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Stories: Corporate
Outbreaks of Resonance

Leadership Retreats at Unilever Bestfoods Asia

An Interview with Tex Gunning

In early 2004 Tex Gunning, President of Unilever Bestfoods Asia, read the results of Renee Levi’s doctoral research on Collective Resonance and contacted her. For several years Tex and his team had been assembling his country leaders in retreat settings called Outbreaks to build community, create purposeful business strategy and goals, and make a difference in the world. Although the process had no official name, the results of these gatherings were extraordinary and felt very much like Collective Resonance to Tex. In this interview with Renee, Tex describes the most recent Outbreak in Rajasthan, India.

RL: Tex, will you tell me about what happened during your recent Outbreak in India?

TG: In February of 2004 we gathered 200 leaders from 15 Asian countries in which Unilever does business. We sent these 200 people, in groups of five to seven, into Indian communities to do community service for a few days. The communities were very diverse. Some were Art of Living communities, others were charitable communities like the Mother Theresas in Calcutta and Delhi, or the Little Sisters as they are called. A few also went to the Dalai Lama in the north, and to business communities in which people lived in community and had a business serving others. I went to the Brahma Kumaris in Mt. Abu. The Unilever people worked closely together with these people, doing whatever they do for several days.

The effect was amazing. I think that what this experience does is that it reminds us of our own humanity. And therefore the masks or social behavior barriers we carry around start to get broken down because we just can’t help ourselves. If you’re wiping the bums of sick and deprived children or elderly people, or you see Art of Living people dedicating their whole lives to others to teach them how to find meaning in life, to build a better life, then you get sucked in. I mean, it’s a human thing. It’s human values being lived out in front of you. And you get reminded that you have the same values, that you have a soul too. It really brings you back to your own soul.

So when those 200 people came back from all the places they had been we convened again on a big field in Jodhpur. I remember standing and watching them arrive in group after group and I could already see this incredible magic. I saw that these groups of five or six were already connected like hell with each other. They were just deeply into it and then when we brought people into circles – small circles, always, to capture the feeling and the touch, and the energy – they started sharing and it was just one big pouring out of emotions. In fact, even before we met there I had received messages from some of these people saying, “My God, what’s going on here?”

So community service is a very good tool for business leaders to help them realize that they have a soul with which to see the common humanity they share with very underprivileged people. They also come to realize their own privileged position and therefore gain some humility about it - to feel deeply in their soul their responsibility for people who are less privileged than they. I think that community service breaks down the barriers that exist between people because they’re thrown back on themselves and on their own souls. That is one way in which we get people to connect with themselves, to be with their souls, before we start our larger process.

RL: What is the larger process?

TG: In India it began when we went into the desert. It’s a long drive, and after stopping for lunch we put everybody in small circles to talk about who we are, who we want to be, and what we learned from the communities we served. Then we went on to the place in Rajasthan where we would all come together again.

We brought them into the desert. And there’s something about deserts. There’s something about water, too, and about mountains. So picking your spot is important, a place where nature does its work and you start to feel connected to a bigger thing. Or maybe the place has an emptiness that you want to fill up one way or another. We’ve done many desert ones now and it always works.

So here you have this camp in the middle of nowhere - in the desert - and people just, aahhh…they just get so calm, so serene and peaceful. And with the community service experience in our backpacks, we sit around the campfire at night and share what we have seen, what we’ve learned from the people we worked with. What kind of leadership did we see? What kinds of values did we feel? What does it mean for us as a business organization? We start to reflect on these things.

And don’t think we let them off the hook in this place. We get up at six and do yoga every morning for an hour with Indian yoga teachers on top of a beautiful hill as we watch the sun slowly come up. You get this collective feeling there with 200 people, all in yellow pajamas, feeling connected with each other. Feeling one…increasingly. And at a certain time in these processes, you suddenly know…you know...everybody knows, not only you, that we have fallen into community. We fall into community, into oneness.

RL: So there is a certain time, a specific shift, you feel?

TG: Yes. When you fall into community, you know it. Everybody knows it.

RL: How did you feel it, Tex?

TG: Well, everyone in the group uses different words to explain what they’re feeling and somebody later has to conceptualize what they’re saying, but everybody starts to sing the same song. They all come from different angles and they all express it very differently, but there’s a kind of synchronization happening in the intelligence in the group. There’s a synchronization coming in the touch and feel, and people start to build and build on each other all the time. Instead of individuals dialoguing with each other, the collective starts to dialogue and people can’t help themselves but to add to the collective dialogue.

There is something else I remember, I think it was on the second night. Normally we finish each day with an around-the-campfire dialogue or reflection. We call it practicing conversations and it seems to cement the group at the end of the day. But this one evening we felt that too much had happened during the day, so we called everyone around the fire and I said, “Look guys, I’m going to let you off the hook. You can go to bed early (and early means 10:00, by the way). But we had asked the Art of Living people we had with us to do some chanting with us before we went to bed and, well, this old Indian lady started chanting with us and I started to feel the resonance you’re talking about. I thought, my God, this group is just in complete synchronization at the moment. Entirely. And I knew it because the next day I saw the group accelerating as a group, building on each other, feeling that everything that was said was relevant and had value for the whole process. So they were supportive to each other but also the resonance went up and up and up! And I knew that the group had fallen into communion, thinking as a collective, even though they still expressed their diversity through different stories, different angles on things.

RL: Wow, I’m just imagining the resonance in that chanting! Can you describe more about what that felt like to you?

TG: Let me think about that. See, one of the roles that I have to play might make me not an entirely good example of the feeling sense that you’re after. I find that I’m thinking incredibly hard – always – in these processes. I have to find the commonality in what people are saying because if I can’t conceptualize for them what has happened, then we’re in trouble.

If not, people will leave ultimately and they will have felt something but they can’t hold on to it because it hasn’t been conceptualized for them. So my own presence in these processes is observing - observing the emergence of the group. I’m watching whether people are participating, even if they’re not talking but actively participating by being present. I’m very intellectually busy thinking, “What is emerging here? What are these people telling me? What are they telling each other?” And in this case, we came through an unbelievable intellectual shift that really got everybody excited.

RL: What was that shift?

TG: We looked at all the communities we visited and the first thing we noticed was that these people had no source of income but they all seemed to have a lot of money. The second thing was that these are very simple people that lead simple lives for themselves, but they were all absolutely great beings. So, what is it? These people probably have two or three sets of clothes, or maybe even only one set. They have nothing really, but they’re all great beings. We also noticed that we met leaders over there – soft-spoken, a bit shy, really, and not with any ego – but they had absolutely great authority and great respect. It was purely because of their own presence, who they were and what they were doing.

The conclusion was obvious to us. We said look, each of these communities has a very humanistic, meaningful purpose - all of them - and apparently that drives everything. That drives the values they live, it drives the energy they need to get up in the morning, it drives the joy they still have despite the fact that they deal with sickness, death, and underprivileged people. This purpose seems to integrate large organizations with apparently no structure, no processes, no manuals, no variable pay bonuses, etc.

So we asked then, is it that simple? If it is that simple, then the conclusion is simple. It might not be easy, but it’s simple. Can we as Unilever Asia define ourselves through doing humanistic, meaningful work? If so, then we will become an organization of volunteers. We will get up in the morning and live every day like the people we met, we’ll live a meaningful life. And we will have this by being a part of Unilever. You see, we in Unilever are uniquely placed to define ourselves in a humanistic, meaningful manner.

And if we did this, then did we want to continue to define ourselves as a business? It didn’t seem to be the right definition for us anymore. Instead of being a business, we said we wanted to define ourselves as business beings. Maybe we should not actively recruit employees anymore but continue to advertise who we are and what our purpose is and we might get only people knocking on our doors who genuinely want to “volunteer”, who share our values and goals. These people would say look, we see you are taking care of the mental and physical development of children in this part of the world – and you still pay your “volunteers” – so we want to join you for that reason, not only that you’re a big multinational and you have lots of resources for me.

So suddenly it was in front of us! We said we didn’t want to work for Unilever any more, we want Unilever to work for us. And of course, that was a big struggle for many of us because we said yes, but how is that going to work? Is it possible? Would we still make profits? Can we sell this to our bosses? Etc., etc. But the more we talked about it, the more we saw that the only constraints were our own paradigms, our own scripts, and surely not constraints set by others.

So we have now defined ourselves in a different manner. We said we will dedicate our lives to help kids in Asia achieve the right mental and physical development and performance, we will help young Asian women to find meaning in life and to take care of the nutritional needs of their families, and we will take care of people with heart health problems to help them have healthier hearts. Those are three things that Unilever products can serve people with.

We also agreed that one Friday a month we will close the whole region – that includes thousands of people working for us - and we will do community service in the three chosen areas; with young Asian women, with Asian children, and with people who have heart health problems. We will also set up financial foundations in every single country and fundraise for the communities we work for. So we define our purpose doing community service in order to remind ourselves about our roles and to help keep our values alive. Community service will be part of our business lives and it will be a way to integrate our personal and business lives. We want to be human beings and business beings at the same time.

RL: Those are profound changes, Tex.

TG: Very profound shifts. You know, there was one Indian guy in the closing session who was very honest – they were all very honest – but this guy said look, you will not believe what has happened to me in the last few days. To be very honest with you, I was really deeply thinking of resigning. I have a farm – he was raised on a farm in India – and I had come to realize over the past two or three years at Unilever that my life was not meaningful enough. He said I found farming more meaningful – more earthy, more connected – than working for this company. But now that I can see what we can do with Unilever, I’d be stupid to leave because using the Unilever organization to do meaningful work is much more impactful, much more powerful, than whatever I can do on my own.

It is a new notion of philanthropy, one that doesn’t have to be separate from one’s business life. You don’t have to do meaningful work by joining a faith community, quitting your existing job, or making it a Saturday or Sunday issue. The shift is that we’re going to integrate whatever we want to do as human beings into our business lives and align our business lives with the needs that we have as human beings! And we don’t have to be unpaid, we don’t have to be volunteers, we don’t have to walk around in white or yellow robes on Sundays in Delhi, we can just use this incredible organization called business, called Unilever. And we can get paid at the same time we’re doing good work and getting our needs met!

There was one person, an opinion leader in his organization, who said, “Look guys, I will never leave this organization if we can pull this off, even if they pay me double the salary elsewhere. Never, ever.” He said, “I earn money to take care of my family and my extended family, but if I can dedicate the rest of my life to working with you guys - with this group of 200 people - to turn this into a community that will serve, help, care for, and make this world a better place, that’s it. You have me for the rest of your life!” So there were profound shifts at the emotional level and the conceptual level, and also at the individual and the collective level. Shift after shift after shift.

RL: Tex, you said a word that I think is so important – integration. I think people are longing to integrate parts of their lives so that they’re not leaving their families in the morning to be someone different at work or when they’re doing community service. What you’re describing now is a holistic approach. And the word “whole” means health…and healing. I think we have to heal in this world…and heal the world.

TG: Yes indeed, Renee. And there is another story about integration I want to tell you about. There was one woman in the group, a young mother, who wrote me a letter after the Outbreak in India. She said that for the first time she didn’t feel guilty about leaving her children to go to work in the morning. She said she will explain to her children what kind of work she’s doing at Unilever and they will see that she’s combining her love for them with her love for other children who are less fortunate.

RL: That’s very powerful for me to hear, Tex. As a working mother, I can completely understand that. So people write letters to you afterwards?

TG: We ask that they each write a letter after they return from the Outbreak. We’ve found that this is a another way to capture the learnings from the experience.

RL: This sounds like what you told me before, about your role being to constantly conceptualize and make meaning from what they’re saying and feeling. And then you put that meaning back into the group in a synthesized way. It’s a flow, a cycle, and then that probably ramps it up another notch because everybody is now on a new page of understanding from which they can accelerate together.

TG: Yes, that’s right.

RL: I’m fascinated by this new way of incorporating business and social action you’re pioneering, Tex. There are many companies that do good work in various ways – they send an executive out to teach in the inner city, for example - but it seems to me that what they don’t do is integrate it back into their business objectives and actions.

TG: Exactly. It’s what I call political-social responsibility. Many people today talk about social responsibility because it’s politically correct. And when they do it they can’t help but feel deep emotion, but the intention doesn’t yet come from the heart. There is still, as you say, this disconnect between what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But it will come.

RL: So it’s about integration and about connection, deep connection. That’s what fascinated me, Tex, when I read about what you were doing and compared it to what people in my study said shifted their groups into Collective Resonance. Things like being vulnerable, telling stories, staying in silence, being truthful, and considering the place as part of the process…

TG: Yes…

RL: …and it was consistent across so many different kinds of experiences! What you’re doing, though, seems to be taking it further because you’ve discovered how to create the venues for the resonance to emerge on a consistent basis. TG: All the things you write about, Renee, were in there. You use certain words, like authenticity. And of course, authenticity is an incredible shifter, whether it’s expressed in how people tell their stories or it happens when one person is telling a story that opens up the whole group because the courage that person shows in his authenticity encourages others to say hey, it’s safe here, I can tell my story too. We often ask people from the indigenous cultures we’re visiting to come and speak to us, too, because that also sparks authenticity. It’s the same with all your shifting factors. I was impressed with your list.

RL: Thank you. Now let me say something that may take us a bit further, Tex. You talked about authenticity, something I relate to truth - personal truth - and being able to speak it. I’m very curious about what happens on a physical level – a vibrational level – when someone tells the truth. My hunch is that when a person shifts into that mode of being truly in their own essential self, and voices it, something actually shifts in the way that they are vibrating, affecting the electromagnetic field around them.

TG: Yes. I don’t think there are barriers anymore between the person himself and the other person…

RL: I believe there may actually be something happening at the physical level in groups like yours. And I think understanding that better is very important because if people come to know how connected they are literally – in a physical way in terms of vibrational interchanges and rhythm entrainment – they may discover ways to solve our most intractable human conflicts. If we human beings can get that we’re unquestionably connected at levels underneath (or beyond) exchanges of ideas and thoughts, then we can address problems together in ways that transcend debate, discussion, negotiation, and compromise. I believe it will take more than just intellectual analysis or “figuring it out” in our heads. Knowing there are other sources of connection can help us break down the barriers we’re so good at creating as human beings.

TG: I agree with you. We all know, from our work, that we put people in circles to do these processes because we somewhere have experienced that if you don’t, the energy gets lost. We got nearly hysterical when we found out that despite the fact that we’d given very clear instructions that the camp in Rajasthan had to be made in a circle, it had been made in an L shape.

RL: So there was no container, right?

TG: Exactly. We said guys, we told you we want it set up in a circle, and they said yes but this was better for the toilets, etc.

We said, look this is useless, because you want to contain every single breath of energy. So apparently we know through experience that creating circles and keeping people in very close proximity with each other so that they can feel each other works. So yes there is, as you say, something, some energy, that you’re able to contain.

RL: I’m glad you feel that too. I believe that and I want to use stories like yours to provide examples for people. Yours is very important because there is consistency in the way you’ve been able to create situations in which magic happens. And also the way you’re using these processes contributes to making real change in the world. I want to make stories like yours visible as examples for others to follow because, as you know, it’s not easy. There are many, many corporate leaders who really don’t understand how experiences like this can be valuable for their business goals.

TG: I know exactly what you mean. It’s very, very hard sometimes to explain what it is we’re doing. So here is our corporate logic. We say look, there are two types of challenges. There are very complex challenges and there are less complex, or orderly, challenges. If you apply the methodologies that you’ve developed over the last thirty or forty years for orderly challenges on complex challenges, you only create an illusion of solutions. There is no way you can deal with complex challenges the way you deal with challenges as usual.

Complex challenges require that the whole system be represented, so there’s a need for inclusiveness of all stakeholders and constituents. They’re so complex that you cannot rely anymore on the omnipotent leader to have the answers, you have to tap into the collective intelligence and you have to tap into the diversity and the genius in the diversity. You also have to find meaning, the reason why you want to solve that complex challenge. If you don’t, there’s no emotional commitment, there’s only intellectual commitment on the part of your people.

So, if you look at those three needs – the need for inclusiveness, the need for collective intelligence, and the need for meaning – you start to see that your organizational challenge is to create oneness in your organization. Otherwise there will be no inclusiveness, there will be no collective intelligence, and there will be no way to tap into the genius the individuals bring because of their diversity.

Now, oneness, what is that? It’s the willingness to open up and share, the willingness to be mutually supportive to each other. There has to be a spirit of integrity, a spirit of trust. Now this oneness is something you cannot preach or tell about in an organization. The only way you can create that oneness in your organization is by taking people through experiences of oneness, and that is what we do. We take these people out, we let them feel oneness, and we say to them, did you feel that? Did you feel that at the end of the four days? And they say, yes! And did you see how we accessed our collective intelligence? Yes! Did you see that the mutual respect went up? Yes! Did you see that you guys could relate to each other as human beings rather than as business people? Yes!

RL: Yes! Yes! Yes! (laughter). That’s exactly it. It’s experiential. It’s in their bones. They get it because they’ve felt it.

TG: Exactly. See, complex challenges cannot be solved just by looking to the parts. You need to include the whole system, all the constituents. You need to look to the whole. So there’s a need for inclusiveness. Complex challenges – the word says it all – are very difficult, so you need everybody’s intuition, everyone’s competencies, skill sets, and experience. That’s the collective intelligence. But this inclusiveness and collective intelligence can only function if the organization has a sense of community, a sense of oneness. You cannot preach oneness so you let them experience it, feel it, and then they say – suddenly - so that’s where this Outbreak agenda comes together with the business agenda!

RL: That’s wonderful, Tex. I see now how you articulate this to business leaders and it helps me to do the same. What’s important is that it really shows how business goals and human goals can be integrated. It feels like this is a kind of calling for you. Is it?

TG: You know I do have a bit of a missionary feeling about this because I find what I see in many organizations so sad. They continue to create illusion after illusion and it frustrates so many lives. And all these initiatives that yet again are being taken, following each other faster and faster because, of course, they don’t work. I think they start off on the wrong premise, they don’t recognize the systemic context and the complexity, and therefore the need for inclusiveness. And it’s right there. It’s so available.

RL: Indeed it is. Well, I am so very grateful to you for taking the time to sit down with me and explain your philosophy and how you’re applying it toward extraordinary business results. It’s quite exciting for me, Tex, to know a business leader like you and have an example to share with others hoping to make positive change in the world.

TG: My pleasure. We’re all doing what we can in our own ways.

The 2005 UBF Asia Outbreak planned for Angkor Wat, Cambodia in March was cancelled due to the Asian tsunamis. Instead, Tex Gunning took his leaders to Sri Lanka to provide hands-on help with the rebuilding and hope for the people through knowing that people from around the world care and are willing to listen to their stories. Below is a personal reflection Tex wrote on returning from Sri Lanka about the experience.

Dear Friends, Aayubowan.

I just arrived a few hours ago from Sri Lanka and my eyes are still crying with all the love, spirit, suffering and humanity that we shared. It was unbelievable. What a great country, what great people, what devastation and pain and what potential we all have as human beings to share love and to be of importance to each other, giving hope, spirit, kinship and healing. While we slogged in the unbearable heat and humidity, building new community centres, school buildings, kitchens, new shops, toilets, clearing rubble out of houses, building volleyball and badminton courts, we were at the same time, more importantly, connecting with the people. Holding hands, we looked into pained eyes, we listened to the most horrific personal stories of lost loved ones and lost livelihoods and we witnessed the unbelievable physical devastation. We listened to the fears and hopes of the mothers, fathers and children left behind in this beautiful but devastated country. We shed tears of pain, hope and love. We shed even more tears when we realised that by simply sharing our spirit with them that we were making an incredible difference not only to their lives but also to ours. It continues to surprise me what care and service for others can do to help me discover my own love and how it humanises us all.

Before we departed for Sri Lanka, many of us questioned if 2 days of community service could in any way help a country which lost over 40,000 lives and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, and which displaced even more people.

When we arrived and drove along the coast and saw the endless wreckage of homes, boats, trains and cleared land, it was difficult to imagine that within 48 hours we would touch the hearts of so many fellow human beings. When we arrived at our respective communities, we were reminded that our role was not only defined by the re-building of schools and community centres but primarily, to help re-instill spirit into the lives of so many mothers, fathers and children, so that they themselves can again find their own inspiration to rebuild their homes and start to look for their new livelihoods.

All human beings, however desperate and hopeless, first and foremost need to feel that the world is larger than what they can envisage and that there are other human beings who care to give their own time, money and spirit. In all their hopelessness, they seek to believe that a better world is still possible and that they are not left to suffer alone. To feel their own will to live and to feel their own soul again, they need to be in communion with the love of others. Their souls are hungry to experience the contribution of other human travelers so that they see some progress in their miserable circumstances, however small.

When we started working on the building sites, most local people were bystanders, watching without any spark in their eyes and without the energy to give a helping hand in their own recovery. But when we started sharing stories and took the time to deeply share their and our pain, when we listened deeply to their fears and hopes and started to build a sense of community, we suddenly connected. And when we sang songs and danced with the children of the communities, we knew that there was hope for a better future.

It was obvious that through the spirit of the children we could help to rekindle the spirits of the parents. While the parents were deeply saddened with their loss, it was the children who went on to be children.....less concerned about what was lost, playful, looking for contact, smiling and full of energy to pick up their lives again, despite their pain of having lost friends and family members. When Maarten arrived at Hambantota and pulled a few cricket balls and bats out of his heavy bag, he found himself playing cricket within seconds with 50 kids on the same field where over a thousand bodies were found only 2 months ago.... where the rubble and devastation was so extensive that tractors were required to unceremoniously haul rubble and bodies flattening it into a perfect cricket pitch. It taught us a lesson that the children want to move on and we should not stop them because of our own pain.

When our physical work progressed over the two days -- lugging rubble, carying heavy rocks, and moving piles of sand, we found ourselves side by side with the whole village. Women, who had previously been fighting about the irritations at the communal kitchens and toilets, children who were so small that they could hardly walk and old men and woman who should have been retired a long time ago, were all demonstrating what the human spirit was capable of. We were stunned by the sudden energy, willpower and strength of these torn people. Within a day we removed Tsunami debris that could not be removed for two months, in two days we built new community centres, school classrooms, kitchens, shops, toilets... In two days we helped hundreds of children, mothers and fathers find their own spirit again, a whole new spirit, scarred and still full of pain but with new hope and love.

We felt so grateful and inspired by being with these beautiful human beings and we committed ourselves to do whatever we could do to make sure that their livelihoods would be rebuilt and more importantly we knew that they wanted us to co

(Link to Profile for Tex Gunning)

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