Damian Breen

Founder of Environmental Communications Strategies

Damian Breen is an esteemed environmental professional and founder of Environmental Communications Strategies. With over two decades of experience, Damian has made significant contributions to air quality management and environmental protection.

He formerly served as the Deputy Executive Officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District or BAAQMD) for over 24 years, where he played a pivotal role in spearheading groundbreaking regulations and leading innovative financing, grants, engineering and software development initiatives. Damian navigated many crisis situations in that role and is an expert in communicating complex environmental issues to industry, government, elected bodies and communities. He possesses a wealth of knowledge on national, international and California regulations.

His company – Environmental Communication Strategies works at the crossroads of the environment, people, business and future technology, seeking the best outcomes for everyone and every living thing. He believes that making big changes starts with dialogue, empathy and equity.

Damian and his team are proud to assist their clients in navigating the complex interactions between community, industry, government, and politics in order to “get to yes.”

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

Typically, I begin my day by reading news and technology reports from across the world. I vary the news and technology outlets I consult with daily to get a broader and more diverse picture of what’s happening locally, nationally, and globally.

Work and client schedule dependent, I then try and get in at least one hour of exercise to get my body up to speed with where my mind is. I follow my exercise routine with either writing technology articles, working on business ideas, or doing work on behalf of my clients. Mornings are generally my most productive time and I leave client calls and other outreach to the afternoons.

To make my day productive, I keep lists of what I want to achieve, scheduled activities such as writing, business development and client work in the time periods where I’m at my peak energy and take “breaks” every 40 minutes to an hour by diverting my mind to other work topics for 15 to 30 minutes.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I like to keep a couple of notepads around where I jot down ideas as they come to me. Generally, I will try and get as much down on paper as I can without editing. The goal is to capture as much of the original thought out as possible in its raw form.

Periodically during article writing, business development or client projects, I will come back to those ideas to see how they can fit into the work I’m doing. At that point, I may choose to do some interactive brainstorming with my team to determine how best to take those ideas to finished products or there may be enough in an initial idea so that it fits perfectly into a project plan.

My process is generally to keep an open mind to everything and to always be ready to receive an idea – because you never know when the good ones are going to come to you! I’m also constantly on the lookout for new innovations in other areas outside of my field. I look in art, music, agriculture, nature for new thoughts and techniques that may not have been applied in the scientific or communication field.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m very excited about the research that is going on in the battery field currently. There are a dizzying number of discoveries being made week over week in that area and there are multiple companies working on revolutionary technologies that have the potential to change how we live. From battery electric cars, bicycles, and motorcycles; to airplanes, drones, and personal air vehicles (that’s right, it may be George Jetson time at last!); to electrical grid storage – we are on the cusp of an energy revolution that may pull us back from the brink of the worst impacts from climate change.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

As I mentioned before, I like lists. I generally make one each morning for what I want to accomplish during the day and then have a longer list for what I want to get accomplished in general. I think this is something I learned from when I worked construction. When you’re completing construction projects, you generally end up with a punch list of items to do to take you to the finish line. By creating lists for myself daily, I get a sense of accomplishment as I check items off and that allows me to see that I’m making progress towards my overall goals.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Travel more! I have been fortunate in my life to do quite a bit of traveling but I firmly believe that the more you can see the better and more rounded a person you will be. Travel makes you experience different cultures, different perspectives, different people, to learn more about humanity and nature, to learn about yourself, and better understand the consequences for the decisions you and others make in life. There is no better teacher.

Tell us something you believe that almost nobody agrees with you on?

I believe the universe did not begin with the “big bang” as described in modern astrophysics. I instead believe that our universe exists inside a supermassive black hole.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

Put yourself in a position to be uncomfortable either personally or professionally. Engage in conversations where you may not be an expert or have knowledge, this allows you to learn and to get perspective from people you ordinarily may not interact with.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

If possible, I move to a different topic or subject to give my mind some time away from where I’m getting stuck. For me, it sometimes helps to accomplish smaller tasks away from a difficult project which allow me to see success. Other times, I will stop to break up larger more complex topics into smaller chunks to keep me moving and motivated. It also helps me sometimes if I project myself into someone else’s mindset, if I was X person, how would I approach this problem or I ask myself “what would be the craziest most outlandish solution to this issue?” That change in perspective can sometimes spawn solutions or lighten the mood allowing me to get on with the task.

However, sometimes there isn’t time for these techniques – for example when you’re on deadline. During those times, I take a few minutes just to breathe, meditate and clear my mind or I may also go for a quick walk or do some exercise for a few minutes. This gives me a break before going back to work.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

Networking and engaging with people has been key strategies for me. I have learned through the years in the scientific field that there are multiple individuals who have at least as much or greater scientific knowledge than I. What separates those who will be successful from those who will be less so is their ability to work with people, engage and understand their needs and to broaden their experience, social and work networks to the largest extent possible. This I believe creates the richest life for a person and the best business and career results. Talk to everyone!

What is one failure in your career,  how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?

During my time at the BAAQMD, I had a division which was failing badly to meet its production targets. At the time, I was relying on traditional management structures and processes that were already in place from my predecessor. My failure was in not realizing that that structure was fundamentally broken and that the reports and metrics that we were using to determine progress were out of date and not reflective of conditions on the ground. I was considering taking unilateral action to change the situation but got intense pushback from my staff.

To overcome this failure, I engaged our entire team, almost 60 people – managers, supervisors, engineers, and administrative staff, to seek ideas to make our processes more efficient. We ended up with hundreds of ideas that were distilled, ranked, and implemented to make progress on our goals.

The lesson I learned from this failure was that solutions exist everywhere in organizations you just need to ask the right people. In the end, it was engagement and dialogue that got the best out of the team and while unilateral action may have been quicker it may not have yielded the best results in the end. There is a lot of wisdom in the adage “if you want to go fast go alone if you want to go far go together.”

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Like the hotrods, electric vehicle manufacturers/mechanics/enthusiasts need to figure out how to make their cars, bicycles, and motorcycles tweakable aftermarket – how to improve performance, lightweight the vehicle, etc.

The first company to come up with modifications and products for electric vehicles that end users can fit or do themselves will make a lot of money!

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Excel – I know, breaking news scientists love excel spreadsheets! However, excel is one of the most amazing tools available in the scientific field. I use it for calculations, time tracking, accounting, data mining, business intelligence, etc.

By using custom queries and pivots on the data my team and I enter into the sheets, I learn what’s going on in my business and make changes or adjustments. This makes us more efficient and allows me to ask better questions about where we’re headed.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast you’ve gotten a ton of value from and why?

Rick Rubin’s – The Creative Act: A Way of Being – In the book, Rick takes us through his thought processes on how to create art, how to think about things and to shake things up. I find his ideas are immensely helpful to me and I would say this book is a must read for anybody who is planning on starting their own business or who is engaged in any form of creative or thought industry.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

HEAT was recently re-released on Netflix. I find the intensity of the characters in the story and their single-minded dedication to their jobs – Neil to being a bank robber and Vincent to being a cop – mesmerizing. Great cast, exciting action sequences and a great story.

Key learnings

Make lists to keep yourself organized and celebrate progress
Travel more! Experience different cultures and different perspectives. There is no better teacher.
Put yourself in a position to be uncomfortable either personally or professionally
Networking and engaging with people is a key to business success
Read Rick Rubin’s – The Creative Act: A Way of Being