Kevin Brown can show you how you can become a hero in your work, life, and family. He's very practical and has a dry sense of humor. He jokes that he looks like Wolverine from X-Men and only smiles once per speech, but that style drives home the fact that he's not joking. You can be. Kevin came back to our office to record this episode of the Beyond Speaking podcast in StudioBlue after speaking for a client of ours down the street.
Listen here at https://premierespeakers.com/beyond_speaking/kevin_brown
Brian Lord is the president of Premiere Speakers Bureau and host of the Beyond Speaking Podcast. In addition to hosting hundreds of interviews and helping clients with speakers for the past 24 years, he’s been interviewed by the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post, and was chosen as one of Nashville’s 40 Under 40.
Brian Lord: I'm Brian Lord and on the show today, we have Kevin Brown in the studio. Kevin spent 20 years helping build a little-known family business into the number one brand in their industry with annual revenues reaching two billion dollars. Along the way, he has learned a thing or two about overcoming adversity, dealing with change, and creating a culture that drives organizational excellence and customer loyalty. He's the author of the bestselling book "The Hero Effect." Today, he shares with us his own story, the difference of positive thinking versus optimism, and how to rewrite the story of your life. To begin the interview, I asked Kevin where the idea of his book and work, The Hero Effect, came from.
Kevin Brown: The idea for this came about a decade ago. I had a client that said, "You know what? We want you to talk about something other than what most speakers talk about. We really don't want to hear about leadership, vision, communication. Customer service always does something unique." And I said, "Well, tell me about this group." And they said, "The easiest way to explain this group is it's a group of heroes. These folks show up every day. They show up in the wake of disasters. They help people put their lives back together when they're broken. It's really just a group of heroes. Could you talk about what it means to be a hero?" I'm like, "Sure." And when they left the room and I freaked out because I didn't have a hero speech and had never even thought about it. We use this word "hero" all the time. We throw it around to describe companies, sports heroes- but what does it really mean? And so I started a decade ago with a yellow pad and a clean sheet with one question: What does a hero look like? From that day until this, my life has never been the same. If you go through what you normally think of when you think of heroes, the first thing I thought of was our military men and women. We can't have a conversation about heroes without honoring the gold standard. The men and women who go to work every single day to keep us free, to protect us, allow us to chase our dreams. And then we talked about doctors and nurses, first responders. We talked about the world changers, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa. I started working through all these different categories of heroes like great companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple, Zappos, Amazon, Disney. Companies that really defy comparison, defy commodity. I just started working with this thing and I started asking anybody who would listen. I bugged people to death just asking one question: "What do you think of when you hear the word hero?" They told me all of these answers. And there was a common definition. I have asked thousands of people the question and they always define heroes as ordinary people who do extraordinary things. And I thought, yeah, that's right. And I wrote it down because it seemed reasonable to me. But, after a few hundred times, I was like, "Is that really all there is? Is that really true?" And the more I studied it, the more I thought about it, the more I talked about it, the more uncomfortable I got with that answer. Because if you buy into the idea of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, you have to first convince yourself that you're ordinary in the first place. And I don't think there's anybody on this planet that was put here to be ordinary. To make an ordinary contribution, to be ordinary parents, to be an ordinary leader, to be an ordinary friend, spouse, human being. The more I dug into this, the more the message revealed itself to me and a decade later, we've redefined what it means to be a hero as heroes are extraordinary people who choose not to be ordinary. That is what set this whole thing on fire for us.
Brian Lord: Who's the earliest hero that you can think of for yourself?
Kevin Brown: Not to be too cliche, but my dad. My dad's a vet and he worked in a factory. My dad never made a lot of money, but he's one of the strongest human beings that I've ever known in my life. With three kids and no money to speak of, he and my mom were brilliant at making sure that we had everything that we needed. My dad was and still is one of my biggest heroes. I lost my mom when I was 26. She was in a car accident. A drunk driver hit my mom and dad and they were able to save my dad, but they couldn't save my mom. Instead of being angry with the young man who had run into them, my dad just said, "I don't want to go to jail, I want him to go to rehab. I want him to get better. I've already forgiven him for what he's taken from our family. But I want him to get better." It was the first time where I really started to understand what grace is. My dad, having just lost his life partner of 34 years, was still willing to show grace. While he's laying in the hospital at Vanderbilt University, hooked up to every kind of machine that you can imagine. They didn't give my dad a very good prognosis. They said he was not going to live through the night and two weeks later he walked out of the hospital. I'll never, ever forget him extending that grace to the young man who was a 22-year-old kid. It was just my dad's example of what heroes do. Heroes forgive. Heroes make things better. He couldn't bring my mom back, but he could maybe protect that kid from himself. And it was a powerful moment.
Brian Lord: Had anyone ever done that for him in the past? Where do you think that came from?
Kevin Brown: My dad went into the Navy when he was 16-years-old and he had a pretty rough upbringing. It may have been the Navy who helped pick my dad up and wash away some of his past and give him an opportunity that he may have never otherwise had. My dad went back to school after he got out of the Navy and got his GED. He keeps working every day. He's 78-years-old now and he's still my biggest hero.
Brian Lord: I'm sure a lot of other people have shared their stories of heroes with you. What are some of the favorite stories that you've heard or seen examples of?
Kevin Brown: If you think about the classic heroes, we always want to talk about Peyton Manning and LeBron James, Michael Jordan. Sports heroes that are off the charts like Serena Williams. There are so many examples- people you can point to- that literally rose from nothing. They took every disadvantage and turned it into their advantage. You can look at somebody like Nelson Mandela, you can look at Martin Luther King Jr. Heroes are all around us! We are so quick to point at the heroes around us, but we never point at the one within us. That's what drove me on this mission was to say, "why is it so hard for us?" I get humility. I understand there's so much of the humility factor that comes into saying "I'm not a hero, I'm not this, I'm not that." That self-talk is so destructive because if we can't rise to the person that we're supposed to be, then we can never make the contribution that we were put here to make. It is my firm belief that we are here to contribute to society, to each other, to the greater good. The narrative in this country right now needs people to step up. I have a line that I use a lot and that is, "The world needs your hero." The world needs the uniqueness that you showed up with. If you go back to the very beginning, science tells us that the day you were dropped off at the pool, there were a hundred million other kids dropped off at the same moment. You were the one that got here out of 100 million opportunities for somebody to exist. It turns out it was you and I don't think there's anything ordinary about that. I think we were put here with talents, gifts, and abilities as unique as our fingerprints and we were put here to use that to leave a mark on this planet that can't be erased. I've run into heroes in gas stations and grocery stores, drive-through banks, I've run into heroes all over the place just by simple gestures. Also, I never say "random acts of kindness" because I don't believe in random acts of kindness. I think if they're random, that's a problem. Kindness should garner our utmost intention. We should be intentional about being kind to other people and we just say things that don't make a lot of sense. "Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, random acts of kindness, think outside the box." None of that makes sense! We should be intentional about being kind. We are extraordinary. Maybe we should start acting like it instead of shrinking into this ordinary facade that most people go through life. We go through life with our heads down and we don't even see each other anymore. I think heroes have had the opportunity to show up in just about every nook and cranny of life that you can look at. You just have to look for them. We have to stand in that mirror and say, "What can I do to show up and make life better for somebody else?" Because that's all that heroes do. They just make life better.
Brian Lord: You have a great example of heroes in your own household.
Kevin Brown: Yeah, you've got that right, I married a hero! For 23 years, I've had the privilege and honor of being married to an amazing human being. She's more than I ever deserved. I've married way out of my league, way over my head. I do everything this woman tells me to do because I don't want her to leave! For the last 17 years, I've watched what she's done with our son. We have a 21-year-old son with autism. When he was five-years-old, they gave us a formal diagnosis and in that diagnosis, they started explaining what his life was not going to be like. Instead of talking about what he could do and what life should be like, they started putting limitations on our son with this diagnosis, with this label, which is the worst thing about labels. I don't care what the label is because with every label comes limitations. The doctors put the label of autism on our son and they started telling us what those limitations were. My wife cried for 30 seconds and I had a pity party that went on a little longer than that. I started buying into what they were selling and I started thinking about everything that my son, Josh, wasn't going to do. I looked back at Lisa and the teardrops were gone and she went into mama bear mode and did what true leaders do. She took the storyline that life gave us and she started to rewrite it. It's fascinating to me that so many people go through life and they just take the storyline life gives them. Their past, their perceived deficiencies, whatever that is is their storyline. Too many people just walk that out as their truth instead of understanding that the pen in their hand every single day of their life and they can take control of how it is written. My wife is a brilliant leader and she knew the pen was in our hand and she did what leaders do. She started rewriting the vision. She told our son, "Cover your ears. Don't you listen to what he just said. I heard what he said, Josh, but that's not your destiny." I've watched as this vision she planted in him that day attracted teachers, tutors, guides, mentors, coaches. A vision will attract everything you need to make it happen. In May of 2016, he graduated with honors from high school and then went on and had a college experience. Now, he's just living and loving life. What an example of a hero. My wife will probably tell you she's not a hero. We have this debate in our house all the time of what a hero looks like. Heroes show up as moms and dads, teachers, coaches, friends, spouses show up in every nook and cranny of life. And that one decision to take his storyline and rewrite it changed that boy's life forever.
Brian Lord: I like how you say heroes can also have normal jobs. Your Disney story is one of my favorites. There are a lot of Disney stories out there but yours is the most unique I've heard. Tell us the apple pancakes story.
Kevin Brown: Apple pancakes is probably what changed my life and changed the trajectory of my career. I had spent my entire career in the franchise world. I cut my teeth in selling and thought I would stay there forever. I never saw anything like this coming with this idea called apple pancakes. It changed my life. When Josh was seven-years-old, he discovered Walt Disney World and as a child with autism, when he got that on his brain, it was the only thing that existed in the whole world. It was 24/7, 365, Disney. Even now, at 21-years-old, if you go into his bedroom and the TV is on, it's on the Disney Channel. And quite frankly, I'm okay with that. There is a lot worse that could be put into his mind. But at seven, he discovered Disney and that's all he wanted to do. We waited until he was nine-years-old. We wanted to make sure he could enjoy the trip and that it wasn't so overwhelming for me because I'm not a good vacation-taker. Disney did not appeal to me. I was a workaholic back then and in fact, my wife said, "I need you to be there for this trip. I need you to leave the laptop at home. I need you to leave the work behind. This is really important to our son. I need you to show up for eight days." And I did my duty. I said, "Yes, ma'am," and we packed our bags and we made a list. I left the work at home and we went to Disney. Little did I know that trip back in 2007 would change not only Josh's life, but it changed the trajectory of my life. We encountered a chef there when we showed up for breakfast the very first morning and my son ordered his favorite, which was apple pancakes. They're special apple pancakes. My wife, for years, made all of his food from scratch because he was on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet because there were studies that showed that taking gluten and dairy out of the diet would help with the autism. So, he was on a very special diet for a long time and we got there and of course, he ordered apple pancakes. My wife explained to the executive chef, a very sweet lady, her name was Bea. She called Josh Sunshine and she said, "Sunshine, I'm really sorry. I don't have the ingredients to make apple pancakes. Your mom told me how to do it, but I don't have the stuff." She made him bacon and eggs and some special toast and it was just fine. I mean, we had a good time, we were satisfied. As I reflect on that moment now, we use this word "satisfied" a lot. I have a friend of mine named Kelly Swanson and she says "Nobody noticed as normal." I think about that in the context of being satisfied, because we left that breakfast satisfied. But the truth is, satisfaction doesn't get us a ticket to the dance. There was nothing notable about it. Nothing noteworthy and I'm amazed at how many companies chase satisfaction. They chase customer satisfaction or employee satisfaction, vendor satisfaction. We chase satisfaction, which in fact, makes us like everybody else. Don't we want enthusiastic ambassadors? Don't we want unpaid spokespeople for our brands? That's what we're really after. But yet, we chase satisfaction and my friend Kelly Swanson says "Nobody notices normal and I think satisfaction is normal." And so we left that experience satisfied. It was nothing earth-shattering. We didn't write a letter to anybody, call anybody, we didn't text anybody and say, "Hey, we just had a satisfactory breakfast." It wasn't until the next morning when we got up and I said to Josh, "Where are we eating breakfast?" And he said, "Dad, I want to go see Aunt Bea." I looked at my wife and I was confused. I was like, "Who?" She said, "The executive chef. Her name was Bea." I said, "There are lots of places to go. Lots we could do." He goes, "Dad, I want to go see Aunt Bea." We got there and she came out and she looked at Josh and she said, "Good morning, Sunshine, what's for breakfast?" And he said, "Apple pancakes, please." And she said, "You've got it, babe, coming right up." And I was like, "Woah! Time out, time out, Aunt Bea! Do you remember us from yesterday?" I said, "Bea, yesterday you didn't have the stuff." And she said, "True." I said, "Today you do?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Where did you get it?" She said, "The store." And I said, "So you sent someone to the store?" and she said, "No, I stopped on my way home last night." And I remember looking at her and I asked her a dumb question. I said, "Why? Why would you do that?" And she said, "Because that's what he asked for." I asked, "But how did you know we would be back?" and she said, "I didn't. But I don't want to be caught off guard the next time somebody asked for them." I don't want to tell you that we ate there every day for eight days. Aunt Bea at that moment became a permanent member of our family and a permanent member of our story. She's just a brilliant, brilliant leader. She's a beautiful soul and she shows up every day not afraid to wear the cape, not afraid to make a difference. She could have mailed it in and just said, "Hey, I don't have the stuff. If I had the stuff, I'd make it for you, but I don't, sorry. Read the menu because we just don't have that." But she didn't do that. She did what heroes and leaders do. And that is, asking herself "How can I make this better? What can I do to make this better?" And she made it better. That was our introduction to Aunt Bea and the hero at Disney. And then 10 years later, we went back and had a more amazing experience. This was after Josh graduated from high school. He graduated with honors. You know, the kid that wasn't supposed to graduate. They told us if he graduated, he would get a special education diploma with the asterisks by his name. He graduated with honors and there were no asterisks on the diploma. We asked him, "To reward you for this awesome achievement, we'll take you anywhere in the world you want to go. Where would you like to go?" And I'm thinking, "Let's go to Australia!" He said, "Dad, I want to go see Aunt Bea." We went back in July of 2016, which was a mistake because the average temperature in Orlando was 478 degrees. But, we went back for another eight days and we reconnected with Aunt Bea and we had an opportunity to sit down with her and she told us her story. She said, "You know, when you were here in 2007, I didn't know anything about autism. From that day till now, I've not stopped learning about the effects of nutrition on kids like Josh. You've made me better at what I love to do." She said, "In 2016 we will serve over 1 million kids like Josh. We didn't have the capacity back then, but we reengineered our special dietary meal program and will serve over a million kids in 2016." We always think influence is a one-way street, but it's always a two-way street. Fast-forward to today, after Josh got through high school and his college experience, he decided that he wanted to try to get a job at Disney. So, three weeks ago, the Brown family picked up and moved to Orlando and we'll plant roots there and try to help him pursue that dream. It's amazing what one moment in time can do for your life and we're living proof of that. Heroes show up in every single place. My son's a hero. When you don't buy into the vision that life casts for you, it automatically makes you a hero. When you're willing to step out of the shadow and into your potential, when you're willing to step into the gifts you were given instead of hiding behind the things that you think you don't have, in my book that makes you a hero.
Brian Lord: So many people take a pessimistic view of life thinking "Well, it's probably going to fail anyway, so I don't want to get my hopes up." How do you get people to rewire their thinking to be more optimistic?
Kevin Brown: I think it starts with rewriting that vision and taking back the storyline that life gives us. Life is never going to give us what we want. Life is never going to listen. We're going to get a diagnosis. We're going to get some news. We're going to hear something less than what we wanted to hear because that's how life works. But are we willing to take that and recast it? "Don't get your hopes up." I heard that growing up all the time. "That's not gonna happen for you. That happens for other people. It doesn't happen for us. Our last name is Brown and the universe has a target on us. We don't know why, but things just aren't gonna happen for us." I think my message to the people who have been taught not to get their hopes up is to get your hopes up. You look at anybody who's ever become the best in the world at what they do and tell me that they didn't have to get their hopes up. Tell me that they weren't facing a storyline that was less than what they became. Tell me that the best in the world at what they do didn't face adversity, didn't face failure, didn't face criticism, didn't face people telling them, "Don't get your hopes up." What they did was they got their hopes up. They got them way up and they got them way up above everybody else and then they pursued that vision every day of their life. I used to be a strategy guy. I'd get all wrapped up in the plan and over the years, I've learned to be more of a vision guy, because if you talk to the really, truly successful entrepreneurs, the high performing athletes, people who've really gone out in the world and made a difference, they chase a really big vision. They don't always have a great plan. They can probably put their plan on one page if the truth was told. But, they have a really big vision and they get up every day and work toward that vision. And if I think personally, I believe if you do that, you can't help but hit a higher space than where you started. You know, it's like Les Brown used to say about chasing your goals: "The problem with most people is not that they aim too high and miss, it's that they aim too low and hit." Now we're back to ordinary versus extraordinary. It's easy to not get your hopes up when you're ordinary. When you buy into that ordinary label, the limitations that come with that are "don't get your hopes up."
Brian Lord: Whenever you talk about the hero's journey, there's always this mentor that shows up. Who is a great mentor for you?
Kevin Brown: My first mentor in business and life was a guy named David. There were lots of other mentors in my life, but I just didn't see them because I wasn't ready to see them. I wasn't ready to receive them and I wasn't ready to be mentored. It was so much easier to be miserable. From age 13 to 16, I went through a pretty dark period in my life. I was betrayed by some adults in my life and it sent my life in a tailspin. Life got ugly and it got complicated. I quit school in the 10th grade. I burned a lot of bridges, I broke a lot of promises, developed some really bad habits, bad relationships. By the time I was in my early 20s, I lived in my car and sat in this car contemplating life asking "Do I stay or do I go?" I met a guy named David. I answered a newspaper ad. I dialed up a phone number and it was an ad for a salesperson. I was broke and I was desperate and it was really my last shot. Back then, I was miserable, I didn't like myself, I didn't like anything about my life. When I look back on it now, it was an easy way to live because I had an instant excuse for not doing well. I could look at my past and I could look at what happened to me. I could look at how I was betrayed, let down all, of those things, and just use that as an excuse for not doing well and feel okay about. "I don't expect much of myself. The world certainly didn't expect anything of me. I mean, I went through all this garbage. What do you want from me?" I met this guy named David, who was on the other end of the phone when I answered this ad, and he was willing to take a chance on me. He took me under his wing, taught me how to sell, gave me a skill set that changed my life forever. But the best skill set he gave me was the gift of vision. He taught me how to see. He taught me the difference between positive thinking and optimism. Positive thinkers, when they have a problem, they just ignore it and put their head in the sand. They think if they just, use fancy words and say "We don't have problems. We have opportunities." They stick their heads in the sand and they just ignore it. The optimist has a skill set. Being optimistic is a muscle. They see the problem and they see the challenge and they don't ignore it. They see it and they call it by its proper name: a problem. They go about the business of solving the problem and I think that's the difference. I've trained myself to be an optimist with David's help. He was the first person in my life that took the storyline life had given that 13-year-old kid and he rewrote it. He said, "The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence." Up to that point, it had been my home. I lived back with that 13-year-old kid. Being a mentor wasn't easy for David. Leadership and mentorship are not easy. If people are interested in helping you and they love you and they want to help you become a better version of yourself, they've got to go all in. There are a lot of leaders and mentors that just have the title of leader or mentor that are not willing to go all-in. The great ones are willing to go all-in and David did that for me. Every day he dripped on me. Every day he helped me grow. Every day he gave me confidence that I didn't have on my own and over time, that 13-year-old kid disappeared. He rewrote that vision for my life and I'll forever be grateful to him for that. Next to my dad, when I look in the mirror and I see all of these people that stand around me as the influencers in my life, David is one of those people. He stands next to my own dad.
Brian Lord: Final question. If you were to advise someone, what's one small step that they could do to change their life as soon as they get done hearing this?
Kevin Brown: First of all, go tell all the people in your life that you love them and don't take a single minute for granted. I lost my mom when I was 26-years-old. My mom was 54-years-old when she died. I'm 51 years old now and I realize at this stage of my life that there's more in the rearview mirror than there is in the windshield in terms of years. So the question for me is how can we make that vision happen in the shortest time possible? Because in life, we are only here for a finite time and we just don't know. Here's what I believe to be true: When I lost my mentor David after he had beaten cancer four times in ten years after a six-month diagnosis. This guy practiced what he preached and believed in optimism and he believed in vision. They told him he was going to die in six months and he lived 10 years after that diagnosis. The prognosis is usually in our hands and God's and if we're willing to see a different vision, you can go get it. When I lost David, I realized that as we go through this life, there are finite moments and people enter this little space called Now. they come into our life, into this circle, they're on the other end of the phone, they show up in our business, they show up at our dinner tables, and we're usually too distracted to see them. Those moments are fleeting at best. And if we don't own the moments that matter, somebody else will. There's competition for the minds of our children, for the love and affection of the people in our lives, our significant others. There's competition for every single customer we serve and every employee that we serve with and when we don't own this space called Now, we leave the door open for somebody to take them from us. The number one thing that we can do in our lives is to own the moments that matter and recognize that they all matter.