Putting the Heart Back Into Business

Just under two years ago, I had a life transforming moment.

I was sitting in the South Bank in London, with friend and fellow warrior Nicolas when he asked me whether I was ready to write a book about the alternative approaches I had developed to running my business, Thornton’s Budgens, a supermarket in North London.

And indeed, I was – the title rolled off my tongue: “How To Put The Heart Back Into Business”.

As it happened I was just heading off to India on a sabbatical. I spent the first week in Goa, in the monsoon, the only guest in my hotel, with chronic diarrhea – the universe was telling me I needed to be alone and reflect. And in that alone time, I became clear that this was my life purpose.

From that emerged my mission – “I create a heartful world by encouraging people to open their hearts, starting with my own.”

Over the eight years of Thornton’s Budgens, we have created what we call “The Community Supermarket That Really Cares”. Which means we put people and our planet first, trusting profit will follow – with people being anyone who works in our company and those in our community.

In that role we have done seemingly crazy things, like setting up a farm on the roof of one of our stores, as well as more sensible things like reducing our energy consumption by more than 50% and showing the global supermarket industry that putting doors on their chiller cabinets does not in fact cost you sales while substantially reducing your carbon footprint.

With our people, I realised that what we needed to do was to create a “safe container” at work. So that, just like in an iGroup, everyone would feel safe to share, without fear of judgment or rebuke. What I also saw was that the key to a thriving company is truth; and that to speak your truth, you need to feel safe.

A recent Radio 4 programme on Secrets, looked at the opposite of truth, offering evidence that holding secrets is psychologically damaging and can impact on your ability to work. Conversely, sharing something with someone creates a shared bond.

This is of course not surprising news to you Warriors, but it is to the business world. Can you imagine if you were as free to be you at work as you are at your iGroup?

To help create this safe environment we developed the Heart Programme that encourages team members to open their hearts, by creating a safe environment for them to fully show up.

It is based on the work of environmental activist Joanna Macy and involves four steps – gratitude, feeling the pain, seeing with new eyes and action. We start with a meditation and sharing that would not look out of place in an MKP Circle.

Through the heart programme’s sharing circles and the use of a talking stick, which ensures everyone gets to speak without interruption, people feel valued, get to contribute their ideas and have an input into the direction of the company.

And it works – since we implemented this we have got straight 100% scores in our “mystery shopper” scores (we used to get very inconsistent scores) and our sales have increased by 6%.

We are in the process of setting up a Council that will become the policy making body for the company, which will see 5 or 6 team members sit along side the three existing board members.

Inspired by Darshita Gillies, we intend to have at least one Millennial on it. These are people born between 1990 and 2000, who have a very different outlook on work and what they want from it – a “civic-minded generation with a strong sense of community both local and global”.

We are even considering having representatives from other stakeholder groups – customers, the community and someone representing the environment.

And we are in the process of redefining roles so that everyone does only what they love to do.

I am so excited by the prospect that soon I will only be responsible for our vision and purpose, innovation and the conscience of the company! It is what I love to do and it gives me space for another chapter: the development of Heart in Business Limited.

I formed this with 6 others all from MKP, Celebration Of Being, Nobleman, or Embercombe connections – including Nicolas of course! We started last year with a mission: “Heart in Business Limited will enable companies to put people and our planet first, trusting that profit will follow.”

In this way, I can get closer to my life purpose by sharing my experiences with others.

So why, I hear some of you ask, does this matter? Well, if you look at the latest Gallup Poll on workplace satisfaction, it shows that globally 87% of people are emotionally disconnected from their work.

And since we spend half of our non-sleeping time at work, this may explain the amount of turmoil there is in the world right now.

As businesses employ such a large percentage of the workforce globally, we can do something about this. In fact, I would argue that it is our duty to do something about it.

The good news is that most studies examining the profitability of companies who look beyond maximising shareholder value and consider their wider stakeholder base, have shown that doing this delivers better financial results.

So what is the dream of Heart in Business Limited?

“The dream of Heart in Business Limited is that companies put people and our planet first, trusting profit will follow. The dream is of companies where we have a purpose, companies where we make a broader contribution to society and see the world beyond the next set of quarterly profits. Companies where we consider all our stakeholders – our employees, our community, our planet and of course, our shareholders.

Companies where we care about the impact on people, whether those people work in our company, are customers, or live in the community in which we operate.

Companies where everyone is doing the job they want to do rather the one they are good at, where there is passion, authenticity and love; where we are all making a difference, where we are all heard and understood, where we all hear and understand our colleagues.

Companies where there is heartfelt leadership, where we co-create plans and where wealth flows. Companies where people can be themselves, without fear of judgement or punishment.

Companies that care about our planet, who consider future generations; companies that take into account what we are leaving behind for our children and grandchildren.

This is our dream of how companies will thrive in the future, indeed some companies already are.

In fact at Heart in Business Limited, we believe it is the only way forward.”

I am encouraged not to be alone on this journey, sharing the vision with other great movements such as Conscious Capitalism, the Blueprint for Better Business, B.Corporations and The B-Team.

I believe that now is the time for change – and that more and more businesses are ready for that change.

So I end with a request, knowing of course that the answer might not be yes! I need to get this message to business leaders – so if you are involved in organising business speaking events, or know contacts who are, or if you lead a business which you would like to be more heartful, then please get in touch!

To find out more, look up heartinbusiness.org or contact andrew3@heartinbusiness.org.

Andrew Thornton