This episode of Liminal Leaders is with Shawn Askinosie who left a successful career as a criminal defense lawyer to start a bean to bar chocolate factory and never looked back.

Askinosie Chocolate is a small batch, award winning chocolate factory located in Springfield, Missouri, sourcing 100% of their beans directly from farmers. The only chocolate maker working directly with cocoa farmers on four continents, Shawn travels to regions of Ecuador, the Philippines and Tanzania to source cocoa beans for his chocolate. This allows the chocolate to be traced to the source and labelled authentic single origin. It also enables Askinosie Chocolate to profit share with the farmers, giving them a “Stake In the Outcome,” a principle he learned from author/entrepreneur Jack Stack.

Recently named by Forbes “One of the 25 Best Small Companies in America”, Askinosie Chocolate has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, on Bloomberg, MSNBC and numerous other national and international media outlets.

I was delighted to be able to speak with Shawn who is co-author with his daughter Lawren of the book “Meaningful Work” which I can vouch for being well worth a read. Shawn was kind enough to take a break from his busy day to talk about organizational change.

“And it means me not delegating relationships with cocoa farmers to someone else, but me doing it myself. It means putting ourselves in a place where we’ll be exposed to the needs of the world in our industry.”

Mike:
I know from reading your book that you made a big career change from criminal law to founder of Askinosie chocolate. And I’m guessing the subjects of culture and the future of organizations is something that you probably take a deep interest in. And I’d like to ask for your thoughts on a few key questions in that area.

Shawn:
Okay.

Mike:
Do you see major change as being inevitable and essential to organizations the world over? Do you think we’re moving in to a time where there has to be major change in organizations?

Shawn:
I do. I believe we are not only moving there, we are there. I’ve been thinking a lot about poet philosopher John O’Donohue lately, who wrote a lot in his life about this concept of threshold. And I believe we are absolutely in the midst of an in between space right now, otherwise known as a threshold.
I think sometimes it’s hard to observe at least for ladies and guys like me, because we’re in the midst of it. You know, I’m in the trenches and I’m a very, very small company with only seventeen full time employees and so I don’t have a lot of time to really observe from a high altitude, but I do believe that we are in the midst of widespread organizational change.
I think some of the change that is happening is driven by entrepreneurs and leaders who believe that this is the best course. I think some of the change is being driven by the market. And consumers and people who buy things, who won’t accept anything other than that. I think some of the change is being driven from the bottom up. That is, the demand of employees in organizations who say, “This is the only way I’m going to work. I’m only going to work in this kind of place.”
And then finally I think that change will happen by perhaps some kind of directive or regulation at some point. And so I think that the change is inevitable. Some of it will happen painfully. And for others who embrace it, I think, it will be a much smoother transition.

Mike:
Thank you. What part do you see the kind of work that you guys do playing in those changes? Because I know you do a lot of stuff which goes way beyond just producing chocolate, right?

Shawn:
I think that for us, it’s an opportunity for us to participate in this world of capitalism in a way that approaches life and business with non-duality in everything that we do so that we don’t compartmentalize profits over here and good works over there. Instead we try to find ways where both of those things coexist with each other as just a kind of part of the day. Part of the life of the business. For us, it manifests itself in me going on origin trips every time.
So in April it will be my 42nd origin trip since the start of the business. And it means me not delegating relationships with cocoa farmers to someone else, but me doing it myself. It means putting ourselves in a place where we’ll be exposed to the needs of the world in our industry. So it could mean that I’m in fill-in-the-blank village in whatever country and if I’m there then I need to put myself in a position of observing need. If I, as the leader of the company, have this chance to observe need and see it then it almost means that I have the chance to engage with it.
It means that I have a chance to establish mutuality with whomever it may be. Whether it’s my cocoa farmer partners who are living nearby this need or the people themselves that need us for some reason or another and we have a chance to participate in that. So those are just some of the ways that I see us being part of that space.

Mike:
So it’s a very living and integrated approach to doing that. By doing that it seems to me you avoid the philanthropy charity thing completely, right?

Shawn:
Yeah, I mean of course we have certain philanthropy that we support. Mainly it’s our Chocolate University Program, which is now its own entity and I needed to do that because we raise money well beyond what I could provide as profits of the company. But we raise money for people to make tax deductible contributions to support our work.

Mike:
Oh right, that’s great.

Shawn:
And so that’s definitely reached its own level. But we don’t, for example, say to our customers, “Buy this chocolate bar and if you do we will give X dollars or X percent to drill a water well or whatever.” I don’t subscribe to the Tom’s Shoes approach to this kind of method of doing business. And so you’re right, it kind of integrates together. The other thing I would say is, is that all of the things that we do and the way we behave and how we treat people finds its way, one way or another, into our product or service.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
Not just me, but everybody. And so I think that the quicker we can recognize that and see the true benefit in that, the better off we’ll all be.

Mike:
Yeah, great, thanks. You seem to agree that we’re going through almost an awakening with people, saying, “Okay there needs to be more meaning in this and it needs to be more connected to every other kind of aspect of life and existence.” What part do you think that leaders in organizations changing their own thinking, their own mindsets, play in that kind of change?

Shawn:
The role that leaders play?

Mike:
Yes. Leaders actually engaging with exploring and changing their own thinking. What kind of role to you think that would play?

Shawn:
Well I think leaders have a responsibility to both pursue the evolution of their own consciousness in whatever way they can and never stop. And at the same time I think it’s incumbent upon those leaders to do what they can to bring others along in that pursuit as well in a way that fits that person. So I don’t think it means we need to ascribe our own views to our employees or make them, but I think it’s important for us to just give opportunities to the people that we work with as best we can to elevate and evolve their own consciousness.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
Maybe that means they don’t stay working for us, which is fine. And they go somewhere else to spread that kind of possibility. But I think that ultimately as a leader, we have to do this and I feel very strongly about this. There is no destination that we’re trying to reach. It’s not there. It’s not on this earth, and so that means that the awakening is there for us to be part of. And the question is do we want to join it or not?
I think that one of the most important aspects of this kind of evolving consciousness is the realization of a kind of almost cosmic oneness that is possible for us to have some limited understanding of, and the result of that, I think is better products and services and a greater … hopefully greater access around the world to those products and services. And anyway, I think that we’re moving that way. And we have been for some time.

Mike:
Yeah, I think I’d agree with that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people and I’ve done a lot of research and investigation into organizational design and especially with the kind of thinking in mind that you’re talking about. And I’ve come across the terms values and higher purpose in a lot of different contexts. So I’d really be interested to know what those terms mean to you. Do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organization?

Shawn:
I do. I think that it’s important that leaders who talk about these things are defining terms. And so if they’re going to talk about them organizationally, it’s important that the message is clear about what those things mean. And it could be that the so called values are memorialised somewhere and that’s it. I think it’s important that it not be put in a drawer or in a folder on Dropbox and never looked at again. I think it’s important then that if you’re going to have stated values that there’s a way to live those out and to practice them daily.
I think that then the story needs to be expressed internally. The stories, plural, need to be expressed internally, so that those who you’re working with will then be able to understand via story what those values look like.

Mike:
In action.

Shawn:
Yeah. In action. But the caution there in my mind is that we express the values, that we live the values, but that we don’t punish people that we work with who don’t necessarily share those values in the same way that we do or express them in the same way. And I think it’s important as leaders, that if we’re going to have stated values and we’re going to live those out and we’re going to tell the stories internally and externally, then it’s important that we remain open to an alternate expression of those values in ways that we as leaders maybe never even thought of.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
I think that’s really important. And the second word I think that you said, was is purpose?

Mike:
Higher purpose.

Shawn:
Higher purpose. I think that that is absolutely critical as you might imagine. And t I would say this notion of higher purpose will be the driving force of the change of capitalism in the next century.

I think it’s going to unfold in surprising ways to us, and I think capitalism, in its current form will be unrecognizable a hundred years from now. And I think it will be good. I don’t know what it will look like. But I do think it will be good, and the reason I think it will is because if we can all work together to evolve our consciousness, as leaders, as entrepreneurs, as business people, teachers. Then the only result of that will be good. How can it not be because if our consciousness is evolving then we will, without question, have a great understanding of this idea of what I mean of cosmic oneness.
I think that we will see ourselves in other people to a greater degrees, a hundred years from now. That’s one of the main reasons why I think that this notion of purpose is important.

Mike:
Everything kind of pivots around that whole idea of the evolution of consciousness doesn’t it?

Shawn:
Yeah it does.
And I also think too that when we start to see ourselves in kinship with each other more and more and more and more and as we see it and our children see it and our great grandchildren and our great great great grandchildren see it, then it will just happen. This will evolve. Just as it has over the last hundred years. So I think good things are happening and coming down the pike.

Mike:
Okay. I know that your work in Askinosie Chocolate, is always full on, I know you’re incredibly busy. So thanks for making time for this. I know you’ve got a busy home life and you’ve got a serious commitment as a family brother at Assumption Abbey.

Shawn:
Yes.

Mike:
Would you like to just give us a brief summary of what a day might hold for you? If there is such a thing as an average day.

Shawn:
Well you mean just a day in my work and everything? Yeah. The day begins with kind of … my own liturgy if you will that is guided by my own rule of life, which I talk about in the book, which is nothing fancy. It’s really just what it sounds like, but it is loosely based on the rule of Benedict, which has been governing monasteries around the world for the last 1,500 years. And maybe some would say the oldest continuously used management document in the world.
But anyway, that kind of governs what I do when I wake up. So there’s a certain prayer routine that I follow straight away in the mornings. And it involves intercessory prayer and scripture and music and candlelight. And then most mornings I have a period of meditation after that prayer time. We recently moved to a little house. So I have a really tiny house now but on a lot of land. We have 43 acres. Sometimes depending on what day it is, I’ll have chores to do on that land and things that I like doing physically. And so I get a lot of exercise on that property. Splitting wood and that kind of thing, which I love to do.
But if it’s during work time, it could really be varied. I travel a lot. And as I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy it. I love travelling. I don’t mind airports and those kind of things. I suspect there will come a time where I will hit the wall and I’ll know it that I don’t want to do that anymore, but so far so good. I just got back from the Philippines actually. But if I’m here at work then I’m going to be doing my rounds in the chocolate factory, which is two doors down from our offices. As I said, it’s pretty small but I’m checking in with people and checking in on our roaster. They’re always roasting cocoa beans over there, so I’m testing those beans by tasting them.
And then just checking with people on how the equipments running and how they’re doing and it’s just a quick check in for me. And then from there it’s anything. Who knows? We’re working on new products all the time and so there’s a constant research and development going on because it takes us a long time to develop a new product. And then for instance in the last couple of days I’ve had to deal with an issue related to our school lunch program in the Philippines. We launched a new program, a third school where we provide school lunches for children. It’s all sustainable. No donations. Not part of our charitable foundation. We sell a product called Tableya which is a hot chocolate product.
Well at the school, the teachers make this product and they put it on my container and I found out a couple of days ago that the Philippine FDA made us remove that from the container because we didn’t have the right certificate, which nobody told me that we needed in the last nine years we’ve been doing it. So that meant that I was not going to have that product to sell. So I had to quickly figure out what we’re going to do to fund 400 kids getting school lunch every day. So that has occupied a lot of my time and we’ve come up with a solution. So it’s things like that.

My daughter, who is my co-author in the book, Lawren, she’s in town this week. She works remotely from Texas. And so she’s in town this week, so I’m getting the chance to spend a lot of time with her.
She’s our chief marketing officer, so it’s fun to work with her on these projects. And yeah, so a lot of it is different. I’m also very actively involved in a grief center that I co-founded about 19 year ago called Lost and Found that’s for children and families who’ve experienced the death of a parent or sibling. And I’m not only on the board but I also am a volunteer facilitator in the teen group. So twice month I’m meeting with teenagers in a group setting who’ve experienced a death in their family and that is something that’s near and dear to my heart.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
And I’ll try to work my schedule around that.

Mike:
Wow, you do so much and you still find time to sleep. I’m impressed.

Shawn:
Well you know what? And I also watch a lot of T.V. My wife and I like to watch T.V. And … You’re in the U.K., right?

Mike:
Yeah.

Shawn:
So we’ve been watching this Public Broadcasting thing lately on Queen Victoria. Which I’ve loved watching that. And we watch all of the queen shows. There’s another one called The Crown on Netflix.
And then we just finished watching this series on Jamestown, where settlers first came to the United States to Jamestown and so I like those historical shows. So yeah, I watch T.V. and do all that. You know and it’s funny when people say, “Well how do you do …” It doesn’t feel like that much.
I feel like I watch too much T.V.

Mike:
I guess you’ve built up everything you are doing over time right?

Shawn:
Right.

Mike:
You must find it profoundly satisfying to have developed relationships in all those different parts of the world.

Shawn:
Yeah. That’s true. And that’s one of the things that I love about the travel. Is the people I get to meet and know for so many years. I’ve been doing this chocolate business for 12 years, 13 years really. I really enjoy just seeing those people again and again and working out all the ins and outs of things that can go wrong and just solving those problems together. I do enjoy that. But you know, the one thing you’ll know from reading the book that is an aspiration for me and a challenge and that relates to my work at Assumption Abbey. (I was there last week just for one day to meet with my spiritual director).
And that is that my aspiration of course, is to live a life of being inserted by doing. Not a life of doing inserted by being.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
And a lot of times that changes. So sometimes it means just be. Don’t do anything for the results and what’s going to … And that is a challenge. But it also can mean in a deeper sense, what is the reason that I’m doing the thing. So what is the purpose, to use your word again, what is the purpose for me to start a third school lunch program in the Philippines. Because that requires a lot of doing. There’s a lot of doing in that, and so I have to be very, very careful that the purpose for me, this is just me, this is not what I push upon people in my company.
But the purpose must for me be grounded in my faith. And so if it’s not, and if it’s for my own ego, it’s for my own personal … more likes on Facebook or whatever, than I have to really check myself. Because even though if it might be for a good end, it will not be good for me. And so I’m in a constant state of checking. It’s one of the reasons I depend on spiritual direction as the really central thing.Because I can be very challenged by that.

Mike:
Right, I remember you saying in your book that your spiritual practice is a real help to you.

Shawn:
It is a real help, yeah.

Mike:
I understand that because I think it would be very easy to say, “Wow, another great project, another great mission”

Shawn:
Yes.

Mike:
And then start losing sight of where you yourself are.

Shawn:
Yes. Indeed. Well and that’s why I talk about that a lot in the book. And this is where I think one of the interesting sort of paradoxes that I subscribe to, in relation to organizational change, is that I think in fact one of the greatest, most sustainable ways that this will happen is not through scale. I think the way it will happen is when, as consciousness evolves among leaders and others, they will be reminded of the thing that drew them to this organization in the first place and they’ll want to keep hold of it. And the way to keep hold of it is through human connection.

Mike:
Right.

Shawn:
It’s through mutuality, the expression of compassion and kindness. Not mutually exclusive of scale, but if the pursuit is scale then it often will require of us … It will require another toolbox that can sometimes be apart from the expression of kindness and compassion. Because why? Because the sign posts that we see along the path of scale often point us in a different direction than the sign posts that bring up back home to these things that we’ve been talking about.

Mike:
So in essence you manage to keep the quintessential human value.

Shawn:
Yes, yes indeed.

Mike:
So if there was one piece of advice that you had to give to organizations who wanted to actually move to towards being a new and more complete kind of organization, what might that be?

Shawn:
That would be to collectively find ways to create more human connection. Without the expectation of anything in return.
This is the paradox. This is what Gandhi taught us. And others. It seems counter intuitive, but that’s what I would say. Roll up your sleeves. I’m not talking about writing a check, contributing money. I’m talking about human connection. That’s what I think.

Mike:
Great. Well thank you so much for making the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.

Shawn:
Well my pleasure. Thanks for the questions. I love these questions. And thanks for the interest.