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When passion makes people want to sing... about work

by Chris Grams on November 22, 2010


chris-grams's picture

When passion makes people want to sing... about work

For the last six months, I’ve been working closely with The Redwoods Group, an innovative B Corp here in North Carolina. For those not familiar with B Corps, they are a new type of for-profit corporation looking beyond the bottom line and using the power of business to help solve social and environmental problems.

I thought I’d share a recent story from Redwoods showcasing what can happen when you’ve enabled a thriving community of passion in your organization.

When Alexi Paraschos, 23, joined The Redwoods Group earlier this year for a post-graduate internship, he had no idea what to expect. In school, he’d always avoided business classes, yet he was the only one in his internship group to end up working at a for-profit corporation.

Alexi had never really thought of himself as the corporate type and the environment was new, different, and somewhat uncomfortable for him. He certainly didn’t go into the internship with the expectation that work would be fun, but he still struggled to acclimatize to the new environment, including cubicles, meetings, and other traditional trappings of business.

Alexi attended one company meeting where Kevin Trapani, President and CEO of the Redwoods Group (and a charismatic, visionary leader by any measure), gave a speech about the company mission. In it, Kevin talked about how at Redwoods, love—not profit—was the bottom line.

Alexi deeply connected with this idea of the role of love in business and the speech became a turning point for him. He began to see examples of love embedded throughout Redwoods.

Under Kevin’s leadership, Redwoods actually encourages employees to bring their personal passions into their work. Sometimes this means the company sponsors need-based volunteer efforts like Habitat for Humanity construction projects on company time. But Redwoods also encourages employees create their own interest groups around their personal passions. Employees created a running group, a book club, and a group dedicated to environmental issues, among others.

One of the groups employees formed was a Martin Luther King, Jr. group where, in once-a-month meetings, employees would explore social and racial issues together. Each year during Black History Month, this group would host Martin Luther King, Jr. week, and during the year of Alexi’s internship, someone suggested they celebrate the week by forming a gospel choir that would perform at a company meeting.

Alexi, a talented musician, volunteered to help organize the choir. According to him, it was the first time he really felt he was able to make a meaningful contribution to the company.

When I talked to Alexi a few weeks ago, he reflected on the experience.

“It was so different than the stereotype of business, where you sit in a cubicle all day, then you leave to go home and live your life. This was something I wanted to be a part of, but I was paid for it, too.”

Some might argue that hosting a gospel choir at work was a waste of valuable time. After all, could it really help make the business more successful? Alexi thinks it could.

“There is something to be said for being passionate about your work and how that affects your productivity,” Alexi said. “When looking for a job now, I think I would have a standard to hold another business or company to.”

I wonder if many in his generation would agree.

A few months ago, a group of us from New Kind were meeting with Kevin Trapani at Redwoods to discuss a project we’d been working on for them. As part of the project, we proposed Redwoods embrace this aspect of “love” in their business, both internally and externally, even more strongly than they already were.

Kevin had a smile on his face while we discussed the idea, and when we finished, he asked us whether we’d been talking to Alexi (who I hadn’t met at the time). He then told us this story.

Just the day before, he’d received an email from Alexi, who’d recently finished his internship at Redwoods. As Alexi’s way of saying thank you for what he described as a life-changing experience, he had written and recorded a song entitled “The Bottom Line.”

The song was inspired both by Kevin’s company meeting speech about the Redwoods mission and Alexi’s overall experience at Redwoods. Kevin played the song for us right there in the meeting.

Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics:

“Now we can change the system, by making love our mission,
We'll show the world, what we can do,
When we look inside, see the connection between you and I,
That's what'll happen, making love the bottom line.”

As Kevin told us this story, I may have seen a tear or two in his eyes. His vision for Redwoods had been made into music.

When I asked Alexi what moved him to give Redwoods this gift before he left, here’s what he told me.

“My experience at Redwoods was so different than anything else I’d done. I felt like I had finally been able to bring the things I was so passionate about to this place. To say thank you, I wanted to give something back.”

Hearing this makes me wonder… what if every organization nurtured people’s personal passions and found ways to connect them to their work? What if more people were so compelled by their work that it moved them to create art? Would we be able to inspire happier, more productive organizations?

Today, stories like this one about Alexi’s Redwoods experience are outliers.

Do they have to be?

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ellen-weber's picture
Great stories, Chris and thanks. If folks took multiple intelligences to work daily, and there is no reason not to do so, this could work well and ROI would be measurable!

It would take facilitators to stir it up, and leadership to sustain it - but I teach it to MBA leaders and they love the results. May share your story with my Jan MBA Leadership class. Thanks - I'll make sure you get the credit you deserve for crafting it so well.

chris-grams's picture

Thanks Ellen, glad you enjoyed the story--it was a meaningful experience to witness! Please let me know what your leadership class thinks!