Here is a talk I gave last month at the 25-year reunion of my class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. It picks up and brings together several of the themes from earlier blog posts.
I always knew I would join the family business. I’d follow my father as he had followed his. Growing up I didn’t think about a career or about the unfolding of a life filled with purpose. I certainly didn’t connect the two. I treated the guarantee of a job as a source of freedom. And in college and graduate school I studied what I loved (namely, ancient history and philosophy) rather than what I thought might be useful in business.
Then when I began working full-time at the family company (The Decurion Corporation, which operates movie theaters and develops real estate), I was, well, 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.
I came to the GSB with a clear intention. I planned to plug the holes in my education and gain the knowledge and skills I would need to run a company. I took accounting and finance classes so that more seasoned business people couldn’t catch me off guard or take advantage of me. As I looked towards my return to the company, my primary goal was not to screw up what my grandfather and father had built. My sense of the family business had shifted from freedom to responsibility.
And so I returned home from business school with fresh shiny tools, new to the company. Strategic planning. Statistical analysis. Budgeting. With much enthusiasm I deployed them. And then with equal disappointment I saw them rejected. People questioned whether these new mechanisms were necessary. What purpose did they serve, and would they really help the business? I saw that these practices lacked a context, a reason they were important.
This recognition led me to the work of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who had just published a paper on corporate vision. I asked Jim to organize a set of meetings and a corporate retreat. And with his help we identified Decurion’s values and purpose. The values included excellence, respect, learning, and compassion. These tested true and were certainly in the company’s DNA. But the real breakthrough came when we recognized Decurion’s purpose, that is, answered the fundamental question of why the company existed.
Our current formulation of Decurion’s purpose is “to provide places for people to flourish.” Our definition of “flourish” is “to become fully oneself.” This includes both wholeness and growth, both living an “undivided life” in each moment and, over the course of a lifetime, growing into what you are meant to be. We at Decurion believe every human being has something unique to express, many gifts to give. “Flourishing” is the process of living into one’s unique expression and contribution. We expect to do this through our work.
Speaking of Jim Collins, I remember one night at dinner during our retreat when he asked if I had read Michael Ray’s book Creativity in Business. The book is based on the course he taught here for something like twenty years. Now this was exactly the sort of course I had avoided. Anything that seemed soft or HR-related did not support my desire to learn what I needed to know so that I could not be embarrassed once I returned to Decurion. But Jim said something that caught and held me. He said, “Imagine two swimmers in the ocean. One is working hard, exerting a lot of effort, and making little progress. The other is swimming easily and moving through the sea. The difference is that the latter has found the current.” Jim suggested that Ray’s book might help me discover the current for my life.
As you may know, the book centers on two questions: “Who is my Self?” (with a capital “S”) and “What is my Work?” (with a capital “W”). The first question I continue exploring, helped by Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality. The second (“What is my Work?”) I take to be another way of speaking about and exploring purpose, personal purpose rather than corporate purpose, what Ray sometimes calls one’s “meant for.” Shortly after I studied his book, my relationship to the family company shifted again: this time from a responsibility to an opportunity.
I realized that I could explore my purpose through my work at the company. And more than that I could lead the company so it became a place where others could discover and express their purpose too. I’ve come to see my “Work” as creating contexts for people to flourish. I know this sounds imposing and perhaps a bit pretentious. But for me it is a true and sure undertaking, one that lifts work from an endured necessity to a liberating enterprise.
My sense of business as a place to flourish rests on three fundamental beliefs about people and work. Decurion’s transformation began with these beliefs, and our approach to business continues to rest upon them.
First, I believe people are not only a means but also ends in themselves. Traditional businesses treat customers, suppliers, community members, and especially employees as instrumental to completing a task or meeting a goal. Even the terms “employer” and “employee” point to using people, reducing them to roles, dehumanizing them. We at Decurion recognize that work gets done through people and so in a sense we are all means. But, while honoring their roles, we treat people as fellow human beings, not only as a means but also as ends in themselves.
Second, I believe that people naturally develop. Much of the literature on development ends with the teenage years. But we know adults continue developing, through generally definable stages and in multiple dimensions. Decurion does not push people to develop. Instead, we create conditions that pull people to greater levels of complexity and wholeness.
Third, I believe work is meaningful. Many people treat work as a way of gaining money or status to pursue meaning elsewhere in their lives. They see work as a trade of their time for the company’s money. Even the phrase “work/life balance” implies that when one is working one is not living. At all levels of Decurion we try connecting people’s work with values they find inherently meaningful. These include developing themselves, creating something excellent and enduring, and serving others.
I chose to approach business as a context for meaning and growth because I didn’t see an alternative. I had committed to running the family business, and I chose not to be miserable while doing so. I love movies like Brazil and The Hudsucker Proxy because they capture and warn us of the dehumanizing reality in too many businesses. I saw a different possibility for myself, and once I recognized it I knew I had to create it for others.
Now, some 25 years into that effort, I know a company can help people become who they are meant to be. Business can be a place of wholeness, connection, excellence, and meaning; a place of self-discovery, self-development, and self-expression; a place for people to flourish.