Slowing down to speed up

ZC-watercolorby Zach Clayton

By 2 p.m., I was ready to quit. Already 10 hours into a daylong silent meditation, my mind was anything but still. As my thoughts raced from topic to topic, my body ached. I’d been sitting cross-legged for longer than I had ever imagined possible.
Ed Cheely, the vice president of sales at Citrix Sharefile, had talked me into this experiment. Convincing a “Type A” and oftentimes-distracted entrepreneur to sit still for an entire day was no small task. Yet I was intrigued by Cheely’s practice, as well as my conversations about the topic with former Medtronic CEO Bill George, a longtime Three Ships client who has meditated for about 40 years.
Neither of these men struck me as softy meditator types.
Cheely, still in his 30s, built the Sharefile sales team from one employee to more than 220 as the fiile-sharing software maker doubled its revenue (and doubled again, and again). Executives from across the globe now come to the Citrix Sharefile campus to observe the sales culture he has built. Even more remarkably, as leader of Medtronic, George put the Minneapolis-based company in the Fortune 500 – growing its market capitalization from $1.1 billion to $61 billion in 11 years. Though a generation apart, both men are intense, devoted to excellence, and extremely successful. That they credited meditation as playing an important role in that success held my attention.

So there I sat meditating, motivated by uncovering some hidden secret of business success, seeking mindfulness and not quite finding it. Apparently I’m not entirely alone.

As the pace of technological change accelerates, many business leaders feel under greater pressure and more distracted. They face an unending barrage of phone calls, calendar appointments, text messages, and emails. Rather than stepping back to ask how these tools should reshape the way we work, the tools appear to have become our masters. Meanwhile, blogs and news stories glorify modern execs as on-the-go, tech-enabled, multi-tasking operators who do everything at warp speed. Our culture equates busyness with success.

Certain voices, including Ed Cheely and Bill George, now courageously argue that this lifestyle hurts us – reducing balance, happiness, creativity, and productivity. A recent Time cover story explored the teaching of Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of the mindfulness movement.

Things are changing in corporate America, too. Google has a “Search Inside Yourself” program for employees. Goldman Sachs, thought to be the most hardcore of hard-charging “bulge bracket” investment banks, now offers meditation classes.

In the Triangle, a small – but growing – set of local executives has applied mindful practices to increase their own effectiveness. Still on the front-end of this movement, the executives I spoke with about their meditation practices are all unusually successful, a fact that may have given them confidence to openly embrace a practice many businesspeople consider fringe.

Brad Brinegar, CEO of Durham’s McKinney ad agency – named by Effie Worldwide as the most effective independent agency in the world in 2012 – told me meditation gives him the “ability to stand back from a challenging situation with more calm and clarity…the ability to fall back asleep after waking up in the middle of the night with a hundred things running around in my head.”

Brinegar meditates a few times a week for 20 minutes at a time, most frequently in the morning, and occasionally in the middle of the day when he wants to clear his head. To help guide his meditation sessions, Brinegar uses Headspace, a mindfulness app that delivers 10 minutes of a unique meditation technique each day. “It’s kind of ironic – the inability to unplug is one of the biggest reasons for meditation and I’m plugging in to do it!” Brinegar says. Brinegar has also encouraged his team at McKinney to adopt mindfulness practices, creating a meditation room in their Durham office and bringing in instructors to hold informal classes.

Raleigh’s John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation – a producer and distributor of environmentally safe household products – is another example of a leader who encourages his team to live mindful lives. “It has become a part of my management system,” Replogle says. “It grows from a personal practice, but in its broadest sense, it’s about the notion of well-being. If we want people to achieve their fullest potential and be happy and successful at work, we need to create an environment where people can thrive.” Replogle personally meditates or does yoga almost every day. “I’m too busy not to regularly meditate,” he jokes.

During Replogle’s time as CEO of Burt’s Bees from 2006-2011, the company created a yoga studio and hosted speakers like Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. Now as CEO of Seventh Generation, Replogle has introduced a program that focuses on physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. In the past his private equity investors were dismissive of such efforts. Based on how such programs have contributed to recruiting, employee retention, and improved business performance, he says they’re now advocates.

If you have ever tried to pause for a few minutes and clear your thoughts, you realize how hard it is to separate yourself from the constant whirlwind of activity the mind produces. You try to focus on your breathing, but you think about the upcoming presentation at work, the conflict with your spouse, how to get your child to and from her next soccer game. The conscious mind is conditioned to constantly think. And think some more.

As my own first full day of meditation progressed past that  2 p.m. nadir, I came to observe a striking pattern in how my thoughts raced forward to the future, harming my ability to be at peace in the present moment. While I struggled through many moments of that long day, I emerged quite grateful for the experience. The day dramatically improved my awareness of this tendency to “crave” future experiences, and it’s helped me to approach the present with greater focus and equanimity.  I’ve kept it up.

But don’t take my word for it. New science from MIT and Harvard shows that a regular mindfulness practice – whether prayer, meditation, or even quiet walks in nature – can help rewire the brain.

The pace of business and life will only intensify in years to come.  Developing a practice to slow down and step back may be essential – even if your ultimate goal is to go faster.

Zach Clayton is CEO of Three Ships Media, a data-driven digital marketing agency. He is passionate about using Internet technology to disrupt old industries. And he’s still trying to meditate every day.