I gave this talk to the teams at Windhorse in Cambridge a few years ago and the five principles outlined in it are still referred to when recruiting new people or training people in the ethos of the business.
Ever since I was a teenager I have been motivated by idealism. One of the reasons I left Ireland when I was seventeen was because I was worried that my idealism might lead me into extremist politics, which in that time and place would have been very dangerous.
That idealism led me to search for meaning in life and eventually to taking up Buddhist practice. That idealism has also led me to join Windhorse:Evolution. I am very keen to give my energy to trying to create a business with heart, a business that definitely makes money. But a business that makes money not to provide personal wealth, not to pay big salaries or give a big fortune to shareholders but rather a business that makes money to give away. The idealism of working for the purpose of generosity appeals very much to me, in fact it gives me a sense of purpose and meaning that I never could get from an ordinary career. I think I may be something of an extremist in this regard and I don’t really expect many people to share my passion for an idealistic life. If a few people share it, that’s enough for me.
So is Windhorse:Evolution (W:E) satisfying my need for idealistic work?
I have been here at W:E for just over one year now and sometimes when people ask me what I do here, what my role is, it is quite difficult to tell them clearly. This is because I have been learning as I proceed and my role has evolved over the year.
Initially I came here at the request of the Management Forum (MF) to help them reduce the level of stress they were under. There were all sorts of reasons why the senior managers felt burdened – recruitment issues, changes in the ethos of the business, inadequate structures to allow for delegation, inadequate provision of training, a difficult trading environment and of course a shortage of time to give attention to any of these issues.
One of the first things I did was to take on chairing the Management Forum meetings to help make the meetings more effective.
I also began reviewing the business to try to discover what people working here felt about the business; what they valued and what they wanted to change.
In the course of that review I met about 150 people, which is a good percentage of the total workforce. I am still engaged in following through the findings from that review.
One of the more immediate things I did was to enlist the help of Tejasvini and Dhiramitra to produce a magazine – because that was one obvious need that could be met relatively easily.
Then at the request of the managers I instituted a review of training in the business. That review, which involved several other people doing quite a bit of work, took six months and the report and recommendations that came out of it will be discussed by the MF soon.
The MF also asked me to look into how to develop a new management structure for the business. I spent time looking into this and creating models which looked good on paper – but in the end I concluded that it was going to have to be an organic process and a new structure would emerge out of the present structure if we could enable more people to take responsibility and free up some of the senior managers to have a more strategic overview rather than being involved so much in the day to day details. So with the help of Shakyakumara we have been enabling more delegation of responsibility. I have organised some of those who are taking up new responsibility to meet together to share experience and get a sense of the business beyond their own area. I help by chairing these meetings.
I have also organised and facilitated some strategy meetings to begin to formulate a longer-term strategy for both the wholesale and retail sides of the businesses.
This whole area of management structure and delegation is very much work in progress and has some way to go.
Another task I was requested to carry out was to look into the issues that gave rise to some people leaving the business unhappily in the past. I gathered together some people to help me with this and I met up with some of those who had left unhappily. I have now produced a report with some recommendations, which are either being implemented or discussed further.
More recently I have been supporting Beth in carrying out a review of the personnel function in the business. Beth did all the work really and produced a report and recommendations, which has led to some changes in the Personnel work. The main change is that a definite distinction has been drawn between Staff Welfare work and Personnel work, with Saddharaja now managing Staff Welfare and Dharmasiddhi managing Personnel.
I have also been taking a closer look at the accounts of the business and the Trust to familiarise myself with more of the financial details.
The main thing I am involved with now is working even more closely with Vajraketu and taking some of the weight off his shoulders so that he can concentrate more of his time and energy on buying and selling.
But to come back to where I began – with idealism. Underlying and underpinning everything here is our values as a business inspired by the Buddhist vision of life. This is of primary importance to me and I know to many others here.
Being here connects me with what is most important to me and I would very much like that to be the case for most people. It seems to me that if we can connect to what is most important to us in terms of values when we are at work then our lives will be greatly enriched.
I would like all of us to experience a real sense of community, of friendliness and mutual care. I would very much like this to be a business where like-minded people work together to create a really excellent working environment and an efficient and profitable business. I would like to see all our efforts resulting in something we could be proud of – something special as a workplace and as a business.
This is a kind of dream – a dream of working with people who want to work together for the benefit of others as well as themselves, a dream of a business that exists to give away money rather than accumulate wealth for shareholders or directors or workers, a dream of a community of like-minded people willing to work hard to achieve something greater than any one individual could achieve.
I would like to work in an environment where the spirit of generosity is pervasive – generosity towards each other and the generosity of generating profits to give away.
I would like to work in an environment where we treat each other with care and kindness and where we treat our suppliers and customers and anybody else we encounter, with kindness and care too.
However, I am well aware that none of us is perfect and that whatever ideals or values we have we will often fall short. I am also well aware that not everyone is able to respond to ideals in the same way or to the same degree. So we will always have a diversity of responses to deal with but I guess the minimum we can expect of each other is that no one will be actively undermining of what the business is about.
I see my current role here as one of trying to provide a focus for the values that underpin the business as an altruistic project and at the same time helping where I can to bring more efficiency and strategic thinking to bear on the money making aspect of what we do.
Currently we are looking into formulating strategies for retail and wholesale to meet the challenges of a more competitive market and shrinking profits. This also entails a lot of detailed work and research so that decisions are based on the strongest possible foundations. It is very clear that in future everybody in the business will have to have a clearer sense of how they are contributing to profitability and the impact of their teams’ activity on sales and profits.
Alongside this we are looking very closely at the way we have put our values into practice in the past and considering whether some definite changes need to be made. We are looking at the issue of support and wages and considering whether the principles that underpin the business are being served by the current practices. We are also looking at recruitment policy and Right livelihood training. This kind of review entails going back to first principles and seeing what is needed to serve the ethical and spiritual values of the business.
Here is how I would outline the first principles or fundamental principles of the business as a business and as a Buddhist organisation.
1. Being a business is the context in which we operate and therefore as a business our first principle has to be to make money. This may seem obvious but I have encountered people who feel we should not focus on making money.
However there is a difference between being a charity and being a business and although this business is owned by a charity it is not itself a charity. A charity can raise funds from donations, but a business has to create wealth. A business is in business to make money and if it doesn’t make money it will not survive for long. So making money has to be a fundamental principle of this business.
This puts the customer at the centre of the business. Everything else depends upon the customer. When you have plenty of customers and they are buying in sufficient quantities then you make money and then you can do other things.
So we have to remember in our daily work that the customer is central to what we do, to our existence and survival as a business and we need to be aware of our customers and treat them well. We need to serve our customers. Anyone in business who feels that the customer is a nuisance or can be ignored is really deluding themselves. If we are a mandala to use a Buddhist image then the customer is in the centre and everything else is in relationship to the customer.
The fundamental need to make money also implies that we need to give due appreciation to those who are directly involved in selling. We need to appreciate fully the sales team, the regional sales reps who take the vans out to our customers, the Retail team and the shop teams. They are at the front line communicating with customers, selling products and conveying the ethos of our business – so they are really the most important people in the business.
Appreciating them means understanding what a key role they play in business and supporting them fully. What they need to do their work effectively should take priority over things.
Perhaps each team should have a brief update on the profitability of the business every couple of months, if you don’t already have one, as a way of staying in touch with this fundamental principle.
So the first thing we are about as a business is making money.
2. Now we come on to the second fundamental principle of Windhorse. What distinguishes us from most other businesses is what we do with our profits. We make money in order to give it away. This is what the business was established for and this continues to be one of its main reasons for existing. This principle is very much in line with the Buddhist values that permeate the company.
We do not want to make any individual rich. We are not capitalist in the strict sense of providing dividends to shareholders in return for the provision of capital. We are not in business to provide large salaries for directors or to enable anyone to grow rich.
Primarily we are in business to generate wealth in order to give it away.
So generosity is our second fundamental principle. It has to be second because you cannot give away what you don’t have. As I said before we need to make money before we can give it away. I am emphasising this because some very good idealistic people really love generosity as a practice and love the fact that we help people in Kenya and Guatemala but sometimes feel that making money or even wanting to make money is somehow a bit dirty – not pure enough. But we need to be equally wholehearted about making money and generosity or we become a bicycle with only one wheel – going nowhere.
3. The third fundamental principle of Windhorse is ethics. We want a strong ethical practice to be part of our business ethos and also to pervade the working environment.
Ethical practice generates an atmosphere of trust, which is something we want to foster.
Put simply, the main elements of ethical practice for us are kindness, honesty and awareness.
I’ll just say something briefly about each of these.
Kindness here means trying to develop and maintain an attitude of goodwill and care towards each other in the workplace and also towards our customers, suppliers and anyone we encounter in the course of the working day. Kindness is an attitude that recognises and empathises with the humanity of others. This is the kind of atmosphere we want to create – one of recognising and empathising with the humanity of others.
Honesty is crucial to developing trust, both between ourselves and in relation to our customers and suppliers. This is honesty in the sense of not stealing or taking things without permission and also honesty in the sense of telling the truth. As a business we should try not to tell lies for the sake of advantage or profit and as individuals the same applies. What we say and how we speak to each other plays a large part in creating our working atmosphere. An atmosphere of trust needs honesty and truthful speech.
Awareness as an ethical principle is concerned with being aware of other people. If we are to be kind or honest in relation to others we need to be aware of them. This means being aware of them as a person with feelings and thoughts, needs and qualities. This kind of awareness of people as fellow human beings is actually not so common in the world as you notice if you pay any attention to the news media. But even those of us who are relatively polite and well mannered are sometimes only aware of others to the extent that they either help or hinder us. In other words we often relate to other people as objects that to some degree cause us either pleasure or pain. So as an ethical principle, awareness means going beyond that kind of relating to others and trying to glimpse the humanity beyond our own likes and dislikes. If we can do this we create an atmosphere of trust and care which makes our working lives a pleasure.
Another aspect of ethics is our relation to the natural world and this is also an area that we as a business should pay attention to.
So ethics is about enhancing our relations with each other, with customers, suppliers and others and with the natural environment and it is the third fundamental principle of Windhorse.
4. The fourth fundamental principle is personal development.
From a Buddhist perspective the whole purpose of life is to develop and grow from a state of relative egotism and separateness to a state of egolessness and compassion. Here at Windhorse, this idea that people can change and grow and unfold their potential is one of our underlying principles.
We can unfold our potential in all sorts of ways. For instance by developing skills we gain confidence and as we gain confidence we become more secure and happy to be who we are, which means there is less of a tendency to be self-centred. Developing new skills could mean just developing the ability to speak up in a group, or the ability to articulate our thoughts clearly. Or it might mean developing the ability to listen carefully – or the ability to make presentations – or simply the ability to engage with our work. For some it might mean learning leadership skills or management skills.
Personal development also means knowing ourselves and knowing how we limit ourselves through habitual ways of thinking and habitual ways of acting and speaking. The more we come to know ourselves in detail the more we can change ourselves for the better and become bigger people.
Meditation is one of the methods for learning to know ourselves. This is quite widely recognised these days and is being used in business more and more. The author and business consultant Danah Zohar recommends meditation to top executives, for instance. A friend of mine is just beginning to teach meditation to the employees of a large pharmaceutical company in the south of England and another friend used to teach meditation to staff at the London headquarters of Marks and Spencer.
Perhaps as a business inspired by Buddhism we should give more attention to meditation too. How about each team beginning or ending the working day with fifteen minutes of quiet time?
Personal development from the basic level of developing new skills right up to the spiritual heights of embodying Wisdom and Compassion is the fourth fundamental principle of Windhorse.
5. The fifth and last principle I want to outline is the principle of collectivity and community.
You could say this is the spirit in which all the other principles are carried out.
The first stage of this collectivity is working in a team – co-operating and collaborating with others as creatively as we can to achieve the goals of the team.
We enhance the ability to work collectively by creating a sense of community between us and we create a sense of community by getting to know each other better and developing empathy and care between us.
So the first building block of a collective endeavour is to get to know our fellow team members and develop trust and kindness in the team. This is what some of our team meetings are about.
Beyond that we can get a sense of the larger collective effort by reading the magazine and by interacting with people from other teams either formally through meetings or informally over lunch or at social gatherings. This is obviously more difficult for the shop teams.
I think Arthasiddhi’s singing workshops are very good in this respect and we could do with many more social events and opportunities for spending time together outside the working environment. Perhaps we should initiate an annual one-day festival for everybody from here and the shops and perhaps even some of our customers, as a way of building a stronger sense of community. I think this is an area that is wide open for anyone to take initiative and there is a theatre available as a venue, which we could easily make more use of.
However we go about it the principle we want to give life to is that of collectivity and community – a sense that we are doing something worthwhile together and that we are part of a community of like-minded people supporting and encouraging each other in our personal development, ethical practice and so on.
So these in brief are the five fundamental principles of Windhorse: making money, generosity, ethics, personal development and community.
We are already putting them all into practice to some degree – some more than others – and there is always more we can do. There is also room for creativity and innovation in how we put these principles into practice.
I have spoken about our fundamental principles. This is the foundation on which the whole organisation rests. From these principles we can build up something that we can all be proud of.
What I hope we can build is a successful business – with a heart, a successful business whose purpose is to be helpful, a business where we are all motivated to give our best and co-operate with each other in order to make money which we can give away and where we are motivated to create working environments that are pervaded by trust, kindness and awareness and where it is a pleasure to work in a collective spirit with our fellow team members.