As Mentzell finishes his last sentence, the alarm on his sports watch starts beeping. He excuses himself, walks to his desk, switches his telephone to the intercom mode, and strikes a small brass bell sitting next to the phone. He strikes the bell three times, creating low, calming tones that resonate throughout the company's offices.
"Sorry about that," Mentzell says as he sits back down to explain that the bell is rung at precisely 11:00 each day to call employees to group meditation -- which he usually observes -- or to practice 15 minutes of silence. The bell of mindfulness, as he calls it, is a way of reminding employees to slow down and become more present and aware.
Meditation? Mindfulness? These aren't words normally discussed by corporate HR people. But at Sounds True, it's fitting that the bell of mindfulness was rung during a conversation about downsizing, for this is a company that deals with all the routine struggles of a growing business, including layoffs, but does so with an eye -- and heart -- toward the human side of work life.
Sounds True is an audio publishing company based in Louisville, Colorado, a town located 20 miles northwest of Denver along the Front Range of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The privately held company was started in 1985 by Tami Simon, a 22-year-old woman who had a $30,000 inheritance and a vision to disseminate spiritual wisdom.
Today, Sounds True is a $9.3 million company that produces spoken-word audio tapes and CDs on topics related to world religion, psychology, and alternative medicine. The company boasts a catalog of more than 500 titles, including Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Energy Anatomy, by Caroline Myss, and Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing, by Andrew Weil, M.D. In 16 years, Sounds True has grown from a one-person labor of love into a 60-employee enterprise. Along the way, the challenge has always been how to maintain the company's spiritual focus -- and spiritual integrity -- while also responding to the gritty, mortal demands of business.
At first glance, Sounds True does seem different from most buttoned-down corporate settings. Walk toward the company's main entrance and you'll pass a serene white marble statue of an angel. Once you're inside, a golden retriever will click across the lobby and greet you. And as you tour the quiet offices, you'll find employees wearing fleece and khaki and hiking boots. They work alongside rippling desktop fountains, or to the accompaniment of bamboo flutes, or underneath warm reading lamps.
But these are just superficial differences. Within this casual, fleecy environment, employees also have to negotiate contracts, meet deadlines, fulfill orders, and generate profits just like any other corporate workforce. How does Sounds True balance the realities of competitive corporate life -- profit goals, employee conflict, and customer demands -- with its goal to promote spiritual wisdom? How does the company instill self-awareness in employees alongside the requisite business awareness?
Spend a day with Mentzell and you'll learn that the company's desire to create an aware workplace is much like an individual's attempt to find spiritual wisdom: it's something that needs continual attention. Just as there is no path to permanent spiritual enlightenment -- faith and spirituality being ongoing disciplines -- there is also no such thing as an unwavering workplace culture.
The best that Sounds True or any HR department can do is to be continuously mindful of those things that contribute to a positive working environment: hiring the right employees, adhering to core values, and conducting business in a way that fosters both individual awareness and business accountability. Simply stated, creating cultural wisdom is a discipline, not a destination, a discipline that might best be called enlightened leadership.
Hiring: It's not just a job
The path to enlightened HR starts with hiring, and fortunately, Sounds True is one of those lucky companies that attracts people with a natural affinity for their products. Just as techies head to Microsoft, metaphysically focused people gravitate toward Sounds True, supplying the small company with about 20 unsolicited résumés a week. "We attract employees who want to work in a different kind of way," Mentzell says.
But even though many people have an interest in working for the company, it's the job of Mentzell and other managers to make sure that those who are hired fully understand and embrace the company's mission. "In key positions, such as those in the editorial department, it's imperative that employees have a deep connection to our product line," he says. This means recruiting people with education and experience in world religions, and having them demonstrate that knowledge both orally and in writing.
For most of the company's positions, however, religious knowledge is not as important as the right skill set, which is determined by past experience; the ability to communicate honestly and respectfully, which is assessed through a series of team interviews; and support for the overall mission. The last criterion is trickier to assess, because the mission is spiritual and it's illegal to ask questions about religion in interviews. How does Mentzell determine whether candidates will uphold the mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom? By asking them to listen to taped products, review the catalog, and visit the company Web site.
"During follow-up interviews, I ask a series of open-ended questions about the candidate's reaction to our products and ask whether or not it is a problem for them that Sounds True produces products from a wide variety of wisdom traditions and schools of thought," he says. "Rather than looking for adherents, we are looking for capable people who do not have a problem with our material and support our overall mission."
The interest of spiritual seekers in working for Sounds True, combined with the company's diligent hiring practices, makes it possible for the culture to be almost self-generating. Case in point: Three years ago, the company hired a longtime customer to manage its warehouse, a department where profanity and gruffness are the norm in most companies, Sounds True included. The new manager, thanks to his long-term interest in Sounds True products, used professional language, treated employees with respect, and lived the company's value system. "He changed the way the warehouse was run not by dictating change, but by setting a good example," Mentzell says.
Honesty, openness, and accountability
Let's face it. Even if companies hire the right people, the ugly demands of business have a way of inflicting pain and uncertainty on even the wisest and most aware individuals. How does Sounds True make sure that employees don't revert to nasty reactive behavior in the wake of tough business demands? They do it by adhering to company values. Sure, many companies pay heed to the importance of values. But at Sounds True, the company's 20 values are integrated into daily business practices -- with the emphasis on the word "practice."
"One thing we are clear about is that our work is a work in progress," Mentzell says. "We have set aspirations that we continually strive for, but sometimes we fall short of our goals."
The guiding principles underlying all of Sounds True's values are mindfulness, honesty, and kindness. "These are the spiritual or wisdom qualities that are taught on the tapes we publish, so we also want to live them in our own work lives," says company president Tami Simon.
Let's start with the practice of mindfulness, which Mentzell describes as the art of paying attention and seeing things in a fresh and non-habitual manner. Sounds True promotes mindfulness by encouraging employees to stop what they are doing and become aware of their thought patterns. This is done through the 11:00 call to meditation, by providing an on-site meditation room, and by opening every large staff meeting with a two-minute period of silence. "This contemplative space provides the opportunity, if only for a moment, for employees to set aside their individual agendas," Mentzell explains.
The ability to set aside individual agendas allows employees to fully engage in the second guiding principle: honest and open communication. "In many companies, people waste a lot of time through backstabbing and office politics," Simon notes. "This happens because people don't trust each other." She believes that the only way to foster trust is to promote open communication, even if employees don't always like what they hear.
Sounds True encourages open communication in several ways. First, every Monday morning, employees gather in the lobby to discuss business issues with the management team. During this time, employees can ask any manager, including the president, pointed questions about budgets, the hiring processes, whatever. "Tami has admitted to making mistakes on more than one occasion," Mentzell says.
Second, the company makes extensive use of peer-review processes that allow team members to provide direct feedback to coworkers about how they may be affecting others. Upward review processes are also used to give managers anonymous feedback from those they manage.
Third, the company promotes collaborative decision-making so that managers jointly make key business decisions, and departmental teams determine their own best way of working together. The only way to arrive at mutually beneficial decisions is for managers and employees to engage in honest communication.
Is there any downside to having such an open and honest culture? "Oh my god, yes," Simon says. "People who are used to being in corporate environments where there is more strategic game playing don't always make it here." Why? "Because it often takes a while for people to realize that honesty, even if it pinches, can lead to much higher levels of trust. Some people just don't make it that far.
"Many people here are very genuine, and they expect you to be genuine, too. If you are a person who doesn't want to bring your emotional life to work, you may think that coworkers are poking at you to find out what's going on in your life."
Tim Bucher, a recently hired network administrator in Sounds True's IT department, agrees with Simon. "I had wary thoughts coming in," he admits. "I was used to a large corporate structure, and I was a bit intimidated by how different the culture was here. Now, I'm used to it. I don't have to work to weed out truth from lies, because everybody here is so honest."
The other guiding principle embedded in all of Sounds True's values is kindness, which simply means respecting others and honoring individual differences. The company honors individual differences through such practices as a nonexistent dress code, flexible working hours, and allowing employees to bring their dogs to work.
Sounds True Values
Building financial acumen
In a company driven by spiritual values, capitalistic concerns such as cost and profit easily can become secondary. Such was the case at Sounds True last year, when the company tried to expand in too many different directions at once and ultimately lost money for the first time in 15 years.
Smarting from the loss, the company was forced to lay off employees in unprofitable divisions and also pay stricter attention to financial concerns. This upset a few longtime employees, who felt that the company was "selling out" to capitalism and chose to leave on their own.
"We had to work to create business-mindedness," Simon explains. "For 15 years the people who worked here did not pay much attention to the critical drivers of financial success such as cost of goods, margins on product lines, and product formats."
"What we had to communicate to remaining employees," Mentzell adds, "is that our mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom is not possible unless the company can also pay its bills."
To make sure that employees are conscious of the relevant measures of financial performance, Sounds True launched an open-book management program called the Great Game of Business, wherein all employees were trained in financial literacy. Today, department representatives provide weekly forecasts against their specific budgets and then present this information in bimonthly business "scoreboard" meetings. All managers are in attendance at this fast-moving meeting and are expected to report financial information to their teams immediately afterward.
"Information on our performance against budget quickly travels to all areas of the organization," Mentzell explains. This raises employee awareness of financial measures and stimulates employees to take corrective action when necessary.
Although speaking freely about finances has helped the company get back on track, there are some risks involved. "There is a certain kind of anxiety introduced in an environment where people know all about the business and its accompanying uncertainties," Simon explains. "In companies where the executive team acts like parents who withhold difficult information from workers, people are protected from this anxiety. But I think that approach gives people a false sense of safety. Here, employees may feel anxious about finances more of the time, but at least everyone knows where they stand."
The role of HR
It may come as no surprise that Sounds True's HR director personally embodies the company's mission. On the door of Mentzell's office are in and outboxes marked with the signs: Breathing IN I feel calm; Breathing OUT I smile. "I've been on my own spiritual quest for 10 years," he says, adding that he not only meditates regularly but also is a serious student of Western psychology and Eastern religion and philosophy.
Mentzell's personal connection to the company's mission helps him to be mindful of the never-ending work involved in creating an aware culture. As HR director, an unusual position in a company of this size, he oversees hiring, mediates disputes, communicates financial results, negotiates benefits, and trains managers. He reports directly to the CEO. "I'm responsible for how management happens here," he says. Other than that, most of Mentzell's job is typical HR: recruitment, benefits, compensation, performance reviews, and training.
"I'm surprised how much of my job is routine," he says, almost sheepishly.
It could be routine because Sounds True is as mindful of human needs as it is of business needs, although Mentzell would be the first to say that maintaining the balance between financial and human goals is not easy. Shift too far in one direction and business suffers. Shift too far in the other and morale withers. But by staying aware that both goals are important -- and by integrating that awareness into daily business practices -- Sounds True has been able to weather hard times.
"Enlightened HR?" Mentzell asks. "Sounds True should not be portrayed as having figured it out, but merely striving to find a better way of doing business."
Workforce, June 2001, pp. 40-46 -- Subscribe Now!