Putting the Heart back into Business

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The level of conflict and turmoil in the world are at unprecedented levels – whether it stems from ISIS, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the refugee crisis or climate change, as a race we are not at peace with each other. In parallel, but certainly not separately, confidence in big business is at an all time low, as is trust in business. Scandals at companies such as Tesco, VW and many major banks are certainly a major contributing factor, as is the ever greater focus on short-term profits – in fact, I believe it’s the latter that lead to the scandals in the first place.

I recently learnt a new piece of management jargon – VUCA, short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Maybe this sums up our world right now, as these four are behind a lot of the turmoil and conflict we are seeing; I would add a fifth though – lack of transparency and authenticity.

In order to live more peacefully in this VUCA+ world, we need to change how we approach life; and I believe that business has a major role to play in the transformation we need to go through. I am not alone in this thinking. Paul Polman of Unilever stated “We cannot close our eyes to the challenges that the world faces. Business must make an explicit and positive contribution to addressing them. I’m convinced we can create a more equitable and sustainable world for all of us by doing so”. And in his assessment of who can make the biggest contribution to a more harmonious world, Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols concluded it was business, when he, with other Church leaders, set up the Blueprint for better Business movement – to encourage businesses to adopt a higher purpose rather than just focusing on profit alone.

Let’s look at two contributors to this state of affairs. Firstly, globally the level of job satisfaction is at an all time low. Regularly, the researcher Gallup surveys 100,000+ people who work in organisations around the world – in their last study, they discovered that 87% of people were emotionally disconnected from their work, with 24% of us severely disconnected – meaning actively hating our jobs. If the time we spend at work, then this level of dissatisfaction has got to be a contributing factor to the conflict in the world – all that frustration and lack of fulfilment at work needs to be expressed somehow.

Secondly, looking at it from the perspective of business leaders, a recent report for the Churchill Foundation, “Thinking the Unthinkable” (available towards the end of the resources page of our website), found that business leaders where overwhelmed and not equipped to deal with the current levels of VUCA. I believe the reason for this is that, in their endless pursuit of ever-higher levels of short-term profit, most business leaders have become disconnected from what is important to them and their personal values. As this profit demand is insatiable (no matter how high a companies profits are, there will always be demands for more), this puts more and more stress on business leaders.

Before outlining solutions, I would like to share a bit of my history and what qualifies me to make this assessment. Following an early career with Mars, I set up and ran an international consultancy in retailing. After 16 years of this, I became disillusioned by how short-term profit focused most of our clients where and felt there had to be a better way to run a business. So I bought two franchise supermarkets in North London and in 2006 set up Thornton’s Budgens. Over 5 years we developed the concept “We are the Community Supermarket that really Cares”, where we put our focus on people and planet, and trust profit will follow. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that what I was doing was setting up a heart centred business – and that “putting the heart back into business” was my life purpose. This journey has involved intensive self-development work, the painful decision to sell one of the supermarkets (excessive competition made it unviable) and a gradual opening of my heart.

Since my life purpose realisation three years ago, I have studied much of the literature in this area, interviewed many senior business leaders, am writing a book and have founded Heart in Business Limited. I did this with four others who were already working with companies and individuals in this area; and we have taken all their experience and tools, and implemented them in the supermarket.

What is clear is that the lack of flow in companies is one of the major contributors to the challenges we are seeing in the world. If you get everyone in a company doing what they are passionate about (i.e. good at and love doing), then the whole organisation will be ‘in-flow’, creating a much happier place to work and actually leading to higher profits. This in-flow process involves getting everyone, starting with the leadership team, in the sweet spot of the top right quadrant in the matrix below – the passion zone.

MatrixSo this is what we did at Thornton’s Budgens, in a process we call “The Heart Resuscitation Programme” – as the aim is to get the heart of a company beating again. This is a two-step process.

The first is Mission Alignment. Using software my colleague Nicolas has developed over the last 20 years, we assessed each of the leadership team in the supermarket to establish their core values, their strengths and their life purpose; and we looked at everyone’s shadow, that dark part of all of us that we would rather wasn’t there and that is behind much of the conflict and hostility that exists between teams and in the world in general. With this map of where we are now, we started to model the dynamics of the team and get people focused on their passions. The second stage, Mission Implementation, is all about reading that map, being clear on where you are going and how you are going to get there. Sticking with the map analogy, it’s no good being given a map if you can’t map read! So each of the team at Thornton’s Budgens get one to one support in reading their map and learning how to implement the changes they wanted to make.

Let me give you a few examples – we are a team of three, with me as the owner, Jim as the store manager and Shanthy in charge of finance and legal. The first insight came on Shanthy – that she saw things very differently from others and in her place surrounded by numbers, she had so much insight to offer. Yet she often shared her insights starting with ‘just’ – “ I am just the bean counter’ or “It’s just an idea but…..”. She did not have confidence in her ideas, so it’s hardly surprising that others didn’t either. With this insight, she has become much more confident and stepped up into a COO type role. With Jim, he often saw Shanthy’s insights as a threat, a criticism of his leadership and his team. They now work much closer together and set the priorities, leaving Jim to his passion, running the shop. Through this work, Jim has seen that he is a natural leader and is stepping into his power, delegating better and focusing on being the ‘conductor’ of the store. As for me, I now have four clear responsibilities, all of which I am passionate about and am energised doing.

I hope you are starting to get an impression of how things have started to shift at Thornton’s Budgens. To apply this approach beyond the senior team, we advertised for internal coaches – to undergo the process and learn how to help others through it. Having started this work towards the end of last year, the coaches are part way through their second set of ‘coachees’. The response so far has been hugely positive, both in terms of reaction of the team and tangible sales, which are 7 percentage points better than when we started the work.

So how come this works? What we have seen is more and more of our team being able to be themselves and focusing on what they love doing (and re-allocating tasks they don’t). They have more energy, get more done and take more care – care of each other, care in their roles and care for our customers. The energy levels in whole store have increased and sales have followed.

So my prognosis in addressing this VUCA+ world we live in is all about flow, getting teams of people ‘in-flow’ doing what they are passionate about. Doing this and shifting away from a focus on short-term profits, you actually deliver greater long-term profits. I’d like to close with some words Steve Jobs shared as he lay dying of cancer – ”No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me. God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me”. Powerful words!

About Andrew Thornton

Andrew Isaac Thornton is the founder of Thornton’s Budgens and Heart in Business Limited. For more on Heart in Business Limited and to access the report mentioned, heartinbusiness.org.

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Andrew Isaac Thornton is an entrepreneur, the founder of Heart in Business Limited and the owner of Thornton’s Budgens, a supermarket in North London. His life purpose is to put the Heart back into Business and encourage the shift from an obsession with profit to a business world where people and our planet are put first. He applies these principles in Thornton’s Budgens and Heart in Business Limited clients, speaks on the subject and is currently writing the book “How to put the Heart back into Business”. His aim – to build a movement and network of heartful businesses.