kp surfing

 Photo: Karen Pery

Karen Pery believes that playful adventures transform lives. The CEO and founder of Excellent Adventures Training, Pery spends entire afternoons in the surf or on the racetrack helping people confront their fears head on so they can solve problems, pursue dreams and forge new directions in their personal or professional lives. She sat down with me recently to talk about her work, and excerpts from that conversation follow. 

What made you decide to become a personal or executive coach? And why do you feel more people are turning to coaches?

I became a coach after coming to terms with some pretty significant changes in my life. Working as an executive in a high pressure and fast-paced organization, I was shocked when my doctor put me on medical leave. “Your job is too stressful.” I’d had a car accident while about five months pregnant. My work/life balance was heavily weighted towards work and the accident was a big wake up call that I didn’t really answer until I needed to go back to work about 5 years later. During this break and the early years of my children’s lives, I struggled to define myself — so much of my identity had been wrapped into my career and professional accomplishments. Looking back at that time, I was probably depressed. I didn’t make sense to myself anymore. I didn’t know how to put the pieces of me back together again because everything in my life had changed so dramatically.

Going back to work didn’t help.

I would drop my kids at school, drive to work, contributed at what felt like a pretty superficial level compared to how I’d worked before my absence, then stopped everything to be back in the carpool line at 3:00. I was exhausted all the time. It was relentless. I didn’t feel like I was doing a great job as either an employee or as a mother – both of which I’d done quite well without the other.

One day, I realized I couldn’t be the only one with these feelings and this problem: I was highly educated and ambitious, and completely unwilling to sacrifice my personal life for my work. Not only that, assuming I wasn’t the only one, maybe I could do something about it.

The idea that I might change the way people like me could have a different kind of work life was both daunting and thrilling. It was a turning point in my life when I realized I could be myself, bring all of my experience, wisdom and passion, and be of service to others – and I could do it in my time, putting my family first. My work makes me feel like a rock star, like I’ve hit the jackpot, found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and won the lottery – hugely and richly abundant. My life is so much better because I love what I do.

I think more people are turning to coaches for several reasons. First, coaching is a lot more accessible now than it used to be. On TV (even beyond Oprah!), we’ve seen people like Anthony Robbins, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Martha Beck and Cheryl Richardson – pioneers in the field – inspiring people to take positive steps in their lives and giving them tools to do so. Coaching is universal, not just for high-level executives and elite performance athletes. Add to that our country’s economic challenges; without the guarantees of savings or employment, many have been forced to pause, reflect on and seek what matters most, knowing that money does not guarantee happiness. Coaches help you figure out what does. Plus, coaching has been around long enough now to have traction. It works. Do a quick search on “coaching ROI” and you’ll find research and staggering statistics about the power and impact of coaching in business especially.

Who is your typical client and what are they seeking professionally? Are they office workers who don’t know how to get that promotion? Are they folks who want to branch out on their own, but don’t know how to get started? Who is it that comes to you for help and what are they seeking? 

I work with two kinds of clients. The first is someone who recognizes they are in a transition and hires me to help them navigate through it with more confidence and clarity. Maybe they’ve been already been given a severance package or sense that that their current project is ending; they know they’ll continue working, but something’s got to change or they’ll end up in the same place again. The threat of uncertainty has them looking to do differently.

My other clients the organizations who hire me to develop the leadership of mid-level managers. They see talent and potential, but have become frustrated that their people aren’t performing to the level they need with the resources they have internally. For these clients, during our work together I take them out of the office on field trips specifically designed to accelerate their learning on a topic. Ballroom dancing, for example, is an incredible way to teach leading and following, especially for managers struggling with supervising and directing a team. We then take the learning from these experiences back into the office and I provide ongoing coaching – typically two times a month by phone – to create sustainable and meaningful change for the individual and the organization.

How do help clients unleash their inner work beast?

You have got to know who you are internally how you are perceived externally. We gather feedback – first from the people with whom you interact most, then with an outside observer. Horses give an incredible 360 evaluation. Seriously! (You can read more about that on my web site).

Along with this, we set goals and start taking some risks. I want you to know what matters most in your present and immediate future, how your life works when it’s going well and how your work works when your life is going well. We ask questions: what does balance look like, what lights you up like a pinball machine, what drives you crazy, what are you longing for, what is most important to you, what’s your dream, where is your quiet place? With new insights come new actions. You try something different, you see what works and what doesn’t, and you report back. Rinse and repeat.

When people are clear about who they are and what they want, are confident that they can take the steps to get from point A to point B, know that they are resilient and can pick themselves up and dust themselves off if things don’t got as planned and can come back to the core knowing of who they are and then begin again, the beast is unleashed.

There is an old saying that if you do what you love, the money will follow. Why do so many people have a hard time following their passions and turning it into a career? How do you help people overcome that fear and see that they can make their life an excellent adventure?

Uncertainty can be terrifying and paralyzing. Many of us have equated financial stability with success and a good life, so it feels ridiculous to give that up in pursuit of a passion that does not have a guaranteed payout. It takes a tremendous amount of persistence, faith, risk tolerance and support to create something out of a dream. It’s not for the faint of heart.

I help people uncover and expose their fears, and support them as they look at those fears head on. I listen deeply and ask questions. We test things out, challenge the beliefs and see what’s true and what isn’t. Very often, when you turn on the lights, you realize that the monster you thought was under the bed was actually just a shadow.

At the Into the Fire Surf Retreat last August, I learned while we were out in the water that one of our participants had nearly drowned as a child. The ocean intimidated her, and she had a tremendous amount of anxiety about her capacity to simply BE in the water, much less learn to surf. So, we just hung out together in the water and played in the waves. I reminded her from time to time that she was doing just fine, that when she was scared, she could take a big breath and feel her feet on the sand. If a wave came, she could hold her breath and go under. There were lifeguards all around us from our surf school and she was going to be okay. We were looking out for her – she wasn’t alone. She was able to leave some of the old stories she had about herself on the beach that day and she got to ride the waves. Her life is different now. To be able to help people to find the adventure in their lives every day makes me feel like a miracle worker.

One of the most interesting things about your business is that you use pursuits such as surfing and horseback riding to get at the issues that are holding people back professionally. How and why did you develop this part of your business and what sort of lessons can people take from a surfboard into their work life?

I learned a lot about myself being stuck in a tree one day. I was participating in a leadership training doing a high ropes activity, and was pretty sure I was going to outsmart the obstacle. Boldly, I was the first to go from my group, so I had neither experience nor observation to guide me, just pure stubborn drive. I quickly found that I couldn’t think my way through it. Determined and frustrated, I received coaching and support from the ground, “Wiggle your butt!” I was instructed to trust my legs more than my head, and when I did, I was successful.

The body is a largely untapped resource for changing beliefs. Watching Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on how your body language shapes who you are has translated into work I bring into every workshop or training I lead. Learning that muscles can access memories better than our minds do (especially for those of us recognizing that we are aging), has inspired me to shift the paradigm about how leaders expand their capacity and develop their potential.

Not quite a week after that day I was stuck in the tree, my daughter had a birthday party at a martial arts studio. The parents all sat around and watched the kids with envy. “I want a birthday party like this,” one said. People want to play, we want to have fun, and we crave novelty. We are constantly learning and making new connections.  I believe that playful adventures transform lives.

Think about surfing. Before you even dip a toe in the water, you’re going to want to stretch and know what your limits are that day or that moment. You’ll want to know what the waves are like. If you’re dancing, you’ll need to be in the right shoes. You’ll want to know if there are any obstacles to avoid. Leaders create similar rituals that prepare them for success.

You have to trust yourself, stay positive, be both present and future focused. Clear your mind and space of distractions, know where you are in your body and in your beliefs at any moment. Keep your core strong and stay connected to yourself and what’s around you. Let go of the past, and keep getting up. Choose how you want it to be. Keep your expectations to a minimum and stay open.

These words could easily be the content of an article on executive leadership in Forbes or Fast Company but were actually said to my clients during a martial arts class that served as a leadership immersion field trip.

If you’re surfing, you need to get balanced on the board – too far forward and you’ll get bonked in the head when you fall and the board hits you, too far back, too far to either side, you will fall off. You’ve got to be aware of your body, your center of gravity and where you are in relation to the board in addition to the conditions of the water, and you’ve got to continually be aware and make micro shifts to stay balanced, go with the flow and enjoy the ride.