“Why it’s important to take mental breaks.” with Bryant Ison

Mental Breaks — I’ve found that many times when I’m working on a difficult stressful problem, its necessary to step away from the discussion and let your brain think about something else. What happens is that you’re brain works on the problem in the background and when you come back to the problem, inspiration strikes. […]

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Mental Breaks — I’ve found that many times when I’m working on a difficult stressful problem, its necessary to step away from the discussion and let your brain think about something else. What happens is that you’re brain works on the problem in the background and when you come back to the problem, inspiration strikes. In the moment this feels counter-intuitive but oftentimes letting your mind take a break can be the best thing you can do.

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

Mr. Ison is the former Chief Marketing Officer for Columbia Care, one of the largest multi-state operators of medical cannabis and CBD. He has over 18 years of brand marketing experience working on some of the world’s most iconic brands such as Pepsi, Band-Aid and Clorox Bleach. Prior to joining Columbia Care, Bryant led innovation and brand building activities at PepsiCo, Johnson and Johnson, and the Clorox Company.

Bryant began his career as a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps serving in Mali, West Africa.

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?

Iwas born in Milwaukee, WI as the second of five children. My dad was an engineer for GE in the medical systems division and my mom was a homemaker. Growing up with four siblings in suburban Milwaukee was such a great experience. There was always someone to play with and we would make up elaborate games for hours and stay out until the streetlights came on at dusk. We lived in this little neighborhood with endless cul-de-sacs and an elementary school in walking distance from our house.

Because my dad worked at GE, though moving up in the organization meant moving around the country. So throughout my childhood we moved a number of times — to Connecticut, and then to Cleveland, OH where I went to high school. As a result of moving frequently, I was never shy about trying something new. I started a small business in high school silk-screening T-shirts because I thought it was interesting. By being thrust into new situations, I believe I learned to not be shy about being the new kid or not knowing anyone in a social situation as well as being “change ready.” I have never been afraid of change, in fact in my adult life I have incorporated it into my outlook. I am always attuned for the next big thing and I find that I can be very flexible and adaptable as situations change.

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

Beyond my father who inspired me to consider a career in fortune 500 corporations, I would have to say that it was my experience while in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa that influenced me the most. I joined the Peace Corps as a Natural Resources Management volunteer in 1995. I was freshly out of a biology undergrad program at the University of Utah when I decided that I wanted to explore a possible career in international development. I’ve always loved living and working internationally and thought that a career in international development would give me the ability to work abroad while helping people improve their lives and communities. When I got there ready to guide farmers in planting trees for windbreaks to prevent erosion, I was met with indifference at best. The farmers were busy farming and had no interest in planting trees. That is, unless they were mango trees. Mango trees? Why mango trees? Because they could gain a secondary income by selling their fruit at the market. That’s when the light went off. The greatest force for positive change needs to be economic in nature. I couldn’t expect that people would do this just because it was the right thing to do. They wanted to know how it would help their immediate family. That experience led me to lead a women’s garden project that empowered a women’s group to plant the only vegetable garden for 50 miles and allow the surrounding villages access to fresh vegetables. Also, the women made money for their families and they could afford better food and clothing. I also partnered with a solar panel entrepreneur and helped him to restructure a business from selling 1 panel a year to selling lower priced “solar kits” with a small solar panel, a battery and a light. As a result whole villages didn’t need to rely on kerosene lanterns for light after dark.

Out of these experiences I decided to apply to business school and really learn what I needed to do to build businesses. I arranged to take the GMAT in rural Africa in a sweltering classroom with a single fan slowly spinning to cool the 2 other students taking the test. Then, applied to business school, eventually attending the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. I was thrown into classes with kids straight out of consulting or banking. I had classmates who’s parents were senior business leaders of CEOs. For the first time, I realized that I could be part of that world.

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?

I am fortunate to have had several people that I can claim to have helped me along the way. In particular there are two who stand out. When I was applying to full time positions out of Michigan, I was fortunate to make friends with a senior marketer at Clorox named Jim Hasler. Jim had grown up in the brand management function but had found a skill in identifying talent and worked increasingly in recruiting and training. My first experience with Jim was a 30 min rapid-fire screening interview that I was sure that I failed. He would ask a question and when he had heard enough, he would cut you off to ask the next question. Coming out of the interview, I was sure that I had blown it. However, I got a very nice follow up call inviting me for follow up conversations, and eventually a full time role at Clorox in marketing. That started a friendship that exists to this day. During my time at Clorox, Jim was a fantastic sounding board who would guide me throughout career and business transitions.

A second person that gave me help and encouragement was a supervisor at Johnson and Johnson Consumer Companies — Hugh Dineen. Hugh was as much an innovative business leader as much as he was an astute navigator of the political landscape within J&J. He would often challenge my thinking and push me to be more bold and innovative in my thinking. Through our friendship, he helped guide me in my career at J&J as well as provided a model for navigating a tricky political organization when you happen to be a very disruptive thinker.

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?

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 most important piece of advice I would give is to be curious and take personal initiative. There are many things that a new employer can teach you, but if you’re not willing to be curious and try new things, then the employer will quickly feel like you’re just punching the clock. Additionally, when you’re interacting with senior people, many are more than happy to talk to you and help you. However you have to prepare and know what you want out of the conversation. Nobody is going to offer you a job after chatting for 15 minutes. However if you know that they’re connected to someone else you’re interested in meeting, then be clear in the conversation that you would like an intro. If they have an interesting experience that you want to know more about, then ask directly.

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?

I love the book Lovemarks. It’s one of those books that seems obvious when you’re reading it — of course we should construct brands that people love and have a relationship with — but very hard to implement in real live. It’s a book that I’m constantly going back to and re-reading.

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

My personal favorite quote that I live my life by is, “strong opinions, loosely held”. I believe that it comes from the innovation consultancy What If? but I have adopted it as my own. This encapsulates my entire operating manual. Always have a point of view about a business, a problem, a market situation and don’t hesitate to share a well-reasoned argument supporting your point of view. However, be able to listen to others’ feedback about your POV and be able to incorporate new information into your point of view. I can’t tell you how many times I have been sure about a solution to a business problem that has been wrong when the correct information came to light. By following this principle it also keeps you humble and able to learn from others. That’s how all of your opinions get better and sharper

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

I’m working with and advising a number of startups right now. I love the conviction of ideas that founders have when they’re starting a company. One in particular is looking to disrupt brand building in the cannabis space — a company called Nana and Pop. The hardest part about building a national brand in cannabis is that the state by state regulations require you to set up identical operations in each state. What Nana and Pop does is takes many of the elements of building a brand — defining the product profile and portfolio, defining and building the audience and community, building the visual identity and packaging look and feel, building awareness via advertising — and then partners with manufacturers in each of the cannabis-legal states to produce and distribute the product. The benefit to the manufacturer is clear — they don’t need to invest people or money to build they brand — they just need to make and distribute it. It’s similar to licensed properties at companies like Disney. They build the content and audience behind “Frozen” and then manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson make products that they then sell directly to consumers. It’s a brilliant model and really well positioned for an industry like cannabis! This helps companies to make high quality products and helps consumers to connect with other like-minded individuals to find great health and wellness products.

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?

Coping with stress although not unique to business is a constant fact of life. There’s never enough time in the day and very rarely does everything go according to plan. I have three key things that I do help with stress

  1. Preparation — there’s nothing better to counteract stress than to prepare adequately for big meetings and everyday encounters. I try to prepare for the same length of time as the meeting is long. For example for a 30 min meeting plan on 30 mins of preparation
  2. Mini-meditation during the day — during a busy day I will close my door, shut my eyes and do some breathing exercises. I find that it’s super helpful to release the stress and reset for the day
  3. Sleep — there’s nothing better to reset at the end of a day than sleep. Although high stress can make it hard to fall asleep, there’s nothing better to reset you brain and clear out all the worries
  4. Mental Breaks — I’ve found that many times when I’m working on a difficult stressful problem, its necessary to step away from the discussion and let your brain think about something else. What happens is that you’re brain works on the problem in the background and when you come back to the problem, inspiration strikes. In the moment this feels counter-intuitive but oftentimes letting your mind take a break can be the best thing you can do.

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?

  1. Motivational music on my drive into work — that drive or train ride in is critical for me and there’s nothing that gets me more pumped up than listening to motivational music on my way into work. Additionally prior to the meeting it’s great to do a mini-meditation with music
  2. Go through my presentation with a fine tooth comb and write 3 key takeaways for each slide — Powerpoint can be a tricky and you can get lost in either reading the slides or talking too much. When I write down 3 key takeaways, it helps me to stay on track and not talk too much. Also knowing that I only have to hit 3 main points helps to lower my stress level. I know exactly how I’ll present each slide/
  3. Rehearse, rehearse rehearse. This is not rocket science, but rehearsing for a big presentation or stressful situation really brings down my stress level. It’s the equivalent of having a game plan. I may not be able to control the questions that people ask, but if I rehearse I can visualize the situation and feel prepared.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.

I always like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself as a song to help get me motivated before a big presentation — the buildup is amazing and the “underdog” feel is super motivating.

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

For the most part closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths does the trick in most situations. Also, I’m a big fan of working around people you don’t know. I love being around people but not having to interact. I can be so much more focused that way than being by myself in a silent home office

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?

Good habits definitely play a role in success, but I’m also a big fan of keeping a portion of your day unstructured. One of my big habits is blocking off my Monday morning in order to focus and get into the week. You have no idea how many times direct reports try to schedule 9am Monday meetings. It’s not good for them and not good for me! Leaving part of the day or week unstructured allows me to think. I’ll find walking around the block in Manhattan helps me to clear my mind

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

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? Flow is good. For me the times that I’ve gotten into the flow is in collaborating with great thought partners. There are people who give you energy and others who take it. In getting to Flow, you need to avoid people who suck your energy and find those who give you 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 would love to inspire a movement around clean water and the elimination of plastic. The history of the bottled water movement starts with distrust in the safety of public water sources. So now because we don’t trust the cleanliness of tap water anymore we’ve created this multibillion dollar bottled water industry which has thrown off plastic which makes its way into our environment and bodies. And this just promises to get worse as our public infrastructure continues to crumble. We should not stand for this. We need to fight to build our clean water resources.

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 :-).

I would love to have lunch with Richard Branson. He’s one of the most inspiring entrepreneurs that I’ve ever seen and I would love to hear his thoughts on issues that I encounter in my everyday

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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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


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