NACD BLC 2014 Breakout Session – Mindfulness Revolution

October 28th, 2014 | By

In Buddhism, mindfulness is a facet of meditation in which an individual focuses their attention on the thoughts, feelings, or sensations happening in the moment. In psychology, studies suggests that mindfulness improves an individual’s quality of life, boosting memory and reducing stress and anxiety, among other benefits. In business, the adoption of these techniques has shown to improve productivity—so much so, that even Fortune 50 companies and the U.S. military are integrating mindfulness practices into the workday. Mindfulness expert Janet Nima Taylor—an American Buddhist nun, author, and co-founder of meditation resource organization Serenity Pause—gave directors attending the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference a crash course in effective techniques and how to integrate meditation into a company’s daily operations.

Meditation has been an integral part of wellness for millennia, but it’s a practice that is just now finding wide acceptance in corporate culture—and it’s also a proven means of improving business. According to Taylor, there’s plenty of research that attests to how meditation induces physiological and mental changes that influence how you interact with yourself and the world around you. The key to mindfulness, she said, is to create a gap between stimulus and response. Research says that 90 percent of our day involves responding in habitual ways, but creating this gap allows people to consider alternatives and discover new ways of resolving problems. During her session, Taylor offered three practices that directors can easily integrate into their everyday lives, even while they’re on the go. “If you’re breathing, you have time,” Taylor said.

1. Concentration. Mindfulness is not about stopping thinking, but rather shifts in how we interact with our thoughts. Momentarily forget those top-of-mind concerns and be completely still. Breathe in and count to four. Breathe out, count to six. Physiologically, this exercise lowers blood pressure. Conversely, when people are stressed, they tend to take shallow breaths and their bodies become oxygen deprived. Taking a moment to get the oxygen flowing can impact how you’re able to make decisions because doing so calms the body’s “fight or flight” response along with its associated stress hormones. Concentration also affords an individual heightened awareness of oneself, which allows them to be more present in the moment. By extension, when board meetings get contentious, directors should take a moment to breathe and write down the words that describe how they’re feeling. This exercise forces people to better articulate themselves and moves them away from the desire to be competitive toward wanting to be cooperative despite differences in perspective and opinion.

2. Natural Awareness. In our technology-centric culture, Taylor observed, people tend to live in their heads, making it easy to lose track of what is happening in one’s body below the neck. A person needs to permit himself or herself to do absolutely nothing for five minutes and use their senses to become completely aware of what is happening throughout their body in that given moment. Culturally, people are wired to be continuously active, but research shows that people who set aside time to momentarily do nothing are far more productive than those who are always engaged.

3. Positive Imagery. The human mind has a highly active imagination. This capacity for flights of fancy can be used to an effective end. If faced with a source of stress, create a positive spin on that disruptive force and focus on that self-generated positive imagery. That focus will help neutralize the negative situation.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology showed that employees who participated in a free 12-week mindfulness program showed a significant reduction in stress. Integrating these practices into a business environment starts with the tone at the top. From the boardroom down through the employee level, people can look to leaders’ involvement to signal that these practices are acceptable in the workplace.

“Using the power of your mind is a teachable skill,” Taylor said. For a business, these tools help people to become better empowered to work together. And with company leadership on board, the positive benefits of mindfulness can transcend the organization.

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Complexity and the Boardroom

October 14th, 2014 | By

At the final plenary session of the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, NACD President and CEO Ken Daly spoke with Steven Reinemund, director of Walmart, Exxon Mobil, Marriott, and American Express, and Gen. H. Hugh Shelton (Ret.), chairman of Red Hat and director of L-3 Communications on the issue of business complexity. The current environment is dynamic, fast-paced, and tumultuous, Daly observed. Not only must boards stay vigilant of disruptive forces—including those identified by NACD’s Directorship 2020®: economics, geopolitics, competition, technology, demographics, innovation, and environment—these forces rarely appear solo. Indeed, multiple forces can strike a company at once, creating a formidable force: complexity.

Drawing from his military background, Gen. Shelton suggested applying a process of “branches and sequels” in boardroom discussions to reduce unknown factors. This process requires that strategy development takes into account all possible actions of your adversaries or competitors—forcing directors to consider the “knowns and the unknowns.”

Reinemund used different terminology to address unknown and unanticipated factors. He said that boards may wish to view disruptors and risks through both offensive and defensive lenses. Most importantly, boards must also combine the two. Although defensive moves can be easier for boards to understand and address, by considering offensive actions the board can help move the business forward.

Turning to the topic of innovation, Daly noted that an unusually high number (95%) of the Standard and Poor’s 500 company earnings have been used to buy back stock or pay dividends. He posed the question: does returning earnings to shareholders reduce or limit the funds available for innovation or acquisitions?

Both panelists agreed that many companies have a large amount of cash available, but often the board can’t find a potential acquisition that fits the company strategy, or the target has such a high multiple that it is not a good purchase. Despite these potential issues, though, the panelists agreed that most large companies need to invest in innovation, through acquisitions or otherwise. Above all, the board has to think in terms of the amount of risk they are willing to take and—if necessary—encourage management to make innovation a priority.

The session ended with a discussion on board accountability. The panelists noted that directors must hold each other accountable for recruiting the right leaders, keeping their skills current, and maintaining the right mix of directors on the board.

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Future Trends in Market Disruption

October 14th, 2014 | By

Seasoned venture capitalists during a keynote session this morning at the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference discussed future trends in marketplace disruption.

Scott Kupor, director of the National Venture Capital Association and managing partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said that from an entrepreneurial standpoint, the so-called next big thing is whatever a business is doing to be innovative in their field. What many entrepreneurs are doing is streamlining the chain by which products or business ideas make it to market. They’re getting rid of the middle man.

John Backus, managing partner of venture capital firm New Atlantic Ventures, highlighted the importance of companies being aware, and staying ahead, of upcoming trends. As an example, Backus recalled a past employer, a home phone company in the 1990s that was so focused on its way of doing business that it totally missed the technological innovation of the Internet. Companies can essentially be wearing blinders, seeing only what they and their three or four nearest competitors are doing, ignoring the potential for disruptive innovation.

Kupor said his firm missed out on becoming an early investor in Airbnb.com–a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2008 that allows people to list rooms in their homes as being available for temporary rental instead of a hotel. Airbnb is now connecting people to available rooms–or couches to sleep on, in some cases–in 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities. Kupor said that the mistake that he and his team of investors made was in limiting their thinking to whether they would use the service. Their group wouldn’t, so they decided not to invest in the business; however, they later realized that many other people would use the service, so Kupor’s team later decided to invest in Airbnb.

“Big businesses have a really hard time changing the way they do business,” Backus said. “If you don’t innovate, somebody’s going to do it for you.”

Bill Reichert, managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, said that when a company finds out about a new innovative idea, corporate directors can’t just sit in the boardroom at the strategic level and say: “We’ve got to watch that, monitor that.” A company must react.

That reaction can play out in a variety of ways, depending upon the innovation and the industry.

Backus said that in some cases, companies react with merger and acquisitions. They purchase a company whose innovation might be disruptive and competitive to their company’s strategy. Then, they can either foster that innovation and bring it to market, or–in some cases–shutter the innovation to get rid of the threat of competition.

Other companies decide to invest in research and development hubs overseas, outsourcing their innovation to less expensive and more highly concentrated development teams in other countries.

Still other companies spin off their own team of venture capitalists to travel and seek innovative technologies in which to invest.

All the panelists agreed that the key to staying ahead of marketplace trends, after becoming aware of potential innovative ideas, was to take action. In other words, innovation ignored is a bad business practice.

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