Humanizing Business In The Age Of Machines
Tim was a guest at the Corporate Unplugged podcast
Tim Leberecht helps organisations and individuals create transformative visions, stories and experiences. He’s also the co-founder and co-curator of the House Of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and a community for leaders and changemakers with a mission to humanise business.
Having spent 15 years in Silicon Valley, he began to see its cracks. He realised the destruction that the work hard/play hard mentality of the region was wreaking on the Bay Area. He’s a self-confessed glass half full kind of guy, who embraced what America can offer… As long as you’re European and have a decent education. But the birth of his daughter caused him to question the value system he held and he was appalled at the bottom line, exponential growth oriented thinking that had become the hallmark of Silicon Valley.
“San Francisco had become so expensive, the Bohemians and artists, the different social strata from tech, had had to flee the city. Sitting in restaurants and cafes the only conversations you overheard were about seed funding, series A funding, about software. It became a mono culture, very one dimensional.”
So what does Tim wish for the area in the future? That the incredible entrepreneurial spirit that is so prevalent in the Bay Area be put to better, social use. That it can produce more value for broader swathes of the population living on the fringes of society, not just filling the pockets of the upper 2% of inhabitants.
For Tim, the view that humanism is the mastering of nature through science and technology is actually hurting us.
“If you look at climate change and everything that’s happening and all the other crises that are breaking out, I think that this artificial separation between humans and nature has really come to haunt us.”
Humanism is also not what many brands and companies are marketing it as – the humanisation of the workplace or business. For Tim, this is just paying lip service and implementing a marketing ploy.
Talking about humanism in this way caters to the human need of convenience. And while that’s OK, because we do want products and business and services that enhance our wellbeing, that isn’t Tim’s definition of humanisation of business.
To be human at work
“To be human at work means that you are allowed to be sad, that you’re allowed to be weak, that you can be vulnerable, because ultimately, what distinguishes us humans from machines is that we are vulnerable, that we can suffer.”
Appreciating the difference between humans and machines is what will give us the guidance for how we want to show up at work and how we should design our organisations. It’s about rallying against the forced positivity that emanates out of Silicon Valley.
“I always say that the truly human workplace is a workplace that allows us to be sad, rather than enabling us to be constantly happy.”
In fact, for Tim, being authentic means being ugly. It doesn’t mean being beautiful all the time on a very superficial level, but actually showing your true self – because we are all ugly, messy, unorganised, wild, angry, sad. That’s true authenticity. And that is very rare in the workplace.
Of course there isn’t one answer for how to fix things, each person and each company will have their own system, their own journey, and Tim has explored 40 companies looking to make their business beautiful, in his book The Book Of Beautiful Business.
“I believe businesses need to become more beautiful. And what I mean by that is not more beautiful products in terms of better designs or better design work. But beautiful from the inside. And that means that they have a soul, that they have a spirit, that they have something invisible at their heart that cannot be expressed or cannot be quantified that’s driving them.”
The three factors Tim says combine together to make a beautiful business are static intelligence, ethics and emotional richness. Beautiful businesses can ultimately produce value for themselves and for society. They can be vehicles for creating meaning and giving people a chance to learn and grow.
“And also, there’s so many facts and input that shows that these kinds of companies are exactly that because of this, more successful, profit wise, results wise.”
Companies with a strong purpose, with a strong vision, are able to attract better talent and retain it. Also, a recent study has shown that social impact investing has outperformed traditional investing for the first time.
“It’s interesting that from an investment perspective, companies with a social mission have produced higher returns. So there is a business reason for being beautiful. However, I just want to caution that that’s not why we should aspire to be beautiful. I think it’s very important that we also understand businesses as an enterprise for us to learn, to grow, to shape the future, to build reality, to make meaning.”
Building a beautiful business starts with great leadership. Which for Tim means being able to step inside yourself and see yourself in a greater context.
“There’s a certain humility that’s needed. It’s an appreciation of the universe around you, and then seeing your role in it, and then finding and crafting and articulating a story that is so inspiring, that other people will follow you.”
Well not actually follow you as a person, but follow your vision. The other quality that makes a great leader is being able to grow others and allow them to grow and define your own success by their success.
This sounds easy, but actually, says Tim, it’s hard to do because we are all so driven by our own ego.
“It’s very hard for me to recognise there is someone who’s more talented, or their growth is more important than my own. So I think that that’s really the hallmark of a great leader. And I think great leaders just keep learning and keep being humbled.”
“Loneliness is such an existential condition in a way that sometimes you wonder what would your friends think of you for really saying what you think? And what is your place in the world? And does it really matter what you’re doing and does anybody really understand?”
Tim believes that right now, in the wake of this pandemic, companies need to focus on restoring normalcy while thinking ahead, and looking to make adjustments for the new reality we are going to experience in the coming future.
“Companies need to be ambidextrous, they need to be multipolar, they need to be many companies at the same time, at once. And that’s really hard to do.”
But what the world needs most right now is hope, because hope inspires everything else. Hope, says Tim, leads to action, to commitment, to optimism, to initiatives, to impact. Without hope, there is nothing.