Because I happen to have a fairly “alternative” lifestyle that is entirely developed around my values, people often seek my advice who are looking to reconnect with their own values. These people typically have careers in corporate America and feel like a cog in a big old machine that is not connected to what they really care about.
They want to live a life they believe in and contribute something of value to the world. but they are also strapped into the reality of needing a solid income to survive, wanting to enjoy a vacation here and there, and needing to support loved ones.
These people often have an all-or-nothing attitude, as though the only two options are to be a hedge fund shark on one end, or run a soup kitchen on the other. But this is so not true. There are infinite ways to activate your values at the exact job you are presently in – and have the best of all worlds.
For your inspiration I have interviewed an old yoga friend, Allyson (pictured above), who is a total player in corporate America and was also a bold change-maker at her workplace from day one. Allyson, who generally feels best with a strong sense of security, got a job at a large downtown LA investment firm straight out of college. Although she was up for the challenge, the change to the corporate climate gave her a bit of culture shock…
The New Corporate Job
“I had a week to move into my new life in LA and it was pretty traumatizing to suddenly trade my Santa Barbara flip flops for a suit and heels. I still had that passionate liberal arts vibe. In big corporate spaces that is often kind of rare. It appalled me that my new employers did not have community service, no fundraising for underserved causes, didn’t even have a foundation.
“And it was appalling how wasteful they were – it felt like a different era. For example, in the kitchen there were styrofoam cups and reusable mugs and people would choose the styrofoam! I became very vocal. I was like, why would you use that? The mug is right there! But then I would find out that that was a senior person and I shouldn’t have been talking to them that way. But I didn’t really care who it was, it’s 2005 who uses styrofoam?!
“Over time I became more widely known as ‘the treehugger’ because of my comments. Then I got connected to others in the firm who were also like me. People were like ‘oh so-and-so’s a treehugger too!'”
Taking Bold Action
So Allyson had established herself as the resident tree-hugger, but she wasn’t satisfied with saving cups one at a time by talking smack to people over the coffee machine. So she pursued the next step in living her values in corporate America by taking organized action…
“I got a group together and created a sustainability team. The firm had 600 people so I tried to get representatives from all different areas so it would seep more widely throughout the company. We pitched our ideas for improvements to senior management by showing them how much money they would save in a year if they adopted our strategy… and they liked it! The strategy was simple:
1) Turn the air conditioner off on the weekends and in the evenings. (You’d be shocked how much all of these buildings in big cities are running that stuff 24 hours.) We did all this research to figure out the heating and cooling plan of the building and figured out how much they’d save just by turning it off on weekends.
2) We did the cost savings on eliminating the purchase of those stupid cups, so people would have to use the mugs. People tried to resist and say ‘but we use the styrofoam cups!’ but they won’t use them if they aren’t sitting there.
3) We reduced newspaper subscriptions. Once you got to a certain promotion at the company, you got your pick of big newspapers like WSJ or NYT. But I was like this is archaic you should be reading this online. Every day there would be a pile of unread newspapers left by the elevator. We figured out who wasn’t reading their newspapers and got them to agree to cancel their subscriptions.
“The reason senior management accepted our strategy was because we put their hat on instead of our own. We were already the type of people who recycled, turned the lights off, saved water. But we needed to think like management so we tailored our presentation to show how it would be a big cost savings. Because that’s how they make decisions – they are focused on the bottom line.
“Once we were able to demonstrate we would create a cost savings, we pitched the things we wanted to spend on:
1) Changing all utensils to biodegradable.
2) All employees got recycling bins for paper under their desks.
“And both were approved! We ended up getting the LEED certification for the whole building. Management got to use that in client meetings to say we had an environmentally conscious program. That was the fun exciting part that felt really rewarding.
“But the biggest lesson that I learned is that when you ask for change, there are always going to be people that are resistant. It’s really important to be prepared to communicate with those people. To succeed you have to know how to make them feel included in the project.
“For example, I had a senior individual come up to me griping about the new utensils. He complained that he couldn’t cut through meat with it so I was like why the hell are you trying to cut through meat with a plastic utensil anyway? You need to bring in a steak knife! I said it in a way that was bold, but also funny, to get him to laugh. That helped with buy-in.
“That whole experience made me realize that I could organize people and get them to do something even if it was uncomfortable. At the firm I’m at now, I still have that reputation. So if someone is trying to organize people for something they care about, they come to me for advice. I’m still seen as that treehugger wild liberal yoga person.
“I’ve since moved away from an environmental focus to help with advocacy for foster care. I sit on the board of CASA of Los Angeles and help them fundraise. I wouldn’t be equipped for this role if I didn’t have that experience right out of school being in uncomfortable situations working with people of different age groups and different world views. Now, post election results, I’m planning on getting more involved in women’s rights and protecting reproductive rights.
“The times I carried shame about having a corporate job were the times when I wasn’t showing up moment to moment as my most authentic self. Why do I need to wait till 5pm to be myself? I can bring all that I am into my work. And it’s a value added for my firm. I add value because I bring a different viewpoint. When I am balanced I know I can inspire someone in the next meeting to live more truthfully. I don’t need to be in Whole Foods or teaching a yoga class to do that.
What YOU Can Do
So what can you do to bring your whole self to your corporate job like Allyson does?
1) Figure out YOUR specific skill set. Allyson is a natural leader and organizer, but you might have different core competencies. Figure out just what you have to offer.
2) Decide on a cause. Narrow down the overwhelming feeling of wanting to help into something that’s a doable, achievable task. Just pick one cause – the thing that is most important to you.
3) Gather comrades. Connect with others who might be interested in joining your cause.
4) Take action. Make a plan of action that takes into consideration the decision-makers in your company. Do necessary research and pitch according to their value system (which is likely the bottom line).
5) Communicate with everyone. Find a way to connect with possible resisters as you share your vision. Bring them in on it in an inclusive way. Meet them where they are.
You don’t have to quit your job to live your values! In fact, you might be even MORE VALUABLE if you keep your corporate job and make changes from within that are centered around human or environmental causes that are close to your heart. Be the change. Be the change you want to see in your corporate life. You are more powerful than you think.
BIG THANKS to Allyson Pfeifer for granting me this wonderful interview. Photo above is of Allyson looking like the self-realized tree-hugging #girlboss she is in her home in Silver Lake, California.