Interview with Tim Leberecht, Author of The Business Romantic
Tim Leberecht is the author of the book The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself (HarperCollins, 2015) and the chief marketing officer of NBBJ, a global design and architecture firm that helps organizations such as Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing, Samsung, Starbucks, and Tencent create meaningful experiences. Previously, he was the chief marketing officer of product design and strategy firm Frog Design, His writing has appeared in publications such as Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Psychology Today, and Wired. He has spoken at venues including TED, The Economist Big Rethink, DLD, the Silicon Valley CEO Summit, Commonwealth Club, and the World Economic Forum. His TED Talk “3 Ways to (Usefully) Lose Control of Your Brand” has been viewed by almost a million people to date. Tim is the co-founder of the 15 Toasts dinner series. He serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values and on the board of Jump Associates, a strategy and innovation consultancy.
Why does the world need a work revolution? (In other words: the way we’re working isn’t working. Why not?)
I’m not a Luddite or a dataphobe, but I do worry that technology might aggravate the disenchantment many of us already experience with business. We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, but according to a 2013 Gallup survey only 13 percent of employees worldwide are fully engaged in their jobs. A study by the London School of Economics even found that work ranks at the very bottom of a list of attractive activities, and only being sick in bed ranked lower. Moreover, trust in business leadership, according to the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer and the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Outlook on the Global Agenda, is at historic lows.
I believe this disenchantment not only comes from social inequities and eroding trust in the merits of capitalism, but also from a feeling that business is somewhat divorced from the full range of our humanity. At work, we strive to be “business people,” smart, level-headed, consistent, always in control.
The workplace—arguably one of the most important drivers of our identity and life’s narrative—has become a mechanized and secularized arena. The poet David Whyte once wrote: “Work is where we make or break ourselves,” but for too many of us that is no longer true. In this “second machine age,” we cannot make or break ourselves anymore. We just show up, perform, deliver, and play the game, which is increasingly a numbers game.
The biggest threat to fulfillment at work is, in my eyes, technology that fosters a new age of “Digital Taylorism”: productivity-focused telematics, sensor-based mood monitoring, socio-metric applications like Meeting Mediator that help observe and manage social dynamics, peer-based open performance monitoring systems like Better Works, or algorithmic recruiting and decision-making. The fully data-driven workplace will be a fully joyless workplace. It doesn’t require a defeatist temperament to foresee another era of “disenchantment,” a term coined by the sociologist Max Weber in 1919, portraying the effects of industrialization and Taylorism as an “iron cage” that eliminates all spirituality from our lives.
Today we live and work in a “glass cage” enabled by surveillance tools, (self-)monitoring, and brutal efficiency orientation. We have become too smart, too data-reliant, too quantified for our own good, and must reclaim space for our elusive, inconsistent, and unpredictable un-quantified selves. We are in the process of engineering the romance, the soul, out of our organizations, and this is a trend that not only affects traditional, large corporations, but also the SME’s, local stores, and even start-ups.
For me, those entrepeneurs, CEOs, and managers who insist on intuition and subjectivity and have the courage and character to make decisions in spite of data, in defiance of pragmatism and efficiency, are the new romantics of our time. We need more of these emotionally aware, generous, and kind individuals who can read between top and bottom line and create cultures that honor our full selves, rather than just maximizing investments by optimizing our performance.
We need a work revolution that uses the dramatic technology advances of the last years to humanize the workplace for all workers.
How are you or your organization reinventing work in some way (big or small)?
In a small way, I’m hoping that my book, The Business Romantic, inspires a new business world that allows us to be more “romantic” in the sense of experiencing vulnerability, a sense of wonder, and delight at work, as a means to find more meaning in our everyday life. Inspired by the responses to the book, I founded the Business Romantic Society as a network of like-minded professionals who are passionate about this topic and eager to advance this conversation within their organizations and beyond. We’re currently planning a gathering in the summer and a series of smaller dinners.
The company I work for, NBBJ, a global design and architecture firm, impacts the workplace of the future in a more tangible way. Designing headquarters for clients such as Amazon, Samsung, or Tencent, we help foster a more urban approach to the workplace that weaves in serendipity, a productive tension between private and public spaces, and the density of creative city life.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by neuroscientifc findings claiming that our visual intelligence has increased significantly over the past few years, and that the more often we see our work, the more productive and fulfilled we are. NBBJ once was the architect for a new production facility for Boeing, and we designed the building such that every single employee could see the aircrafts that were being manufactured, the “product” of their work, at least once a day.
Why do you do what you do?
I love bringing ideas together with people. And I love communication for the very act of communicating. A few years ago I actually wrote my own statement of purpose, and it still rings true: “With great vulnerability, contagious excitement, and a religious attention to details, I create space for possibility and action to show that, perhaps, we are all connected and there is more than we can see.”
What kind of art (any kind) do you like and why? Any recommendations we should know about?
Mostly architecture, literature, and film. Some of my all-time favorites include the Pantheon in Rome and the Camp Nou soccer stadium in Barcelona on the architecture side, and as for movies,Casablanca and Magnolia. As for books, The Dead by James Joyce made a huge impression on me, and so did the essays by Michel Montaigne. I like essays in general. If I had to choose between a world of poems, novels, short stories, or essays, I would pick essays, for sure. Consequently, I have only essay collections on my pile of books to read right now: Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams and Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable.
I am very intrigued by “sacred” places: old churches or their modern equivalents, the cathedrals of our time—stadiums, airports, and headquarters. Maybe the bigger theme I’m interested in is how people find and claim their place in the world and how spacemaking and storytelling help with that quest.
What is one specific thing your company does that makes your culture unique and/or different?
I would say NBBJ is pioneering a truly collaborative, humble culture, in which strong ideas always trump title or seniority, and the project—and the underlying social issues—are front and center. I know many firms claim this and I was first skeptical when I joined, but I found it to be really true. Of course this doesn’t mean there are no hierarchies, but whether you’re a Partner or a junior designer, you can always speak up and contribute. We also don’t have single leaders. Most responsibilities are shared by so-called “core teams” comprising of 3-4 leaders, and they have to get on the same page for decisions, at least for the big ones. I wouldn’t say this collaborative leadership culture is always the most efficient, but it is truly different and a big part of NBBJ’s unique culture.
What is one discipline/industry totally different from your own that has inspired you? How does it impact your work?
When I was 22, I dropped out of law school to launch a music career with my band Migraine (in hindsight, the name clearly was a mistake…). We released two albums and toured quite a bit in Europe, where I lived at the time, but the commercial success did not materialize. And yet, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life: I learned about collaboration, the creative process, about taking risks and the vulnerability you experience when you’re on stage. What it means to show up and give your best. In a strange way, in business, I’m still singing my heart out every day. I no longer write songs, I write memos, presentations, proposals, and mails, but I still feel like I’m playing in a band. My work as a marketer is an emotional roller-coaster ride and never boring, and the feedback of the marketplace is like the one you get on stage as a musician: immediate and brutally honest.
What’s one tangible and concrete technique other organizations should use if they want to create a more human and/or meaningful place to work?
Engage your employees for one hour every day in a “romantic” activity: for example, host a number of simultaneous small off-the-record dinners as “safe spaces” for honest conversations; or convene a group of employees as a “secret society” to imagine your company’s alter ego; or create a format that encourages employees to take on tasks for which they do not have the typical qualifications.
All of these activities have in common that they shake up the routine and inject some mystery, some adventure into the workday. They also serve as small moments of attachment and intimacy, and we know from relationship research that these moments are more critical for a healthy relationship than clarity and frequency of communication.
What is one surprising thing we should know about you?
I’m not sure if this is all that surprising, although perhaps it’s a bit unusual (my wife finds it endearing at least), but anyway, I LOVE ironing, especially shirts. I love the smell of a hot iron and find it deeply rewarding to eliminate wrinkles. In a way, ironing is my way of meditating. It calms me down and is comforting, maybe because I can still hear my mom’s voice when I iron. It brings back childhood memories, but at the same time it also grounds me in the here and now. I firmly believe the world would be a better place if everybody ironed, at least once a week!
What piece of technology (other than your laptop/smartphone/tablet) could you not live without and why?
Airplanes. I feel guilty because of my environmental footprint and the crazy number of hours I spend in the air every year, but I must admit that when it comes to planes I’m like a small child. I just marvel at them and still don’t quite understand how it is at all possible. Sometimes I even go plane-spotting near SFO. I grew up near an airport, and I would really miss the sight and sound of planes if I had to live without them.
What does your preferred work environment look like?
A dark, quiet, and dimly lit lounge, with good coffee, comfortable chairs, fast Wifi, and a friendly no-attitude vibe. A mix of familiar faces and strangers. And definitely no neon lights! Too much artificial light gives me a headache. I once visited Neue House in New York, a mix of co-working space and social club. I was impressed with the service, the creative and yet professional atmosphere, and the overall kindness. It’s members-only though and comes at a high price tag, so I’m perfectly fine with just a cozy coffee shop, ideally one that I just randomly stumble upon.
Where in the world are you?
San Francisco, CA
How can people connect with you?
This article first appeared on The Work Revolution.