in Conversation with Robb Smith–CEO Integral Institute, Chairman & CEO Integral Life
Just over a year ago I was given the opportunity to interview Robb Smith, the newly appointed Chief Executive of the Integral Institute. When I heard on the grapevine that Robb was making a flying visit to New York City, I thought that it would be a good time to catch up and to see how things are progressing at Integral Institute. My request for a meeting, in what is undoubtedly a hectic schedule, was met with the grace that I have come to expect from my interactions with Robb. So it was, on probably the first day of Spring, that Robb and I sat down in the bar of the boutique hotel where he was staying with his wife and young son, and had the chance to revisit the past 12 months or so.
The first thing that I noticed was that Robb no longer looks much like the photographs he uses on his blog and elsewhere. The stark haircut of a successful Private Equity Capitalist has been replaced by slightly longer and much softer style. Dressed in jeans and a multi-colored shirt that would not have been out of place at Woodstock, it is clear from first sighting that Robb has personally made great strides away from the industry in which he had been so successful. That said, I guess that I no longer look the same as in the photograph at the top of this column as both Robb and I stood around in the lobby of his hotel anxiously eyeing one another but neither certain that the other was whom we had come to meet.
After exchanging pleasantries, catching up on the health of Ken and the progress of his young son, my first question to him was to understand how, with the benefit of hindsight, things have been at the Institute compared with his expectations.
Without batting an eyelid, he responded, “ Really there have not been a tremendous number of surprises.”He went on to add, “It was a classic turnaround, and that’s neither good nor bad.”He acknowledged that there were presentational issues that needed to be tackled, especially in respect to promises being made and broken in the marketplace. He also reflected on the fact that there was some housecleaning to be done financially, which was structural. When I asked him how far he thought he had come in resolving these issues, he responded, “I would say we are 70% through it with another 30% to go with respect to technology and getting the right people on-board.”
He went on to say, “The thing that was not a surprise was the opportunity that exists for Integral out in the world are just as significant as one might have expected.”With a humility that ran throughout our conversation, Robb was the first to admit that in making bold assertions and setting expectations, the Institute had done itself little good and probably had hindered its ability to serve as well as it might. As he reflected, “When one engages the world in a more humble way you do find it a more promising place.” In his mind, he has no doubts that the policy that he instituted of not making brash promises to an eager community has helped to stabilize Integral Institute and better position it for the challenges that he sees ahead.
For the past four months, Robb has been on a road-trip seeking to understand the opportunities that exist for applying Integral Theory and identifying opportunities in which the Institute can engage more effectively. As he succinctly puts it, his objective was, “ To see whether we are relevant or not?” After weeks of travel, and many hours sat in rooms with extremely bright world leaders at multiple altitudes, he concludes, “I knew that we would be relevant at some point but I didn’t know how it would look. I know now that Integral has an important role to play.” He now recognizes, that his job is about listening and then determining, “ how do we fit?”
Not that his travels have not brought a fair amount of frustration along the way. He recounts a recent gathering at the Aspen Institute on science and spirit. In a room filled with 30 participants all donors and principals of the Aspen Institute, covering a subject that he feels passionate about he recognized that to have meaningful conversation with a group of individuals all operating at different levels of altitude requires that a meaningful container be in place.
He tried, several times, to help create such a container, but in his words, “it was largely a failure.”He went on to add, “ I find something particularly unmotivated, uncourageous, unenlightened when one does not put oneself through the hard work and processes needed to use Integral to look “AS” rather than to look “AT.”This was a theme that arose several times during our conversation, and is clearly close to Robb’s heart. As he points out, “We are so good at analyzing; we are so good at creating a two dimensional analysis of where people are coming from, from an AQAL perspective. But we are doing a very poor job, in my experience, of getting into the trenches and doing the hard work of figuring out how do we make of this stuff work? How do we make it successful for those experiencing real, hard problems? This is what it means to look as and not just at.”
Although I doubt whether Robb would ever say this overtly, one gets the sense in talking with him that he is frustrated that the Institute pursued a highly complex and introverted strategy that manifested in the multiplex. As he describes what was supposed to be the shining beacon to take Integral Theory into the wider world, he uses words that slip off the tongue so easily that it is clear that this is not the first time he has spoken in this way about the legacy he inherited.
He describes the multiplex as, “ A tapestry that has been woven around a particular membership model, a particular type of content delivery, a particular technology framework, and held within a particular social and legal contract.”Without drawing a breath, he continues, “We have this tapestry where we have to be very careful as we pulled the threads that the whole thing didn’t fall apart!”As a smile breaks across his face, he emphasizes, “ The good news is that we have succeeded in getting 50% of the threads out, and a new legal framework established in Integral Life. We have the beginning of a new technology platform, we have a new membership program that will come online and the pricing is going to get a hell of a lot easier.”
Sitting listening to Robb, it is clear that a lot of extremely hard and I would guess dedicated work has gone into cleaning up shop at Integral Institute, and it is paying off: the Institute is now economically self-sustainable for the first time in its history. The self-imposed vow of silence coupled with recognition that moaning over spilt milk will not help to move things forward means that his focus is clearly on the future and not the past. As he says, “ The next step will be to evolve the content such that it becomes a learning experience and not just a one way ‘Push’ experience. That is what we are going to have to do over the next year. We are already thinking about that quite deeply, and when the new portal for Integral Life comes up there will be some hints as to where we are going and hopefully it will intrigue people.”
This provided a natural segue into discussing the genesis of Integral Life. I mentioned to Robb that in my experience, expectations were building around the launch of the new portal. Although he had been good to his word and not made any promises or set any false expectations so far, Integral Life was being treated, within the Integral community, in the same way that Apple’s new iPhone was being treated in the world at large. He acknowledged that there was some truth in these sentiments. However, he would not be pushed on an exact launch date, and later expanded on the reasons why he felt that this would be an irresponsible thing to do.
Robb pointed out that his path with the Integral Institute crossed as he was putting together, as a venture capitalist, a plan to create a nationwide set of practice centers. As he says, “It is my view that that is the way to get three days a week of dedicated practice in a really interesting way. I still believe that. I believe that having literally a whole Integral experience is necessary for reinforcing what Integral Theory is about.”He acknowledges, “It is easy for me as CEO of the Integral Institute. It’s my job and my life. It is not so easy for the person sitting in Chicago, say, as part of a community of 15 people trying to meet with them once a month. It is really, really hard.”
He still believes, passionately, that the original vision is valid. However, operational experience day in and day out at the Integral Institute has made him come to the conclusion that this is probably part of a 30 year plan, and that if they accelerate development they might be able to pull it off in 10 years. His emphasis for the short-term is to establish a platform that will allow the individual in Chicago to participate partially, but more fully in an Integral Lifestyle without having to wait for a center to be established.
“ We looked at the multiplex and asked ‘What is the logical strategy to bring all of this stuff and organize it so that it would make as much sense to an expert as it would to a beginner? And perhaps, even make more sense to both?”In answering this question, the seeds of Integral Life were sown. Whilst giving little away, Robb points out that the new portal is moving towards a radically different content framework. Using a model of Learn, Apply, and Awaken, he is hoping that Integral Life will provide a richer and deeper experience for all Integral Practitioners.
Translating his words, probably badly, he describes Learn as the presentation of Integral Theory; Apply is how it shows up in the world, giving examples of Integral Theory in practice in everyday events such as the news, culture, presidential election, etc; and Awaken is the personal practice as each individual adopts to further their own personal growth. It is clear in talking with Robb that he maintains in the back of his mind the question that he stressed when I spoke to him a year ago, “How can I create an environment that even my mother can use?”
With all of this work taking place on the Integral Life portal, I pondered what might be happening with the Institute. Without hesitation, he shot back, “ I am, in some ways, more excited about the Institute then I am with Integral Life. Integral Life will be great fun and a great membership experience. However, whenever I look at where my heart is, then it is not complete without a sense of service. And that is the role for the Integral Institute. Integral Life is not complete without Integral Institute.”
Robb displays his Integral credentials most succinctly when he makes statements such as, “You know, for me to be worrying about my own sense of enlightenment while there are 27 million slaves in the world and human trafficking is continuing is nonsense. We have to be engaging with these really important and pressing areas of service around the world. Whether it be trafficking, or governance, or safety and security, conflict, post-conflict restoration, whether it is healthcare, clean water, or climate change.”
It became clear in talking with Robb that whilst Integral Life was focused primarily at serving individual needs, the Institute was issuing the clarion call of the collective response to help solve some of the many problems now facing the world today. He accepts that the list he gave above is neither complete nor anything but general, however, he feels that the actions being taken by the Integral Institute will allow engagement sooner rather than later.
He readily admits that there is no magic wand to solving these problems. But at Integral Institute he is actively seeking to raise an endowment that will provide funds to ensure that all of these problems can be looked at through an Integral lens. This will then lead to seeking to influence the activities that are going on within an Integral framework. Finally, Integral Institute will be able to go out to organizations actively working in these areas and assist them to make better progress. He believes, that members of the Institute will be able to engage deeply with those people on the front lines to help them achieve their objectives.
This brings Robb back to what is possibly becoming a mantra in Colorado, “Integral looking ‘AS’ and not just Integral looking ‘AT.’” As he emphasizes, “Our challenge at the Institute and, quite frankly as a broader community, is to know the difference, to recognize it, because they are both important and valid, and then we have to do both!”This is clearly what excites him about the evolution he sees taking place within the Institute. On a roll he adds, “it is important not to go in and impose a very modern solution onto a pre-modern culture base where the adoption is misinterpreted or misunderstood.”For this reason, he questions whether Integral Institute will ever get tactical in its approach to resolving the big problems. In the same breath he answers his own question that he does not believe that being tactical is the Institute’s strong suit.
Attempting to get his perspective on the future, I asked Robb what he would consider to be success in 10 years time? Displaying all the traits of an individual who has given serious consideration to this question, he responds rapidly, “I think a good 10 year benchmark might be we raised $20 million as an endowment, we really helped a lot of world leaders begin to ask Integral questions, and started to make it well known that there is a framework that holds these solutions and that we started to push into them.”He pauses for a moment, and then adds, “ If we start changing conversations, then I think that is all we can hope for.”
I point out to Robb that these are strong messages and that the virtual silence that he has imposed over the past year means that many in the community have lost sight of the Institute in leading in just the areas that he is talking about. With a sigh he responds, “I would point out that we were going to be criticized one way or the other. We were either going to be criticized for continuing to be overly engaging and falling short or not engaging enough and falling short.”His decision to take the non-engagement route is intriguing, “I think that the problem we had before was that we had inappropriate channels through which the energy could flow. It was sort of like we were holding a 50,000 Volt power line on one hand, and on the other hand we had distribution through only three or four small 110 Volt lines. It comes down to having the right people, the right social contract, and the right legal contracts in place and it takes time. You can’t horse this stuff; you can’t fake it.”
Even though he claims that he does not miss the world of private equity and being a venture capitalist, it is clear that the lessons he learnt in that industry still drive his decisions and focus in the world of Integral Theory. He emphasizes, “I couldn’t just bring any management team to the table. And it turns out that I was right. We have changed folks as we have gone along. It is really important that we went at a pace that was appropriate to the resources that were available. I mean, we could have gone out and got a hotshot media executive as President to handle the new media and we could have grown this company faster than we have. And the community could have said, ‘Wow! How great and what interesting results!’ But I don’t think the results would have ended up being particularly Integral.”
As when we spoke 12 months earlier, he is absolutely clear that his role is to bring in high-quality people and then to get out of their way, allowing them to put their talents to best effect to serve the Integral cause. His passion for long-term success of both Integral Institute and Integral Life means that he is highly risk averse and will avoid seeking short-term gains to the potential detriment to the long-term success of both entities. Nowhere is that more pertinent than in respect of creating a retail distribution channel.
“Our most risky plan would be to go out and do retail practice centers. If you do that, and we plan on doing it, the question is what do you need to have in place to lower that risk?”He stresses, “I’m not only talking about capital investment in physical plant. I’m also talking about a new form of content, a new form of customer engagement.I’m talking about altitude issues. I’m talking about staff training. You are not just exactly setting up a copy shop here and hoping that the balance sheet and P&L work. This is immensely complicated and an extremely risky thing to do.”
When I press him on what would make him change his mind, he immediately counters, “Do you have 400 people prepared to spend $79 a month? Show me that audience and we can put a retail centre in the midst of it.” What is extremely clear in Robb’s mind is that any retail venture on behalf of the Integral Institute will not seek to replace the existing network of salons that have developed over the years. As he says, “We are not going to try to impose anything that we are doing; it just doesn’t make any sense. When we go and set up a retail outlet, we are going to want to invite all of the Integral practitioners as part of our primary or first step. We would look at having to justify our existence by offering them a certain set of services in a really great environment.”
Although, this should provide a sense of comfort for those individuals who have struggled over the years to establish and maintain salons seeking to advance understanding Integral Theory within their community. One detects a sense of the struggle to move from looking “AT” to looking “AS” when he further adds, “I’m not going to ask them as customers, ‘Hey, come in and help us try to figure out what it is we are trying to do in this business.’”And then continues , “When we go back out, we will probably start new local practice groups. Nobody has to join if they don’t want to.”Which suggests that at some time in the not too distant future there will be a competitive struggle for the hearts and minds of the Integral community, not that that is necessarily a bad thing if it leads to a greater spread of the theory and its application.
Robb is very clear in his own mind as to when Integral Institute and Integral Life will seek to move out physically from the confines in Colorado. His words are completely unambiguous, “So if you ask me when is this going to happen? I would say when sufficient traffic, sufficient membership through IntegralLife.com begins to create self-organizing groups with a unified social contract globally to do it.”He is quick to state that there are preconditions before he sees such a move occurring. In particular, he sees the need for a major technological platform to be in place in order to move forward and believes that this necessary platform will start to be available once Integral Life is launched. For that reason he believes, “This conversation three months from now would be different from what it is today.”
One of the great things when talking with Robb Smith is that he rarely feels the need to drop into jargon to describe what he is doing and the vision he has for the companies he runs. When he does, he’s very quick to apologize. So when he starts a statement like, “So Integral Life acts as a signifier…,”he follows it with a big smile and in the same breath with, “…to use a dorky Integral term…,”and then continues, “…it can become the strong attractor.”This is the mark of an individual who recognizes that he is on the cusp of being part of something that can radically change the world we live in, yet also not allowing himself to be overawed by the challenges nor the potential.
When I asked him whether he misses his Life in private equity, he is quick to respond, “No. I never think about it. I am having a ton of fun. It is a total kick. It’s challenging as hell, it really is, but I am really having a ton of fun. There are people who would probably swap with me in a second. I know what a privilege it is to have this job. I never take it for granted.” He believes that he has to be focused on the challenges ahead, otherwise the plans and visions will not come to fruition. He tries to keep a balanced Life working 60 or so hours a week, however, he sighs wistfully and says,“You are never really exactly off.”
As our time together drew to a close, I couldn’t help but feel that I was sitting with an individual who understands that he is on the brink of achieving his own destiny. The circumstances that arose leading to Robb being appointed as CEO of Integral Institute 15 months or so ago were probably a necessary condition to allow him to work his magic and apply his talents for the future. As I write this column, the Integral Life Portal has still not materialized, last-minute changes are probably frustrating to Robb Smith. However, he is orchestrating an evolution and when we look back on what he is promising for the future, I have no doubt that these delays will appear insignificant.
As I stepped out into the early evening sunshine and reengaged with the hustle and bustle of midtown New York, I came away with a deep sense that both the Integral Institute, and the embryonic Integral Life Portal could not be in better hands. I, like many others I am sure, are waiting eagerly to see the results of the hard work that Robb and his team have put into these new developments. The old Chinese curse says, “May your children live in interesting times.” With everything that appears to be going on under Robb Smith’s leadership back in Colorado, these are most certainly interesting times. And if this is what it’s like to be cursed, I’ll take it.