“Same technique is one that I use to stop bad habits”, Rick Stephens of Birth2Work and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Consistent rest, getting up at the same time each day, and writing out a plan for each day or major task are three habits that enable me to perform to the standards I have set for myself. As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I […]

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Consistent rest, getting up at the same time each day, and writing out a plan for each day or major task are three habits that enable me to perform to the standards I have set for myself.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Stephens, co-founder of Birth2Work.

Rick Stephens retired from a Fortune 50 company after a 33-year career in finance, engineering, and general management, concluding as the global leader of Human Resources and Administration. While in the business world, his focus was on leadership and managing complex business and technical challenges. He spoke to thousands around the globe on workforce development, was inducted in the National Management Association Hall of Fame, supported three US Cabinet Secretaries, testified before Congress, and served on the US President’s Council for Tribal Colleges. Rick and his wife, Elane Scott, co-founded a not-for-profit business, Birth2Work (transitioning to Raising Families), where they use their knowledge, insight, and experience to support parents in becoming joyful, confident, proactive, and intentional family leaders so they can raise engaging, successful children.

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 born and raised in Southern California as the middle of three children. My mother, who lost her mother at age five, was raised by her grandmother. My father served in the US Marine Corps at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. They both had a strong work ethic and had each of us work beside them at some point while growing up.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Growing up in my family was about opportunity — creating it and then following where it took you. My dad had a saying that “everything comes to he who waits, so long as he who waits works like hell while he waits.” My dad was also an entrepreneur who started businesses, grew them, and then moved on to the next. Construction, pet food processing, trucking, laundromats, restaurants, and postal stores were all businesses my dad created. My mom was a cake decorator and florist and supported my dad. I started working for my dad at the age of seven, nailing down the floor in a new home under construction. Until I left for college, I worked every one of the construction trades. When I was 13 years old, I started my own business raising rabbits. “Rick’s Rabbitry, Excellent Pets/Quality Meats” was on my business cards.

After serving in the US Marine Corps, I worked in the aerospace business for 33 years and retired as a corporate officer responsible for human resources and corporate administration. Those last 8 years were a huge transition from the previous 25 of running businesses. What caused that transition was an opportunity and the realization that, for me, life is about helping people learn and grow.

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?

Many people helped along the way, including my dad and mom who got the ball rolling. I learned so much from them about what to do AND what not to do. I believe that we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes if we are able to be self-critical enough to stop and reflect. And while I can probably think of over two dozen people that shared their time as mentors, one that comes to mind is an instructor from college, Major Joe Ruane, USMC. He was an English major in college and a career Marine. What he taught me most was how to write. I recall the first paper he returned to me. It was covered with more red ink than I thought was possible to put on paper. From the structure of the paper to the use of words, punctuation, examples, and conclusions, he marked it all up. That was painful. What he also did, however, was spend time with me to help me learn.

There are countless others that I could share stories about — namely, Paul Smith, Ed Stephens, John McLuckey, Kent Black, Paul Harvey, Tom Dolcimascolo, Tom Gunkel, Jim McDivitt, Jim McNerney, James Bell, Guy Erich, Gil Jones, Tom Shuler, Bill Saunders, and so many more.

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 fired by my dad because I didn’t understand that I was not entitled to a job. He didn’t just fire me once, but four times. The last time, it finally sunk in. I was framing a house, and my dad had to run an errand, so we talked about what needed to be done while he was gone. I got everything completed as we discussed and then sat down on the pile of lumber in front of the house. When he returned, he was not happy. He asked me to stand up and turn around. Looking at the house, he asked me, “Is that house finished?” I responded, “No sir.” He then said, “You’re fired.”

It finally sunk in. None of us are entitled to a job … we need to earn it. Earning it means taking action, whether asked to or not. When something needs to get done at work, we shouldn’t have to wait to be told. In fact, those who take action are the ones who learn, sometimes make mistakes, but get the job done.

That lesson served me throughout my career and life. I moved up in a Fortune 50 global company to be one of 11 corporate officers because of that lesson: do what needs to be done, whether asked or not.

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?

Life is not always fair. Where we are born, the circumstances we have growing up. They are all different. As a result, opportunities and challenges come to us in ways that we might never understand. For me, life has been about creating opportunities by looking around and seeing what needs to be done, then taking action. I didn’t always get it right, but the more I tried, the more I learned, and the more I succeeded.

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?

A number of books have made a significant impact on my life. I like to read, and after taking an Evelyn Wood reading dynamics course in my mid-30s, reading no longer became a chore but was a real blessing. I wish I had taken the course much earlier in my life.

Many books quickly come to mind that have impacted my life. They include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People byStephen Covey, Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, Passages by Gail Sheehy, What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan, The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, and Zapp! by William C. Byham. Each spoke to me.

As an example, Covey helped me soften my approach in dealing with people with his principle “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Like many, I have my perspective and opinions, but when I stop and listen to others, before I push for a decision or in a direction, the decisions I make are far better. It also helps me to learn what others are thinking, which can be a powerful tool in leading and persuading others. One day, I was told by a peer who led a 40+ billion-dollar business that I was a very scary person. We had a great conversation, and I learned how others saw me. While it’s not always easy to pause and listen, when I do, I learn more, understand more, and make better decisions.

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

There are two quotes:

“Everything comes to he who waits, so long as he who waits works like hell while he waits.” — my dad

I mentioned this at the beginning of the interview.

“What you are is where you were when.” — Dr. Morris Massey

For me, life is about the choices we make including the things we do and who we spend time with. When we seek out opportunities that challenge us and spend time with people who we admire or want to learn from, we grow.

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

Elane Scott, my wife, started a journey over 40 years ago creating a program for parents called Family Wisdom. Today, working together, we are focused on expanding those same concepts and adapting them into a series of articles, lessons, and interactions under what we call Raising Families. While the world around us will always evolve with changing circumstances, the challenges parents face tend to remain the same and fall into four key areas: (1) how they communicate and interact with their spouse or partner and children, (2) how they help their children learn skills that will enable them to be successful in life regardless of how they define success, (3) how they create a strong team where everyone in the family supports each other, and (4) how they can better utilize the community for support.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Creating good habits does two things. First, they enable us to get things done, and second, they can help us focus our energy on what we want to get done. What do I mean by that? Time is the one thing that we all have the same amount of. We can’t create it, we can’t buy it, and we certainly can’t store it. We only use it and then have to wonder, did we use it wisely? Because once the time has passed, we can’t recover it. Habits are behaviors or actions that we repeat. When we have a habit, we don’t think about it; we tend to just do it. It’s like riding a bike. Do you remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? It took time, effort, and energy. After we learned, riding a bike became a habit; we did it the same way each time and didn’t have to relearn how to ride it. When we don’t turn a normal task into a habit, we have to relearn it each time, which uses precious time, effort, and energy that we really want to spend on something more important to us. I’m a pilot and can’t imagine flying safely without having a set of repeatable habits that enable me to preflight the airplane, establish a flight plan, and fly myself and family members while talking with ground and air traffic control professionals and operating an aircraft at over 300 miles an hour.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

While I’ve certainly spilled a lot of sweat doing what I call real work, most of my life has been about creating solutions for problems. Creating those solutions starts with what I call “hurting your head.” The fact is that our brains consume about 20% of the energy our body uses. If we can focus our thoughts more on working the issues or solving the problems that interest us, the better we are at creating solutions. One of my habits that has helped me is that I like to bicycle and think. For me, cycling is relaxing and great for staying in shape, provides real quiet thinking time, and allows me to focus my brain on an issue that needs a solution. Habits … get things done and focus energy … powerful!

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

For me, developing a good habit is about doing something the same way over and over again but thinking about it one day at a time. My experience is that it takes about three weeks to develop a habit (i.e., do the same thing over and over again for three weeks). As an example, I wake up every morning at 6:00 a.m., make my morning latte, and go sit in our home gym or by the pool to lay out the day. That simple discipline allows me to get the caffeine flowing, get my mind energized on what’s important for the day, and create my plan for the day. Does that plan always happen? No. But with a plan in place, I can modify my day based on what happens and feel good knowing that I’m getting done what I wanted to. Another habit is that when it’s time to turn in, I think about an issue I need to work. As I fall asleep, my brain takes over. By morning, I usually have some amazing new thoughts.

That same technique is one that I use to stop bad habits. If there is something I want to change, I can put a thought in my mind as I fall asleep, and in the morning, I have a new thought that helps break the habit. For example, I like sweets as much as anyone else. Like many my age, I grew up drinking sodas. I loved Orange Crush! That habit changed by thinking about a solution and putting that solution in place with support from my wife. We no longer buy sugar, although we do buy low glycemic natural alternatives and enjoy a piece of dark chocolate each evening with our nightly tea. In this case, having a solution and support made all the difference in stopping a lifelong habit.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

For me, the three habits that lead to optimum wellness are the typical ones most would mention: regular exercise that is enjoyable, a healthy diet, and eliminating or reducing those things that cause stress. Exercise has been a lifelong activity that started in high school when I ran cross country and track. It continued through military service, and then I transitioned to cycling. My wife and I cycle on a tandem and have done 100-mile rides together. After having been a runner for years, I also took up swimming because of the low body impact and try to swim 400 yards each morning.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

For me, having a plan is really important because it helps me think about not only where I want to go but also how to get there. Whether it’s a long-term plan, the one for the day, or getting a task done, spending time to think and write down the plan gives me a path forward. The same is true for developing habits. Knowing and committing to myself on a piece of paper is very helpful. The second practice is having a mental perspective that while most ideas work well, some don’t. And that’s OK. So, when it comes to new habits that don’t work, it’s OK to admit it and stop. Being open to what works and doesn’t work is important. Lastly, I learned an important concept from a mentor called “boring consistency.” It’s a simple thought that goes back to one of the reasons for habits; they allow us to get things done that need to get done without a lot of thought so that we can spend our thought time on things that are important to us. For me, boring consistency is really important when it comes to routine things that need to get done and the habits I take on to accomplish them.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Consistent rest, getting up at the same time each day, and writing out a plan for each day or major task are three habits that enable me to perform to the standards I have set for myself.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

For me, there are really two key practices that help me when it comes to developing habits. First is to watch what makes others successful. Second is self-reflection on what’s working for me and what’s not working. If it’s working, keep doing it. If it’s not, I make a change. An important concept for me, however, is that the best changes occur incrementally or one step at a time. We can manage and control them. Of course there are also changes that are thrust on us through what I call significant emotional events (e.g., we lose our job, there’s a major accident or illness, or there’s a major family crisis). Those thrust on us cause the need to make significant changes to our habits. Spending thoughtful time considering the options and discussing them with loved ones and others who are close is the only way to deal with significant emotional events in a calm way.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Three good habits that lead to optimal focus include exercise, quiet time to reflect (some might call that mediation; I do that when I exercise), and having a plan that is written down (not in fine detail, but enough for me to maintain focus).

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

For me, the key to developing any habit is to make sure there is time set aside to practice the behavior. So, setting aside the time, thinking about the habit, and then carrying it out until the action occurs on a regular basis is central to developing a habit.

As a 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?

Many who participate in long-distance sports like cycling, running, or swimming know what it’s like to be in “the zone.” We relax, we let our mind wander, and we let our body utilize all of its energy pushing for the finish. Getting into the flow to accomplish something challenging and meaningful is the same. We relax and focus all of our energy on what we want to accomplish. To do that, we eliminate distractions (like social media, cell phones, TV, etc.), assemble all of the material or information or tools that we need, and focus.

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.

My movement is about enabling parents to have the insight and support that enables them to raise children to become caring and capable adults who are accountable for their own success, who can share their thoughts and ideas both orally and in writing with others, who understand the importance of being a part of the broader community, who want to learn every day, and who focus on the possibilities of the future with both a sense of optimism and a sense of pragmatism.

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 🙂

This is an interesting question. I’ve been blessed to have interacted with US presidents and members of the Senate and Congress. I’ve also supported US cabinet secretaries, CEOs, tribal leaders (I’m Native American), and government leaders in many parts of the globe. The qualities of those who are of most interest to me are (1) those who focus on others more than themselves (i.e., they see themselves as servant leaders), (2) their life is about learning, and (3) they have achieved financial success in terms of allocating their resources in giving back. One such individual would be Bill Gates as I believe he has all of those qualities and would be genuinely interested in the work we do. The second would be Elan Musk. While he may or may not be interested in my focus, I would like to engage him in a broader dialogue about leadership, democracy, and making a difference.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My not-for-profit business website is Birth2Work.org. We are also on Instagram (@family.life.coach), Facebook (@Birth2Work), and LinkedIn (Birth2Work).

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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