First of all: what does ‘something beautiful’ mean?
It means, something good, something worthy, (dare I say, something divine.)
It means, something of quality.
Quality is the only logical (and respectable) objective of business as we trudge our way through the 21st century. After the year we’ve had how could anything else be true?
We’ve exhausted the quantity game. The “more is more” argument is spent.
We know now, all too well, the true cost of doing sub-quality business:
Ephemeral goods create ever-lasting garbage.
“Shareholders first” yields inequality at its worst.
Unfulfilled people are unmotivated employees.
Unhealthy people are unproductive employees.
Successful business owners and operators of the future are those who replace ambitions of quantity for more admirable, more attractive, visions of quality.
But what is a ‘vision of quality’, exactly?
We English-speakers freely use this word ‘quality’ to describe an infinite number of things:
A stand-up set, a pair of sneakers, a large poutine from the local food truck – every life experience has the potential for ‘quality’ independent of its nature or particular qualities.
We know quality when we see it.
As Robert Pirsig writes in one of my all-time favourite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you.”
But how should an aspiring entrepreneur go about building something of quality? How do they determine whether the vision for their business is quality or not?
Answer: Quality is when how something works – it’s intellectual structure – is elegantly connected to why something exists – it’s humanistic beauty.
Using Robert Pirsig’s timeless example, the motorcycle’s ability to satisfy its rider (achieve quality) depends on the harmonious integration of its mechanical function (intellectual quality) and the opportunity for adventure it provides (humanistic quality).
A quality business, therefore, is one that harmoniously integrates a sustainable business model (intellectual structure) with the needs of the people it provides for (humanistic beauty.)
Co-Managing Partner and Chief Innovation Officer, Joanne McPhail, describes how she and her partners set out to create what would eventually become one of the largest law firms in Central Ontario, Barriston Law:
“What we were creating was not just a law firm. It was a law firm with meaning.”
The formation of Barriston Law, headquartered in Barrie, Ontario with locations in Collingwood, Huntsville and Bracebridge, began with a strategic planning session at Joanne’s previous law firm in 2010. The group effectively asked themselves two questions:
The first was ‘How should we grow? (A question of intellectual quality.)
The second was “Why should we grow?” (A question of humanistic quality.)
What came out of that strategic planning session was an acknowledgement that by becoming a larger firm they would have greater ability to (1) serve many different types of clients and legal needs and, with that, gain market share and (2) have a positive impact within the communities where they lived and worked, to truly have meaning. Looking back nearly a decade to when this journey started, Joanne McPhail explains:
“The vision was definitely to be bigger and better…but not just for the sake of being bigger. It was about having the combined resources to be able to embark upon more innovative projects…with respect to the delivery of services…with the pursuit of doing things differently being reflected most recently in becoming the first B Corp certified law firm in Ontario, and the third (and largest) in Canada.”
As a certified B Corporation, a business that “meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose” it’s safe to say Joanne and her colleagues at Barriston Law have achieved their vision of building a law firm with meaning.
But their vision of a law firm that has a positive impact on their community, helps those less fortunate, and places a high importance on their people existed many years before B Corp certification did.
Even though the vision of quality was clear, the path to get there, in Joanne’s words, “changed over time” and “had some ups and downs.”
Building a business (or anything else) of quality is not the result of a straight-line effort but rather a turbulent path wrought with awkward attempts and repeated revisions.
To quote another beloved but far newer book, The Rise, by Sarah Lewis, “Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent failure.”
To build something beautiful – something of quality – you have to be willing to get ugly.
You have to be willing to deal with discomfort.
You have to be willing to sustain through struggle.
You have to be willing to be bad (at first.)
You have to be willing to fail.
The road to building something beautiful can be ugly, but it’s worth it.
The team at Barriston Law hit roadblocks in pursuit of their goal – as every entrepreneur does. But because they had a vision of quality, they remained enthusiastic and continued to share that enthusiasm and “inspire others to see that vision.”
Joanne experienced some “ugly” or uncomfortable moments herself while simultaneously trying to inspire others to take the same road she was on. One particular example was when she participated in a panel discussion in front of an audience of many Central Ontario business owners and leaders. Barriston was in the middle of the B Corp certification process at the time – and certification was by no means guaranteed. But because the firm believed so strongly in the B Corp movement and their vision of a law firm with meaning, Joanne got in front of that audience and pitched B Corp certification anyway. She told me how she pushed through the uncertainty and associated discomfort,
“I thought ‘oh gosh, this could be a little bit embarrassing, if I stood up here and said how great [B Corp certification] is and then we don’t get certified.’ But in the end, I thought ‘No, it shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a testament to the company that is, you know, putting the resources towards going through a fairly extensive assessment process. It takes many hours. A lot of thought. And the will to want to one day make those 80 points.”
Ultimately, the inherent quality – or beauty – of Barriston’s vision out-weighed the greater effort required to achieve it than some lesser goal.
There will be roadblocks along every entrepreneurial journey. A journey of quality – one that elegantly integrates the intellectual with the humanistic – will be, by nature, more challenging than one that ignores half the equation.
But an entrepreneurial journey of quality is one that offers the entrepreneur more meaning and therefore more motivation.
In the case of Barriston Law, the meaning and motivation they have derived from their vision of quality has fuelled them to look beyond their own organization to support the B Corp movement at large and help other organizations achieve the similar visions of quality.
“It’s a fairly small movement in the scheme of things right now…but I honestly think it is going to be a huge movement and you’re seeing indications of that…People are starting to talk about there being more to a company than profit…have some purpose and that will drive shareholder value. I also see a big value in terms of the recruitment and retention of talent…We’ve hosted, at The Sandbox Center in Barrie, a B Corp 101 webinar to introduce local companies to the concept of becoming B Corp certified, and then we’re asking them to join in the first cohort of companies in our community who will go through the certification process together. And I’ll be sitting on that panel and bringing our experience to the group to help make their assessment easier. I think that if you could say our area is the B Corp capital of Ontario and really start to see businesses in the area coming together and caring about this stuff, our business community will attract the best talent and be better for it.”
Quality is the result of the hard-and-sometimes-ugly work required to bring intellectual structure and humanistic beauty together in harmony. Like Joanne and her colleagues, you must inherently want to do this work, in perpetuity, to achieve stand-out success.
To quote Sarah Lewis a second time, “Mastery requires endurance…it is not merely commitment to a goal, but to a curved line, constant pursuit.”
Do you have a vision of quality for your business?
What humanistic beauty are your working to create in the world around you?
How might you synthesize such beauty with the intellectual structure of your business?
These questions require careful consideration. Some entrepreneurs will have thought more about their business in such terms than others. Whichever end of the spectrum you find yourself on, in this moment, is irrelevant. What matters is that you’re on that curved line, putting one foot in the front of the other.
In relation to B Corp certification movement, Joanne shared a similar sentiment,
“I think there’s lots of room for companies to become “B corp-ish”. So you might not make it to certification – you have to make the 80 points minimum and some companies find it difficult to get there, especially early on in the process. But if you are going through the assessment and you are analyzing where you can improve and trying legitimately and genuinely to get better than you are, you are going down the road of being B corp-ish, and hey, come aboard! That pursuit can only make you a better company and a better corporate citizen.”
Whether it’s a more formal route like the B Corp certification process or something entirely different, if your vision for your business integrates the intellectual with the beautiful, you’ll have a cause worthy of an ugly road.
As a human-centered strategist, I work with Canadian businesses to systematically develop business strategies that consider human truths and human traits. If you’re not exactly sure how to go about integrating the intellectual with the humanistic, I can help you define your vision of quality and persist in your pursuit.
Stephanie Ruth Grimbly is a ‘human-centered strategist’ and creative problem-solver. She combines traditional business practices with emerging innovation disciplines to reveal insights about customer preferences and develop stand-out strategies for Canadian businesses.