Do you have a book that you read a number of years ago that has stuck with you? Do you remember the name? The story? Or, maybe just the feeling you get when you think of the book? For me, it was a book I read over 10 years ago (thank goodness for the old boarding pass bookmark to remind me of the trip). This is one of the rare books I have packed and unpacked over the years. Something clicked and I decided that it would be worth my time to re-read it. This is the first time I have ever re-read a book and what an experience!
This book describes the unlikely partnership of a savvy CEO and a former monk who led their company to the top even while embracing a higher set of business standards. It examines KeySpan’s success from the perspective of Robert Catell and Kenny Moore, who formed an unusual but potent relationship that enabled the company’s rise from a small local utility monopoly to one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing energy providers. It has done so by adopting the values of the community it serves and espousing a management philosophy that brought caring and a sense of soul into the workplace. The results not only improved the bottom line, but forged a corporate culture with meaning.
I wish I could remember why I bought this book. Did someone recommend it to me? Was it a top seller? Was it because it was based upon a New York company? I don’t remember now. However, I do remember the story. A CEO that cared about the employees and the company. A company that was loyal to his employees and customers. Even back then, I felt that this was unique. The part that I loved is that the CEO came to rely on Kenny, the ex-monk to help him keep a pulse on the soul of the company, the people. Kenny was the trusted advisor. He was empathetic. He would listen to what people were saying. He would put together programs to thank the employees and encourage the CEO to meet with as many employees as possible. Kenny ensured that the CEO was not stuck up in the Ivory Tower of management.
Reading the book this time, it makes complete sense why I love the book so much. I resonate with the monk’s role. I love being the cheerleader, inspiring the team, but also listening and understanding what motivates them. My dream job would be that monk’s job. Be the trusted advisor to the CEO to help him/her to inspire and enable the team to see the vision and enjoy the journey.
However, reading it this time, it struck another cord. The values that the CEO and monk talk about within a corporation are the same values that I try to live by and those that I crave in any company with which I work We spend nearly 1/3 of our time at work and most of us treat it as a job, a place to earn money. Unfortunately, we do not tend to be loyal to the company because the overwhelming feeling is that there is no loyalty returned to us.
Back in my dad’s business heyday, there was loyalty in the business place. Companies were loyal to their employees and in return the employees were loyal to their companies. Same with customers – the loyalty flowed both ways. I believe focused on what was right, rather than what was best for the bottom line. Companies had a purpose, they knew why they were in business and usually it was tied to the local communities.
Unfortunately, as companies grew, the economy faltered and/or improved efficiencies became priority, the loyalty seemed to fade. I recall by the time I graduated from college, I already knew my first job would be a stepping stone to the next. I started with 120 first year employees at Ernst & Young and it was a known fact that less than 20% would remain after 5 years. However, this was not unique to public accounting firms, it was a common conversation among my friends in various industries that it was important to get our foot in the door, get our experience and move on to get the raises. By this time pensions were nearly non-existent. I recall my dad questioning a person’s stability, 3 jobs in less than 2 years?!? My response, exasperated, ‘Dad, that is the new way of business. Time’s have changed. Make the move first or you will be moved out.’
I admit it, I was part of the evolving generation. As a family, we personally learned that despite loyalty dedicated to a company, it may not be reciprocated. I didn’t believe a company could have a soul. The best you could hope for were good people with good intent and good values. I have been very fortunate over the years to have worked with some amazing people in my career. It was from my peers and my leaders that I would get the guidance and support I needed to succeed, not the company.
As I think back, there was one company I worked for, a small software company, that provided the best experience. I ponder whether it was the company itself, or the founder who created the loyalty. I was employee #61 and the president and his wife knew all our names. We were invited over for dinner. He supported my move to England and he encouraged me to make the most of my time there. I recall him asking, “Kathy, what countries will you visit? You have 52 weekends, that is 52 countries you can visit!’. Every employee knew why we were working for the firm, we believed in the mission and there was a tremendous amount of loyalty in both directions. Now, that was a smaller company and I think it is easier to have that passion; that connection with your employees. It gets more difficult as the business grows and you cannot physically know every employee on a personal level. Does the company lose its soul at that point?
Difficult, but not impossible
Hence why I loved this book. It was the first time I had heard of a corporation taking the time to grapple with this dilemma. This book taught me that just because you get big, it does not mean you must lose that personal connection. As a leader, it is that much more important to recognize the need for that connection and find innovative ways to make it happen, like hiring an ex-monk.
The CEO had a vision, a purpose for the company. He cared about the community and the employees and refused to succumb to the growing greed in Corporate America. I loved that he recognized that he needed a ‘spiritual’ leader for the organization. He knew that he did not have the bandwidth to spend the time needed with individuals, but that it was critical to listen to the employees. Enter the ex-monk. He listened, he observed, he walked a mile in the teams’ moccasins. He could then package his findings and share them with the CEO to make suggestions for improvements. I guess some of his quirky ideas in the book, like having a ‘funeral’ to mourn the old way of doing business, or sending Valentine Day cards, or hiring an Improv comedian have inspired me over the years. For those that know me, I have been known to adopt a mascot, Eddie, to build teamwork, as well as adopt a team motto to prepare for battle.
Cause and Effect
I don’t know which is cause and effect. Did I love this book because I am a loyal person and I want to see more empathy in the work place, thus my mission to inspire and enable others? Or, did my mission and my desire to drive more loyalty back into the workplace start to develop because I read this book?
One thing I know for sure, there was a seed somewhere. You remember the things that you are passionate about. I am so excited that I re-read this book, because so many ideas that I am forming related to conscious capitalism, empathy in the workplace, striving to partner with a business leader to help them drive employee engagement/loyalty, have all taken on a greater meaning. It is building on a foundation that was set a number of years ago.
I encourage you to think back to that book that inspired you years ago and re-read it. You may be surprised that it either re-awakens a dream or desire or reaffirms a core set of beliefs that could use some polishing.
Thanks to this book, this is being added to my positive self-talk track going forward:
“Doing the right thing, being socially responsible, and holding tightly to a core set of values about how to do business and how to treat people will never go out of fashion.” – Robert Catell, CEO of Keyspan, from The CEO and the Monk