Natalia Brzezinski, the CEO of the Brilliant Minds Foundation, which was created to support creative individuals through entrepreneurship, technology, fashion, health, finance, and education, works to connect the leaders of tomorrow. She also focuses on challenging conventional thinking in business and society, as well as identifying new drivers of innovation. As the host of the Brilliant Minds Podcast, Brzezinski interviews leading U.S. and international entrepreneurs, politicians, artists, and disruptors that share her passion for leveraging creativity for social impact.
Brzezinski has held roles in the U.S. Senate Press Office for Senator John Kerry and at the U.S. Embassy in Sweden, focusing on the intersection of digitalization and diplomacy, innovation, and leadership.
Thrive Global: You’ve spoken about the idea of energy infusion. Can you share with us a little about that and how we can practice it in the workplace?
Natalia Brzezinski: I think it’s really important to bring an energy infusion into your day when possible, especially in the workplace. There’s something we do at home called the sandwich. It is probably totally ridiculous-sounding, but whenever one of us is pouting or upset, one of the other family members yells “sandwich!” — and then we all hug with my daughter in the middle as the ham, and my husband and I on the outside. It’s gotten so popular that even our dog Teddy runs up and sticks his nose into the middle as well. It’s just a way to bring back humanity into our busy daily lives. I think the sandwich is really symbolic of that, and I think you can do it in different ways. It’s just about being present and remembering that we’re all just humans and we’re all here to do our best.
One way people can bring energy into the workplace is really, I think, leaning into positive elements. I know it’s a difficult climate in terms of gender relations and complimenting people, but I always come to work and I say, I’m going to tell at least three colleagues something positive. I’ll say: “I love your jacket,” “I love your shoes,” “You did a great report yesterday.” And it just sets the energy. Some of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten as a leader are that I’m positive. And if you can set that tone in the workplace, even with a little one-liner, I think it’s fantastic.
TG: How do you set your day up for success?
NB: One thing I do every morning, which is a big change for me, is I actually recently got a puppy. It’s the first pet I’ve ever had in my life. I was a competitive ice skater when I was growing up. My parents were immigrants; they worked all the time. I was basically working, waking up at 4:00 a.m. and ice skating and going to a magnet school. We didn’t have pets, we didn’t have time for that, but my husband grew up with German Shepherds, and after eight years of he and my daughter begging, I gave in. Now, I wake up every day at 4:30 a.m. and the first thing I do is I walk downstairs, I sit my butt on the ground, and I pet Teddy. He leans over, turns around, and asks me to pet his tummy, and it’s almost like meditation for me now. It’s the first thing I do. I don’t check my phone, which was my habit for years. I had it next to my bed. I wake up, I pet Teddy, I get some coffee. And it’s actually been incredibly transformative for me.
TG: How do you successfully work with people who have different communication styles than you?
NB: Communication style is actually so important. It’s something I’m working on right now. I work with a lot of men, and I also work with a lot of people that are not American. Europeans, especially Scandinavian people, have an extremely different communication style. I would say it’s almost the polar opposite of the American mindset. It’s very direct, curt, clear, no flourish, and no emotion. And for many, many years I actually took that as an insult, or I took it personally, or I misunderstood.
Now, I try to take my ego out of the communication, and that’s something I’m actively working on. It’s not about me, and they are not thinking about me. It’s about a task or an issue. It’s about the team. When I focus on that, and when I edit myself, because I tend to write a lot, I am much more successful that way. So I think that’s really important, and it’s definitely a challenge when you’re working in an international context.
TG: What tips do you have for giving feedback?
NB: When giving feedback as a CEO especially, I’m really, really thoughtful about the fact that I have to put my own weaknesses and responsibilities first. Every time I give feedback to a colleague or a team member, maybe this is part of my character, but I first look at myself and how I failed in this context.
As a leader, your job is to educate, to teach, and to guide. So I always think that at least 50% of something that has failed is my fault because I wasn’t clear enough, or I wasn’t communicating enough. I lead with that, and I find that that is both kind of a humble, but also a vulnerable way to connect with people in the workplace. It’s not about blame. At the end of the day, we’re all in it together. And a lot of that responsibility for me is to bring out that the spirit of consensus and collaboration starts with me.
TG: What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve received and why?
NB: I believe that we’re in a time with creativity where you can’t give advice because people are creating things that have never happened before. We’re in a space where it’s really about following your instinct — not listening to anyone and creating totally new spaces and totally new ways of thinking. Entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs, are doing something that’s never happened before. They’re doing it in a way that’s never been done before. You can’t really advise that; you can only support that. So I think that’s the most important principle to start with.
It’s funny, I’ve also gotten advice that I’m too nice, and that kindness can be viewed as a weakness, and I take that on board, but I patently disagree with that. At the end of the day, I’d rather be viewed as kind and weak. Sorry, they’d never say that to a guy, but sure, they say it to me.
I think women are often criticized if we put ourselves first, if we invest in ourselves. They’ll say we’re selfish or self focused; it’s insane. You need to take care of you, you need to baby yourself, you need to pamper yourself in order to thrive because I believe that women are the bedrock of communities and societies, and when we thrive, everyone thrives.
TG: How do you spark creativity?
NB: I think the best way to spark creativity is surround yourself with really, really different people. It sounds basic but it’s really the governing thesis of my work with Brilliant Minds. And even in my home life, my husband and I are really different. He’s almost 20 years older than me, and he has a completely different background. And I see even with us, how much we bring to each other. I think the magic happens in between sectors, in between generations, and in between cultures. That will be the innovation of the future. So I really try to live my life that way, and I love exposing myself to new and crazy things. That doesn’t scare me. That makes me excited.
TG: As a CEO, what’s a current challenge you face and what are some of the small steps you take to tackle it?
NB: My greatest challenge is focus. I’m really passionate about my work and I love to kind of jump into 10 different things, and I get energy from that, so I don’t want to eliminate it completely. I think really focusing on what I need to deliver in a month, or in six months, is something that I’m really working towards. I’m not necessarily an organized person. I often say that when I see an Excel spreadsheet I get hives, but I’ve surrounded myself with a team that loves Excel spreadsheets and loves organization. I need support, and help being diligent and organized and having a 12-month plan. Surround yourself with great people. You can’t change your spirit, but you can bring in expertise to balance it.
TG: What brings you optimism?
NB: Children are my greatest inspiration right now. Maybe I am the wacky mom, but my daughter is 10, and I think it’s such a cool age because they’re still innocent, but they’re starting to change. You see how aware and really present they are, and that they’re listening and watching everything you do. We don’t feel that as adults; we’re so hurried, harried, and running around, but kids are in the moment. They’re not thinking about tomorrow. They’re not thinking about yesterday. And I’m always amazed. My 11-year-old neighbor was helping me with my dog recently. I was telling him about my job, and I don’t even remember what I said to him, but the next day he wrote me this extremely long, thoughtful text about how I had inspired him to be an entrepreneur, how bold I am, and how he’s going to be like that. My jaw dropped because I was not even paying attention to my own words, and yet he took that in and thought about it and took the time to write me one of the most beautiful notes I’ve ever gotten. I try to remind myself of that — to be really present every day: to listen to people, listen to kids. They are actually much smarter than we are and they know what they’re doing.
TG: What is your evening routine?
NB: So in the evening I try to really set a routine, especially since I travel a lot and I’m an anxious sleeper generally. As a kid, I woke up really early in the mornings to go to a cold ice rink across town in Chicago and I would always have anxiety about falling asleep. If I didn’t fall asleep, and if I didn’t sleep well, I would skate badly, I would get in trouble, and I would get yelled at by my coach. So this kind of continued through my life. I really need to set routines that are comforting to me, because I get really anxious when I lie down in bed.
Every evening, my husband, my daughter, and I watch Netflix. My husband started telling a bedtime story recently. At first, I thought it was ridiculous and I didn’t want to be participating in that. I’m old, I don’t need a bedtime story, but he does these funny stories about people in our neighborhood and he’s actually amazing. He tells us a story every evening and he rubs our feet — so he should get an award. That sets the tone for our bedtime.
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