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Carmen Westbrook of Aina Giving: “Invest in your people”

Invest in your people. Many companies will invest in training for their employees…but how about training for the families of their employees? We are so used to a silo mentality where we think that individuals live in isolation, and we’re seeing from the current mental health crisis that that’s just not true. Isolation leads to […]

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Invest in your people. Many companies will invest in training for their employees…but how about training for the families of their employees? We are so used to a silo mentality where we think that individuals live in isolation, and we’re seeing from the current mental health crisis that that’s just not true. Isolation leads to mental wellness issues, and it is imperative for companies to start seeing their individual employees as just one member of a system outside of the workplace. What do they do for fun? Who influences them and who do they spend time with? How is their family life? All of that will impact their performance — and more, it impacts how our whole society and world runs. We have to start investing in the whole individual, and that means their family as well. Offer free training and support for family members. Bring them into company events. In the military, these are mandatory — and we can see from how much military families put up with that this strategy works to create teams and systems, instead of siloed, isolated and disenfranchised individuals.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, 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 joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

Absolutely! I started out my career working for the Canadian Consulate in Seattle, Washington, while a student at the University of Washington. I had career ambitions of getting into policy action, taking on energy use and global warming, and changing the world. And then during college I fell in love with a military officer…and twenty years later, here I am as a leadership developer training individuals and governments to be more responsible leaders. Life tends to take quite a few unexpected twists, doesn’t it? During that time, I have been a full-time stay-at-home mom, a nonprofit leader, a community organizer, a diplomat, and a CEO of a multinational company that I started in my own home. It’s definitely been a different path than one I imagined, and it’s a path I would not change now for the world.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I have so, so many stories of this, and I remember consciously storing them up in my heart so I could share them later when I deemed myself successful. One of my most vivid memories is of running up and down our street, listening to a business podcast, while our youngest napped — because I couldn’t go farther away from the home than one block down, and I needed to just get out and get moving. I started my business in my own home, juggling the kid’s school and nap schedules with my “outside of the home” work, and there were many times when I felt like I couldn’t make it all work. Frankly, there were many times when I didn’t. I thought many times — and frankly, I still do — that I should just toss in the towel and be content with what I have. I remind myself that I am content…and that that doesn’t mean tossing in the towel is a necessary next step. I think one of the things that helped me most to continue was a dedication to the cause and people that we serve — those of the most vulnerable in society, that our leadership decisions impact the most.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I don’t do humor — it’s all do or die. Ha! No, but really, it does seem pretty intense when we’re just starting a business. I think one of my most hilarious moments was when I found myself hot-gluing together a crocheted elephant because I had to have it done for that day for a photo shoot (about leaders making handmade toys for children in need). That was definitely a moment when I realized that what I was doing wasn’t making my own heart sing — which is a good sign that a pivot is needed in a company.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think that we stand out because we actually do what we teach others to do — something I learned as a mom. So we are an international group of trainers and coaches, working on four different continents, and we bring these perspectives into each of our trainings — which is one of our big philosophies, that of empowering all of the voices and seeing the greater global impact of our immediate actions. And as such, we give trainings in our nonprofit arm to women in the most vulnerable communities in the world — and then connect them with the leaders and decision-makers that we train in order to foster better decision-making for the whole society. I remember one training in particular when we had individuals from five countries and four continents discussing planning strategies for teams — and laughing about the challenges that this creates for us even in our own families. We are all human. And there’s so much scope where we can connect and actually learn from each other.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Do less. And I mean that as seriously as possible. We are obsessed with doing more in terms of money, and we’ve forgotten the main purpose behind why we work, why we even function in a collective. It’s imperative that we all slow down a bit and take time on relationships (which is one of the greatest leadership strategies for success). Do less. Your team, your family, your health will thank you for it. And if your company doesn’t — it’s the wrong company. We don’t want to be supporting that kind of culture, anyway.

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?

Oh, I have so many mentors and helpers along the way. One that I love with all of my heart is Sam House, a leadership trainer in CTI, one of the oldest leadership and coach training programs around. I went through an incredibly intense leadership journey with them, and Sam was the biggest thorn in my side throughout it all. He pushed me, poked me, found all of my weakest points and exploited them, and made me feel ridiculous in front of everyone. I am so incredibly grateful to him for doing so. I think oftentimes we want only the trainers that make us feel safe and happy, and we forget that that’s just not the way life really is — life is a nutroll, and if we want to break boundaries, we have to have some resilience and toughness. I’m so grateful for Sam for being that thorn (and continuing to be so, darn him).

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

I think of a good company as one that is serving its customers, continuing to bring in results…and is having a tough time with employee turnover. This is a great indication of a company that has some of the juice, and is missing a few magical ingredients that it really needs. I would define a great company as one that is serving a greater purpose, giving inspiration as well as monetary returns, has a company culture that inspires fandom and love and going the extra mile, and has people that want to volunteer to be a part of it, with very little turnover.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

One of the top things companies can do to make this transformation is to focus on the non-monetary returns of the business as well as those fiscal returns. A great model for how to do this is the “4 Returns Business Model Canvas.” Similar to a regular business model canvas, it includes also the inspirational, social, and ecological returns that any business creates. Simply going through the steps to identify those areas in our business can help us to realize that we are more than just about money — which is one of the key identifiers for greatness. A story of this — we use this business model canvas in all of our vulnerable population programs, in an effort to help developing nations skip over the dirty industrial phase — one that we are now realizing works well in the short run, and not so well in the long run — and go straight to the socially responsible servant economy.

Another strategy companies can use — focus on relationships. I say this so often, because it’s just something that needs to be repeated during our current task-based economy. We need to focus on relationships, because relationships run the world. Our interactions should be about 80% relationship-building, 20% task-oriented. We have seen over and over that when companies do that, it seems that many of their problems melt away. Relationships run the world. Get out there and make some relationships with your crew. Dave Ramsey is a great example of this — he can sometimes be controversial, and his crew will stand behind him and support him. That means he’s been that inspirational leader that helps and supports them in their growth.

Invest in your people. Many companies will invest in training for their employees…but how about training for the families of their employees? We are so used to a silo mentality where we think that individuals live in isolation, and we’re seeing from the current mental health crisis that that’s just not true. Isolation leads to mental wellness issues, and it is imperative for companies to start seeing their individual employees as just one member of a system outside of the workplace. What do they do for fun? Who influences them and who do they spend time with? How is their family life? All of that will impact their performance — and more, it impacts how our whole society and world runs. We have to start investing in the whole individual, and that means their family as well. Offer free training and support for family members. Bring them into company events. In the military, these are mandatory — and we can see from how much military families put up with that this strategy works to create teams and systems, instead of siloed, isolated and disenfranchised individuals.

Get coach training for your employees, and especially managers. Coaching teaches us how to listen and interact with each other in effective ways — something that increases the intelligence of the whole system of our company. This one simple step can turn around the culture of your whole organization. A great example of this is “Turn That Ship Around,” a story of a Navy Captain that adopted a coaching mentality to take one of the worst ships in the US Navy fleet to being one of the best. These skillsets are out there, and it is our job to avail ourselves of them because, right now, this is not taught in the school system. A couple of great coach training institutes are CTI (coactive philosophy) and ORSC (organizational relationship systems).

Finally — do some good for your community. And I don’t mean having a litter cleanup once a year. I mean real, actual good. Get to know some of the homeless population in your area. And I mean really actually get to know them. Sign up for our coaching vulnerable populations program. Start seeing the on-the-ground impact of your company decisions. Are you doing advertising algorithms for businesses? Great! Make sure they are businesses that are also being socially responsible — or else you’ll go back to that place of serious employee turnover. People of the younger generation are no longer willing to make money just to make money. They need to know that it will be supporting causes that matter to them as well.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Oh, this is one of my favorite questions. YES! So basically what we have found is that pursuing a strategy of growth for economic growth’s sake does not work well in the long run — it creates unhealthy societies, unhealthy environments, and social and mental unrest. One of my degrees is in economics, and I love putting numbers to things — and economists, of all people, know just how much that really isn’t possible. We love to try to put a value on clean air or happiness, for example, in order to predict future impacts of current policies — and we know how much numbers fall woefully short in doing so. Companies that just pursue numbers cut out the human, relationship aspect of us — and that is our most human aspect. In the companies that we work with that don’t emphasize their purpose and social impact, we see huge turnover and not great culture. If we wouldn’t want our kids working in that culture…we shouldn’t make it in our own company. We as parents love to teach our kids that they can do anything, can take on the world and solve all of these issues — and we have to be willing to walk that walk ourselves, even if that means a huge pivot (I’ve been there, by the way. Painful and such payoff in the long run).

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

So this is a great time to get in an outside trainer (most coaching firms — ours included — offer this) to help your team go through a sensing session. Finland has a great model for this, where teams can bring in supervisor coaches to help the group sense through the issue that is going on. If a company has reached a standstill, it’s for a reason. It’s so important for us as leaders to realize that this is the world trying to tell us something, trying to help us to move onto the path that our business was meant to be on. If it’s not working, it’s not our job to just keep working harder and more. It’s our job to stop and listen to what’s being said, and see the bend in the road that is needed. And then courageously go there. When we involve our team in this, they will stand by us and help to make that necessary change possible.

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?

We listen. We listen really, really, really hard to our team, our consumers, the world. We pay attention to the issues that people are actually having, and then go out there and serve them. And we meet them where they are, and where they can pay. That, in the end, is our actual job as a business in the world — serving the needs of our society. Coca cola is really great at serving inspiration and fun to people in the form of a drink. We need inspiration and fun right now in a serious way — and the society right now is demanding something other than sugary drinks. How can coca cola do that? Clearly they do a lot more than just that one thing… and, for some reason, that thing isn’t working anymore. Whenever growth stagnates, it’s because we’re no longer being of service to our society. If we want to be a business, we must continue to use our edge and our creativity to serve what’s actually needed, not just what’s easiest.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Being a support structure for our teams. I have been hearing this more and more as the covid situation has been going on — statements such as “I find myself just being a counselor to my team all day.” There is no just about that statement, my friends. That is almost the full job of a leader — which we just forget in our busy lives of trying to get stuff done. We, as leaders, should spend the majority of our time supporting and empowering our teams. They will then go and make their amazing creative magic happen. Instead of focusing on getting in the next report, focus on supporting your team. And we as leaders need to start calling that out and naming it — and start getting coaches or other support structures for ourselves, too.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Have actual conversations with your customers. This can be slower and longer…and it just makes sense. Customers right now need, more than ever, an expert in the industry that will consult with them and help them find what they really need. Sometimes we refer our customers to a competitor — not because we love self flagellation, but because we love our customers and serve them over everything else. Instead of having “buy now!” buttons all over the place, start having “how can we help you?” buttons all over the place — and a really well-trained staff member on the other end of that line.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I think the 4 returns business model is so helpful here, because businesses start realizing that they are giving to their customers something much more than just one product. Find the inspiration that you are serving to your customers and increase it. If you are not giving them inspiration — that is motivation around a common vision and purpose — then you will not become a beloved brand, you will become a machine that they occasionally use. And if you, as a business leader, cannot find the inspiration that you do actually serve…then we recommend that you and your team do some sensing sessions together to find it. With so many companies out there and so many options for consumers, we must have something that makes our customers into a tribe. And our best customers are our team members — so they need to be on board with it too. Along with inspiration, think about the social and ecological returns you are giving as well. All of that is mandatory in order to be that “go-to” brand for individuals.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Get a customer service agent that has a coaching certification, and tell them to just have coaching conversations with your customers. Coaching conversations differ from other conversations in that their goal is to help the client find the answers that they already have inside of themselves. This is mandatory to have that Wow! Customer Experience because it helps our customers discover something amazing about themselves — and everybody loves that ;). Have those coaching conversations, be open to radical relationships, and you’ll have customers that refer others to your brand, even if they don’t buy from you (that time).

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

I am on social media every day as the head of my company. I talk about everything from abortion to sex/power/intimacy to religion. Yes. Yes I do. And we have rabid followers that are desperate to be a part of our company somehow. This is not because they agree with my position. This is because they realize that we are a safe place to disagree and still be in relationship with each other. We as leaders must inspire and demonstrate to others that we can absolutely disagree and still maintain fantastic relationships with each other. Social media is a great place to start this. We simply need to be able to listen to and be open to disagreements, and empower those voices to be heard. Pretty much every voice out there is trying to say something — getting to the heart of that helps to heal societies, and thus heal and improve our reputations.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think that would be not starting. Ha! And seriously. I see so many people with amazing, fantastic ideas that they are afraid to launch because it won’t be perfect. Here is a secret: It will never be perfect. Never ever ever. So you might as well launch it and get some feedback on the product itself instead of just waiting for forever. Just go do something, and hear what people have to say about it. A good idea here is to put out the MVP — minimum viable product — and get responses. And in order to make yourself resilient…start your business with a group. That way when your product takes hits or bombs, you have a bunch of voices around you telling you that it’s fine, it can be worked out, and to try again. Teams breed success.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start one thing, it would be to pay mothers for the incredibly valuable service that they give to humanity. We so devalue the mother job, and we have so forgotten that without mothers sacrificing their time and own personal goals, our species would literally not continue. We have to start valuing the incredible service that mothers have given throughout the ages to our society, and stop punishing them for “gaps in their resume” (no stay-at-home mom ever would call those years a gap in experience). I’d like to see mothers get the payment and respect for what they do.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow us on Facebook, Linkedin, and Instagram at Aina Giving — we love our tribe and are so happy to support and inspire them into their own brand of greatness!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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