Enlivening Edge Co-editor Matthew Kálmán Mezey interviews Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, about his journey – inner and outer – to writing the book.
MKM: Frederic, after your talk at the RSA, a few people walked up to you to engage in a conversation. One of them asked you to share how you got to write the book Reinventing Organizations. I found your answer as inspiring as the talk, in some ways. Would you share that journey with our readers?
There is a frantic busyness, running from meeting to meeting, that often helps them suppress a nagging and painful question: what’s the meaning of it all? Is this really how I want to spend my life? – Frederic Laloux
It’s interesting you ask this, because I don’t find my journey to be very remarkable. Reinventing Organizations was something that wasn’t planned, that just happened, and in many ways happened rather effortlessly But then again, I’ve sometimes heard people who had done something that felt like work of their soul say that when they look back, it almost seems like everything in their life had prepared them for that work. That is somehow how it feels for me when it comes to this book. So perhaps that’s what I can talk about.
I could go back all the way to my early childhood to find the earliest strands but that might end up being a long story (laughs), so let’s start with my professional life. I worked for 10 years with a large consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. Starting in my mid-twenties, I was exposed to a great number of organizations, a great number of leaders, of executive committees. In many ways, I could not have written Reinventing Organizations without this broad exposure. I’ve had insights into the dynamics of business and of people that I would not have had if I had worked in just one or two large corporations and climbed the ladder there.
Most were writing about empowering, culture-driven organizations. I find these organizations very inspiring, but I sensed there can be even more – Frederic Laloux
At the same time, during those years at McKinsey, I always felt conflicted. On the one hand, the work was playing to many of my strengths and talents, and I enjoyed it. On the other, there was always this lingering sense of “What am I doing here? What is the purpose of it all?” I never really fully fitted in. Every morning when I put on a suit and tie, I felt like I was dressing up and looked like a penguin (laughs). When I was at the airport or checking out of a four star hotel, there would be business people in suits all standing in line, and I wanted to tell them all: what are you doing? Get out of that suit, get a life! The irony that I was dressed just like them, doing just the same things, was only half lost on me. I always knew I didn’t want to become a partner at McKinsey. For a long time I thought: I’m going to do this for another six months, until I figure out what I’m really meant to do. It just always took me longer than six months to figure that out.
And then one day, I had this extraordinarily powerful coaching session with a woman that brought great clarity on a number of issues. She helped me understand some of the patterns of my parents’ lives, and why I had stayed with McKinsey when my heart told me it was time to move on. A month later I resigned.
MKM: What did you do when you left McKinsey?
When I left, I built up my own practice as a coach and facilitator with leaders of large organizations. I had realized that what I loved most about my work at McKinsey were those moments where I would engage with executives in deeply personal conversations, behind closed doors. At the time, these were often just conversations for a few minutes, but in many ways they felt more important to me than thinking about great organizational strategies. These were conversations where executives felt safe enough to drop their mask and enquire into essential questions that they normally never discuss with colleagues. I discovered that I seemed to have a natural talent to help people feel safe enough to do that for while, to drop their mask and go deeper.
In 2007, I spent time with Newfield Network, a wonderful coaching training developed by Julio Olalla, a really masterful coach. The learning there couldn’t be more different from the learning I had at McKinsey, and it opened many new horizons for me. I learned to love and to care. Imagine that. A place where you can learn to love. I learned that emotions, intuition, and the body are places of great intelligence and insights, that they are domains of learning, too. I realized that wisdom isn’t just something that may happen to us when we get old, but something that we can try to cultivate.
What got me really excited was when I started noticing that these different organizations that operate in very different industries and geographies had often stumbled upon almost identical practices, even though they didn’t know of each other – Frederic Laloux
And so I found a passion and calling: to coach people and facilitate Executive Committees to have the kind of conversations that people typically don’t dare to have at these levels.
MKM: What perspectives did you gain from these years working as a coach?
I saw there was a lot of suffering in organizations, and not just at the lower levels. There are lots of surveys that show that an overwhelming majority – two-thirds to three-quarters of people in organizations – feel disempowered, feel disengaged from their work. They really just come to get a pay-check but don’t come with their heart to work and certainly not with their soul.
This suffering at the lower levels is well-known, but at McKinsey, and especially working as a coach, I discovered a dirty secret: there is much suffering at the top levels of organizations as well. You have these very powerful CEOs and top managers who seem to have it all and who seem to enjoy themselves, but when you scratch the surface it quickly becomes clear that they are tired and exhausted. If you can have a really quiet moment with them, if you can close the door, and have beautiful coaching conversations like I’ve had with quite a few of them, you sense that they’re tired of being caught in a rat race, to be in a system that somehow forces them to play politics, to keep their guard up all the time. There is a frantic busyness, running from meeting to meeting, that often helps them suppress a nagging and painful question: what’s the meaning of it all? Is this really how I want to spend my life?
Those were of course some of the questions we would get at in the coaching sessions. Some of the executives would be daring enough to drop their guard for real and sit with these questions and reassess their lives. A few ended leaving their organization because they realized they had better things to do than wasting their lives playing along in the rat race. Deep inside, I was very happy for them, happy that they were so brave to listen to their inner voice. But of course, this meant that I was often being paid by organizations to help great executives leave. If I was honest with myself, I wasn’t helping the organization get any healthier.
The same was true of my facilitation work. On a two-day off-site, members of an executive team might drop their mask and dare to talk, say, about the lack of trust and the politics in the team. You could sense a great sense of relief at having a safe space where these otherwise taboo issues could finally be discussed. But when the off-site was over, the power of the system hit back, and they quickly reverted back to the same behaviors.
MKM: I guess that’s an experience that many coaches share?
Don’t get me wrong: for a number of years this coaching work felt tremendously fulfilling to me. I thought I had discovered my calling and this was ‘it’, this is going to be me for the next 20-30 years. For a few years, I felt like I had really hit the jackpot. My work felt very meaningful and on the family side… everything was fantastic. I worked much less than I used to, leaving me lots of time for my personal development, and to live a good and simple life.
I guess it’s only when you see a number of them that you can see the profound wisdom in the apparent madness, that you can notice that there are some profound commonalities that point to a coherent new model – Frederic Laloux
But then after just a few years later, life gave me a signal that I had come to another juncture.
This happened when, quite unexpectedly, in the spring of 2011, I was hit with a deep inner sadness. It took me two or three weeks to make sense of it, because everything was going so well in my life. And then I understood: the sadness was a form of grief. The work that had brought me so much joy for the last few years was work that I suddenly couldn’t do any longer. It was as if my soul were saying, “Enough! You are meant to move on again!” And I had thought that I had found my vocation, found what I would do for the next 20 years of my life!
Over the years I had gone on a fair bit of a personal and spiritual journey, doing a lot of personal development work. I had grown to a place that was quite far away from where most of the CEOs and Executives that I was working with were at.
MKM: I remember you said you were “tired of the game of translation”.
Yes, I realized I was constantly in a game of ‘translation’ with the executives I was working with. This game of “how far can I go in showing them a whole different perspective, show them how I see things, before it will be too much for them and they kick me out of the room?”
I realised that I couldn’t work with these large corporations any more. There was a tangible, physical side to it, something about just going into these large organizations that I felt was draining, almost depressing. You know, the grand but soulless marble and glass lobbies of these big corporations. And all these managers running around hurriedly, talking about one more change project and cross-functional initiative and mid-term planning and budget exercise. I felt like stopping them in their tracks and asking them “do you still believe in any of this?” For me, it didn’t make any sense any more.
There are several more projects in the works that might turn out to create a whole little ecosystem of support for organizations going Teal – Frederic Laloux
And so it was very clear, really from one day to the other, that I could no longer do the work of coaching and facilitation that had been so meaningful to me. At that moment, I had a powerful insight. For some reason, I realized the right question for me to ask was not: “What will my next work be? What will I put on my business card? What will my identity be?” These would have been the natural questions to ask. Instead, I figured the right question for mewas “what would be the most meaningful thing I could do with my life right now?”. Not even “with my life in general?”, not “how could I have most “impact” with my life?” No, just what is most meaningful thing right now. I figured: if I do that, I trust that the universe will help and will provide me with an income. I just couldn’t believe that if I did the most meaningful thing I could do the universe wouldn’t support me.
And when I put the question in this way, the answer was immediate. I wanted to focus on two projects that felt profoundly meaningful to me. And one was the research that led to the book Reinventing Organizations. That was the beginning of what would turn out to be an almost three-year sabbatical, in which I did just a little bit of work doing two weeks of training workshops to pay some bills, tapping into savings for the rest.
MKM: What were you looking for as you started your research for ‘Reinventing Organizations’?
At that time, I was familiar with theories of human development – work from Jenny Wade, Ken Wilber, Spiral Dynamics, etc. So I had language to talk about what had happened to me. I was essentially tired of working with senior executives who see the world from an ‘Orange’ perspective, when I had taken on a whole different world view.
I was fascinated by the question: what would really healthy, really evolved organizations look like? I knew that there are an increasing number of people who go through an inner transformation and end up leaving their organizations, just as I left McKinsey. Business leaders leaving their corporations because they are tired of the politics. Doctors and nurses leaving their hospitals, because hospitals are for the most part soulless medical factories. Teachers leaving their schools. I figured: not all of them become coaches and consultants from the sidelines in the way I had. Some of them must have felt called to start a new business, school or hospital. I wondered if they had found ways to build different ways to structure and run their organizations, that would be aligned with the inner journey they had made.
I spoke to some real pain that they feel but are usually trying not to see. Everyone today senses that something is broken in the way we run organizations – Frederic Laloux
That was what got me started on the research that basically three years later became Reinventing Organizations. My first hope, frankly, was that someone had done this research already and that I didn’t need to do it myself (laughs). I started reading many books in the area, but I didn’t really find anything that was going in the direction that I had in mind. Most were writing about empowering, culture-driven organizations. I find these organizations very inspiring, but I sensed there can be even more.
So I started looking for “Teal” organizations and I came across one, two, three… really extraordinary organizations that quite radically put aside almost all of the management edifice that we’re being taught in business school. They had reinvented many of the most basic structures and practices of management: how you make decisions, how you recruit people, how you evaluate people, how you compensate people, how you make budgets, how you make targets, how you make strategies. And the result seemed to be extraordinarily vibrant, powerful and soulful organizations.
What got me really excited was when I started noticing that these different organizations that operate in very different industries and geographies had often stumbled upon almost identical practices, even though they didn’t know of each other.
That to me was really, really exciting, because I felt: this is more than just some mavericks doing their thing. There is a coherent new way to structure and run organizations, a coherent new management paradigm that seems to be emerging. An organizational model consistent with the form of consciousness that’s also emerging in the world right now. Something that right now is still very much in an early stage, but that perhaps in 20 or 30 years might become commonplace. That’s when I decided to write the book.
I’m still amazed that most of us had never heard about the organizations I stumbled upon, nor have most of the academics in the field. It’s a really fascinating question to me: why haven’t these incredibly interesting—and dramatically successful—organizations been more researched before? The reason, I came to understand, is that these organizations are so odd that they simply don’t make any sense from today’s management perspective. The few articles that had been published about one of them here or there described them as strange creatures that are oddly successful. Often the article wondered how long they could keep it up, or if this could ever work elsewhere, because really these management methods don’t make any sense. I guess it’s only when you see a number of them that you can see the profound wisdom in the apparent madness, that you can notice that there are some profound commonalities that point to a coherent new model.
MKM: How do you see the journey going forward?
I really have no idea. This question “what is the most meaningful thing you could do with your life right now” is still very present for me. I hope I can live from that place for the rest of my life. As Parker Palmer says, I want to “listen to the life that wants to be lived through me”. I feel that I’m not the kind of person meant to do something for 20 or 30 years. So we will see what life has in store for me!
For now, I feel very blessed that the book is getting such a wonderful reception, and that I can be involved in a number of projects that can help leaders bring their organizations to “Teal”. As you know, a few weeks ago we launched an online conversation platform where these leaders can share their questions, doubts and insight. And just a few days ago, a hundred enthusiasts got together and launched a wiki that gives them very concrete and detailed ideas and case examples for every major Teal practice. There are several more projects in the works that might turn out to create a whole little ecosystem of support for organizations going Teal. That’s really exciting, and it feels to me like that will carry me for another two or three years.
MKM: The book is very successful, which shows that many people are ready to see organizations from a new perspective. What is your experience with more traditional executives: do you find that they respond to these ideas?
I wrote the book for people who would “get this”, who would be open to these ideas. My goal wasn’t to try and convince people with a more traditional outlook to adopt this model. That’s one of the reasons I self-published the book. I didn’t want to take the risk that a publisher would reposition the book to appeal to a wider audience by marketing it as “the book that gives you the secret keys to more profits and market share”. Boy, I would have hated that! (laughs).
But soon after the book came out, I gave one or two talks to audiences of managers whom I suspect mostly have a more traditional, achievement-orientated worldview (Orange). I was quite prepared that they would boo me off the stage, would dismiss this all as naïve and wishful thinking. I was quite surprised to see that at some level, everything I said made sense. I spoke to some real pain that they feel but are usually trying not to see. Everyone today senses that something is broken in the way we run organizations.
Now I know that my talk didn’t magically change their perspective. But for the time of the talk, I put many of them into a big cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they could see how self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose make sense, how it must be more powerful than what we have now. I could see them wanting this.
On the other hand, for many of them, there was also a part that that was trying to find a reason to reject it all. ‘Can this really work?’ ‘Yes, but what happens if… ?’ Lots of ‘what ifs?’. As if they were hoping to find an obvious flaw in my presentation, so that they could go safely back to the certainty that there is no alternative to the current way, however painful.
I find that quite fascinating. Everyone senses there must be something better out there, even though some people can’t embrace it quite yet. I don’t feel called to convince, to evangelize, that’s simply not my nature. But I think there is work to do to speak even to more traditional audiences, to plant seeds, however uncomfortable, of new possibilities (laughs).