Bow In, Bow Out

A month ago, the Yesware leadership team came to Boulder for an offsite, a few customer visits, a several hour strategy meeting with me, and then a nice dinner with me at Kasa.

Before we started the strategy meeting, Matthew Bellows led us in a brief ritual where we “bowed in” to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all “bowed out.” I loved it – it set the tone of respect for each other at the start of the meeting and signaled the end of the meeting when we bowed out.

A few weeks ago, we had a Yesware board meeting. Matthew once again had us bow in to the meeting. This time there was a little bit of nervous laughter around the board table as it was the first time the full board had been exposed to this ritual. It wasn’t a negative tittering, just the sounds of a group encountering something unusual, interesting, and requiring some emotional intimacy while trying to process it in the moment.

Once again I loved it. It got me thinking about two things: (1) the importance of respect as a core value and (2) traditions that scale across the company.

Let’s start with respect. I’ve written about this many times on this blog. In 2004 I wrote a post titled TDC (Thinly Disguised Contempt)I learned about TDC from Alan Trefler, the CEO of Pega, who I don’t spend much time with but view as a long time friend and someone I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Early on at Feld Technologies, I learned how incredibly toxic TDC was and how critically important respect was. Respect for the people I work with, and the elimination of TDC from my mental state and behavior, is a core value of mine. Sure – I fail at it sometimes, but I keep practicing.

I have immense respect for Matthew as an entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve learned a lot from the few years I’ve worked with him. His calmness, even in moments of stress is powerful. The monastic culture he’s created at Yesware is inspiring. His execution as a leader, and the performance and cohesiveness of his team, is delightful to be part of.

Bowing in and bowing out made me gleeful. It was another wonderful example of something I could use in lots of other places and another thing I learned from Matthew. As I mulled it over, I realized the specific act wasn’t the key thing, but the power of a tradition that scales across the company. Bowing in and bowing out before and after each meeting. The gong that gets rung at Gnip every time a new sale is made or partner deal is signed. Or Paid PAID vacation at FullContact.

The combination of respect for every individual in the company combined with scalable traditions are incredibly powerful.

On Wednesday my partners and I had our monthly offsite. One of our rituals is a “check in” where we go around the table and each of us talks for as long as we want about how we are doing. Sometimes it’s a short discussion, other times it’s a long discussion. Since we do it monthly, nothing can build up. It’s similar to the monthly life dinner that I do with Amy – introspective, emotionally aware, and open. Some of these sessions have been incredibly powerful – on this one I had tears in my eyes at one moment as I was expressing appreciation for something my partners had done for me. And all of us had a powerful moment of calibration for everything we are feeling right now.

On Thursday I spent the morning with the Bullet Time Ventures team. This is the fund that David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars, founded. My partners and I are investors and huge supporters. The team was having an offsite and they asked me to participate in some of the discussion. I gave them a lot of suggestions and answered a lot of question, but one moment near the end stuck out in my mind when I was asked how my partners and I have managed to develop and sustain the deep personal and professional relationship we have, even with all the stress and conflict inherent in our business. I said that one of our deeply held beliefs is that we “never wear our armor to a meeting.” We call this being intellectually honest and emotional pure with each other. And it’s another example of linking respect with a scalable tradition – we never want to wear our armor in any of our interactions with each other.

Matthew – thank you for the gift of bow in and bow out. Both the specific action, and the reflection on the meaning of it.

  • Matthew Bellows

    You are welcome Brad! You’ve been an incredible friend, advisor and mentor over the last three years. I’m so glad to hear bowing made you gleeful! Here’s to many more bows together.

    • Indeed. I look very forward to that.

      • This is awesome, thanks a lot to both of you for sharing! =)
        And Brad, I will try the monthly life dinner too, it is a great idea!

  • Matthew Bellows

    I’ve gotten some really great emails asking about the kind of bow we do, how I introduced it, etc. Here’s a quick summary.

    The bow we’re working with is called a “Warrior Bow” in Shambhala Buddhism. Here’s a description of this kind of bow from the Tibetan who brought it to the USA.

    Of course, we’re not all Buddhists here at Yesware, and I haven’t given a big explanation of bowing, its traditions, forms etc. At the start of the meeting where I introduced the bow (my exec team… all direct reports… so they were up for it) I just said something like “Let’s start this meeting with a bow. It’s a sign of mutual respect. You just sit up a little straight, and bow.”

    At the end of the meeting, we bow again. People have different forms. It’s all good.

    As Brad wrote, we introduced it to him and Raj Bhargava in Boulder. Brad’s smile gave me the courage to try the bow with our whole board. I was nervous, but at this point, we’ve all been working together pretty intensely, so we have a common trust.

    For me personally, the bow to start and end meetings is a way of bringing a little gap. We can sometimes rush right into a meeting with an agenda, and forget about the other people in the room or the larger vision of the project. A bow helps inject some space into the moment.

    Ending a meeting with a bow seals the discussion. We’re done with the topic. We express our appreciation for and respect of each other with this simple movement. And then we go on.

    I hope this makes sense. Please let me know if you want to talk 1 on 1 about this kind of thing.

  • jerrycolonna

    We do this at Naropa as well. Matthew and I share the connection to this form of Buddhism. It’s incredibly powerful. It sets a proper container. It sends a message to everyone in the room: Show up and be present. I like to think of it as the antidote to constantly checking your phone while being with another.

  • dawndatso

    Michael Greenleaf has described the bow something like this: In the physical act of bowing, I offer the top of my head, the highest part of my physical form. The symbolic aspect of this gesture communicates I am offering the highest part(s) of my self. When we bow together, I first touch into and feel my own sense of dignity. Then bending at the hips, I offer that dignity to others. Arising from the bow, I extend and radiate that experience of dignity, and recognize that it is no different from others.

    The starting point is one’s own dignity. Connecting with this experience first, I think, has been helpful because it redirects the focus onto one’s intention (among other things) when the tendency is to think or feel that one is being subservient and offering acquiescence or silence. Bowing does have its religious and cultural connotations that can make it tricky/uncomfortable for people to do, and there certainly are many different forms and ways to perform a bow. But dignity is something we all have within ourselves–the quality that is inherent in all beings. This often gets lost in the teaching and adoption of the bow. Some people immediately connect with that sense of dignity and offering the best of one’s self, and others may be more or less willing to participate. But if it is to be a meaningful and unforced gesture, establishing a heart connection with one’s own dignity seems a good place to start.

  • Rick Patch

    Great Post Brad. I just read on Saturday an email from Richard Rohr, A Franciscan Priest, who suggested the very same practice.

    • Thx Rick. Hope you are doing well!

  • I was always impressed with the Supreme Court and how they make a point of shaking hands before each session. Everyone thinks they are enemies but they are the perfect of example of professionalism and respect while maintaining a difference of opinion. It is a great tradition.

  • coreykohn

    We’ve been doing this at dojo4, too ( and and really enjoy it. It makes a real difference just to mark the beginning and end of a meeting. It brings space and playfulness into room. And it highlights respect as integral to the conversation, and makes that the default. I love wrote about this and that Matt offered this tool- thanks for this post!