Tom Tierney on “Building a Life, Not a Résumé: An Interview by Stew Friedman

TiernyWork and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body and spirit). On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Tom Tierney, Chairman and Co-founder of Bridgespan, the leader in non-profit consulting, and former CEO of Bain.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation. To read the complete conversation, please click here.

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Stew Friedman: You are one of the six people I profile in Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life. In my analysis of your life story, I describe how you exemplify the skills of envisioning your legacy, weaving disparate strands, and seeing new ways of doing things. What do you do to ensure you’re building a life and not a resume?

Tom Tierney: I heard recently that “days are long but life is short.” It’s important to step back and ask what matters. We are all different and have an opportunity to take advantage of our unique circumstance and gifts and apply those to achieve “success” as we define it. I try to step back and ask, “Have we achieved those things in life that matter most to us?” “What have you done with your gifts?” It’s not what’s in the bank or on paper.

SF: So to envision your legacy, you try to keep the big picture in mind.

TT: What is success in life for me? I ask myself periodically. And at the end of the year I do a retreat with myself, and with my notebooks. How’d I do this year with my wife? My sons? Work? Community? My volunteer activities? How’d I do? What can I do better? I keep a journal. A couple of dozen by now. The act of writing helps me think about it and to overcome inertia. Time marches on and we have to get ahead of time. I keep notes, get feedback from others. My wife is my best coach. She asks, “Are you sure you’re living up to what you want to achieve?”

SF: You have a commitment to continual learning and reflection, examining what is and what might be. And you invest time to reflect. But you must face pressure to get on with other things and pressure from others to do so. How do you keep that commitment to journaling, reflecting?

TT: Discipline is a really important attribute. Someone asked if, all things being equal I’d rather have 20% smarter or 20% more disciplined on my team. It’s the later, because that person is able to make tough decisions at the margins, tiny tradeoffs. For example, I walk to work, and then there’s the escalator or 45 steps. I take the 45 steps.

SF: You’re smart about your choices. They’re deliberate.

TT: Discipline manifests itself in little ways. Do I exercise? Work at home or go in on the weekend? Not check email in the evening. It’s the little choices on the margins that add up.

SF: How do you manage pressure from colleagues? How do you keep those boundaries?

TT: I find that most of the challenge is in my own head; thinking that I’m indispensable. I’ve experimented with being off the grid and surprisingly the world does not stop. And of the hundreds of emails, I find that someone else handled it, or it wasn’t really urgent. We too often focus on what is urgent versus what’s important.

SF: How do you remain focused on what’s really important and not get caught up in the urgent?

TT: I’ll ask the question, “How important is it today? And how important is it for the future?” Here are my priorities, things I value, that really matter to me. We are too reactive to the urgent. It’s asking the question. Making time to look backwards and forwards. Creating feedback loops. And not getting caught up with inertia or what other people want.

SF: Is this what you’re teaching about leadership at West Point?

TT: I conduct seminars on how to succeed at life. People say the cadets are too young. But this is always relevant because we are always confronted with choices. And we can learn from each others’ experiences. We are all the same. Who isn’t struggling with having a great home life and work life? We want to learn from authorities. But everybody around you can teach you. A 19-year-old cadet asked the question: How can I develop confidence to confront superior who I think is making a mistake? I turned it to class. Some had been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. We had a robust conversation about how to address problems with a boss. How to manage up by exerting influence versus control? You can ask questions and go through others.

SF: Exactly, others can answer if you engage in dialogue. So, what’s been your worst mistake?

TT: I have diagnosed my mistake patterns. When I have strategic life decision like who you’re going to marry. Then I think long and hard. My mistakes occur when they’re insidious voluntary errors, tactical mistakes. I rush to judgment without leaving my mind open. I can pigeon-hole ideas and people. I can shut down the receiver and when I do that I am worse off.

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Tom Tierney stepped down as CEO at Bain to co-found The Bridgespan Group, the leader in consulting in the non-profit sector. To learn more follow at @BridgespanGroup and @ThomasJ_Tierney.

Stew Friedman is an alumnus of Bain, a professor at Wharton, and the author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life and, more recently, of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Oct 7, Harvard Business Review Press).

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