Ten years ago, more than a decade after we had identified Decurion’s purpose, we attempted to capture in a document our approach to business. We wrote it mainly for our members (the term we later introduced for employees). And then we used it in our recruiting efforts. While imperfect, it did help people here better understand what we were up to, and it gave people thinking about joining us an idea of what they could expect to encounter. Other than adding an axiom (see below), we have not found it necessary to alter the document. It remains an accurate description of why we are in business and how we approach it. So while we think Robert Kegan and his colleagues did a great job of describing Decurion in their Harvard Business Review article “Making Business Personal,” I want to share this document as our best take on ourselves. We refer to it as “Decurion’s Operating Philosophy”:
Identity. The Decurion Corporation is defined more by why it exists and how it operates than by what businesses compose its portfolio. Its identity comes not from running movie theaters or developing real estate but from the pursuit of its purpose and adherence to its values. Similarly, people who succeed at Decurion are not attached to roles, titles, or status. They are, instead, fulfilling their own life purpose in a context of uncompromising excellence.
Purpose. Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be. We believe that every human being has something unique to express (perhaps several unique things over the course of a lifetime). While building each of our businesses to world class standards, we seek to create the conditions in which that expression will emerge. Flourishing is the process of living into one’s unique contribution. It is the process of becoming oneself. We expect to do this through our work.
Axioms. Our purpose rests on fundamental beliefs about people and work.
First, we believe that people are not only means but also ends in themselves. Most businesses view people (employees, customers, suppliers, and others) as a means to some end. They treat people as instrumental to completing a transaction or meeting a goal. We feel that reducing people to a role in a process dehumanizes them. While honoring the roles they play, we approach people as fellow human beings, as ends in themselves.
Second, we believe that people naturally develop. Much of the literature on development ends with the teenage years. But we know that adults continue to develop, both in multiple lines (cognitive, emotional, kinesthetic, ethical, and spiritual, for example) and in generally definable stages. Decurion does not push people to develop. Instead, our infrastructures and practices create conditions that pull people into greater levels of complexity and wholeness.
Third, we believe that work is meaningful, that work gives meaning to people’s lives. Many people view work’s primary purpose as providing them the money or status to pursue meaning elsewhere in their lives. Decurion is not the place for them. At all levels of the organization, we connect work with things people find inherently meaningful. These include developing oneself, creating something excellent and enduring, and contributing to other people.
Fourth, while we did not begin with this belief, we have come to see (and so to believe) that pursuing profitability and human growth emerges as one thing. They are part of a single whole, not two things to be traded off or two elements of a double bottom line. We capture this axiom by saying that nothing extra is required.
Meaning and the Basics. Our approach to business relies on the connection between the basic tasks we perform and the creation of meaning, a connection captured in our phrase, “meaning and the basics.” Every activity is embedded in a context, and the context provides the meaning the activity assumes. (The bark of the tree is not the bark of the dog even though the words look and sound the same. An old story tells of three men who appear to be engaged in the same activity. But while one sees himself as placing stones and another thinks he is building a wall, the third knows that he is building a cathedral. Context determines meaning.) We seek to manage not only the activities but also the context. Every task provides the opportunity to create a context through which we can pursue our purpose and bring to life our values.
Excellence. Our values guide the way we conduct business and give us criteria for every decision we make. Excellence is one of our values. On our path, one is always in the middle of the journey. And excellence applies not only to the destinations we reach but also to how we travel the path. Our approaches to business are systematic, rigorous, and disciplined. We expect to succeed in the marketplace by outpacing both the methods and the achievements of our competitors. And so we hold ourselves to the highest standards, standards set not by others but by our own sense of what is true, useful, and important.
Clock Building. Another value is “clock building” (as opposed to time telling). Decurion requires that each of its businesses operate excellently and then go beyond this to create excellent, enduring institutions. We view ourselves as building a company, not simply producing goods or selling services. Every task presents the opportunity to build a system or infrastructure such that the task will not be dependent on any one person. People who succeed here are not attached to a given role. An identity tied to expertly completing tasks is too narrow: we seek people who find it fulfilling to build institutions through systematic approaches.
Servant Leadership. Specifically, we seek people who can build institutions that allow other people to be more whole, more fully themselves. Captured by the term “servant leadership,” this value requires that we run our businesses such that we build people and not simply use them. A servant leader makes others more powerful. We believe that people develop through the proper combination of challenge and support. Our remaining values—respect, compassion, and learning—guide our developmental processes and reflect the central importance we place on people.
Managing the Communal and the Intangible. Decurion’s worldview differs from that of most other companies. We acknowledge and manage aspects of reality that other companies often ignore. For a start, we know that managing groups is different from managing the individuals who compose them. We have made a significant commitment to learning together, to developing communal intelligence, and to managing the development of our multiple communities. Moreover, we openly acknowledge and address the intangible or inner aspects of both individuals and collectives. Decurion’s infrastructures and practices help individuals and collectives to develop their maturity, which we define as their ability to fit themselves to ever more complex life conditions.
Governance. Our approach is communal and hierarchical at the same time. We recognize that a community’s intelligence and power surpass not only the intelligence and power of each individual but also the sum of the individuals’ competencies. We do not, however, govern by consensus. Merit, not consensus, hierarchical position, or power, wins out. Our practices require that all employees work with peers, supervisors, and subordinates through authentic dialogue, not mediated by the usual screens of role and relative position (a requirement that demands considerable maturity). Merit emerges as we openly confront difficult issues in a context of excellence.
Values. Decurion does not require that employees share its values or beliefs. We do not seek to impose our beliefs on others. In fact, we encourage questioning and recognize that wisdom begins in not knowing. We do, however, require that people adhere to our purpose and values when they act in or on behalf of the company. Excellence, clock building, servant leadership, respect, learning, and compassion are not ideals to which we aspire. They are standards for action and requirements of behavior.
Fit. Decurion is not the right place for everyone. It is a place for people who find it natural to treat others as ends, to create conditions for development, and to build meaning into the tasks they perform. It is a place for people who will tolerate nothing less than excellence and who have an inner drive towards self development. It is a place for people who want to become more fully themselves.