Companies Hit The Road Less Traveled

It's Spiritual Unfoldment time at the World Bank. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m., a group of bank employees sits in a semicircle in a conference room at the Washington-based agency and connects. Today, it's standing-room only. There's no stereotyping this crowd of about 60, which includes senior managers and young assistants. Group founder Richard Barrett, an engineer at the bank, leads the meeting, which begins with a moment of silence. Today's topic: "Ten Strategies for Attaining Soul Consciousness." After an hour of talk about such things as realigning ego and soul, even staffers who arrived looking wilted leave smiling.

SOUL SEARCH. Get used to it. Spirituality is creeping into the office. Having survived downsizing and reengineering, overworked employees are stealing a moment and asking: "What does all this mean? Why do I feel so unfulfilled?" And companies are turning inward in search of a "soul" as a way to foster creativity and motivate leaders. "We certainly have been through a period of excessively rational, painful thinking," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, director of the Center for Leadership & Career Studies at Emory University. "But the great interest in cost-cutting often cut out the soul of an organization."

It may sound flaky, but a growing number of companies are setting off on spiritual journeys. It's not about bringing religion into the office or requiring that employees chant mantras at their workstations. Rather, the spirituality movement in the corporation is an attempt to create a sense of meaning and purpose at work and a connection between the company and its people.

Depending on the outfit, that can mean anything from employees joining discussion groups to hiring consultants who help workers feel better about their lives so they can be more productive. In some offices, only a few managers and departments are reflecting on things spiritual. In others, it's the CEO who is championing the spiritual approach in an attempt to unify workers around a common purpose.

CASH FROM KARMA? While still very new, the trend is starting to go beyond fringe companies or vaguely foreign institutions like the World Bank (table). Lotus Development Corp. has a "soul committee" that makes sure the company lives up to its stated values. Boeing Co. recruited poet David Whyte to read poems and regale top managers with fables as part of a program to revitalize their spirits on the job. And some divisions of AT&T are referring managers to a training program intended to reenergize them at the job. Says Lawrence Perlman, CEO of Minneapolis-based Ceridian Corp. and an advocate of the spirituality trend: "Ultimately, the combination of head and heart will be a competitive advantage."

Employees, meantime, are embarking on their own spiritual quests. In living rooms and online, they're asking how to link their personal values and their jobs. "There's a real backlash to the 1980s' treatment of humans as just something to dispose of because they cost money," says Judith A. Neal, associate professor of management at the University of New Haven, who publishes the newsletter Spirit at Work.

And this is just the start, predicts the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., a research firm that forecasts trends. "We think the issue of meaning is going to be more and more important in companies," researcher Robert Johansen told a recent conference of human resource executives. The institute is launching a study of companies' efforts to help post-downsizing employees find meaning in work. That could help companies evaluate whether they're getting any results--something few can prove thus far.

"POMPOUS CLICHES." Results aside, there is no denying the popularity of the work and spirituality theme. Consider that two new books on the subject, Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones, and Whyte's The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America, are on business best-seller lists. Still, other successful business authors are skeptical. "On the one hand, many of these books seem to me to be just a lot of pompous cliches strung one after another," says Michael Hammer, co-author of Reengineering the Corporation, which put reengineering on the map. "On the other hand, they clearly speak to something that's bothering people."

The notion of mixing spirit and business is suspect at its core, say critics. Blurring the line between spirited and spiritual, says management guru Tom Peters, gives managers too much entree into employees' personal lives. "The word `spirituality' says that you're screwing around with a part of me I don't want touched," says Peters.

Others insist that the only way to bring spirituality to work is from within--not by having companies impose values or attribute some larger meaning to their jobs. "I worry that companies will make spirit the program of the month and use it to manipulate people," says Neal. Some employees, especially those who are devout, say they resent having anyone in the office talk to them about spirituality.

Of course, the new soul movement hasn't quite caught on like other trends, such as total quality management. Its most vocal proponents are still the "New Age" companies that live off their aging-hippie images. Take Tom's of Maine, the maker of natural personal-care products. Founded in 1970 by Thomas M. Chappell and his wife, Kate, the Kennebunk company boasts 75 employees and sales approaching $20 million.

As Chappell, a Harvard divinity school graduate tells it, the company's aim is "serving our customers and serving our community" by abiding by certain values. They include supporting the environment, as well as treating workers, suppliers, and customers with respect. Tom's also encourages employees to donate 5% of their time to volunteer work and gives 10% of its pretax profits to charities--money, Chappell notes, that could be spent on advertising. In 1993, he outlined his thinking in The Soul of a Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good. The bestseller has made Chappell a leading guru of soul (table).

WHATEVER WORKS. More mainstream companies are using spirituality as a way to prod workers and inspire managers, but they're still squeamish about admitting it. "Don't quote me using that word," uarns Southwood J. Morcott, CEO of Toledo-based Dana Corp. Many executives use such words as "values" and "mission" to talk about motivation and meaning in the workplace.

At AT&T, managers don't really care what the program is called, as long as it seems to be working. Since 1990, AT&T units have referred hundreds of middle managers to Transpective Business Consulting in Woburn, Mass., at $1,650 a head. The program is intended to help managers be more effective leaders by better tuning in to themselves and to employee needs.

Throughout the grueling, three-day course, leader Philip Massarsky uses videos, written exercises, and poems to help participants cut through their inhibitions. He then has them write up a plan that will help them live by their values at the office. About six weeks later, they return to Woburn to report on their progress. Bill Davis, a manager at AT&T Network Systems, says that after one year, business and engineering managers who went through the course showed marked improvement in leadership skills, as measured by employee surveys.

Aerospace giant Boeing is also rethinking its traditional approach to business. In February, President Philip M. Condit hired Seattle poet Whyte to speak to 500 top Boeing managers three days a month as part of an intensive, year-long executive training program. A dynamic speaker, Whyte doesn't lecture but recites dozens of stories and poems, including some of his own, to help bring to life the experience and emotion of change. One American Indian story he frequently uses at the start of a talk is about being lost in the woods. It begins:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost.

Wherever you are is called Here.

THE JUICE. Whyte says such poems help managers and other employees to rethink their daily habits and assumptions, thus stirring up some creative juices. "All the companies that are alive are realizing that they need more creative, vital, and adaptable workers," he says. "All that creativity and vitality and adaptability resides in the soul." One senior executive with 20 years at Boeing, who was initially skeptical of Whyte, is now a convert. "My first reaction was: What a waste of time," he says. "I thought to myself, what could a poet possibly contribute?" But the executive now says that Whyte "helped us to think differently than we ever had before. We had to look inside ourselves."

Giving overloaded managers time out to contemplate the trees will probably make them better workers--at least for a while. But in these times of massive layoffs and global pressures, it may take more than a little poetry to raise people's spirits over the long haul.

Spirituality as a Management Tool

How some companies are trying to motivate employees and create a strong identity or "soul":


As part of a cultural overhaul, 500 top managers are listening to poet David Whyte three days a month for a year. The goal is to help executives be more creative by thinking differently about their company and their lives.


An outside consultant is coaching managers in certain units to be better leaders by helping them define their values. AT&T says the training has helped improve employee attitudes and leadership skills.


A "soul" committee is reexamining the company's management practices and values. Its aim is to build a strong culture and use Lotus technology to enhance teamwork.


The medical device maker sees its "mission" as restoring people to full health and uses that to motivate workers by appealing to their desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.


Gurus at Work

DAVID WHYTE The Yorkshire-born poet wrote The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, a BW best-seller. A powerful speaker, Whyte has consulted with AT&T, Boeing, and Dana.

THOMAS M. CHAPPELL The founder of Tom's of Maine and a Harvard divinity school graduate, his 1993 best-seller, The Soul of a Business, helped trigger discussion about values and meaning at work. He's now a sought-after speaker and consultant who uses a well-publicized set of values to market and run his business.

JAMES A. AUTRY The former president of Meredith Magazine Group, now a poet, author, and speaker, urges business leaders to tend to the human and spiritual side of work through his ruminations in Love & Profit and Love & Work.

TERRENCE E. DEAL A Vanderbilt University management professor and best-selling author, he was one of the first to write about corporate cultures. He's now preaching the importance of spirituality in his new book, Leading With Soul, a business fable written with co-author Lee G. Bolman.


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