our readers further follow your work?
The new book site is https://addvalue.markcarter.com.au
My website is www.markcarter.com.au which has my purposeful social media links on.
I also have a bespoke academy anyone can grab an entry complimentary profile for which unlocks periodically rotating content for access: download the free app ‘Ignite Your Potential’ (either IOS or Android) and follow the bouncing ball.