Interview

Create Habitats for Everyone to Flourish

As CEO, Claude Cloutier believes one of his key roles is creating the best habitat he can for people to flourish both personally and professionally.

Bill Fox
Oct 23, 2021
11 min read

Table of Contents


Claude Cloutier: President, CEO, and Founder at XtremeEDA and Owner, CJC Consulting Ltd. Author of The Consciousness Quotient: Leadership and Social Justice for the 21st Century.


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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

We need to redefine the purpose of an organization since most corporations have corrupted things.

Claude: We have to redefine the purpose of an organization. Most of our organizations, especially in the West and especially for-profit corporations as the economic system, have corrupted things.

You can see it in the writings of how we've taught MBAs in the past. Their mantra is that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. That speaks to corruption of purpose because profit is something that results from a value proposition. So some value creation process.

We're looking at it from the wrong end. We're looking at it from an outcome rather than what goes into that. What that orientation has done is it's caused capitalism to exploit and abuse people, rape the planet. For example, look at our fish stocks, open-pit mines, and all the other environmental degradation.

If the purpose of an organization is reoriented towards serving society, and serving society means creating healthy habitats for all. Then those organizations that would abuse, exploit, or otherwise rape the planet would be sanctioned heavily by society. Part of shifting the ideas around why organizations exist in the first place is shifting the role of leadership and being stewards of that purpose. And ensuring that how we go about creating that value is good for the people and good for the planet. It's an enormous shift in thought and beliefs.

One of the things that I learned when I was young, growing up on a farm in eastern Ontario, is I'd go out into our forest. We had about 35 acres of forest in the back of the farm. And I'd go out there all the time. I knew where the rabbits and the partridge and so on were within the forest. They were there for a very particular reason, and the reason is that that's where they could flourish. In other words, they were in alignment with their habitat that permitted their flourishing to occur.

I see one of my roles as a CEO as creating the best habitat I can for the people who work here to flourish both personally and professionally. That means protecting them against abusive clients because we are consulting company, and we do that all the time, by the way.

It means that I care about the people and their lives and their families. I'm concerned to ensure that they can have a great personal life as well. And while their personal life is not my business per se, it's naive to think that those stakeholders, family members, do not significantly influence the organization and vice versa.

When you look at existing organizations, especially in the West, they tend to control things given their evolution. They create a hard boundary, and this is true legally and financially. There is a rigid boundary by which we measure the organization. But the truth of the matter is that organizations are open systems.

And they're incredibly dependent on their habitat, just like people are dependent on the natural habitat and all the other animals are dependent on the natural habitat. One of the shifts we need is to ensure is that organizations don't degrade the habitat, both inside and outside of themselves, in some manner. If we're mindful of that, I believe that you're going to see much higher levels of engagement because what we're fundamentally doing is we're aligning.

Our soulful purpose as humans, through the organization and to higher levels of humanity through to the planetary level, is to reorient why we exist to create that flourishing. And I think what you'll find is that when you do that, people will work hard and bring their most creative potential to bear on whatever you're doing. It's all about the people. That's my answer.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

For me, it's about alignment - horizontal and vertical. The vertical is about aligning the high-level purpose of the organization with the individual's values. That aligns the heart. The horizontal is about aligning the individual's strengths with the work to be done. That aligns the head. The other aspect is the alignment of leadership's purpose(s). A servant-leader approach is one of care. It essentially provides ongoing answers to how a leader can help the individual flourish.

Claude: When people know that their leaders care deeply about them and that they care deeply about and love their organization and collectively what it's doing and individually, what they're doing, that's very inspiring for people.

You and I both know Lance Secretan. For example, he's been writing on inspiration for many decades. When you look at the polarities involved between an inspirational, soulful approach to work and a traditional capitalist controlling approach to work, it's very clear that when you take a caring approach, you naturally emanate dignity and respect for others and diversity. And you want to know people deeply rather than judge them for who they are.

When people know that you care that much, they will work very hard to meet that expectation because they want to honor and reciprocate that dignity and respect.

Too many organizations try and control and do not give dignity and respect. I have a client right now we're pushing back on. The managers are on the West Coast. Most of my engineers are on the East Coast, and these guys insist on calling meetings at 3 p.m. Pacific Time, which is six pm dinnertime on the East Coast. We told them, don't do that.

Do you want to turn somebody off? Don't show them dignity and respect. And if those guys think for a second that they're going to get the best performance when they do that behavior, they're dreaming. In fact, I've fired clients who weren't giving us dignity and respect.

Now, what does that cost them? You want performance, and you want people to be satisfied with where they are, treat them like human beings. The work environment, in many ways, has been set up as a master-slave relationship. I'm not too fond of the use of those words, but the abuse of power is rampant. When you really care about someone, it's not about dominance. It's about partnership. It's about equalizing the power fields and giving dignity and respect to difference. At the end of the day, this is a very simple answer, but you got to let your ego go.

I just had a conversation with one of my new employees. He was telling me about how one of the engineers on his team, in a previous company, whose wife had had cancer. He needed to have personal time to attend to all the issues related to that. The CEO of that organization was a very toxic person. He would watch who was coming in and going out. Basically, what time people were coming into work when they were leaving. And so this guy wasn't showing up. Meanwhile, Terry had said to his team, look, your colleague is dealing with this personal issue. We all have to do a little bit more to cover for him. Everyone was hundred percent on board with that. That's the nature of caring and cooperation, and reciprocity.

One day, the CEO came down and asked Terry to fire so and so because he's not showing up. Terry said, "Well, I'm not going to do it, but you will get my resignation if you do it the moment you do it. The CEO used an expletive, and said, "**** you Terry!" and walked away.

Therein lies the difference between exploitative psychopathic capitalism and someone who dares to give dignity and respect to people. Those people were a hundred percent, hundred and ten percent productive cover-off for this individual. That's how it gets done. But this guy was just totally ego self-interested and controlling—the very antithesis of how we want to do things.

For far too long, we've allowed those people to lead. Now, at the same time, I believe that a system self-selects individuals. If the system is structured so that it requires leaders to be like that, then those are the people who rise to the top.

It's not that we're allowing people to do that. We all have to look at the system and say, no, this has to stop now. When you do that, you're effectively causing a revolution. It's not an internal evolution. It's a revolution. It's coming from below, and a new set of leaders will be selected or more aligned with the traditional forms of community, the indigenous forms: a more caring form, a more maternal form.

So this masculine, parochial, misogynistic, exploitative leadership will fall away. And hence, there should be more leaders, more female leaders in the world. That's the nature of the glass ceiling that a lot of women face, frankly.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Generally, but not always, a spiritual approach to work; making a difference in an ethical and moral manner that creates joy and abundance and in so doing protect the environment. That what they are doing will make the world a better place for their children. In short, a soulful existence and the achievement of its purpose.

Claude: In short, to have the opportunity to bring their greatest creative potential to whatever it is they're doing. I firmly believe that people exist to achieve their soulful purpose on Earth. We can get back to this problem with the west of dropping even the concept of a soul, but I believe that many people are most joyful when creating things.

And what they long for? is the habitat that allows them to do that and make a positive difference in the world — that their work matters. If you look at the outcome of what you're creating, you see it as the most beautiful thing in the world. There's an aesthetic value, not just the form and function, but a true aesthetic value. A computer engineer will create a circuit and will say, "Wow. That's beautiful!" Or the Greeks would create the Parthenon and say, "Wow, that's beautiful!" DaVinci created the Mona Lisa, and people go, "Wow. That's beautiful!"

When you have an organizational culture that is focused on creating that kind of habitat that unleashes or enables people's creative potential, people go, "Wow, that's beautiful. I love working here."

When we talk about organizational culture, we often have difficulty defining exactly what that is. I like Marc Hanlan's answer to that question, which is the instant sense of group identity. Who we are in the moment is the culture in the largest sense of the word.

I talked about aesthetics. If it has that balance that I talked about in terms of the golden ratio, it is sensed as beautiful in the organizational culture. There is an aesthetic aspect to an organizational culture that people ignore. We have this tendency to define everything as a thing, as opposed to a process.  Culture is like that.  It is something that is a continuous emergent property of the organization – always moving, always changing, always alive.

When my new employee said to me the other day, "This is great. There's a vibe here that I haven't seen anywhere else. That speaks to an aesthetic about the culture. We're not in a single office. We're all over North America.

Bill> I just read an article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that reflected on the life and work of Steve Jobs. It was written by Jony Ive, the chief designer at Apple who worked very closely with Steve. He said, "Steve truly believed that by making something useful, empowering, and beautiful, we express our love for Humanity."

I couldn't agree more. If we genuinely express our love for humanity, then we will also express our love for the habitat that is the container that holds our humanity. One of the things that people perhaps don't realize is that absolutely everything we do, including all the technology we create, contains our values. We need to bring a sense of aesthetics back into that. And I believe that if we balance this all correctly, we don't need to talk about ethics anymore. We're living it.

Bill> The article goes on to say, "Ultimately, I believe it speaks to the underlying motivation that drove him. He was not distracted by money or power but driven to express his love and appreciation of our species tangibly. He truly believed that by making something useful, empowering, and beautiful, we express our love for humanity."

You see, isn't it one of the most valuable companies in the world? Why? Because of the aesthetics that he brought. If a leader took that concept and applied it to organizational culture in everything they did day in and day out, it's easy. It really is easy.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

How can I help you flourish?

Claude: How can I serve you better? Simple, isn't it? What does that say about power? For example? It turns it upside down or at least equalizes the power differential. Once it's equalized, it has the potential to go anywhere. In other words, the outcome is not predetermined. If the leader says, here's what you can do for me and doesn't allow the employee to ask the same question, then it's already predetermined what will happen.

Bill> As a CEO, did you have the opportunity to ask your employees those types of questions?

I ask them all the time. It's just part of the culture. In my welcoming interview, I say, "Look, I'm here to serve you. I'm here to create that habitat where you can flourish personally and professionally." I'm very clear about it. My obligation is to do my best to create that habitat. Your obligation is to tell me what that is because it's different for everybody, so my door is always open because the answer also changes over time.

So my role is the steward of the habitat and to protect those individuals from abuse of clients. I'm the chief interface to the external environment. So my management team, who share in these values, consistently defend employees from more traditional capitalistic organizations.

They know that we care and do whatever we can, and we're not perfect because we don't have control. We don't have complete control over anybody—particularly clients. The people who are the client do have more power in many different ways, but not all of it. It's a bit of a balancing act, and everybody knows it.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

What can you do to help me flourish?

Claude: The answer just turns around. What can you do to help me flourish? People have this concept of CEOs being all-powerful, and they do have a lot of power. However, we're a lot more constrained than people realize.

There are a lot of laws and regulations that the existing system has created to handcuff CEOs. Particularly public companies especially.
We can only do so much, and I can only do whatever is in my power to do. Given our limited resources, we are a very small company. If you feel you need to flourish elsewhere because you can't do it here, that's a good reason to leave, and I'm okay with that.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

How will we be with each other?

Claude: How can we be with each other? How we will be with each other cuts to the idea of the organizational culture. It's a choice. There is some free will available, but basically, it answers the question of, "Will we treat each other with dignity and respect? Will abuse of power be tolerated?"

And conversely, the employee also must answer that question. Will you treat others with dignity and respect? Just how are you going to be in the moment? This speaks to seeing each other and valuing each other for who we are. It's no different in the workplace because it's all about relationships.

I laugh because Lance Secretan has this funny story about annual performance reviews. In many companies, a performance interview happens every year. The supervisor or the person who has more power than the employee shows up, and the employee shows up, and then they go through a list of items. Perhaps you got an 8 out of 10 in a particular area because you could have done better. Now, imagine if you did that with your spouse, Honey, I want to do an annual performance review with you, and you know where that's going, right? It isn't going to end well!

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