Performance Profile: Patty Brandmaier

  • Alexa Miller
  • July 22, 2020

The Arena Labs Performance Profile series brings insights from high performers across worlds to frontline teams in healthcare.

Patty Brandmaier spent 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, serving both domestically and abroad. Her CIA trajectory led her from an entry-level analyst to, at the time of her retirement, serving as a member of the CIA’s executive leadership team. As a senior executive leader, she further stewarded CIA’s relationships with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Congress, and further led an organization-wide culture change at the request of the Director, Central Intelligence Agency. Now an executive coach and culture strategist, Patty engages with Arena Labs’ partner hospitals on co-creating the environment for high performance, focusing on the individual, team, and organizational leadership and shaping a thriving work culture.

What are five words you would use to describe your time in the CIA?

Five words just don’t cover it! How about five phrases?

Non-Stop Discovery. Deep Commitment. Boundary-Pushing. Action-Oriented. Inspiring Community.

You have spent a career seeking to understand the root causes of societal trouble and real levers of change. What could leaders in healthcare better understand?

Understanding human nature in a society or an organization is at the core of my work – and, in my humble opinion, Josh Kaufman (the author of Personal MBA) best describes the five core human drivers that influence human behavior in any environment or situation: acquire (things or influence), bond (to belong and feel valued),  learn (growth and development), defend (protect and advance), and feel (emotional experiences).  They are worth looking up!

From my experience, channeling these natural human behaviors into a productive team and organizational behaviors are the essence of creating a thriving work environment, meaningful and sustainable change, and high performance.

It all comes down to understanding our human systems and unlocking the human potential in those systems, individually and as part of a team and the organization.

My personal leadership formula to do this has three core elements:

  1. To unlock human potential, leaders need to help employees to understand their intrinsic motivation and how to realize their potential. Everybody’s driven in some way. It is helping them to discover it and how to achieve it within the organization, always, through periods of change, challenge, or growth.
  2. To leverage human potential, leaders need to set the expectation and role model of how employees work and team together to leverage collective strengths and expertise. It is all about belonging and feeling a part of something bigger, having shared values and behavioral markers, and understanding that everyone has value and contributes.
  3. To nurture human potential, employees need to be inspired by their organization and its culture, mission, vision, and values.  They need to see them modeled and upheld by their leadership, in their everyday work environment, and in the repeatable system practices that impact them – hiring, strategy and goal setting, assessing and performance, decision-making, developing and training, and rewarding and recognition.

Your trajectory demonstrates consistent growth and rise. Did you have a personal leadership philosophy?

Well, my career was not always a consistent rise, but always consistent growth, as I have had many…how shall I say it? … “learning opportunities” throughout my career.

Consistent with the above, I have a personal leadership philosophy that I developed and evolved over time; it was more of an instinct I followed at first that only became a clear framework to me later on, after being forced by some memorable challenges.

My personal leadership philosophy while at CIA was reflected in what I like to call my “three number one” goals, as they are equally important, which are:

  • To ensure that any organization I led was recognized as a proactive partner, driven by service, excellence, integrity, and collaborative outcomes and solutions.
  • To support and develop the leaders who worked for and with me so that they felt a strong sense of agency for our organization and its success and for motivating, growing, and removing obstacles to staff success.
  • To create for staff a strong sense of their value and the value of their work, of our common purpose and mission relevance, and that their contributions were integral to early identification of challenge and solution for our success.

Throughout my career, in success and in setback, I have always taken the time out to reflect on my leadership philosophy.  Every time I faltered it is because I lost sight of my guiding principles and, by coming back to them, I regained my footing, with myself and others. That is what propelled my leadership growth, impact, and trajectory.

Could you describe a time of mission-critical challenge, where you really had to stay calm in the face of a stressful event?
I can think of one situation where I created – inadvertently – a situation that was extremely awkward for the Agency with a key stakeholder. I remember I had to walk down the long hall to the Director, CIA’s office to let him know that this had happened. I was just…beside myself.

I remember walking down that hall and…just breathing. Getting myself under control, because I was mortified and angry at myself.

I remember thinking, “okay, you’re triggered right now because you know you messed up. You’re triggered right now because you made a mistake.” And I kept breathing, deep in, hold, deep out…over and over…”Okay, now I’m clearing my head. This is good.”

By the time I got to his office, which was all of half a hallway from mine–trust me, I was walking reeeaaaaally slowly–I was ready.

This is my process for performing under pressure when I know I am triggered and I have to get myself/others calm:

  • Acceptance. All right, here I am, facing (a challenge, a problem, an incident, the outcome of a mistake), what do I know about it, why did it happen, what was my role in it, and what steps do I need to take from here.
  • Figuring it Out. Ok, what’s the worst thing that can happen? What is the best thing that can happen?  Who can I go to, what’s in my environment right now, that can help me figure out the next best step to move forward and anticipate second and third-order impacts to mitigate risk? Indeed, no matter what job I have ever been in, I have always had a “brain trust”  that I can go to to help me figure things out.
  • Moving Out. All right, let’s just do this – whatever the “this“ is: that first step, that first conversation, the strategy, the execution plan, to fix it, to make things better, whatever is needed.

I learned this approach from my very first manager at the Agency when I was working in the 24/7 Operations Center. He modeled transparency and calm amidst any situation, no matter how tense or fast-moving, by taking an invaluable 10 minutes to ensure everyone was on the same page and knew what we needed to do to manage the situation. That example served me well my entire career and is what enabled me to walk into the Director’s office that day some twenty-odd years later with confidence and composure.

And after I explained what I had done, what I planned to do to fix the situation, and invited his input, the Director looked at me and said, and I am paraphrasing, “You got this, go fix it, and let me know how it goes.” And I did.

You are known for speaking frankly about recovering from mistakes. What from that do you bring to your coaching?

My most requested leadership speech is “how to avoid the mistakes I made.”  It makes me laugh, but I think its popularity is because it is a powerful and accessible reminder that you can survive your mistakes, recover from your mistakes, and thrive after a mistake because it is all about how you learn from your mistakes.

Leadership is an ongoing journey–and, yes, mine was trial and error.  I made almost all of the common mistakes that leaders make–thinking that I needed to have all the answers, emulating others rather being true to myself and my values, trying to be tougher than I am (the “I’m in charge” attitude; which always got me in trouble and made me and others around me miserable), and thinking I had been put in a job to “turn things around.”

From my own journey, the number one skill for leadership success is the importance of self-awareness.  That’s the first thing that I focus on with the leaders with whom I am privileged to partner in building that understanding of themselves:

  • What are your values and how do they show up in your decisions and in your engagement with others?
  • What do you want to be known for as a leader – your guiding principles – and how do people recognize you by them and how do you articulate and live by them?
  • What are your strengths and the things you hate to do or are not good at that you need the strengths of others?
  • What are your stress triggers and how do you self-regulate?
  • What happens when you make a mistake and what is your recovery strategy?

All of these things, and more, are so important to leadership impact.

Secondly, and as highlighted earlier, I firmly believe that a leader’s resiliency and agility in navigating complexity and uncertainty stems from his or her ability to enable the potential of those who work with and for them. That organizational performance and success depend on a leader’s ability to leverage the best, the strengths, the divergent, and diverse talent and thinking, of the team.

Most importantly, it’s a leader’s responsibility to create that environment that allows that coming together.  I have always loved the saying “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

Your coaching practice has a surprising focus on stress. Why should a leader manage their stress?

According to behavioral researchers Kelner, Rivers, & O’Connell, 75% of people’s views of their organization–their place in it,  their roles and responsibilities, and how they’re valued–all come down to their view of one person: their manager or their leader.

For those in a leadership position, your people are watching you; they are processing how you respond to adversity and stress, how you engage with them, and others during those times–and these are very powerful lessons.

Your ability as a leader to manage your stress impacts the stress of others. And if you can lower stress in your organizational system, just by your actions, imagine what you could accomplish!

I think the research is incredibly compelling: if your people know they are in a safe space with you, that they can speak up, speak freely and honestly, and will be listened to without prejudice or adverse reaction, then the possibilities are limitless on what you can accomplish together.

That’s the self-awareness piece. It’s really about understanding how you bring your best self to work, no matter what is going on in your life and in this world, and how do you take care of yourself to ensure that?

Self-care is different from self-nurturing – that extra glass of wine or a slice of pizza; self-care comprises those practices and rituals that help you to maximize your rest, ensure your nutritional needs, propel you to workout because you know it will make you feel better, still your mind when it’s racing, recognizing when you have reached a point of diminishing return and need to take a break and remind yourself to remain connected to, to stay present with, family and friends.

This is all so important, and especially in today’s world where we are dealing with multiple, high impact stressors – societal, economic, political, health, and personal.  Taking care of ourselves so that we can take care of others is essential.

Do you have a favorite technique or visualization that you personally use to manage stress?

After the terrorist attacks against the United States on 9/11, I worked seven days a week, often 12-14 hours a day for about seven years, to include time in a high threat environment overseas.

I was able to survive that because I strive to wake up with positive intent every morning. It’s a little discussion I have with myself before I even open my eyes. The framework of that discussion changes as I find things that really resonate with me, but it is always about starting my day with positive intent.  As my favorite Peloton instructor Christine D’Ercole says: “the most powerful thing anyone can say to us is what we say to ourselves.”  Her tagline – IamIcanIwillIdo- is what I’m currently using for my little morning ritual.

A new favorite technique is one I recently learned from the insights of one of my colleagues at Arena Labs, Jaime Crane Mauzy, who inspires me with her interviews and presentations on making your own luck. I have turned her driver into a visualization exercise: “what does the luck I need to create today look like that will help me move a problem or a challenge forward?” Or, as encouraged by another teammate, Jurgen Heitmann, our Director of Performance, to help me to be 1% better.

I love these rituals; they are energizing and focusing!

How does the world of performance shape your work?

When I think of high performance, I tend to think of an elite Red Bull or Olympic athlete or a member of our elite Special Operations Forces.  And, I must admit, that I find it hard to put myself in that category of performance. Even though I led at a very high level, my performance has always been propelled by working hard, leveraging the best of others, and driving for collective success.

As I have now been immersed in the world of high performance, however, I have a redefined understanding of high performance.  Borrowing from the inspiration and words of all those who I have met and/or read about, I am able to explain my contribution to high performance in a way that is accessible and energizing for me:

High performance is understanding that, when we come together, there are truly no limits to our possibilities, to our potential, as individuals, a team, in an organization, or in a community.  It’s understanding how we work together and get work done, communicate together, hold each other accountable, and give each other the benefit of the doubt to drive everyone’s best contribution. In reaching such high levels of faith and trust in one another, that is high performance because that is the space where the performance becomes transformational.

This is the paradigm shift in medicine that we at Arena Labs are seeking to pioneer with our partners.

I mean, just imagine the care your system could deliver with performance knowledge!

What could you achieve if you had an environment where everybody on that OR or clinical team understood and valued how to bring their best and bring out the best of others across roles?  From the surgeon to the scrub tech to the invaluable experts who clean instruments and ready surgical rooms.  That they all know how to collaborate, effectively communicate as a team even in high stakes situations, manage individual and team stress and anxiety under pressure, and collectively working to prevent personal and team burnout – and were motivated to work together in that way?  Think of the collective expertise and mastery of those teams, the amazing and high-level patient care they would provide!

I can envision this world in modern medicine, as there are so many parallels between my former world of intelligence and modern medicine.

At the CIA, there is a job position in the clandestine service called Operations Officer. It is the role that Hollywood glamorizes the most. Operations Officers are highly trained in a craft that takes years to master and is constantly evolving. They are hired because of their high personal initiative, self-reliance, and singular accomplishments. However, in order for them to be successful and for the CIA’s mission success, they also need to be incredible members of a highly interdependent team, so the CIA trains them and everyone to be that.

This is the mindset that I would love to see in medicine.


Interview by Alexa Miller, High Performance Medicine® Correspondent, Arena Labs