“How to break the bad habit.” With Rick Farnell

On the flip side, to break a bad habit, you have to realize you have the bad habit. To do this, you need to listen to trusted people in your life. Once you’ve identified a bad habit, work to modify and make it slightly better than what you are currently doing — don’t try to […]

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On the flip side, to break a bad habit, you have to realize you have the bad habit. To do this, you need to listen to trusted people in your life. Once you’ve identified a bad habit, work to modify and make it slightly better than what you are currently doing — don’t try to stop cold turkey. Ask a trusted friend to give you feedback on breaking your bad habit or simply ask for their ear to listen to you from time to time and be able to talk about it. If you do hit roadblocks, don’t get too down on yourself. Here, again, you have to set realistic goals to modify your behavior over time and tweak yourself towards a better you.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Farnell who is the President and CEO of Protegrity, bringing a successful track record as an entrepreneur, executive, and operator of multiple global technology companies. At the helm of Protegrity, Rick is spearheading the company’s efforts to scale its industry-leading data-security solutions into the future as companies rapidly invest in artificial intelligence. Before joining Protegrity, Rick founded Rapid Formation, which helps incubate, fund, and scale startups in the AI market. Rick was also the co-founder and president of Think Big Analytics, a big data analytics pioneer, which was acquired by Teradata Corporation. Prior to co-founding Think Big Analytics, Rick spent over 20 years in a variety of executive management positions in sales, business development, alliances, and consulting for companies such as C-Bridge Internet Solutions and Sun Microsystems. At Sun Microsystems, Rick led the cloud and open-source software go-to-market strategy with Amazon Web Services and was involved in the acquisition and integration of software companies SeeBeyond and MySQL. Rick also served as an executive at Teradata, where he was responsible for Teradata’s global consulting business made up of over 5,000 consultants working across 75 countries.

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 grew up in Everett, Mass., a mostly blue-collar town bordering Boston to the north, with an older brother and sister. We were a very athletic family — playing football, basketball, and baseball — and a hard-working family. Growing up, I worked a number of jobs, mostly home construction, every summer from the time I was in eighth grade through high school. I also worked each summer during college.

My brother was a very gifted athlete and as he was being recruited by a college football team, he suffered a severe ankle injury that did not set correctly and required several surgeries to fix. During his rehabilitation, he developed an addiction to painkillers, which eventually led to him passing away at a young age.

As I saw my family coping with the heartbreak of his injury and subsequent addiction, I focused my energies on making my parents happy and doing what I could to make them smile. Whether that was excelling in sports or applying myself in school, my brother’s hardships pushed me to live my life to the fullest and do anything I could to make my parents proud. I was the first in my family to go to college and played on the college football team all four years — serving as captain and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts. Retrospectively, my brother’s experiences and the path he took had a significant impact on my childhood, and still influences the person I am today.

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

There were a number of people throughout my life that inspired me along my career journey, but an early impact would be professor John Donovan. Professor Donovan started a company called Cambridge Technology Group (CTG), which I was recruited into a few years after graduating college. CTG was an incubator of sorts, seeing the launch of many technology startups that spun out of it. He gave me the opportunity to manage the global HP and Oracle accounts, for which I was responsible at a young age and early on in my career to maintain executive-level relationships and engage in meaningful conversations with top executives from around the world. At CTG, we hosted seminars for executives on how technology and business were intertwined and how their companies could take advantage of the latest innovations in the market. This was in 1996, as the internet was just starting to take off and companies were still grappling to understand its significance.

The culture at CTG was incredible and created a perfect environment to inspire companies to innovate. It also offered a wonderful approach to launching young people into successful careers. The CTG culture, influence, and mentorship drove a strong entrepreneurial spirit into anyone who worked there, myself included. I can’t begin to count the number of successful companies that have spun out of CTG and successful entrepreneurs that worked there.

CTG incubated and spun out C-Bridge Internet Solutions, where I was hired in at a senior-level position. The new role gave me the opportunity to move from sales management to project and program management, an experience to which I credit my entrepreneurial start.

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?

First and foremost, my parents. With their support and encouragement, I knew if I worked hard I could accomplish my goals — whether that was being the first in my family to go to college or becoming the starting quarterback and captain of my college football team.

Next would be professor John Donovan and a handful of other executives with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. First, Carv Moore, the president and COO at SeeBeyond, was a great mentor during my time there. Also, Mark Cosway, the president and EVP of sales and marketing at C-Bridge Internet Solutions, had a big impact on my professional development. Mark was in charge of the company’s global go-to-market functions and kept placing increasingly more responsibility on my plate, until he eventually elevated me to a global VP position early in my career.

Last would be Dan Scheinman. Dan was on the board and a lead investor of Think Big Analytics, the first company I co-founded. Dan had a been-there-done-that presence and provided myself and my co-founder with unbelievable insights and knowledge on how to run a business — helping us all the way through a successful acquisition by Teradata.

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?

Back in 2010, when we started Think Big Analytics, we were hired by an enterprise customer to prepare an analysis on its big data ecosystem, which was quite new and emerging during this time. For our initial project, we worked with a handful of executives and upon completion of the engagement, we set up an in-person readout meeting. When I arrived on-site with my colleague, Scott Fleming, we were expecting an intimate read out to the executive team that we were working with. When we arrived and were walking through the building to the elevator, our sponsor greeted us in the lobby and let us know they had arranged for a much larger group of people to participate. Since we were prepared to meet with a small group, we had only printed out a handful of copies of our deliverable. Naturally, this was a suboptimal way to present to a large audience, which was only compounded by the fact there were even more people from all over the globe dialed into a conference line. The meeting was successful and we went on to partner with them to deliver on their big data strategy. However, it certainly was a lesson in the importance of asking for details and setting expectations well before any engagement.

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?

My advice to young people: Make it happen — you are the sole captain of your future. To be successful, you cannot sit back and wait for success to come. You have to create your own opportunities and get out of your comfort zone — something I strive to do every day.

I also recommend listening and learning from people that aren’t in your swim lane. Engage in discussions with smart people across all professions and about all topics. This will not only expand your knowledge base, but will be an important part of personal growth. By stepping outside of your current sphere of influence, you expose yourself to a variety of different viewpoints and perspectives, which will oftentimes end up shaping your opinion and help to round out your thought process.

Lastly, always be on the lookout for doors and windows that are open (think: new opportunities). Too many aspiring entrepreneurs don’t take action enough — they become paralyzed with tunnel vision and stuck in their ways. You have to understand your end goal, but you also need to understand that the path to get there will not be the exact route you envisioned. It is important to take a step back and recognize when it’s time to try something different. The more paths you take, the more cards you are dealt, and the more doors that are opened to you.

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?

For me, the most important business book is “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson. It’s a quick read and outlines some simple, yet critical, business and entrepreneurial success traits: don’t settle or get comfortable, always take notice of everything going on around you, and be prepared to move and find the next innovative idea.

This book resonated perfectly early on in my career, when I was part of a very creative team that went above and beyond when talking to an organization. Our team focused on branching out and learning more about the organization as a whole. We talked to the folks in other departments — not just IT — to get the opinions of the people who would actually be using the product and our service. This helped us not only make improvements to our offerings, but also to better tailor the solution and the pitch to the client.

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

Chevy Chase’s famous “Caddyshack” quote: “Make your future.” That quote has stuck with me since the first time I watched the film and I still apply it in my daily life. I think it resonated with me so much because of my background — I was a blue-collar kid and the first one in my family to go to college. I’m a big believer in taking your future into your own hands.

At every company I’ve been a part of, I’m constantly pushing to make things happen and encouraging others to lean in and drive for the best result. I tell my teams, “Don’t sit back, don’t wait, and don’t point fingers when something does not get resolved. Progress over perfection, just make things happen.”

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

My biggest project currently is transforming Protegrity into a modern, enterprise leader in the data security industry. We’re in the process of taking a 20-year-old company and transforming it to be the go-to, must-have solution for data security in the Secure AI Era. This transformation has been one of the most exciting, rewarding, and inspiring things I have ever done and I’m very thankful to be leading this initiative with a wonderful team.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be a part of some very exciting initiatives at various companies — from being part of the team that started C-Bridge Internet Solutions, to taking companies public, to co-founding Think Big Analytics. But having the chance to lead this transformation journey is by far one of the most fulfilling projects. When this is done right, we are going to create hundreds — if not thousands — of jobs, for ourselves, our partners, and our customers. What’s more, we are protecting the fundamental human right to privacy for over one billion individuals across global enterprises, including five of the world’s 40 largest banks, five out of 10 of the top health insurance providers, and three of the world’s leading multinational companies.

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?

The first strategy is simply practiced. This often gets overlooked, but stress and dealing with it properly is a skill that needs to be practiced and can only be developed over time. I look back on my time playing competitive sports and the immense pressure I was under during those games. Our coach would put us in situations during practice that prepared us for the actual challenges we would face on the court. Oftentimes, toward the end of practice when we were completely exhausted, he would pick one of us to make two free-throw penalty shots. If we didn’t make them, the whole team had to do penalty runs. He was trying to put us into the same mindset of a live game situation, because he knew we needed to practice making those shots when we were tired, under pressure, and facing real-time consequences for poor performance.

You don’t become adept at handling stress and excelling in high-pressure situations just by showing up; you have to practice. It’s also important to keep in mind that good, bad, or ugly, you are going to get through the experience. The more you are thrown into pressure-packed situations, the better you will become at handling yourself. Instead of shrinking away, embrace the stress and learn from it.

The second strategy I learned from watching one of my mentors, Carv Moore, lead. Anytime he was in a meeting or in a negotiation, he would always pause before answering a question, often rephrasing the question to make sure he understood what was being asked.

It’s so important to remember that even in stressful situations, it’s okay to pause and take a moment to think through your response and ask clarifying questions, if needed. The ability to remain calm and not answer immediately is very important. Pausing also gives you a moment to receive and respond to visual queues from body language and other non-verbal communication.

Scenario planning is another great way to prepare for high-stakes presentations or negotiations. Think through the discussion and brainstorm any potential curveball questions. It might help to role play with other colleagues who will be in the meeting as well. This will ensure that when the time comes, you are familiar with your content and confident in responding to potentially negative feedback.

The last strategy is to not only tryto remain calm, but believe you are calm. This will help to keep your heart rate down and inhibit you from becoming emotional. Remember: Some situations can go from zero to a 100 very quickly. It is important not to let the stress drive your response mechanisms; focus on your breathing patterns and everything that represents you in that moment and present a mien of calm collection.

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?

The key to properly optimizing yourself for peak performance is preparation. Regardless of the impetus of your stress, the simple act of preparation, such as handwriting your talking points, not only gives your mind something else to focus on, but it also arms you with a sense of confidence. Thinking through your presentation, rehearsing your words, participating in scenario planning, and brainstorming potential dissenting questions can give your mind an edge and a sense of confidence as you walk into a stressful situation.

If you have the luxury of time before the meeting, get in front of a whiteboard and talk with a colleague about the upcoming conversation. Write down the directions that the discussion could take so you can anticipate any curveball questions.

Additionally, I recommend setting a minimal goal in your mind by specifying what you would like to achieve from the conversation or presentation. The goal could be as simple as having a productive meeting where you emerge with a next step. Very often in stressful situations, you are eager to reach a definitive conclusion — whether that is signing on a deal, successfully negotiating pricing, or landing a contract. In reality, a productive outcome could simply be education, where both sides hear and understand each other, agreeing to digest the information and set up another conversation.

Goal setting is important when managing stress and expectations. Take time to set your frame of mind and write down what you want to drive as an outcome and why that outcome will be beneficial for both sides.

It is also important to take a few moments to put your brain into the proper mindset. Are you about to step out on stage in front of an audience at a conference, or nowadays flip on your webcam? Focus your frame of mind on excitement so you can bring a high level of energy and passion to “meet the moment.”

Are you about to step into a potentially tense conversation such as a negotiation? Do a mental check in about how you want to present yourself in terms of body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and demeanor — all of these can impact the results of your negotiation.

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.

The number one thing you need to do is stay collected. I do this by focusing on something specific, whether that is an object in a large room, or my notebook or pen in an intimate meeting. As I am focusing on that object, I take a moment to collect myself and think: what are my talking points; is my heart rate elevated; what is my body language, facial expression, and tone of voice communicating?

When in an important meeting, I will pick something on the decision maker’s face and focus on it as I am listening to him or her speak, which helps me concentrate on listening. I then can look down at my notebook or pen to collect myself and review my goals and talking points. Both actions help me gear myself back down physically and keep myself from getting revved up. However, eye contact and body language is crucial during these types of conversations, so it’s important to ensure you are also maintaining eye contact and the understanding body language of the speaker and anyone else in the room. Use this as a technique to collect yourself before addressing your counterpart.

For presentations, I like to bring a lot of energy — to do that, I will sprinkle cues into my notes as visual reminders to increase my excitement and energy level for certain parts of the presentation. These also serve as reminders that allow me to recenter myself periodically and feel in control to ensure I am delivering a confident, compelling presentation.

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?

My morning routine is an important part of preparing me for my day. I’ve found that establishing and following a routine introduces less stress into my life. This span of control helps me to feel confident and grounded, giving me the ability to take risks and try new things.

I like to wake up at a specific time, work out, eat breakfast and then shower and begin my work day. When traveling, I prefer to stay in a specific brand of hotels and I try not to introduce a lot of change into my routine.

However, it’s important to remember that life is about progress over perfection. I also allow for flexibility and forgiveness in my routine. For example, if I set out to start my day with a 50-minute workout, but I’m only able to get 10 minutes of exercise, I don’t beat myself up for not doing the entire workout. Instead, I mentally reward myself for the fact I did something versus nothing.

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

Here again, it’s about progress, not perfection. To stop bad habits, you need to set realistic goals for yourself and build over time. If you don’t work out regularly, don’t set a goal to work out six times a week. It is not realistic to go from not working out to hitting the gym every day. Set a goal to exercise three times a week and then slowly move in the direction of exercising six days a week, if that’s the goal. I’ve found that successful habits start with a repeatable foundation that progressively becomes more sophisticated over time.

On the flip side, to break a bad habit, you have to realize you have the bad habit. To do this, you need to listen to trusted people in your life. Once you’ve identified a bad habit, work to modify and make it slightly better than what you are currently doing — don’t try to stop cold turkey. Ask a trusted friend to give you feedback on breaking your bad habit or simply ask for their ear to listen to you from time to time and be able to talk about it. If you do hit roadblocks, don’t get too down on yourself. Here, again, you have to set realistic goals to modify your behavior over time and tweak yourself towards a better you.

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?

For me, Flow comes when I am in front of white board or in a group discussion brainstorming new business ideas. In my current position, I have the ability to create these opportunities by getting on Zoom calls with our various teams. I did not realize it at first, but I slip into Flow when I am in conversation — the possibilities, the problem solving, and the brainpower of the collective group is very inspiring. In general, I feel most people like to get energized when in a brainstorming or problem-solving mode. Someone has to create that energy to kick the session into Flow territory — I have always tried to be that person and set the tone to create that energy.

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.

I set a goal to help two people in my life each week and I encourage my employees to do the same. It can be any two people — a coworker, a spouse or partner, a friend — just pick two people each week and make a concerted effort to help them.

The world would be a much better place if general society were willing to help each other more. Help doesn’t have to be monetary. It can be a pat on the back or a word of encouragement. It can be a hug or offering to cook dinner or do the laundry. It could be simply listening to your child. It can be helping a colleague build a presentation or letting someone get in front of you in line. Just step outside of yourself, your wants, and your needs and take some time to give a helping hand to those around you.

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 U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them. 🙂

On the VC side, I’d love to have a meal with Ben Horowitz and pick his brain about the sheer number of deals he sees on a regular basis. I’d also love to talk with him about how to build hyper success and hyper-growth and ask his advice on what he has seen that holds companies back.

For business, it would be great to meet Elon Musk — he’s a true visionary with what he is doing at SpaceX and Tesla.

And last but not least, I’d love to have breakfast with Tiger Woods and talk about his ability to be successful through the decades, what it takes to maintain his edge, and how he gets into his state of Flow.

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.

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