Why Google went to Burning Man to find its next CEO

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It’s no secret that Burning Man is a stomping ground for tech moguls. The annual counterculture gathering 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 — used Burning Man as a stage for interviewing the next CEO.

“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 told Business Insider.

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

Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

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,” he continued, “is a peak-performance state. 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.”

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

In 1999, Page and Brin had accepted $US12.5 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a top venture 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 Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of software company Novell.

Here’s a photo of Schmidt last year at Further Future, a Burning Man-like festival for the ultra-rich.

“[Page and Brin] had blown through and alienated like 50 different CEOs in the valley they tried to interview, 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.”

Schmidt took the CEO spot in 2001. Page would later describe the move to hire him as “brilliant.”

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

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