Here's why Google went to Burning Man to find its next CEO

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  • Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the cofounders of Google, went to Burning Man with Eric Schmidt nearly two decades ago to see if he had what it takes to become CEO.
  • Schmidt landed the job because he proved he could cut loose at Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held.
  • Specifically, Brin and Page wanted to see that Schmidt could achieve a “group flow state,” to get the best work out of their employees.

It’s no secret that Burning Man is a stomping ground for tech moguls. The counterculture festival draws rich people and naked hippies under the shared assumption that the future is what you make it.

In his book, “Stealing Fire,” author and performance expert Steven Kotler explains how the founders of Google – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – found their CEO at Burning Man nearly two decades ago.

Eric Schmidt joined Google in 2001 as chief executive and served in that position until 2011, when he transitioned to become executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet. He stepped down from that role last year and continues to serve on Alphabet’s board.

Page and Brin were proud “burners”

Page and Brin were the quintessential “burners.”

“From the very beginning, Larry and Sergey have been kind of rabid attendees. The center atrium at Google for years was decorated with pictures of Googlers at Burning Man, spinning fire, doing various things,” Kotler, author of “Stealing Fire,” told Business Insider.

Part of what appealed to the duo about Burning Man was the sense of community at its core.

So one of the things that happens at Burning Man – and there’s recent research out of Oxford that sort of backs this up – is that Burning Man alters consciousness in a very particular way and it drops people into a state of group flow,” Kotler said.

“Flow is a peak-performance state,” he continued. “It’s an individual performing at their peak. Group flow is simply a team performing at their peak, and everybody has some familiarity with this.”

“If you’ve ever taken part in a great brainstorming session, where ideas are kind of bouncing everywhere – you’re really reaching ripe, smart conclusions. If you’ve seen a fourth-quarter comeback in football. … That’s group flow in action,” Kotler said.

Getty ImagesLarry page, co-founder of Google.

According to Kotler, Google relies on creating group-flow states to get the best work out of their employees.

In 1999, Page and Brin raised $12.5 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a top VC firm in Silicon Valley. As part of the deal, they promised the firm they would hire an outsider to replace Page as CEO – a common play to provide “adult supervision” to young founders.

They wanted the next CEO to be in harmony with these group-flow states. But they didn’t really know how to screen for it. Then they met Schmidt, then-CEO of software company Novell.

Schmidt had a leg up on the competiton

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“[Page and Brin] had blown through and alienated like 50 different CEOs in the valley they tried to interview,” Kotler said, “and they found out that Eric Schmidt had actually been to Burning Man.”

“So they bumped him to the top of their list, they took him to Burning Man to see how he would do. They wanted to know was he going to be able to let go of his ego, merge with the team, or was he going to stand in its way?” Kotler said.

“And it turns out he passed the test, and the result is one of the most pivotal CEO hires in the modern era,” he added.

Schmidt took the CEO spot in 2001 – a hire that Page would later describe as “brilliant” – and became executive chairman in 2011.

In 2018, Alphabet announced John Hennessy, a former president of Stanford University, would replace Schmidt as the new chairman of the board.

We’re not sure if Page and Brin sent Hennessy, who is 65, to Burning Man for a test run, though it is unlikely.

Joe Avella and Kevin Reilly contributed reporting to a previous version of this article.

If you liked reading about Google’s culture, check out the BI Prime story on Apple’s peculiar way of notifying employees that they’re moving into its newly-built “spaceship” headquarters.

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