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“Develop good habits.” with Bret Farrar

To develop a good habit, first identify why it’s important; nothing is more motivating than understanding the bigger picture. Next, get down to the basics and schedule it. For me, that means putting it in my calendar where I will see it and can set reminders. Then, identify a few milestones and find ways to […]

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To develop a good habit, first identify why it’s important; nothing is more motivating than understanding the bigger picture. Next, get down to the basics and schedule it. For me, that means putting it in my calendar where I will see it and can set reminders. Then, identify a few milestones and find ways to reward yourself for each one you reach. As you get more consistent, focus on the benefits of the change you are making — how you feel, how your performance has improved, or how things are running more smoothly. Within a month or two, you’ll look back and wonder how you ever managed without it.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bret Farrar.

Bret Farrar is the CEO and Founder of Sendero, a management consulting firm with expertise in Strategic Planning, Technology Enablement, and Organizational Effectiveness. He has more than 30 years of experience in management consulting and information technology, honing his skills as a management consultant for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), TXU Energy, and as an independent consultant prior to founding Sendero in 2004. Under his leadership, Sendero has placed on the Inc. 5000 list 10 consecutive years, in addition to winning numerous culture awards including Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work and being listed as one of the Best Companies to Work For in Texas presented by Texas Monthly. Outside of the office, Bret is an avid soccer player and coach, fan of the Texas A&M Aggies, committed husband, and proud father of four.

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?

When I was growing up, my family encountered some financial hardships that required me to support myself earlier than I had expected, including paying my way through college. I’m extremely fortunate to have attended Texas A&M University. At that time, it had four dormitories that were not air conditioned — not places most students wanted to live given the high heat and humidity in College Station, TX. The price was just right though — $290 per semester — so that’s the housing I chose. I worked every summer and throughout school to make ends meet. I researched and applied for the highest paying internships I could find regardless of the challenges or working conditions — which turned into working as what was known as a “roughneck” in the oil fields of South Texas during one blazing hot summer and living in a run-down trailer while working at a nuclear power plant another summer.

I didn’t live extravagantly, but I still look back on those years with fondness and pride. I met some of the nicest and most genuine people in those unairconditioned dorms. I developed respect for laborers who work in difficult conditions and keep this country going. I graduated in four years with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and more importantly, some life lessons I carry with me to this day: self-reliance, grit, humility, and gratitude. I had an amazing college experience, and it continues to influence everything that I do.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.

My mom’s side of the family is very large. My grandparents on that side had 14 children, 65 grandchildren, over 150 great grandchildren, and now, although they have both passed away, over 100 great-great-grandchildren. I grew up very close to that family, both distance and relationship-wise. Many of them were entrepreneurs, business leaders, and community leaders, so I was surrounded by self-starters who made their own success. Even though my immediate family experienced hardship, building my own business seemed normal, attainable, and exciting to me. I always dreamed of starting a company and had no doubt that it would happen.

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?

My wife, Ruth — without a doubt. I remember coming home late in 2003 from my “regular” job and feeling completely sick and tired of the politics and games. We had a six-year-old and one-year-old triplets, and my wife wasn’t working a paying job at the time. I walked into the kitchen and told her that I wanted to quit my job and start my own consulting company. I asked her, “Will you support me?” — and for some reason she said yes.

When I met my wife, we were both working for a consulting company, so we both had the backgrounds to do the work required for starting a consulting company. For the first year, I primarily did the client-facing consulting work, and she supported the back-office functions while also raising our four kids. By the second year though, business was too good, and Ruth had to take on a more full-time schedule with the company. We have been working together on this labor of love for more than 16 years now, and today, I am the CEO, and she is the COO. We make a great team. We have overlapping talents, but also some complementary ones that make us extremely effective in our roles. I couldn’t imagine starting or running this company without her. She is a huge part of what makes this company successful, and I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today without her.

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?

My first job out of college was with a large consulting firm. I had been out of school about three or four years at the time and was in a high-profile role on a large project with one of our clients. There were about 50 full-time team members on the project, and I was the technical lead. So, there were always questions to answer, tasks to complete, and meetings to attend. I was regularly working 50- or 60-hour work weeks with occasional 80+ hour weeks. During the day, I would always have someone calling me or coming by my desk to ask questions and to get help. I learned to multi-task and to work very quickly.

One of the tasks I had to do was refresh the training database between each training session. This task ran for 12 hours or longer at times, so it was important that I refresh it as soon as each class was over so that the database would be ready in time for the training session the next day. One day I was doing three different things and had two people at my desk asking me questions. At the same time, I got a call from the training team. I spoke to them and started the database refresh as soon as I hung up the phone. I was then able to get back to answering the questions for the two people at my desk. I received another phone call two minutes later from the training team — my stomach did a backflip because I immediately recognized my mistake. The first call from the training team was just to ask a question — not telling me the training class had completed. When I started the database refresh, it halted the class with 24 clients in it and prevented them from being able to complete the training. The class had to be ended early and rescheduled for another time. I was sick to my stomach.

I learned that while it is ok to work quickly and multi-task on some activities, it isn’t a good idea to do that with activities that have high consequences if something does go wrong. I have learned to recognize high consequence activities and make sure they are given the proper respect and thought they deserve to minimize the chances of a negative outcome.

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?

I was 38 years old when I started my current company, and at the time, I was worried that I had waited too long to start it. But I now realize that the experiences I gained and the relationships I developed in the 16 years prior were critical to the success I have achieved with this company. I truly don’t believe I would have been successful starting this company earlier in my career. I also recently read an article claiming that 40 is the new 20 when starting a business (or something like that). It’s a lot cheaper and less painful to make your mistakes and learn your lessons working for someone else first before striking out on your own.

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?

While many books have made an impact, the sheer number of applicable business lessons in Good to Great by Jim Collins has put it at the top of my list. The book is filled with great stories and has proved invaluable as we built Sendero. It is difficult to pick out just one thing to highlight, but I would probably point to the development of an over-arching company strategy — or, as it is referred to in the book, a “hedgehog” strategy. A company’s hedgehog is usually something pretty simple that is an overlap between what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Once you understand where this overlap lies, or your hedgehog, you must remain completely aligned and focused on that strategy for years to come. Consistency in your actions and focus is what drives the momentum which builds and accelerates over time like a flywheel.

I remember early on when we started Sendero, we tried to revisit our strategy on an annual basis to ensure that we were doing the best things for the company. There was a temptation to come up with something new and sexy every year because there were strategy books that said we should. We tried, but it never really resonated with us. Fortunately, during that time, we stuck with the basics that had always made us successful, even as we made grand strategic pronouncements. Over time, still sticking to the basics, we simplified our approach and just updated the methods or tactics as necessary for the coming year. It was so empowering, validating, and exciting then to read Collins’ book and realize we had stumbled into our version of a hedgehog strategy. From that point forward, we were able to refine our hedgehog even further and double down on our singular focus with that strategy. It gave us the confidence that we were lacking in the early days, and our company has flourished even more because of it.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Early in our relationship, before we got married, Ruth and I were running errands. As we approached the drive-through at the bank, I paused, trying to determine which lane to get in. I carefully considered my options and chose the lane I thought was moving the fastest. When the line next to mine started moving faster, I backed up and pulled into it. Ruth sighed and said, “Does everything have to be a competition?” Without hesitation, I responded, “Everything in life is a competition, and if you don’t know that, you’ve already lost!”

We both got a laugh out of that, but even to this day, my wife tells that story to others and says it encapsulates who I am — and she is right! But we both know the meaning of that quote has evolved over time for me. In my younger, brasher years, it really signified rugged individualism and cutthroat one-on-one competition. As I have gotten older, and probably due to the influence of my wife, I have realized the importance of cooperation and working together with others to achieve shared goals. This has infiltrated our lives so much, that it even appears as one of Sendero’s Core Values — Shared Success. It is the idea that we must work together cooperatively to achieve the larger victories.

Therefore, while my favorite life lesson quote is, “Everything in life is a competition, and if you don’t know that, you’ve already lost,” I really need to modify it to some degree. I haven’t been able to come up with something short and catchy that captures the essence of the meaning, so I continue to use the quote — but there is a subtle shift from its original meaning.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of the most exciting things I’m working on is a partnership that could disrupt the way enterprise systems are implemented. It involves technical and methodology innovation, process improvement, and highly unusual vendor collaboration. It has the potential to reduce cost, improve the user experience, increase change adoption, and enhance productivity. It could make projects less contentious and ultimately more successful, which would be a win for everyone, including end customers who could realize benefits of lower prices and better service. This is the kind of creative, big problem-solving challenge that I live for, and I look forward to being able to share more about it.

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 and foremost, physical activity is my top strategy to cope with stress. There is something about physical exhaustion that helps make everything seem more manageable. The best physical activities for me also involve competition — the competitive nature draws my mind more completely into the activity, therefore disengaging it from the things that are causing me to be stressed. Without question, the best physical activity for me is soccer. I’ve played soccer my entire life and have always loved it. There is nothing better for me than playing two hours of soccer to completely exhaust me and to empty my mind of anything that is causing me stress.

I also use “micro-escapes” to help engage my mind and to rob it of time spent thinking about my stress levels. Activities include playing games (like Solitaire and Sudoku on my phone or board games in the real world), working puzzles, reading books, and listening to podcasts — especially my favorite, “How I Built This.”

My final method for dealing with stress involves leaning on my trusted advisors — both within and outside the company. They are resources that I use as a sounding board to provide support and advice, as well as someone to just commiserate with at times. Many times, saying out loud what is weighing on my mind is enough to help me work through the emotions, to determine what needs to be done, and to lower my stress levels.

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?

Again, physical activity is at the top of my list to optimize my mind for peak performance during high pressure, high stress situations. When my mind is full of all the emotions and dealings of the day or week, it can be difficult to focus in effectively on high stress situations where it is crucial to bring my best thinking. When I am anticipating a situation like that, I try to schedule it first thing in the morning when I am freshest. It gives me the ability to play a good game of soccer the night before to help clear my mind and to get a good night’s sleep so I can enter the situation fully refreshed and prepared.

When I can’t play a game beforehand, or when a situation arises on short notice, I still find that physical activity can help. If able, I juggle a soccer ball. Sometimes, when a ball isn’t available or appropriate, a good brisk walk always helps me.

Another key to optimizing my performance in these situations is proper preparation. I make sure to schedule adequate time for me to think deeply about a subject, prepare for it, and identify alternative solutions, if needed. My trusted advisors can also be critical in these situations to help me make sure that I have thought through all possible angles and contingencies.

Finally, it is great when I can combine all these strategies. Our headquarters is in downtown Dallas, and I love to walk all over the area to think deeply about situations, prepare for a big meeting, or memorize a speech. I definitely put a lot of mileage on my shoes whenever I am in periods of high pressure and high stress.

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.

Visualizing an ideal future state does two things for me: 1) It pumps up my natural optimism, and 2) It kick-starts my brain into planning and problem solving. In high stress situations, our bodies get flooded with cortisol. In that state, the hormone curbs functions that are nonessential or detrimental so we can focus on survival; unfortunately, that means we are unable to leverage higher order thinking or the emotional intelligence required to navigate high stakes professional situations. By visualizing an ideal future state, serotonin kicks in, calming the fight-or-flight response and replacing it with good feelings such as happiness and positivity. That change allows me to bring my best thinking and performance to the situation at hand.

In a recent situation, when we lost a significant percentage of our business due to pandemic’s lockdown, I visualized surviving intact with no furloughs or layoffs. I envisioned the threats that Southwest Airlines, a company I’ve always respected, had survived and imagined being able to, like them, add that success to our company history. We then made it a rallying cry to the company and challenged each person to look for ways to add value for our clients, our company, and our hurting communities. We bonded over the threat and our people rose up in incredible ways. We found new ways to help the clients that we still had, and amazingly, started working with several new clients. We volunteered hundreds of hours. Within months, we declared victory — we survived intact. Visualizing that moment allowed me to believe it and formulate the steps to make it come to fruition. I’m proud to say that we did not reduce salaries or let go of a single employee.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Eliminating distractions is the key to being able to focus, which I do in several ways. I look for a calm, quiet environment away from foot traffic to get my work done. I frequently update and prioritize my to-do list, so I don’t have miscellaneous action items floating around in my mind. I check my calendar often so I know it’s safe to schedule a block of time to dedicate to a specific task or project. I typically keep my computer and phone notifications turned off, but I even go the extra step sometimes and either silence my phone or set it to “Do Not Disturb”. The chaos of daily life can be energizing but also draining and carving out a period of stillness and solitude feels like a gift I can’t waste. I might pace around the room to get my thoughts flowing, but whether I’m moving or not, having the proper environment first and foremost allows me to focus.

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’m a huge believer in habits, both personally and professionally. For me, healthy personal habits like exercise and making time for family and friends ensure that I have the stamina and focus for my professional life. Soccer is a lifelong habit that supports multiple priorities: it keeps me physically fit, has been a bonding experience with coaching and playing with my kids, and provides a consistent, healthy way to spend time with my friends. It is absolutely critical to managing my stress.

My main professional success habit is not a single habit, but the practice of establishing habits. It’s about recognizing when discipline would improve or optimize a situation. When I observed the natural ebb and flow of my daily energy and creativity, I made a habit of blocking time in the morning for strategic thinking. When I noticed that I was feeling sluggish after drinking sugary soft drinks, I decided to think of them as “dessert” and made a habit of drinking water throughout the day. When I realized we were reinventing the wheel and falling behind on key activities each year, I created a meeting cadence and established the habit of revising it and pre-loading everything into the calendar annually. When I catch myself feeling agitated or mentally stuck, I lean into my favorite habit and go kick a soccer ball around for a few minutes.

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

The best way to establish good habits and break bad ones is to find an accountability partner (or several!) who has your best interests at heart. All of your habits will be stronger when you have someone following up with you, celebrating what’s going well, and redirecting when you stumble.

To develop a good habit, first identify why it’s important; nothing is more motivating than understanding the bigger picture. Next, get down to the basics and schedule it. For me, that means putting it in my calendar where I will see it and can set reminders. Then, identify a few milestones and find ways to reward yourself for each one you reach. As you get more consistent, focus on the benefits of the change you are making — how you feel, how your performance has improved, or how things are running more smoothly. Within a month or two, you’ll look back and wonder how you ever managed without it.

To stop a bad habit, first examine why you do it and the consequences that are driving you to make a change. Next, figure out what you want to replace it with, ideally something you would enjoy or benefit from. Finally, share your intent and plans with your accountability partner so you have someone in your court as you work to change your bad habit. Just like with building a new habit, celebrate your milestones as you progress.

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?

As the parent of a visual artist, I’ve learned to recognize Flow and respect its power. I didn’t have a name for it before and didn’t fully understand how important it can be, although in retrospect, I’ve felt it many times on the soccer field or while working on complex analytical problems. Once I understood it, the most important tactical change to improve my chances of achieving a state of Flow at work was turning off notifications on my computer and phone. Before doing that, each ping was a distraction that interrupted my train of thought. I didn’t even realize how frazzled I felt until I made the change and re-learned how to focus. Next, I gave myself permission to think versus do at work. Years of consulting trained me to visibly add value for my clients and leaning back in a chair staring out of the window would probably look like I was goofing off. Giving myself permission to just sit and think was a huge step for me. As the leader of our company, thinking time is critical to setting our company’s direction and allows me to understand the issues and formulate solutions. I’m naturally energetic, so I usually move while I think; but I have learned that sometimes it’s better to be still and just let my thoughts percolate. Depending on the day and topic at hand, I might draw, analyze data in spreadsheets, or write, but in all cases, I’m in a quiet room fully immersed in the activity. How Flow is achieved is different for each of us, so I encourage everyone to pay attention to the circumstances and situations that enable you to achieve that state, then be intentional about recreating that environment so it is more likely to happen again.

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.

At Sendero, our Core Values are a big deal. We defined observable behaviors associated with each value and hold ourselves accountable to acting in alignment with them. They define how we work and interact with others and are equally weighted with what we accomplish. Together, those two things impact our employees’ raises and progression, so it is known that they are equally important. If I could inspire a movement around our five values — Integrity, Respect, Passion, Higher Reaching, and Shared Success — I have no doubt that the world would be a better place. People living those values would help our society address many of the massive issues we are grappling with today. These values would enable us to recognize each other’s humanity and dignity, leading to productive discussions.

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 🙂

There are so many people I’d be honored to meet. If I had to pick, it would be a privilege to spend some time with Patrick Lencioni. His fables truly resonate with me, and Sendero is better off because of his books and wisdom. Additionally, we have similar life experiences and career paths, and I know there’s a lot more that I could learn from him.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can sign up for our Newsletter on our website to learn more about our work and our consulting expertise. Additionally, we actively share our insights on LinkedIn; follow us to stay up to date on the latest from Sendero.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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