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 Suzanne Jeffreys.
Suzanne Jeffreys, MS in Ed, is a Speaker, Educator and Founder of CEO Wellness. Drawing upon her diverse background as a Tai Chi Instructor, renowned horse whisperer, serial entrepreneur, Certified Nutrition Therapist, network marketer and former first grade teacher, she knows that leaders must lead themselves first mentally, physically and emotionally. Only then will they develop the clarity, resiliency, compassion and authenticity that truly effective leaders embody. Suz has empowered thousands worldwide to go from leadership burnout to life/business balance for more than 25 years. She had co-produced, co-written and co-starred in 5 award winning DVDs on leadership with horses, and recently co-authored the book, The Art of Connection. Her signature Harmony of Body & Mind Method helps high achievers stress less, power up and succeed with ease and joy.
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?
Growing up a total bookworm (my favorite books were stories of girls and horses), I began my professional career as a first grade teacher. I was passionate about helping children learn to love reading as much as I did. After being married, having two children and getting divorced while they were very little, life was a struggle. I taught first grade in NY and loved it, but never seemed to have enough time or money to take care of my own children the way I wanted. They spent too many hours in childcare, and I never had enough money to pay the bills. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough, and became a total stress mess.
Then I discovered Tai Chi, the ancient martial art and moving meditation. I was sitting in on my kid’s kung fu class, cheering all the kids on, when I heard this soft music wafting down the hallway. I followed it to the other classroom and saw people moving harmoniously, in a beautiful, slow motion flow. As I watched, I felt my stress begin to melt away. So I decided to study Tai Chi, and that decision changed everything. As I learned, I began to find my flow. When I began to implement the 1800 year old wisdom principles of Tai Chi, life became easier. I learned to work smarter, not harder. I was less stressed, more centered and success came easier. Eager to share this transformational experience with others, I completed a 5 year long Tai Chi Instructor program. There was still a lot going on in our lives, but with my newfound ability to stress less, power up and protect my energy, life was more balanced and harmonious. Years later, I decided to adopt a rescue horse. And that’s when horses came back into my life. It was another remarkable life changer because horses taught me so much about leadership.
Now as a speaker, author and educator, I teach self care, communication and leadership to other high achievers, and created CEO Wellness. Our motto is healthy body, healthy mind, healthy business. I’m passionate about co-creating out-of-the-box solutions with my clients, groups and businesses to stress less, power up and succeed with ease.
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, oh my gosh, I made so many mistakes! And that’s ok, that’s usually how we learn the most valuable lessons. Probably my biggest mistake was just trying to do everything myself. I’d have a list of 53 things on my to do list each day, and actually thought I could get it all done, lol! Then I learned to simplify and delegate, working smarter, not harder. And that’s an important lesson I’ve carried through in business. It’s not that we always have to do more or be more. We just have to focus on what we do really well, and find people to do the other work, especially if it’s their passion or expertise.
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?
Yes, that person is my husband, but the reason may surprise you. Remember, I had adopted a rescue horse. And because this abused horse, Sienna, was very fearful, she was also very dangerous. A scared horse can kill you just as easily as an aggressive horse when they run over you to get away from whatever’s scaring them. So I hired a renowned horse whisperer, Bob Jeffreys, who could train her with compassion. He helped Sienna become calmer, safer, and rideable. He directed her energy very much as someone would do in Tai Chi, teaching her sometimes without even touching her. No force, just channeling her movement with clarity and purpose. I was struck by his ability to calm her, and become her leader. And I was inspired by her transformation. So I thought, why not learn how to train horses? I was already teaching people!
Funny enough, initially Bob did not want to work with me. He said that I could work on the odd jobs, the stuff he didn’t want to do, and be his apprentice. But he would never have another business partner because he’d had bad experiences with others in the past. When I agreed, he walked away, clueless about how determined I was to prove him wrong. I thought, “Bob, you have no idea who you are talking to. Just watch me!” And I dug in, very clear that my goal was to grow his business so much that he would ask me to become his partner. So my 15 year journey of being a professional horse whisperer and Tai Chi-influenced riding instructor began. I worked hard learning to train horses, teaching myself marketing to get more customers, and helping him learn to teach people better. Did I mention that he was a fabulous horse trainer, but not so good with people? So I taught him about people, and he taught me about horses. I wove in aspects of Tai Chi that made success easier for us all. Within a year and a half we trained a lot of horses, and empowered a lot of people. We taught them how to communicate with each other so they could be safe, have fun, and enjoy the journey together. And within 18 months, I was co-owner of Two as One Horsemanship.
I’m grateful to Bob because when he said I couldn’t do it, it was a challenge I couldn’t resist. In the process I had to learn to overcome my fears, get comfortable with power, and become the leader I never knew I could be. It was a life changing career with 15 years of travel all around North America teaching, training and performing in front of thousands. By the way, after 15 years we got married. So now we are life partners, too.
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?
Well, when we started Two as One Horsemanship, our vision was to help people create safe, fulfilling relationships with their horses. Then I began to see the larger impact in our student’s lives, as they applied the same communication and leadership principles to interpersonal relationships with their families, friends, and business colleagues, too. That’s when I realized that my larger purpose was to empower women to face their fears, stress less, power up, and become the leaders that they were meant to be. Sharing how to succeed with ease while they protected their own energy and well being. My clients learned how to stop trading their wellbeing for their work. And I founded CEO Wellness. CEO stands for Chief Empowerment Officer. If we want to be leaders in our businesses and successful in life, we need to take care of our bodies and minds. Great success starts with self care; we must lead ourselves first.
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?
No matter what’s going on in the world, we know that stress and challenges will always be a part of it. As we succeed more in business, problems don’t go away; they just change. What’s the saying, “New level, new devil?”. We must address challenges thoughtfully, with wisdom, rather than reacting impulsively. Responding with appreciation and gratitude, rather than reacting from fear or anger. We can then flow more easily and create success over time without compromising our own well being, or the wellbeing of our team.
A key lesson I learned with horses is that when times are difficult or uncertain, stress increases. Both horses and people struggle when there’s lack of clarity. When we’re confused, we waste a lot of energy. And yet that’s exactly when we really need to get grounded and clear. I learned this the hard way, with a horse named Pete, who was very aggressive. He had almost killed several people. He was brought to us for training so that the daughter of the owner could handle and ride him safely. Bob didn’t want anything to do with that horse, but I decided to take Pete in for training because I wanted to prove to myself that I was a real, top notch horse trainer. I thought, “ If I’m afraid of a horse like this, how can I really believe in myself?” So even though no one was forcing me to, I took on this very dangerous horse.
What I found was that I really had to face my own fears, I had to take charge, to be very clear and very consistent. This horse was so reactionary and aggressive, if I moved too quickly, or I wasn’t clear about my purpose, it would stress him out. And as a result of the stress, he would get very aggressive, charging, kicking and biting. So I learned that I had to get very quiet, and yet stand my ground. When I gave him boundaries, guiding him, channeling his energy and teaching him small things that he could do easily, he stressed less. I wanted to make sure he knew he was succeeding, so I acknowledged every small step of progress. Of course, horses don’t understand more than a few words, so instead of saying. “Thank you”, or “Great job, you’re really making progress!”, as we do with people, instead it was all body language. For example, a deep breath, a momentary relaxing of my signal or the squeezing of my legs when I was in the saddle, or even a softening of my gaze when I was looking at Pete. When horses know they “got the right answer”, they feel good about it, and relax a little. They begin to trust. And that’s when together we break through.
When I used these strategies, Pete the horse began to shine, becoming cooperative, eager to please, and happy to become a real partner with his owners, rather than a problem. We transformed each other ,and I’ll always be grateful for that experience.
When we’re leading our team through challenges in our businesses, it’s really the same thing. Together we brainstorm, talking, listening, and honoring each other. We create a plan with small, doable steps. When a team makes progress, and that progress is appreciated, everyone feels better. When a team makes progress without sacrificing the well being of any person in the team, trust is built. With progress and trust, the team gets stronger, and we can achieve our goals together.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve almost given up so many times. You know life can be tough no matter what we’re doing. In the world of horses. I I almost gave up several times on that Pete because I was really just downright scared. I knew inside that I had the tools and the techniques to work through his fears by working through my own. But sometimes it was really hard, and really scary. So on those days, I gave myself permission to just stop and “give up” on Pete for the rest of the day. But every morning, every single morning, I started again. And I felt better. Because I had let it go, I had given it some space. Sometimes when I slept, the answers came to me. I believe if our vision is big enough, really in alignment with our values, even when things get tough, we find a way to stick with it and stay the course. So I “quit” more than once, but only until the next morning. Seeing the transformation in the horses, and especially the people, is what kept me going. Their stories about how their lives changed fuel me to this day! I know that transformation can happen for each person I teach, if they are willing to do the work.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leading by example is always important: even more so in difficult times. If I want my team to avoid burnout, I need to avoid burnout. If I want my team to serve my clients, well, then I need to serve my team well. If I want my team to show more gratitude for each other, I show more gratitude, genuinely, for them. If I want my team to problem-solve and collaborate effectively, I need to listen to their needs, have an open mind, and help them create solutions. Then we can move forward because honestly, all people really want is to make progress.
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?
Being authentic, transparent and honest, and having a sense of humor is the best way to boost morale. Sharing stories of our own challenges and self doubts, and how we overcame them builds bridges and fuels hope. Morale really tanks when we pretend everything’s okay: that can be such a disconnect. Or when we expect our team to do as we say, not as we do. That’s when morale really stinks, because we’re not being fair. Leading by example, having a sense of humor, being compassionate, and giving people the tools to improve is empowering. That’s where people see progress. And then progress, improves morale and keeps people motivated.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicating with clarity and respect, is always best, especially with difficult conversations. It begins by creating an open flow of connection, reaching not only when times are tough, but also when all is well. That sets the tone of open communication.
I always ask myself, how would I want to be told about this news? Would I want someone to delay telling me, being indirect and unclear, or would I rather be told clearly and kindly? And what would that look like? It’s so important to approach the most difficult conversations in alignment with our core values.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’m such a believer that we create our own futures. Dr Forrest C. Shaklee said, “The easiest way to predict our future is to create it.” We don’t know all the things that will happen to us in the future, but we can choose how we respond.
When it comes to long term goals, I love backward engineering: starting with a big goal a few years away, and then planning out how to reach it. I also love having actionable short term goals that lead to a “shoot for the stars” goal. Because of course if you shoot for the stars, well, at least you may reach the moon. And when we come together with that clarity, we can make a little progress each day taking small steps that lead to bigger steps and maybe then to something better.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Core values are key! Establishing and then maintaining the core values of the company, such as integrity, excellence and compassion helps us stay the course. Co-creating the primary 3–4 core values is a great process to share with our teams. When people take part in establishing the company culture, they take ownership. Opt-in increases, and often a richer, more beautiful culture is created and maintained.
At CEO Wellness our core values are love, service and impact. We love ourselves first: that includes self-care, such as stress management, fitness, eating healthy, sleeping well… and having fun, too! We also cultivate the attitude of service: how can we treat our clients with love and respect? How can we treat each other better? How can we serve our members and our customers better together? Coming from love and service simplifies navigating the ups and downs, because we get very clear on what’s important, and what’s not. We can then move forward in a way that not only brings progress, but also allows us to take care of ourselves and each other in those times.
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?
The most common mistake I see other businesses making during difficult times is getting stuck, defensive and resistant. When we are focused on the problem, we’re focused on the negative, and that takes a huge amount of energy. It’s a complete waste of time. So I look for the possibilities as things change. What may now be possible? How can we be resilient? How can we adapt to the new needs? What can we do that’s creative, that maybe we’ve never thought of doing before, that we thought was way too crazy to do? And how can we include those possibilities as new ways of serving our people? Take the focus off the problem, focus on the solution instead.
I’ve also seen companies really drop prices dramatically, hoping to get a wider customer base. The problem is when we become the cheapest, we attract customers who are looking for the cheapest prices. There’s no customer loyalty there. As soon as they find a lower price elsewhere, they disappear. Instead, when we build a relationship with our customers and clients by serving them well, we create loyalty. So in a time of difficulty, I do not recommend dropping prices. Learn how to serve customers better, reach out and check in on them, showing them you care.
Another common mistake I see some businesses make during difficult times is taking away benefits from their team. Sometimes we do have to cut costs. But then I’m going to take that hit first myself. I will absolutely do everything I can to absorb that cost myself before going to the team to brainstorm ways to cut costs. Sometimes the best solutions come up during collaborative meetings, when everyone is all in. This creates lasting loyalty in your team. When people feel valued, they are really motivated to stick together, even when times are tough.
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?
Brainstorm solutions with mentors or other people you respect as advisors. Sometimes experts in other professions can offer great ideas we never would’ve thought of, because they have such different perspectives. I have a circle of business people who I have a lot of respect for and we mastermind, giving each other suggestions and ideas. We do a lot of brainstorming and through those brainstorming, opportunities can be created. That’s when we can really make some wonderful growth changes. And sometimes we end up collaborating on a win-win project!
Be resilient: ask how we can continue to serve our people in these times. Decide not to be rigid, like the oak tree, which blows over in a storm. Be like the willow, deeply rooted and yet flexible. We can be really deeply rooted in our values, and yet resilient, when times are tough. For example, I’ve led many large group trainings and classes over the years, in many locations, teaching Tai Chi, stress management and leadership. In 2020 when so many venues were shut down due to COVID, I decided that it was time to develop online classes and workshops. Believe me, that was a huge learning curve! But I was also able to reach and serve more people. Now I have Tai Chi students and clients from all around the world. So many people and teams were looking for ways to stress less, protect their energy, and create a healthier life/work balance. So it’s really expanded well beyond what I was able to do before. Sometimes new opportunities require learning new skills. I had to learn far more about video editing, for example, for my Tai Chi videos than I ever wanted. Find out what other people are doing, see how you can adapt their solutions to your business. And be sure to offer suggestions and support to other people in your circles so that you can lift each other up.
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.
1. Choose calm: respond, don’t react. Fear takes us out of action, paralyzing us. Or sometimes we can panic and overreact, making hasty decisions based on emotions, without learning all the facts. When I was training abused or dangerous horses, if I overreacted, moving too fast, they might try to attack, kicking, rearing or biting because of their fear. If I froze up because I was afraid, with the horses running around me, the horse might get confused and panic, running away or attacking. It was my job as the leader of our two animal herd (me and the horse) to stay calm and take charge by guiding the horse’s movement, instead of fighting it. The horse would ultimately relax and feel safer, knowing I was a trustworthy leader. Fear takes us out of action. And correct action takes us out of fear.
2, Embrace clarity. Staying clear and committed to the vision of your company or purpose is more important than ever in uncertain times. I’m clear that my intention is to serve my team, clients, and students. That is always my top priority. And I communicate that with my actions, not just my words. Further, when we’re clear on the task at hand, we’re able to communicate that much more easily to people, and to horses, too. With horses we communicate with body language and our energy. Whether it’s teaching the horse to turn left or right, going faster, or slower, learning to walk through a stream or take a jump, as the leader we must have a clear purpose. Whether leading horses or people, empowering them with clarity, and compassion, to achieve that next step is truly transformational leadership. This is a leader that people will trust and follow.
3, Communicate effectively. Communication has two parts: expressing ourselves clearly, and listening well. And sometimes it’s not just listening to words, it’s observing, too. In Tai Chi, we call it “listening with all our senses”. We begin by developing better self awareness. Plus we watch what others do. We listen to their body language, and we observe their actions over time. We get to know people, their needs and goals, their strengths and weaknesses. So we can see where there’s confusion, where there’s frustration, where maybe the people we’re working with are hitting their head against the wall. Effective communication, listening and expressing ourselves clearly, is hugely important in turbulent times.
4. Create a simple, measurable plan of action. In the world of Tai Chi, the Long Form has 99 very specific moves. Every single move is highly choreographed and has a very specific self defense purpose, although it looks like a beautiful dance. It’s highly efficient and effective. When we have a specific plan, we eliminate chaos so people can stop stressing, start focusing and get back into action. Confusion is exhausting and waste tons of time and energy!
5. Be authentic. Acknowledge that times are challenging. Be honest and human, sharing a few of your concerns. Maybe laugh at yourself a little, showing vulnerability without oversharing. Then explain how you’re managing or overcoming your concerns, obstacles or fears. Be the example so people can feel understood, and see how to overcome whatever is holding them back from being their best. If you want your team to stress less, share some ways in which you manage stress (spending time in nature, watching funny movies, doing Tai Chi, etc). If you want your team to get to work on time, be sure to get to work on time yourself. And acknowledge progress honestly and compassionately.
These five tips may empower people to rise up beyond their wildest dreams. And beyond yours, too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” by Henry David Thoreau is the quote that has always inspired me, especially at the lowest points of my life. These words always gave me hope. When I felt helpless, I knew the first step was to envision the life I wanted. Then I’d begin to see possibilities for change and success.
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