Interview: Carmen Westbrook, CEO of Aina Giving

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Carmen Westbrook, founder & CEO of Aina Giving

Carmen Westbrook is a multidimensional executive. Not only is she the founder and CEO of Aina Giving, but she is also a “diplomat, military spouse, six-year stay at home mom, marathoner, and entrepreneur.” She is also an active leadership coach and developer. Through her career, she has learned the various nuances and necessities of “leading a balanced, fulfilled life” alongside fulfilling her personal dreams and ambitions. As a coach, she trains “governments, international aid organizations, and mothers” all over the world.

After spending over 15 years working for governments and for NGOs as a consultant, Carmen Westbrook has figured out that human beings contain inside them the tools they need to solve every major problem they face today. We only need to put them all together. This is the reason for Aina Giving, a “socially-responsible leadership development company,” consisting of a worldwide team of more than 30 members.

This extensive experience in different sectors have allowed Carmen Westbrook to take up the mantle of “developing global leadership and NGO partnerships.” She focuses on “helping organizations and individuals transform into the change-makers of tomorrow,” by allowing them to see the connection between their “life purpose” with their “professional skills.”

Carmen Westbrook has worked in Asia, Europe, and the United States. She has also received several certifications and degrees in various fields, such as economics, environment, and leadership development. Her “deep understanding of global leadership” informs and influences Aina Giving’s programs.

Check out more interviews with global thought leaders here.

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

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

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

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Carmen Westbrook: 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).

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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”?

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

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

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Carmen Westbrook: 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).

Jerome Knyszewski: 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.

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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. 🙂

Carmen Westbrook: 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.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Carmen Westbrook: 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!

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

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