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Exclusive interview: Ex-McKinsey leader, elite athlete Kay Bretz

·9-min read
Aerial image of Kay Bretz running; headshot image of Kay Bretz
Ex-McKinsey leader, executive coach and ultra-marathon runner Kay Bretz speaks to Yahoo Finance for Rich Thinking. (Source: Patrick O’Kane – EYE SEE IMAGES, Supplied)
  • RICH THINKING ISSUE #2
    This exclusive interview was first published in Rich Thinking, a new fortnightly weekend read delivered to Yahoo Finance's Fully Briefed subscribers. Get it straight to your inbox here and read Issue #1 here.

For both marathon running and in your career, you unlocked potential you never knew you had, and it all started with a concept you call ‘turning right’. What does this mean, and how do you apply that?

I think there are two ways. The essence of turning right is tapping into doing something which we don't dare to do, and which we just resist doing. It’s when we walk into unknown territory, and explore completely new paths.

Why it’s called turning right is just my own experience. One day I was coming out of my garden gate [before going on a run] and it was this big ‘aha’ – that I'd never turned right. That was a no-go, turning right. So many of us are just caught in a rut, on autopilot, just doing the same thing over and over again, without even being able to explain why.

But ‘turning right’ gets us out of that and opens up basically a new world. That's what it is: opening up a new world.

CEOs turn to you to coach them on how to ‘turn right’. How do you teach clients to unlock their potential? What are the practical strategies you teach?

So the most practical question is, what are you resisting to do in what you are doing?

For me, it was discipline; just letting go of plans. There is a theme of us just being very structured. Let's get a bit messy here, and just dare to do something.

I think in practical tips, it’s about getting back into the moment, because I was clearly too much in my head and overthinking things too much. When we learn to become present in the here and now, that's when right turns become possible. And that's when some of the magic happens.

Lots of parents say [about my book], ‘I wish my kids read this, because it's about delayed gratification and about resilience.’ Listening to them, it seems to be a skill which is forgotten. And it's hard with social media and all of that to say, “how do we be a bit more present, and just stick to something and ride it out?”

What’s the non-negotiable in your daily routine that helps you be productive and perform at your best?

For me it is meditation. It's not running, it's meditation.

Headshot image of Kay Bretz
Kay Bretz. (Source: Supplied)

It gives me some calmness. Not necessarily while I’m meditating, which can be very disturbing, with the thoughts coming and going. It helps me to see things more as they are. It definitely helps in running.

I think most of my running success actually comes more through meditation than through physical training.

Through meditation, those stories, which happen in my head and all of our heads, I can see it more as just a story.

So when I'm beating myself up, or I think I'm not good enough, that I should be running faster, then I know that’s that old voice telling me to be constructed again, to turn left again, and do something which I know works. I can see it for what it is. Rather than being reactive, I’m more at choice of taking a different direction. So that’s the non-negotiable for me.

If you’ve done it before, you know what the benefits are. Just five minutes a day – don’t make it a big thing. That's one of the things I've learned through running: keep the entry barrier low. Don't think you have to do one hour a day. Make it five minutes, but make it a daily thing.

Working in the corporate world and fitting in a hefty running schedule would be tough. Have you got methods for prioritising what you need to do, to make time for work and for running?

In the business world, I sit down in the morning, and take 15 minutes to come up with what's on my list. The list is often way longer than what I can do. So I say, what are the three things I really need to do? This might be four or five things, but I prioritise that way.

As a corporate executive you’d be earning a corporate executive salary. But what makes a person wealthy? How do you like to spend your money?

The one thing which I’ve stuck with from the very beginning of my corporate career was never to let the cost of my lifestyle increase more than my salary.

That is pretty much the guiding principle; I'm never overspending. I have friends who believe they will earn way more in two years time, therefore they overspend now. I'm not doing that.

It helps remove that kind of stress – there is no stress, because I'm never spending more than I really have.

The three things I love spending money on are experiences. More experiences rather than things. The first one would be holidays.

Running definitely is the second thing. It's not a cheap hobby anymore. I’ve just signed up for a 500km event next year, and it costs several thousands to enter. Then you need a caravan for the support crews that cost several thousand. So it becomes an expensive hobby, if it’s a hobby. But I definitely don’t compromise on that.

Image of Kay Bretz running through forest
Kay Bretz. (Source: Supplied)

The third thing is my personal development. So when a few years ago, I thought about becoming an executive coach, I put in the time and the money to do accreditation courses and learn about what it would take to do this new career.

You speak to a wide range of people and CEOs every day. Is there a piece of advice that has proven really popular and people latch onto quickly?

I’ll give you two that come to mind.

The first was actually a throwaway line during a workshop which resonated with most of them.

I said, “Well, if you don't think of yourself as a leader, you will never be one.”

And it was powerful. It wasn’t even part of the workshop, it just came out, but it resonated.

Again, it's linked to the [idea] of having a different mindset. It challenges people to think differently. And you can either reject it and say, “I'll stay safe,” or say, “Fine; I’m not thinking of myself as a leader, therefore I’m not really a leader.” That was one.

I think the second one is: I’m a big fan of being gentle to oneself rather than being tough. That surprises lots of people, because many colleagues and other inspirational people, talk about mental toughness.

And there is something in mental toughness, but also I find it limited. Because when we are pushing ourselves and pushing ourselves at some point we burn out if we keep pushing, so the toughness also has its limits.

We can't overcome certain barriers by toughness, but we can overcome them by being gentle to ourselves.

That's another one which just really resonates with people, just to pick two.

Coming back to the wealth questions. What’s one of the best monetary or financial investment moves you’ve made?

It does come back to investing in myself. So I've made probably two great investments into myself. One was very early on where I invested into a PhD, which in this part of the world, is probably less relevant, but in Germany where I'm from, it opened up the world to McKinsey, and then opened up the world into a different level at McKinsey. It paid back very quickly, so that was definitely a great money and time investment.

Similarly, over the last few years, it’s been the executive coaching courses I've taken. I've used my annual leave to do further education. So yeah, rather than sitting underneath a palm tree, I was learning. I think the ROI on investing into oneself can be pretty high.

Aerial image of Kay Bretz running
Kay Bretz. (Source: Supplied)

And if you had an extra 10 hours in the working week, where would you allocate that?

I think I would do a bit more listening with my clients and spend it in a non-structured way: what is it they really need and really want?

I'm doing some of it, but the extra 10 hours would be amazing. I think we would generate so much more value jointly by just spending more time on ‘what is it that would unlock even more potential?’ So it's listening. I'm doing some of it, but I should be doing more.

What would you say is your best piece of advice to command a high salary or to step up into that higher salary?

People tend to focus on what skills they're lacking.

I would ask the question: what's the mindset they are lacking?

Typically to solve things, we don't need more skills; we need that agility to take a different perspective. That’s what mindset is; being able to shift perspective as required. To look at problems from a different angle, and then find innovative solutions.

When you can do that, you will make it very far in any organisation, any business anywhere in life.

Image of Kay Bretz running on dirt track
Kay Bretz. (Source: Supplied)

What’s the one main tip you would offer our readers to unlock their potential? Whether they own a fish and chip shop, are relatively early in their career, or someone who is reaching the peak of their career? Is there some piece of advice that’s applicable across the board, no matter who you are?

Yes. Ask yourself the question: ‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’

That's applicable, whatever you do. What are you resisting to do because your fears get in the way?

And I'm not saying jump off the cliff. That's not the point. But there is something in that sweet spot of challenging yourself.

How would you challenge yourself more, if you had less fear? And then just do it. Just see what happens.

I really like what you’re saying. It’s about recognising that we all have conscious or subconscious limitations that stop us from reaching our potential and it’s about saying, let’s just throw that out in the bin and do it differently. Kay, thank you so much for your time today.

I think those were great questions and it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Have a great weekend.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Read RICH THINKING Issue #1: Former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer

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