Interview with Leadership Experts Debra Benton and Kylie Wright-Ford
D.A. (Debra) Benton has been an executive coach helping leaders and organizations improve for more than 40 years. She is the president of Benton Management Resources, Inc. and the author of ten award-winning and best-selling business books, including CEO Material, The Virtual Executive, and Executive Charisma. She is ranked as one of the World’s Top 10 CEO coaches by and counts among her clients Microsoft, Dow Jones, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Univision, and the U.S. Border Patrol. Benton has made appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and CBS with Diane Sawyer.

Debra Benton and Kylie Wright-Ford
Kylie Wright-Ford is an operating executive, sits on multiple boards and is a three-time entrepreneur. An Australian native, she completed her MBA at Oxford in 2005 and has since led hundreds of talented professionals, driven hundreds of millions in revenue and experienced several successful M&A transactions. Her global leadership positions include strategic and sales roles at prestigious services firms like Goldman Sachs JBWere, GLG and most recently as Chief Operating & Strategy Officer of World 50. Kylie is also a popular guest lecturer at Emory University and experienced moderator of conversations with world leaders, celebrities and disruptors.

Hi Debra and Kylie, thanks so much for stopping by our website – could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Debra: Proud to say this is my 40th year of running my own business (I started young, at age 22). Nothing is better than being your own boss. There are no paid vacations but I get to make the decisions I live with. Coached executives in eighteen different countries with most Fortune 100 companies. Happily married to a Colorado cowboy. Spend my summer in a lot of board meetings — that being stand up paddle boarding!

Kylie: For the past 12 years I have been working around the globe helping companies grow by building great teams and getting the best out of them. I am an  Australian living in Atlanta in the US and have lived in New York, London and Oxford before coming here. My roots are farming ones but my current life involves working with executives, celebrities and disrupters to connect them to each other to share ideas. I like the juxtaposition of being a practical person in a complicated world.

When did you become interested in leadership? Why did you decide to start coaching others?

Debra: In my mid-twenties I decided I wanted to learn all I could about CEOs: their role, their behaviours, their goals. I’d been raised around people who ran the show and knew it would be my life too. So I acquired a lot of great CEO mentors over the years so that I could: first, understand their world, and secondly, manoeuvre in that world more effectively, and third, teach others to as well because I learned early on, “leaders make leaders out of others”.

Kylie: Like Debra, my interest in leadership started early in my career. I was thrust into management in my mid-twenties in a dealing room of a stockbroking firm and found it both energizing and terrifying because I didn't have mentors or wisdom to draw on but I had instincts and a strategic mind. I decided to take a year off and complete my MBA thinking it would teach me something about leadership. It did many other things, include grow my global network, but leaders are grown in the field -- not in a classroom. I took a leadership position straight after my MBA and have now managed and led hundreds of people and helped build two companies to their private equity exit. I absolutely thrive on it.

Your book, The Leadership Mind Switch: Rethinking How We Lead in the New World of Work, is coming out at the end of the year, could you tell us about it?

The Leadership Mind SwitchDebra: My co-author, Kylie, and I met and clicked because together we saw the need for new thinking on an old topic. We come from two different worlds both personally and professionally yet bonded in our desire to help emerging leaders.

Kylie: It is about leading across generations and styles at the core. But it is more than that. It is an urgent call to jolt yourself out of complacency as a leader. We are about to have 5 different generations in the workforce, once Gen Z enters, and tech advances are upending the way we need to operate in the workforce.

This makes for a potent cocktail of leadership opportunity and challenge. Leaning on the past won't work anymore so we wrote a digestible book about some ways to tackle the new world of work.

How has your career and past experiences helped you to write this book?

Debra: I’ve had 40 years of learning from and working with global leaders whose names you’d know and admire. I’ve been fortunate to turn in a confidential, objective consultant and coach to them. Leadership is my life’s work. As one client said, “you don’t just love this work, you marinate in it”.

Kylie: Working with Debra on this book has been nothing short of amazing. Her experiences with CEOs and senior executives as their confidante and coach paired with my experiences in the trenches hiring and leading people through ups and downs made for a great blend of content to work with. While we were writing the book, I was the COO of a privately held company that created experiences for C level executives to exchange ideas in a private setting. As a result, I met a lot of interesting people which was a great backdrop, although very hard work!!

Are there any other projects you’re working on that you can share?

Debra: Kylie and I are dedicated to making a movement out of mind switch. We didn’t just write the book for our own benefit, we truly want to help with the change people want to see in the world.

Kylie: In addition to building a movement, I am trying to convince Debra that 10 books under her belt is not enough! I have a list of titles to send her and we'll keep you posted on whether I can convince her to go again...

Your book talks about managers adapting their leadership style – can you elaborate a little on this?

Debra: It’s simple: take the best of what has worked in the past and marry it to the attitudes, atmosphere, and technology afforded us today. Just working with the “new” is unseasoned; just working with “old” is stupid.

Do you think leadership is an innate skill, or something anyone can learn?

Debra: It is like golf or yoga or accounting — you learn it. You might have been born into an environment where people had a proclivity towards it but it is not something you either have or don’t have. Anyone can learn it and have it.

Are there any leadership lessons you learnt while researching for The Leadership Mind Switch?

Debra: If people do not feel empowered by you, you will fail in whatever you are doing.

What advice would you give to a new manager who is struggling to assert their authority? 

Kylie: Don't think about authority — think about influence and what matters to the people you are managing. Listen. Don't tell. Have 3 things that matter for the success of the team, communicate them and don't waiver from them. People will come around if they see consistency and strength.

Are there any leaders that you look up to? Or what is the best leadership advice you’ve been given?

Debra: Many but for various reasons. One might be inspirational on stage, another in philanthropy, another in vision and strategy. People will walk on coals for you in you make them feel good about themselves. A leader’s job is to maintain the self-esteem of others and consistently maintain an atmosphere of “I’m okay; you’re okay."

Kylie: Can I name two? Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Debra: Human nature does not and will not change. We respect the many experts, scholars, teachers, preachers of leadership throughout history. We don’t think we invented the wheel here. We do know that between the diverse experience and the research we both have done that we can help today’s young people get where they want to go sooner, and enjoy the experience better if they take on the mind switch required.

Debra and Kylie's book, The Leadership Mind Switch: Rethinking How We Lead in the New World of Work is published on 20 December, 2016, and is now available to pre-order from Amazon and other online retailers. If you'd like to connect with the authors, you'll find them on Twitter at @debrabenton and @kyliewf.