Nearly three decades ago, long before anyone in the business world had heard of mindfulness, I was introduced to the concept in an unusual manner. While running a company in Asia, I had a wonderful guide in all things Buddhist. He helped me deepen my meditation practice, instructed me in Chi Kung, and spent many hours sharpening my beginner’s mind. One day I asked him how I could improve my work/life balance. I remember starting the conversation with something like, “Eastern philosophy talks a lot about balance. Can you help me understand and attain it?”
His reply was, as usual, unexpected. He said that Eastern philosophy does not seek to achieve balance. He explained that “balance” was a mistranslation; actually, one should strive to create harmony. Balance, he explained a mechanical partition of energy: 8 hours each of work/play/sleep or study/play/sleep or spirituality/play/sleep depending on your stage in life.
On the other hand, harmony, he explained, is the appropriate expenditure of energy at any given time based on the challenge at hand. There are times when it is entirely appropriate to focus all one’s energy on work. Sometimes, that energy needs to be focused on family. Other times, we just need to catch up on sleep. It is possible to extend vast amounts of energy to attain mechanical balance, but it certainly will not result in harmony.
Harmony is about recognizing where energy needs to be focused. Our lives as entrepreneurs are filled with stress. We can harmoniously accommodate that acute stress (positive, even fun) by staying focused for a limited amount of time. If we tried to find a balance-equation for all the stress in our lives, we would simply generate chronic stress (negative, definitely not fun) that grinds us down.
As always with Eastern thought, there is more to the story. My mentor also explained three components of life that bring harmony to a consistent level.
Karma – acceptance that things happen in life that we cannot understand, and do not seem fair
Dharma – purpose, which is individual and unique for each person
Sangha – a community of people with like-minded values and behaviors
His explanation was that by accepting our Karma, we change the Western question of “Why me?” to the Eastern question, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” Of Dharma, he said that if we are fulfilling our unique purpose in life then we are moving toward harmony.
He believed that Sangha was the most difficult concept for Westerners to accept. He said that the importance of community cannot be overestimated. Placing yourself in the company of people of similar values and behavior, people of quality, sets standards towards which we each strive.
I learned later, from another great personal influence, that we are the average of the 10 adults with whom we spend the most time. That was a catalyst for me to review the people in my life, and whom I invited into the organizations for which I was responsible. Ever since I heard this, I find that when I meet a new person, I automatically ask myself, is this person raising or lowering my average? By consciously eliminating negative influence, and inviting positive influence, we naturally expand the totality of energy.
In other words, for each of us to achieve harmony, we must accept where we are in life, dedicate ourselves to doing what most fulfills our sense of worth, and find a community that shares our values. If we pay close attention to these three qualities, we will still not achieve balance. But at least we have a chance of precarious harmony.
Since those pivotal moments, I integrated what I also had learned about another critical component of leadership: The recognition that every human being has an innate desire to contribute to an organization at their highest level of ability. This is a primal need. When we don’t feel appreciated, it is because we are not being recognized for our unique contribution.
As a leader of a mindful organization, it appears our main responsibility is to recognize how each member can contribute. Our role becomes to encourage the personal development of each person. To actually assist them in accepting their karma and discovering their dharma, while providing a sangha that allows full contribution at their highest level of ability.
In creating five start-ups and three major turnarounds internationally, it became obvious that there are only two challenges we face: Process and People. Every challenge is either because we have not designed and implemented an effective process or that we have people placed in inappropriate roles.
An interesting realization came from this understanding. In creating organizations, I had originally thought that the goal was to optimize efficiency. An excellent, logical process and highly competent people would help me reach that objective.
The last corporate turnaround I completed was for a global Swiss company’s American operation. When I accepted the challenge, we were the worst performing unit in 60 countries. We had lost money 12 years straight – 20% on revenue the year prior to the turnaround. I was the eighth CEO in those 12 years, and the final resource the company was willing to expend.
Without knowing the terminology at the time, we collaboratively created a mindful organization. We chose a team-based model, and the employees voted for whom they believed would be the best team leaders. We arranged and rearranged work assignments based on people’s individual interests and skill sets. We also invested in both new and better equipment, and continual training for all who desired it.
Amazingly, at the end of year two of the three-year project, we were globally the best performing unit. All our metrics were met – usually exceeded. And, most importantly, people were excited and energized to be there. People-centricity had been the methodology to creating efficiency.
What I later discovered was that efficiency is not the goal. Efficiency is the result. When I focused on helping every individual in the organization realize his or her highest and best use, the efficiency emerged as the end result, as did profitability.
Prior to the ubiquity of the internet, process was the differentiator for most successful companies. Around the year 2000, that changed dramatically. I recently googled Strategic Planning. I received 385 million hits in less than one second. Many of those hits included templates, software, videos, PowerPoints, and a process for conducting strategic planning. Clearly, process is no longer a differentiator–it is a prerequisite to continued existence.
The only differentiator today is the quality of the people whom we invite into our organizations. If we, as leaders, are not investing in their development, if we are not helping them to grow and expand, we are on a declining slope toward mediocrity. When every person in the organization is contributing at their highest level, the energy of the organization is exponentially increased. We are continually raising everyone’s average!
The connection between finding personal harmony, for ourselves and others, and creating an organization built on unique contribution is the mindful organization. It is not a soft approach. It is a highly realistic, profitable, and energizing atmosphere of efficiency, accountability, and action. I have had the privilege of assisting over 400 organizations achieve this goal and shared in the resulting success. Mindfulness is a direct, conscious approach to business–and to harmony in life.
Today, we have the process and tools to easily measure a person’s innate desire for a particular form of contribution. We can assess individual development needs. We can easily measure the level of trust within the organization.
Efficiency is not the goal of the mindful organization; it is the result of building an organization around the unique contributions of its members. My question to all of you interested in creating a mindful community at work, how well are you supporting the harmony of all your members?