Best-selling author and speaker Chris Baréz-Brown has a rather unusual view of the world in that he knows everybody is perfect. As we grow, develop and socialise we can lose touch with that brilliance and often become somebody we’re not. Chris founded Upping Your Elvis, specialists in Creative Leadership, in 2009, to help people reconnect with their inner genius and once again become confident in being who they truly are. Although that may seem rather hippie to some, his results produce tangible returns on investment for companies such as Nike, Unilever, MediaCom and ITV, who come back time and again for his unique and energetic approach to transforming their people and their businesses. The Guardian recently described Chris as a long haired, twinkly eyed cross between Richard Branson and a wizard.
Name, job title
Chris Baréz-Brown, founder of Upping Your Elvis.
What’s your most vivid memory?
… there’s a pretty clear moment where I was standing in Queenstown, New Zealand and I realised I didn’t want a job any more - I just wanted to do stuff with people.
If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to be conscious more frequently and spend more time off auto-pilot.
If you could have any other profession, what would it be?
I’d love to be a musician.
Where’s your favourite place?
Where I am right now.
What do you fear most?
That at any point I might just be taking up space and wasting my time; not being all I can be.
What do you cherish most?
My family, friends and dogs. Time, space and great food.
What would you like people to learn from you?
The awareness that what we have is golden, it’s happening right now.
Talk to our readers about your journey from Sandhurst recruit to inspirational thought leader.
Well, I actually only ended up joining the army because my sixth form wasn’t as good as it could have been and the army had a really good one. So I got a scholarship to join and I loved it. But I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter. So it wasn’t a particularly long term option for me, but I did learn some great stuff there. The army taught me that it’s not what you do, it is how you show up. So when you’ve got a load of people screaming at you every day and ensuring you don’t get any sleep, you’ve got a choice. You have a choice whether you fold and cry like a baby, or whether you fight and make the most of it and in my case, find it funny. I think that was a critical lesson for me to be honest - It put me in good stead for the future.
But, then I did what everyone does, I got my first job, then one I was good at which inevitably got quite boring rather quickly. Because basically any brand planning cycle is the same stuff, you just have a slightly different boss, a different budget and a bigger car and that’s kind of it. Then I had this itch that wouldn’t go away, an inkling that I’d wanted to do something else. But like many people I had no idea what I actually wanted to do. So I threw it all in and went travelling, and that’s quite a dramatic thing to do when you’re on the fast-track program; everything’s going well and you’re running one of the biggest brands in Europe.
But in that time, I spent all my travels learning about what makes people tick, how we think of ourselves, how we prioritise things, how we come up with ideas and what holds us back.
And that’s really where I fell in love with the stuff that I do now, it was all about positivity, creativity, and innovating around life rather than products.
When I came back, I started my own agency which I did appallingly. I had no idea how to make an agency work, I could do the work, but I didn’t understand how to make it work commercially - I did a repositioning for Red Bull and charged them something like £800. I was also teaching Reiki at the time and released my inner hippie. I love the combination of the hippie esoteric stuff with the more marketing creative stuff, and that’s when I joined an innovation startup called ?What If! and set up their capability practice which I ran for 11 years. In doing so, I learnt a lot about how businesses work, how to get people to be themselves, how to get innovation happening; especially around the human component rather than the process and the systems. That’s really what inspired me to start Upping You Elvis because my belief was that all this magic I was reserving for people with ‘creative’ or ‘innovation’ in their title, I could actually spread to everybody in all kinds of organisations. And that’s what we do at Upping Your Elvis.
Explain the name of your company, Upping Your Elvis.
It was inspired by Bono when he was doing his third world debt campaign, he used to go into organisations and had to work out who to play with pretty quickly, so he used to ask a fantastic question ‘Who’s Elvis around here?’ and every time you ask that question people can answer it, because what’s he’s really saying is: Who here’s a bit of a maverick, get’s stuff done, breaks the rules and loves every minute of it? And I personally believe we all have a little bit of Elvis inside us, we just need to learn how to let it out!
Are you Elvis?
Hell yeah. (laughs) Well the thing is, the definition of Elvis isn’t that you have to wear a jumpsuit and sequins, it’s that you’re somebody who’s truly articulating who you are. You’re not stuck in a box, you’re very happy to say what you think, maybe get things wrong but move on and quite frankly make every day a game. And if you’re doing that, then you are Elvis.
One of the things about events for me is that they are particularly special moments and therefore there’s often a big build up to it in which you can play an amazing tune on.
Do you find it can be a difficult concept for senior people in big organisations to embrace?
Well actually increasingly I’m finding it’s a simple concept for them to get. I think when I started out, the idea of Upping Your Elvis does sound a little bit counter-intuitive but when people start to dig underneath they can see we’re all about helping people be more themselves, helping them escape the cookie-cutter approach of everyone socialising to the norms and leaving their true self at the door and becoming someone else when they come to work and therefore not tapping into their own genius; I think people really do get that. At times, people in organisations get scared about what would happen if everyone really did say what they thought and really stepped up, but quite frankly that’s just weak leadership. As a leader these days you should be welcoming people turning up and being authentic. Not only does it create a happier more engaged workplace it essentially fuels productivity and the bottom line.
As a creator of your own events, and a speaker at other people’s, explain the importance of events to you.
One of the things about events for me is that they are particularly special moments and therefore there’s often a big build up to it in which you can play an amazing tune on. It’s like going on holiday - for a lot of people the best part is actually booking it and fantasising about the holiday before it happens. The journey is of as much value as the goal. I think with events it’s similar. In the run up to it you can create an amazing amount of energy and emotion, intrigue and human connection. Another aspect of events is that there’s just something about doing stuff at scale that is very unique. I do a lot of workshops with 10-15 people for days on end and they're very intimate because you get depth. But when you get hundreds and thousands of people together for a short amount of time, you can get a completely different energy that is palpable, in the fact that all these people together are having a shared experience and creating emotions that you can’t create in any other situation. There’s a sense of connectivity that, when you do it right, is amazingly powerful. And huge shifts happen very quickly. You can’t do that in the same way with small groups.
Where do you think the biggest opportunity for the event industry is?
Well I think it’s about playing a bigger game on that emotive connectivity. It’s about giving people more of a meaningful impact that helps people feel better about themselves, and connect with more people who are like-minded about things that will make some kind of difference on this planet. It’s about the human aspect of events. And I think at the moment there are too many people who plan their events thinking about their business strategy and there isn’t enough thinking about why the hell anyone should give a damn and what difference it is going to make to the individual and their lives.
It’s about giving people more of a meaningful impact that helps people feel better about themselves, and connect with more people who are like-minded about things that will make some kind of difference on this planet.
In terms of your own product, what is your current focus?
Well my big focus is my fourth book which has become a platform beyond that, called ‘Wake Up’. Wake Up! is all about helping people escape a life on autopilot. We all know what’s it like to drive a long distance and arrive at the destination without remembering the journey, and that happens because our subconscious takes over. It’s a brilliant part of our design to save energy, but the problem is that as time goes on, we become increasingly habituated and more of our life is spent on autopilot. It’s reckoned that 80% of our lives are spent on autopilot. Our 24/7 lives has meant, that to cope, this habituated behavior is constantly on the rise. So the idea with Wake Up! is that by experimenting with different activities, they become more conscious, more often, and hence feel more alive.
So many of my colleagues and friends say they wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is check their emails and their social networks, and the next time they’re conscious they're back in bed. Life has just gone blurring by in a whirl. That might happen to you as a business person, it could happen to you as a busy parent. We’ve got the same challenges and so much to deal with that we get caught up in it all. Then we lose sight of who we are and what’s important. That’s what Wake Up! is all about.
We’ve also got an app which is a way of helping you capture the times you feel alive. The app then learns what works for you, so it sends you ideas that other people like you have enjoyed, so that over time it becomes easier to develop more consciousness. We’ve been experimenting with a bunch of bloggers over the last 12 months and the impact Wake Up! has had has been extraordinary. We’ve gathered people with every-day mental health challenges like self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and all of them after 12 months of doing Wake Up! have found a significant positive change in themselves. So we really think it could have a massive impact on the world’s health and wellbeing.
So what do you find the most effective method for creating long lasting behavioural change?
There’s a number of things that make a difference, repetition of an event so it becomes habitual, makes a big difference. Making things easier - a guitar in a case is not going to be played as much as one in a cupboard. But ultimately, all behavioural change comes down to pain and pleasure when you really boil it down. If you associate enough pain to your current situation and enough pleasure to your new one, you will change. But if there’s not something in it for you that you love and get a kick from, then forget it, you’re going to go back to what you did before. So you’ve got to get that equation right if it’s going to work. If it’s not something that’s really impacting people’s lives in a positive way then it will not happen.
Are there any quick wins?
Well, if there are any, the quick wins tend to happen when you either get an amazing benefit that just smacks you in the face and you yell ‘Jeez! I had no idea it was so easy to be so impactful!’ or it tends to come from so much bloody pain - as they say to people in AA, you’re never going to get off the booze until you hit rock bottom. But those tend to be the extremes. I tend to find that just trying some stuff out and having the support of a community is one of the most simple and impactful way of sustaining change. What we found when we worked with all these bloggers is that the ones who interacted with each other, shared likes, comments and posts were the ones that stayed motivated and consequently it had a greater impact on their lives. So I think if you personally want to change behaviour, talk about it often and then it becomes more conscious. And if you make it fun, there’s a much greater chance that change is going to happen!