As everybody hopefully noticed in the final page of our 2014 annual report, we’ve now got an “Essence” statement that is meant to describe, in as few words as possible, the ideal (based on Grasslands’ own uniqueness) that we’re hopefully living every day, but that we’re also striving toward.
I realize that yet one more “statement” might be somewhat confusing, maybe in multiple ways, so I want to try and bring some insight into where this most recent iteration came from, and why I think it’s important.
But first, I wouldn’t be surprised if you may be wondering, “Don’t we already have a whole bunch of statements?” Yep, we’ve got a couple that attempt to describe what we’re all about. One is our “statement of purpose”, which is “To produce triple bottom line returns via the allocation of capital and human creativity into land based enterprises”. That statement originally included “leading the Brown Revolution” in addition to “producing triple bottom line returns”, and that original version still shows up on our letterheads.
For those of you who weren’t around at Grasslands’ inception, we talked a lot about “the Brown Revolution” back in the early days. Allan Savory came up with that term as a counter to the “Green Revolution”, which has enabled humanity to greatly increase the production of food calories globally, but has simultaneously resulted in the liquidation of enormous amounts of both natural capital (in the form of eroding soil, oxidized soil organic matter, biodiversity loss, etc.) and social capital. Allan insists, and rightly so, that a Brown Revolution is needed to counter the harmful impacts of the Green Revolution. Our original Savory Institute “concept paper” described it like this: “We posit the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.”
That’s still a driving vision, for sure, but the term Brown Revolution had a hard time catching on with our “audience”, and we haven’t put it out there for a while. It does live on in the name of our very first ranch, purchased in April of 2010, which we elected to identify as “The BR”! I’m not sure we need to keep that phrase in our statement of purpose, but figured this was a good chance to revisit it.
Getting back to our suite of statements, the home page of our website states: “Harnessing the power of plants and people: Converting sunshine and human creativity into financial, social, and ecological capital.” That’s a little different twist to our statement of purpose, but it’s definitely related. The idea is that we’re creating “returns” that simultaneously build, or regenerate, all forms of capital, and that we’re doing this via our direct influence on real life/real time ecological processes, all day, every day. Our connection to these fundamental processes that support human civilization is not intellectual, but firmly grounded in soil, grass, roots, animals, and creative work. We are on the front lines.
Whether we refine these two statements into one, or decide to go with one or the other, the intention behind our statement of purpose is to clarify our core purpose both to ourselves as well as externally. This statement should represent our face to the world, which is different from our “Essence” statement, which is intended to be shared amongst ourselves—that is, internally, with those of us who work and participate day-to-day within our company.
As we all know, we also have some much longer “statements”—those being our Holistic Context and Core Driver documents. These were formed with the input of the founders of Grasslands, and have been slightly refined over the past five years, but haven’t had much input from most of us. They definitely lay out the “essence” of our aggregate Grasslands whole under management, but I realize they are pretty lengthy, and might be hard to digest or internalize by those of us who weren’t intimately involved with their creation. The Holistic Context and Core Driver documents are meant to guide us daily, as we wrestle with our decisions and dilemmas, but I’ve long felt there was a practical gap between the concept or idea of making decisions in line with one’s Holistic Context, and the ability to actually do so on a conscious, consistent, practical, habitual basis.
So, enter Ryan White again, and his uncle, Tim Smucker. Tim Smucker is the retired co-CEO of Smucker, which is, yes, the massive company that owns not only the famous brand of jelly and jam, but dozens of others as well (among them Folgers, Jif, Santa Cruz Organic, Pillsbury, Dunkin Donuts, Crisco, Hungry Jack, Millstone Coffee, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Laura Scudder’s). A couple years ago, Ryan asked me if I’d like him to introduce me to his Uncle Tim. Ryan said he thought Smuckers had an interesting, successful, and grounded culture that seemed to be a key to their incredible success. Tim and his brother were co-CEOs for many years, and now their two sons have replaced them as co-CEOs. That sounds like an unprecedented track record in family harmony (within the context of an enormous global corporation, no less!), so obviously those Smucker guys had something figured out. I decided to take Ryan up on his offer.
Tim and I ended up having a great conversation. I realized that Smucker spends a lot of time trying to really define what they’re all about, and then make decisions that are aligned with that definition, which is grounded in the unique Smuckers culture. Smuckers actually puts all employees through a “Why we are who we are” course, which is meant to capture their hearts and minds.
But I gleaned one morsel from Tim that really stuck with me. They distill all of their “company culture” down into five words that they call their Basic Beliefs. Just five words. I can’t say what those five words are, since it’s propriety to Smucker (and thus meant for internal use, just like our “Essence” statement), but the specific words don’t matter. The point is that it’s those five words that all of the Smucker people say all the time, and therefore end up living all the time. All of their thousands of employees can memorize and get their heads around those five words.
I wondered if we could figure out what these five words were for Grasslands, so I read through our Holistic Context and Core Driver documents, and listed all the words (or related words) that seemed to keep popping up, then narrowed them down to five. I asked Zach, Jen, Mark, Trace, Brandon, and Tony to do the same, and we came with our lists to last December’s Financial Planning Summit meeting at Lees Valley. The words we ended up with were Action, Autonomy, Discipline, Balance, and Abundance. I eventually wove them into an easy-to-remember phrase that ties them all together, which is “Action, inspired by Autonomy, governed by Discipline, creating Balanced Abundance.”
I’ll get back to these words in a moment, but I also want to briefly describe why I like calling this statement our “Essence”. I was invited to a symposium put on by John Fullerton and the Capital Institute a couple years ago. One of the speakers was the renowned business consultant, Carol Sanford. She gave a talk that centered around the idea of a business’s essence, and I realized her definition of essence was very similar to what we call our Holistic Context—that unique description of our “whole’s” place in the universe, both right now, and how we imagine being as we self-organize toward our ideal. A clear definition of our essence can help keep our daily operational decisions grounded in both our current reality, and how we want our reality to evolve, or be, going forward. If we can do that consistently and deliberately, the natural consequence is an evolution toward this ideal.
So, our five words, as I see them, represent the essence of our Holistic Context—a digested and practical guide to keep in mind as we negotiate each day.
Here’s what those five words mean to me.
First, Action. To me, this is a big one. It means we get after it and DO. This doesn’t mean we’re reckless cowboys (on most days, anyway!). We are highly rational and conservative—sometimes hyper-rational and agonizingly conservative—but we don’t suffer from “death by meeting”, interminable report writing and feasibility studies, and never-ending conference calls. We are comfortable taking calculated risks, we commit to a plan of action, and then we get outside and produce results, with highly skilled crews that get more accomplished in a single day than most mortal humans would think is possible. We revel in our efficiency and our daily achievements, but we also maintain a sustainable pace that keeps us from burning out. We keep moving forward, incessantly, down the right path, getting the right things done. And, our culture of taking action is inspired by…
Autonomy. This is also a big one. Most of us are immersed in our specific “whole”, and each whole is characterized by an enormous amount of nuance and detail that only those of us intimate with that whole can really understand and appreciate. This reality, combined with the fact that we’re so spread out geographically, means that micro-management of each our respective wholes is an impossibility. Each of us therefore has to be given the freedom to make our own decisions that are aligned with our own unique day-to-day reality. We want folks who crave and will flourish in such an environment—who relish both being trusted, and then being granted a high level of responsibility rooted in that trust. These types of people tend to be intrinsically motivated and passionate about their craft, and this definitely describes all of you. It also means that we must welcome accountability—autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. When we are trusted with autonomy, we are thrilled with the prospect of a new day, going outside, and taking action. But, and this is a big “but”, this autonomy has to flourish within a framework of (our next word)…
Discipline. Action and Autonomy don’t work unless the path has been clearly laid out. We strive to create this clear path with our grazing plans, financial plans, and land plans, which give the direction and clear expectations and parameters that then guide our daily decision making. For those of us who aren’t immersed in the day-to-day of on-the-ground work, knowing that a rigorous suite of well-conceived plans is guiding you gives us tremendous piece of mind. Sitting here in my office in Boulder, I don’t have to know all the details, because I know the important stuff has been covered. An absolutely key component of being disciplined, however, is recognizing when you’re veering off plan, having the humility to admit that a correction is needed, and then having the energy to figure out how to make that adjustment, or even go back to the drawing board and start over. I say having the “energy”, because indeed it takes energy to control, monitor, and replan. It takes a lot of energy and focus to create the plan in the first place, but even more to observe closely, admit when things aren’t going right, and then to work through solutions and get back on track. The most successful of us will relish this plan-monitor-control-replan process of implementation, because even the most well conceived plans never work out as imagined. Indeed, within a framework of discipline, we will enjoy our autonomy and express our creativity to the fullest.
Balanced Abundance. Now we’re staring to get into the ideal—if we can do the above, balanced abundance is the hopeful outcome. We talk a lot about triple bottom line returns, which taken together are the crux of balance, but balance indeed is a fleeting ideal that we never quite reach. But, we do know when we’re getting closer, or moving away, becoming unbalanced. This will be different for each of us (some of us “need” more balance than others!), but here’s what I think of when I imagine a balanced life: my days’ activities tend to lead to a fulfilled heart, a strong and healthy body, and an engaged intellect. If I’m balanced, I’m challenged, rewarded for my wins, and have the chance to rest and recover, recreate and play, worship and love.
I imagine a version of that will resonate with each of us. It’s indeed what we have to shoot for, and come close to reaching, if we’re to stay the course and create meaningful, productive lives. We also need to be fairly rewarded for our efforts, and indeed enjoy the potential to create financial abundance for our specific family contexts. And, our investors need to generate a competitive return on their investments in land and livestock. We must create financial prosperity for all—otherwise, we don’t genuinely have a resilient company and we’ll eventually unravel.
Of course, underpinning it all is ecological abundance. We simply can’t erode our natural capital—our topsoil, soil carbon, species richness, water holding capacity, photosynthetic capacity, etc.—if we expect to stay in business, long term, throughout all of the challenges and hardships that nature’s seasons will inevitably throw our way. This is why we monitor our soil surface condition, keeping close track of how seemingly mundane measurements, like “bare ground”, “litter”, and “live canopy”, are evolving. When all is said and done, these are the basic parameters that truly matter, making everything else possible.
I think our Essence statement will serve us well for the time being, given the current stage of our business’s evolution, but we will continue evolving, which means our Essence will, too. As we negotiate the journey ahead, let’s all keep our finger on our collective pulse, gauging how successfully Grasslands is reaching its ideal of balanced abundance, and not be hesitant to speak up when we see opportunities for refinement and improvement.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!