- Jay Coen Gilbert, cofounder and CEO of the nonprofit B Lab, told Business Insider that he became more productive after he learned to slow down. It was a habit he built out of necessity when he fought cancer.
- Coen Gilbert said that consciously slowing down while working has allowed him to make better decisions and stronger relationships with his team.
- We named him one of our 100 People Transforming Business earlier this year for the way he kicked off the B Corp and benefit corporation movements that have spread around the world to thousands of companies dedicated to more than just profit, including Danone and Patagonia.
- The Productivity Project collects the techniques some of our “transformers” use to be efficient and successful.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In 2016, Jay Coen Gilbert was almost a decade into building the B Corp and benefit corporation movements. As the cofounder of B Lab, he and his team had developed a way of measuring companies’ contributions to not just shareholders, but workers, customers, communities, and the environment.
Companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s found value in earning their B Corp status and then touting it on their packaging, and there was simultaneously bipartisan support across America for passing legislation that would allow companies to register as “benefit corporations,” adding a legal component to the B Corp initiative.
Then Coen Gilbert was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, in late 2016, and he had to slow down more than he ever had in his life.
He recently told us how the experience changed him, and how a particular moment in a Pennsylvania botanical garden has stuck with him. “When I was well enough to go for a walk at a beautiful gem of a local garden called Chanticleer, one of my most important memories, that I try to come back to often, is to remember how many different shades of green I could see,” he wrote. “Innumerable. And each was beautiful and they were more beautiful together. When I move too quickly, they’re all just green.”
He received an “all-clear” from his doctor after six months of chemotherapy, and was able to return to work a few more months later, in September 2017. He found that his appreciation of taking things at a slower pace stuck with him, and told us, “when I have taken time to slow down it has always been rewarded with better decision making, more trust, and deeper relationships – both personally and vocationally.”
This was not the first time Coen Gilbert has found an opportunity for positive growth after tragedy. Before he was leading a movement for stakeholder-conscious businesses, he was the cofounder of the basketball apparel company AND1. He had begun thinking about what was next by the end of the 1990s, but a turning point came in fall 2001. His sister was working in downtown Manhattan during 9/11 and had to be rescued from debris; just four days later, their father died of cancer; and then two weeks after that, an AND1 employee died on the way to work in a car accident. Coen Gilbert told us last year, “that triggered a pretty intense period of reflection on what’s the highest and best use of my life.”
This period of self-reflection led him to the growing movement of using business for social good, and after selling AND1 in 2005, he and two cofounders launched B Lab in 2007. Then, in 2010, he and a Delaware corporate lawyer helped craft a proposal that would allow companies to register as a benefit corporation with these values built in. There are now more than 2,800 B Corps and 8,000 benefit corporations around the world.
Two ways of thinking
As the stakeholder approach to business, rather than the shareholder primacy approach, becomes mainstream even with the CEOs of the largest companies in America, Coen Gilbert is staying as ambitious as ever. And he does not feel that his penchant for “slowing down” is in contradiction to this.
“While there are clearly instances in which action is required or preferable, even with incomplete information and suboptimal inclusiveness, I have been amazed at the power of slowing down to enrich my life and enhance my effectiveness,” he said.
There is more than intuition to support Coen Gilbert’s approach.
As the Nobel laureate economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman laid out in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” there are two primary ways that the human mind approaches tasks. There is System 1 thinking, which relies on internalized, unconscious biases to make decisions rapidly, and System 2 thinking, which requires more energy and analyses a problem. Systems 1 and 2 work together, and when the former cannot make sense of something, it employs the latter. Yale professor Shane Frederick’s research has found that it is easy to manipulate System 1 thinking into making an incorrect decision through impulse. That said, if someone is unaware of this interplay of thinking, they can use slow thinking solely to reinforce what their fast thinking intuited. It’s a matter of awareness and balance.
This is all to say that there are times when people in leadership positions have enough experience with a particular scenario that they can make quick decisions, but that taking a breather and collecting oneself can counteract a tendency to make poor choices.
The other aspect of Coen Gilbert’s approach to his personal life and work is meditative, where he is more conscious of living in the present, which leads to more control over his emotions.
As he told us: “My world is more beautiful at a human pace. My relationships flourish at a human pace. My decision making is better at a human pace. Our work has advanced more effectively at a human pace.”