Saturday 16 December 2017

If you can't talk the talk, take a hike for inspiration

Chief executives now prefer a long stroll outdoors to sitting in stuffy offices when making decisions

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AP
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AP

Margaret Talev

WHEN Priceline CEO Darren Huston has a decision to discuss with a manager, he heads outdoors for a walking meeting, away from the noise of his open office in Amsterdam.

"Walking clears my brain," he said.

US president Barack Obama would understand. He often ends his working day, especially now that the weather is warmer, by walking around the White House grounds with his chief of staff Denis McDonough. While conferring about the latest political and policy issues, he strides several laps on the asphalt loop around the South Lawn before joining his family for dinner.

The American president is among a growing number of executives who'd rather walk than sit in a conference room when they want to mull and make important decisions. While certainly not brand new – Apple founder Steve Jobs was famous for it – walking has become a fully-fledged fad among executives.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg clinched his deal to buy WhatsApp, the mobile messager, for $19bn (€13.7bn) in February after taking hour-long walks around Silicon Valley with WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum.

The trend is partly being stoked by executives trying to get a little bit removed from their overly plugged-in desks, with all of the demands of smartphones and computers. It's also boosted by the increasing number of open-space offices, which give even top executives little privacy to speak candidly or have any alone time.

"Walking meetings not only liberate the butt, they liberate the creative juices," said Nilofer Merchant, a technology consultant whose "Got a Meeting? Take a Walk" talk at a TED Conference last year has been viewed online more than 1.4 million times. "Outside, you get to step away from the computer screen, and when you're walking side by side, you're shifting the power to be more equal."

Hikmet Ersek, CEO of Western Union, uses walking meetings near his company's headquarters in Englewood, Colorado, and at locations he visits around the world to encourage frank exchanges with employees. The practice also gives Ersek, a former professional basketball player, the chance to fit in a bit of a workout during business hours.

"People become much more relaxed, and they talk from their hearts if you go for a walk with them," he said. "And they get to the point they want to make much more quickly."

Not long ago, Ersek was in his office with his chief communications officer, Luella D'Angelo, discussing how to encourage employees around the world to better serve Western Union's customers.

"It was a complicated subject and all of a sudden I jumped up and said, 'I can't stand sitting here any longer, let's go outside and get some fresh air while we talk,'" said Ersek.

"Luella was wearing high heels, but she had to follow me – and, walking, we came up with some new ideas."

Huston of the Priceline Group, which was founded by Jay Walker, said he often thinks more clearly when he's on his feet and outdoors.

He's based at the company's Booking.com office on Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam where, instead of a corner office, he sits surrounded by scores of employees.

This trading-floor atmosphere is good for customer service but not quiet contemplation, Huston said in an interview. So when he needs to confer about a new idea or prioritise strategy, he walks the cobblestone streets beside the canals of Amsterdam with one or two of his managers.

Facebook's Zuckerberg caught some of his walking bug from Steve Jobs. The two entrepreneurs took a stroll in Palo Alto, California, in 2010 when Jobs was interested in having Ping, Apple's musical social networking service, incorporated into Facebook, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named.

Although the partnership never happened, Zuckerberg now often takes people he wants to hire on a walk near the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, according to the person.

The area, with its year-round balmy weather and abundance of quiet leafy streets and hiking trails, is conducive to walking meetings. Among the many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who conduct regular walk-and-talks are Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Heidi Roizen, operating partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

US presidents have walked from time to time, from Harry Truman to Lyndon B Johnson. It was on a walk on the White House grounds that Bill Clinton's lawyer Robert Bennett once pressed him about rumours involving past relations with women, Bob Woodward wrote in his 1999 book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.

On that walk, Clinton told his lawyer he was "retired" from escapades with women, and said of the White House, "This is a prison."

Last August, Obama walked for 45 minutes before announcing that he'd seek congressional authorisation rather than call a strike on his own against Syria.

Better known for his weekend golf outings and love of basketball, the 52-year-old president began his South Lawn walks under his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, although they walked only a few times, according to two aides who are familiar with his schedule and didn't want to be named. Obama walked periodically with his next two chiefs, Bill Daley and Jacob J Lew, now his Treasury Secretary.

It was with McDonough, a fitness buff who regularly jogs or cycles to work, that the president began walking at least several times a week. One lap around the South Lawn loop at an easy pace takes about five minutes. Obama's walks typically range from 10 to 30 minutes.

On March 31, he paced the South Lawn loop as he awaited word on whether his administration would hit its seven million target for health insurance sign-ups before the close of Obamacare's first open enrollment period.

"He's a very active person," said senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. "The activity is good for him. He would prefer to do that than be sitting still."

© Bloomberg

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