Peter Bregman: An interview by Bob Morris

Peter Bregman

Peter Bregman is the author, most recently, of 18 Minutes: Fine Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.  He advises and consults with CEOs and their leadership teams in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups to nonprofits. He speaks worldwide on how people can lead, work, and live more powerfully. He is a frequent guest on public radio, provides commentary for CNN, and writes for Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today. He is also the author of Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

Peter began his career teaching leadership on wilderness and mountaineering expeditions with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School. He moved into the consulting field with the Hay Group and Accenture and, in 1998, he founded Bregman Partners, a global management consulting firm.

Peter earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his M.B.A. from Columbia University. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children and can be reached at www.peterbregman.com, where you can subscribe to be notified when he writes a new article.

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Morris: Before discussing 18 Minutes, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal and professional growth? How so?

Bregman: There are so many people. I couldn’t reduce it to one person. I view life as an almost infinite number of small steps, experiences, learnings, and aha moments. Each one moves us in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems like it takes me 20 times making the same mistake before I learn to avoid it. And then I make new mistakes.  And each time, I have new teachers and people I admire who influence me and help me develop and grow.

Certainly my parents fit in the category of being important teachers. And Eleanor, my wife, has a great influence on me. Then there are friends of mine – some accomplished, like the late Dr. Alan Rosenfield who was the dean of the school of public health and a remarkable man, and some who are simply kind thoughtful intelligent people who live their lives in a way that I admire.  And then, of course, there are my children who, these days, may have the greatest influence on my growth because I feel such a need to be a better person in order to be a good Dad.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Bregman: It was more of an experience. I went on a camping trip that was training me to lead camping trips and I fell in love with outdoor leadership. The people on the trip were generous and talented and simply good people and living in nature and leading people to work effectively with each other felt great. I just loved it. That trip set me on the course that I’m on today.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?

Bregman: It’s been helpful, to be sure. But it’s been one experience of many that move me – both emotionally and practically – toward my accomplishments. I loved going to school and I was fortunate enough to have terrific teachers – not just because they were talented and smart – but because they cared, we’re passionate about their subjects and about learning, and took an interest in me.  Also, my fellow students always taught me as much as my formal teachers. Learning really does happen in every moment if you are interested.

Morris: What specifically do you know now that you wish you knew when you began teaching leadership on wilderness and mountaineering expeditions with Outward Bound and then the National Outdoor Leadership School?

Bregman: Not much. I enjoy having life uncovered as I experience it. I’ve made mistakes for sure, but I don’t really regret any of them. Each of my mistakes has helped me become clear about what’s important to me and how I want to act in the future. Each mistake teaches me something. I’m pretty pleased with my decisions – good and not so good – and I’m happy with the way knowledge has unfolded for me in my life.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Bregman: I believe that charisma is really important. I think people want to be inspired by their leaders. I know I do. But it can’t be all charisma – leaders need to create processes, organizations, and other leaders who can operate independently of them.

Morris: Although hardly an authority, I am a serious student of great leaders throughout history. However different they may be in most respects, all of them seem to have been great storytellers. Presumably you agree. How do you explain that?

Bregman: Great leaders engage the emotions of those around them. Great leaders help us feel passion and loyalty and courage and persistence and a million other things. Great leaders help us feel deeply. And stories are one of the best ways to help people connect to their feelings.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and much of the resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Bregman: I don’t believe that people resist change. We all change, purposefully and intentionally every day. We get married, have babies, change jobs, move – and those are some of the big ones. We also change what we eat, how we travel, and places we visit on vacation.

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed. I don’t mind changing as long as it’s my choice. But I will resist when you try to change me. I don’t like to lose control.

So the way you avoid resistance to change is you don’t force it. This is what I wrote my first book about – Point B: A Short Guide to Leading A Big Change. The book includes 7 strategies for creating change without resistance. The strategies are counter-intuitive like “get the change half right.” We usually try to make change perfect but that leaves no room for people to write themselves into it.

Instead of shooting for perfect, we should be shooting for half finished and then let the people we want to buy in to the change finish it. It’s while they are perfecting the change themselves that they buy in to it.

Morris: Through recent years, you have worked closely with senior-level executives in some of the largest, most complex organizations such as American Express, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, FEI, and GE Capital. To what extent are the challenges they face significantly today different from those (let’s say) 7-10 years ago?

Bregman: I think in many ways we’re facing the same problem but more extreme. We’ve always had too much to do and not enough time to do it in – but now that problem has gotten really extreme. Every one I know is overwhelmed by the amount we have to do and there so many ways to get distracted from focusing on our top priorities. I really think its the most challenging problem we are all facing right now: How do I focus on the things that matter most to me and ignore the rest?

Morris: As you know, much has been said and written about how to increase and improve employee engagement. Research conducted by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and TowersWatson suggest that, on average, less than 30% of those in a U.S. workforce are actively and productively engaged; the others either mail it in or are negatively engaged, working to undermine success. Whatever the statistics, many (if not most) organizations have a serious problem. Here’s a two-part problem. First, how do you explain it?

Bregman: I am most engaged when the work that I am doing really matters to me and I am particularly well suited to work on it because of my particular strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think organizations on the whole pay enough attention to making sure that the right person is in the right job doing the right things with the right other people in order to maximize that person’s engagement and productivity.

Morris: What should be done to solve it?

Bregman: We need to really understand the people who are working for us. What are their passions? What makes them different? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Then we need to put them in a role that plays at the intersection of those four things.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to 18 Minutes. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bregman: I was facing my own challenges in managing my time and my life. I felt I was working hard – super hard – and yet I wasn’t getting my most important things done. When I looked around, I saw I wasn’t the only person who was experiencing that – so I decided to explore it more and the things I learned became 18 Minutes.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Bregman: Writing a book is a very creative process. I had a general idea of what I wanted to write, but I was very open to what I discovered in the process. If I knew exactly what a book was going to look like before I started writing it, I would have no interest in writing it. So the book didn’t differ much from what I originally envisioned mostly because what I originally envisioned was so vague to begin with. And I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Morris: Please explain the assertion that “we steal time from ourselves constantly.

Bregman: For the most part, we truly do own our own time. Sure we work in jobs with bosses and clients and partners to whom we are responsible but in the end we make choices about how we are spending our time. And whenever we make a decision to spend time doing something that doesn’t mean anything to us – that holds no value for us – then we are stealing time from ourselves.

Morris: You suggest to your reader. “Think of 18 Minutes as the FIND ME button for your life.” Please explain.

Bregman: On the google earth app on the iPhone there’s a button that you can press that zooms in on your current location. Where, exactly, in the world are you? 18 Minutes asks that same question, slightly differently – who, exactly, in the world are you? And what is the best and highest and most pleasurable way to spend your time? Answering those questions is like pressing that button and finding yourself. 18 Minutes helps you ask and answer those questions so you can place yourself in the exact right place to maximize who you are and achieve your potential.

Morris: My take on the material in Part One (Chapters 1-7) is that it serves as a mirror rather than as a window. That is, you offer what seems to be a “gut check” or a “reality check.” Is that a fair assessment?

Bregman: I believe that it’s most important to start from where you are – and to do that we need to slow down enough to look in the mirror and see ourselves for who we really are and what we are really doing rather than how we like to think of ourselves.

Morris: What are the four “elements” or “behaviors” around which people should shape their lives?

Bregman: Our strengths, weaknesses, passions and differences. It’s when we work at the intersection of those four elements that we are most successful and most happy.

Morris: With which of the four do most people seem to have the most serious problems? Why?

Bregman: It’s different with different people. Some people have most difficulty recognizing and expressing their strengths because they feel it makes them look arrogant. Others spend all their time developing – instead of using – their weaknesses because they’re embarrassed by them. Still others spend their time trying to fit in because they’re insecure standing out – though all fitting in does is increase their pool of competition which, ultimatley, makes them more insecure. And many people don’t think they deserve – or can – work in their areas of passion. It’s something they relegate to hobbies because it doesn’t feel serious enough to them.

Morris: What is the “intersection” to which you refer in Chapter 8?

Bregman: It’s the work and life that optimizes your strengths weaknesses, differences and passions.

Morris: Peter Drucker provides one of my favorite quotations: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” In my opinion, it is infinitely more difficult to determine the relative importance of several tasks, each of which should be done. That is a common challenge each day. What is your advice?

Bregman: At the beginning of each year, I identify my top five areas of focus – I talk about them in detail in 18 Minutes. Then, I structure my to do list using each of these 5 areas. That way I know that each of my tasks – everything I do – is worthwhile because it moves me forward in the areas I most want to focus on.

Morris: I commend you on the chapter titles. Here are a few that caught my eye. For those who have not yet read the book, please briefly explain the meaning and significance of each. First, “Reinvent the Game” (Chapter 9).

Bregman: That chapter focuses on how to most effectively leverage your strengths

Morris: “I’ve Missed More Than 9,000 Shots” (Chapter 17)

Bregman: That chapter focuses on the importance of failure and specifically how to use failure to your advantage.

Morris: “Bird by Bird” (Chapter 22)

Bregman: That chapter talks about how to decide how to get started and what to work on when you are most overwhelmed

Morris: “The Three Day Rule” (Chapter 25)

Bregman: That chapter focuses on how to make sure your to do list doesn’t become a guilt list. It teaches you how to make sure you actually accomplish your to dos rather than just collect them on a never ending list

Morris: ”The Nintendo Wii Solution” (Chapter 31)

Bregman: That chapter focuses on why fun is such an important motivator and how to integrate it into your life so it’s effective and productive

Morris: What do you say to those who have read this interview and are thinking about reading your book?

Bregman: I‘d say they should follow though on that thought.

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Peter Bregman cordially invites you to check out the resources at www.peterbregman.com.

 

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