All Articles Leadership Inspiration Peter Bregman, on what today’s business leaders need to succeed

Peter Bregman, on what today’s business leaders need to succeed

5 min read


Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, has served as an adviser to leadership teams at some of the world’s best-known organizations, including Morgan Stanley, Nasdaq, JP Morgan Chase, Victoria’s Secret, Converse and Katz Media Group. I spoke with him for our SmartBrief on Leadership year-end report.

Much of the conventional wisdom about business leadership encourages people to suppress their emotions. Your take on this is a little different. Tell us about that.

Suppressing our emotions is a dangerous game because it’s an illusion. We think the emotion isn’t there anymore, but it’s just gone into hiding. And now, forced to hide, it becomes petulant. If we don’t admit our feelings — at least to ourselves — they will seep out in unproductive, dysfunctional and hurtful ways.

One of my clients, the CEO of a financial services firm, had been told that he had anger management problems. “Relax,” someone told him, “don’t get so worked up over things.” So he did his best to convince himself that he wasn’t angry. Ever.

Well, I was sitting next to him while he was talking with one of his employees, and I could see him trying to hold in his anger. Later, after his employee left, I asked him if he felt angry. “No,” he said through gritted teeth, “I don’t get angry anymore.” He had completely suppressed the emotion he felt.

Or so he thought. Twenty minutes later, he blew up at the guy over something unimportant.

People who suppress their emotions aren’t safe in an organization. They end up being political. They say they’re going to support a decision, but they don’t. Almost always, at some point they lose it and get angry out of proportion to the situation.

Here’s the trick: Make a distinction between what you’re feeling and how you behave.

Know what you’re feeling at all times, but don’t necessarily react. Just feel. Then, once you know what you’re feeling, take a deep breath and make a decision about how to act based on what will be helpful and productive in that particular situation.

Just because you feel angry doesn’t mean you have to act angry. Act in whatever way will be most effective in a particular situation. Try to suppress your emotions, though, and you’ll lose all control over how you act. That’s dangerous.

A CEO comes to you and says he has realized that it’s going to take a big change to move his organization forward. What should his first step be?

Start to involve other people in thinking about the change with him.

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed. We all make changes constantly with no need for prodding. We get married. Have children. Move. Choose a new item on the dinner menu. The difference between acceptance of change and resistance to it is control. I don’t have a problem making changes that I choose. But you want me to change? Forget it!

The way to make a change happen successfully is to give choices to the people who need to make the change successful. I would advise the CEO to brainstorm options with people — not just with a small number of high level executives, but with everyone who will be involved in the change.

Share information and ask people at all levels to help you make decisions. In my book, Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change, I shared seven strategies for spreading ownership of a change without losing control over its general direction. For example, instead of making the change perfect — beautiful binders, polished communications, eloquent speeches and e-mails telling people what’s in it for them — make it imperfect. Get it half right. Don’t tell people things, think with them about things. Then facilitate a process in which employees can participate — lead even — the process of transforming their own suggestions into the foundation of the change. That’s how they’ll own the change and make it succeed.

The transition from directly managing a small team to an executive role can be a rocky for many up-and-coming business leaders. What’s your favorite piece of advice for making that leap?

Think about the whole.

We have a silo problem in organizations. Most people think about — and are held accountable — for their particular piece of the organization. They’re usually compensated for making their little fiefdom successful. However, that often leads to unhelpful competition as people try to look good in relation to their peers. They’ll fight for something that might help their team, even if it’s not in the best interest of the larger firm.

That is not useful anywhere in the firm, but it’s particularly caustic at senior levels. Still, I see it all the time.

My favorite advice is: Think like the CEO. Fight for what’s right for the company as a whole, even if that means a step back for your individual area.

This economic climate has created challenges that many business leaders fear may be insurmountable. What’s your advice for avoiding feeling overwhelmed?

Ask for help. The more scared and insecure we become, the more we tend to shrink into our shells.

Unfortunately, many people feel that by reaching out, they’ll expose their weaknesses and that will make them more vulnerable.

That’s a mistake. Not reaching out for help only creates more fear and insecurity. Instead, tell others when you need help and ask them to support you. That will lead them to do the same. There’s a reason fish school together. It feels safer to work together. And it is.

Learn more about Peter by reading his blog or following him on Twitter at @PeterBregman.