Passion, sales, swimming: Why leaders need to stay curious


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 21, we spoke to the inspiring Kari Baynes, Founder, Director and Chief Vision Officer of Different Strokes Swimming. Kari has had an impressive career in the media industry with roles including Head of Business Development, Group Advertising Director, and Project Lead for News Corp Australia.

Kari founded Different Strokes Swimming after noticing a need in the fitness and well-being market in areas such as learn to swim, continuous stroke correction, and structured recreational pool and open water swimming. With her skills in marketing and strategic skills Kari’s mission is to help everyone, regardless of age or ability level, thrive. 

In this conversation we discussed what swimming has taught Kari, why leaders should always be learning something new and how selling is storytelling. 

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Kari on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.  

Authored by Kari Baynes, Founder, Director and Chief Vision Officer of Different Strokes Swimming

At the age of 48, I learnt how to swim freestyle and it changed the trajectory of my career and life forever. Rain, hail or shine, every week, John (an old colleague) gave me a freestyle lesson. By the end of eighteen months of lessons, I could swim 20 laps consistently. By 2019, I completed a 10 km quad swim event in Lake Argyle, Thames Marathon 14 km solo swim and another two 10 km solo events.

Growing up, I was never a very sporty person. I much preferred books and the arts over physical activity. Yet, by my early 50’s, I found myself signing up for events I never thought possible and loved it. This was how my company, Different Strokes Swimming, was born. I wanted to extend my love for swimming to other adults, who for whatever reason, weren’t comfortable or never had the opportunity to enjoy aquatic pursuits.

Different Strokes Swimming specialises in adult swimming lessons, from beginners to those wanting to swim in the open water. It was an idea that blossomed out of my love for the water. Today, we have been operating for seven years and have helped over 3000 people go through the program. Most of the people we teach are new Australians and migrants who are wanting water safety training or want to learn how to swim as a part of their assimilation into Australian society. Our squad program has a loyal following, encouraging swimmers to build fitness and better health. We offer any adult the opportunity to become confident in the water and fall in love with it. I am passionate about what my team and I do every day and believe that learning should never stop at any age.

Before Different Strokes Swimming, I was a Senior Executive at News Corp, leading a sales team. From being a leader at a national corporation to being the leader of my own small business, I have realised there is no difference in what makes a great leader. Leadership isn’t restricted to those who head the organisation. The same leadership principles apply whether you are a large or small business. In this article, I will explain the value in constantly learning, what makes a good leader, and how passion and having a good sales team are key to business success.

What swimming has taught me
In 2010, when I first learnt to swim freestyle, I wouldn’t have seen myself as the owner of an adult swim school. Swimming launched me into a new world and enabled me to forge new friendships. Joining a squad helped me become a part of a new community of people. I found friends who pushed me to overcome my fear of sharks and the open water. They also encouraged me to compete, not only in carnivals at a Masters level, but in endurance swimming events. These events have taught me strength, passion, and commitment.

One of my first open water events was a 10 km swim in England. I hadn’t trained enough, my only a commitment was to finish. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. You should definitely commit to a training program before an endurance event like this! This experience taught me the power of my mind in overcoming challenges and the importance of planning.

When you swim 10 km without training, a lot of thoughts race through your mind. The desire to stop and quit is overwhelming. Your mind constantly whispers how much pain you’re in and casts doubt on your capabilities. Despite these internal conflicts, I finished. It may have been one of my most stressful and problematic swims, but I finished. It required strength and commitment, values that I believe every small business owner must possess to succeed. I may have not been able to lift my arms for three days afterwards, but I had followed through on the goal I set for myself.

Owning a business is riddled with challenges and self-doubt. It’s easy to allow those feelings of uncertainty to overwhelm you and encourage you to quit before you have even begun. Don’t let those emotions win. If you are committed to a goal and vision, see it through. Don’t let your mind get in the way.

While that 10 km swim was a painful and unenjoyable event, it taught me the importance of planning. I have enjoyed every swim I have trained for. This may seem like an obvious statement, but many people don’t apply this sentiment into their business practices. As a business owner, I can confirm you need a plan, vision, and goal for success. You might be able to succeed in the short-term without a strategy (like my untrained 10 km swim), but this is not conducive for long-term success. If you don’t put the work into planning, then it can all go to custard.

Why I stay on the path of learning
At the age of 48, when I first learnt to swim freestyle, it showed me the importance of learning and being a beginner. I am always on the path of learning, and I encourage every other leader to do so. Constantly evaluating areas where you can improve and setting yourself goals is paramount to ensuring business success. Once you stop learning, your days as a leader are numbered.

When I began Different Strokes Swimming, I didn’t understand the intricacies of digital marketing – particularly how to use social media effectively. As a leader, you can’t have areas you don’t understand. You may not be an expert in certain aspects of a business, but you should understand and be able to complete all basic tasks – especially if you’re a small business owner. Knowing that my weak point was digital marketing, I enlisted a marketing consultancy whose role was to teach me how to use the digital tools correctly. I learnt the fundamentals and basic digital marketing practices to ensure my business could succeed.

Now, I have a decent grasp of digital marketing and post across all social media platforms, produce online newsletters and other marketing materials. While I now have a small social media team, I can help them by offering input into our marketing practices. This not only benefits my leadership, but it has also allowed me to understand every aspect of my business. I’m not in the dark or confused. I can help my team achieve their objectives, contributing to the long-term success of my business.

While digital marketing may not be my passion, I can do it. As a leader, you need to recognise what you can’t do. You also need to find joy in learning and overcoming these shortfalls. If you don’t allow yourself to be receptive to new ways of thinking and communicating, you will be very limited as a leader and business owner.

Learning doesn’t always have to involve undertaking a new course or gaining a new set of skills. It can be more subtle. I learn from my team every day. Whether it’s a new teaching technique or method of marketing the business, my team is forever teaching me. I regularly shadow my team. I would recommend all leaders shadow their team, not to review their performance but instead as a learning experience. This is how you can better understand your business, build authentic relationships, and stay on the path of learning.

Selling is storytelling
When I worked at Newscorp as the Sales Director, I was an expert at sales. Now, owning my own swim school, I have had to constantly hone this skill and upskill my team to ensure my business succeeds. Sales is one of the most important skills small to medium-sized business owners can have. If you can’t sell your products or services successfully, your business can only be maintained in the short-term. No matter what your business is or how big it is, you need to be able to sell it to consumers.

To me, selling is storytelling. Take my swimming journey story for example. This story is highly sellable. It showcases how I understand your fears as I was once you. I know where you’ve been and have overcome the same challenges. This equips me with a unique selling point in my niche area of adult swim lessons. In Australia, most people are taught very young how to swim. When you’re learning to swim as an adult, you can often feel alone, and your fears are heightened as a result. My swim school is different. I, as the founder, know exactly how you’re feeling.

See how selling is storytelling? By building a story around your selling point, you can form connections with your customers. This helps with gaining customer loyalty and trust. If you’re not passionate and have no vision for your business, this can be a difficult sales area. You need to know who your buyers are and understand why they would want to purchase from you. This is the secret to sales.

The top three attributes of a successful sales team are teamwork, hard work and measurement. You need to create an environment where overt individual competitiveness is actively discouraged. Teamwork can’t thrive in this environment. You need your team to work together and support one another as this is how your sales team will improve and achieve their objectives. In my time as a Sales Director, I have found that a teams-based incentive structure is the best way of encouraging your team to succeed. Each member of your sales team can help teach and support one another, empowering greater confidence and expanding your teams’ capabilities.

You can’t deny hard work. Hard work is the key to ensuring a successful sales team. People often see sales as a fun business and while it is, it’s more often hard work. It takes a while (about 12 months) for your team to understand the peaks and troughs of the sales cycle. This takes time and dedication. Without this understanding, it’s difficult for a sales team to create a tailored sales approach for each period of the sales cycle.

Finally, measurement is critical in ensuring your sales teams’ success. Everything in life is measured. You need to set a baseline and work out your numbers as early as possible. Sales is mostly a numbers game. You need to understand what you are producing to measure your success and diagnose areas for improvement. Knowing this data is vital to business success.

In swimming, there’s this concept called ‘the glide’. When you’re swimming (if you’re using the right technique) you will experience a glide. This is where you hold the water. You don’t do anything. It’s a moment of inactivity, yet you get further faster by travelling this way than you do by increasing your stroke rate. The glide has influenced my business strategy. I have learnt that inactivity can take me somewhere as long as it is purposeful. Maintaining productive numbers, rather than random numbers is critical. Holding your sales figures can help your business succeed more than constantly looking to always improve them through untested sales techniques that can backfire.

At the end of the day, sales is about telling a story and forming a connection with your customer. Having a strong and supportive sales team will help lead you to success over a competitive and independent group.

I learnt to swim freestyle at 48. I became so passionate about swimming that I not only competed in marathon swim events but also created a successful and meaningful swim school. I never would have thought this is where life would take me, but I am thankful that it did.

Swimming has taught me a lot. It has taught me the importance of being a lifelong learner, how strong I am and why passion is critical for long-term sales and business success. While sales is an area where constant improvement can be made, it is also important to go with the glide – maintaining your numbers is a sign that what you are doing is working.

What could you achieve if you challenged yourself to learn something new?