Choose to work only on things that really matter to the world. You must wholeheartedly believe in the value of what you are doing. My life’s work has been devoted to developing great leaders so that companies will have fantastic cultures and be great places to work. That mission affects thousands of people all over the world — I’ve seen it happen.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewingPeter Thies, PhD.
Peter Thies, PhD is the President and Co-Founder of The River Group, a management consulting firm that helps CEOs and senior executives transform their organizations and leaders in order to execute their strategy.
He has 25 years of industry experience in building and improving the performance of executive teams, developing generations of enterprise leaders through seamless succession planning processes and increasing executive effectiveness with direct reports, peers, and Boards of Directors through feedback and coaching. In addition to his work in leadership and pipeline development, Dr. Thies is also an expert in M&A integration to build unified, high-performing companies and organizational redesign to stimulate higher growth.
He has coached over 50 CEOs and hundreds of C-Suite executives over the course of his consulting career. The results: organizations that perform better due to more impactful leadership from the top. It is a lifelong pursuit that Peter has enjoyed with his clients and consulting colleagues.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m the son of a minister and a music teacher. I grew up in a very modest environment — we lived paycheck to paycheck, and I learned very quickly how to provide for myself out of necessity. I learned to facilitate teams by watching how closely my father worked alongside the communities he served. I learned about a very strong work ethic and the beauty of music and creativity from my mother. I always seemed to be the “misfit.” In grammar school, I was the poor kid on the wrong side of the tracks. In high school, I was in the minority wherever I went — I went to public high school in a very affluent area so I was a minority since we were of very meager means, then at home, I was in the minority as we were the only white family living on an Indian reservation. Those experiences taught me a lot.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
No single person was the inspiration. What got me interested in organizational consulting was my first job in the psychology department of a school for autistic children. I became fascinated by the interactions among the different departments — some worked well together, and yet there was massive conflict between other departments. I wanted to be part of the solution. Fast forward 30 years and I’ve been problem-solving ever since.
My interest as an entrepreneur is a bit of a belief that it takes a very powerful small team to do this kind of work well, so I’m more wired for small teams than big companies. I like being the underdog. I think our small company (The River Group) punches way above our weight class. We’ve worked with more CEOs of large companies than most consulting firms 100 times our size. Even as a small firm we interviewed 75 CEOs for our study on their job experience, and the average size of the companies they ran was $3 Billion. Our study appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box and we were only 6 people strong at the time — I’m proud of our team for that.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Sandy Lyons was my client back in 1999. He had just become a CEO at the time, and I had the pleasure of working him at two different organizations, each time with the purpose of merging three different companies into one. It was a fantastic client-consultant relationship. He was the greatest CEO I’ve seen, and he made me feel like the best consultant in our space. That was unbelievable. Later on, in 2013, Sandy and I started The River Group, LLC. together since we believed so much in the value of what we did. Sadly, Sandy passed away last year so the world lost a great CEO and our firm lost a great co-founder, but his legacy lives on in us. We are River Strong because of him and I am forever dedicated to the mission of our company because of him.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I was presenting in English to a Japanese audience through a translator. I was talking way too fast and didn’t know how to separate my presentation into “translatable” segments — I really made the translator work too hard. I knew the audience was confused, so instead of giving verbal instructions on an exercise I was running, I drew a picture. They all said “ahhh” and I realized I finally communicated well! I learned that a picture is worth a thousand words, and “less is more” on communication (despite my long answers to your questions!).
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Choose to work only on things that really matter to the world. You must wholeheartedly believe in the value of what you are doing. My life’s work has been devoted to developing great leaders so that companies will have fantastic cultures and be great places to work. That mission affects thousands of people all over the world — I’ve seen it happen. People have told us what a difference we make. It is very, very rewarding. So, do what makes a difference. If you do, by definition, you will be successful.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Many books have, but one that really affected me is “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. It taught me about how to live in the moment versus worrying about the past and the future all the time. You waste the present and never actually experience life if you fill your present with regrets about the past or anxiety about the future. It is easy to say but very, very difficult to do. I work on this all the time. I’m still an apprentice in this way of thinking.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“I will never allow the failings of another to prevent me from being great. I do not give anyone that power.” I use this with my CEO and c-suite clients all the time, especially when they begin blaming other leaders for something going poorly. The quote is basically a way to not let excuses get in your way. If you blame others for things, you are letting others dictate what happens to you. It may sound like an arrogance-based quote, but it is really empowering in my view. It means, “I take responsibility for my own behavior in response to whatever happens in life. I am accountable to myself.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Our team is working with the top 20 leaders of a very large healthcare system right now. They are wonderful people who are very coachable and are truly learning from each other and from our team about how to be great enterprise-wide leaders. This helps other people because they collectively lead thousands of other healthcare professionals who will benefit from their growth as leaders. They are starting to change the culture for the better. It’s always exciting to see that we are making a difference, especially in an industry like healthcare that has seen a massive upheaval this year.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
First, I consciously try to stay centered or grounded so that I don’t let my own emotions interfere with my effectiveness. I do that by remembering why I am here. When experiencing stress arising from business, I remind myself that my company’s mission is to make the lives of thousands of people better through developing better leaders and organizational cultures. That’s worth fighting for. I put up with a lot of stress in order to have the pleasure of pursuing that goal.
Second, I remind myself that my own emotional reactions during stress are actually likely to make the situation worse, particularly if I get sidetracked. There’s a great quote from the movie “Bridge of Spies” where Tom Hanks asks their spy during a show-down with the enemy, “Aren’t you worried?” And the spy calmly asks, “Would it help?” That’s classic — he was so right!
Third, I meditate regularly and practice yoga to release tension.
Fourth, I work out 4–5 days a week, as vigorously as I can. This helps a lot and gives my body the strength it needs to deal with stress.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
I can give one specific example that applies in many situations. Just before I walk into a high stakes sales meeting, I remind myself of the reason I am there. It’s not about me — I’m not worried about my own performance. To do so would be self-absorbed. Instead I think about the help I know that my firm can give to the client. I’m there for their needs, not my own success or my firm’s revenue benefit. It’s all about them. I believe we help people. We can’t help them if I am nervous, therefore anxiety is not allowed. It’s as simple as that!
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I have used the “box breathing” technique. A four sided “box” of four seconds deep inhale, four seconds hold, then four seconds exhale, four seconds hold — repeating until you are calm. It really works. One of our consulting partners taught me that.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
If I have trouble focusing, I will put on music in the background so at least there’s only one distraction! But in general, I could use some tips about this myself…
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I try to keep a strict schedule to signal the beginning and ending of a workday. Otherwise it becomes non-stop work and sloppy deadline management. I have always set clear boundaries — not missing my kids’ games too often, not ruining weekends with work, etc.
I prioritize within categories — clients, family, firm building, and personal. I try to not sweat the small stuff but the big items in these categories. Sometimes it gets me into trouble if my sense of priorities in these buckets aren’t the same as others’, but that’s a different topic!
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have taken up the habit of exercising almost every day outside (cycling). It gives me fresh air for the brain, perspective on the world, a socially distant activity and exertion to keep the body in shape. I’ve ridden over 2,300 miles on my bike since March 30th! When it rains, I hop on the Peloton or do Yoga.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
The only way I’ve found to keep a habit going is to start the habit with a very clear sense of “why.” I love Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” concept. Unless you get to the real “why” of what you are doing, it won’t last. For example, weight loss. You will not keep off the weight you lose unless you are really in pursuit of something other than the loss of the pounds. For me, the “why” of keeping in decent shape is about having more energy for family, life and work. My family needs me to be healthy and able to support them. That’s worth the discipline.
Stopping a bad habit, in my view, starts with truly accepting that this bad habit prevents you from something that’s important. Unfortunately, in my family history, substance abuse has really had a damaging impact on some of my family members. That’s really incredible motivation for me to not let that happen to myself, my wife or my kids. I’ve seen enough damage firsthand. Any time I feel as if there’s a risk of that bad habit creeping into my life I shut it down. Hard.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I would only say that the flow state has most often occurred when I’m doing something I like with others. I don’t look for it or expect it, but when I get a sense that something really good is happening, I just give myself up to it and I don’t try to manage it. I let it happen. This most often happens during a really good discussion at a client offsite or during a performance with my band (I play drums in a couple of classic rock cover bands). In a band performance, some songs just feel “right.” After a really good gig, we’ve been told by our musician friends that our band is “in the pocket,” meaning that the rhythm section is really tight. As the drummer, that’s my best version of a flow state. Keeping the band in sync and in a good vibe.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This year (2020), I think the best things we can do are to vote in November, learn more about the impact of systemic racism and wear a mask. These three things will help more people than we might realize. I will vote, I wear a mask, and I’m trying to learn much more about systemic racism. I encourage others to do the same and think about the collective impact of our actions.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Bill Gates. I’d really love to share ideas with him about what kind of leaders we should be developing in today’s organizations. He’s thoughtful about this at this point in his life, and he is incredibly influential. I’d love to build a leadership academy with him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.