James Barlow, an accomplished executive who developed and implemented PepsiCo Europe’s sustainability strategy, says he spent much of his life feeling edgy and needing to prove himself, even though he had a classical academic upbringing, went to the University of Cambridge and had been labeled “clever.”

While studying for a master’s degree, one of his professors questioned the idea of “I think, therefore I am,” and Barlow began learning about and practicing mindfulness. Instead of being constantly driven by and caught up in his thoughts, he started to focus on the here, the now, his breath and his experience. Looking back, Barlow says many of his accomplishments at PepsiCo were linked to his journey with mindfulness.

“Mindfulness has caused my leadership style to soften and be inclusive; I am more able, more often, to welcome people into dialogue, showing how prepared I am to understand others’ perspectives rather than just quickly getting to my point,” says Barlow.

Indeed, the way a leader interacts with people and generally comes across has a strong impact on employee engagement.

Real and measurable benefits

According to research by Gallup carried out over two decades in 195 countries, managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement – e.g. through the manager’s engagement, behaviors as observed by team members and the manager’s natural talents.

Louise Cox Chester is Managing Director of the U.K. division of the Potential Project, which provides leadership and organizational effectiveness solutions based on mindfulness. She says there is a global movement to make corporations more people-centric as a way to achieve better results.

“Our research has shown that when leaders are mindful – i.e. both self-aware and aware of others – they also become more selfless and compassionate,” she says. For instance, they do not let egoistical impulses rule, but see the bigger picture, or they have the intent to be of benefit to others. This helps them enable a more people-centric leadership style, which then sets the tone or culture for the organization.

“The benefits of mindfulness to executives, employees and companies are real and measurable. Full presence enables leaders to make good decisions and forge trusting relationships,” says Chester, who was a contributor to the research for “The Mind of the Leader,” released in 2018 by Harvard Business Publishing.

Indeed, many companies are recognizing the benefits of mindfulness training as meditation becomes less associated with spirituality and more with neuroscience, it’s becoming more accepted as a practice for the workplace.

Health insurer Aetna and General Mills were among those companies that had programs early on, after Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, coined the term mindfulness and launched a wave of scientific research into its benefits. The list goes on: Goldman Sachs, Apple, Google and SAP all have programs.

Cloud computing company Salesforce opened meditation rooms on every floor of its San Francisco corporate office in 2016. And at fashion company Eileen Fisher, the company founder begins each meeting by holding a minute of silence. There are now even meditation sessions at the World Economic Forum summits at Davos.

The benefits to businesses are clear: Aetna, for example, reported that employees’ annual productivity rose by about $3,000 per person after they participated in a mindfulness training program.

And those benefits can be just as apparent when it comes to leadership.

In her role at the Potential Project, Chester recently implemented a program with the board of a financial services company in London, based on the idea that leadership starts in the minds of individuals. “Awareness of how we show up is the starting point. To lead effectively, we need awareness of self first, as well as our values, motivations and behaviors. Then we can engage with those we lead and the whole organization with full awareness.”

Less distracted, more focused

As part of the program, the board began to practice mindfulness together. “At the start of meetings, they now do a short practice to ensure everyone can let go of their previous mental activity and be present – not just with their bodies but with their minds as well. They wanted to make sure they could give each other their full attention,” Chester says.

The executives reported back to Chester that they were sleeping better, felt less distracted, more focused on priorities and less reactive.

Angela Negro, a leadership coach, had a similar experience with managers in a development program for high-potential employees at an aerospace company in France.

In this case, the managers were blocked and frustrated about a project that would be due shortly. They also began blaming each other for the impasse. Negro encouraged the managers to begin noticing their thoughts and behavior without judging, and then bring that insight back into the discussion. She asked them to observe if they were acting as the hero, the villain or the victim in that situation.

Within the space of two hours, the group found a new way of working together and renewed enthusiasm, Negro says. “The project was going ahead, they restructured their roles, relaxed and found new confidence. They had an opening by allowing themselves to recognize what was going on in their minds and how that related to them, as well as the effect it was having on the overall group dynamic.”

Teaching mindfulness techniques is only one part of Negro’s coaching practice, but one she favors over other techniques that are mostly cerebral. “Decisions are made from our head, but mindfulness connects us more to our heart and gives us access to more information to make better choices,” she says.

“Mindfulness is becoming a buzzword because people see that it creates trust, and organizations that have trust have better employee engagement and then make more money. It’s good for bottom-line profits,” says Negro. “Even if profit is driving it, mindfulness is still a great thing.”Rhea Wessel

Published: January 2019

Illustration: Danae Diaz for Delivered.