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Not Every Idea is a Utopian Idea

In the long run, what counts is the responsibility for the future of the world based on understanding that the only chance we have is to start thinking in a holistic way. In the way that takes into consideration the capacity of our planet and the needs of our neighbors. Iwona Zabielska-Stadnik, Editor in Chief of Newsweek Psychologia magazine talked with entrepreneur, Piotr Voelkel, about the direction in which the business world will evolve and about his own journey towards understanding that values and relationships are important.

Where is the Business World Going?

We are witnessing the moment when the business world is beginning to devour its own tail. It seems that nothing more can be built in the capitalist system that we know. Yet, apart from a few people that have been bringing this issue to the forefront, we haven’t been able to develop an alternative, so far. Perhaps, things are not as bad as they seem?

Piotr Voelkel: Indeed, capitalism in its classic form has exhausted its possibilities for further development. First of all, we can observe on the example of the United States that competition has disappeared in many branches of business. Some branches are monopolized by a single corporation and sometimes by one person. Without competition, capitalism is like a machine without an engine. Secondly, capitalism is based on the flow of capital. If today 80 percent of the capital is owned by 3 percent of Americans, what kind of flow can you expect? Down to zero? Down to where we won’t have anything and they will have everything?

The American Dream where a shoe-shiner can become rich as a Rockefeller has turned out to be an element of propaganda. To uphold this myth, the United States are paying a huge price, producing cheap hamburgers so that people could buy a ban with a meat patty for one dollar. To make this possible, farmers mass produce beef in terrible, even horrific conditions. Therefore, those who say that intellectuals have failed, because they haven’t invented anything that could replace capitalism, are right.

Firma-Idea

In Poland, a new concept of business has been proposed by Professor Jerzy Hausner. Firma-Idea, based on relationships and on real, not invented by PR, corporate responsibility, sounds like a story of Utopia. You have been involved in this initiative. SWPS University is developing a new program of study that will educate new leaders according to the Firma-Idea values. Do you see a new chance for business in this fresh offer? A new hope that business will be reborn as a new concept?

I greatly appreciate the efforts of Professor Hausner and other people around the world who are seeking new ways of doing business. The clue of the matter is not in giving up ownership or in replacing private companies with collective ownership or cooperatives. Nowadays, when people consume goods on an unprecedented scale and greedily manage world’s natural resources bringing them to the point of total depletion, when eight richest people in the world are worth more financially than the poorer half of humanity, it is high time to seriously reflect on the situation and to make changes. The concept of Firma-Idea is based on responsibility for the environment. Its DNA includes values and ideas, which unite the owner, co-workers, collaborators and clients. We are leaving behind the old way of thinking that you can only make money at the expense of others, i.e. employees, suppliers and customers and that making a quick buck is the only goal of the company. In the long run, what counts is the responsibility for the future of the world based on understanding that the only chance we have is to start thinking in a holistic way, which takes into consideration the capacity of our planet and the needs of our neighbors.

Seemingly a new concept, but you intuitively implemented elements of this idea in your company some time ago. What strengths do you see in this concept?

There are several levels of this type of thinking. In relations with employees Firma-Idea means an organizational model that resembles an ant hill, where ants do not have to negotiate with each other for hours or do not have to wait for orders from above to work together and drag a beetle they found to the pantry. The unanimous decision to undertake the task is so natural that the ants take on the roles automatically, because the common goal is the ant hill not one ant’s ambition that she finds another bigger insect. I believe that the world will evolve in this direction. Perhaps the Internet, which has helped us to wreck various areas of life, such as the media or election campaigns, and which has become a platform for post-truth, will help us build ant hills. There is also the whole fascinating area of client’s needs and dreams and the world of designing products, which will meet these requirements.

In case of our companies, I have a feeling that the synergy between all levels of the organizational structure has not been fully utilized, yet. We want to work with experts in humanities to incorporate their knowledge into research processes and to listen to people when they talk about their needs. We also want to build relationships between the management, the employees and the environment on humanistic values.

We develop projects that involve a lot of people from various departments and we give them a lot of freedom. Our best products are made this way and we use the same process when introducing key changes. We are leaving the authoritarian forms of management in the past. Our companies are the first mini ant hills.

Humanistic values in business and innovative management

Which humanistic values are you talking about? Please list three that are most important to you.

Freedom, honesty and respect. Freedom as the goal, honesty as a method and respect as the second pillar of this method. To earn respect, you must be painfully honest with yourself.

Respect is the foundation of relationships. And relationships are inherently linked with emotions, which we as humans, feel in different relationships and situations, regardless of the role we play. Is this the way of thinking that you want to instill in the future leaders?

The most important thing is to help young people, future leaders, to discover their own strengths and resources that will become the foundation, on which they will build their self-esteem and their lives. We want to teach them a few key competencies.

Firstly, to give them an opportunity to become “bihemispheric”, i.e. to provide them with hard and soft competencies. They should be capable of abstract thinking, be interested in art and in humanities and they should be able to understand other people. They will acquire a large dose of knowledge in several areas, including psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and philosophy. On the other hand, we want to equip them with everything that is needed in management: economics, process management, and IT skills.

Secondly, we want to teach them how to work in a team. We want to break the stereotype that business is a rat race and one person must be better than the other. We want them to learn how to pursue a goal as a team and how to achieve satisfaction regardless of the role they play in the team, be it a leader or a subordinate. In our program, team projects will be implemented with practitioners, who will solve their actual business problems together with the students.

Although we want to present the concept of Firma-Idea as a way of life, it does not mean that all students will choose this path. They might want to work for a company that is based on different values or a firm that sets different business goals. I can imagine that the tools we will give these young leaders may be used to manipulate others or to take advantage of other people.

Characteristics of a leader. Overcoming own beliefs

We are taking this risk into consideration. Everyone must decide for themselves whether they want to be good or bad. All leaders, even the best ones, acquire some beliefs during the time of their education and later on during their professional lives. When these beliefs are confronted with the real world, not everyone can accept them. What beliefs did you have to reevaluate or abandon?

I had a great opportunity to abandon one harmful belief. I volunteered to attend a workshop led by Joanna Zapała, psychologist form Poznań, who wanted to show on my example how to work with someone’s beliefs. She conducted this “operation” in front of many people.

During the process, she applied one simple rule: you must get rid of the belief, if your answer to the following questions is “NO”: Is the belief true? Does it improve your life? Does it help you to build positive relationships with others? For this exercise, I chose a belief that, in my opinion, made my life much harder, the belief that I know everything and that only I will do everything in the best way.

This belief is quite common in business, isn’t it?

Endemic.

Did you answer the questions truthfully?

Yes. It turned out that this belief destroyed my relationships with other people, because I was bossy, I didn’t allow other people to fully express their opinions, and that I interrupted them. As the result, this belief was impeding my joy of life, because the assumption that I knew best, made me take on the work of others.

Have you changed anything, once you understood the issue?

Now, I am aware that eliminating a harmful belief may improve your life. I know that I am far from the ideal state of completely eliminating the “I know best” approach, but I’ve come a long way. Moreover, design thinking and design management workshops have helped me a lot in abandoning the old belief, because these workshops focus on team work and on discussion. During these workshops, you find out that seemingly useless people can contribute a unique approach to the project, an idea that may bring on a radical change, which in consequence will result in a better solution.

Measures of success

Has it translated into improvements in your business, into a goal, a success?

The goal is always the same – the success of the company. But success can be measured in many different ways. I measure my satisfaction from doing business in two ways. One: am I doing something that distinguishes my company in a significant and positive way, is it aligned with my and our ambitions? Two: is the company generating profit, do we have cash flow, are sales growing or decreasing, etc.? There were times, when I gave up high profits to realize some ambitions. As my accounting officer used to say, ambitions are very expensive. Luckily, I was able to combine the recognition I was seeking with the need to be useful. Today, from the perspective of many years, I can see that my readiness to give up maximal profits and still remain a person with positive ambitions have led to the situation where, first of all we are talking, because I don’t think that you would seek an interview with me, if I was one of the carpenters from Swarzędz...

Indeed, it could be rather difficult....

…and secondly, I would not have had an opportunity to meet many exceptional people, who weren’t interested in my income, but in working with me on various cultural, educational and non-profit projects. My curiosity and my ambitions to do extraordinary things have led me in that direction and because people who are on the same wavelength attract each other, many interesting people have come to work in my companies. This rule applies both to insignificant and to very serious projects. If you are doing something useful, something you are enthusiastic and passionate about, it is infectious. The drive to build close relationships with clients and to make their dreams come true is possible only with a team of people who are passionate about their work. I am glad that my children, who took over most of my businesses, are going in this direction.

Ffeedom of choice

For you, what is the most important thing in relations with other people?

To be honest, I am rather egoistic in this matter. I look for people who can give me something in return, then I won’t spare energy or hard work. One of my greatest achievements is that I am a free man. My freedom means that I can do what I want with the people I choose. In other words, I can but I don’t have to. And that’s the beauty of this situation.

Was it always like that? Isn’t the freedom of choice a luxury dependent on financial status?

There was not much choice, when I lived in a village near Krotoszyn (central Poland). I was different, “foreign”. Despite this fact, I was able to build relationships with the local people. The alternative was to remain in opposition to them and to get beaten. I became the leader of this group, but I have learned to swear like a sailor in the process.

There is always a price to pay.

So maybe my road to freedom has not bee so straightforward.

Business succession plan

Nowadays, do you let other people to make decisions?

Nowadays, I am in a different situation, because my son manages the Vox Group. He is doing it completely on his own and he is doing it very well. I show my trust in him by not asking how things are going. The number of successes my son can boast about is growing, so we have more and more occasions to talk about new plans.

How do you feel in the situation that you are no longer at the helm?

Probably it would be very difficult, if I hadn’t kept a very big chunk for myself, in an area that I am passionate about, i.e. education. Thanks to this measure, giving up power, all that protocol and comfort has not bee too painful.

Luckily, you do not need a driver to drive a bicycle.

Exactly. Everything has turned out better than in case of many of my colleagues, who are suffering, who compete with their sons, which leads to strained relations or to depression on the part of the seniors. This is a story about people who found companies and give huge chunks of their lives to running businesses, often at the cost of the family, and when the moment comes to pass down the businesses to family members, that act is like a salto mortale. Not everyone manages to catch the bar. My son and I haven’t experienced this situatoin. Our relationship is getting stronger and stronger, perhaps owing to the fact that the rate of his success is increasing.

Are you proud of him as a father?

Very much so. I have three children. Everyone of them is different. They are all very dear to me. Despite this diversity I see a lot of good characteristics in everyone of them. Now, there are also new relationships with my nine grandchildren and I am happy to say that these relations are also going very well.

Passing down your life’s work to your child is an emotionally difficult situation. Why did you decide to do this, when you could still be leading the business?

There were two, very different reasons. On the one hand, I was really tired of running the business. I was bored. I couldn’t find a good managing director. On the other hand, I thought: my son is 30. If not now, then when? What helped me was a meeting with a friend from Germany, who came for a visit to discuss some business matters. He was seven years my senior and he brought his son to the meeting. The son was close to 50 and he was still playing the second fiddle. I thought to myself: “I cannot do this to my son.” It became clear to me that I couldn’t wait any longer.

Does a view from the top afford a different perspective?

What do you feel, when you are at the top? Putting aside your new challenges and new areas waiting to be discover, one can say that you have already reached the top. What do you feel, when you are looking at the world from the pinnacle?

One of the feelings that luckily does not apply to me all the time, but does appear from time to time, is loneliness. Because the challenges that I want to take on or decisions that I want to make and questions which I want to ask are often too big for people who I trust the most. My children are the light in the tunnel. They are at the beginning of their professional lives and I can talk to them about serious matters. Often they have different opinions and views than I do and we do not always agree. I like these discussions. Loneliness becomes less acute, but I still must make many decisions on my own, because there is room only for one leg at the top. On the other hand, I strongly believe (and it is also a fact), that I am on the top of mere hill, not a mountain.

But it is still the top.

Yes, but there are other tops on much higher mountains, sometimes between the clouds. My top is on a hill, at the outskirts of Europe. Businesswise, I am a small player.

You are able to put your success in perspective.

I feel that my true and rather unique achievement is my multidisciplinary character and my ability to relate to people from different, often very distant worlds. I don’t measure my success by my affluence, the number of companies and their value. The success I am proud of is my unique multigenerational family. My parents are still alive. I have children, grandchildren, friends and some distinguished colleagues. I am honored to know Krystyna Janda, Wojtek Eichelberger, Wiktor Osiatyński, Jerzy Hausner, Krzysztof Meissner, Ryszard Horowitz, Marek Kamiński and many other renowned and extraordinary people from the world of Polish arts, culture and science.

Leader Voelkel abd the hourglass method

We can agree that your top is just a molehill, but one must posses certain temperament and certain character traits to make this mound. Theoretically everyone can, but not everyone does. Perhaps others are on a higher tops businesswise, but they still don’t have that spark, which makes others to take notice and to follow. People say that you do.

I must admit, I really like people. I like getting to know them and I like being with them. I think people are great. I am just programmed this way. Sometimes I pay a price, financial or emotional, for this belief, but the majority of people are OK. I also think that I am brave. I am not afraid of taking a risk. I do things that others never tried. Perhaps people feel that I will lead them to an interesting place, where they will not be bored. Perhaps, they like working with me, because I ignite emotions in them.

I have developed this method that I call ‘hourglass’. I tell people to look at every significant problem from the upside down perspective. Sometimes this method brings unexpected results, such as discovering that we are doing everything wrong. I like a touch of madness, theatre, contrariness, sense of humor and I look for the simplest solutions. I am able to talk simply about complicated things and people understand where I want to go. I am looking for adventure and living a full life.

Aren’t people afraid of you?

Many people are scared of me. I don’t know why. I only have good intentions. I have never understood this. I had deputies, who took anxiety medication before entering my office. Maybe they were afraid that I will turn everything upside down, like an hourglass, if they say something and they will lose the ground under their feet.

Well, the hourglass method is pushing people outside of their comfort zone and not everyone likes it. But it seems that you love it...

Otherwise, there is boredom.

 

The article was first published in "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/17”.
The magazine is available here »

258 piotr voelkel new photo

About the Author

Piotr Voelkel – businessman, who has spent his whole life building and managing various organizations, including businesses, art ventures, and schools. Co-owner of VOX Capital Group, co-founder of Concordia Design and VOX-ARTIS Foundation for the Promotion of Polish Contemporary Art, President of Wielkopolskie Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych [The Greater Poland Society of Zachęta National Gallery of Art]. President of the Institute for the Development of Education, which acts as the founder of SWPS University

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