Corporate innovator: Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn

Steven Loeb · May 13, 2021 · Short URL:

Before launching this role, Shute spent 6 years as VP of Global Customer Operations

While most entrepreneurs want to be the one to discover the next Amazon or Twitter, oftentimes major technological shifts are coming from the big companies, the players that have been on the scene for years, if not decades. Those companies have survived because they know how to pivot. They're the ones who either seed new ideas or acquire them and distribute them. 

In this column, we talk to those companies and their innovators who are preparing them for what's coming.

In our latest interview, we spoke to Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, where his job is to help employees build characteristics such as emotional intelligence, resilience, and a better sense of well-being in order to create a better work experience.

Prior to taking on this role in 2018, Shute spent 6 years as VP of Global Customer Operations at the company. He also previously worked at Juniper Networks as a Senior Director of Customer Experience, and as Senior Director of Services and Support at Xilinx.

Shute just recently released his first book, called The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out

VatorNews: Head of Mindfulness and Compassion is a unique title. Tell me what exactly your job is and what your responsibilities are. 

Scott Shute: Let's start with a little bit of background on how we got there: I've had a career as an executive, most recently as the VP of Global Customer Operations at LinkedIn, but I've also had a lifelong practice. Since I was 13, I've had a contemplation practice and I've been teaching since I was in college. Long story short: I started volunteering to lead practices about six years ago at LinkedIn and it got to this point where I, and a bunch of other volunteers, created a great mindfulness program and had things humming. The tipping point came when our CEO at the time, Jeff Weiner, gave the commencement address at Wharton, and he talked about compassion. In your commencement address you get 15 minutes to give one big piece of advice and he was saying, “Look, if you're going to be successful in life and be successful at work, be compassionate.” And then the next two or three times he's on TV this is all the reporters want to talk about. So, at that point, and this is a couple of years ago, I decided it was time for me to invest in this work, but also time for LinkedIn to invest in this work, because if we were out there saying to 15,000 or 16,000 employees that compassion is the most important thing you can do, and then we send them back to their desks, what does that mean? So, I made a pitch to our CEO and head of HR and with their great support I essentially created this role about two and a half years ago. 

There are two parts to my job: mainstream mindfulness and operationalized compassion. I can go into more detail if you'd like to know all the things that we're doing.

VN: Yeah, absolutely.

SS: On the mindfulness side, we're just trying to mainstream mindfulness. Think of it like physical exercise, except this is mental exercise. If someone asked, “Hey, Steve, what do you doing after work?” and you said, “I'm going to go work out or I'm going to go run with my friends,” no one would bat an eye. But what if you said, “I'm going to go to this meditation class”? We want it to be just as normal. So, we offered regular meditation classes through our gyms, back in the day when we had people going to the offices; now we do things virtually. We have 30, 40, 50 meditation classes every week and we also have drop-in community sessions. So, you go and there's a five to eight minute guided practice, and then a discussion about how the topic is relevant to our lives. That's really good for building community, because we know that the sense of loneliness is one of the biggest ones we have in the workplace. We also offer an app: we've used Headspace in the past, we're now using the app called Wise@Work, and we give everybody access to that app. Then, once a year, we do a 30 day challenge, usually in October, and the challenge is to use the app, do at least 20 sessions within the month, and we'll give you a free t-shirt. This year we did a hoodie. Never underestimate the power of a free hoodie on what people will do. 

What we find is that every year we do these challenges, and people do them and there's a big spike, but the number of people who continue using the tools increases every year. We're starting to see real change in individual behavior, and that's a really beautiful thing.

VN: I see this new role you've carved out as a bridge between your Chief Medical Officer and your human resources. Do you see other major companies creating a similar Chief Mindfulness and Compassion officer? 

SS: It's starting to happen, but it's still fairly new. At one point, Aetna, before the acquisition, had a Chief Mindfulness Officer named Andy Lee. 

When I first raised my hand and asked to be the executive sponsor of our mindfulness program, we didn't have one, I did a Google search on “mindfulness at work.” I found the players at Google and SAP and Aetna and others and reached out to them, and essentially collected them, picked their brains, and now we have this organization that I now lead of people who are at their workplaces, trying to bring these concepts to work. So, in some cases, they're volunteers, in some cases they've been assigned as part of a wellness group, or as part of the HR group, but more and more companies are asking the question, “How can we support our employees with mental wellness?” And mindfulness is a big piece of that. 

VN: What percentage of employees take advantage of these classes and programs? 

SS: I just did the math on this: it’s probably around 30 or 40% who have gone to something, whether it's one of my speaker series or attended a workshop or meditation or did the 30 day challenge. Of course, the number is smaller on people who regularly do it, and are regular users. If you think about it in terms of business, our penetration rate of customers is something like 40%.

VN: What has been the impact on the organization since you started in this role? Any measurable outcomes?

SS: When we think about ROI, these things are really hard to measure. Think of the corollary to physical health. So, if we install a gym, and we get 10 new rowing machines or stair steppers, what's the ROI on those? It’s really hard to get to that. But we know that there's over 6,000 peer reviewed papers on mindfulness, about the ability to reduce stress and reduce anxiety, increase creativity, increase the quality of life, that sort of thing. 

Here's how I measure it: first, I measure consumption and customer satisfaction. In other words, if I have a program, do people actually use it? And afterwards we do surveys. Did they like it? The ROI is tied to things like productivity or wellness are harder to get to because there's so many other things going on so then I rely on anecdotal evidence, and I get literally hundreds of emails every year from people whose lives have been changed.

I'll share a couple of examples: in one case, a young woman had seen me in the hallway and stopped me to say that her life had changed. I asked, “Well, what happened?” and she said, “Well, you know, I used to think this whole mindfulness stuff was just a bunch of BS,” though she used a more colorful term. “You guys did a challenge last year, and I like a good challenge so I signed up and I'm now on over day 400 of a streak of using the app.” I was like, “Oh, that's cool,” and she’s like, “No, that's not the great part, here's what's cool: this morning, I gave a presentation at my all hands,” which, for her was a team of 80 people. And she said, “A year ago, I never would have signed up to do that. I was a spaz. I’m totally all over the place, I never would have signed up to do that, but I signed up to do it now. Even this morning I was freaking out a little bit, but I went to a conference room and I did my breathing, and I went up there and I crushed it.” She was beaming, she was smiling. Later, I asked the leaders of the organization, she was part of my organization, about this woman and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, she's really changed over the past year, I don't know what's going on with her but she has really blossomed.” I was thinking, “Wow, this is why we do this work.” So, really changing people in the way they think about themselves and their own capabilities. 

In another case, a young mother reached out during the pandemic time, and she just said a few short sentences but was like, “Thank you for offering these things. I have two little kids at home, I’m trying to home school, I'm trying to do my job, and what I find is that, with these practices, I'm screaming at them a lot less.” It was more than just that, she went on to say that she was able to be present for them, she was able to be more of who she wanted to be for her kids. Those are the types of things that we’re seeing.

VN: What about measurable outcomes for customers? Has that translated into better experiences for them? 

SS: Again, it's hard to draw a straight line between one to the other but it's all part of the system that we believe in. 

To transition a little bit into compassion, mindfulness is the development of self, the development of an individual, and that is incredibly valuable because it helps us be at our best. If you think of the history of work, now we're in the information age, and a company like LinkedIn doesn't have hard assets. We're not mining for a product, we're not building cars, we just have information, and so our number one asset is our people. So, our number one investment should be in our people, because we want them to be at their best, and when they're at their best, the whole company will be at its best. But then compassion is where the juice is; compassion is how we treat each other, and also how we treat our customers. So, we think of it as this balance of a model. 

Many companies just think about their shareholders, just top line, bottom line, just profitability, and they even believe that's why they're in business. We believe it's bigger than that, we believe you need a balance between our employees, our customers, who we call members, and then the shareholders as well. When you have this balance, everybody wins, because when employees are at their best, when you're creating an environment for them to do their best work and you really value them, they're going to shine. They're going to deliver great results. For our customers, when we truly, deeply understand their needs, and we care about meeting their needs, and we're focused on providing long term value, we're going to provide better solutions for them. At the end of the day, it's going to yield better results for our shareholders as well. So, it's this balance of moving from “me” to “we,” which we truly believe is a recipe for success. 

VN: Were there any techniques that you tried that maybe didn’t work as well as you had hoped? 

SS: I don't know that we've had any just outright failures, but we've certainly learned a lot along the way. One of the things about mindfulness is that, for many people, it has come from a spiritual tradition, or an Eastern philosophical tradition. We have to be really clear that everything we do at work is completely secular and we want to use language that's open to everyone. So, it's taken us a little bit of time to find that language and take down those barriers. For someone who's a Muslim or a Christian or whatever background to know that they are absolutely welcome and will receive the same amount of benefits as well. So, for our teachers, if we have people who are really excited and they want to bring their personal teachings to work, we have to work with them also to make sure that we keep everything in a completely secular way, so that's one of the learnings we've had.  

One of the things we're learning in the pandemic is that, just like everything else, people get Zoom fatigue. So, everything we offer is over Zoom, and that's made it easier for them to consume, because everybody's at home, but there's also just so many distractions. So, we have to just continue to offer things and be patient. Sometimes the numbers are really high, sometimes they’re really low, but we’ll stick with it and, in the long term, it’s all good.

VN: Since you have your own apps and programs, can you work with companies like BetterUp and Ginger? Or, because you’re focused on mindfulness, and you’ve partnered with Headspace, are you a company that’s very likely to work with these organizations?

SS: To be clear, the tools that we're providing to our employees are third party tools, so we have a partner called Wisdom Labs, who has both the app and the community group called Wise@Work. And so, if another company was asking, “Hey, what do I do?” I’d highly recommend the folks that Wisdom Labs, or other partners like that. There's a growing number of apps out there, from Insight Timer to Headspace, Calm, and others that are developing enterprise solutions. For now, we're enjoying being consumers of it. I would love someday for LinkedIn to offer these as a product offering, but that's that's currently not what we do. 

VN: Marketing is about 30% of revenue, or something, but that’s probably not even a percent of your part of your budget. Where do you see this and where do you see it comparable in terms of budget? 

SS: First of all, it's tiny. My team is me and one person, who was my assistant in my old job, and then a team of over 100 volunteers. So, we do this on a shoestring, and I think it can be done almost for free at companies. Although, if you think about it, why would you want to? This is such a powerful part of what we're doing is trying to improve the mental well being of our employees. 

In terms of where it shows up, the most natural place for it to show up as with whoever owns wellness, usually within the human resources department, but it's something that doesn't have to cost a lot, and it  goes a long ways towards having employees feel like they are cared about, and they are being offered valuable resources. So, the ROI is tremendous.

VN: Mental health in general has seen a radical transformation over the past few years. It wasn’t that long ago that talking about a mental health condition was still stigmatized, and now celebrities do it openly. Why do you think that shift has occurred?

SS: I'm not sure about the why, I’ll have to think on that a little bit, but I definitely see, along with you, the shift that’s happening. We still have a long way to go and there are certain cultures that still have a huge stigma around mental health and getting the help that they need, so we still have a long way to go. But, like you said, when a celebrity, or someone we see out in the limelight, is more open with their challenges, it gives us all license to be a little bit more vulnerable about what's going on. 

One of the things that has helped that is actually this pandemic, and how we do business. So, as an example, our company’s all hands meeting is on Zoom, like a lot of people we’re watching things in little boxes on a black screen. It's a big equalizer, because now, instead of the CEO or the C-suite standing on stage, all dressed up and feeling a little bit different than everybody else, now we're all the same. We're all in our little black boxes. Maybe you see the CEO’s kids running in or their dog or pictures from grade school on the wall. It has humanized and equalized all of us. We see more and more that the leaders are being more open about their own challenges, whatever the challenge is, because this last year has been a struggle. And so, when a leader is more vulnerable, it gives us all license to have discussions that are real, to say, “Oh, yeah, I am struggling today and here's what's going on,” and to be more open about, “And here's what I need.” In this way, the pandemic has been a gift; in order for us to accelerate the normalization of these things, and to be able to talk about it in a way that's not so stigmatized.

VN: I was going to ask you if you've seen a shift over the last two years of employees being more open and being more willing to address their mental health needs, but, going off what you just mentioned, I’ll ask how much more willing are they to do that now versus a year ago? How did the pandemic change that?

SS: It has changed because there's just a growing realization that this is not easy and, as a company, we're putting more of an emphasis on it. We're having direct messaging to our managers about being aware of our employees’ mental health, and giving them tools and resources to be a part of giving help, instead of just being quiet and it's kind of like the wellness team, or the HR team's job, to deal with it. Now we're engaging everyone. It's all of our job, including peers, to notice someone struggling, and we're building more awareness of the resources that we have and how to get resources.

VN: Did you implement any new techniques to help employees deal with their mental health during the pandemic?

SS: A couple of big things that we do is I deliver workshops, and normally it's in a physical room with 20 or 25 people. The good news is we're not limited by geography, so I can schedule lots of workshops and I can have people from Bangalore to Omaha to the Bay Area attend a workshop and all be together. We've shifted them into more bite sized chunks, so if I used to do a four hour workshop, we've trained to dial that down to 75 minutes, or maximum 90 minutes; the sweet spot is about an hour, so the sweet spot is shrinking over the course of the last 14 months of quarantine. Everything we're doing is virtual. Same thing with meditation sessions; personally, I'd lead a couple a week on Thursday at 4:30 in a certain building, and I’d get whatever, five or 12 people to come. But to come you're leaving your work in the middle of the day and you're sometimes going from one building to another. Well, now more people can come because they're at home and it's so easy to dial in. So, again, geography doesn't matter as much. 

The downside to all this is what we're trading is that real, in the room, eye-to-eye contact or the hug or the handshake or the high five that you might get by being in the room. That is hard to replace. But I've seen meetings and I've seen techniques that we're using, just in our standard meetings, to try and build that connectivity. One of the things that’s really powerful, especially in a staff meeting, where you already know each other, is at the beginning of each of those staff meetings we go around and just ask, “What's something you're grateful for today?” or “What's a personal win from your weekend?” or “What's something good that's going on?” This does a number of things, one being that it treats us all as humans first, and as workers second. Again, it levels the playing field and says, “Look, we're all in this together. Let’s get to know each other but also share something good.” The sharing of gratitude moves us, generally, from pessimism to optimism and lights everybody up where they can be more present, they can be more optimistic. That actually yields not only better relationships but better results. So, those are a few of the things that we're up to.

VN: What level of employee was coming to your classes before? Were you getting C-suite people coming to your classes? If they weren't coming before, are they coming now?

SS: Just by the nature of it, there's less of the C-suite that attends L&D workshops. They tend to have their own custom things when they do training. So, we get the full range; the numbers align with the levels. Like a pyramid, most of our employees are individual contributors, just like most of our attendees to workshop, so I think it's fairly evenly distributed. But we do get a fair amount of managers, and we will also have managers-specific sessions that we're teaching as well.

VN: Workers are going to be transitioning back to the office after being away for a long time. How will you be helping them through that, reacclimating them to an environment that they may no longer be used to? 

SS: Generally, it's just change again, so all of our standard change management processes. I think what you'll see is a hybrid model, and I don't think we'll go back to the way things were, maybe ever, but for sure not for a long time. You'll have a certain group of people who are working at home and they will always work at home and then a middle ground where people are in the office but they're not in the office five days a week. And then you'll have some, but much fewer than before, people who are working five days a week. This has tremendous implications; it has implications for how we build our offices and the types of conference rooms we have. How do you have a meeting now where every meeting has, in addition to five people who are in the room, more people who are at home? Right now, in Zoom, everybody's at home, so it's easy, but what happens when they're mixed? We’ll have to relearn how to have meetings, even how to even just position our bodies in the room so that we aren't turning our back on the camera, and just learn to be aware of each other. So, nothing magical about what we'll do, we'll have our standard practices, which help people be at their best regardless of the situation. We have our practices and our classes and our workshops on dealing with change, those will continue to be relevant. We'll all just figure it out together, and this emphasis on the “we” versus the “me” will be helpful.

VN: I don't know if this is an area that you're involved in, but will there be any change in office layout? That has a lot to do with mindfulness, and the way people work together. There was a big emphasis on open office plans, I'm not sure if that's going to be really the case anymore, so what will that change is going to look like and how will that help people's mindfulness going forward?

SS: First of all, it's not my area of expertise; we have some real geniuses in our workplace services team that are thinking about these things and getting solutions. It’s broader than just LinkedIn, I think every company is figuring this out. What you'll see is less of a “my desk” situation, and more hot desking because if I'm only going to work two days a week and somebody else is going to work five and somebody else going to work one and somebody else is going to three, we don't need an office for all of us to have our own desk. And so, I would envision more of an open desk plan, where you come in and your hot desk with what you need. 

I think you'll see smaller conference rooms where each one has video equipment in it. So, if we have a meeting and three of us are in the office, and two of us are at home, you can easily configure for those. It will be interesting. I'll be interested in watching the changes along with everybody else.

VN: You have a new book called The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out, where you are providing a four-step plan to help readers have a working life that is both happy and fulfilling. I know you probably don’t want to give too much away, but can you tell me what those four steps are?

SS: These are steps but the book is more story driven. It's fun to read. This is not one of those business books where it's algorithms and models; I’m telling the stories of my life, of times where I really got it wrong, or times where sometimes got it right, so it should be highly entertaining.

The four areas are, first, learn to know yourself. Each one of us has a story, we have an amazing story that no one in the world can tell. We also have these internal and external systems that drive our lives that we make decisions for. When we pick a new job, who are we trying to please? Is it really just us, or is it a set of all these external factors? So, the first step is to know yourself. The second step is to love yourself, to really see that I'm more than just this body or mind or emotion, there's so much more to me and to be able to tap into that deepest part of myself. Part of that is self compassion, learning to really love myself, but anytime we're talking about compassion it starts there, with ourselves. The third step, and this is where it gets hard, is to master ourselves, to take responsibility for our own life and to move from this feeling of life is happening to us into one where we believe that life is happening for us. And so, to take charge of our own mindset and take responsibility and take action for our own lives to drive our own happiness. And then the fourth step is around compassion; it's about doing those first three steps for another person. So, it's really to know other people, to get really curious about them, to love them, to have a mindset of wishing the best for them, and then, ultimately, to take action, to have the courage to take action on behalf of others. 

Ultimately, it's this journey from “me” to “we.” Moving from a selfish, just thinking about my own success and my own life, to thinking about, “How can I best serve all of life, including myself?” It's been transformative for me to write and I hope that everybody enjoys it. I think there'll be at least one story in there which really resonates and changes the trajectory of somebody's life.

VN: It seems like you're taking maybe what you've learned over the last couple of years in this role and sort of bringing it to a broader audience. What led you to want to do that? What made you want to write this book?

SS: I've been thinking about writing this book for 20 years so this certainly predates my new role. It was time. I've been thinking about writing for a long time and I was coming home from a speaking event a little bit over a year ago with my friend who runs the events and he's driving and he gets this funny look on his face and he looks at me and says, “The universe has told me to tell you: it’s time to write your book.” I checked internally and was like, “Does that feel right?” Because, honestly, for the last 20 years I wanted to write a book but every time I sat down to write this it didn't feel right. And this time it felt right, So, it was time. These stories are the stories of my entire life, not just the last couple years and it was time to share them with everybody else, share what I've learned and some of the horrible mistakes I've made, as well as some of the things I've learned along the way.

VN: What are you hoping to accomplish with the release of this book? Obviously you want to sell a lot of copies, but really what would success look like for you? Would it be other companies implementing similar programs and approaches to mental health? 

SS: This book is less about the corporate world, this is more of a personal discovery book, so my true hope for the book is that people actually read it, because I think it will resonate with them, and it will change them in some way, and inspire them to be more of themselves in the workplace. If they are more of their true self at work, if they let down those barriers to being their true self, then we all benefit. Just like we were talking about leaders being more vulnerable at work, if we're all a little bit more human and all a little bit more vulnerable at work, we can be our true, authentic selves, and we can truly change the way work happens. Because companies are just an assembly of the people, and so as we rise in consciousness, by definition the system of the company rises in consciousness as well. So, my hope is people read it, and then it changes something inside of them to make them go a little deeper.

VN: Looking into your crystal ball, what does the future of mental healthcare at work look like? 

SS: I want to see the same level of mainstreaming that we've seen for physical exercise. What I didn't know until recently is that we didn't exercise as a people; our great grandparents, our grandparents, didn't exercise; they didn't go running, they weren't on a stationary bike. Now, they worked hard, but life has changed and now we exercise because we know how important it is for us to be physically healthy. Everybody knows the benefits of physical exercise. So, five years from now, I want everybody to know the benefits of mental exercise. The science is already there: there are 6,000 peer reviewed papers, but it's not quite mainstream yet. So, five years from now I'd love for it to be mainstream so everybody knows and every company offers mental health, all the way from the vitamins, a mindfulness class, all the way to the emergency room equivalent of EAP programs. I want them to be offering this full suite and having a more conscious approach to it, and to be open and honest and vulnerable and real about the challenges that we face. That's what I'm seeing. And so I hope that five years from now 40% of companies have a Head of Mindfulness at their company

VN: Plus, mental health has been shown to improve physical health, which is why I think a lot of companies have been more willing to implement programs like this. When you put into those terms, they understand physical health, so you say, “Improve mental health, that improves physical health,” they go, “Okay, I get it.”

SS: It's really interesting and you're right, that's how they think, but how many of our companies in the information age need for a person who's working to be physically healthy? Are they running a six minute mile or moving heavy things? But how often do they need them to be mentally fit or emotionally fit and be able to deal with change and be able to be resilient? Of course, it becomes self evident. And so I think five years from now, nobody bats an eye if we're implementing mindfulness programs.

You can listen to the podcast of our conversation with Scott below: 

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