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“Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success”, With Author Mark M. Brown

Adversity is our best teacher. Early on during my time at the dealerships, the president of the company called me in to tell me that the trainer who tells me that the sales trainer they had hired would not be able to continue, and I would have to take over the training the next morning. […]

Adversity is our best teacher. Early on during my time at the dealerships, the president of the company called me in to tell me that the trainer who tells me that the sales trainer they had hired would not be able to continue, and I would have to take over the training the next morning. I had overnight to prepare to run that training program. I didn’t sleep much that night, but the training went extremely well and I ended up taking over all of the training in the sales department. A few months later, due in large part to my success in developing new salespeople, I was asked to take over leading the entire sales function. This only came because of the challenge that happened and my response to it.


As a part of my series about “Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark M. Brown, the author of Outward Bound Lessons To Live A Life of Leadership (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019). A former Outward Bound Instructor, Mark has worked as a coach and consultant, guiding organizations and leaders through change. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island, Hawaii.

Mark Brown is the author of Outward Bound Lessons to Live a Life of Leadership: To Serve, to Strive, and Not To Yield. Originally a native of Northeastern Ohio, Mark moved to Naples, Florida where he worked as a writer and magazine editor. At the age of 25, he decided to attend a 23-day trip to an Outward Bound course in Utah. After taking a temporary job as a van driver for Outward Bound in Minnesota, he helped successfully search for and rescue a teenage boy that had become separated from the group. After this, Outward Bound asked him to become an instructor which began a 22-year working relationship with the organization. He accrued over 1,000 days in the wilderness as an instructor. He earned a master’s degree in business/entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University and has since served as a transformational leadership consultant in a variety of industries.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?

Iworked for a couple of start-ups out of college. I was in my mid-twenties, and, quite frankly, I felt a bit lost. I was finding professional success but I felt quite unhappy. A couple of friends suggested I take some time off and attend an Outward Bound Course. I enrolled on a 23-day program in Utah, and the experience was life-changing. The trip itself was incredible, both in its challenges and my sense of accomplishment. But what really surprised me the most was how much I became a leader during the expedition.

During the trip, I found myself drawn to the Outward Bound leaders. As I said in my book, “I didn’t know what it was they had. I only knew I wanted it.” With reflection and years of experience, I can say that what drew me was their genuineness. I was, for the first time, in the presence of people who were completely themselves, and were utilizing that for the betterment of others. This is the role of an Outward Bound instructor.

Two years after that trip, I showed up to visit the Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) base in northern Minnesota, called Homeplace. VOBS was in the midst of one of its busiest summers in history and was a bit short-staffed. I was hired for three weeks to drive a 15-passenger van and to support courses in the field. Near the end of my time there, a teenage boy became separated from his group and lost in the Boundary Waters. I became part of a backcountry search and rescue team, and after three days we found him — ; hungry, afraid, and bug-bitten, but otherwise unharmed.

The next day, the staffing director asked if I would like to stay and train to become an Outward Bound instructor. It was one of the proudest moments of my life and began a more than 20-year career as an instructor, course director, and program manager for Outward Bound. After nearly a decade in the field, I began working with corporations through Outward Bound’s professional development programs, which led me to the work I do today — guiding leaders and organizations through change.

Can you share your story about “Grit and Success”? First, can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey.?

In 2012, I was invited to join the leadership team of a 90-year-old, family-owned business. The company owned and operated several auto dealerships, and my position was called Director of Corporate Potential. I was there because the fourth-generation owners, a brother, and sister both in their thirties, had recently taken over leadership from their father and wanted their family company to be “a vehicle for good” in the world. The other leaders had spent their entire careers at the company and there were skepticism and resistance to making changes. This was also the car business, which does not have a good reputation in the world for operating in integrity and ethics. I was walking into an industry as a leader having had no experience in the business, which also led to extreme resistance and doubt from the managers within the company.

A few months after I began leading the first “expeditionary leadership” program of change within the company, the brother who owned the company became ill and took a leave of absence from the business. Because I had a master’s in business/entrepreneurship and had previous marketing experience, I was asked to take over his duties as a “temporary marketing and communications director” in addition to my corporate potential duties. His condition worsened and he eventually passed away from the illness. His sister had been running the sales operation and, as the family grieved, she was not able to be present to the business. I was again asked to step up and take over the sales departments as well. I now found myself responsible for more than $100 million in sales, a $1.8 million marketing budget, and all of the training and leadership development within the company.

Even though I had never worked in car sales, I now found myself responsible for the entire variable operations of the company. Yet the experience felt like familiar territory. It was as if I was leading an Outward Bound trip again — taking a group on a journey into the unknown, where we would face adversity and challenges as yet unknown. So I led like I had led in the wilderness, by building relationships and creating a safe environment where people can stretch themselves, make mistakes, and learn. I ran the sales and marketing departments by empowering young leaders, stretching them to do more than they had ever done before, and I coached and taught through the process. The results are a company that has a national reputation for its culture and a turnover rate that is less than a fifth of the industry standards.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The values I learned at Outward Bound became part of my own operating DNA. When you lead in remote wilderness areas, you have no choice. When there are emergencies, you deal with them. When it’s pouring rain, you are first out of the tent regardless. When faced with a challenging ascent up a mountain or a canoe pinned in the middle of a rapid, you take on those challenges. As we way in whitewater, you lean into your obstacles. The same is true in life. After nearly a decade of leading wilderness trips, I have learned these simple truths: that we are all more capable than we realize, and that we all need each other. Those are the things that have kept me going through challenges.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

Grit led me to focus on the things I could focus on. I had to lead the way I knew — as a former Outward Bound instructor. Focus on what is right in front of you, work through the difficulty, and show up each day with a good attitude and determination. All storms pass eventually. Grit allows you to have the staying power to not only wait out the storm but to see it as a learning and growth opportunity.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit?

  1. You can do more than you know. I was running all of the variable operations, marketing, and communications departments at a company when the opportunity came to write Outward Bound Lessons. I spent nearly a year getting up at 4:30 each morning to write before work, as it was the only time I had. And the book was written and published, leading me to this world I am now in.
  2. Mastery matters. Find something and focus your energy on mastering it. While working in the car business, I met a man whose professional name was “Honda Pro Jason.” He had been in car sales and became such an expert on Honda vehicles that Honda took notice. He traveled the world teaching people about small details in the vehicles that weren’t in the manuals. His expertise had opened up an entirely new world of opportunity for him.
  3. Adversity is our best teacher. Early on during my time at the dealerships, the president of the company called me in to tell me that the trainer who tells me that the sales trainer they had hired would not be able to continue, and I would have to take over the training the next morning. I had overnight to prepare to run that training program. I didn’t sleep much that night, but the training went extremely well and I ended up taking over all of the training in the sales department. A few months later, due in large part to my success in developing new salespeople, I was asked to take over leading the entire sales function. This only came because of the challenge that happened and my response to it.
  4. Be tough, yet gentle. This is part of a saying from the Outward Bound School where I worked. Layout your expectations and hold people to them, but always do it with caring. I had a particularly prickly young manager working for me, and her temper and attitude were derailing her success. Early on, we took a walk together and I let her know that her behavior was potentially putting her career at risk. I also told her that I cared deeply for her, believed in her, and wanted to help her turn this around. We created a plan together and she executed on that plan, becoming a remarkable leader in the company.
  5. Be humble, yet bold. This is the second part of the saying. People and teams operate best when they are empowered. This requires humility from the leader. For all of those who reported to me, I would empower them to take on a huge responsibility. When they made mistakes and/or failed at a project, I would own that and help them get up and learn again. When they succeeded, they got the credit. Our company became a great place to work, with amazing young leaders — in the car business! We did it by going after a bold vision, and I drove that vision. And in the end, we all shared in the success and the knowledge that we had done this together.

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 you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

Outward Bound is full of amazing leaders, and I got to learn from and was being mentored by many of them. One of those people is Julie Hignell, who was the program director of the Ely, Minnesota, base “Homeplace,” where I began my career. I remember one experience in particular. We had just returned to base and one of my participants, who was an African American boy from Philadelphia, received a letter telling him that his best friend had been shot and killed. I came to Julie in a bit of a panic. I’m a white guy from the midwest. I don’t didn’t know his world. I don’t didn’t know what to say or how to help support him. Julie just looked at me and told me, you are precisely the right person to help him. This is why you are here. Trust yourself. Those words gave me the courage to be present as this boy cried on my shoulder, and to hold him with compassion and open myself to feel his pain.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I was asked to join the Grappone Automotive group, I was a bit hesitant. I didn’t think highly of the auto business. But I said yes to the opportunity because I believe in people. We took what is traditionally a toxic industry and turned it into a shining beacon. We have happy fulfilled employees, many who never believed they could work at a place with such a great culture. The work we did get noticed, and I was asked to join the advisory board of a company that offers training to the auto industry nationwide. I have spoken at their conference on the importance of a healthy culture and helped to spread that message. I also served on the advisory board of another company that is a vendor in the auto industry and on the board of a non-profit in New Hampshire.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am launching two new initiatives in 2020. The first is an online “guiding and learning” program based on expeditionary leadership, the model I developed from my years of adapting Outward Bound principles into the workplace. The second is called Conspiring 4 Good, which is a platform to allow former Outward Bound instructors and alumni to collaborate on making the world a better place.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Know what your organizational values are, and hire only those who share those values. We would talk to over a thousand people a year to hire for less than a hundred positions. If you invite the right people in, you will be successful. Once they are in, give them a pathway to grow and develop. On-boarding, training, and coaching are critical. Believe in them and they will rise.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now?

I am launching two new initiatives in 2020. The first is an online “guiding and learning” program based on expeditionary leadership, the model I developed from my years of adapting Outward Bound principles into the workplace. The second is called Conspiring 4 Good, which is a platform to allow former Outward Bound instructors and alumni to collaborate on making the world a better place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

This is what I call Conspiring 4 Good. The magic of an Outward Bound course is the unleashing of human potential. I never stopped doing that, and Conspiring 4 Good is the platform for people to make a difference in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can and you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be tough, yet gentle, humble yet bold, swayed always by beauty and truth.”

–Written by Bob Pieh, the founder of Minnesota Outward Bound.

The signs of this saying are on trees as you come down the mile-long road to the base camp. I have, to the best of my ability, shown up to life with this saying. Expect great things, be kind to others, empower others and give them the platform to shine, take risks for what you love, and always stand for what is right and just. And never forget to notice how beautiful sunset looks, or what it feels like to look at the world through the eyes of a child.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My website is https://www.markmbrown.com/markmbrown.com.

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-brown-me-cpcc-b723104/

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/mark.m.brown

Twitter https://twitter.com/MarkMBrown1

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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