Namaste Interview with Catherine Bell
A global conversation on awakening in organizations has begun!
Namaste: You entitled your book The Awakened Company. What exactly do you mean by the term “awakened” when you use it in a business context?
Catherine: You often hear it said that “business is business,” or that something is “just business.” All kinds of things take place in the name of “business” that aren’t necessarily beneficial in their impact on other aspects of life. Sometimes whole communities are destroyed. A fundamental premise of The Awakened Company is that business can never be “just business,” but is in some way connected to each and every dimension of our lives. An awakened company is therefore aware of its impact on the whole of life.
To be aware of its effect on the whole of life, a company needs to be in touch with what’s occurring in real-time, which includes the needs of the moment, but also with trends that are on the horizon. For instance, it was one thing to build factories with chimneys that belched smoke into the air at the start of the industrial revolution, when we didn’t understand the impact of how we were polluting the atmosphere and what the long-term consequences might be, whereas it’s quite another to do the same today. An awakened company is one that’s looking at all the ways it affects our lives, including potential effects on the future. In a sense, it is continual awakening.
Namaste: When you speak of the “whole” of life, say more about the kinds of things you have in mind.
Catherine: I am speaking of our lives personally, relationally, environmentally, technologically, communally, and globally. We think of companies as having stakeholders. Usually when we refer to a “stakeholder,” we have in mind those who have a financial interest in a company. However, the stakeholders in any company are much broader. They include the community in which a company operates, the people it sources materials from, the people it provides goods or services to, the people who work in the company, the environment in which it operates, and much more. An awakened company is in touch with the needs of all its stakeholders, not just those whose focus is the bottom line.
Namaste: Would you say that companies are more awake or less awake today than they have traditionally been?
Catherine: It’s a mix, but overall I see some promising signs that more companies are awakening, while others are becoming aware of the need to awaken, since they recognize that the way most businesses operate today simply isn’t sustainable. On the one hand we are seeing some extremely successful household names shift to awakened business practices, while on the other many companies seem to put in place more and more impersonal rules, give their people less and less power to make decisions, and increasingly function more like machines than communities of people. Rules trump personal service in all too many cases today.
Namaste: Doesn’t a company need to have set standards, or rules, about how it functions and how it relates to the public?
Catherine: Yes, of course. But this doesn’t justify a company becoming rule-bound and time-bound, so that it’s no longer relevant in terms of the customer’s needs or employees because those who are in touch with the public simply have no power to make wise decisions that are in the company’s best interests. An awakened company evolves to match the reality of this moment in time, as well as envisioning where the future lies. To achieve this, it seeks to empower its people, seeing everyone as a leader. In this way a company is responsive to the needs of the moment, as well as mindful of the future, and can switch gears when necessary. Awakening, then, isn’t a state but an ongoing process, so that the awakened company is anything but a fixed entity. It throbs with the life of real people.
Namaste: Speak to the individuals who work in awakened companies. How are they different from the workers in the majority of companies?
Catherine: An awakened company consists of individuals who are aware of the big picture and where they fit into it. People are deeply self aware, the culture reinforces this self awareness, they have a deep understanding of the organizational vision, and have a learning mindset. They in essence combine mindfulness with self awareness. People who are aware are what’s going to transform the very nature of what we consider “work.” In those companies that are already awakening, the entire organization— from the CEO to the publicists, technicians, secretaries, and janitors— functions harmoniously. A collegial spirit prevails in which each values the other, engaging in interaction that regards colleagues as precious individuals, so that we each recognize and honor one another’s humanity. This in turn spills over to suppliers, customers, and the wider public in a manner that enhances the wellbeing of all, since all of these are a company’s real stakeholders.
An awakened company is therefore an organization that has moved from “me” to “we” in its thinking and practices. The leaders of such companies no longer see those who work in the company, the communities they serve, or the planet itself in terms of mere resources to be merchandized.
Namaste: What moved you to write this book? And why now?
Catherine: As someone who has worked since I was young in an array of work settings, I have experienced anger, rage, fear, disengagement, and deep sadness over the behavior of many organizations. I have seen the pain people suffer in these organizations. The saddest aspect of many a corporate work experience is that such distress is entirely unnecessary. That it doesn’t have to be this way is clear from how companies thrive when they move away from the model of “business is business” that causes this distress.
It’s because I’ve seen so much sickening behavior in organizations that I started BluEra. I saw how business could be fundamentally different and wanted to put these insights into practice. As the founder of a globally- focused, multimillion dollar consulting firm specializing in executive search, team transformation, and coaching, I helped build dynamic teams in a variety of organizational settings from small start-up companies to Fortune 500 firms. By interviewing thousands of senior executives on the hunt for talented leadership, our team uncovered common characteristics of awakened individuals: open-minded and open-hearted, yet have a sense of clear decisiveness; tenacious in their commitment to grow and learn both personally and professionally; compelled by a vision that overrides fear and incorporates different possibilities; not satisfied with the status quo, always exploring new possibilities; deeply aware of the interdependence and interconnection of all things.
The book comes at a time when there’s a crisis in the business world. From an era of profits first and growth at all cost, businesses and the people within business are coming to the realization this is no longer working. The Awakened Company offers practical ways and useful examples from business, community, social, and academic leaders to take business to a new and awakened level through the merging of wisdom traditions, including mindfulness and yoga, with best practices in business. The depth, scope, and practicality of the book set it apart from other books on business.
Namaste: Do you have particular qualifications that made you the right fit for authoring such a book about business?
Catherine: In terms of traditional qualifications, I have a BA in sociology from Western University, an MBA from Queen’s, certification in the Enneagram, an advanced certificate in Executive Search Consulting from Cornell University, have completed the Institute of Corporate Directors NFP Governance Essentials Program, and am a certified yoga instruct or. I have started a company and worked for a large organization.
Recently the firm that I founded was rated as one of the fastest growing organizations and as a best workplace. I’m currently doing research in mindfulness with a leading university. As well, I have done all of this while being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, active volunteer, and community member, perhaps some of the most potent qualifications of all.
Namaste: Tell us about your collaborators.
Catherine: I chose not to go it alone, but to work with Russ Hudson and Christopher Papadopoulos. Russ is a well-established author and lecturer who sold over a million copies of his previous book and has awakened hundreds of thousands of people. Chris, also an author and teacher, has seen the launch of his book PEACE—And Where to Find It this fall, also from Namaste Publishing.
In a nutshell, The Awakened Company is a collaboration between three individuals well versed in and deeply concerned about the present state and future direction of organizations. Indeed a whole community has rallied around awakening in organizations. My editor, David Ord and publisher, Constance Kellough have been powerful forces in the book too, not to mention the amazing contributors! Indeed a community rising!
Namaste: What do you see as the future of business?
Catherine: From one-person enterprises to multinational corporations, organizations are the principal vehicle for supplying the world’s needs and have the potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Almost anything significant in the world is done in organizations.
Namaste: You are saying that organizations are the solution?
Catherine: We are the solution. However, despite being woven into every part of our lives, the approach to business often leaves much to be desired. For instance, no small number of companies tend not to be good at surviving. Witness the fact that the majority of businesses die before they are ten years old! With such a high rate of attrition, we have to wonder how the current “business as usual” mentality of many companies sets employees, clients, and customers up for success. Instead, it results in a bipolar boom-bust economy. How can such instability, with all the ups and downs it causes in the marketplace, create thriving communities?
The production and distribution abilities of corporations have achieved marvels. But shouldn’t organizations that are so integral to every part of our day and every aspect of our lives reflect the highest values and the very best of what it means to be human? Is the current model really the best we can do?
Namaste: You are seeing real change in the business world?
Catherine: In the course of writing this book, we were excited to discover just how many business leaders are aware of the severity of the problem— and how many of them share with us the simple realization that we not only can do better, but that some of the leading corporations are already pioneering a new business model, with amazing results.
The writers talked with business leaders about what works and what doesn’t. They chose to interview those breaking new ground—leaders in organizations like Zappos, Queen’s University, Selco India, Me to We, Free the Children, USC Marshall School of Business and Culture Sync, McGill, MIT, Renewal Funds, and Patagonia. The companies we interviewed span the globe.
Our desire is to launch a global conversation on awakening in organizations.