This is the second in a series of blogs about virtuous organizations — businesses where employees model the highest aspirations of human kind. In this series, authors Graham Williams and Gerald Wagner draw on examples and insights from around the world — Brazil, USA, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey. Readers may be pleasantly surprised by how many virtuous companies already exist! The series addresses what makes these virtuous organizations tick and what practices they have in common, telling compelling stories about the power of positivity. While everyone is likely to enjoy these case studies, organizational leaders in a position to affect culture change are likely to benefit most.
To give a virtuoso organizational performance we have to move away from a command and control culture.
This story appears in The Virtuosa Organization1:
A few weeks ago I attended the last ever South African performance by Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, in the Cape Town City Hall. Prior to the event I re-watched the DVD of the movie Shine, a fictionalised account of his life. Born of Polish-Jewish parents, Helfgott is schizoaffective – he has lifelong mood and thought disorders.
His music is sometimes criticised by aficionados. And maybe at this performance it was not technically perfect. If not, there was certainly beauty in its imperfection. Wabi Sabi.
The concert was an emotional experience, his connection with the audience palpable. He was given a standing ovation, and there were three encores. It seemed to me that his mental condition, life story and performance all merged to become a virtuoso event.
The movie title is apt. This is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. I was inspired to believe that whatever our own history, flaws, existing levels of competence – individual or corporate – virtuoso performances are possible.
As you will find in this series of blogs, many organizations are giving virtuoso performances.
A self-interest, profit maximization pursuit goes hand in hand with a command and control culture. This culture, a carry-over from the factory, mass-production, machine era, is more prevalent than most realize. We still have line managers!
Many are locked into these old ways of thinking about the organization’s purpose, structure, culture and way of operating. A move away from a command and control paradigm means embracing freedom, developing whole person employees, being positive, and authentically embracing corporate citizenship.
Consider that our computer and mobile phone keyboards generally utilize a (QWERTY) layout designed over 125 years ago, made deliberately inefficient in order to slow down typing speed and prevent the typing mechanism from jamming!2
Similarly bicycle drive chains were ignored for more than 100 years even though drive-chain technology was used in factories that assembled the bicycles. And flashing indicator technology existed for more than 50 years before someone thought to use it on motor cars. Maybe the sheer pace and magnitude of the many changes we face today causes some to ‘lock-in’ more of what they’re comfortable with? Still others cannot perceive a different reality and remain trapped in their own limited thinking and behaviours, – like Plato’s Cave, a situation where we are shackled and face the back wall of the cave, and are able to see only the shadows of the fire that blazes outside, but not the fire itself. We have an illusion, a limited internal reality. Morgan refers to this using the metaphor of a “psychic prison”.3
We can learn from GROUND FLOOR MEDIA, Denver4
Denver’s GroundFloor Media (GFM) specializes in public relations, social media strategy & engagement, digital & creative services, and crisis management.
GFM ranks in the top five out of 100 companies in the United States that OUTSIDE recognizes for helping their employees strike the ideal balance between work and play. These companies encourage employees to lead an active lifestyle, are eco-conscious and prioritize giving back to the community.
The company enjoys a unique culture based on leaders treating team members more like friends than people on the payroll, and this commitment to employees has resulted in an attrition rate of two percent annually. They have no set “office hours”.
GFM’s remarkable culture is the result of their core values, beliefs and shared experiences. They are a team where people believe the best IN one another (in other words, they have a very high level of trust). They also want the best FOR one another (team members know they have one another’s best interests at heart so collectively they perform at a higher level). Most importantly, they expect the best FROM one another.
GFM believes that one of the cornerstones of a strong culture is the ability to celebrate both success and failure. The team has an annual Ground Hog Day “holiday” celebration over Ground Hog Day— a getaway for employees and significant others at various cool locations, most recently at Denver’s Union Station, complete with a cocktail reception, dinner and overnight accommodations. They even flew everyone to Las Vegas to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary.
The company has Outward Bound Professional team-building days including high ropes course, rock-climbing and an eco-challenge course featuring river crossings, rock-climbing and rappelling with an overnight stay in a luxurious mountain home and a catered dinner by a personal chef; surprise “free/fun” days out of the office including a Rockies day game, spa day, a trip to a casino via a stretch limo, and a “choose your own adventure” day where GFM paid for everyone to go enjoy their favorite activities in downtown Denver; and a Beer Club – the company’s graphic designer is also a home brewer, and hosts regular “GFM Beer Club” sessions in which he teaches team members about different styles of beer.
GFM donates nearly 15 percent of annual revenues back to the community. The company also has The Get Grounded Foundation. a new 501(c)3 that provides one-year community grants for nonprofits that directly support the healthy development of at-risk or neglected youth between the ages of 3 and 13.
We can learn from PAEWAI MULLINS SHEARING, New Zealand5
A sheep shearing business run by Mavis and Koro Mullins’ in Dannevirke near Palmerston North, New Zealand, have 40 permanent and about 100 part time staff who in season come from as far afield as Norway and Wales. It’s a highly competitive, tough business. Hazards are sheep illness, worker injuries and fatigue.
Customer relationships and delivery are critical. They have won numerous awards for the way their business is run – community building through (Maori) values:
- Whanaungatanga = family belonging
- Manaakitanga = inclusion and equal importance
- Matauranga = encouragement of ongoing learning
- Tino rangatirotanga = self- responsibility/ self-determination
A Recap: Some characteristics of virtuous organizations.
- They are not driven by profit maximization but have a clear higher purpose.
Virtuous organizations know where they’re going, walk to their own beat, and attract custom and talent. Southwest Airlines purpose for example is “We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives”.6
Without such a purpose it’s akin to going to the railway ticket office and asking for a ticket. When the attendant asks “Where to?” it would be silly to answer, “I don’t know”. Yet every day we meet CEOs who cannot simply describe their organisation’s purpose, why they exist, beyond what they do, hope to achieve, and perhaps how.
We strongly encourage businesses to name and claim their noble purpose. One that transcends profit, is meaningful, may be more of a journey than a cause.
- Virtuous organizations have a distinct character (Culture).
They have identified their own specific core virtues and these set their operating practices apart. They do share in common and demonstrate the virtues of love (Kahlil Gibran – “Work is love made visible”7), a spiritual dimension, a raised awareness of their interconnectedness with all things, and a passion for growing the ‘whole person’.
- Virtuous organizations are served by unwavering leadership.
“If a set of agreed-upon values, as is so often found in business, is not anchored in the hearts and minds and behaviours of individuals, they will remain superficial, surface phenomena. Virtues in contrast and by their very nature, are embedded in the people within whom they manifest”.8
Leaders show courage and authenticity in steering their organizations to identifying, embedding and living their distinct core virtues. In the process their organizations become more agile, resilient, humanistic, and profitable.
What are examples of virtuous organizations in your region or country? We invite your suggestions and comments below, thank you.
1. Williams, Graham; Haarhoff, Dorian and Fox, Peter The Virtuosa Organisation: the Importance of virtues for a Successful Business Knowledge Resources 2015
2. Waldrop, M. Mitchell Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos Simon & Schuster Paperbacks NY 1992
3. Morgan, Gareth Images of Organisation Sage Publications 1986
4. Inspired Organizational Cultures, inspiredorganizationalcultures.org
5. Bateman, Peter Living Their Values SafeGuard Magazine. NZ. May/June 2008
6. SouthWest Airlines Purpose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGxMf88I5g4
7. Gibran, Kahlil The Prophet Martino Fine Books 2011
8. Smit, Arnold Virtuous Talent for A Sustainable Future in Human Capital Trends: Building a Sustainable Organisation ed: Italia Boninelli & Terry Meyer Knowledge Resources 2011