“Realize the true stakes” With Matthew Fenton

Perspective. Realize the true stakes. Almost nothing we do is life or death. And remember that almost no-one is rooting for you to fail. They may not be going out of their way to line up all the pins, but they’re not actively plotting your demise either. As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance […]

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Perspective. Realize the true stakes. Almost nothing we do is life or death. And remember that almost no-one is rooting for you to fail. They may not be going out of their way to line up all the pins, but they’re not actively plotting your demise either.

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

Matthew Fenton helps ambitious brands to focus, stand out and grow. He’s the chief strategist at Three Deuce Branding, the consultancy he founded in 1997 with a simple mission: “To help good people build great brands.” Matthew has helped hundreds of brands — including Valvoline, Wrigley and Fidelity Investments — to achieve “brand clarity.”

Matthew’s client-side career was spent in confectionery marketing. In each of those seven years, including two as CMO of Farley’s & Sathers, Matthew led brands to double-digit growth. Notably, he developed and launched White Mystery Airheads, and led Trolli Sour Brite Crawlers to become the top-selling gummi worm in the country.

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 was the third of four kids in a small-town Ohio household. I lucked out in the parental department; my parents valued discipline, ethics and personal responsibility, not flash or material things. I may have sulked a bit at the time, especially when my friends had new Izod polo shirts and I was wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs, but it was a good lesson for my later years.

My parents were conservative in some ways, but they also encouraged us to cut our own paths. I skipped a grade in elementary school, and I recall my parents framing that decision as “you can be a little bored in third grade, or be challenged in fourth,” which made the decision easy. Later on, when I attended a high school that was a bit of a sports factory, I chose to be co-editor of the school newspaper and on the speech team. My father had played high school football, but there was no pressure to follow in his footsteps.

Finally, my parents were a living example of a healthy relationship. They were happily married for 51 years until my mother passed in 2015. They never treated each other as anything less than full partners, and the foundation of their love was the utter respect they had for each other. Again, a good lesson for my later years.

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

The short answer: My company was a good decision that emerged from a poor decision.

I had been a marketing manager for Airheads candy for nearly 5 years, from 1992–1997. It was a great run — we nearly tripled total brand sales, and I designed and launched products like White Mystery Airheads and the Airheads “6-Bar Pack,” which remain in stores today.

In a moment of colossal stupidity, I left that job to accept a position as a group brand manager for a Fortune 200 BigCo that shall remain nameless. It was a terrible cultural fit — in the words of a friend from that job, “I credit (BigCo) with making me unsatisfying to yell at.” I grew rapidly and increasingly miserable and knew I had to make a change. I had already been entertaining the idea of starting a consultancy at some point, and this bad move accelerated my thinking.

So I did what I often do in these situations: I wrote down the pros & cons. To summarize:

Remain at BigCo = Guaranteed misery, since BigCo was not going to change to please me.

Start a Consultancy = Days that are more interesting and almost certainly happier.

I also considered the downside risk of starting a consultancy: If I was a total bust as a consultant, I’d… find a job, I guess. Not too scary. And the upside was energizing.

So I resigned from BigCo in my eighth week on the job and started the company that became Three Deuce Branding, which I still run today. I wrote a mission statement back in 1997 — “Helping good people build great brands” — that hasn’t changed in the intervening 23 years.

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?

The one person who’s had the greatest influence on my professional career is Liam Killeen, currently the Chief Operating Officer of Wells Enterprises (marketer of frozen treats like Blue Bunny, Bomb Pop and Halo Top).

It was Liam who hired me as a brand assistant in 1992, when I was fresh out of college and he was the VP-Marketing at Van Melle USA. And after my boss resigned in 1994, Liam had the faith in 24-year-old-me to say, “Airheads is your brand now — do something great with it.”

Fast forward to 2009, when Liam was CEO of Farley’s & Sathers (with confectionery brands like Brach’s & Trolli), and he hired me first as a consultant and then as his VP-Marketing. I held that position for two years, the only break in my consulting career.

I learned a lot about leadership just by watching Liam. He was an outstanding presenter, and I observed how he’d adjust his style to fit the need: Sometimes making a logical case, other times stirring the soul. He’s a sharp strategic thinker & a fundamentally decent human being. Importantly, he realizes that we’re not curing cancer, so we may as well lighten up and have some laughs along the way.

One story I like to share with young marketers: At age 24, I created my first brand plan, which was an overstuffed, 80-page deck. At the time, I equated quantity with quality. I presented it to Liam and he listened patiently as I barreled through the entire thing, which stretched to nearly an hour and a half.

When I finally shut up and asked Liam if he had any questions, he smiled and said, “Just a few.” His first question:

“If you had only five minutes of my time instead of 90, what would you keep from this deck?”

Point taken, sir.

Note that he didn’t degrade or insult me. He didn’t edit the deck and hand it back to me. He gave me a portable reminder: If you want your audience to absorb & act, then simplify for them. It’s a lesson that serves me well to this day.

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?

We’ve already covered my terrible decisions to present an 80-slide deck to my boss and to take a job at a horrible BigCo. I think we’re good in the mistakes department!

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?

The first bit of advice: Don’t emulate my success. Your success will be different than mine, and there’s no reason it can’t be far greater.

Next bit: Protect the asset — and you are the asset. You are a bundle of experiences, some of which will be marketable, but all of which will shape you. So keep learning. Pursue interests outside of work. Make time for exercise. Get enough sleep. Surround yourself with people who grow you and cut people out of your life who shrink you. Remember: Who you are is more important than what you do.

Last bit: Forget about “personal branding.” Nobody cares about your brand. If you reliably deliver excellent work, if you think and communicate clearly, if you frequently raise your hand, and if you demonstrate good character, then your “personal brand” will take care of itself.

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?

This one is easy: “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. This book came into my life in my mid-twenties, and I’ve re-read it probably 20 times since.

“Man’s Search for Meaning” is based on Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Key themes include choosing optimism, taking responsibility for one’s own life, and enduring suffering.

But that tidy summary doesn’t do the content full justice, especially Frankl’s vivid depictions of what life in the concentration camps was like.

The Stoics are kind of having a moment recently, but I’ve taken away much more from Frankl’s writings. Whenever I’m in a rut, or losing sight of my north star, or just feeling sorry for myself, I can turn to “Man’s Search for Meaning” to shift my frames in a more positive way.

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

“Every day you must say to yourself, ‘Today I am going to begin.’” — Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ

This quote was in my Zen desk calendar on May 9, 2004, and it’s been stuck on my whiteboard ever since. It says so much to me: Stay humble. Take the first step. Maintain beginner’s mind. We’re all making it up as we go along.

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

My client work is by nature confidential. But there’s a lot happening these days at the intersection of values, purpose & strategy, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with clients who use their brands as vehicles to make the world a better place. As businesspeople and as humans, we can aspire to something much greater than “collecting eyeballs and racing to the IPO.” Many brands are proving that you can do well by doing good.

On the side, I’m working on a concept called Winning Solo, which is about mindset, lifestyle and practice for independent consultants and creatives. Freelancing is responsible for many of the good things in my life, and I’d like to help others enjoy the same freedoms. I’ve fielded a lot of questions about going solo over the years, and the volume of these questions has increased in 2020. The Winning Solo concept is in “build” mode right now, but I’m excited to put it out there to see how it can help others.

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?

Two strategies that I find most effective for coping with stress in general:

Protect the Asset. (Again!) If you’re making healthy, long-term choices in other parts of your life, that will manifest in your business endeavors. If you’re eating poorly, not exercising, and doomscrolling Twitter all day, your batteries will be drained when you need them most. Build up your reserves during periods of low stress, so you can call on them when things ramp up.

Eye on the Why. To quote Frankl: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” If we keep focused on the Why behind what we do, stress becomes a small part of a bigger picture. And if you can anticipate that stress, you can often nullify its power.

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’ll offer “3 P’s”:

Planning. Much stress is self-created. If an important milestone is coming, plan accordingly. Your long-term goals & values should drive your to-do list, which should drive your calendar. If in doubt, get started earlier, and assume a large project will take twice as long as you think it will.

Preparation. This is distinct from planning; you need to plan the time to prepare. And to the extent that you’re well-prepared, stress magically diminishes. If you haven’t practiced that big presentation, you are correct to be nervous; if you’ve practiced it ten times, you’ll be calmer and looser.

Perspective. Realize the true stakes. Almost nothing we do is life or death. And remember that almost no-one is rooting for you to fail. They may not be going out of their way to line up all the pins, but they’re not actively plotting your demise either.

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.

For years, hot yoga filled this role for me. Since the pandemic, I’ve redirected my compulsions into Peloton. It’s my “Matthew time” every day, away from the laptop, when the mind is free to roam while I focus on my breath.

Otherwise, I have a short list of quotes that I read every morning, as well as a small set of statements about who I want to be (written in the present tense — “I am,” not “I will be”). These help to ensure that I start my day in a positive state of mind.

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

Nothing “special,” in the sense that it’s unique to me. Again, I find it helps to remind myself of my big-picture Why, no matter how small the task. As much as possible, I try to do just one thing at a time. (None of us are as good at multi-tasking as we think we are.) I’ll turn off all alerts and notifications, de-clutter my workspace (whether electronic or physical), and sometimes leave my phone in another room. I’ll text my wife that I’m going into “monk mode,” which is her signal that I’ll be offline for a spell.

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 habits are always evolving, as I try to shed habits that aren’t serving me and adopt new ones as needed. A few that have served me well:

Prioritize. I have no more than two top priorities on any given day, and these are driven by monthly, quarterly and yearly goals.

Plan My Weeks. On Fridays, I plan my entire next week. It never (never!) goes precisely to plan, but the exercise ensures that my priorities are hitting my calendar and that I’m being realistic in my expectations of myself.

Track My Time. My calendar is a living thing where I log the actual time spent on any given task. It’s also highly color-coded, so I can see at a glance how I’ve invested my time. And I analyze my time regularly, which is always an eye-opener.

Stay Connected. Ultimately, business is about people. So I keep a list of people I’d like to stay in touch with, and about once a month, I’ll select 4 names and reach out to set up a call or a happy hour. The resulting conversation need not be business-oriented, and often, it’s better when it’s not.

Take a Full Day Off. Every week. One way to fight burnout is to allow ourself to step away from work completely. Give your full attention to things that recharge you, whether that’s family, books, art or something else.

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

Here, I’ll defer to the guy who literally wrote the book on habits, James Clear. “Atomic Habits” has sold about a zillion copies, but with good reason, and I recommend it highly.

Clear’s four-part framework for creating a good habit is: “Make it obvious. Make it attractive. Make it easy. Make it satisfying.” To break a bad habit, do the opposite of each.

As a side note, one of my “morning mantras” comes from “Atomic Habits”: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.”

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?

In line with my above answers, achieving Flow is often about planning for it and creating the conditions where it can happen. So make time for “deep work.” Block this time on your calendar, and don’t let other demands creep into it. Stop shifting from task to task & really dig into the thing you’re working on.

I’ve worked from home for over two decades now, but many are new to it as of this year, and are realizing its potential benefits. Offices can be interruption factories, and an advantage of working from home is that you can design an environment and a schedule that makes it easier to achieve Flow.

If you find you can’t achieve Flow no matter what, it’s often a signal that something deeper needs your attention.

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’d like to see a return to decency. Obviously, the political environment here in the States is increasingly polarized and hostile, and I often find myself aghast at the way some people choose to score points on social media. “Dunking” has replaced discussion. Add to this a strain of individualism that often reads as “I’ll do what I want & to hell with everyone else,” and things frequently become rather more unpleasant than they need to be.

I have a saying for brand leaders: “If you don’t respect your consumers, you’ll never serve them well. If you can’t respect your consumers, find a new line of work.” But that doesn’t mean we should save our respect for consumers! There’s plenty of respect to go around, so share widely. And remember that we’re all connected.

Being a decent human is a good long-term play with no cost or downside.

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 🙂

Derek Sivers. I loved his book “Anything You Want,” and I appreciate how he sees business as an extension of one’s principles. Plus we could talk about music for hours.

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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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