For a song…

This blog was inspired by work done by a group of us to assist in flood relief.  The project created the video “Carolyn and I” which to assist the fundraising effort.  You may want to follow this link after reading the blog, but I’ll leave that up to you.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog.  I can’t believe where the time has gone.  There are have been some challenges recently.  I’ve moved my home – I still run the company in Toronto, but we bought a beautiful house in Haliburton county – near Minden, Ontario.  I’m looking out at the loons on the lake as I write this.  Stunning view!

On a sadder note, my business partner and I split up in the past month.  Disagreements about how the business was to be run.  We had some conflicts, but I think the move to my new house really set things off.  We had one of our management meetings in a local cafe where we usually meet (no reason to not have pleasant surroundings for meetings).   It was at that meeting he said to me that he didn’t think I was committed to the business.

It blew me away.  Nobody, but nobody is more committed to the business he’s built than me.  For over 10 years now, I ‘ve worked 7 days a week, often long days to build this.  There have been too many nights where I’ve fallen asleep at my desk trying to get that “one more thing” crammed into my day.

Not that this is unusual.  Most of us who run small to medium sized businesses live the same type of life.  Long hours.  Days “off” that are never really “off”.

Why?  I’ve asked myself that question many times.  There were simpler options.  I could have kept running the consulting practice for a large technology firm that I exited to start my business.  There have been many times I’ve been offered jobs.  I’ve never been tempted.  Not because I couldn’t commit, but because I was already committed to building something – something bigger than me.   My “work” is not work in the sense that I trade hours for money.  It could never be that.

I talk about this in the seminars I give in my training courses.   I ask people to guess the one truly precious thing in our lives that cannot be replaced.  We go through the usual.  Money?  No question there.  You can always get more money somehow.  Love?  No.  Many of us fall in and out of love.  Friends?  As I have found out first hand, friends go in different directions.  But you do make new friends.

No, the answer is – time.

When time has gone, it can never be replaced.  When our time is done, we’d pay anything, do anything for even a few more days, hours even.   But no matter what you’d pay, once time is gone its gone.  So renting time for money is anathema to me.  I do as little “work” as I can.  Instead, I pursue things with purpose.

Even when I take a break, it has purpose.

So me lack commitment?  That’s just a bad joke.  I’m totally committed to everything I do.  My time is so precious I refuse to waste a minute of it if I don’t have to.  I think that’s the story of most business owners.

The real challenge is – how do we convey that to our employees?   For many of us, our companies don’t live only through us.  They come to life through the actions of our employees.  And here’s a hint.  Many times our employees don’t see our companies as being about purpose.

In fact, most people don’t see companies as “people”.  They see them as things.  I really noticed this for the first time when I founded the company and we got our first office.  We had it newly painted, we brought in new furniture, we tried to make it a really livable environment.   Even the colour scheme was chose to be inviting and energizing.  I loved it.

Naturally, with all of the work that we put into it, we were always mindful and careful.  Keeping the place clean was never a challenge.   If you know me, that’s astonishing.

But what was really astonishing was the way others treated the place.  When we’d have guests or meetings, I was always taken aback at what people would do that they’d never do anywhere else.  If I invited them to my home and had a glass topped table, they’d never slam a briefcase on it with metal edges.  That actually happened only a few days after we’d moved in.  Equally surprising to the action, was the reaction of the person.  No remorse.  No apology.  Not even an “oops”.

If it was that one isolated incident, I’d have let it pass as an isolated incident.   But it kept occurring.  Things were broken, damaged or just left messed up on a regular basis.   I really felt bad about it.  How could people – our guests and often our friends –  care so little about me and my team that they would treat our home so poorly?

If finally occurred to me.  They didn’t see this as our home.  They saw it as our office.  They didn’t see the effort we’d put into it or the joy we took in it.  They saw it as owned by a company, an impersonal thing.   So what was the big deal?   Of course they would never treat anything that belonged to someone they cared about in this manner.  But this was not a someone, it was a something.  Who cares about a thing?

Once that fell into place, it explained a lot.  People will behave much differently to a thing than a person.  And companies – and their property – are things.

This is not irrational behaviour.   In fact, companies have been encouraging this for years perhaps even centuries.  The idea that business decisions are different from personal decisions has been inculcated into us all.   The phrase, “strictly business” is one that we all know.  It delineates things that we’d never do personally but are compelled to do in the business world.  At it’s best, I suppose it makes us pragmatic.  I broke away from my business partner because I thought that ultimately his decisions were not wise and would endanger the business.   He would have a different point of view, to be certain.  Two people, once friends, both made decisions that they might not have made if friendship were the only issue.

That may be at its best, and the jury is still out on how well we’ll handle this.  No doubt I’ll write about that in a future blog.  But for today, let’s presume the best.

At it’s worst, however, this “strictly business” attitude can lead us to strange contradictions.  We work for companies that endanger others or take actions that are extremely destructive to our fellow humans.    I’m not in the business of judging but I think we can all agree in this modern world that cigarettes are addictive and cause death.   Do we think that everyone who works for a tobacco company is evil?  Not likely.   So how do they do it?   “Strictly business.”

If even a fraction of the population can rationalize this moral incongruity at the extremes of the continuum, how much easier is it for us where decisions are much less clear cut?   We chant the mantra “strictly business” and our moral dilemma’s are resolved.

For years, maybe centuries, that mantra has given us the separation of work and life.  Work is where we rent hours of life for pay.   We reconcile how we treat our employees.  They reconcile how they treat the company.   It’s been an uneasy truce, but one that worked to one extent or another.   It certainly built inefficiencies into our systems.   Absenteeism, dropping productivity, quality issues, morale — all of these and more are afflictions of the modern company at least in North America.  We acknowledge them as destroyers of competitiveness, but we manage them like chronic illnesses – trying to keep the symptoms under control.  We don’t go back to the root cause.

I’m not sure how much longer we can do this.  The signs have been there for some time.  Peter Drucker, the great management thinker of our time warned us years ago that “the best and the brightest are volunteers.”    Since that time, attitudes have changed radically.  I was at a wedding ceremony for one of my staff and one of the vows this modern couple made was, “I will work to live and not live to work.”      As Bob Dylan once sang, “the times they are a changing.”

It’s not just employees.  I and others have written extensively about what I call the “dot customer” who no longer will play by the old rules.  These customers are much more demanding, much more aggressive.  When they are dealing with a “thing” and not a person, they are often toxic.  I’ve caught myself on occasion treating people in a way that I would never, ever treat people in a non “customer-company” situation.

Before we think of this as the revenge of the employee and customer on the evil company – we’d best think again – at least in the North American context.   As employees become more costly companies take their work to other places in the world where people are more desperate and where the balance of power in the employer-employee relationship is more in favour of the corporation, where the “golden rule” is “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

How long can this move to poorer countries or regions work as a strategy?  I don’t know.  Eventually you run out of “developing world” but that could take a long, long time – long enough, however, to destroy the wealth of North Americans and many other “western” countries.   Who knows, maybe our kids will be the next “disadvantaged region” in the race to the bottom.   Maybe kids in Bangladesh will wear our cheap T-shirts.

In the end it doesn’t matter when or even if we reach the extreme.  The current situation is real enough, especially, to bring it full circle, to the business leader or owner who is trying help his employees find  the purpose in their work – who is trying to authentically share and offer something that makes the company not a company, but the collected hopes and dreams of each person – employees, shareholders and customers alike.

How?  We are in uncharted territory here.   We are writing the business textbooks of tomorrow.  Some writers, like Dan Pink, who writes extensively on the science of the motivation have come to the same conclusion – it’s about purpose.  How do we share purpose?   Well, you can’t share what you don’t have.

So I’ve made a pact with myself to return to purpose and to share and declare that.  I have vowed to rip down the curtain that separates corporate and personal lives and manage my way through that uncertain middle ground not with the mantra “strictly business” but with the uncertain accuracy of my own moral compass.  I’m not sure if as a Buddhist I have any advantage or disadvantage.   I do know that my own meditation practice is essential to me and corporately I declare that once a year I do take a silent retreat.  I came out of the closet on that one a few years back.

I now talk about my art more and more – especially my songwriting.   The project “Carolyn and I” where I collaborated with the a number of people around my new home to help victims of recent flooding is a perfect fusion of how a group of supposedly corporate people could unite to do something great.   We had owners of businesses like,  a local recording studio owned by Ian Pay  to the video editor Tammy Rea of Sticks and Stones – and many more.  All of us came together – and our companies donated the time and services without compensation to do something that needed to be done.   This has no business value to my company – we provide information technology support to companies – not songwriting services.  But it’s the right thing to do.

No, it’s not that I’m not committed to my business.  But my business is my life and life is my business.  I don’t have to separate the two.  If that causes problems, I remain committed to resolving them.

We work for a song.    Hey, maybe that could be a new slogan.

All best to you from this incredible day on Clear Lake, near Miners’ Bay Ontario.


Filed under Change, Commentary, People, Purpose, Social Change

3 responses to “For a song…

  1. marcel

    ha! here I sit on a cool evening reading your blog when I realize I’m watching the same loon! I’m not sure where on Clear Lake you are, but there’s a good chance I’m right across. (and glad to have power again!). Best of luck with your upcomming business decisions.

  2. Hi Jim –

    Not a totally related comment, but certainly in the same vein of rewriting business textbooks – certainly leaders moving beyond heroic (and often failed) individual leadership to facilitating leadership throughout their organizations. As you may remember, I have always held that information and people are the most important assets any organization has, and also the most under-valued. I read a great article in Nov 4th Australian yesterday, part of which I tweeted: “Strategy as leadership, and leadership as strategy – the new frontier of strategy is the front-line worker – the great organisation of the future will be smart at unlocking the collective intelligence of its entire workforce”

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