This past Saturday I spoke at the Green Festival in Washington, DC. What I spoke about represented a significant departure from my usual focus on the business case for corporate responsibility or the growth of the natural products industry.
Here are some notes from my talk:
Love, I believe, is about relentlessly caring
That means not just caring when it’s comfortable or easy. Or when you feel like caring. But caring all the time. Especially when you don’t feel like caring. It means that you never stop.
Because the caring is not for you or even necessarily for another. But because it is the only way to be in the world. To love the whole of the world rather that the parts and pieces you choose.
To care relentlessly we must also see what lies within. The unexpressed potential. The wisdom in the most simple things. The essence rather than the outward manifestation. And to care relentlessly you need to be able to generate new patterns in your being because to care relentlessly is not what we are taught to do. Especially at work.
Relentless caring is also about accountability and holding others responsible. It’s about direct dialogue, deep listening, and being humble enough to remember that it’s pretty likely, at least in my case,
that I’m likely to be wrong more than I’m right.
So why would I, as a person who runs a business, want to talk about love and relentless caring?
It’s not because I’m such a nice guy. Or that I want people to like me, though I do. In part, it’s because I believe that Gandhi was absolutely right when he said “you must be the change you want to see in the world.” And relentless caring is the change I want to see in the world.
I also believe it’s the best way to run our business and the most effective way to run any business, though certainly not the easiest.
I don’t believe that relentless caring can happen just because you want it to. It’s the result of a conscious and intentional process.
I’d like to tell you a story that took place a few months ago. Every year we have a whole company retreat for two days in Stowe, Vermont. This year, part of the focus of the retreat was about taboos. What is taboo at Seventh Generation? What is taboo in our corporate culture? The answers sort of blew my mind. The list contained a few things that I didn’t know or suspect. But hearing the list from others in it’s entirety had an impact that I was totally unprepared for.
We started out gently. Asking someone not to copy you on an email. Requesting that they not use reply all. Telling someone that they didn’t clean up the kitchen after they used it.
Then we moved on to things like holding a peer accountable for a commitment they didn’t fulfill. Defining consequences for someone who fails to fulfill a requirement. Asking someone directly about something that was gossiped about. Making sure that you have the difficult conversation as soon as you become aware you need to have it. Being completely honest during that conversation – rather than saying what you feel the person can tolerate hearing. Challenging someone when you feel they didn’t do the best they could. Challenging the management on how they decide to spend money. Disagreeing with me publicly. Disagreeing with me privately.
This is the short version of the list. It goes on and on, and here’s the thing: These taboos prevent relentless caring. They ensure we can’t be the best we can be. That we will hold each other back. And in doing so fall short of our mission.
I had always associated most of these taboos as the natural limits we face as humans. But at our retreat, I suddenly saw them as a sign of an uncaring and dysfunctional culture.
I reflected on my own behavior. How did I empower and encourage these taboos? To my dismay I saw that I practiced almost all of them.
So how do you change this pattern? First I had to decide I would become relentlessly caring. But before I could do that I had to define what that means. What “principles” guide someone who cares relentlessly?
So I created some:
- All commitments will be made in writing, be time bound, and embody clear expectations with both parties accountable for the outcome.
- Assume responsibility to ensure you are able to integrate and reconcile any discussion you participate in.
- Always communicate directly, honestly and lovingly, holding nothing back that deprives the individual of filling their highest potential.
- Know what is essential (by considering our strategic plan, essence, corporate direction and global imperatives) and identify and communicate about anything you see anyone doing that you’re not sure or don’t believe to be essential.
- Remain conscious, create new possibilities (avoiding old patterns) and be the purveyor of endless potential.
- As an owner hold the whole company in all that you do and care relentless about the whole.
Next I had to practice these principles. I was headed into a three day strategic planning session with my management team. I had the perfect opportunity. So how did we do?
We spent 3 days with the aim of working at relentless caring through the principles above. The result was a breakthrough in our relationships. And in the work product we produced.