Our conversation last week with Fred Kofman of Axialent concluded the Waking Up the Workplace interview series. Or almost did, because on June 30th, we’ll be interviewed by Barrett Brown (whom we interviewed earlier in the series) on how the three of us have been transformed through these fourteen dialogues. We like to think of it as the end of the beginning. There’s more to come, but what exactly we haven’t figured out just yet.
The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
Back to our call with Fred. We couldn’t have wished for a more powerful end to the interview series. What has stuck with me the most, is the image of the 10th ox-herding picture from the Zen tradition. The ten ox-herding pictures present a map of enlightenment, i.e. of the process of waking up. After everything has disappeared and you’re fully enlightened, there’s this 10th, final picture, called “Entering the Marketplace with Open Hands.”
Now this may sound like a Buddhist thing that’s far removed from business as we know it. Yet Fred thinks otherwise: “Coming back to the marketplace with open hands is the most pure essence of business and capitalism.” There’s a sense of overflowing, of self-less service. When people ‘trade freely for mutual gain’, you can only survive as a business when you do things that enhance the lives of your customers (as well as your employees, and other stakeholders). That’s the true essence of a free market where businesses compete to better serve the customer.
The goal and the purpose of business
The goal of tennis is to win the game. Similarly, the goal of business is to make a profit, although it doesn’t always have to be limited to monetary profit. Talking about for-profit and not-for-profit organizations is like asking someone whether she plays ‘for-winning tennis or not-for-winning tennis’. It doesn’t make sense. When you play tennis, it comes with this goal and with a set of rules. Business is no different. What is different, however, is why you play the game. This is where the meaning and purpose of business come in.
Peter Drucker famously challenged a manufacturer of drills that what he sold wasn’t drills, but holes. Manufacturing and selling drills may be the immediate activities he performed that allowed him to make a profit, but the meaning and purpose of his business was to serve people who need holes. It’s a crude example, but it serves to make an important point: how is the service you provide enhancing people’s lives? Because that’s what it means to enter the marketplace with open hands: to serve those around us.
Success beyond success
The second half of the conversation centered on what Fred calls ‘success beyond success’:
It’s very honorable to address the pain that people bring and help them succeed. However, the ultimate pain is that we know that if everything goes really, really well, we’re going to get old, sick, and die. That’s as good as it gets. Every success is transitory, and at the last battle, everybody loses. So in order to live with peace in a universe that is transient, you need to realize that there is a bigger game. And in this bigger game, you’re perfectly safe. It’s like Krishna saying to Arjuna: “Don’t worry, your ass is mine anyways.” Just act in a way that every action is a sacrifice, offering your best to a noble purpose. That’s karma yoga. That’s conscious business. You play the game like your life depends on it, and at the same time you can relax, because you know when you lose, you play again.
It’s hard to really do justice to the richness of the dialogue, which ranged from the practical to the luminous. Writing this blog at the end of the beginning of the series, I find myself wanting to offer a comprehensive overview of all that I’ve learned in the past three months. At the same time, following the advice Fred offered during the debriefing call, it’s time to take a little ‘siesta’ to digest these fourteen rich and nutritious dialogues.
We’ll get a first chance at offering our thoughts on the series as a whole during the interview on June 30th (at the usual time, i.e. 8 pm CET / 2 pm Eastern). In the meantime, if there are any questions that you’d like us to think about, or things to comment on, please offer your thoughts below! And while you’re at it, why don’t you tell us what you got out of the conversation with Fred Kofman? Looking forward to read your thoughts!