#74: From Zen Monk to CEO Working With Google and Twitter: Meet Marc Lesser
Welcome to The Creator's Adventure, where we interview creators from around the world, hearing their stories about growing a business.
Marc Lesser is a CEO, executive coach, speaker, and Zen teacher.
He founded and was CEO of 3 companies and helped develop a mindfulness program inside of Google's headquarters.
He is also the author of five books, including Finding Clarity.
Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years and has an MBA degree from New York University before he became CEO and started working with clients such as Google and Twitter.
Listen to his story in today's episode of The Creator's Adventure!
Learn more about Marc: https://marclesser.net/
Watch this episode when it premieres live for a chance to interact with Marc. Leave your questions for him in the comments!
Bryan McAnulty [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The Creators Adventure, where we interview creators from around the world hearing their stories about growing a business Myfulness is a popular topic and you hear something like the mindfulness program at Google. But do you ever wonder who actually created that? Well, today we're talking with him and he spent the 1st 10 years of his career at the 1st Western Zen monastery, only after that to go and found 3 successful businesses. Hey, everyone. I'm Brian McAnulty, the founder of Heights platform. Let's get into it.
Bryan McAnulty [00:00:32]:
Hey, everyone. We're here today with Mark Lesser He is a CEO, executive coach, speaker, and Zen teacher. He founded and was CEO of 3 companies and help develop a mindfulness program inside of Google's headquarters. He is the author of 5 books including Finding Clarity, And Mark was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years and has an MBA from New York University. Mark, welcome to the show.
Marc Lesser [00:01:03]:
Thanks, Brian. Good to see you.
Bryan McAnulty [00:01:05]:
You as well. So my first question for you is What would you say is the biggest thing either that you did or you are doing that has helped you to achieve the freedom to do what you enjoy.
Marc Lesser [00:01:19]:
Yeah. I think I feel like I've been really lucky in my work life in that there's been tremendous amount of alignment and that I've always done things that were very much aligned with my own values. My first my first job out of business school was with a recycled paper company. And and then I launched a publishing company making things out of recycled paper, and we were we were selling and producing beautiful calendars and greeting cards that had inspirational messages. So I think the the big thing I think is to to if if you love what you do, it doesn't feel like work. I've never felt like I've rarely felt like I've worked very much in my in my life, and that's true these days as well.
Bryan McAnulty [00:02:17]:
That's awesome. I think I completely agree. That's super important. And that's that's super awesome to be able to to go through that process of having everything be like that for you. Like, yeah, for me, I would say the same. I'm I'm very glad, and I feel very fortunate that what I do every day, I would do the same exact thing if I didn't have to do it for money.
Marc Lesser [00:02:39]:
Yeah. You know, I I would also add to that I I think I think that I think it really helps to contextualize one's work as part of their own, whether it's well-being practice or spiritual practice or awareness practice, you know, that because as I was as I was talking so eloquently about the things that I loved, I I couldn't help think of that there were some really tough times in there. Mhmm. You know, that that man, there were some real struggles you know, financial issues, changes in the environment issues, people issues, running running a business is not for the faint of heart. You know? And so even though, you know, I was always doing things that I loved, man, I didn't I I didn't always love the the challenges and struggles and always easier looking back But but it all it always helped, I think, to, as I said, to to see even the challenges and difficulties as opportunities to learn and grow even though even, you know, no one wants no one wants to have financial challenges. No one wants to, you know, look at your customer listings. There is a I I can remember the moment when I was noticed that Our customers were going out of business left and right because they were getting beaten up by Amazon And Borders And Barnes And Barnes And Noble at the time. And and that was put us in some we we had to change we had to pivot. We had to change directions in order to survive.
Bryan McAnulty [00:04:30]:
Yeah. Well, I mean, I definitely agree that when you're working on something that you're passionate about and that aligns with your values, it's much easier to make it through those hard times. And -- Mhmm. Yeah. It it would be so much harder if not impossible if You you don't feel that way about what you're doing.
Marc Lesser [00:04:51]:
For sure. For sure.
Bryan McAnulty [00:04:53]:
So you were a resident of the San Francisco Zent Center for 10 years. the director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the 1st Zen Monster in the western world. Can you describe your experience in the Zen Mountain Center? Like, what was it like being a resident in a monastery? What did you learn from that experience?
Marc Lesser [00:05:17]:
Yeah. You know, this it was for me, this was I was in my early twenties. I took a I took a 1 year leave of absence from Rutgers University. You know, I was twenty, twenty one years old and and was found out about you know, meditation practice and this community in San Francisco called the Zen Center, and it was there was something just a lot of really smart, interesting, devoted people living living in community. And and yet, there was this this real discipline of of getting up, you know, 5:30 AM every morning with meditation practice. And there was so to me, it was the draw was having this physical discipline studying work and and I ended up, you know, working in a lot of different a lot of different areas. I mean, I got trained as a baker. I got trained as a cook. And then I felt like I got a lot of leadership experience by by ask I was asked to be the director of this Zen Monastery, but it turns into a kind of a conference center, workshop center with overnight guests all summer. So just amazing experience looking looking back at it. And of course, you know, was was not so easy for my parents me dropping out of college and spending my time at the zen center, but much easier after 10 years when I went to business school and started my own company. But then it was interesting how it was that experience that led to me being asked to develop a mindfulness meditation, emotional intelligence program, and Google Headquarters. So it's interesting sometimes the the things that that look kind of, you know, looking back, it was pretty risky, pretty crazy to But, I mean, I was just following my heart. I was following my own path then. And but it was interesting how it how well it turned out for me in terms of what it led to in terms of the opportunities, the doors that it that it opened. But It was a life changing experience. You know? And I I I'm I'm surprised at my own choices, you know, sometimes sometimes it seems like there's a thin line, you know, between courage and not exactly stupidity, but just lack of awareness and lack I didn't I wasn't even thinking of the the risks at the time is just something I was really drawn drawn to do. I'm still actually quite connected to the, you know, all these years to the the San Francisco Zen Center community. Great great organization, really good people. Yeah. This place Tassajara is an amazing place. It's in the deep in the mountains in Central California. And I think starting again next summer, it'll be open open again to the public in the summertimes.
Bryan McAnulty [00:08:39]:
That was neat. Yeah. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but at least my impression is that it's more often common for someone to be in business. and and go through all these things and say, I I really need to kinda chill out and get out of the stress, and then they they go to the monastery. and you kinda went the other way around. You you're at the monastery for 10 years, and then you decide, well, I'm gonna now have these businesses.
Marc Lesser [00:09:03]:
Totally. No. I think I think my particular order of things was a lot more a lot more unusual. You know, most of the people yeah. I think very few people who who went through what I did ended up in the business world. It would have been much more, I think, made a lot more sense for me to and I thought about, you know, I thought about becoming a doctor. I thought about going to becoming a therapist. But I was really drawn I was really drawn to the realm of leadership and to and to business. I really wanted I wanted to have to contend with success and failure. I wanted to have to contend with really creating a livelihood by myself. And and I and I was really drawn to the realm of leading, managing and leading which I had a good deal of experience with while at the Zen Center. And And I remember wondering, like, why why isn't everyone integrating kind of these awareness practices emotional intelligence practice in with leadership. And I think I was a bit a bit ahead of my time because it's amazing now how much interest there is in, you know, leadership and mindfulness and meditation. And so yeah, I feel quite lucky that I had that that deep, deep, and long experience as a as a young person.
Bryan McAnulty [00:10:39]:
Definitely. Yeah. So now as the CEO of ZBA Associates, you mentioned you work with Google. I think you worked with Twitter as well. what kind of services would you provide a company like that?
Marc Lesser [00:10:54]:
Yeah. I do. My my work life now is some executive coaching. So I work I work with CEOs of smaller companies. I work with some Google executives and and other other leaders, and I do some speaking. I do some talks at places, and I do workshops, trainings. trainings around mindful leadership, emotional intelligence, accomplishing more by doing less. It's another workshop that I do. I love the combination. I I like I like working one on one with people, but I also really like working with groups being being with you know, helping to create safe, vibrant learning kind of learning situations for people. So, yeah, that's that's my my work life these days. And I have a small team of people. You know? I have a variety of contractors that I work with, but I'm I'm mostly these days, a a one person business. I I sometimes miss, you know, I was I've been CEO of a few different companies now that where I've had teams and was growing organizations. And I missed that, and I have to say I also like the simplicity of my work life right now.
Bryan McAnulty [00:12:19]:
Got it. Yeah. I think It's an interesting point that you made about enjoying working, like, with both the one on one and the groups. And I think it's a mistake or rather a distraction that a lot of earlier entrepreneurs will make to think that there's, like, one right hand of like, oh, this is the way that I will be more successful. I have to work with people in this format. But there's so many ways you can do things, and I think it really for most part comes down to what you personally enjoy. And so I'm I'm also saying this thinking in from the mind of, like, coaches and course creators who are thinking like, should I have a membership? Every some people are telling me that's really cool. Should I have a course? Should I do this coaching, these workshops? And, yeah, I really think it comes down to well, what's what is it that you enjoy and what is it that you you like to use to provide value to your audience?
Marc Lesser [00:13:15]:
Totally. Totally. I have a lot of friends who are who are coaches and only do coaching. And and I sometimes look and think, man, that looks that looks like a really good life. But I I've never felt like that was my path. I love coaching, but I really need to be doing group work as well. And and I know a lot of people who just do group work and don't doesn't interest them to do the the the one on one work. I I really like I like both and I also like I mean, I like strategizing and growing things and trying things as as well. That's the feel like for me to be happy, I need to feel somewhat engaged in all three of those areas, the the one on 1, the group work, and the sense that I'm trying things and building building out something.
Bryan McAnulty [00:14:09]:
Yeah. That that's neat. And I think it's great it's great for anyone to be able to get to the point that they even realize that for themselves of what are those things that they need for feeling fulfillment in their business.
Marc Lesser [00:14:24]:
Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, sometimes, you know, I I I was thinking in my in my last role as CEO of of an organization, I it took, you know, it took some work and some time and some patience to be able to build the company and my particular role where I could do all three of those things. You know, I feel like the in some way, you know, the as we were growing, it it made it it didn't make sense for me to be out there in the field doing trainings because there was so much that needed to be done in terms of building a team and keeping an eye on on the financials and but once we got stable, I was I felt like I was able to then arrange my my time and tasks to do more of what suited what suited me, but you know, sometimes sometimes you have to make sacrifices, sometimes you have to do things that that might not be that fit when especially when you're responsible for growing company.
Bryan McAnulty [00:15:32]:
Yeah. Definitely. So my teammates saw when we were doing our research on you that In a keynote speech, you've mentioned how the principles of nonentainment that you learned from the Zen Monastery often collide with the corporate work culture of productivity and therefore attainment. So how can business owners and leaders kind of incorporate mindfulness into their work routine while still being productive.
Marc Lesser [00:16:03]:
Yeah. So it's interesting. You know, Even even something as maybe simple as like meta Let's If I use the the the metaphor of meditation practice that there's definitely something that brings you to want to have a meditation practice or a mindfulness practice It might be you want to reduce stress or be whatever it is, a better leader, a better parent, more aware, But then the practice itself is when you're actually doing meditation. You let go of all that. and you train and there's a training there's a training of training the mind to be satisfied with what is. and to be aware of of whatever is without any sense of attainment. And I think this is actually a really important leadership skill to be able to, you know, to start by seeing what is like what is happening in your business? What is working? Which How are how are the people I'm working with doing? So it's like this So there's a there's a kind of an acceptance, a a sense of just more open awareness. And then out of that saying, well, here here's where I want my business to Here's where I want my team to be. Here's my financial goals, the various goals that I have. And to notice the gaps, between what is and what I want to be. You know, there's you know, a lot of people have written about the importance of seeing those those gaps, Peter Sengue in a book a book from about 30 years ago called The 5th Discipline. He he talks about how that might that it might be the most important skill or quality of a leader is feeling the discomfort and staying with the discomfort of the gaps between what is and what you want to be. And I think it helps to have a meditation practice, mindfulness, a non attainment practice to actually be able to see those gaps and stay with them. because usually we don't like those. You know, usually we pretend they're not there or or we lower the bar of where we wanna be because who who wants to be uncomfortable? but there's something about staying with the discomfort of being in those gaps as a as what whatever kind of work we're doing, whatever kind of business we're running.
Bryan McAnulty [00:18:53]:
Yeah. I agree. And it sounds so simple to say, like, seeing where things are at, but I I can also understand, and I feel that so many entrepreneurs and business owners skip right over that, and they just focus into, like, oh, let's go. Go. Go. Like, this is what we wanna do and not really even realizing or paying attention to kind of the the current reality. Yeah. I think, like, another way to kind of talk about that is the like, as a as a entrepreneur, I think you constantly make discoveries about, like, Everyone has these beliefs, and you constantly make discoveries about, well, what is the real reality behind this as as you move forward? And you have to I think kinda like as you're you're getting at maybe with the discomfort, like be able to sit with that reality once you discover what the reality really is and how it's different from your belief. And then then use that to understand where you have to get to instead of just ignoring it and then pushing forward with some idea.
Marc Lesser [00:20:03]:
Yeah. No. Totally. Well well said, Right? I think there's something about, you know, see seeing reality from a number of perspective I mean, even simple things like, you know, regularly reviewing your financials and having and and how useful it is how obvious and useful it is to have financial projections and to make it a habit to be looking at projections versus reality. And and even projections about, you know, a little bit like what we were talking about earlier about what what roles am I what do I want to be doing? What what are my what activities? How am I spending my time? How do I spend my time? and where do I want to spend my time? And how can I close those gaps? But it means, again and again, coming back to what is, right? What is from financials, how I'm spending my time, how are my vendors doing, how are my how are people doing who work work with me? What's working? What could be better?
Bryan McAnulty [00:21:09]:
Yeah. Yeah. I wanna I wanna talk more about the, like, spending the time because I think that the the average entrepreneur spends all this time doing things that are not really work, and you're you're just kind of busy. And most people I think would be further along to where they wanna be, not by working more, but by just creating these blocks of focus time for themselves where they're working on what is actually either that they believe is going to move the needle or that they are best fit to work on. So what would you say is maybe, like, if you could reference a specific practice or technique that can help somebody prioritize tasks and eliminate just kinda unnecessary busy busyness.
Marc Lesser [00:22:00]:
Yeah. Again, it's similar, I think, to what we were just saying. It it could be really, really helpful to do an audit, you know, to spend, you know, and for a week or 2 weeks to you know, the end of the morning and end of the afternoon to actually really look at how are you spending your time, what are you doing? I'm amazed at you know, the differences in productivity, you know, to really look at. You know, I think for most people, in in an 8 hour a day, you know, how how much of that time are you actually producing things? Are you actually getting things done? are you actually selling or planning or creating? It can be it can be really eye opening to really look to look at those at those things in a in a really very straightforward way. So I think that's I think you know, again, I it's clearly my bias. Right? The bias of awareness. I keep bringing awareness to what is what is And, you know, and and also I think there's a an emotional component to it. How am I feeling? Like, how how is it you know, how's this working for me? You know? What what gives me energy? Noticing. What gives me energy? because that that's I think We're so much more productive when we're energized, when we're engaged, and often so much less productive when there's some kind of resistance or any kind of lack of clarity about what what we're doing. I mean, yeah, just, again, to keep bringing that awareness to the you know, I'd say both the the what and and and the how. And the why is also right to that stepping back about why am I doing this? What's what is this? What's my what's the larger context of what I'm trying to accomplish here?
Bryan McAnulty [00:23:59]:
Yeah. That's helpful. And I can attest to the the kinda, like, audit thing because when I started in business, I didn't really keep track of how long I was working. I I don't think I was really, like, working like crazy or or at risk of really burning myself out, but I I would just kinda work, and that was it. And and there wasn't really any data for me to understand, like, what am I actually getting done or not? And nowadays, I actually time, like, to the minute, like, the time that I spend working. and it's it wasn't that hard to get into a habit of doing it. I try to work 8 hours on weekdays. But doing that is really helpful to understand, like, when am I doing something away from work that I'm distracted? I think, like, like, I work from home. and and being able to understand, like, if I'm taking a break in the middle of the day or something like that, it's helpful to understand, like, oh, I actually I only work 3 hours so far today. I gotta do more. But also from things like realizing like, wow, I almost worked 8 hours today, but what actually got done? Right? Yeah. You know, as you were saying that, Brian, it made me think of
Marc Lesser [00:25:11]:
when I was CEO of my last company, I instituted a a policy an an open vacation policy. Mhmm. And and I was a little nervous about that, like because it means it it it's a kind of it means you really have to trust people, but what I didn't realize is that what it meant was that what became important was what got done, not how much time you spent doing it. So I didn't care. how many hours people worked. What I cared about was what was getting accomplished. And and then the same became true of me also. I I had to track myself. like what was I what was I really accomplishing. So it's interesting as you were saying it it can certainly be useful, you know, to audit time. It definitely matters, but it's also really interesting to find to find ways to be auditing accomplishment and to really note, like, have a way of measuring what's gotten what's gotten done? What am I What's my plan? What's my plan for this day, for this week? What does what does a successful week look like in terms of accomplishment? And then how how do I do? Yeah. Yeah. 100%.
Bryan McAnulty [00:26:28]:
And and I'll do that as well to kind of plan out. Like, these are the things that I wanna get done for myself, for my team, over the course of this week. And then the rest of of how many hours are involved is not so important. So I agree with that. And and I agree with the to the open vacation policy too. We do that as well here, so that's great.
Marc Lesser [00:26:50]:
It also makes me think of there is something about This is where I find I'm a lot more productive when I'm working with other people. In fact, someone I saw some study recently about, you know, like just having another person in the room or can act most people are a lot more productive. One one way that shows up for me is, you know, I I just recently published my my 5th book and and often people say, wow. How do you do that? That just seems so crazy. And how do you write books? Well, the way I do it is I hire an editor and I make promises about when I'm gonna have him certain things. And I would never be able to get a book done if I didn't have someone who I was promising that on this date, I'm gonna have you the introduction the draft of the introduction, the draft of these and and that way little by little, I can by by making promises, I can do things that's what otherwise seem impossible.
Bryan McAnulty [00:27:58]:
Yeah. Completely agree with that as well. I think most of our audience listening here might think of themselves as kind of like the solo entrepreneur, and I think that's great. to to be that and to aspire to to be that and not want to have this this massive team. But at the same time, you don't have to, like, do that and, like, suffer through that as a badge of honor because it can be so helpful to have somebody that you're working with even if it's one person and an assistant or whatever. but I find the same thing to be true in my business that having the teammates is even though I'm the boss, it's holding me accountable to, well, said we were gonna get this thing done. I I gotta make sure that this is ready, and then you find a way.
Marc Lesser [00:28:44]:
Yeah. Yeah. Totally. I think it's I I think there's not a lot of research or studies about that because it's hard to research. There's so many variables. But my own experience is just how useful it is to, right, have have accountability. People that I'm that, right, even as even as the boss that still you know, making promises, being able to hold myself accountable for what I'm actually getting done.
Bryan McAnulty [00:29:13]:
Yeah. Yeah. So your newest book, it's called Finding Clarity. And in that, you discuss Compassionate Accountability. Can you tell us what is compassionate accountability and how can that be integrated into your workplace?
Marc Lesser [00:29:31]:
Yeah. I started writing this book because of I I I noticed the word accountability gets used a lot and and mostly people don't like it and and I think they what comes up as an association is lack of accountability. And and mostly what makes the business news is, you know, people doing strange things, you know, the the the opposite of accountability. And I I really wanted to understand this practice and I came to really like the word alignment And much of accountability is so holding yourself accountable means being aligned with your again, like what we're talking about in terms of values and vision and productivity, and holding others accountable is a kind of alignment. Right? And simply aligned in doing what people said they were gonna do, working how we said we're gonna work. And I think people like alignment and alignment translates alignment is much closer to you know compassion or care Right? So I really I'm a big fan of the importance of contradiction and paradox. I think we humans are naturally paradoxical and contradictory creatures. And but I think in the world of work, having high accountability high alignment and at the same time high sense of care and trust and compassion. go together are are really, really important are, like, 22 they they look like they are in competing with each other, but I think they're essential that they go together. This practice is of accountability and compassion in our work lives.
Bryan McAnulty [00:31:30]:
Yeah. It's great. I I don't know if it's just that you explained it so well. But but I I feel that I I see a picture of that, and I I can definitely definitely understand that. Can you provide maybe some some practical tips for anyone who's listening to this and is saying to themselves, okay. Well, this all sounds great. How can I kinda create a more peaceful work environment for myself and everyone I'm working with?
Marc Lesser [00:31:57]:
Yeah. Well, my advice is to start with yourself. Right? That that I think I think to look at how to have really really good well-being self care practices, but also communication skills to work on those. We we all I think we all can be better communicators You know, the the first the first chapter of my book finding clarity is called be curious, not furious. And and I think I see curiosity and listening as just again, they sound so easy and simple, but in the, you know, in the rough and tumble business world, when things get heated up, when things are not working well, stuff happens and I think instead of getting tight, instead of getting, you know, note noticing one's own fight and flight tendencies that we we all have and and even to be curious about our own dissatisfaction, our anger, our judgment, and to to to build those muscles of of curiosity as a the the heart of being a better a better leader, a better communicator.
Bryan McAnulty [00:33:23]:
Yeah. Yeah. That's great. Alright. Usually, what we like to do on this show is have every guest ask a question to the audience. So if you could think of anything that you could ask our audience whether it's something you're curious about something that You kinda want everyone to think about, what would that be?
Marc Lesser [00:33:44]:
Yeah. I think, you know, I think business is all about helping, it's all about an offering. So my question would be is how is how are you and your work helping to make the world a better place? What are you doing to make that to make the world even a little bit better?
Bryan McAnulty [00:34:05]:
A great question. I think the the answer to that is a a great kind of motivational driver for yourself as well.
Marc Lesser [00:34:13]:
Yeah. Yeah. I think it's good to keep coming back again that it's a little bit like the the the why? Why are we doing? What what we're doing? And and to get out of the weed that you know, it's easy to get stuck in the weeds of the the the day to day challenges of running running a company.
Bryan McAnulty [00:34:32]:
Yeah. Yeah. I don't I don't know how it comes across to anyone listening to this that if it sounds like I have it all together, but I get stuck in the weeds often as well still no matter what. So, definitely, it's important to continuously work at. Alright, Mark. Well, it was great talking with you. Thanks so much for coming on. Before we get going, where else can people find you online?
Marc Lesser [00:34:58]:
Yeah. My website is marklessermarclesser.net. I also have a podcast called Zen Bones. Those are two ways people can find me.
Bryan McAnulty [00:35:13]:
Alright. Thanks so much.
Marc Lesser [00:35:16]:
Thanks a lot, Brian.
Bryan McAnulty [00:35:17]:
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