How CeCe Morken Drew Upon Her 35-Year Career to Guide Headspace Through the Pandemic

Even before the pandemic hit, it became clear to many that employees’ mental health needed to be more clearly addressed and cared for by their employers. And since the pandemic began, home and work lives have been even more tightly entwined, resulting in stress and burnout. So how can leaders be more mindful of employees’ mental wellbeing and implement healthier cultures? For the latest Leadership Lessons episode, I was proud to enlist the counsel of arguably the best possible expert to answer these questions in a meaningful way: Headspace’s brilliant CEO CeCe Morken.

Leadership Lessons, webinar here.

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Reaching 70 million users in 190 countries, Headspace was one of the first meditation apps in the world and remains a leader in mindfulness and mental training. The company also offers its products and services to more than 2,000 organizations to help them build healthier, more productive cultures and higher-performing businesses. Morken shared best practices with me on the topic as well as the most valuable leadership lessons from her 35-year-career building and growing organizations — from start-ups to global, publicly traded companies such as Intuit, where she spent 13 years of her work life as an executive.

She’s so brilliant and thoughtful that it’s no wonder the Headspace founders promoted her to the role of CEO within six months of her joining the company in April 2020 as president and COO.

“Think about having the next generation be much more balanced than the rest of us are,” Morken shared of her hopes for the future of mental health. “That would be the most fulfilling impact that I could see.” Here are 11 lessons from my conversation with this one-of-a-kind leader: 

1. Mental health is a lifelong issue for all of us

Morken shared an alarming statistic that 46 percent of us will have a diagnosable mental health condition at some point during our lives. Even for those of us who are well-adjusted, we’re still on the mental health continuum. The good news is there are huge opportunities for the growth of mental health benefits and healthcare provider channels in the workplace. 

2. Taking time to slow down throughout the workday can lead to more productivity

Morken says Headspace offers many opportunities for its employees to center themselves. Examples of policies include two periods during the day where no meetings can be scheduled so that workers can take guided Headspace meditations or just choose to go for a walk, as well as taking five minutes before an all-hands meeting to meditate. 

3. Find the right spot on the continuum between “O focus” and “S focus”

O focus refers to one’s focus on “others” versus one’s S focus which is more “self-serving,” because the focus is directed more on themselves. “The closer you are on the continuum to focusing on other people, the more value you bring to the world and to others,” Morken says. 

4. Simplicity in communication is hugely important

You want to be able to tell a story that an eighth-grader can understand and then easily relay to another person. What is great is that this can be learned and taught. When it comes to sales pitches or board decks, Morken recommends paring the information you have down to three important points and getting rid of the rest of the noise. Assume the people you’re speaking to don’t know anything about the topic, and delete all the acronyms and inside industry jargon from your vocabulary. 

5. Hearts and minds both matter in business

The heart is about caring about your coworkers and assuming good intent. The mind comes up with frameworks and processes that guide the organization. Headspace refers to the hearts and minds idea as “the what and the how.” 

6. Great companies are built on a framework of innovation

Find a consumer-facing problem, fall in love with it and experiment to find the best possible solution. Only then will you deliver a benefit to the customer that delights them. 

7. Always remain curious and flexible to new ways of thinking and doing

The power of curiosity is invaluable. Always have an openness to the idea that there might be a new and better way to achieve goals than the current trajectory. “I use the word authentic curiosity, because it means you’re willing to let go of what you know and what you believe,” shares Morken.

8. Decide on what is the best use of your time

Choose which areas of the business most need your direct input and which ones have strong enough leadership that they don’t need as much of your attention. But keep in mind that this might cause the people you don’t work as closely with to assume the projects they head up aren’t as important. Easing that worry is also part of your job as a leader.

9. CEOs need to be able to express themselves without every word being taken as gospel by employees

It’s not an easy balance to strike. Regardless of if you’re in the C-suite or leading a team, you need to be clear on when you are providing direction and when you are simply offering a different perspective. Employees will often take the words of a CEO as gospel, so you need to be a master communicator.  

10. Sometimes another product is a better customer fit

Morken says that sometimes it will become apparent that the match between product and customer is not the right fit. It doesn’t mean your passion for being the best solution for a customer’s needs is not there, it just means that you shouldn’t force a square peg into a round hole. “It’s a big decision when the head of HR anywhere decides to deploy Headspace,” shared Morken. “They just put their reputation on the line for all of their employees, and I want to make sure that our values are 100 percent aligned.”

11. Learn from people who are different than you

When you first leave home, to go to college or travel the world after graduation, you begin to see the world through other people’s eyes. This, Morken says, is the surest path to discovering your true north: “Most people in their early 20s have no real idea of who they are or the impact they want to have on others, so learn about people who are different from you, and you’ll find your passion. This can lead you to the thing that makes your heart beat faster, as opposed to the thing that you think you’re supposed to go do.”

For more from my hour-long conversation with Morken, watch the webinar here. Our series’ growing collection of invaluable chats like this one give our readers access to the best practices of successful CEOs from over 30 of the biggest brands, including Zoom, Nextdoor, GoDaddy and Chipotle, to name a few.

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