S2E27 - Mark M Brown, The Outward Bound Lessons

Mark Michaux Brown is an executive coach and author of “The Outward Bound Lessons – To Live A Life Of Leadership”

After more than two decades of leading trips for Outward Bound, Mark uses the lessons he has learned in helping transform organizations. In the book, he tells the story of the impact of Outward Bound through leaders such as Home Depot founder Arthur Blank and former U.S. Senator Mark Udall, who used their experiences with Outward Bound to impact the world.


  • What is the and history of the Outward Bound and 
  • Mark’s involvement with Outward Bound
  • The Outward Bound Lessons and what writing the book meant to Mark
  • Leadership lessons from working at a car dealership
  • Redesigning the Toyota dealership to focus on reducing the “waste of human potential”
  • How the Outward Bound had a profound experience on Arthur Blank, founder of Home Depot and Laura Kohler, Senior VP of Human Resources and Sustainability of Kohler Group.
  • “It’s impressive to see that theme running through all the people that I talked to is that – I have a responsibility as a leader to make the world a better place, and I’m going to act on it. – It fills me up with hope”

Useful link:

Mark’s website

Outward Bound Lessons – To Live A Life of Leadership

Listen to more podcasts here.


Intro  0:08  

Welcome back to the Green Element Podcast where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host, Will Richardson, and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. 


Will  0:28  

Today, we’ve got Mark Brown, and he is a fascinating individual who has worked and lived in North America in sustainability, and what I would class as sustainability as a whole, so incorporating everything within sustainability, people, planet and purpose. I hope you enjoy the podcast. Mark, welcome to the Green Element Podcast. Thank you. So much for being on the show today, we are looking forward to hearing all about your new book, “The Outward Bound lessons – To Live A Life Of Leadership” and the very life that you’ve also had through up until writing the book. Or did you write the book five years ago, I guess I should have asked you that before.


Mark  1:21  

The book just came out in October of 2019. And I spent about a year before that writing the book,


Will  1:27  

Okay, so often still writing the book, you’ve had quite a varied career on different things of sustainability and in the Outward Bound, etc. So I’m really looking forward to delving more into why you wrote the book. What lessons you’ve learned from writing that book, and whether you’ve got any examples of how things how people can act and interact with each other and still being into that side of things. So, welcome to the show. Thank you very much.


Mark  1:53  

Thank you. It’s a pleasure and I appreciate you having me.


Will  1:56  

So why don’t we you mentioned the Outward Bound in Book, what do we have just tell us a bit about how that has played and obviously played quite an important role in your life for the book to have the Outward Bound in your title.


Mark  2:11  

Certainly I’ll try to give you a down and dirty of the background. But I I started at a marketing education and undergrad and started with the business magazine out of college and then ultimately to a marketing and public relations firm. And I jokingly say that I found myself feeling burned out at the ripe old age of 25. Thinking that I felt like I was an old man and a little frustrated with the work. I had some friends who had done Outward Bound experiences in college who really encouraged me to go take a course to try to help maybe get my head a little straighter or get myself more grounded. So I did a three week experiencing the state of Utah in the United States, which is mostly desert so high mountains desert experience, and it really was a life changing experience for me and one of the things I talked about in my book is that I think I saw real genuine honest leadership for the first time in my life, and I was really drawn to it at the time, I didn’t know what the leaders there. I didn’t know exactly what it was. But I knew I remember seeing myself whatever they have, I want that. And that really set me on a completely different trajectory in my life. I ended up going to work for an Outward Bound School and spent 10 years full time in network, wilderness leading trips in deep wilderness areas. And then I also got into management for Outward Bound and started selling programs to corporations, universities, and schools, private schools. And really that first 10 years was so far in my life that I spent the next 12 years doing work inside companies with Outward Bound.


Will  3:37  

I would like to know more about what the Outward Bound does, because I think many people that listening to this show actually understand what the Outward Bound actually does for a living and how they interact. So if you could just


Mark  3:49  

Sure, Outward Bound is an international organization, and it’s actually was founded in your neck of the woods in Gordonstoun and Kurt Hahn, who is the founder of Outward Bound a German born educator who founded a school called Xylem Academy, which still exists in Germany. And it really he founded it a little over 100 years ago. And it really came from his concern as he was watching Germany change from an agrarian to an industrialized society. And he felt like the young people were losing something really important in the education that they had when they live more closer to nature, and where they lived in smaller communities where they were more tight knit. So he really created an education that was designed to educate the whole human being with the ultimate goal of creating a more compassionate person who is willing to serve society. When Hitler came to power. Han stood up against Hitler, he was jailed, and eventually some influential friends got him out of the country. He emigrated to Great Britain and he actually founded Gordonstoun then and when World War Two started, he was asked by some influential British people to start a program to try to give young seamen, enough confidence to survive their ships being sunk in the North Sea. So Outward Bound is a nautical term that means that a ship is leaving the safety for the unknown seas. And the first school was a sailing school in Great Britain to teach young men really to give them what they call the moral equivalent of war to give them enough confidence inside themselves to know they can survive through any adversity. Our band came to the United States in the early 1960s. And because of the wide open wilderness areas that we have here, it really became wilderness space long travel experience. When I was in a leader for Outward Bound, I lead some programs that were semester long wilderness trips with college kids, so we would be out for you know, six, eight weeks, 12 weeks without even coming in, we would get resupplied out in the field and it really Outward Bound leads people to have more confidence in themselves deeper belief knowing that they can pull out things to themselves, they didn’t know they have and it really focuses on that deep sense of community and self responsibility and that Outward Bound alumni is really taught to, to have compassion for, for people to put that compassion to action by serving the greater good. So it’s really about knowing we all need each other to be successful in life. And as I looked at the stories of the world right now, and I think we’re at a very fragile time in the world and and one things are changing incredibly rapidly and to and I think environmentally, there’s a lot of concern about what’s going on if we crossed a tipping point. And it can feel like all the stories are bad. And yet I felt like I was really well equipped, equipped by Outward Bound to, to make a positive difference in the world. And I know that there are thousands of us out there. So went on a quest to write the book it was to collect these stories, just a handful of stories of other alumni who have done significant things who I know are doing good in the world and I think that Outward Bound leaders are trained to serve. And that’s what we do we find ways to make whatever’s around us better. It’s a selfless type of leadership.


Will  7:07  

It is such the, I don’t want to say theme of the day, but working as a vehicle in the purpose driven business world. It does seem that there are more and more businesses and more and more people talking about this. And I do feel like we have, we’re almost going back in time to say 100 years ago, when you know, Cadbury’s was being or Clarks the shoes or a lot of these companies that looked after their employees and thought about the whole ecosystem from a sustainability and which would include the people as well. point of view and it’s, it’s, um, are you finding that as well?


Mark  7:54  

I do. And I think it’s interesting to me to have, you know, had had a whole career that Outward Bound world and then gotten into business afterward again, and then found that these values that are, you know, Hans values came from 100 years ago, right, the things he was trying to teach that they’re so needed right now and not only needed, but you’re seeing more and more companies moving that direction, whether it’s companies that are choosing the B Corp path or, you know, in the United States, there’s a there’s a nonprofit called Conscious Capitalism that I had a little bit involved within their, their whole focus is on you know, the they call it the heroic journey of business, that businesses really are the things that uplift lift humanity. And for some reason, the recent history, the United States, we got caught up in this education that said, Oh, businesses exist only to increase the value for shareholders. And yet, what we know is every day most of us go to work in businesses we are you know, they’re they’re the mom and pop shops. They’re the companies that actually make a difference when challenges happen, and that when we to me when we start, practicing those values, the work I did was around helping a company that was almost 100 years old tap into these values about relationship and connection and kindness and respect. Those were the values that we started modeling. And this was in the car business, which is really unusual. No one thinks of the car business as a, you know, as a compassionate kind of place. And yet we created an environment where what you were talking about earlier, before we started recording, I watched people buy a car from us and show up 30 minutes later with roses, hugging all the people that helped them buy the car, because they didn’t anticipate that they could be treated so kindly during a process, they expected it to be this, you know, very divisive, untrusting struggle because that’s what they’ve most experienced in our life. And we created a company where that the opposite happens. You know, we’re really, we are simply there to serve people when they come in and the response is incredible to watch and not only for the customers but what we were focused on. The family that hired me was focused on is the people that work for them. Because, you know, I don’t know about your background, but I know when I was a consumer and I went to buy cars, I didn’t think about the salesperson, they were just someone that I thought was going to try to screw me. So I better armor up and protect them. I never thought about them as a human being. And yet the owners that hired me, they wanted their employees to be able to go home at the end of the day feeling good about what they were doing, not feeling like they were taking advantage of people. And once you create an environment like that, where it’s okay, to be honest, and to have integrity, people just awesome. It’s really quite, quite incredible to watch.


Will  10:40  

I’ve got two questions on the back of that. I know that it was a Toyota dealership, did that have any difference in that philosophy? I mean, did. I genuinely don’t know the answer to that?


Mark  10:54  

Yeah, it’s a great question. We owned multiple franchises, our headquarters, we’re on the second floor of our Toyota dealership that was our flagship dealership. And I would say that when we started making all these wholesale cultural changes, of all of the manufacturers that we represented, Toyota was probably the most supportive and they were very interested in what we were doing. And they subsequently and then not because of us, they were they were exploring this already, but in the United States, they’re the Lexus dealership. So Toyota had changed their sales model to be more like what we were doing as well to be much more of a partnership and and then that means you have to systemically change the organization right. If you’re paying someone a commission on the gross sale value of a product, they’re not going to think about treating someone nice are going to think about trying to sell something for as much money as possible. So we literally had to change our payment structures, everything everything changed for us to be able to to redesign the company to make it more human.


Will  11:54  

It’s interesting isn’t as as they was a company that came up with TQM the ISO, it just goes to show that they obviously we’re all right on the cutting edge of change.


Mark  12:08  

Yeah, I would agree with that. And I think that even it’s interesting to me that they’re, you know, they’re philosophically even, you know, we looked at our owner was really had had spent a lot of time studying, Toyota’s leadership model, and that when I, when you talk about forms of waste, you know, the, the one that doesn’t always get recognized is the waste of human potential. And  that became the thing that we focused on more than anything else is, are we providing an environment where people can bring themselves fully to work, and really tap into that deep desire to grow and learn and become a, you know, a person who performs at their best and that that ties right into Outward Bound one, that mastery is one of the values of our bounds. So there was a complete connection to philosophically what I had learned in my earlier life that translated to the workplace.


Will  12:57  

And the environmental management side of dealership was also pretty forward thinking as well, from what I gather with the type of building you’re in and what you are trying to accomplish from an energy point of view.


Mark  13:12  

Yeah, we, we built the first in the United States. It’s called LEED certified building, so energy and engineering design and efficiency. So our building was heated by geothermal wells. We brought high school and college groups through regularly about one once every other week or so we had groups touring the building and facility. So it literally went from things as subtle as putting natural light tubes into places so that workers could have fresh light windows into all of the all of the shops for the technicians so that they could have natural light just to have a little more health. Our building had CO2 and O2 monitors sectioned off. So if the co2 levels ever got unbalanced, then the building would automatically pull in fresh air. So that rebalanced the fresh air, and we recycled the, you know, motor oil and use that to use for heat. So there are all kinds of little projects like that that were thought into the building to make it even went when the full on remodel happens. There’s interesting there’s a documentary that got put up on YouTube from a paper printer and a advertising agency and a printing company all had to redesign a new way to it here we have, we have this timeline on on the building that recognizes the almost hundred year history of the family’s business. And they needed to find a way to mount it without using any type of toxic gases because that would violate the lead principles. So they had to come up with a new adhering and printing and it led to them evolving themselves as company so it became this great stakeholder collaboration with vendors to figure out a way to give us what we wanted at the same time they now had a new product they could sell to other people that was environmentally friendly. So it’s pretty cool to watch that happen.


Will  15:05  

From that, what did you do from working in that dealership.


Mark  15:10  

So when I was originally hired, they created a position for me that was called Director of Corporate potential. I was brought in at a leadership level with the idea of helping guide the company. And the fourth generation owners were had recently there was a recent handover from third to fourth generation owners. It was a privately owned business and they wanted to make it a vehicle vehicle for good in the world, but they didn’t know how to do that. And so I was brought in to help guide that and I lead those efforts and really led the leadership team my peers into a deep strategic planning, a lot of we did a lot of organically pulling out the values from people who had been with the company a long time. We were fortunate we were one of those companies where the core leadership of the company had been there 20 to 30 plus years. So people stayed a long time in this company and we really started exploring Who are we and what’s our footprint in the world? And how are we seeing we talked to various stakeholders whether it was vendors or long term customers to say, how do you see us. What would you like more from us and that helped guide us into we laid out a five year new vision for the company to become really become a highly recognized company for doing good in the world. That was what we set our intention to be. And over time, I also started inheriting departments, I guess partly that comes from having some skill and leading people. So I ended up I took over all of our marketing communication departments and then finally all of the sales departments for the company. So I helped transition the whole company into a you know, completely different way of, of operating selling cars. And then when the book opportunity came up to me, I knew it might be time to shift gears for myself and at the same time this practice what I call expeditionary leadership. And that’s my learning from Outward Bound. And part of the goal of an expeditionary leader is to not be needed anymore. So my intention always was, can I empower my direct reports the managers around me so that they can operate in this new world without me I didn’t want them dependent on me. So it felt like time to let go and step away. And I did that, lower six months ago, I stepped away from the company.


Will  17:25  

Did they? Did they take the baton?


Mark  17:28  

They have taken the baton, the baton, as you say, and they are. I think it’s been challenging and my conversation with them, but I think that it’s a good challenge. And I think they’re up for it. There’s really good people there. And hopefully, we laid the foundation well enough for them, but they are, they really are a completely different, different kind of company. And that’s exciting to see culturally. They are, you know, there’s a there’s a handful of companies in New England that really get recognized for their cultural attributes and this company became one of those.


Will  18:00  

Great, great. And so leading onto your book, we were talking about some of the examples that you’ve got in your book. So do tell us more about, and yeah, what the books about.


Mark  18:14  

As I was, as I was in the midst of, you know, we should go back a little bit I went to I went to graduate school and I got a master’s degree. And while I was I studied a semester on leadership, and this is the first time I played with this expeditionary leadership theory and I talked about, okay, how could you take the stuff that goes on out in the wilderness for Outward Bound and translated into an organizational setting and particular corporate setting? And then I did some of that as a consultant in a lot of companies in the United States. I was in and out as a coach, trainer, facilitator consultant for you know, 20, 30 different fortune 100 companies and, and I was intrigued by watching how almost all these companies had someone who had been connected that were Outward Bound you know, they had done a course, when they were young or something, and then they got into a leadership role, and they wanted to bring these principles in. And so it was very intriguing to me. And then as I got into actually putting my theories into work at the company that I joined all along, I kept thinking, you know, I know I’m not the only person like this. I know there are other people out there in the world who are making a difference with with Outward Bound principles, it would be interesting to interview them. So I met a publisher that’s a B Corp publisher actually out of the Bay Area, Barrett Kohler. And in conversation with him, they were intrigued by this idea, too. So we we approached Outward Bound together and talked about a co publication with Outward Bound and they agreed to and also they’re signing on to the book allowed me to speak with some people that I probably couldn’t have access anyway. And they were some people like the founder of the Home Depot, Arthur Blank, which you know, one of the largest box stores in the world that he was prominent and he currently owns two professional sports teams, and I got to sit with him and listen to him talk about how Outward Bound had a more profound effect on him then, than any other organization you’ve been part of. One of the most interesting stories I think came from a woman named Laura Outward Bound. And she is the fourth generation descendant of the founder of the Kohler companies, which is the a international based company that creates faucets and bathtubs and toilets and most most people are familiar with the Kohler name. And she and her brother are now on the leadership team. She’s the executive vice president of human resources, then sustainability for the company, they have something like 16,000 or 17,000 employees around the world. And they are harnessing the skill and ability of their employees to help make a positive impact in the world. So they created a program where the employees align themselves with the goals that the United Nations as a set and then they go about it. Using their skills to solve problems, one of the examples was actually they designed a very inexpensive clean water system. And it, it took engineers from everything from the design and shape of the product to, they had cultural people making sure that there was nothing in the design that might be offensive to a different culture. And then they figured out a way to make it so that it could be packaged more sustainably. So usually the less waste and could be shipped at a lower cost. And they’ve deployed these all over the world. So one of the places they have factories is in India. So they are now supplying these through a nonprofit, to communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water to try to help solve that problem. But there by tapping into the product, again, the potential of their employees employees are showing up on these committees and they’re on their own time to help solve these problems itself. hit some volunteer time, using their skills in some ways. It’s a lot like the way that Google, you know, gave people free time to do what they wanted. Well, in Kohler, they’re encouraging their staff people to show up and say, What problem would you like to solve and then we’ll we will support it in design, will support it by connecting you in collaboration with other professionals around the world. And we will put money behind it to help bring it to the world, but really an incredible, incredible story and that the Laura Koehler, who’s the woman that I interviewed for the book, she was in Outward Bound structure as a young adult around the same time that I was, and I think that she’s determined to make her family’s company become one that not only is a net zero, but she calls it a net positive to leave the world a better place than it was and just so inspiring to talk to people like that.


Will  22:47  

Yes. And what would you say were your biggest takeaways from your speaking to these people?


Mark  22:54  

I think that there’s some very simple tenets of Outward Bound that I think showed up over and over again. So one is that we are all way more capable than we recognize. All of us can do way more than we know. And that we need each other to do these things and that I saw this network of people committed to making their communities better. And it honestly, I think it helps shake me out of feeling a little bit concerned and cynical about the world of feeling really feeling really hopeful. And I think that was the theme more than anything else that I got out of these stories was, you know, Arthur blank, again, the founder of the Home Depot, he’s in his late 70s. And he’s, he’s dedicating his time and his financial resources to teach business skills to really impoverished inner city kids in Atlanta right by where his his football and football in European football stadium. It’s the same thing in the United States. He has a you know, one of the most opulent stadiums in the world and yet, it’s in the shadows of deep poverty and so he’s committing himself personally, like he goes in and teaches classes and connects with these kids. And it’s, it’s impressive to see that theme running through all the people that I talked to, which is, you know, I have, I have a responsibility as a leader to make the world a better place, and I’m going to act on it and it filled me with hope.


Will  24:16  

Yeah, that’s brilliant. It’s really nice to hear. And it’s, I think it’s a really good message for anyone listening to as well. And we can, you know, there are so many examples of that in all aspects. And taking advantage of, you know, it is taking advantage of the people around you and what and everyone around you because everyone will help each other. It’s just opening yourself up to help opening yourself up to help others as well. So for help and to help,


Mark  24:48  

And I think these movements are happening all over the world and they are people, whether it’s people who are focused on creating, you know, healthier businesses through through going through and becoming a B Corp or through really focusing on a social enterprise that is blurring the lines between profit and nonprofit. You know, I through through my, when I was on book tour this fall I, I shared the stage with a with an international organization that actually teaches kids entrepreneurship skills so that they can solve problems in their community and then they can submit their business plan to this organization and get some seed money to and they’ve got projects going on all over the world. But this watching these, you know, I sat I sat in a program watching 15 year olds talking about wanting to like tackle homelessness or sea level rise in their community and then sitting with other teenagers just going after figuring out how to do it and, and they could be, you know, they could be out playing video games or doing something else but they were choosing their time to come together and try to solve these problems. And that’s that stuff’s really heartwarming.


Will  25:58  

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for giving us an insight into your book and what you’ve learned. And I’ve certainly taken away some aspects of it already before I read it, and I’m sure others will as well. And we’ll put a link to where you can buy the book on the show notes. Thank you very much, Mark, thank you for your time, and I really enjoyed talking to you.


Mark  26:26  

Thanks. There’s a pleasure to be here.


Outro  26:31  

Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode of the Green Element Podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues rate and review the podcast wherever you get your podcast. I’d love to know what has been your biggest takeaway from this conversation? What are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them too. At GE underscore podcast. For links and show notes for this episode, visit our website green element.co.uk forward slash podcast. Thanks you again, I hope you will join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world.




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