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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

WSJ: Meditation Brings Calm to CEOs

By  Joann S. Lublin

Nearly every workday afternoon, E.V. “Rick” Goings disappears for 20 minutes whether he is traveling or behind the closed doors of his corner office. The chief executive ofTupperware Brands Corp. TUP 0.77% presses his palms together to start a regimen he has done twice a day for decades.

“I am getting myself into a state where I can be a warrior because I am centered,’’ says the head of the producer of colorful food-storage containers.

Mr. Goings meditates. The practice often involves calming the mind by focusing on each breath.

Countless corporate leaders run, climb mountains or skydive in pursuit of optimal physical and mental fitness. Now, a growing number—including the chiefs of Salesforce.com Inc.,Whole Foods Market, Aetna Inc. AET 0.34% and Williams-Sonoma Inc. WSM -0.58% —meditate to lower their stress and boost productivity. Like Mr. Goings, some meditate at the office.

The burgeoning trend isn’t without its critics, who say it might cause workplace problems. With many more CEOs meditating than 10 years ago, the practice can be seen as self-indulgent, says David Brendel, a psychiatrist and executive coach. “Most employees don’t have time to do it.’’

Several top bosses encourage workers to take time for meditation on the job. Salesforce, a software company run by veteran meditator Marc Benioff, offers “mindfulness zones” in 14 of its office buildings world-wide. Staffers can “pause to invite calmness and balance’’ in the gadget-free spaces, says a Salesforce spokeswoman.

Meditation makes CEOs more effective, “and CEOs set the standard for everyone else in the company,’’ says Bill George, who led medical-device maker Medtronic PLC between 1991 and 2001.

Mr. George has meditated since 1975. “Oftentimes, my most creative ideas come out of meditation,’’ he says.

Yet Mr. George concealed his office meditation practice from colleagues for two decades. “It wasn’t seen as the normal thing to do,’’ he says.

At Ultimate Fitness Group LLC, a global chain of fitness studios, CEO David Long says his executive assistant unexpectedly walked into his corner office when he commenced a morning meditation there two years ago. “Leave me alone in the very beginning of the day,’’ he recalls chiding her.

Mr. Long now often joins associates in the company’s meditation room, which opened this summer at its Boca Raton, Fla., headquarters.

But he still finds it challenging to meditate during work. “Once I’m at the office, I’m bombarded with internal pressures,’’ Mr. Long says.

Tupperware’s Mr. Goings says he hardly ever skips his afternoon meditation because “I have to be in good shape so I don’t make bad decisions.’’

An unexpected mishap 15 years ago tested his commitment to on-the-job meditation. A private plane flying the CEO to a Tupperware event in Mexico suddenly filled with smoke. The aircraft lost altitude.

“Mayday!” the pilot cried repeatedly. The smoke finally cleared. Mr. Goings says the plane’s problems shook him up so much that “I didn’t meditate that afternoon.’’

Certain CEOs encounter resistance when they promote meditation in the workplace, however. That happened to Jim Barnett, leader and co-founder of Glint Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. The four-year-old technology company helps businesses react to its quick, confidential polls of employees, dubbed pulse surveys.

Mr. Barnett, who has meditated for nearly 28 years, often offers his deputies 10 minutes of guided meditation during their quarterly management-team meetings outside the office.

When you meditate together, there’s a sense of connection you have. We execute better as a team when we feel connected.

—Jim Barnett, leader and co-founder of tech company Glint

“When you meditate together, there’s a sense of connection you have,’’ he says. “We execute better as a team when we feel connected.’’

Before his inaugural meditation session in late 2014, Mr. Barnett urged Chief Marketing Officer Jim Bell and five fellow executives to join him in a practice that would clear their heads.

“There’s absolutely no obligation,’’ the CEO assured them.

“Are we really going to all close our eyes here? Is it a test?” Mr. Bell remembers thinking at that time. “What happens if I peek?”

The marketing chief did participate. But “I was uncomfortable with it,’’ he says. “It feels weird to be in a room [meditating] with your colleagues.’’ Nevertheless, Mr. Bell recently started meditating on his own.

Mr. Barnett sought feedback from his lieutenants last month after guiding their meditation during the latest management-team meeting at a local country club.

“Six people really liked it,’’ he says. Though the remaining two reacted neutrally, they say “we should keep doing it,’’ he adds.

Dr. Brendel has seen ardent meditators cause other difficulties. A few years ago, he counseled a leader whose biotech business badly needed to upgrade its software systems. Staffers were frustrated by his inaction.

The CEO preferred that employees enroll in the corporate meditation program rather than invest “in changing the technology that was running the company,’’ Dr. Brendel says.

Meditation “is not for everybody,’’ the executive coach told his client. Improved software “would have the greatest benefit,’’ he continued.

The chief executive soon changed his mind about the upgrade and reduced spending on meditation training. Today, Dr. Brendel says, “the company is doing OK.’’

Appeared in the November 30, 2017, print edition as ‘Calm in the Corner Office.’

This content was originally posted on WSJ.com on 11/30/17.