I never expected to go back into business until a friend shared an idea that implanted a picture in my mind. That was a year and a half ago and it’s still there, like an ever-present thought bubble. I occasionally share it with others, several who have helped me bring it into sharper focus as WetheP, Inc.
One part, though, has been clear from the start. At that moment in January 2012, I decided whatever I did, it wouldn’t be 'business as usual.’
I’d make intentional efforts to steer clear of the corporate-sharks shenanigans that have fractured our country. Thanks to an elite but unethical minority seemingly hell-bent on devastating our democratic ideals. I vowed to do everything I could not to be lured into the same 'games' that have left us in this depressing mess.
WetheP is about something more impactful than just starting a company or even creating much-needed jobs. As important as our mission of building a platform for pro-social good is, I’m only doing it as long as I can be sure my leadership serves a vision that retains focus on it's most vivid founding ideal of 'walking our talk.'
I'd captured the beginnings of this bias in an essay months before the chat with my friend. Soon after, it occurred to me I couldn't finish it because it was missing a critical link: me. Only after we met, did it dawn on me I needed to insert myself directly into the standards I was urging others to uphold.
These things happen to me. Just when I'm sure I've figured something out, an unavoidable test will appear as if taunting me:"Think it's easy? Then YOU do it!" Leaving me feeling an obligation to push my own comfort zone.
Can WetheP achieve all it aspires to while retaining integrity? If I didn't think so, I wouldn't be here. Will it be easy? No way.
Luckily, ethical criteria don't always measure unintentional mistakes as failures, as long as they are acknowledged and addressed with expedient reparations. These must also include evidence that a lesson (or ten) has been learned. Lessons that can help fend off further mistakes and be used to fuel new growth. To be clear: progress is a must.
No Time for Finger-Pointing
Not excuses, finger-pointing, explanations or denials. Certainly not “offense is the best defense” scapegoating or revenge. These efforts must ensure positive, sustained change. Best accompanied by clear-eyed ego-checks that, however painfully, catalyze deepened understandings of ones capacity to screw a thing or two up. All PR advice and other grandiose fantasies aside.
I'm pleased WetheP has made such progress when we've stumbled over some or the other of the usual stones riddling every start-up’s path. Each time we've stepped back and asked ourselves: "What could we have done different or better?" We've learned a lot. But also know we'll be taught more, like it or not.
This sort of self-reflection is unheard of in most businesses and likely more in start-ups. The frantic dash for funding and development, finding the right products for the right fit in the market, with the right staff and suppliers, while trying to coax early customers and colleagues onboard isn't conducive to such thoughtful leadership.
Whole Foods Healthy Business
I'm not sure how I would have gotten through some of our tougher challenges, except for a few blessed leadership voices.
Namely Bill Georgeof Harvard and John MacKey of Whole Foods, whose focus on Conscious Capitalismhas provided much-appreciated affirmation that we should stay the course building a productive company without compromising our principles. Others offer hope, too. Like Bill Doherty, whose Citizen Professionalism calls on MDs, PhDs, JDs and others to tap their abilities in community beyond what they are paid to do.
I mentioned some of this to a group of Rotarians I spoke to recently, adding how heartening it was to be with them since they’ve long practiced the same principles. Later one pressed a card in my hand that listed Rotary’s "Four-way test of things we think, say, or do: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?" When I Googled the phrase’s history, I wasn't surprised to see it had been introduced during the height of the Great Depression. Get this: to restore dignity during the deeply troubled times.
And then I stumbled into more good news online. This time it was Barry Schwartz's LinkedIn profile of David Kenyon, whose company,Habitataembodies a 'Seven Virtues Culture.' Where, as Schwartz puts it: "effectiveness and efficiency are best created when employees have defined and met the conditions of deep personal fulfillment at work, in their communities, and at home."
Seven Virtures, Three Legs
Kenyon's three-legged approach is similar to a work-life motto of mine: 'triangulating purpose, passion and predicament.' I've even shared it with WetheP colleagues. But now I think I like Kenyon's 'virtues' better. Especially the first one: Usefulness.
It certainly fits our mission. WetheP uses the tagline: Less Talking, More Doing. It seems to us that often people--even well meaning, passionate and capable ones, talk about useful things but don't get around to doing many of the useful things they talk about. This is a big reason WetheP exists.
Self-Soothing and Astronomical Salaries: No Excuse
It seems by hearing of or discussing strategies we think someone else is doing them. Or commiserating about problems stalls our minds into a state of inertia, or not much better: a passive stupor. The latter is like a psychotherapy effect. Talking about solutions gives us a sense of relief, even when no solution is actually achieved. It's like envisioning success, only without working to make it come true. Which may be a great tool for distracting a depressed person out of suicidal desperation. But, when a persistent problem that's temporarily forgotten but never solved persists, all the talk therapy in the world won't stop the inevitable. Which is more depression, if not worse.
There are all kinds of reasons beyond therapeutic for these self-soothing habits. Many understandable. But good reasons don't always qualify as acceptable excuses. To use an example from today's business climate: a reason some companies pay below-scale salaries to their employees is because revenues are down, but that's no excuse when company leadership is taking home astronomical salaries, if not increases, that could restore their staff to an above-poverty wage.
Culture Acheiving Bottom Line Win
All of this is quite the contrast from what Kenyon has experienced since establishing his virtuous credo. "Over the course of the past four years," writes Schwartz, "Kenyon has noticed a remarkable matrix of positive phenomena. First, his company has virtually no absenteeism. Second, there are virtually no interpersonal disputes among employees. Most impressive, however, has been the productivity."
Which tracks with Kenyon's belief "that companies that are efficient economically but harm society, its workers, or the environment are ultimately inefficient. They simply shift the cost of the inefficiency onto the community or their employees."
Comprehensive Impact is Where the Buck Stops
Then, as if it couldn't get better for this conscious capital rookie, there's this:
"The idea (...),” says Kenyon, “is to have the company take responsibility for its comprehensive impact on itself and others, and then turn this responsibility into a driver of high motivationproductivity.”
Remember this is a corporate leader, not a consultant, not a thought leader, not a professor. A man fully immersed in the day-to-day grit that running a business is. There’s more.
Operating Practices as Personal Identity
Kenyon’s virtues, writes Schwartz, “when assumed as operating practices and taken to the level of personal identity, have the power to unlock economic productivity by reducing the inefficiencies of things like interpersonal conflict. When you examine them closely, you see that things like practical wisdom and ethics create the context for profit as well as wellbeing. Most of all, however, such a culture can give any employee a sense of deep fulfillment, relatedness and worth."
I've said essentially the same many times—only not with near as much authority. Kenyon has what WetheP hopes to achieve: quantifiable proof.
Which gets me back to the power of 'usefulness.' If we all (not only at WetheP) squandered fewer energies giving 'useful' suggestions and instead made ourselves useful by making things actually happen, we could solve tons of stubborn problems.
Maybe even enough to close that ominous gap that's sucking up so much of our civic hope. What I mean to say is, that: in our efforts lies our power.
Power doesn't come from ideas. Ideas are more like thought bubbles. Power comes from useful action. If we put our passions to use for more than just pondering problems and strategizing solutions, they could be converted into fuel for accomplishing serious solutions. Which gives me an idea for a new motto for WetheP. About usefulness, of course.
The Other Six Virtures
I’m so smitten with usefulness, I almost forgot Kenyon’s other six virtues: 'mindfulness,' 'compassion,''skilfullness,' 'grace,' 'fairness,' and 'resoluteness.'
I’ll save my thoughts on them for now. So I can get to work trying to replicate at WetheP what Kenyon recommends: "We suggest that these virtues be worn like identities by the people themselves. It is a roadmap to how we should know ourselves," he says.
My Rotary friends are already there. On the other side of the card I was given is the "Object of Rotary," which includes: "the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations (...) as an opportunity to serve society." Usefulness, there it is again.
Kenyon's words, in their way, echo what Rotarian’s carry with them and reiterate wherever they can. "It is self-regulatory and sets benchmarks for behavior. If employees can find the seven virtues in their choices and actions, then the odds are they are on the right track and it is also likely that their actions and choices are good for the business.”
On that encouraging thought, I'll sign off --
But not without an expression of gratitude to Mr. Kenyon, Mr. George, Mr. MacKey, Dr. Doherty, Rotarians and all who 'wear' their passion for professional ethics on their sleeves—especially those who invite us to do the same not only by telling us, but by giving us useful examples of virtuous leadership in action—including their own.