…and what I have learned about partnership, community, and the future of work
Almost two years ago I relocated from San Francisco back to Germany, where I was born and had lived for 32 years before moving to the States. My US-born wife Sarah and I wanted our young daughter to experience Europe and get to know that part of her family heritage as well. With all of our belongings still on a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic, we arrived with just a few suitcases in the middle of Berlin, in the middle of winter.
For me, the reverse culture shock was severe. After 15 years in California, returning to Berlin felt like sucking most of the colors out of the palette. My wife, a San Francisco native, was flabbergasted by the sour facial expressions and the standard response to all inquiries, “it’s not possible.” Returning to a city that I had left in 2003 and which has since undergone a period of rapid gentrification, not unlike what happened in San Francisco at the turn of the Millennium, brought out a strange mix of feelings of both homecoming and alienation.
A Romantic in Berlin
As a self-declared “business romantic,” Berlin was not the most obvious destination, and at the same time it was. We found an apartment which was appropriately in the Romantic district of Berlin-Mitte, with streets named after some of the most famous German Romantic poets and philosophers, from Schlegel to Novalis to Eichendorff. This Romantic streak lives on in the German psyche, forever battling with the pragmatic mindset of German engineering that divides the world into binaries rather than an opportunity to explore its elusive ambiguity. This inherently German duality is now indeed a universal one and pinpoints both the acute malaise of our time and its most pressing cure: to combine efficiency and pragmatism with our striving for beauty; to allow for inner truths and expansive imagination far beyond the confines of empirical reasoning; to reconcile the business imperative of quantifiable value with the fuzzy desires of humans. In other words, I came back to Berlin for romance and to launch The Business Romantic Society.
Like so many ideas, The Business Romantic Society started as a sort of a practical joke. In my 2015 book, The Business Romantic, I explored, among other topics, the very romantic idea of secret societies. In the final paragraph of the book I announced a secret society of my own and invited readers to email me if they wanted to join. To my surprise, many did.
Under the name of The Business Romantic Society and supported by a network of contractors, I left a corporate job and worked for a couple of years in the US, with design firms, startups, and nonprofits, helping them sharpen their vision and humanize their brand and work culture. In addition, I gave talks and workshops all over the world, including two TED Talks, and created a diner series called 15 Toasts together with Priya Parker, whose book, The Art of Gathering, came out this year. It was exhilarating and rewarding to see my vision of uniting the humanities and business, of bringing romanticism back to our market society, getting more and more traction, and then even more so in the past couple of years in light of the rise of AI and growing concerns over automation. More and more, people and companies have come to realize that appreciating what makes us human represents the ultimate human value proposition in an age of digital maximization and optimization.
Colleague, Friend, and Business Partner
It’s beautiful to fight for something. It’s tiring though to do so alone for a prolonged period of time; to be a society without associates, without fellow citizens, is not so lively after all. So after two years of running my own practice, the time had come to take the next step.
My wife always cautioned me not to partner with anybody — except Till Grusche, my former colleague on the marketing team at Frog Design. The ex-front man of a punk rock band (search for “Kleine Goetter” on YouTube anytime you feel like smashing something), Till never lost that peculiar kind of energy. Till does everything 100 percent, or perhaps more appropriately for a true metal fan, Till turns everything up to 11. Till is the real deal, and his authenticity is contagious.
Till joined Frog Design in 2008, where I was running the marketing team. A few years later, he moved from Munich to Frog in San Francisco, where we worked even more closely together, became friends and neighbors, and played table tennis (at work) and tennis (at Dolores Park). In 2013, I left Frog for a CMO role with an architecture firm. Till led marketing at Frog for a couple more years and then eventually moved back to Germany where he joined a ridesharing startup and subsequently ran marketing for digital agencies HUGE and IXDS. We stayed in touch but were on different trajectories.
It wasn’t until 2016 that our paths crossed again when we both got excited about putting on the initial gathering of The Business Romantic Society (the secret society) in Barcelona on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress. I was now ready to bring some of the people together who had written to me, and create a different, more intimate, and more playful space for exploring the soul of business. Till and I had each been to and produced countless conferences and events, and we always felt that there was something missing; the only way to prove it was to create our own gathering. We called it the House of Beautiful Business.
In February 2017, shortly after I had moved to Berlin, we rented an old guild house in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona and invited friends, colleagues, and people we always wanted to meet (some of whom even showed up) to the inaugural edition. It was a true passion project, and appropriately rough around the edges: I will never forget the moment when the catering crew finally showed up an hour ate with two cans of coffee for 100 people eagerly awaiting breakfast.
But it struck a chord, and we immediately knew we wanted to do it again: better, more beautiful, but with the same intimacy and tenderness that had been so special about the debut. We hosted the second House in the fall of 2017, on the eve of Web Summit in Lisbon, followed by a smaller salon, an Evening of Beautiful Business, in Munich this January, and as our confidence grew so did the magic. Last month, we hosted the third gathering of the House for a fast-growing community — House18 — in Lisbon again: a scaled-up, intensified, six-day version that convened 500 thinkers and doers from business, government, technology, science, the arts, and the humanities to craft and experience a positive vision for a human future of work. And we’re already planning House19…
We spent the rest of 2017 accepting that the timing was right now and that there were no more excuses not to join forces. The loose ties needed a more formal network, a company. Till quit his job, and we officially incorporated The Business Romantic Society as our joint business in January 2018.
And what a year it’s been!
To Humanize Business is to Make It Beautiful
Starting The Business Romantic Society together this year felt like being 20 all over again — that same nonstop energy — but this time with the experience, relationships, and wisdom to not feel like we’re starting from scratch. We’ve been deeply moved to see that people support you when you really need it. They will come when you call them, as long as it’s a clarion call. We set up shop, brought our respective existing clients along, and started working for new organizations. We are grateful for their trust and the challenges they posed.
This past year, we have worked with a variety of companies with a range of needs:
For diffferent (yes, that’s spelled right!), a one-of-a-kind strategy consultancy in Berlin and Munich, and their parent, the Syzygy Group, a publicly listed human experience company and digital powerhouse operating across Europe and the US, we helped curate their communications and thought leadership. Among many things, we brought to life Hans & Marie, the “business festival for happy people,” in June that drew over 400 participants from German DAX companies, international corporations, and startups. Encouraged by the success of the inaugural edition, we just started working on the next festival which will take place in June 2019. We also got involved with their pioneering cultural and strategic transformation initiative and worked over the entire year with Syzygy’s Group’s management team and employees, e.g. by designing and running week-long bootcamps to bring together cultures and catalyze strong personal relationships, collaboration, and growth.
We helped individuals (who shall remain unnamed) to embrace their own stories and become better, more inspiring leaders.
For high-potentials and executives of Otto Group, the global retailer that has been undergoing a remarkable cultural transformation over the past few years, we accompanied learning expeditions and helped them craft and deliver TED-style talks to present their key insights to the workforce back at headquarters. In similar fashion, in Silicon Valley, we helped Airbus executives to become better storytellers.
Through talks, workshops, and vision sprints, we brought the idea of business romance, of humanizing business by making it beautiful, to companies such as Daimler, Facebook, Google, Kapsch, LinkedIn, Merck, Siemens, and Sky, and companies such as BCG, Galp, T-Systems, and Siemens joined as partners in our quest. The BCG Henderson Institute became our main collaborator for the House of Beautiful Business, and we also hosted a dinner together at TED in Vancouver, inspired by a joint article with the Institute’s director, Martin Reeves, about The Amazement Cycle.
With Galp, a Portuguese energy company with global operations, we produced the Un-Known Summit, a one-day conference in Lisbon on the future of learning in exponential times tailored to HR and learning and development leaders from various industries. Galp is also a strategic partner of the House.
Furthermore, with T-Systems, the ICT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, we researched, wrote, and published a white paper about the state of AI and “the European opportunity” that we presented and discussed at an interdisciplinary expert dinner in Cologne and a session at the House in Lisbon.
Finally, we kept working throughout the year with my long-time client, the National Head Start Association, an advocacy organization devoted to promoting the largest government-funded early childhood program for low-income children and their families in the US, Head Start. This year, we focused on helping them grow the HeadStarter Network — an initiative we had conceived and launched together in 2017 — aimed at connecting early childhood education practitioners with the tech and business world. We helped design and contributed to the program for their Early Childhood Innovation Summit, and facilitated their strategy retreat, resulting in an ambitious 2019 roadmap and plan of activities, including an event series on Human Flourishing, a special report about the potential of blockchain technology in early childhood education, and a Tech & Early Ed Incubator in Chicago this coming March that will look at the convergence of neuroscience and AI with regards to early childhood education, among other projects.
Our collaboration with the HeadStarter Network is fulfilling not just because it is reaching vulnerable populations, but also because early childhood IS the future of work. The first few years of life are critical for the development of brains and potential, and children who have quality early learning can, quite simply, achieve more throughout their lives. Teachers and administrators bring immense ingenuity and innovation (often under very tight constraints and low pay) to their jobs. The topics that we address including purpose, human work cultures, and the role of AI have a different meaning in this world but have valuable learnings that can be applied in other fields — not to mention a great sense of urgency.
So what keeps all these disparate strands of work together? It is ultimately one overarching vision: that we need to make business beautiful to make it more human. Philosophically speaking, there are two ways to do it: either tackle the ugly root cause and change it through action (change the external world) or change the mindset (change the internal world), in keeping with George Bernard Shaw’s famous sentiment, “Better keep yourself bright and clean. You are the window through which you must see the world.” Practically speaking, we work in both directions, and we do it by creating (strategic) clarity, content, and community across our projects, through talks, workshops, vision sprints, year-long engagements, and bespoke events and experiences.
Here’s what we’ve observed across all of our work: Humans have a nearly insatiable need for deeper connection, for deeper understanding as the basis for a more profound organizational and personal transformation. What used to be an afterthought is now at the center of collective action and has moved closer to business mainstream. What once appeared extracurricular is now very much wanted as a curriculum. In 2015, when my book came out, business romanticism was a mission impossible — it is now not only the mission of The Business Romantic Society, it’s become a viable business.
Learning and Growing
One of the most rewarding aspects of our work has been building a small team. While we function more like a nimble think tank and creative studio, we are happy to have amazing people on board as a core group of accomplices and confidantes:
Nina Kruschwitz in Boston, who had worked with management guru Peter Senge on his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, and written for the Sloan MIT Management Review among many other publications, joined us as editor in chief this year, helping us launch the Journal of Beautiful Business and our bi-monthly Beautiful Business Letter. Nina is supported by two other prolific writers: Sarah Souli, an Athens-based journalist with a unique voice and an affinity for social justice issues and extreme human-interest stories, and the infinitely curious Anastasia Linn in Copenhagen, both of whom strengthened our ability to muse about melancholia as comfortably as about artificial intelligence.
Mónica Ribeiro acts as our tireless ambassador in Lisbon where her knowledge and network can solve seemingly anything. Monika Jiang, the “millennial activist” who has joined us as our first full-time employee in Berlin, oversees all of our community and social media communications with verve and wit. She also runs our Chambers of Beautiful Business program that will bring a taste of the House of Beautiful Business to various cities in the world in the form of smaller events co-hosted with the most passionate members of our community. Chambers are planned for 2019 in Athens, Berlin, Detroit, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Marrakesh, Melbourne, and Warsaw.
And finally, Jaimie Stettin, an American in Paris. Jaimie’s official title is head of production, but she’s actually the head and heart of everything we do. From bookkeeping to strategy to creative direction, she’s the Jaimie-of-all-trades; she’s our toughest critic and greatest ally. Her no’s weigh more than anyone else’s, which makes her yes’s all the more precious.
As you might expect, we don’t have an office but rather work in co-working spaces, cafes, or our homes. We meet for a couple of calls with the whole team every week, and Till and I spend at least two hours on the phone together each day, and I know my wife wonders if I wish him a good night or good morning more often than I do to her. It’s not always easy, but it’s working. Like in any romantic relationship, in The Business Romantic Society, too, distance fuels the fire and keeps the flame alight.
And this is something I’ve learned from Till and the team this year: it is emotions that make or break a project, not numbers. All of our projects are passion projects. Moreover, we’ve become much more confident in trusting our intuition. When we make decisions, we often ask each other and ourselves, ‘those are all the right arguments, but how do you feel about it?’
By the way, Till and I disagree sometimes, and we know each other so well know that we can smack the dissent from a mile away, even just by the tone at the beginning of our conversation. New colleagues and collaborators, who are not yet used to our direct style of debate, are often a bit perplexed in the beginning, but over time they recognize that this tension is a gift. While united in our vision, Till and I still see the world very differently, which makes each of us see more. Like in any good marriage, it’s possible to be friends and business partners at the same time — and still maintain the (business) romance.
As this year is coming to a close, I realize how lucky I am. In the best romantic tradition, I keep growing by searching for more. I get to travel this world and dwell in alternative ones. I work with amazing organizations that are open-minded and as demanding as they are inspiring. I work with brilliant colleagues whom I like (a lot). And I am connected to the incredibly generous community of the House of Beautiful Business that turns our “mistakes into melodies,” as Mykel Dixon put it in Lisbon, paraphrasing Miles Davis.
Through the Business Romantic Society Till and I have found our tribe, and now it is upon us and our community of clients, partners, and peers to help shape a bright future for our societies.