A new way to work

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Here at Zingerman’s Community of Business in Ann Arbor, Michigan we’ve spent the last 35 years working hard to bring the flavors of traditional foods to our customers.

Whether it’s naturally leavened breads, raw milk cheese, long-cured hams, artisan pasta, old school candy bars, estate bottle olive oils, naturally converted vinegars or growing organic heirloom vegetables at our farm, etc., we’re always working to go back to the old ways.  We almost never “invent” any new products—we just study old books and long-standing food traditions from around the world to “discover” our “innovative” new offerings. While what we do might seem “cutting edge” to most people, nearly all of our products are, or were, actually very well known in their home region, or in the era in which they were once popular.  If you’re as interested in great food as we are, you can see more about our food offerings at zingermans.com and at our various other websites.   We love traditional flavors and we’re constantly working find ways to make them more flavorful and more true to the traditions from whence they came centuries earlier.

When it comes to the workplace though, we have a different approach. Instead of looking almost exclusively to the past, we embrace the new, the different, the previously untried. While we certainly love to learn from expert thinkers and creative organizational designs anywhere we can find them, I’ve come to realize that the way we’re approaching work and the way we’re designing our business really have no corollary in history. The idea of work as a something which is done, not just to “pay the bills,” or because “one has no choice,” but rather as a way to help the individuals doing it to live their dreams, to become ever more themselves has very little precedent in the past.  The idea that the organization can help everyone who is a part of it to go for greatness in all they do, to enhance the quality of their own lives while focusing on high quality at work has never been the norm outside of a few isolated experiments in history.  Certainly we know there were inspiring attempts at it here and there.  But I really believe that the approaches that we’re imperfectly attempting to put together in our organization are essentially developing a whole new way to experience the workplace.

Certainly, we’re not the only ones moving in this direction.  All of the other stories you read about at Corporate Rebels are of organizations making their creative ways forward.  And, to be clear, it’s not like we’ve got it all figured out—we make mistakes every day, we fall short of our own standards regularly, and we’re always working to learn new ways and adapt them to our organizational ecosystem.

Is this new methodology working?  As I said, we never get it all right. But in its own imperfect way, I have to humbly say that there are many very cool things happening here at the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.  I know too that many of our approaches have been adapted (by reading the books or attending our ZingTrain seminars) by other creative organizations around the world.  A few weeks ago we had a very experienced HR professional come to visit for a few days.  She sat in on any number of meetings, ate many meals, talked to dozens of the 700 folks that work here, and watched some of the transactions take place that will add up to total annual sales of over $60,000,000.  When we were wrapping up one of the meeting at the end of her stay we got to the final few minutes of the agenda, during which we always make time for what we call “appreciations.”  It’s an informal opportunity for anyone in the room to actively appreciate anyone or anything—in the business or not—that they want to appreciate.  No one is required to speak, but many do.  After a number of folks had spoken, our visitor quietly raised her hand.  She stayed quiet for a minute, looked around the room at the fifty or so folks present and said: “I just want to thank everyone here who’s made my visit so rewarding.  I’ve travelled all over the country and I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands of companies.  And I think this is the most beautiful culture I’ve ever experienced.”

I’m humbled by her kind words.  And honored to contribute to the work of Pim, Joost and Corporate Rebels around the world!

[The piece that follows is excerpted from the Introduction to Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader.]

Good Work versus Bad Work

Wendell Berry wrote, in a letter to the editor of The Progressive magazine in the fall of 2010: “It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with ‘jobs’ that are meaningless, demeaning and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is an argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the ‘left’ or the ‘right.’” I agree. So too, I’m sure, would most of the anarchists that I quote in the essays that follow. Berry added, “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of work for which we are particularly fitted.” That, to a “T,” is how I feel, and I feel fortunate to feel that way.

“Implicit in this idea,” Berry went on, with a bit of well-grounded cynicism and I’m sure a sparkle in his seventy-six-year-old, rooted-in-the-Kentucky-countryside-eyes, “is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction. Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation, or good work, can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as ‘less work, more life,’ or ‘work-life balance,’ as if one commutes daily from life here to work there. But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work? And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?”

The predominance of bad work has been building for a long time. The anarchists wanted to end it in a bad way. Back in 1911, Emma Goldman wrote: “If I were to give a summary of the tendency of our times, I would say, Quantity. The multitude, the mass spirit, dominates everywhere, destroying quality. Our entire life—production, politics, and education—rests on quantity, on numbers. The worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of his work, has been replaced by brainless, incompetent automatons, who turn out enormous quantities of things, valueless to themselves, and generally injurious to the rest of mankind. Thus quantity, instead of adding to life’s comforts and peace, has merely increased man’s burden.”

Then there’s this from her contemporary, Alexander Berkman: “It stands to reason that a person can give the best of himself only when his interest is in his work, when he feels a natural attraction to it, when he likes it. Then he will be industrious and efficient. The things the craftsman produced in the days before modern capitalism were objects of joy and beauty, because the artisan loved his work. Can you expect the modern drudge in the ugly huge factory to make beautiful things? He is part of the machine, a cog in the soulless industry, his labor mechanical, forced. Add to this his feeling that he is not working for himself but for the benefit of someone else, and that he hates his job or at best has no interest in it except that it secures his weekly wage. The result is shirking, inefficiency, laziness.”

Skip forward to our own era where, unfortunately, bad work is still the norm. Poet David Whyte, in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, quotes Brother David Steindl-Rast, telling him as he struggled to find his way in life that, “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here is in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while.”

I think he gave David Whyte some pretty sound advice. Bad work is almost always exhausting; people finish it feeling physically and emotionally drained: doing less bad work is only slightly less exhausting than doing more. Bad work, to use a technical term, just plain sucks. I don’t want to do it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to do it either. Bad work is about people being treated as if they have nothing insightful to offer, as if they know next to nothing, or are “too stupid to understand upper-level activity.” Bad work is about people being regularly managed in ways that are at best disrespectful and, at worst, downright abusive. It’s about people going to work every day in settings that aren’t in synch with their values—going “into the closet” when you go to work is a hard way to go. At best, bad work is tolerable but it’s never, ever terrific.

Now, I know that just wanting bad work to come to an end isn’t going to change the world overnight. But why not think big, right? I really believe that the approaches that we’ve learned and adapted, and teach—taken from insightful passionate people, like Robert Greenleaf, Peter Block, Ron Lippett, Anese Cavanaugh, Emma Goldman, Gustav Landauer, and others, really can reconfigure the way the world thinks.

The Start of a New Era

Good work is life altering, fulfilling, and fun. Good work is about learning, laughing, growing, all the while earning enough money to make your dreams come true. It’s about collaborating with people you care about and who share your values, contributing something positive to the people and the community around you. It’s fun, not something you flee from. It’s a place you want to be, even if you rightfully have other places you want to go. Good work is about positive energy—both feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in, work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you. It’s endlessly sustainable, not energy-sapping. While people might certainly, on any given day, go home tired after doing good work, they’re rarely spiritually exhausted. When we’re into what we’re doing, giving it everything we’ve got, learning and laughing even under duress, the experience is likely to be energizing, even if, in the moment, physically tiring.

At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in. If we build our business in sustainable ways; if we treat everyone with respect regardless of title, background, race, religion or resume; if we encourage people to be themselves and help them get there; if we work to bring out the best in everyone; if we convey to people how much difference their work actually makes and then simultaneously teach them how to make a difference in the way that their workplace is run; if we keep everyone learning and laughing; if we work the numbers so that everyone wins from a financial standpoint . . . then we create very good work. When we get good work right, we make a reality of Emma Goldman’s once radical and, at the time, seemingly fantastical belief in “ . . . the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual . . . (which is) only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.”

Peer to Peer, Not Parent-Child

To be clear, I’m not talking about a return to some supposedly long-lost way of working. “Polite and paternalistic” may sound better than “abusive and autocratic,” but the old family-run business isn’t what we’re working towards either. Living Servant Leadership (“You want me to serve them?”) and using Stewardship (“You’re saying I should negotiate with new employees as if they were my peers, not treat them like replaceable machine parts?”) were not the core concepts of the 18th- and 19th-century craft shop any more than they were of the big 20th-century auto plants. While I’m all about traditional food, and while the way we’re working does probably have some connection to community life of days gone by, these ideas are as radical today as they were when Emma Goldman, et al., were going at it a century or so ago, and for that matter, a hundred or a thousand years before that as well.

I’m giving the final word here to Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. Brenda did not, as far as I know, actively call herself an anarchist, but she reportedly went out with one for many years, and her writing certainly exudes the anarchist spirit. Although the book was published in 1938, it’s as radical and relevant now as it ever was. I’ve probably read it twenty-nine times and I still gain new insights every time through. What follows is the advice she offered up to aspiring writers, but I think it’s equally applicable to any of us who are learning to lead and live in this new way. In fact, it’s so succinct that if you want to skip out on the rest of this book and go play in the sun, you can just read the next few lines, and then head straight out to the park:

You have talent, are original, and have something important to say.

It is good to work. Work with love and like it when you do it.

It is a privilege to get to do this.

Be Bold, Be Free, Be Truthful.

I hope that what follows here [in Part 2 of the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series] will help you develop your skills as a leader; I know that writing it has helped me develop mine. I hope too that you learn some ways to make what you do every day into “good work,” and to help others around you do the same.

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Like the HR professional Ari described in his introduction, we too were amazed by the unique working culture at Zingerman's. While we were there we realized it was this type of good work that has been the reason why we quit our jobs to start this search.

If you want to learn more about Zingerman's unique approach to business, we highly (!) recommend reading Ari's books (Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, Part 1, 2, 3, and 4). Check out the books here: ZingTrain.com.

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Replies (1)

Dirk Propfe

Dirk Propfe

Beautifully inspirational and true. Thank you for sharing and finishing my work today with a smile.

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