Reflections from Conscious Capitalism 2015

It was a downright gloomy week in Chicago.  Rain and mist hung in the air. Puddles accumulated on the sidewalks. The tops of buildings were hidden by a thick bank of clouds.


Inside the JW Marriott however, a gathering of incredible people from across the United States and around the world provided the warmth and energy that was missing outside.  The four tenants of Conscious Capitalism provide a roadmap to reclaiming the ethical foundation of capitalism, awakening business people to the higher purpose business must serve and thereby facilitating the next great leap for humanity.

The Conscious Capitalism conference draws an incredible group of visionary business leaders, managers, and consultants who know that a better way of doing business is on the rise.  They come to learn from thought leaders, to raise the bar for themselves, and to put their experiences to use when they return home.  This year, the conference focus seemed to be on conscious leadership.

Tony Schwartz was the first keynote presentation.  His work at The Energy Project is essential learning for operating effectively as a human, and is well worth the time to explore and practice.

Tony emphasized that stress is not a bad thing until it loses its balance with recovery.  It is the balance between the two and the dominance of neither that must be our goal.  Performance is a function not of the number of hours worked, but of the energy in those hours.

In our society, adequate recovery is usually lacking.  95% of human beings require at least seven hours of sleep to be fully rested.  2.5% need more, and a mere 2.5% of humans are fully rested on less than 7 hours’ sleep.  Americans sleep an average of 6.5 hours per night.  But top performers get an average of 8.5 hours.  Tony emphasized the importance of taking frequent breaks during the workday and even making naps a regular habit for peak performance.

For most of his presentation, Tony focused on a new framework he is developing.  He said that being able to see more and exclude less is what it means to raise consciousness.  He invited the audience to consider that the strengths we own with pride as an essential part of leadership are not virtues.  In fact, unless they are balanced by their opposite, these strengths can become weaknesses.

He presented a side by side list of strengths with their balancing opposites and asked the crowd to take a look deep within to see what there was to learn about our own leadership in this concept.

He took several questions including one from someone who understands and sees the importance of his work, but finds that in times of stress and upset it is very difficult to live it.  Tony said he could relate and told stories about when it happens to him.  He said that when we feel threatened, we devolve and stop caring about how anyone else feels.  He had two specific pieces of advice:

#1 – When you get upset, you were triggered by something, and the golden rule of triggers is: Whatever you feel like doing, don’t.

#2 – You have a viewpoint about what is true, but it is important to ask yourself what else might also be true.  Take a moment and look for what you might be missing.

That advice requires a well-developed self-awareness and a healthy dose of humility.  Of the latter, Tony reminded us that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, its thinking more of others.”

Simon Sineck was next to take the stage to share his new study of leadership.  He observed that leadership in most companies is very misunderstood.  In most companies, people are promoted because they are skilled at a particular job.  But in their new position they micromanage and drive people crazy because they still think they are responsible for the work and not the workers. 

Simon argues that junior staff ought to be responsible for the work, while leaders are responsible for the people.  Yet no one really teaches leaders how to do that, and it requires a completely different perspective.

Simon asserted that a team’s performance is determined by the environment it is working in.  Therefore it is the leader’s job to establish an environment for performance.  He said that such an environment must have trust and cooperation.  He joked that trust and cooperation are not instructions.  You cannot order people to do either.  They are feelings and they arise genuinely or not at all. 

Simon emphasized that creating safety is the key to a strong performance environment.  When people feel safe they collaborate.  When they don’t feel safe, they look after their own self-interest.  So a leader must make a team feel safe, but most carrot-and-stick, fear-based management “best practices” do just the opposite.

Among the more powerful comments he made was the reminder that leadership is a choice, not a rank and that the cost of leadership is self-interest.  He said that leaders must be able to communicate a vision so that others can see it too.  That’s why “more” doesn’t work as a vision.  He said that a good vision and purpose act as a finish line people want to reach.

As usual, Simon’s presentation was replete with poignant examples and was constructed on a solid foundation of brain science and evolutionary narrative.  His book Leaders Eat Last has more.

Bob Chapman is the CEO of Barry Wehmiller, a $2 Billion company with more than $8,500 employees that has achieved a 16.9% compound growth in share price since 1998.  But that is not why he was invited to speak at Conscious Capitalism.  He may also have gone further that any other CEO in embodying the conscious leadership Simon described.

He opened his presentation with an interesting finding from Gallup; the number one determinant of happiness is a good job – meaningful work among people we care about.  Then he added some disquieting facts about work in America.  Three out of four people are disengaged, seven out of eight believe their company doesn’t care about them, and three out of five are physically depleted, emotionally drained, mentally distracted and lacking in meaning and purpose.  In other words, our workplaces are killing us.  Stressed, unhappy people are heading home at the end of each day.

Under Bob’s leadership Barry Wehmiller proves that business leaders can address this crisis.  He’s caught the attention and earned the admiration of Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, Simon Sineck and Conscious Capitalism’s Raj Sisodia who is co-authoring a book with Bob called Everybody Matters.  Bob has developed ten principles for people-centric culture.

1.     Begin every day with a focus on the lives you

2.     Leadership is the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you.

3.     Embrace leadership practices that send people home safe, healthy and fulfilled.

4.     Align all actions to an inspiring vision of a better future.

5.     Trust is the foundation of all relationships…act accordingly.

6.     Look for the goodness in people and recognize and celebrate daily.

7.     Ask no more or less of anyone than you would of your own child.

8.     Lead with a clear sense of grounded optimism.

9.     Recognize and flex to the uniqueness of everyone

10.  Always measure success by the way you touch the lives of people.

He talked about the importance of listening.  They teach listening so well at their corporate university that people from outside of the company frequently try to get in.  90% of the feedback they receive about the program is about how much it has affected the family life of the attendees.

In one story, Bob recounted the experience of one middle-aged man who worked as a machinist in one of his facilities in the Midwest.  The man would get off of work and go home, usually in a foul mood.  He would open the door and toss his hat inside.  If it stayed in, he was allowed to enter.  If it came back out, it meant that his wife was not willing to deal with him, and he would proceed down the road to the bar for the evening.  The hat usually came back out. 

Bob met this man after Barry Wehmiller had acquired the company and established its signature culture there.  Bob asked how things were going and the man said “My wife is talking to me”.  When Bob said he didn’t understand, the man told Bob about his hat, and then explained that he no longer needed to throw it in the door when he come home.  He was happy.  He learned how to listen, and his marriage transformed.

In another story, one of the employees at the different facility was found to be padding his expense reports, essentially stealing from the company.  Even at very people-centric companies, that would mean immediate termination – but not at Barry Wehmiller.  The employee was summoned into a meeting and was told that he’d been found out.  But rather than showing hi the door, they asked him what was going on.  He confessed that he was in the middle of an ugly divorce, that his accounts had been frozen and that his only means of feeding himself was the company card.  From this understanding, his managers established a plan that would allow the employee to meet his basic needs and eventually pay back the money he had stolen. 


Unlike most other conferences I’ve attended, Conscious Capitalism isn’t about presenting interesting information.  It demonstrates an alternate narrative for understanding the role of business in society.  It represents a paradigm shift that is taking place in capitalism.

Each night as I left the JW Marriott I found myself gazing up at the towers that surrounded me.  The streets were quiet and the buildings dark – but in a few hours it would all roar back to life.  So many people come to work here every day, and their actions have such far-reaching impact on the lives of countless others inside their companies and beyond, not to mention their families and ultimately, themselves.  What do they think when arrive in the morning?  For what purpose do they come?

I suspect we could all do well to keep that question top of mind.  Capitalism has been the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known.  It has also inflicted serious harm.  Even so, through it we can address many of our most pressing challenges in a matter of years, not decades.  All that is required is that we see the false idle of profit maximization for what it is, and find our true purpose beyond it.  This is the promise of Conscious Capitalism, this is why I will continue to attend these conferences, and this is why I encourage you to do the same.