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Golden Door GM: My Brené Brown moment of vulnerability

An interview with Brigid Walsh, General Manager, The Golden Door

It was a pivotal moment in a meeting with fellow senior leaders.

Brigid Walsh, General Manager of the Golden Door Health Retreat and Spa Elysia in the Hunter Valley, NSW, was struggling with a concept. But when asked if she “got it” she chose to tell a white lie, and said ‘yes’.

Here, she shares the story of why she became a fan of being more vulnerable and authentic, and offers up her expert and frank advice on the benefits of strong wellbeing strategies in the workplace.  

You’re a fan of the work of Dr. Brené Brown, the TED talk sensation and research professor who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, why is that?  
I love the fact Brene is a great storyteller. She can take research and apply it to real life situations. I find this an easy and impactful way of learning.  The fact she is open and vulnerable herself makes her a great role model.  I use a lot of her quotes when taking to staff and guests. My favourite in relation to leadership is get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

What relevance does Brown’s messaging around vulnerability have to leaders of organisations?
My greatest lesson as GM came from a moment of not being vulnerable.  In a professional development session with fellow senior leaders I couldn’t grasp a concept that the executive coach was sharing. He asked me if I ‘got it’ and instead of being open and vulnerable in that moment I choose to hide my feelings of inadequacy and said ‘yes’ to the question. He moved on to the next concept.   A week later I owned up to the team that I didn’t really understand the concept being presented and that not willing to be vulnerable in that moment with them was a poor act of leadership.  It turned out several others had also not understood the concept.  We all lost that opportunity to learn something new. From that moment on it paved the way for more open, authentic and vulnerable conversation amongst the senior leadership team.  We are human after all … as leaders we don’t have all the answers and we certainly don’t have to pretend that we do.  I love both Brené Brown’s messaging around this as well as Carol Dweck’s growth mindset for leaders.

Which other experts do you admire/look to for inspiration?   
I have the big three…Mother Teresa, Ghandi and Mandela for their contribution to humanity and their humble, values driven approach.  In terms of current experts, along with Brene Brown, I am a big fan of Simon Sinek, Carol Dweck, Martin Seligman, Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington and Australian psychologist Sarah Edelman.  

What does corporate Australia do well regarding health and wellness, and what needs improvement?
There appears to be many well-intentioned wellness initiatives in corporate Australia, however I do wonder how many of these are strategic, effective, evidence based and show a return on investment.  Whilst there has been increased activity in this space, Corporate Australia is lagging in comparison to countries where employee medical insurance is the responsibility of employers.  Improvements could be made through greater advocacy to business leaders about the advantages (financial, physical and psychological) of having strong wellbeing strategies in place. And businesses that do it well and succeed financially have a key role to play in this discussion. Organisations that make health and wellness part of the daily conversation and design strategic initiatives (complete with KPIs) in consultation with staff appear to reap the benefits.  What I’d really love to see change is the stereotypical offsite planning retreat with its mints, cakes/biscuits, loads of caffeinated beverages and alcohol infused big night out reconsidered for its lack of effectiveness, potential liabilities and poor messaging.

How long does an executive take to wind down after stepping off the mouse wheel?  
This definitely varies on the individual. For the wound up, tech dependant, workaholic it can take around 7 days to wind down and learn how to relax and breathe deeply again. For this to happen they need to remove themselves from their mouse wheel to create space for reflection, insight and perspective. What’s interesting is that the natural state of the body is actually a relaxed state and this can be a scary feeling for someone who is constantly wired and stimulated. Learning how to just be rather than do, do, do all the time is becoming a learned behaviour, something we have to work at rather than being the norm.

Share with us a compelling story.  
I once met a man at Golden Door who was going through a particularly difficult time in his life. I didn’t know just how difficult it was for him until after he left. He sent me a letter a week later. He said he gained enormous insight during his experience, so much so he gave up on the idea of taking his own life. He explained that as an anaesthetist he was dealing with life and death on a daily basis, coupled with problems at home it was all too much and he was in a very, very dark place. Stepping away gave him space and perspective to come to his senses.  The combination of professional help, a non-judgemental environment and caring people around him saved his life.  This was over 8 years ago and I still have his letter. It reminds me every day why I do what I do.
In order, what are the priorities for health and wellness for executives?
Number 1 is having or developing meta awareness (knowing your thoughts) and the impact these thoughts have on your emotions and actions on a daily basis.  As human beings we think, we feel we act. Changing the way we think can change the way we feel and act. Developing this skill is the foundation of strong emotional intelligence and outstanding leaders have been found to be very high in this competency. When we regularly tune into our thoughts we also become much more self-aware. Personally, I have learnt to develop this skill along with regular meditation (also a skill) and I found it to be a very humbling process. I also found the more self-aware I became the more relaxed I started to feel. My general demeanour was happier, and my sleep and digestion improved. All these health benefits just by acknowledging and taking more control of my thoughts!  

What benefits result from a healthier workplace?
The end goal of any workplace wellbeing program is to have a healthy, happy and productive workforce where people look forward to coming to work. Building community as part of any program is also advantageous because as humans we are wired to belong. In Simon Sinek’s latest book Leaders Eat Last he talks about belonging in the workplace and when employees feel like someone is looking out for them then this creates an environment of trust, free exchange of information and more effective communication. This is turn drives innovation and helps to prevent problems from escalating.   

What are the behaviours of a leader that improve culture in the workplace?
Saying a simple hello to people on a daily basis. Active listening. Having authentic conversations. Acknowledging effort and good work. taking the time to talk to all staff no matter what role they have. Providing information and context around company decisions. Humour and having some fun.
Tell us about 3 unique challenges of the health tourism industry.
  1. Health retreats/resorts are becoming increasingly competitive… it’s a boom industry!  Even though we have been around a long time (25 years) and have a very loyal following (40% return rate), we need to remain on the ball, innovative and continue to cut through a heavily saturated market.
  2. Health Retreats can’t be all things to all people so it’s important for each of us in this specialised market to find our core offering and stick to it. Golden Door had gone through a challenging time some years back trying to meet everyone’s expectations. It was an important lesson to learn. Whilst we continue to evolve, honouring the original philosophy has kept us focussed and has delivered exceptional outcomes for our guests (since 1994 over 65 thousand guests have taken part in our Program).
  3. Traditional health retreats like Golden Door that have a large number of highly professional, skilled staff (we have a team of 96 people) as well as state of the art facilities are cost intensive.  In comparison to a typical hotel where the guest to staff ratio is much smaller and the facilities are limited. 
What’s the BHAG (goal) or vision for The Golden Door?
To be known as the go to place in Corporate Australia for really effective, immersive, offsite wellbeing experiences for individuals and small teams.  

What’s a typical day for you, as Manager of a health retreat?
I start by saying hello to every staff member I see as I make my way through the various buildings to the restaurant. In the restaurant at breakfast I meet some of the guests and follow up on any requests. I check in with various staff as I make my way to the office and get prepared for the day.  There are always meetings, plenty of e-mails and phone calls to make. I make a point of touching base with guests and various staff throughout the day and troubleshoot any issues.  My highlight is squeezing in playtime with Ginger our workplace labradoodle on the wellness lawn.  The staff and guests love her too!  

Time now for the GREAT EIGHT, eight questions we ask all our guests to get to know them better.  
  1. What's a book you'd recommend?   Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek (although this was a tough one as I loved Mindset by Carol Dweck).
 2. If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be, and what is the book title? I’d love to co-author a Wellbeing/ Self Care book with some of the incredible staff/practitioners at Golden Door. It would provide expert scientific insights based on some of the extraordinary success stories of our guests, complete with soulful imagery, inspirational quotes and our favourite GD healthy recipes.  
3. What's a great bit of advice you could share?   Let’s not take our health for granted. Unfortunately, it’s not until our health is compromised that suddenly we realise how important it is.  
4. What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover?  Fifteen years ago I suffered severe anxiety and panic attacks and I choose to hide it from everyone (except my husband) due to the stigma I felt was associated with having a mental health problem.  I didn’t want to jeopardise a new job I had just started.  I eventually got professional help, went on medication and over time learnt CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) skills, I started to exercise again and learnt to breathe deeply and meditate.  I went off my medication after 2 years and have rarely suffer from anxiety since.
5. How do you relax? Meditation 3 to 4 times a week and playing with my puppy. Dogs are so in the moment!
6. What’s a fun fact that’s not well known about you?  My date of birth on my birth certificate is incorrect.
7. What's the secret of success?The 3 ‘S’: Self Awareness, SMART goals and Smiling often  😊
8. What's a prediction for 2025?  We will have a very successful and well-respected Prime Minister who is not afraid to demonstrate vulnerability. They will have clearly read all of Brené Brown’s books and applied the learning!
The Growth Faculty is bringing Dr Brené Brown, author of five No. 1 New York Times best-selling books; Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness, The Gifts of Imperfection and Dare to Lead, to Australia in late July, 2019. Her brand new book, Dare To Lead exposes the essential actions to cultivate braver, more daring leaders and create a culture of courage. Brené's TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 35 million downloads. For more information on this event, click here. 

Members of The Growth Faculty receive discounts to events, as well as accessing a library of great ideas through interviews with bestselling international authors. To become a member, click here.