When I was 16 and on a family trip to Greece, I visited the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek. On his tomb was written, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” As I begin to talk about myself and about Decurion, I recognize that I have at least as many fears now as I did then. Among other things, I fear appearing ignorant, uninformed, or confused. I don’t want to be reduced, diminished, or dismissed. And I am averse to having others characterize or functionalize me. All of this is bound to occur as I speak about what is most important to me. But my hopes are bigger than my fears. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” I want to create contexts in which people (including me) can pursue full and meaningful lives. And I have pursued that aspiration largely through my work at Decurion.
I always knew I would join the family business. I would follow my father as he had followed his. Growing up, I didn’t think about a career or about the unfolding of a full life, filled with purpose. I certainly didn’t see a connection between the two. In college and graduate school, I treated the guarantee of a job in the family company as a source of freedom, and I studied what I loved rather than what I thought might be useful in business.
Then when I began to work full-time at the company, I was miserable. The intellectual stimulation and clear standards of academe had disappeared. In their place were mundane and pointless tasks. After two years of what seemed like serving time, I left for business school, where I planned to plug the holes in my education and to gain the knowledge and skills I would need to run the company. I had come to see Decurion as a source of responsibility, and my primary goal was not to screw up what my grandfather and father had built.
I returned from business school with tools that were new to the company. Budgeting. Pay for performance. Strategic planning. Statistical analysis. With much enthusiasm I deployed these devices. And then with equal disappointment I found them rejected. People questioned whether these new practices were really necessary, both in the sense of what purpose they served and in the sense of whether or not they were really now required. I came to see that the first question was more significant: the practices lacked a context, an answer to the question of why they were important.
This recognition led me to the work of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who has just published a paper on corporate vision. With Jim’s help, we identified Decurion’s purpose and values. And at Jim’s suggestion, I read Michael Ray’s Creativity in Business, where I found the questions, “Who is my Self?” and “What is my Work?” I came to see that I could pursue the answers to those questions through my work at Decurion. More than that, Decurion might be a place where others could answer the questions for themselves. The family company shifted from a responsibility to an opportunity.
I have now embraced that opportunity for close to 25 years, focusing primarily on Decurion itself and more recently on the people Decurion touches through our businesses. Over that time, what began as a stance or a set of assumptions has emerged as the reality of day-to-day life in Decurion’s operations. Many years ago, we identified three “axioms.” (I am not a fan of jargon, and we have often adopted terms as much for their humorous effect as for their precise meaning.) We said that work is meaningful, and we identified three primary sources of meaning: developing oneself, creating something excellent and enduring, and contributing to other people. We insisted that people are not only means but also ends in themselves (a statement I stole from Kant). And we affirmed that individuals and communities naturally develop. More recently, our experience led us to a fourth axiom, namely, that pursuing profitability and human development emerges as one thing; nothing extra is required.
We have not sought (or received) much recognition or gone out of our way to share our principles, practices, and discoveries with others. Now the publication in the April 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review of “Making Business Personal” by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Matthew Miller, and Andy Fleming has prompted me to be a bit more disclosing. I wholeheartedly embrace the themes of the article. They align with my desire to challenge commonly held assumptions about work and business. I have seen for myself and from the reports of other Decurion members that work can be a place of wholeness, connection, excellence, and meaning; that I can pursue my purpose, what I am meant for, through my work; that I can live an undivided life, not splitting off part of myself for work and part for home; that I can gain increasingly greater insight into my true self; that I can continue to develop. My castle in the sky is to have everyone expect these things from work and, eventually, to experience them. The foundations are the principles, practices, and discoveries that have emerged from my work at Decurion and elsewhere. I believe the time has come to share them.
A good place to begin is the HBR article itself. You can find it here: http://hbr.org/2014/04/making-business-personal/ar/1. You’ll need to register, but then you can view the article for free and print it out.
Dr. Kegan and his team have a new website at www.waytogrowinc.com that includes an extended “whitepaper” version of the article (and a photo of the Decurion Executive Council in dialogue). I believe it will soon include a PDF version of the HBR article.