Chelsea Green Publishing

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Accelerating Toward Embarrassment

Raquel Colby sat down next to me on the plane the other day as I was returning home to Savannah, GA. You don’t know Raquel. Neither did I. But she captivated me with her story, which focused on a serious illness she had almost a decade ago, the need to create a circle of friends that would help her with the daily challenges of raising her three kids, and the evolution of this expanded “family” of parents and kids all of whom created this informal collaborative routine of babysitting and carpooling and cooking and cleaning. Raquel’s overarching philosophy? Accelerate toward embarrassment. Which she explained as a confluence of thoughts and actions having to do with overcoming the fear of asking help from neighbors, learning the skill of taking as well as providing, being completely at ease with who you are as opposed to the person others expect you to be, putting it all “out there” as it were. I could not think of a better and more timely concept for the present. Or for running a sustainable business. Or for providing the background for Living Above the Store, which is about leveraging a business to promote stewardship of land and community. As a kid growing up in a family-run grocery business in Savannah, I used to hate the fact that whenever my family went out to eat on occasion at Williams Seafood, dinner was an ongoing meet-and-greet affair with neighbors and friends and business acquaintances. I think my dad’s outgoing, easy, loud manner was matched only by my own desire to crawl under the table and hide. Today? While I will never match my dad’s extroverted style, I think his approach to life generally and business particularly has resulted in our real-estate company’s embracing principles and practices that — at least until recently — were viewed as being “out there.” The story of our evolution into becoming a more sustainable business is a long one. But it basically comes down to conquering our own fears. Over the years, my colleagues and I have wrestled with being labeled tree-huggers, with taking a strong stance about not building in greenfield areas and focusing on urban core development, with signing on to the 2030 Challenge to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our buildings, with slow, deliberate growth. How would we be viewed by others in our profession, by the community at large? Would we seem polly-annish in the eyes of others, feel embarrassed by ideals that just didn’t seem to be “business-like”? Warren Bennis, in one of my favorite books on business leadership (On Becoming a Leader) writes brilliantly about the need for us to un-learn what we have been taught, in order to re-learn what we have always known intuitively to be true. We know, I think, that we have substituted lives of consumption for the more meaningful activity of celebrating the type of community Raquel Colby describes. We know, I think, that business has a purpose beyond a financial bottom line. We know, I think, that Einstein and Bucky Fuller and others were right in saying that the same type of thinking that got us into our current financial and environmental crises is not what will restore us to who we are, who we can be. A different direction, a different sort of growth, a different sort of acceleration is called for. One that embraces the collaborative, communal ethos that my seat mate so generously shared with me the other day. One that accelerates us in the direction of being the type of company we have always known ourselves to be. One that accelerates us past the point of being constrained by the odd looks we get from others, as we move beyond conventions that no longer work or that never worked. One that moves us to share our stories with total strangers ─ as Racquel did, as I am doing here, perhaps as you will do as well.

Ray Anderson: Oh Captain, Our Captain

Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., author of two books on sustainability and a tireless champion for re-inventing business to service the environment, passed away last Monday at the age of 77. Ray was vice-chairman of my company for eight years, a mentor, a guide, and a dear friend. I write this in […] Read More..

In Praise of Late Bloomers

It’s already spring in my hometown of Savannah, GA. Partiers have already blown in and out of town to celebrate a raucous St. Patrick’s day. The tourists are in full swing, enjoying a three-week music festival and the annual tour of homes. And, of course, there’s the early bursting onto the scene of azaleas, the […] Read More..

A Tale of Two Banks

Several hundred billions of dollars in commercial real estate loans are up for expiration in the coming year, with a multiple of that ($1.7 trillion) coming in the ensuing 12 months.. Reports of vulture capital in the $500 billion + range are reportedly poised to pounce on anticipated flea-market pricing. And the question on the […] Read More..

Leveraging Business For Change: It Ain’t About the “Where”

George S. invited me to have coffee with him the other day. George is a young real estate developer in town (Savannah, GA), passionate about strategies to reduce our carbon footprint. He and his wife and two young daughters have been in town about five years. Foremost in his mind, the reason he wanted to […] Read More..

Doing the Scapegoat Thing – Not So Profitably

During the past nine months, virtually every board I serve on has gone through crazy tumult. A few execs have lost their jobs in the process. You could say that each situation is unique, and that these terminations were called for. Perhaps that’s true. But I think there are systemic forces at work that call […] Read More..