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A visit to the inspired sustainable business, “Lundberg Family Farms”

Here’s a quick tale taken from our Winning Workplaces blog, recounting a trip out I took out West to visit the lundberg172-year-old organic rice-farming operation Lundberg Family Farms.

The company had applied for the Top Small Workplace recognition project last year and won; their “Success Story” can be viewed here.  We’ve featured them several times in our media, but it was fantastic to get a first-hand glimpse of this excellent family-owned operation, which builds it workplace culture firmly on the values of respect for the land, support for your fellow man, and taking care of the soil.

Drivinlundberg2g out to see the good folks at Lundberg Family Farms, I was surprised to find the sun-baked valley south of Chico quite temperate.  This time last year, local residents were wrestling with yet another bout of extreme temperatures and raging wildfires.  But on the heels of Richvale’s Centennial celebration, the community was enjoying a break in the heat, with employees of the organic rice farm stacking bags of flour, preparing delicious baked goods, and tending to the employee garden during a pleasantly cool spell.

We were thrilled to have Rhonda Turner and Michelle Jackson as our guests in Chicago for our annual conference in 2008, and these Lundberg ladies were kind enough to give me a of tour of the operation.  From climbing through the belly of complex grain sorting machines, to marveling at the production line where rice cakes go flying by in a blur, it’s clear that the company runs a very tight ship.  A lot is expected of employees at Lundberg, but the company takes good care of the team, and there’s a sentiment of concern and camaraderie throughout the facility.lundberg3

Beyond abundant safety measures, in each department you’ll find lists of the fresh produce everyone eats from the free batches delivered daily.  Head out to the employee garden (featured previously in my work) and you’ll see every department has a raised bed of their own.  Michelle made sure I tried a few of the sun-warmed strawberries while discussing their homemade yard art and compost setup.

Driving out beyond silos that line these old California railways, I passed by the rice fields that have filled bellies for generations.  From New York kitchens to Miami cupboards and the tables of Richvale residents that very night, the same product that has made for many tasty dinners continues to provide for Lundberg employees and their families.  Having also accepted the 2009 Agricultural Stewardship Award from the USA Rice Federation in addition to their Top Small Workplace award, Lundberg continues to set the precedent for sustainable rice farming and responsible people practices.

lundberg4Out toward the highway, a massive wetland bird could be seen over the very patties that Lundberg tends to so responsibly.  And with a bag of tasty rice chips at my side, I headed back for my own flight out of Oakland, very happy to have met the delightful people that bring us such tasty treats, and continue to make Richvale proud with its progressive farming, business and people practices.

Related: Lundberg’s VP of Administration, Tim Schultz, helped present a webinar for Winning Workplaces earlier this year on “Sustainable Workplaces – The Workplace of The Future” and also led a panel discussion at this year’s Top Small Workplace conference on “Leading Through Sustainable Growth and Expansion.”

Posted in Sustainable Business, Travel.

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‘Us’ and ‘Them’ – Employee Engagement: Self, Wholes and Hierarchies

Allow me to share with you a firsthand perspective from the due diligence phase of our Top Small Workplace recognition project, in which I’ve conducted many, many of the employee interviews over the last two years and compiled massive findings for publication in the Wall Street Journal.

If we ask you and your employees about the company, will we hear references to “us” or “them” in the response? Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a simple question.  Are you sure you know how your staff would answer?  Are we talking the boardroom or the warehouse here? Should it matter?

This is more than just being able to recite the tenets of your brand values or corporate identity.  There’s a question of involvement here, of employee engagement, that speaks volumes about the character of your organization.  Perhaps it won’t make or break your business… But it’s a question of identity that matters a great deal to the welfare of your organization, whether you pay attention to it or not.  Clients can see it, investors can see it, and competitors can see it.  Are your employees working for the company?  Or ARE THEY THE COMPANY?  Are they embodying the business and fully invested in it?

social network + group identity visualization

social network + group identity visualization

This quickly becomes clear in the interviews we conduct with employees as part of our due diligence for our annual Top Small Workplaces recognition project.  Even an application crafted by the best PR team in the world can’t hide the language your employees use when we get them on the phone. When we hear “They tell us communication is really important” or “They say product quality is huge” coming from someone with a similar role as an employee at another business who says “Communication is really important to us,” or “Product quality is huge for us,” you can bet it leaves our judges with a different feel for the latter organization.

Sometimes it’s just in casual language used, or maybe it’s more explicit.  As an employee from one of our 2008 Top Small Workplaces Finalists mentioned, “Maybe at other places it’s easier to separate yourself from the job.  I mean, I don’t talk about [the company] in the third person.  It’s never ‘they,’ it’s always ‘us’ or ‘we.’  There are very high expectations here.  That’s a key element in maintaining our culture – integrating new people into that. We really try to gauge their level of engagement.”

Our friends at Winning Workplaces would simply ask- Is a sense of ownership and sincere investment fostered within your workplace?  Or, on the flip side, do you foster a work environment where it seems leadership is actually afraid of an ownership mentality among employees?

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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Astronomical earnings of our glorious corporate overlords.

Winners in the great game of “Get Yours.”  I’m sure they deserve every penny.

CEO compensation

Great infographic depicting the earnings of our glorious corporate overlords.

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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Winning Workplace “Fleetwood Group” pays employees to volunteer for community when biz is slow!

Like so many of our TSW Finalists and Winners, Michigan based manufacturer Fleetwood Group continues to amaze their community and the press with innovative and passionate approaches to their business.

I’ll be visiting this fantastic organization again in our media, but this article (from Erin Albanese, The Grand Rapids Press) came out recently with their distinction as a Finalist in this year’s TSW 2009 competition, and some very big kudos need to be given to their management team, who continue to impress with creative and committed ways to stay competitive and provide for their stakeholders.  Great stuff here.

Instead of laying off employees while business is slow (down by about 20 percent) Fleetwood Group, a furniture and electronics manufacturer, keeps staff (“Team-Member Owners”) on the payroll while helping the community.

24 furniture-division employees are helping at Habitat for Humanity, pet rescue, camps and ministries.

During their stints, the workers continue earning their regular wages and benefits.

The goal is to retain a well-trained team so the 54-year-old company is poised to resume production when the economy recovers,” their President and CEO Doug Ruch explains in the article.

Five-year employee Dan Stitt added, “They try to take care of us when times are tough.”

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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Here’s to the Nation’s Top Small Workplaces!

Man!  My head is still spinning from the edu-tainment marathon which was the Top Small Workplaces conferenceLarry and Joe of 2009!  What a blast!  It’s going to take me a week to de-brief and package-up all the lessons learned and stories shared… but let me say this->

There is no single gathering which so effectively re-affirms my belief that the very real solutions we seek to many of the world’s ills lie with the passion and commitment of this nation’s small business leaders!

I have been going on for days about the inspiriting tales and practices gleaned from the get-together.  I’ll be sure to recap online over the next couple days… And post all the glamorous photos!  Here’s to those proving we can do this right!

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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The news is out!  The Wall Street Journal broke the story Monday morning, and we’ve been awash in press inquires since!  

This year’s Top Small Workplaces are a stellar crowd, and I’m thrilled to be able to meet them all at our annual Top Small Workplaces Conference this Thursday and Friday. Among our Finalists and Winners we have some of the nation’s finest small business.  Take a gander at their profiles on our Homesite: Winners and Distinguished Finalists. These are the folks leading the way and inspiring us all through doing incredible things for their clients, their associates, their communities and their planet.

I look forward to exploring this year’s batch of Honorees in great detail with our audience- but for now must get back to preparing the Audio-Visual materials for our conference in Chicago!

Congratulations TSW 2009!

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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The Redwoods Group: Driven by Giving Back

A piece I wrote from our 2008 Top Small Workplace coverage!  The Redwoods Group has done fantastic work over the years in helping their clients and community, and their CEO, Kevin Trapani, argues that the good they do is simply a response of their faith, their compassion, and their dedication to others. He argues that they operate on the concept central to most faith communities – “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected” – and that this should ultimately be the unifying theme of all businesses.

The Redwoods Group is no customary insurance operation. With 87 employees, the North Carolina-based firm, a 2008 Top Small Workplace, specializes in cultivating a focus on safety at YMCAs and Jewish Community Organizations.
Since its founding in 1997, the company has operated with an explicit mission of service to others, dedicated to improving the lives of those in the broad communities within which it operates. The firm believes, and proves, that business can be a powerful force for positive social change while providing work/life balance and development of all its employees.
In addition to contributing a large percentage of their pre-tax profits to nonprofit organizations internationally (50 percent in 2006-2007), Redwoods is up front with its staff about its core value/requirement of participation by all in community projects. While the business has grown significantly in recent years, Redwoods argues that they are not driven by size or profit margin but, rather, to “make a difference.”
“What you have to understand is that it has to be about much more than your current leader, or even your company,” says Redwoods Group President and CEO Kevin Trapani. “It has to be about changing something fundamental about how this society works.”
Trapani didn’t shy away from a challenge when he founded The Redwoods and he certainly doesn’t now. Oft told is the story of the cocktail napkin, saved from a dinner, labeled with the blueprint of what would become the firm’s organizing principle: “Serve Others.”
“I think that most people who are doing good work in the world understand this. The problem is, for many years the only thing that anyone read about as a model for business was greed, and that’s never been sustainable,” Trapani says.
At Redwoods, success is built upon fundamental differences in how they insure clients. “That’s where we get our juice,” says Trapani. As opposed to moderating against volatility simply though risk differentiation (where variety and volume provide a buffer from loss) Redwoods makes it a point to specialize and gather loss causation data in an insightful way to drive behavior change in specific customer segments.
“I have been in insurance for going on 18 years and in no way does any standard insurance carrier I have worked for compare to The Redwoods Group,” says Senior Underwriter Linda Jaqua.
Jaqua goes on to state that it is the children who participate in YMCA and JCO programs, not the premiums acquired, that inspire the company’s efforts. The firm walks its walk by ensuring the safety of the all children in “Ys” and “Js,” regardless of whether a given program has yet to become a Redwoods client.
“This is what focuses the mind,” explains Trapani. “At the end of the day there isn’t anybody that comes in here thinking we’re in the business of insurance. They think we’re in the business of saving people’s lives.”
Having grown up in YMCAs, Dan Baum, Risk Manager of two years, says he came to work for Redwoods primarily because of their culture.
“I work here because every day we prove what is possible for a for-profit company,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of a company that makes a difference.”
Dan, like all Redwoods associates, participates in wider community service while on the clock. Each employee is expected to give 40 hours per year to community service, and many go beyond the call of duty in this respect. Soup kitchens, substance abuse recovery programs, women’s shelters – all benefit from the enthusiasm of the Redwoods staff. Baum and a coworker even assisted Habitat for Humanity in Zambia this past year.
Trapani admits that getting that balance right wasn’t easy in the beginning: “We ground through people our first five years. We were very demanding,” he says. Since then they’ve become more intentional in recruiting talent, placing the emotional demands of the job and the expectations of community service on the table from the get-go.
They’ve also become better at meeting employee needs once they’re on board. Mac Kendall, Regional Claims Leader of seven years, attests to this.
“We demand a lot of our employees, but we treat them like adults and family members,” he says. “We expect that our employees are whole people, with big hearts, outside interests and a drive to fulfill our mission.”
Hard times are upon us all and Redwoods isn’t immune to the pinch, having recently experienced their first-ever operating loss. But Trapani and his team remain confident that their comprehensive approach to safety and coverage will continue to win them clients, even in the face of new predatory agencies offering commodity-based, partial coverage.
Even when profits are thin, Redwoods continues to demonstrate an unparalleled commitment to community projects, if only in “sweat equity” and man hours contributed to local charities.
“For Redwoods to preach a larger purpose for business, then focus narrowly on profit during a recession, would be hypocritical,” observes Baum, reflecting a sentiment shared by many at the firm. “During tough times, you find out what really matters to organizations. And from day one, this company has existed to change the world.”
Company: The Redwoods Group
Web site: 
Industry: Commercial specialty insurance
Location: Morrisville, NC
Number of Employees: 87
Sales: $12.8 million

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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“The Web of Life”: Eliminate Dualism-> Embrace Interconnectedness->Assume Responsibility

Frijof Capra’s The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems was given to me by a professor years ago.  It has since traveled many continents, its pages now covered in highlights and underlines, having been referenced in numerous papers and journal entries over the years.  

Concerning many of the struggles we currently face as a species, Capra argues that, ultimately, we suffer from a crisis of perception.  They problems we face in science and philosophy, but also business, politics, health care, education and everyday life, are systemic problems, interconnected and interdependent.  “Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception.  It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to concepts of an outdated worldveiw, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with out overpopulated, globally interconnected world.”

The book is rich with discussion of dynamics in interconnected systems from a molecular/physical scale through to ecological and cognitive systems, but tying the work together is an attempt to resolve conflict in what has become a wildly divided and unhealthy global society.

Accusing our political and social leaders of clinging to dying notions of isolation and dualism, he asserts that they refuse to recognize how their so-called solutions might affect future generations.  “From the systemic point of view, the only viable solutions are those that are ‘sustainable.’  The concept of sustainability has become a key concept in the ecological movement and is indeed crucial.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has given a simple, clear, and beautiful definition: ‘A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.’

Our collective, peaceful future demands a holistic, ecological worldview.  This is no small matter, and paradigm shifts are rarely smooth transitions.  The reality of limits, accountability and responsibility are nothing new to our species on a larger timeline.  Yet it seems recent generations have done a shockingly good job of shucking all concepts of consequence.  Capra reminds us, like many, that the plight of modern society is nearly indivisible from the “progress” of modern society, which has been harvested primarily under the relatively recent assumption of a Cartesian dualism.

“This paradigm consists of a number of entrenched ideas and values, among them the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth, and—last, but not least—the belief that a society in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature. All of these assumptions have been fatefully challenged by recent events. And, indeed, a radical revision of them is now occurring.”

He ties much of his physical theory into an understanding of “deep ecology,” or the recognition that humans are not separate from the natural environment.  In this way we see the world not as a collection of isolated objects, but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. “Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life. Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of
the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.”

An deep-ecological POV demands we ask profound questions about the very foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life.

I will prod those of us in the business of “corporate responsibility” to consider our sincerity, and the sincerity of our clients, in precisely these matters.  It is not uncommon that I hear among our Top Small Workplaces that the wonders they’ve achieved in their professional organizations are simply intuitive.  That they do these things because it only makes sense.  Because it is “the right thing to do.”

Indeed, “if we have deep ecological awareness, or experience, of being part of the web of life, then we will (as opposed to should) be inclined to care for all of living nature. Indeed, we can scarcely refrain from responding in this way.”

Posted in Design, Sustainable Business.

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Animal Rights – a “fringe political movement” directly tied to “Liberal Evolution Agenda” ?

This is an era for renewed synthesis of science and spirituality.  If you feel uncomfortable with the theory of “evolution,” fine.  You’re not alone and I wish you luck in your struggles with the related tenets of paleontology and geology.  But to disregard animal rights as a “fringe political movement”  ?!?!    What?!?!

I overheard (what was to me) a very disturbing conversation on Christian Radio this weekend.  (nothing like a road trip to set you straight on contemporary discourse)

The debate was framed in terms of the “evils” of “animal rights.”

my friend and family member

my friend and family member

But ultimately it hinged on the issue of evolution, and thus, one perspective on Man as related to – well – Life.

The guests were from the Institution for Creation Research, who, among other points, argue that “The miraculous complexity of life is evidence of creation” and “The evidence for creation can be clearly seen from that which has been made by our Creator.”  Indeed, these expert “scientists” expanded on their empirical observations with an argument that went as follows (I was taking notes):

> Liberals in the US impose their education curriculum on honest taxpayers and “indoctrinate the young of this nation into a culture of Evolution.”
> “Evolution teaches that Man is no better than a chimp or plant”
> Consequently we are “increasingly guilty of Anthropomorphism”
> “Liberals have made up the concept of Animal Rights to strengthen their argument for evolution.  This radical political movement goes directly against The Church.”
> “But God made only us in his image.”  “God gave Man dominion over the earth” and “God gave us control.”
> “It’s a slippery slope.  Implying that an animal doesn’t like something is implying that it has a soul, which it doesn’t.  God gave only Man reason and emotions.  When you come home and say ‘gee, Fido is sad because I left him home all day alone.’ You are forgetting your scripture.”
> “By teaching evolution, we are compromising everything.”
> “We risk worshiping the creation, not the Creator.”

It was the final statement that I found most profound.  My background is in cognitive anthropology and cultural conservation.  Conflicts in worldview are nothing new in human history.  But never have we, as a species, understood so very much about the workings our universe, and been so confused about what to “worship.”  In my opinion, resolving the final point (a conflict of dualism) will mark a profoundly significant advance in our global culture.

It seems, historically, that such debates have always been highest at peaks of technological advance and innovation.  Think Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock… It’s not easy to integrate all of what we might discover in a generation with the structural tenets of our shared worldview.  It’s stressful to have your basic understandings challenged.

I understand the prolonged friction between the evolution camp and the creationists.  But I wholeheartedly believe there is greater room for synthesis between modern science and traditional religious dogmas than what is being allowed in the above Animal Rights argument.  I need only look into my Labrador’s eyes to essentially disregard all of what the radio host was trying to sell me on.  One guest speaker, an “animal behaviorist & trainer” from the Creatures of Creation Ministry, argued that we overestimate the intelligence and personality of animals.  “To say chimps are special because they learn to use sign-language or prefer this or that is like saying a vine climbs to the top of a tree because it likes the view.”

What an asshole.  Keep him away from my pets.  And my kids.  It betters the vine to do as it does.  And it betters him to fluff his ego.  So be it.

This, my friends, is a very problematic point of view.  Regardless of your God, your faith or your diet, disregarding the capacity of other species to learn or feel is a very slippery slope toward the raping of our planet. Subjugating other species, races, sexes and the whole of “creation” is something we’ve been highly effective at, particularly when such dogmas have been integrated with the very technology which they themselves once protested.  Don’t like the concept of a round-earth?  What about if it meant expanding your kingdom?  Ah… now we’re talking.

Go forth and conquer, my pious brethren.  Don’t forget- they don’t have feelings, or souls, and can’t know right from wrong, so swing wildly and take what you want.

I hope for the future of our nation that there were more than a few proud Americans who called into this radio show to inform them of their dangerous logic.  If you need to explain away the sentiments of fear, remorse, affection, loyalty and empathy among our animal friends in order to justify your worldview, you’re going to have a tough sell in the modern world.

My dog and I are going the “radical” hippy parade.

gods a turtle smaller2

Posted in Sustainability, Worldview/Indigenous Concerns.

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Road Trips, Radio and Religion

I love road trips.  For too many reasons to mention here, the great stretches of highway and winding roads which cross this nation are my sweet spot.  I find no better way to become reacquainted with this America, and reexamine my own life, than to spend a couple days on the road.

One of the finest benefits of not flying from one city to the next is the opportunity, for better or worse, to be caught, in “the middle” with no option but to listen to whatever local radio station you’re lucky enough to pick up.  Maybe find yourself with 5 country stations, 2 right wing political rant channels, and a couple of the more Biblically inclined… it reminds you why this country has the political drama it does.

Living in cities, you become insulated.  Hell, living anywhere you become isolated, in a way, from wider political and cultural dialogue.  It’s hard enough to come to an agreement on values within a town, let along a nation.

Consequently, we take things for granted.  Cultural assumptions bind us within a community and only get discussed when some national political issue touches off parties of different view in separate regions, and another divisive culture war is raged on Fox News and the blogosphere.

On my way to Madison’s Willy Street Art and Music Fair this weekend, I was fortunate to catch a wonderful taste of the American debate concerning evolution.  The argument was that the concept of “animal rights” (upheld by “the liberals”) was detrimental spiritually and practically as it ignored the apparently obvious “truth” that “God made us in him image” and “God gave us control” over the world, and it was tied to a “disgusting” misconception that humans are no better than chimps or trees.

Well, for many of us engaged in this discussion, of course, it’s perplexing that there is even a “debate” to speak of.  And for those of you in Europe who cannot comprehend why this remains such a divisive issue in our country, please accompany me next time through rural America, that you may read the billboards and hand painted signs placed along highways to remind us all of just how religiously conservative this country remains.

Posted in Travel.

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