The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.

Benjamin Gorelick will be ordained as a Rabbi in January 2019. He is the Executive Director of Mifneh L’Kedusha, a school that seeks to explore our relationships with self, community, and God in religious ritual and prayer practice.

He moved to Alaska the day he turned 17 and attended 4 colleges over 6 years, receiving degrees in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Science.

Early in college, he got a summer job as a mountain guide and continued that line of work after graduation. In 2005, he founded the Mountain Guide School, a 4 year college for mountain guides with a curriculum centered on human skills – empathy, self awareness and self control, creative problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.

He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, Pookey, and his dog, Stromsmoe.

“at the end of the day, the job of any good leader or manager is to help their employees be the best people that they can be”

 Mike:
I know you have a history of building businesses and I believe you are about to embark on a new venture. Given that, I guess that culture and the future organizations are something in which that you might take a deep interest, so I’d love to be able to ask for your thoughts on a few key questions in that area.

Benjamin:
That sounds wonderful, yes.

Mike:
Do you see a major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over?

Benjamin:
I don’t think the change is inevitable. I do think that change is what will keep organizations alive, happy and healthy. That said, there is this tension between what I’ll call order and chaos that exists within business.
The ordered side is basically things performing as you expect them to. The chaos side is where things are not, and usually seen as a negative. However, that’s where the innovation and adventure side of things happens, when you push to change what is “normal”.
I think that within any organization, you need one foot that is firmly planted in the order side of things, one foot that is firmly planted in the chaos side of things, and you walk that very tight line between the two of them. That’s where organizations are most likely to succeed, by challenging and pushing themselves without tipping themselves over so far that they get overwhelmed.

Mike:
That’s interesting. The reason for that question is that a lot of people that I’ve spoken to in this series would say that we are experiencing such a high rate of change in the environment that businesses are operating in that it is no longer possible to ignore the chaotic side as much as may have been possible in the past.

Benjamin:
I’m not sure I’d agree with that. There are plenty of businesses out there that should do nothing more than just continue to exist and feed their owners with cash for as long as they can and then go away.
There are a variety of reasons why that might be the case. Sometimes, it might be that the owner’s passion has moved on, so there is the classic cash cow scenario, which is where you have something that makes money and you can kind of step away from it and set a management team to run it.
Other times it might be that the industry is changing but the cost of changing a particular business is so high that it might not be worth it. You might think of something like the hotel and tourism industry, where you have so much built in infrastructure already that, for a large hotel chain to pivot to something that looks like Airbnb would be impossible. There might be some smaller innovations a hotel could make, like more efficient check ins, better amenities for your guests, having them feel a little bit more warm and more welcome, etc, but generally the model for that industry itself, a place you rent a bed, is going to be very, very difficult to change. Serious innovation is probably not worth it to those organizations, even if they die a very slow death.
To summarize, there are lots of times where being static is okay and it might even be the right choice for business.

Mike:
I agree, but let me ask a slightly different question. What I’m interested in is whether you see social and cultural change as requiring changes in the way that businesses operate. For example the push for different types of fulfilment and objectives and a different way for people to be involved in the business that they are working in.

Benjamin:
Yes, I think that the kind of connection between the values that we have and the work that we do has gotten a little bit more explicit. I think that people have always searched for meaning in their life. It just so happens that work has become one of those places where we search for meaning now.
It used to be that you would find that within family or within religion or within community. It’s funny that, in such a hyper connected world, we have become more unconnected from a lot of things. For whatever reason, we don’t seem to have an understanding about how to connect, deeply and meaningfully, with each other so we fob those responsibilities off on the organizations that we either work for, and we ask them to recreate what, once upon a time, family, religion, and community gave to us.

Whether we like it or not, whether a boss or owner feels like employees are owed meaning through there work or not, the idea that a job should provide that has become reality. That seems like an awful lot of responsibility to fob off on your middle management boss, but I think that businesses have to do it if they want to keep people around, and businesses have to understand the needs of their employees if they are going to help those employees be their best selves. Because at the end of the day, the job of any good leader or manager is to help their employees be the best people that they can be.

How that is accomplished looks different than it used to, but the fundamental principle of “help your employees be the best people they can be” has been true for a long time.

Mike:
Right. Do you think that actually the mindsets of leaders is very important in dealing with this change?

Benjamin:
Tell me what you mean by mindset of leaders.

Mike:
The orientation of the leaders themselves, how they do “leadering”, how they see themselves.

Benjamin:
We have seen that there are lots of different kinds of management or leadership styles that can work: Everything from the gung-ho type A kind of leader who has a strong vision and moves people forward with rallying cries, all the way to what we might call a silent leader, somebody who quietly role models certain character traits and silently goes about the work of making it possible for other people to step up and be themselves.
I think that any of those can be effective. If we go back to the theory that a leader’s job is to help other people be their best selves in any given situation, there are a few different ways that you can help them do that, but fundamental idea that your job is to empower other people to be their best selves is true. If you have that key principle in mind, the strategies and tactics, the ways that you go about executing that can be fairly diverse.

It’s a shift from leadership whose vision revolves around profit to leadership whose vision revolves around systems. You have to understand that all those things are based around people and so people have to have that prima facie place.

Mike:
Would you say that that’s absolutely the key thing then?

Benjamin:
Yes. That is the key thing, to recognize that you’re dealing with systems of people.

Mike: Here’s a good one for you. I think you’ll like this question. What do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them spoken about in this context quite a lot. Do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations? Let’s start with what do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you?

Benjamin: Yeah. That’s a great question. Values are a series of behaviors, actions, and beliefs that we commonly agree is most likely to yield the best result for an individual, group, or community. We talk about that in terms of higher values. Sorry, did you use the term “higher values”?

Mike: A higher purpose. A lot of companies have enshrined values and many of them now are saying we are purpose driven. We have a higher purpose beyond just profit.

Benjamin: Yep. That almost happens out of necessity because profit isn’t a vision for a business. Making money is, at best, a benefit that comes from creating something that people will buy into. As we discussed earlier, we find ourselves in this world where we are searching for meaning. It seems silly to say that we are searching for meaning in our laundry detergent, but that is kind of what it has come to.
When they talk about a purpose driven business, what the business is hoping to achieve is that the purchase you make or the company you work for is consistent with the larger values that you try to live by. That might sound a little bit cynical on the surface of it, but I think it’s both appropriate and important for us to recognize that there shouldn’t necessarily be discordance or disharmony between the businesses that we work for, the choices we make as consumers and the choices that we make as parents or as teachers or other roles that we have in our life.
We are in a place now where information is available, enough so that we can make educated choices on that front. So, again, to come back to the question do businesses need to articulate those things so that they can survive? Yeah, they do because people are looking to create some harmony with the choices that they make across all these facets of their life. In doing so, businesses are stronger and more capable because they are extensions of our best selves.

The tricky part is that they actually have to live those values, and that means they have to live those values in the way they treat their employees and in the way they create their product, etc.
I think that’s where we start seeing some trouble, when they purport to have these values but don’t, or can’t, actually live them on a day to day basis. Being held to higher and higher standards we have a tension between becoming more and more pure and then more and more pragmatic in some of those choices. In a push to become more and more pure, it puts a lot of stress on corporations who live in the real world and have to make pragmatic choices, daily.

Mike:
Yeah. There was a guy called Chris Argyris who described this as the difference between espoused values and values in action.

Benjamin:
Yeah.

Mike:
Also, Carolyn Taylor when I interviewed her, spoke about this very interestingly. She said, basically one of the things I have to do every time I go into a company is to look at what their stated values are and then to examine what they are actually doing. Two ways you can examine people’s values is to look at what they actually spend their money and their time on.

Benjamin:
Yep.

Mike:
Which is an interesting perspective. She also spoke about the tension that you described and I think suggested that we need to be reasonably compassionate with ourselves and other people in terms of developing, reviewing the values that we have, how well we actually apply them and then maybe modifying some of the values so that they are more practical and more achievable rather than having value statements on the company wall no one ever follows. They’ve just given up because it’s unachievable.

Benjamin:
Yeah, and it’s really interesting. It’s something that we do very naturally with ourselves and with other people. We are empathetic when people don’t live up to their highest potential. They don’t live those value statements in their most pure form most of the time. I would say that at least the bell-curve-middle of the population gets that idea. The problem is that businesses aren’t people so we don’t have any reason to give them human empathy. Therefore, the pressure on them to act out those values all the time is tremendous. We don’t have the same sense of empathy for businesses or for leadership within businesses that we may have for other people. I think that that’s where businesses can get themselves in trouble. If they articulate a set of values that is too aspirational and then have to make compromises , they get held accountable to that in ways that are different from the way that we might treat another person.

Mike:
Yeah. That’s very interesting, actually. Well, I know that you’re super duper busy all the time. Would you like to give us a brief summary of what an average day might hold for you?

Benjamin:
Yeah, and I will say that in the last, let’s call it three months, I have stopped using busy-ness as an excuse for anything. As you said, if you want to know what a person is like, you have to look at the way they spend their time, their money, their intellectual capital. It’s been a very interesting two or three months as I’ve really started to explore that process of “How am I spending my time? What does it mean about my priorities for myself, for my family, for my work?” I have started taking a lot more time for myself and that is both in terms of self-care and also in terms of giving myself time and space to think and to process and to be creative. I used to work 90 – 100 hour work weeks, and that is not an exaggeration. I was one of those people, and doing that filled a lot of needs for me. I felt important. I felt valuable. I felt powerful because I was working that much, and only really important people have to work that much, I guess.

What I found is that by putting that much time into keeping going, I wasn’t taking the time to systematize things to empower other people and then also to empower myself. More recently, I’m working more like 60 hours a week which feels much more like vacation. I guard for myself somewhere between three and four hours every morning. I don’t turn on my computer, I don’t look at my telephone. There is a special phone number for people to call if there is a dire emergency but otherwise it’s ‘leave me alone’ time. I start every day and get up before dawn. I go for an hour long walk with my dog. That’s some of the most productive time that I have during the day because it just gives me a space to think a little bit about whatever question it is that I’m asking myself for the day. Sometimes, that has to do with work. Sometimes, that doesn’t. That’s a good place to start. Then I go either back to the house or come into my office in town. I will sit down with a pad and paper and I will just write. It’s time for reflecting.

I will often try and start my day with what is a bigger picture question that I’m trying to answer. I’m currently exploring a little bit about the relationship between Biblical stories, particularly Adam and Eve, and our modern ideas of love, meaning, and connection. That’s a question I’ve been working on for about a month now. I have a stack of 13 books sitting in the corner of my desk that I’ve read. I’m just writing out an essay and it’s nothing to do with anything other than it was a question that I wanted to explore, and so I’m exploring that. What has come out of that are a whole bunch of lessons both about myself and the way I relate to some of the other folks in my organization around what you were just talking about. “How do you articulate a set of values and how do you live that set of values? How do you help other people connect to the values that you have within your organization?” That usually takes me about three or three and a half hours in the morning and then at that point in time it’s usually around nine or ten o’clock a.m. and I’ll be back up at my computer.

Mike:
You’re finding taking that time is a significant contribution to all the other stuff that you’re doing?

Benjamin:
It is the most significant contribution to the other stuff that I’m doing. I think we often find, in roles where it’s helpful to have some creativity, where it’s beneficial to innovate, the only time that you’re going to be creative is when you’re not doing anything.
Like an artist sitting in the studio until inspiration strikes. That never happens while I’m sitting there checking my email. It never happens while I’m sitting there reading a stock ticker. For a long time, I lived in that world of reading my emails, putting out fires, working on that side of things without creating a space for myself to begin creative activity. Within the last just three months, I’ve put changes into the organization where I work. We’ve increased our revenue by something like 23% in the last three months just from a couple of creative ideas that I pulled out of my head. Then I intentionally created space for other people to be creative, some other leaders in management within the organization.

I’ve also come up with going into business for myself again. I, in fact, have just turned in my notice at this particular job so that I can explore more fully some of those creative ideas with the confidence that it’s going to work out okay.

Mike:
Fantastic.
Finally, this series of articles tends to focus around organizations looking for, and wanting to move to, a new and more complete kind of organization. Several people have mentioned the idea of a Teal organization. I just wondered if there was one piece of advice you have to give an organization which had that kind of ambition, what would that be?

Benjamin:
It would be to remember that your organization is about people. It’s about putting people into a place where they can be their very best selves. What that looks like will probably vary on an individual basis, but if you want to talk about being that kind of Teal or an organization that really lives its values, that does come down to an individual level. It’s not something you can implement department by department or organization by organization. Every individual will have different ways in which they can become their best selves. Remember that prime directive, that you are an organization that’s made up of an awful lot of human beings, so be human.

Mike:
Right. Thanks very much. What question have I missed?

Benjamin:
You missed “How do you do that?”

Mike:
How do you do that then?

Benjamin:
That’s an even better question. It’s a harder question to answer. The hardest thing, I think, for a human being to do is to be introspective, to take a look at their own strengths but also weaknesses and figure out how do I either sort my weaknesses so I can become the best version of myself or how do I at least minimize those weaknesses and accentuate my strengths. I think, again, different people will respond to those two ideas in different ways. The challenge that we have as leaders is to figure out how do we prod our employees into being introspective and gaining the confidence and the desire to engage in self growth. It’s something that ultimately you want them to take their own responsibility for. What does growth look like for you?
There are a variety of ways you can both stimulate and then reward that behavior within individuals; but I think it happens in stages: help people be introspective, to take responsibility for who they actually are, aspire to something better than themselves, and then you can help them if they say, “To be a better version of myself, I need a little bit more training or education or time or space or it’s important to me if I feel engaged with my family a little bit more.” Then you, as an organization, can react to it, but you need those first few steps before you try and impose what you think might work. They have to come up with that plan.

Mike:
That may be similar to this theory I have, which is that the growth and evolution of an organization has an intricate and inextricable link with the evolution and growth of the individuals that comprise it.

Benjamin:
Absolutely.

Mike:
Thank you so much for that really interesting interview and set of ideas.