We’re hiring for DNA!

Today started with a strange email in my inbox. One of the three final candidates in a current open position for which we are hiring wrote that he is retrieving his application. He explained that after having completed the two assignments we ask all advanced candidates in any position at BSL to complete, he understood after intense reflection that given the internal structure of BSL with our strong focus on business cases in sustainability, he would not be able to contribute to the overall goal of the circle for which he was under consideration to the degree he would wish. Interesting, I thought. The two assignments were the completion of a strength-finder self-assessment and an essay about Holacracy at BSL, and more precisely about how a candidate thinks of and places himself in the organizational context of Holacracy. This is the first sign that our recruitment process is truly working both ways. Thanks to a very transparent sharing of who we are and how we work with each other, a potential candidate has decided that this was not an environment for him. Brilliant! I feel that we have just made a big leap forward. A year ago, it would have been very possible for us to end up hiring such a person who would subsequently end up being a misfit with our organization, without having had the tools, wisdom and processes to screen for this hugely important cultural aspect.

This is a week full of people changes. A long-term collaborator will end his contract with us on Friday with his new energetic replacement having started just a few days ago. And another member of our team has gracefully announced that she will be leaving us to pursue other opportunities related to her dream. We are a small team and this is a lot of change for us. A colleague mentioned to me that somehow her circle felt as if the blood was changed in a person and that she needed yet to get used to how the new person would feel that her circle was transitioning into. When I shared with her the story of the email I had received, she smiled and said: “well, now, we are hiring for DNA”. She referred to a most recent hiring decision where we opted for the candidate who brought the most desirable attitude to us, at the expense of the perfect expertise his counterpart had offered. And indeed, I realize that what has happened over the past six months is that somehow, we have found our own DNA as an organization and that in our continuous adaptation of our recruitment and onboarding process, we have learned to create processes, questions and assessments that allow us to filter for this DNA when recruiting new members of the team.

This is something that has occupied many of us deeply over the past year as we have learned to find words and spaces to express how we sense that the organization needs to evolve. This is something that the tension-based process of Holacracy has invited, and maybe even forced, us to do. We have gone through a period where we found increasing courage to attempt to bring words to misalignments in this domain and in entering in daring, personal conversation about how to develop further and how to overcome our shadows and shed light on blind spots. We are in the middle of a newly developed self and peer assessment that those with an interest in designing such things have co-created. I am curious to see how honest and caring conversations we are able to have, with ourselves and with each other. I have opted to select those partners in the organizations who I suspect are the least happy or the most critical of my performance and I am hoping for real insights into how I can improve and develop. In my self-assessment, I have completed a view on myself that should shed light on my dilemmas, regrets, poor choices and areas where I judge lacking performance and I hope that this courage will be contagious so that my partners will be similarly critical in their care to help me advance. I so look forward to their point of view.

My heart was singing of joy as I walked out of a BSL company governance meeting (the super circle of most other circles) where a BSL partner joined us to express serious concern about a policy that had been introduced 5 months ago. We had adopted a “partner retention policy” from Holacracy One after a Holacracy Coaching training course a few of us had attended and which contained also steps of how to let go  (fire) an employee in case a committee would not vote to retain a partner. A policy that was entirely foreign to our HR practices but that seemed the way to advance with Holacracy. I doubt that many people were comfortable with the policy and yet nobody had expressed a tension about it, which itself was source of a tension for at least a couple of people. So finally, today, a partner addressed her concerns and in a most direct, open, daring and courageous sharing, deep fears, concerns and worries were voiced in such a way that the policy was suggested to be deleted. Except for a valid objection of another partner which meant that a solution had to be found to integrate the objection resulting in an amended retention policy that everybody present in the room was very happy with. It took us 60 minutes to undo a malaise that had blocked the organization for a few months. Having removed inappropriate elements that presumed that a person who would not be voted to be retained would be laid off, we agreed that if a person does not get support to be retained that what would need to happen is for the right group of people sit with that person and figure out what the next developmental steps for that person would be. In the check-out round, one of the participating members said that his legs were shaking when he had first read this new policy five months ago, right upon return from his vacation. He was sure the policy was aimed at him and that he would be laid off. Five months of worry without having found a way to express this – wow. We were all stunned and realized the long journey still ahead of all of us to verify assumptions before jumping to conclusions and to dare to bring up such worrying concerns right away. The experience of having seen a colleague finding words to address such a delicate issue has given me and I am sure everybody present in the meeting today the hope that we are today an organization that is on its way to welcome warmly and caringly whatever delicate concern anybody may have. And that makes my heart sing.

This new transparency and appetite for courageous conversations has been most visibly a turning point in a five hour long negotiation with a strategic partner this afternoon and has finally brought out the real hidden issue that has held us all back from finding the shared common solution we had all been hoping for. Finally, a member of the other team, slammed his hand on the table and said: “So, ok, if you want it really straight as you guys seem to be doing it with this Holacracy thing, here is what is really bugging me!” And this was the opening to being able to find a joint solution that allowed us to pop a bottle of champagne. So, this courage is spreading also outside of our little team, and is starting to be contagious to our partners we are engaged with. Wow – who would have thought that culture can be that contagious!

It was a long day and I while I am exhausted, I feel very very happy inside. I feel I am part of an organization that is not only finding its soul but is also finding ways to let it vibrate and sing. And I love the very very quiet first new sounds of music that these vibrations are making. Today was a day where I heard and felt that music. Thank you, fellow partners of BSL!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


Saving Capitalism, For the Many, Not the Few

This title attracted my attention when I read it, and I purchased the book written by Robert B. Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former member of the Clinton administration.

Reich starts by reminding us of the time in  his childhood when middle –class people from the US, like his own parents, had a very decent standard of living and were able to provide their children with a good education. He continues by evoking the everlasting debate in America between the supporters of the “free market”, supposed to solve all the problems in society, and the advocates of more governmental intrusions in the market. This debate according to him is not relevant, because the “free market” is a myth, a “screen of smoke” used by the people who take advantage of the current situation. The rules of the game are strongly determined by governmental regulations, and the real issue is about  knowing who has the power to establish, modify or suppress these regulations, and in whose interest this will be done.

He defines the five buildings blocks of capitalism as follows:

  • Property: what can be owned
  • Monopoly: what degree of market power is permissible
  • Contract: what can be bought and sold and on what terms
  • Bankruptcy: what happens when purchasers can’t pay .
  • Enforcement: how to make sure that no one cheats on any of the rules.

The book then gives a detailed account of how the big corporations and their CEOs, and Wall Street with the big banks and the hedge funds’ managers,  now have the lion’s share in the decision-making process of regulation. It also shows  how they influence legislative activity to increase their benefits through lobbying, the financing of political campaigns and “revolving doors” for retiring US officials.

To give just a few examples of the evolution which has taken place in the last decades, it is useful to mention:

  • The extension of copyrights for corporations like Disney to 95 years (duration of copyright was 14 years when it first appeared in US)
  • The extension of patents and the so-called-pay-for delay to postpone the introduction of generics in the pharmaceutical industry, which is perfectly legal in the US
  • The bail out of banks “too big to fail” sponsored by the tax-payers and
  • Stratospheric stock options packages for CEOs not taxed as income but as gain in capital.

A factor contributing to this evolution is the decline of countervailing powers, like trade unions.

This recent evolution results in an increasing number of working poor (47 million in the US) and of the non-working rich (the Walmart heirs possess the same fortune as the bottom 40 % of American citizens) and the huge disparities in income (the CEOs of big corporations earning in average 300 times the median salary in their company compared to 20 times a few decades ago). Another consequence of this trend is the lower confidence felt by citizens with regards to banks, corporations and government.

This situation, characterized by a huge level of inequality, is not sustainable and has a very negative impact on society.

That Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone

An insightful book “The Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone”, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is based on statistical analysis: if one considers such issues as life expectancy, violence, rates of imprisonment, drug use, teenage births, etc., America fares worse than more egalitarian countries such as Japan or the Scandinavian countries.

So, it is high time, according to Reich, to restore countervailing power to shift to a more equitable situation in the US. As he says: “The bottom 90 % of Americans – regardless of whether they are owners of small businesses or working poor, entrepreneurs or student debtors, small investors or homeowners, white or black or Latino, men or women – have far more in common economically with each other, than they have with the top executives of large corporations, the Wall Street crowd, or America’s wealthy. The bottom 90 %are losing ground mostly because of upward pre-distributions embedded inside the “free market”, rules over which those at the top have great influence. If the smaller players understood this dynamic, presumably they would seek to gain greater influence by becoming allies. This alliance, or set of alliances, would form the new countervailing power.” (OC, page 185)

I can only encourage you to read these two great books as  they are both eye-openers.

Philippe Du Pasquier, President of the Board


You are now a driver of change

Before the wheel was invented, motion could be seen by observing everyday life. Curious by nature, we all, willingly or not, seek to better our immediate environment through change. This being said, we are also creatures of habit and find ourselves more easily accepting our environment by avoiding questions and the effort required to make and implement change.

What has Holacracy done for me? 6 months in to this change, nothing really other than a heightened sense of ownership. I take my service role seriously; a few believe that I take it a bit too far. My take however is that service is an attitude, not simply a job and therefore I am probably on the far end of the scale of service-mindedness. Although our students, faculty and staff truly appreciate the above & beyond (and to new galaxies), of the service that I provide, Holacracy is helping me better define and weigh the time spent vs. benefit to the organization algorithm that is required from us. Are my efforts best placed here or is there somewhere else that I could/should be focusing on? Under the Holacracy umbrella, all decisions taken, and therefore reflected upon, must be “for the benefit of the organization”. This may seem all too obvious to those who wish to retain their current employment but when you drill down further and make this previous statement the forefront of your daily decision making process, you can’t help but wonder what would happen if you changed your habits.

Holacracy is daring. Remove the hierarchy, empower the personnel and drive speaking outside the box. If you don’t like something, propose something new. If someone doesn’t like the sound of your proposal (there is a more than likely chance that even though any opposition’s voice must be heard and that if no immediate harm is to be done to the organization) then this proposal should be tested. Think with what we have today, propose a change and develop it as you go. Think of it this way – Water can be bland tasting. To spruce it up, someone suggests that we add olive oil to it as it adds flavors to foods we eat. One person opposes and says this is silly. However, knowing that oil doesn’t harm us, we try and add it to water. Clearly, this may not have been the right choice as the oil remains at the brim of the contained water mass. In the interim, outside of meetings and perhaps in simple conversation and brainstorming sessions, someone suggests adding some sugar, someone else suggests adding fruit, and another person suggests blending it all together – low and behold, we’ve created a delicious tasting smoothie out of a few ingredients and simple knowledge from others around us.

Albeit a company’s issues are more complicated than this, but the fact remains the same: encouraging change, perhaps even to the point of failure for all to learn from (and not be punished for), will shake the tree and bring people together and better trust one another. But in order for trust to truly be instilled, a personal humbling also must occur. We must be able to feel comfortable with the people we work with through the multitude of characters, personal stories and perhaps even intelligence levels; yet each person must be able to have their say in a “sanctuary” of trust. Removing prejudice, preconceptions, labeling and closed box thinking is where the effort needs to be in my opinion. We do our jobs, and we do them well. We have all learned to be team players outside of Holacracy and we have all learned to support one another. We must now all learn to break through social layers, find the preconceived beliefs that we have and in essence rethink our outlook on societal mis- and pre-conceptions. This is where the change truly happens, from within.

Where I personally fall short in the area of Holacracy is not in accepting added responsibilities, new roles or trying out new challenges, but rather in the area where I let people’s frustrations, unease, difficulties (or better known under Holacracy as “tensions”) creep into my working world. I find myself wanting to bring up issues or start discussions about areas of tension wherein I am actually not the owner of such emotion/issue. I have had to learn in my roles at BSL to step back and let people openly discuss their own tensions with others. I remain a confidante and one who is willing to listen, but I have learned to refrain from giving advice on how best to solve issues. If one asks, this is an invitation to start dialogue, but it is not an invitation to take over and help and manage issues for the other person.

What I am trying to get at here is that Holacracy is a Framework, it won’t replace your job functions, it doesn’t affect what needs to get done, it’s rather a change in the way of thinking by accepting that we are not perfect, that we need to take a look at ourselves and even personal issues and that ultimately we may even find out that we are not the best person for a specific role. Ultimately, at the pinnacle of how I see Holacracy evolving, we shall all “carry our heart on our sleeve”. The wheel will continue to turn for both the company and each employee, no matter what, and may at times hit a hole big enough in the road to cause a puncture. It’s simply up to you to decide whether you want to continue rolling along with that puncture or if you want to find a solution on how to re-inflate the tire.

David KibbeAuthor: David Kibbe, Pro-actively providing the highest quality support services to students within their educational habitat at Business School Lausanne


Jeff Yokoyama: Surf dude turned Fashion Revolutionary

Jeff Yokoyama operates a small shop called the “Yokishop” in Newport beach, California. Jeff has been designing and selling clothing made from recycled materials for a long time. He has also in the past had several successful clothing companies including Maui & Sons and Pirate Surf.

Jeff has been expanding his efforts to create a supply chain for recycled clothing. Since 2009 he has had a partnership with the athletics department of USC (University of Southern California) and UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). Jeff initiated this in reaction to how he saw his daughter, who played volleyball in college, received new athletic clothing items every year which she would later throw out.


Americans send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year. Jeff’s experience in the apparel sector made him reflect on how he treated people and what he truly valued, he states when speaking to the Surftorialist (2014): “The moment I knew I was out of it was when I came home and I had everything. I had the right bachelor pad, the right car, the right music, everything was right. The right clothes all lined up in the closet, the right suits, everything. And I then decided that all of this didn’t mean anything. I bawled my eyes out that night. I said ‘I don’t need any of this’”.

Shirt with recycled upside down Levi pocket from Yoki’s GARDEN LEVIS clothing line. There is an abundance of Levi’s in American landfills. He uses this clothing line to show that cool things can be made from old stuff.

Jeff made a transition from the “cool/hip” look (Maui & Sons, Pirate Surf) to a more specific niche of creating clothing from recycled materials. The motto for the Yokishop is: “Design different. Make different. Sell different”.

Now Jeff buys used athletic clothing by the pound from USC and pays a 15% royalty fee for every repurposed item of theirs he sells. He only pays $2 out of pocket to make a $200 sweater. Ethically it could be challenged that the price he sets for his clothing items makes his message is anything but anti-consumerist. However it can more accurately be said that his profit margin is necessary considering that he is an independent shop owner, who hires 5 people. His clothes are not all 100% recycled, he also gets newly manufactured t-shirts from a factory in California.


Jeff Yokoyama at work in the Yokishop. by: Michel Light

Jeff Yokoyama has a story which highlights the fundamental factors for personal change. Change in regards to turning words and deeds into concrete actions. He learned from his personal struggles, such as the bankruptcy of Maui & Sons. A more fulfilled life requires doing something that truly helps the world and others, so while he is not running an $18 million business as before, his work is more enriching. He is showing just how cool you can make old and used clothes.

Author: Siale Comissario, Master in International Business, class of 2015-16

HBR article on Holacracy: the BSL perspective

Harvard Business Review published an article just two days ago on 22nd March 2016 and it really got our attention at Business School Lausanne: Top-Down Solutions Like Holacracy Won’t Fix Bureaucracy.

As people who have been practicing Holacracy at BSL for more than 6 months now (what a transforming journey it’s been and still is!), we felt the urge to share our view and to help clarify misleading interpretations.

Here our reply which has also been published in the comment section of the HBR online article. We hope it triggers further thoughts and involvement in this lively discussion – let us know what you think!

BSL’s Dr. Katrin Muff reply:

“Dear Gary, dear Scott, 

My reading of the article and the analysis is slightly different. I am delighted that HBR is devoting a bit of space on new organizational forms. There is so much innovation happening in practice, and so little covered by scholars at this point Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations” is a notable exception). I have two issues with the Hamel/Zanini article: first: it misrepresents Holacracy, and second: it confuses it with innovation solution in the strategy / product development area and implies that such innovative processes might be good alternatives to find customized solutions to structural issues in organizations. These are two entirely different concerns and would be worth a seperate discussion. Given the limitation of this comments section, I will focus on the first point here only sharing my perspective and learnings in this space.

Holacracy does not seek to replace bureaucracy, it offers an alternative way of dealing with power in decision-making processes. Given its structured approach, it could be mistaken as an alternative hierarchy or bureaucracy and indeed some companies experience it as such. In our own journey at Business School Lausanne, we had also briefly suffered from this misconception, with a majority of employees treating Holacracy as a new ruler (top down) rather than the enabling support structure that it can be (and is intended to be). Becoming fluent in Holacracy is much like learning a new computer operating system: you cannot slowly switch from Microsoft to Apple – one day, you make the change and then you suffer until you know where what is and how you get things done again. As such, Holacracy does not determine how things are processed (the old hierarchy can be entirely replicated in Holacracy and likely that is the experience at the beginning), it serves as an enabling support structure for those decision and processes in an organization that benefit from the knowledge and know-how of a diversity of people who are closer to the action than a traditional head strategic might have been.

My personal experience, having gone from Dean of BSL (carrying the full responsibility and accountability across all domains) to now being in a self-organizing, power-distributed system, using Holacracy as a supporting tool, has been just amazing! I feel energized with the innovation power that is unleashed in the organization, I can differentiate comfortably between when I “pitch” an idea to a colleague outside of my formal power competencies versus when I request something from a role responsibility I have and I truly enjoy the playfulness and the quick positive feedback of courageous actions of anybody in the organization. Now, this is not to say, that it is all a walk in the park – not everybody naturally embraces the added responsibility that comes with such transparency and the old comfort of hidding in a hierarchy can be dearly missed some days by some people. It is of critical importance to understand that organizational and personal development go hand in hand (this is my research field) and neither every company nor every person is necessarily ready for such a transformative change, which must be a) prepared and b) accompanied very carefully with appropriate coaching and personal development processes and tools. At BSL, all of us have taken up individual coaching and counselling to shed light into areas where shadows haunt us and this is not only beneficial to our organization but also to all of our other relationships in life. A true added-value from a social perspective.

So, summing up on my first concern: Holacracy is not about replacing or fixing Bureaucracy, it serves as a tool to enable & encourage entirely different decisions using the intelligence of those concerned by them directly, and this is not to be confused with strategic & product innovation processes – which have, again a very different aim. And this is my second point: it would be dangerous to mistake such innovation processes as potential solutions for structural issues in an organization – these are of a different nature than strategic or product development. Looking forward to an active continuation of this important discussion – so glad for this space here! Feel free to follow & comment on BSL’s journey here: https://bsl-blog.org/tag/holacracy/.” 

Brazilian Fashion Revolutionary: Oskar Metsavaht and Osklen

Oskar Metsavaht founded Osklen in 1990, selling winter sportswear and after 10 years changed the brand’s focus to the luxury segment, today the brand is recognized as one of Brazil’s biggest luxury fashion brands. Oskar Metsavaht realized the importance of sustainable development and its applications since the Earth Summit twenty years ago in Rio, seeking to incorporate sustainability in different ways into his work at Osklen.

Osklen not only promotes the sustainability issues through its campaigns, such as a recent winter collection, called A21 which concerns the Agenda 21, a voluntary action plan of the United Nations. The brand also apply sustainable decisions on the production by using organic cotton and recycled material, for instance PET, used in fibers for shirts and Pirarucu fish skin used for bags and shoes. Other interesting point is that Osklen produce their clothes using mostly materials from Brazil, moreover the brand focuses the production inside Brazil, something that is good for the economy of the country.

Metsavaht also founded the Instituto-E, an OSCIP (Civil Society Organization of Public Interest), based in Brazil to foster sustainable human development, Oskar Metsavaht was named in 2012, by UNESCO, Goodwill Ambassador and moreover a formal representative of Rio + 20. Osklen, Instituto-E and the Ethical Fashion Initiative worked together developing products in Haiti, the first collection was called E-Ayiti, launched in 2014 and all production was made by Haitian artisans in partnership with Osklen designers using only recycled materials like electrical wiring and metal.

The work of Oskar Metsavaht and the impact that Osklen has brought to the fashion industry has a huge importance, the world needs more inspiring people like him to disseminate the importance of sustainability and responsibility in the fashion industry and spreading this example of sustainable development it helps to build a sustainable fashion industry.

Author: Pedro Gomes, Master in International and Sustainable Finance, class of 2015-16

Show me your organizational chart and I’ll tell you who you are

It’s been just a few weeks since we last reported on our progress with Holacracy, and so much has happened already! This month, we were able to translate some of the important organizational shifts that are taking place at BSL into concrete, visual, and publicly open messages that will hopefully help you and everyone outside BSL to better understand our new team structure and the way we function.

Replacing organizational chart with a…living organism map

Yes, you are reading right – a living organism map.

Last week, as we were in hectic preparations for the Induction Day for new students, we suddenly realized that we need to find a simple way to explain how our team is structured in Holacracy – who does what, who is the right person to contact on what occasion, and also, how are our roles linked to each other. Our key challenge was to translate what has become the new normal for us, having fully operated under Holacracy for 5 months now, into something that makes sense to others.

You might have read in our previous blogs that we moved away from titles and jobs – instead, we now energize “roles” which comprise “circles” that serve a particular division. Each of us may take multiple roles, including adding on new roles and letting go of old roles, and therefore, we might become members of more than one circle. At BSL, we have identified four such main “circles”: School (managing and developing our academic programs), Thought Leadership (developing new research practices and generating innovation), Admissions & Outreach (enrolling participants in our programs and connecting to relevant organizations and communities), and Services (delivering support in key areas including infrastructure, IT, facility management etc.).

BSL living organism map

After a few drafts, we transformed our organizational chart into a “living organism” map. One that reflects the “fluidity” of the organization and the lack of hierarchy. On one hand, you can see that the different “circles” are all at the same level (none of them is superior to the others), and, on the other hand, you can also observe that there’s no hierarchy within the circles themselves. We are all members of a circle with an equal right and responsibility to take initiative and fulfill our roles’ purposes as best as we can. And in doing so, we don’t report to a manager anymore. In other words, a circle does not have a manager. A circle has a “lead link”, but the lead link doesn’t manage people – he/she manages the circle’s resources, sets priorities, and ensures the governance of the circle without demanding that goals are accomplished in a particular way. A “lead link” cannot tell you how to do your job, but instead can only support you by ensuring you have access to the necessary resources.

Now, unlike any organizational chart, this one does not represent a pyramid or a matrix, but circles instead. Another key difference is the lack of job titles – we’ve included the key domains where we are involved, yet we have disassociated from our formal titles. The main reason for that is this exact fluidity of the organization – each of us could accept new roles or let go of others, and we move as the organization evolves.

This shift in our thinking has now become part of our organizational DNA. Here is a beautiful example that illustrates that: As we thought we had just finalized our living organism map, Massimo from our team pointed out that we had forgotten to insert out names in there! We had gone miles to associate ourselves with our roles – to the extent that we no longer mix our sacred personality with work. A wonderful and very telling error, we thought!

Full transparency – welcome to our world

A major decision we took in February was to make our organizational profile fully transparent – you can now see all roles and associated accountabilities, policies, checklists, ongoing projects, and meeting outputs through our public Glassfrog profile. Glassfrog (we also find the name funny :)) is a software that helps organizations using Holacracy record their structure, methodology and outcomes. You can now take an inside look at our structure and learn more about the way we operate. To us, this is a bold step in the right direction. While we are aware that full transparency goes hand in hand with vulnerability, we see it as a condition which nurtures our willpower to do the right thing. Every day. Come meet us online!

BSL public Glassfrog

Email signature like no other

Another big shift that is in the making right now is our revamped email signature. We will no longer use job titles; instead, we’ll describe core activity domains and include a link to our online Holacracy profile where you can see a detailed description of each role we energize. Curious how that looks? Send us an email 🙂

There’s more to come as a few of us are attending the Holacracy coaching training in Amsterdam next week. We can’t wait to meet the Holacracy community there, get a deep dive into organizational coaching for Holacracy, and expand our capacity to navigate forward. We will keep you posted.

Author: Denitsa Marinova, Active in marketing and communications that nurture student admissions and stakeholder outreach
See my roles