How This Leadership Researcher Became the Secret Weapon for Oprah, Pixar, IBM, and Melinda Gates
Bren Brown’s research launched her into the ranks of leadership gurus. Running her own business has been a little more complicated.
CREDIT: Ramona Rosales
Bren Brown knows how to pause. She knows how to take in a question, take in a breath, and ...
... really, really pause.
It's a killer conversational tool, especially if you speak, and listen, to people for a living. Which is what Brown--a licensed social worker and academic researcher turned TED Talk viral celebrity, turned best-selling author and leadership guru, and now turned founder and CEO--fundamentally does.
Her pause confers reflection and authority. It makes you feel heard. Each prolonged silence is flattering to both Brown and her conversation partner: "What a great question," the pause says, before imbuing her eventual response with thoughtful weight.
Sitting in the airy, two-story Houston headquarters that Brown's book sales and speaking fees have allowed her business to occupy--and to decorate with cushy Restoration Hardware furniture and the fresh flowers she buys her staff twice a month--the founder casts her mind back to life before fame. Hands clasped before her mouth and blond head bowed, as if in prayer, an occasional shake of her head punctuating her process, Brown thinks, a lot, before she speaks.
"I don't mourn anything," Brown says, "because--" and here she stops, for 11 silent seconds--"I am unapologetically ambitious, and I'm not any more ambitious now than I was then."
However--and here she pauses again--"I don't like being a public person."
She is, and she isn't. An Oprah-endorsed leadership consultant to the likes of Pixar, IBM, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Brown, 52, is extremely well known in some circles. "Bren taught me that leadership requires admitting what you don't know instead of pretending to know everything," Melinda Gates says in an email. "I love her message that vulnerability is the key to building trust." Other avowed fans include Hollywood celebrities Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, and Kristen Bell; Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is the New Black, recently told Vanity Fair that Brown is one of her favorite writers--along with bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Shakespeare.
But Brown's name still gets blank looks in many quarters. She's working on changing that this year, with a new book and a business reinvention and some other big plans to promote her work to people who don't usually go for research that, as Brown acknowledges, sometimes gets dismissed as "touchy-feely" stuff.
A PhD and research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, Brown spent years studying the concepts of shame and vulnerability. Through her "grounded theory" research--a methodology of collecting and coding interviews and other data sets--she started finding patterns of behaviors and drawing some basic but uncomfortable conclusions, including: We all fail. But ignoring, or just recognizing, those failures isn't enough. Real leadership can happen only when we embrace our imperfections, work to overcome them, and take risks--when we are brave, in Brown's parlance, and when we "challenge the false stories we make up when we experience disappointment."
Part of what makes Brown's work appealing is how she frames her call for intense self-reflection, by acknowledging that she struggles with this process as much as anyone else. "It's much easier to talk about what we want and need than it is to talk about the fears, feelings, and scarcity that get in the way," she writes in her latest sure-to-be-bestseller, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
It was that sort of personal admission that made her famous. In 2010, a few months before the publication of her first non-academic book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown gave a
20-minute TEDxHouston Talk about her research, and the emotional breakdown it caused her. Her performance was funny, touching, honest--and soon viral, watched by some 35 million people. It launched Brown on a trajectory of advising CEOs, entrepreneurs, and the book-buying public--and figuring out how she would turn her research into a business.
Brown working the crowd at a leadership conference at the Austin Convention Center in April, one of the 25 to 50 speaking gigs she does every year. CREDIT: Steven Miller/Courtesy Globoforce
Brown has spent the past few years trying to build a profitable but mutable company that practices what she preaches. As with any self-help journey, it's a work in progress. During my visit to the Bren Brown Education and Research Group in steamy mid-July, Brown is overseeing an organizational reboot tied to the publication of Dare to Lead. The new book, she says, collects 20 years of research, as well as new data on working with senior executives, to propose four skill sets of better leadership.
Dare to Lead is scheduled for release in early October, and Brown has basically quarantined herself to write it all summer under what's partially a self-imposed crash deadline. She wants her guide to good leadership to appear before the midterm elections in November. "We have just about the worst models of leadership that I have ever seen in my life," she says. "When you ask me, 'Is anyone getting it right?' I'd say certainly not political leadership right now. Certainly not this administration."
Which is another part of Brown's authenticity: A white Christian living in the middle of the country, she takes firm, outspoken political stands--including for the Women's March and Black Lives Matter, and against the president's immigration policies--which is more than you might expect from a peddler of leadership advice to a corporate audience. "She's just so thoughtful, and so intentional about how she tackles these really difficult issues," says Maisha Walker, founder and president of digital marketing firm Message Medium, and an African American woman who was impressed by Brown's response to the deadly white supremacist riots in Charlottesville last year. "She doesn't shy away from the hard stuff."
Some people, on both ends of the political spectrum, walked out of events during Brown's book tour last year for Braving the Wilderness, which addressed navigating the hyperpartisan Trump-era political climate. But that hasn't stopped Brown from doubling down on the hard stuff--or kept her from the perpetual state of intense conversation and self-reflection she brings to her growing role as founder and CEO.
It's a process that's involved false starts, the shutting down of successful products, and being honest--or what Brown would call being courageous--about what she wants, and doesn't want, to spend her time doing. "When I first started, I didn't say no to anything, because I wanted to prove I could do it," says Brown. Now, five years into turning her expertise into a real business, she says this will be the year of "saying no to a lot of things, and getting really clear on who I want to be."
Telling the story of a woman used to writing her own can be a tricky proposition. Brown grounds her books in biographical details, including her childhood as Cassandra Bren Brown, oldest of four kids who grew up moving from San Antonio to New Orleans and back to Texas. There were her wild days bartending her way through UT Austin, getting sober from her "take the edge off" beer- and-cigarette habit, and finally finishing her bachelor's degree at age 29. There's her loving, mindfully communicative marriage to a pediatrician named Steve Alley, whom she met when they were both lifeguards, and their life raising two children.
Brown got her PhD in 2002 at the University of Houston and stayed on as a research professor, teaching courses ranging from feminist practice to social-welfare policy analysis. Then that 2010 TEDx Talk forever changed the course of her career. It was followed by her 2012 book Daring Greatly, partially about her resulting vulnerability "hangover" and the downsides--and opportunities--of her instant celebrity. The related TED Talk she gave that year now has had more than nine million views.
Then, in 2013, Brown gained the only fan who matters in the book industrial complex: Oprah. An invitation for Brown to appear on Oprah's SuperSoul Sunday TV show turned into an interview feature in O magazine, and a business relationship with the OWN network, where Brown gave an online course (which is still available). By the end of that year, Brown had recruited a couple of friends, so she could strike out on her own and figure out how to turn her cult of personality into a sustainable business.
The company today remains very much a friends-and-family affair. Brown employs her twin younger sisters as her chief of staff and the head of her nonprofit operation. Charles "Chaz" Kiley, Brown's friend since their college days waiting tables, is now her chief financial officer. "Bren has a pretty good tolerance for risk--and a pretty good tolerance for failure," he says.
A white Christian living in the middle of the country, she takes outspoken political stands, including for the Women's March and Black Lives Matter.
But figuring out the right business for Bren Inc. hasn't been straightforward. Brown's company, which now has 27 employees, has always sold some sort of training for therapists and coaches, who can get certified in Brown's methods and licensed to use her intellectual property. Then, in 2015, Brown started up her own direct-to-consumer online-education business. The "Courage Works" course was immediately successful, according to Brown and Kiley, who say that it generated $6 million in revenue and 100,000 customers in its first year.
Yet Brown has turned down offers of outside investment that could help her expand quickly. Instead, she's financed her business mostly through her book sales and corporate speaking fees of up to $90,000 (though she says 30 percent of her work is pro bono). The company also earns revenue from training and certifying facilitators, who use Brown's methods to run their own workshops, and from Brown's occasional consulting gigs.
It's money well spent, big companies say. "She talks about concepts that are incredibly relevant for transformational leadership, in a way that's science-based and very human," says IBM's Deb Bubb, who runs the tech giant's corporate leadership, learning, and inclusion efforts, and who brought Brown into IBM's internal development program. Dheeraj Pandey, CEO and co-founder of public cloud-computing company Nutanix, which has a market cap of about $10 billion, hired Brown to speak at the company's customer conference this year and work with some senior leaders. "She's become a competitive advantage, and a secret weapon for our culture," says Pandey, who now sometimes catches his engineers discussing vulnerability on Slack: "When it gets a little too animated, Nutanix employees will defuse the tensions by saying, 'Hey, you have to be vulnerable here.' " Or as Megan Tamte, co-CEO of apparel retailer Evereve, puts it: "To the people I hang around with, she's like Oprah."
But as Brown built out her business, she became uncomfortable with a big part of it--including the prospect of scaling. Running a for-profit online-education portal required salespeople and software engineers and marketing, and focusing on "getting bums in seats ... and having to feel particularly salesy," Kiley says. "It felt a little outside of her ethics to be pushing that hard on the marketing side." Adds Brown, "I realized that education should be a nonprofit."
So by late last year, Brown had finally forced herself to confront a choice many founders are faced with. Running a large-scale consumer operation simply wasn't compatible with what she calls her "joy list," a mixture of physical and emotional health, connection with her loved ones, and "the biggest unrenewable resource in the world"--time. "I've talked to a lot of founders [and] very successful senior leaders who are deeply unhappy," working long hours and never enjoying the fruits of their labors," Brown says.
"I don't want to wake up one day and have 150 people working here, and five of them are researchers and 145 of them are software engineers and learning platform people. That's not what I want to do," she says. "Running that business and my joy list are mutually exclusive."
"Fuuuuuuuck." Sighing sotto voce, head falling into her hands, Brown is responding to the obvious question: How does she prioritize her load of researching, speaking, writing, and running her company?
As soon as she utters the exasperated expletive, Brown regrets it--and starts negotiating to erase it. It's a perplexing reaction from a self-described "fifth-generation Texan with a family motto of 'lock and load,' " who even admits to me that the F-word is "very comfortable. That's my cuss word." So isn't using it authentic and on-brand for Bren Brown?
Yes and no. "It's on-brand for me, but not for the work," she says, noting that being known for profanity risks alienating a wider audience. "Here's the tension: Not being my authentic self is incredibly dangerous to the work." She pauses. "My language can sometimes not serve the work."
It's a dichotomy between Brown's ambition and her reluctant relationship with celebrity; between the woman who preaches vulnerability and the one who's built a wall of protection against the outside world. When her first TEDx Talk went viral in 2010, "my first thought was not 'Hell, yeah!' but 'Get the toothpaste back in the tube,' " she recalls. "You know? 'Control this, control this, control this.' "
"I will feel like it's a massive failure if this work doesn't live beyond me."
With some justification. As Brown learned, to be female on the internet is to become a target for nasty comments. "If you're in public and you're a woman, put a system in place. I don't care if you make $40,000 a year or $40 million a year," she advises. "Hire someone to give you three comments that are worth responding to, and delete the shit that's not."
There are other things she can control. In December, Brown shut down the Courage Works online learning business. She started converting one arm of her company into a nonprofit, which will continue training mental health professionals and others in Brown's research and methods and soon teach them in schools and perhaps colleges.
Brown's remaining for-profit operations--the consulting-and-workshops business once known as Brave Leaders Inc.--will now share the name of her new book: Dare to Lead. The re-branding underlines a recent realization: "We've tried different businesses in order to be effective in scaling and never paid attention to the books," she laughs. "How did the books become a side hustle?"
Especially when, according to Nielsen BookScan, The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) sold more than a million copies, Daring Greatly (2012) sold half that, and the two subsequent books have sold more than 250,000 each. (Brown says that U.S. sales are more than four million, total.) She's now trying to tie her books more directly to her business operations. Instead of selling "18 hours' worth of courses, I'm going to put everything I've learned in a book and just give it away [for] 20 bucks," she says.
The renamed company will continue to consult with big corporations. And it will continue to train other professionals in Brown's IP, so they can be certified consultants to the 95 percent of business clients Brown doesn't have the time or mental energy to visit herself.
Five years in, it's finally starting to come together. But Brown is looking forward to the day when her company has moved beyond the startup chaos. When she can definitively say she's chosen the right path for her business--and can even take some time off.
That may be an impossible goal for an organization so clearly centered on a celebrity founder. Still, "I will feel like it's a massive failure if this work doesn't live beyond me," she reflects. And if anyone can work through the struggles of starting, reinventing, and leading a business, it's probably the woman who's literally written the books on how to do it. As Brown quips: "Researcher, heal thyself."