Russ: There was a phrase that I read in one of your publications that seemed to be such a great snapshot of what you do, and it reads like this: “Running a globally-responsible, sustainable business can provide both a competitive advantage today and serve as a catalyst for commercial and social innovation for a better tomorrow.” Where does that statement stand in how you define your business and your company?
Renee: The core mantra of our company is, “Healthy leader, healthy business, healthy world.” As an executive and leadership development firm, we believe that business is one of the most substantial avenues of benefit in the world today. So, Wisdom Works is a business that works with organizations, leaders and senior leadership teams to cultivate healthier possibilities for businesses in society and turn those possibilities into viable business strategies and leadership capabilities. The statement you mention above is key to the work we do—health and sustainability is the central driver to the purpose of our company .
Russ: You used the term “healthy” three times in your company mantra. As I recall from my organization development consulting days, the term “healthy” was frequently used, but it was always difficult to define. I’m wondering if you can tell me what you mean by “healthy.”
Renee: Most people define healthy through the body, or more recently, through “mind, body and spirit.” When we say healthy, we’re addressing a systems’ (such as an individual, a team, a whole company or culture) ability to respond effectively to the conditions it exists in and situations it faces. Healthy also means the ability to be creative, productive and resilient over time. A healthy system is able to innovate and adapt in a productive way. With all this in mind, “health” (“wellness”, “wellbeing”, and the like.) is both a capability and a capacity. People are multi-dimensional beings and many dimensions—beyond qualities of the physical body alone—can facilitate health; in fact, Wisdom Works currently has a tool (our Whole Life Review™) that addresses 16 different factors, each well grounded in Western research, which promote health and wellbeing.
Russ: Is there a relationship between the words “sustainable” and “healthy?”
Renee: Absolutely. In some sense, they can be defined similarly. As people have evolved in their thinking, the definitely of health also evolved, from purely physical wellness to the mind-body-spirit connection. We’re stretching the definition of health even further, to more of a capability, a felt experience and an ability to act which—even when you get off track—is something you can always return to.
Just like the definition of health, the definition of sustainability is evolving, too. Where sustainability used to be defined by solely the environment or the ability to continually make a profit, now the definition of sustainability considers the long-term resilience of an organization. This new definition of sustainability suggests totally new leadership questions, like: What values could guide our organization toward healthier, more sustained growth? How can our organization factor people and planet into our drive for profit? How might our organization act in a way which appreciates seven generations into the future? When might our organization consider ceasing to exist, at least in its current form? From this light, the definitions of both health and sustainability are two sides of the same coin.
A third word that’s almost interchangeable with the words health and sustainability is “integrity.” If you return to the root of integrity, integritas, it means soundness and wholeness.
Russ: What was your career path to moving into this work?
Renee: Early on, I always asked questions about health and wellbeing. Like most people, I thought of health in the physical way—health of the body. Twenty years ago when my career began, my early work was as an exercise physiologist, doing diet and exercise prescriptions with heart patients.
What I realized in this role was two things. First, I didn’t want to be on the “back end” of working with people, helping them at the point of crisis (such as a heart attack). I wanted to be on the “front end” of prevention. Second, I learned that just throwing information at people would not support truly sustainable change. People usually aren’t motivated to change through more information. Or, they’ll begin to make positive changes, yet the changes won’t stick.
That’s a whole different way of defining the term sustainability, by the way: What are life-enhancing goals that this person or these people are inspired—from the inside-out— to pursue? What structures and practices can support this person or people is pursuing these goals and making them sustainable over time?
After my short stint in exercise physiology, I moved into the corporate arena, working at Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as manager of the company’s health and wellness programs. EDS had three incredible fitness centers and state-of-the-art personal health, family wellness and stress-management programs.
Our corporate wellness services supported many mergers and acquisitions for the company, and we became very involved in the “people side” of organizational change processes. At that time, it was rare for a Health and Wellness Department to be as integrated with the business activities of a company.
During that time, I completed my Master’s in Human Relations and Business, because I wanted to understand how organizations worked. I also started intensively studying the areas of systems thinking, human development, leadership and organizational learning. I was then assigned to the corporate strategy department in EDS, and later asked to be in charge of the company’s organizational learning and executive development efforts in 1993.
With management consultant, Fred Kofman, we developed a nine-month transformational leadership program called, “Leading Learning Communities.” We led this program five times, bringing together EDS leaders from different cultures around the world and helping them examine their fundamental beliefs about leadership and develop healthier, more worldcentric leadership behaviors. Leaders in the programs made strides in their business results, client and peer relationships and individual wellness, and this gave me grounded insights about the importance of healthier leaders in creating healthier organizations. This period of life was pivotal for me; it brought me deeper into the study of personal, organizational and social wellness and transformation, which became the focus of my work.
Around 1994, my husband and I lived in Dublin, having just moved there from Antwerp. Over a two-week holiday, I remember reading a stack of books I’d had piled up for a long time. One of the books, Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, helped me finally pull together the in-depth studies I’d done in systems theory, complexity theory, health, the psychology of motivation, etc. Intuitively I knew these areas were intricately related, but I was missing the connection. So, the AQAL framework gave me a fresh and holistic perspective. Plus, through Wilber’s book, I also gained my first exposure to Spiral Dynamics.
After EDS, I worked for The Coca-Cola Company, helping the company design and implement a strategy and structures for organizational learning as a means to greater business effectiveness. This included providing programs to build skills in a network of internal coaches and consultants to use Senge’s “five disciplines” for the purpose of executive development and organizational effectiveness. Around this time, I also completed my PhD, with a focus on spirituality and leadership, and had studied ontological coaching and with Julio Olalla and become a Masters Certified Coach.
I left Coca-Cola in 1999 to create my current firm, Wisdom Works, which I now co-lead with two business partners, Nina Peterson and Micki McMillan. We’ve been in business now for eight years.
Russ: In what ways have you explored integral theories, Spiral Dynamics, developmental psychology and/or transdisciplinary studies in your actual work?
Renee: This happens on multiple levels. I encourage the staff at Wisdom Works to have dialogues with other integral practitioners, to read, and to, together, stretch our thinking about how to use integral frameworks in how we shape our company. For instance, at our recent two-day visioning session, we began the meeting by talking about “2nd Tier” values and business practices on the Spiral and what these mean for the vision and operations of our company. Plus, most of our staff is certified through sociologist Don Beck in different applications of Spiral Dynamics.
We used to explicitly teach the AQAL and Spiral Dynamics frameworks. Sometimes we still do. This often happens when we have a high-powered client that wants to evolve a whole new way of seeing leadership and business within the context of society. More often than not, however, today we use these two frameworks to understand the client’s worldviews, to help the client envision new possibilities for leading, and to inform how we work with them, such as how we design a coaching program, consulting engagement, training intervention or development of a tool. Both frameworks are excellent, but we’ve needed more pragmatic tools to help clients see the benefit of adopting healthier, more world-centric ways of leading.
Russ: A big piece of the integral movement is that people are trying to find a way to achieve that wholeness you discuss. They begin to pay attention to an integral life practice. How did you seen this in your client work?
Renee: Spiral Dynamics and AQAL are two useful integral frameworks. There are other integrated frameworks, like Julio Olalla’s model which talks about three domains of existence: Language, Body and Emotion. No matter which framework, the shift I noticed in myself when I began to use it is that my ability to observe improved. That’s one of the biggest value-adds I’ve seen— an enhanced ability to observe. And new observations bring the possibility to develop new strategies, new conversations, new actions and behaviors…in essence, new ways to listen and work with the client that were previously unavailable.
Russ: I get the sense that your business, Wisdom Works, has grown over time.
Renee: Yes, it has. I spent the first six months in sheer panic, not knowing how it would work to be an entrepreneur. I had left the corporate environment, without prior experience in the entrepreneurial world. Yet, Wisdom Works has “grown” every year. In some years the growth has manifested financially. In other years, like this year where we invested last years’ profits into building company infrastructure and leadership, we’ve grown in our capabilities. Just like our clients, we have to think long and hard about how we want to stimulate and moderate our company’s activities, with the aim toward healthy, sustainable growth.
Russ: Was the one of the tools you built WisdomScape™?
Renee: Yes. In fact, WisdomScape™ is actually a system of five independent, yet related, tools, which answer the question, “What are the qualities of healthy and sustainable leadership?” For a globally-responsible business, one that strives to understand its roles, responsibilities and opportunities it provides to the larger society, WisdomScape™ describes the behaviors of world-centric leaders on five levels: Self, Team, Organization, Industry and World. WisdomScape™ is our attempt to put, in the pragmatic language of businesspeople, the behaviors of vanguard leadership, leaders who want to shape healthy organizations and a healthy global agenda.
Russ: Can people access more information about WisdomScape™ on your website?
Renee: Yes, they can. There’s information at www.wisdom-works.net, and www.wisdomscape.com. Our intent is to get this type of thinking about visionary, vanguard leadership out into the world. And, we know it will happen through other people, not just through our little firm. So, we’re already registering people for a program to license practitioners, particularly executive and leadership coaches, to use of WisdomScape™ with their clients. The program will help skilled coaches do their work in the field of sustainable business, basically, creating a new niche of “sustainability coaching.”
Russ: I had a fairly extensive conversation with a colleague who works with one of the top international consulting firms. He heads an innovative approach to leadership development and organization change that is based on integrally-informed Spiral Dynamics. He does use the four-quadrant model in working with ten of the top thirty German companies. The top executives get it. I get the impression that there is openness to this approach and it’s very surprising. Like most consultants, I would imagine you don’t often pull out the language of integral; you present the ideas that are based on that philosophy, correct?
Renee: Yes, correct. Our approach is mostly to use the Spiral and integral to inform our work and how we see clients, work with the relationship and intervene, partner, etc. There are clients that give you the sense that they want to go beyond their current leadership capacity. They’re dissatisfied with the dictates of their organization, the management styles or how they perceive leadership. They have a readiness to have a conversation about wholeness and health. Most of these clients are asking existential questions like, “Why am I here?” and “What legacy do I really want to leave?” that opens an entirely different door for personal and leadership transformation.
To provide an integral perspective, we also have a tool that examines 16 different dimensions—we call it the “Whole Life Review.” This tool naturally provides leaders with a much broader view about what contributes to quality of life and leadership. For example, a recent executive team from a global firm in the food and beverage industry recently determined that one of the most vital factors in their success as individual leaders was in having a strong spiritual core. How spirituality was defined differed for each team member. For some, it was dedication to a specific religion. For others, it was a contemplative practice. For even others, spirituality was about a deeper sense of purpose. Regardless of the definition, their spiritual sensibilities helped them focus on what really mattered, and was a life resource they drew on as leaders, a source of strength and stability in the middle of constant changes in the company.
When you expose people to the dimensions, beyond the body, which facilitate health and wellbeing, they start to see other resources which are available to increase their power and vitality at work. That is exciting!
Russ: What has been the response of the organizations where you’ve been using WisdomScape™?
Renee: So far people have been very receptive. There have been a number of ways which clients have found value from the tools. One of the biggest benefits that I see is that WisdomScape™ opens up new conversations about the role of the leader in creating a healthier business and the role of business in creating a healthier society. Clients seem to feel more comfortable engaging in that conversation because the dialogue is grounded in a well-researched leadership framework.
Another benefit of WisdomScape™ is that it is helping clients get clearer about how to define a healthier form of leadership. WisdomScape™ shares eight categories of progressive leadership behaviors in language that speaks to businesspeople, and it helps clients identify which behaviors they are most inspired to evolve in their leadership, personally and organizationally. WisdomScape™ is purposefully designed to stretch the client’s thinking and expand their ideas about what behaviors are possible (and needed) for the stance of leadership, whether that leadership stance means running a global business, managing one’s own life, leading a team or having an impact on the world.
For example, one client Company has a weeklong transformational program for middle managers. It’s interesting for executives to not only examine the skills of their leaders today, but also learn a framework that describes the leadership capabilities required to be the global leader of the future. This is what WisdomScape does. The tool helps leaders identify the skills for vanguard leadership and global citizenship, which they are most motivated to build within their leadership repertoire.
In one instance of using WisdomScape with a global executive team, the team determined that developing a capability for vision-driven leadership would be of most valuable both personally and for their business. Leading from vision, instead of leading based on the dictates of others or pressures from the marketplace, is an enormous feat. This has been another benefit of WisdomScape—helping people focus on their internally-driven vision of leadership success.
Russ: Have you been using WisdomScape long enough yet to be able to identify the long-term benefits?
Renee: We haven’t. It took about two years to develop the tool. We launched three levels of WisdomScape this year: “Leading Self,” “Leading Teams” and “Leading Organization.” “Leading Industry” and “Leading World” will be launched in 2007. As we each of these WisdomScape tools, we’re accumulating a database of the findings. Once the database grows to a certain size (approximately 300 users per level), we’ll be able to look at the themes that emerge from the data. This will give us very useful information about the core aspirations of leaders today, given the WisdomScape framework.
Plus, once we work with the tool for a longer period of time, which we are doing with two organizations right now, we will be able to identify the long-term benefits for the client organization.
Russ: Given that, what do you see as your major challenges as a company opening the world to using this approach? I’m assuming again that it’s an integrally informed approach.
Renee: The first challenge is about how we, as Wisdom Works, live what we teach. With my CEO hat on, the question that’s constantly in my mind is, “What else do we need to be thinking about to be a healthy organization and to grow in a conscientious, sustainable way?
For example, last year, we strategically decided that we weren’t shooting for profit as our primary goal. We wanted to make enough money to pay everyone’s salaries and to pay our bills, but instead of trying to obtain additional profit beyond what we really needed, we chose to spend time and energy investing in the development of WisdomScape.. For us, particularly as a small and growing company, this was a challenging, yet strategic investment decision that we believed would greatly benefit our business later.
Russ: How has this experience shifted your own leadership in this company?
Renee: My experience of WisdomScape and of leading Wisdom Works has given me, personally, such a higher level of compassion for the true complexity that our clients deal with. We are a micro-business, tiny in comparison to our clients. Yet, even though we’re a small business, we’re trying to think about big issues in the world. So, we feel the complexities and pressures of striving to be healthy and sustainable on our own scale. And, we know firsthand that there is rarely one solution to the challenges businesses feel today. Because of these, I feel as though a sense of compassion is deepening for me and my team; that’s probably the biggest gain.
I don’t know many other companies that really want to operate as “second tier” or “integrally informed.” I’m sure they’re out there; I just don’t know them. So, another challenge is in not having models to learn from and not being able to rely on other businesses to have pave the way. So, we constantly have to make it up as we go. That means constantly experimenting. Sometimes the experiments work, sometimes they don’t. From each one, the challenge—for me personally and for the Wisdom Works team—is to stay in a mode of “learning” and discovery.
A second challenge is in finding employees and associates that truly want to step into this kind of work and this kind of business in a full partnership, people who are already striving to fully integrated human beings and who have a path and a support system to support them. These kinds of people are more apt to enter into an arrangement with Wisdom Works in the spirit of “full partnership,” rather than wanting a traditional model of employment where the company—like a parent—is supposed take care of them.
A third challenge for us is in finding qualified practitioners to bring into client work. We can find excellent professional coach, trainers and consultants, but few of them have a depth of knowledge in the arena of healthy, sustainable leadership and business. We need a whole new niche of practitioners: those that want to use their practice to support leaders in fostering a radically healthier kind of business and maturing into a healthier form of leadership.
Plus, we want associates, vendors and contractors that want to step up to different level of shared fate and share commitment (which I mentioned before regarding employees). (By the way, our sense is that this is the same issue that many global organizations are dealing with…and it is a big issue to work through.)
Russ: There’s research that’s been done and people have been writing about healthy, sustainable businesses as a concept. There are case studies and a variety of things out there. But it’s like preaching second-tier to a first-tier world. The world of business, for the most part, is still dominated by profit and thought of in terms of bottom-line results. They’re increasingly getting into the idea of the balanced scorecard, for example…
Renee:…Right, and corporate social responsibility…
Russ:…Right! So there seems to be at least some evidence that there’s a growing interest in this, but it still feels like there’s a long way to go.
Renee: I think so too. The purpose of WisdomScape was to try and put into more pragmatic language the language of business and try to stretch leaders towards second-tier. In Spiral Dynamics’ terms, the tool creates a bridge for “orange” and “green” to move into second-tier ways of thinking and doing business.
Russ: As you think about people around the world who are being influenced by developmental and integral perspectives and bringing them to the world of work—those who want to coach and create the kind of commitment to sustainability that you’ve committed yourself to—do you have any advice for them?
Renee: I would tell them, “Find other people like you.” People who are like-minded are a great resource for rejuvenating and refreshing and stretching ourselves. Connecting to those life-enhancing relationships is critical. I would also tell them, “Examine your own life.” Continually do whole-life reviews to notice where you’re placing your energy and what you aren’t paying attention to …and to understand your deeper motivations.
Many people in this field have incredible heartfelt aspirations for business and for the world, and that’s the source of their passion and drive. Yet, we won’t be able to achieve those possibilities if we don’t take care of the resources we have available to us right now—our spirituality, our physical health, our emotional health—to be able to move into the future with compassion and courage and wisdom.
I would also say to practitioners, “Learn to speak the language of business.” When we are looking for practitioners, there is huge shortage of practitioners who really understand business. We find incredible practitioners who are strategic thinkers, living in the zone of possibility and inspiration. (That is where I love to live, too!). Yet, many practitioners are so far ahead they can’t speak the language which their business clients can hear. A good question for all of us to ask is: What are the doors into the business world that we can walk through authentically and not hide our passion for health and sustainability?
Russ: You’ve got to start with where they are.
Renee: Exactly. Something that Margaret Wheatley said in a book I read a long time ago stated that we must help the system become more aware of itself, because a system that is more aware will be more able to discover its own path to health and wellbeing. We cannot force a system—whether an individual, a whole company or a culture—to become healthy. But we can support the system in becoming more aware of itself, and as it does, most systems will want to move toward life-enhancing worldviews and actions. And, that approach is a more sustainable for them.
Wheatley also said, “You can never direct a system and you can never control it. Yet, you can perturb it.” That requires us to really understand the system we’re working with, including ourselves. We have to get so curious about the system …the meaning it creates, its visions and dreams, how it succeeds and how it thwarts its own success, and so forth.
Russ: Now that you’ve had more time and distance from that work, have you become aware of how people identify, connect to and stay focused on what is important to them—their health oriented goals, their physical, spiritual and emotional growth?
Renee: One of the big lessons for me was to help people see themselves in a multi-dimensional way and to help people understand that health and wellness is a “felt experience” that no one else can define for them. Health can be facilitated through many different paths, and they have to choose the paths their fit their beliefs and their lifestyles.
I have also learned how important it is to help people find their own sources of inspiration to make positive changes in their lives. For most people, becoming “informed” is a useful tool for change, but it doesn’t guarantee that change will occur. (Don’t we all have examples of when we were very aware and informed in a particular area of life, but not necessarily motivated to make the changes we needed to?) Inspiration, rather than information, seems to be a better facilitator of sustainable change.
I’ve also learned that as a coach and consultant, my job isn’t just to impart knowledge. It is to walk side-by-side with the person I’m serving, to ask questions and be curious, to hold a vision of possibility for that individual or team or company that they may not be able to see for themselves. This is the role of partnership, helping others discover the core drivers and purpose for their existence, along with avenues for living and leading that are life enhancing. In this way, people become more conscious of themselves and more capable at arriving at work feeling more vital, alive and creative. They become more committed to a path of living from their fundamental motivations and values, their sense of wholeness and integrity. That doesn’t mean they live a perfect life or have the perfect job. It means living a committed life, and being committed to who they authentically are versus allowing societal conditioning to define them.
We believe that living and working from this degree of commitment is not only an incredible opportunity for leaders; it is also their responsibility. Companies today, particularly those which are committed to making a profit as well as a positive difference in society, need leaders to be a life-affirming force, a wellspring of resilience and vision which guides people in the midst of what often feels like chaos and complexity.
Russ: Thank you and your colleagues for the contribution you and your team at Wisdom Works are making.
For information on training associated with WindomWorks™ see the Notes section of this issue of Integral Leadership Review.