To Humanize Business is to Make It Beautiful

Our first year with The Business Romantic Society

 
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Beginnings

We were colleagues at Frog Design for several years, before taking our careers into different directions. We had always loved working together, but it took until 2017 for it to finally happen again. Having each attended and produced countless conferences and events, we always felt that there was something missing, but the only way to prove it was to create our own gathering. So we did. We called it the House of Beautiful Business. In February 2017, we rented an old guild house in the gothic quarter of Barcelona and invited friends, colleagues, and people we always wanted to meet (some of whom even showed up) to the inaugural edition. It was a true passion project, and appropriately rough around the edges: we will never forget the moment when the catering crew finally showed up an hour late with two cans of coffee for 100 people eagerly awaiting breakfast.

But it struck a chord, and we immediately knew we wanted to do it again: better, more beautiful, but with the same intimacy and tenderness that had been so special about the debut. We hosted the second House in the fall of 2017, on the eve of Web Summit in Lisbon, followed by a smaller salon, an Evening of Beautiful Business, in Munich this January, and as our confidence grew so did the magic. Last month, we hosted the third gathering of the House for a fast-growing community—House18—in Lisbon again: a scaled-up, intensified, six-day version that convened 500 thinkers and doers from business, government, technology, science, the arts, and the humanities to craft and experience  a positive vision for a human future of work. And we’re already planning House19

The response to the House convinced us that it was time to formalize our partnership. We officially incorporated The Business Romantic Society, which had been Tim’s consulting practice and a loose collective of freelancers, as our joint business in January 2018.

Starting The Business Romantic Society together this year felt like being 20 all over again—that same nonstop energy— but this time with the experience, relationships, and wisdom to not feel like we’re starting from scratch. We’ve been deeply moved to see that people support you when you really need it. They will come when you call them, as long as it’s a clarion call. We set up shop, brought our respective existing clients along, and started working for new organizations. We are grateful for their trust and the challenges they posed.

 
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A Year’s work.

This past year, we have worked with a variety of friends and companies with a range of needs: For diffferent (yes, that’s spelled right!), a one-of-a-kind strategy consultancy in Berlin and Munich, and their parent, the Syzygy Group, a publicly listed human experience company and digital powerhouse operating across Europe and the US, we helped curate their communications and thought leadership. Among many things, we brought to life Hans & Marie, the “business festival for happy people,” in June that drew over 400 participants from German DAX companies, international corporations, and startups. Encouraged by the success of the inaugural edition, we just started working on the next festival which will take place in June 2019. We also got involved with their pioneering cultural and strategic transformation initiative and worked over the entire year with Syzygy's Group's management team and employees, e.g. by designing and running week-long bootcamps to bring together cultures and catalyze strong personal relationships, collaboration, and growth.

Furthermore, we worked with Hamburg-based Tools of Innovators and Simplexion to clarify their vision, brand story, positioning, and growth strategy, leading to a more succinct and differentiated go-to-market.

We helped individuals (who shall remain unnamed) to embrace their own stories and become better, more inspiring leaders.

For high-potentials and executives of Otto Group, the global retailer that has been undergoing a remarkable cultural transformation over the past few years, we accompanied learning expeditions and helped them craft and deliver TED-style talks to present their key insights to the workforce back at headquarters. In similar fashion, in Silicon Valley, we helped Airbus executives to become better storytellers.

Through talks, workshops, and vision sprints, we brought the idea of business romance, of humanizing business by making it beautiful, to companies such as Daimler, Facebook, Google, Kapsch, LinkedIn, Siemens, and Sky, and companies such as BCG, Galp, T-Systems, and Siemens joined as partners in our quest. The BCG Henderson Institute became our main collaborator for the House of Beautiful Business, and we also hosted a dinner together at TED in Vancouver, inspired by a joint article with the Institute’s director, Martin Reeves, about The Amazement Cycle.

With Galp, a Portuguese energy company with global operations, we produced the Un-Known Summit, a one-day conference in Lisbon on the future of learning in exponential times tailored to HR and learning and development leaders from various industries. Galp is also a strategic partner of the House. Furthermore, with T-Systems, the ICT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, we researched, wrote, and published a white paper about the state of AI and “the European opportunity” that we presented and discussed at an interdisciplinary expert dinner in Cologne and a session at the House in Lisbon.

Finally, we kept working throughout the year with the National Head Start Association, an advocacy organization devoted to promoting the largest government-funded early childhood program for low-income children and their families in the US, Head Start. This year, we focused on helping them grow the HeadStarter Network—an initiative we had conceived and launched together in 2017—aimed at connecting early childhood education practitioners with the tech and business world. We helped design and contributed to the program for their Early Childhood Innovation Summit, and facilitated their strategy retreat, resulting in an ambitious 2019 roadmap and plan of activities.

Our collaboration with the HeadStarter Network is fulfilling not just because it is reaching vulnerable populations, but also because early childhood IS the future of work. The first few years of life are critical for the development of brains and potential, and children who have quality early learning can, quite simply, achieve more throughout their lives. Teachers and administrators bring immense ingenuity and innovation (often under very tight constraints and low pay) to their jobs. The topics that we address including purpose, human work cultures, and the role of AI have a different meaning in this world but have valuable learnings that can be applied in other fields—not to mention a great sense of urgency.

 
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How We Roll

So what keeps all these disparate strands of work together? It is ultimately one overarching vision: that we need to make business beautiful to make it more human. Philosophically speaking, there are two ways to do it: either tackle the ugly root cause and change it through action (change the external world) or change the mindset (change the internal world), in keeping with George Bernard Shaw’s famous sentiment, “Better keep yourself bright and clean. You are the window through which you must see the world.” Practically speaking, we work in both directions, and we do it by creating (strategic) clarity, content, and community across our projects, through talks, workshops, vision sprints, year-long engagements, and bespoke events and experiences.

Here’s what we’ve observed across all of our work: Humans have a nearly insatiable need for deeper connection, for deeper understanding as the basis for a more profound organizational and personal transformation. What used to be an afterthought is now at the center of collective action and has moved closer to business mainstream. What once appeared extracurricular is now very much wanted as a curriculum. In 2015, when Tim’s book came out, business romanticism was a mission impossible—it is now not only the mission of The Business Romantic Society, it’s become a viable business.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our work has been building a small team. While we function more like a nimble think tank and creative studio, we are happy to have amazing people on board as a core group of accomplices and confidantes:

Nina Kruschwitz in Boston, who had worked with management guru Peter Senge on his books (including the revision of his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline), and written for MIT Sloan Management Review among many other publications, joined us as editor in chief this year, helping us launch the Journal of Beautiful Business and our almost monthly Beautiful Business Letter. Nina is supported by two other prolific writers: Sarah Souli, an Athens-based journalist with a unique voice and an affinity for social justice issues and extreme human-interest stories, and the infinitely curious Anastasia Linn in Copenhagen, both of whom strengthened our ability to muse about melancholia as comfortably as about artificial intelligence.

As a perfect pairing (no coincidence they’re married), Friederike Bothe and Andrian Kreye collaborated with us on graphic design and writing for the House and our AI white paper. 

Massimo Sanfelice is our wonderful Community Chef. Mónica Ribeiro acts as our tireless ambassador in Lisbon where her knowledge and network can solve seemingly anything. Monika Jiang, the “millennial activist” who has joined us as our first full-time employee in Berlin, oversees all of our community and social media communications with verve and wit. She also runs our Chambers of Beautiful Business program that will bring a taste of the House of Beautiful Business to various cities in the world in the form of smaller events co-hosted with the most passionate members of our community. Chambers are planned for 2019 in Athens, Berlin, Detroit, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Marrakesh, Melbourne, and Warsaw.

And finally, Jaimie Stettin, an American in Paris. Jaimie’s official title is head of production, but she’s actually the head and heart of everything we do. From bookkeeping to strategy to creative direction, she’s the Jaimie-of-all-trades.

As you might expect, we don’t have an office but rather work in co-working spaces, cafes, or our homes. We meet for a couple of calls with the whole team every week, and we spend at least two hours on the phone together each day. It’s not always easy, but it’s working. Like in any romantic relationship, in The Business Romantic Society, too, distance fuels the fire and keeps the flame alight.

It is emotions that make or break a project, not numbers. All of our projects are passion projects. When we make decisions, we often ask each other and ourselves, ‘those are all the right arguments, but how do you feel about it?’

As this year is coming to a close, we realize how lucky we are. We work with amazing organizations that are open-minded and as demanding as they are inspiring. We work with brilliant colleagues whom we like (a lot). And we are connected to an incredibly generous community that turns our “mistakes into melodies,” as our friend Mykel Dixon put it in Lisbon, paraphrasing Miles Davis. Thank you!

Through the Business Romantic Society we have found our tribe, and together with you, we can do our part to help shape a bright future for our societies.

Till & Tim