Note: This post is a companion piece to this case study on Eileen Fisher and our systems thinking approach. That story lays out the building blocks for change that led us to the creation of the Sustainability Design Team. 

Eileen Fisher’s culture was like none I’d ever witnessed in my quarter century of working with corporations. For starters, the leaders, including VP of Manufacturing, VP of Sales, CFO and more—positions often held by white men—were ALL women. Not the Devil Wears Prada stereotype of New York City fashion praying mantis eat-your-head-off kind of women. But nice. I was in disbelief. Was this really a successful half-billion-dollar business? 

In addition, Eileen was famously a devoted meditator. Mindful Magazine had recently had her on the cover sitting lotus style with a caption “the iconic clothing designer on why kindness is good for business.” The trend—made chic by Google in California—was moving from the fringe to center in some businesses. By the time I got there, Eileen was starting every meeting with the chime of a Tibetan bell and the invitation to spend a few minutes paying attention to your breath. There was a bell in every room in the building. 

So, the soil was rich to grow a different culture in our Sustainability Design Team. What would you call a good perfect storm? Eileen’s culture of the feminine, plus reflection, plus experimentation would converge to allow us to take risks that other businesses up til now would not allow. 

Assembling a team around doing things differently

Here are the things that we did that were unorthodox, and yet led I believe to the great success of the Sustainability Design Team and Eileen Fisher’s celebrated Vision2020 report. 

Many of the practices are deceptively simple, but they add up to a culture of relationship and achievement, reflection and action, work and play that allows for something new to be born. They are essential to creating a team culture that works for the long haul, and that’s why we want you to know about them. 

Physical space

Physical structure is power, and the old school meeting configuration—rows with someone directing from the front of the room—gives power to that person. Large rectangular conference tables also confer power to the person at the head. The table serves literally to get in the way of connection. I begin my day, before anyone gets there moving the furniture. Tables get folded and removed, rows disappear and are magically transformed into a circle. No barriers between us. There is something ancient—our ancestors sitting around a fire?—about that circle that allows for a deeper, more meaningful connection. 

Imagine for a second yourself in both configurations, the lines and the circle. Which is more conducive to conversation, co-creation, learning? Now imagine the chatter and small talk and buzz of a typical pre-Covid meeting space. It is fun, but frenetic and unfocused. Not yet conducive to meaningful work. After a few minutes of this is when we “play” the bell. In the beginning it is me, and as the years progress, others take on the role. Now I invite people into the present moment. “Feel your feet on the ground, the Earth below solidly, generously supporting you.” I’m already into language I would never have used at Ford Motor Co or Shell Oil. Maybe I should have… “Draw your shoulders up to your ears, squeeze tight and then let them go. Again… Now I invite you to feel and follow your breath as I play this bell as an invitation to land here in this moment.” 

Left brain activation (and inspiration)

First: move the furniture. And they do. While they are in this space of presence, I read a few lines of poetry for inspiration and to begin to integrate life and left brain. 

Rumi is one of my favorites: “The Breeze at Dawn has secrets to tell you don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want, don’t go back to sleep…” The invitation to ask for what you really want and to stay awake flows into the next moment of landing, which is through five minutes of writing. 

Pairing gratitude with agency

I ask them to get out their journals and respond to these two essential questions: What are you grateful for and what do you want to have happen? The first question, about gratitude, is the way to start the day in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. Yet it seems radical to start a business meeting that way. Well we already broke that ice with the Tibetan Bell. The power of the Gratitude question I find, is that it sets a tone of abundance, joy, appreciation instead of the standard corporate scarcity, fear, and cynicism. A vastly superior place to create from. And after all, we are a design team. 

The second question, what do you want to have happen, also speaks volumes. It suggests that the writer has agency over what will happen here. She is not a victim, a passive recipient of the leader’s whims. She is an equal co-creator of what will emerge this day. With this comes responsibility and freedom. Rather than standing back in silent judgement, she is “all in” for contributing to the success of our collective effort. It makes a difference. 

Getting to know each other

I then invite people to share in pairs. This step is key because what women have shared in their writing can be vulnerable. It is easier to share in this more intimate duo. It also gives women who don’t have a chance to get to work together the opportunity to get to know each other. The room buzzes again, but with a palpably different energy. 

This kind of grounded, connected, and reflective beginning, creates a fresh receptivity and intelligence for whatever the challenging content of the day will be. Be it wrestling with any of our eight “Riverbanks” (stretch goals on Carbon, Water, Toxins, Materials, Living Wage, Worker Voice, Worker Happiness) or conscious business practices. There are competing narratives and needs, potential power struggles, different interpretations of the problem, varying levels of comfort with risk. And many more classic business challenges. Setting up the team dynamics in this way makes it all much more doable. 

The XYZs of accountability

Equally as important to the creative, relational opening to the day is our “take names and numbers” closing. It’s essential to balance lofty vision with concrete action. 

Again the methodology is deceptively simple, but absolutely critical to the success of any team. We call it the “XYZs,” and a few seasons into the creation of the SDT, the XYZs became shorthand for how we would end every meeting: with specific accountability. It’s a flipchart with three interdependent columns: Thing X by Person Y by Time Z. For example, meeting with #1 customer about Commits revisions (Thing X) by Regina (Person Y) by Friday (Time Z). 

I say this is deceptively simple because if any one of the three dimensions: person, action or deadline is left unclear, nothing gets done and no vision is manifest. Conversely, when all three are present, action happens and we get closer to our dreams. The team learns to hold each other accountable to these deadlines and individual players in turn are motivated to follow through to honor their commitment to the team. 

It works. It is empowering and energizing as people start to see progress and know that together, they can get it done. And when they do, we exaggerate our celebration with standing ovations that never fail to please—giving us energy for the next task on the horizon. 

Inspired and ready to take action? Contact us to get started.

Want to learn more about the Eileen Fisher sustainability journey? Download the free guide.