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Training & Business Systems

Why I’m Glad to Still Teach our Staff Orientation

How a couple hours of class time can build positive beliefs, enhance hope, inspire inclusion, and so much more

I don’t have that many regrets in life, but one of mine is that I never managed to meet Grace Lee Boggs. She lived relatively close by in Detroit and passed away, just six years ago, at the age of 105. I have read a lot of what this amazing woman put into print. Her work is both insightful and inspirational to me. In her lifetime she saw a lot of struggle: The Civil Rights movement, the death of her beloved husband James (Jimmy) Boggs in 1993, repeated manifestations of racism, and abundant examples of inequity. Through it all, Grace Lee Boggs stayed positive. As she said, “I see hope beginning to trump despair.”

In one of those funny coincidences that probably means nothing to most, but catches my attention, Grace Lee Boggs was born on the same day of the year as Emma Goldman—June 27. Ms. Boggs was born in 1915, when Goldman was already 46. (Emma spoke over 300 times that year—against war, in favor of birth control, about the influence of Nietzsche, and more.) Grace Lee Boggs’ parents had come from China in 1911, first to Seattle before making their way across the country. Chinese immigrants had been banned from gaining U.S. citizenship ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed back in 1882 (the same year that Rocco Disderide, who went on to build the building in which the Deli “lives,” arrived in New York from northern Italy). The Exclusion Act was not fully repealed until 1943. Grace Lee was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and her family lived for years above the restaurant her parents owned and ran. (Her father was known in Providence as “the king of the restaurant businessmen among the Chinese.”) She graduated from Barnard in 1935 and finished her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr five years later. Grace Lee married the equally insightful and interesting James Boggs in 1953. He had grown up in Alabama, worked here in Detroit at Chrysler for decades, and went on to write and speak powerfully for years till his death in 1993.

There are many things about Grace Lee Boggs’ work that resonate with me. She was very fiercely focused on humanization, on learning, on equity, and in very practical ways, active inclusion. Like Gustav Landauer, she emphasized regularly that we needed to each do our own internal work in order to make positive social change meaningfully effective. And like Landauer, she repeatedly reminded us not to get caught up in the negative, but rather, to focus on the positive; to steer clear of only opposition and tearing down, and instead to build up. “Doomsayers breed and deepen despair,” she once said. Like E.F. Schumacher and so many others I’ve learned from, she was very focused on the value of small actions: “Do something local,” she said, “Do something real, however small… We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s… always about critical connections.”

Long before the travails of the last few years, Grace Lee Boggs wrote, “These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.” She reminded us regularly not to wait for some mythical heroes—she encouraged all of us to step up and take responsibility for creating the world we want to see. “We are the leaders,” she wrote, “we’ve been looking for.”

All of which, I realized lately, is true about the orientation class for new staff—what we call “Welcome to ZCoB”—that Paul or I have been teaching for so many years now. Last week, just by coincidence, I taught it on the same day that the inauguration took place in Washington and the new pamphlet, “Working Through Hard Times,” came out. Given the importance of the former on a national level, and the latter from a personal, emotional perspective, teaching the class might have seemed almost an afterthought, easy to take for granted. And yet, of all that happened that day, doing the class on Wednesday evening was one of the best parts of an already good, even if emotionally challenging, day.

Regardless of one’s political views, last week was pretty clearly a threshold for all of us, a transition to a new stage. John O’Donohue said, “To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging.” And he added, “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.” Teaching the staff orientation is a small, down to earth, Grace Lee Boggsian, example of some of that inclusive, dignified beauty coming into being. The class is a threshold that new staff members cross as they join our organization. And in the process of taking it, I believe, a bit of beauty—so often lacking in the work world—is brought to the fore, for us as an organization and, I hope, for them as individuals as well.

I wrote a lot about Welcome to ZCoB and why it matters so much in Secret #49 in Part 4. The essay is entitled “Why (Paul or) I Still Teach Orientation for New Staff Members; Building Positive Beliefs, Hope, and the Spirit of Generosity from the Get-Go.” The essay shares a lot about the content of the class, and about how anyone can create a comparable class at their company. From Secret #49, here’s a bit about the training and why I’m so perpetually reenergized by teaching it (as I was last Wednesday evening, even on Zoom):

While it hardly wins big headlines, the act of teaching this orientation class for new employees is, without question, one of the most rewarding and productive parts of my job. If you want to make a big difference in your organization—large or small, for- or not-for-profit—a class of this sort is one of the most practical and effective tools I know of.

I often say that the yellow legal pads I buy to journal on provide the best return on investment I can make. Teaching this class, I believe, comes in at a close second. Everyone who’s a part of it (and even their peers, parents, and partners who weren’t there) will benefit from it… every single time I teach it, I finish feeling recharged, excited, challenged, and more motivated than ever to go out and excel in all I do.

[Welcome to ZCoB] is the intellectual, emotional, historical, and ethical story of Zingerman’s, and some of the key ways we work to make it all happen. I want Welcome to the ZCoB to focus on business, passion, commitment to excellence, and effective energy management. When new staff members leave our class, I want them to feel valued and excited about the job they’ve chosen to take with us and the opportunity they now have to be an important part of what we do. Essentially, I’ve realized of late that the class aspires to build positive beliefs about our business as well as to encourage positive belief in each individual’s sense of themselves.

A great writer and thinker, Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, defines the term “homecoming” as:

…Creating an environment in which learning is possible. And that is what a home is. I mean that is what we want the homes that we give to our children to be—places where they grow in many, many different ways. They learn how to connect with other people. They learn how to care for others. They learn particular skills. They learn their own capacities and how to trust other people and how to trust themselves. They learn what respect is.

In this context, this orientation class is the corollary to an organizational homecoming. (Speaking of context, Bateson was the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Sadly, Mary Catherine Bateson passed away earlier this month, at the age of 81.) I love the idea of it but… I caught myself wondering: the class is part of the orientation for new members of our organization. Can you come home to somewhere you’ve never been?

Thanks, again, to the good work of Grace Lee Boggs, I realize that the answer is, “Yes.” As Dr. Boggs said, “I see the signs in the various small groups that are emerging all over the place to try and regain our humanity in very practical ways.” Which would mean, that this class is a bit about coming home to ourselves, at least in the context of work. I wasn’t sure about the veracity of that idea but then, I’m just now remembering a small story from a few weeks ago: A job applicant (who we since hired) had spent some time being interviewed by another staff member. When I asked how it went, he said: “It’s like this is where she needs to be, but she’s never been. It just felt like talking to someone who was coming home.” This class is one part, then, of that homecoming—a formal “Welcome” for each new staff member to Zingerman’s. And for many, I realize, this might be the first time in their work history that their full humanity is acknowledged. Where, regardless of role, someone at work is talking to them about the kind of philosophy Grace Lee Boggs did in her graduate work. That they have someone at work encouraging them to be themselves, to study, and to learn. Someone sharing a vision and meaningful mission, appealing to their ethics. Showing them how to caringly and effectively challenge organizational norms—to step forward and think like leaders.

It’s not a small thing. Grace Lee Boggs said, “The struggle we’re dealing with these days… is how do we define our humanity?” While it’s not explicitly listed on the class outline, Welcome to ZCoB, I would now suggest, is partly about defining, and actualizing, “humanity” at Zingerman’s. To be heard, even in this small setting, to have your story matter, to have a caring conversation about organizational vision, life philosophy, values, history… and to be included in that conversation equally—regardless of your age and your seniority or your job title—by having that class with one of the top leaders of the organization. This is not the norm for most front line folks in most businesses (or non-profits for that matter). At the least, Welcome to ZCoB shares helpful information and establishes some short connection between the leader of the organization and its newest members. But when it really clicks (which it often does), the two hours-plus of class time and conversation is, I think, magical. It could, at times, be career altering.

The outline of the class covers all the content I listed above, but the heart of the learning for me comes in what I hear and see from the “students”—it’s the stuff that happens, I can say, “between the lines” of the workbook. It’s hearing staff members’ stories—where they came from and why they’re here, and at least a small bit about their life outside of Zingerman’s. It’s listening to their reflections on our vision. Learning more about what they imagine for themselves. In a short couple of hours, we are in many cases making a meaningful change to people’s beliefs—about business, about work, about themselves, and about the world. And as Grace Lee Boggs said: “A revolution is to create new truths about human beings and society. There is no proof really that the road you are taking is the ‘true’ one. You have to make it true.”

I agree. We have to then back up what we’ve said by meaningfully doing the work behind it. But these small sparks of new beliefs can trigger big results. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.” Connections with each other, with the business, with the world, and with ourselves. With our collective past, and with the future (written out in our vision) that we’re all pursuing. All of which brings meaning to our days. Ian Lynch, from the Irish band Lankum, whose music I love (and whose rendition of “What Will We Do When We Have No Money” is on the “pandemic playlist” that I put into the preface of “Working Through Hard Times”) said on a podcast recorded during the pandemic, “I think we’re living in a kind of time that has never occurred before. People have always, throughout history, had stories and narratives to draw on that… explained everything. We literally have no mythologies to sustain us. It’s just a nihilistic worldview today… of people… spinning through to endless nothingness… it’s such an empty worldview compared to the richness we had in the past… there’s something missing from our lives.” To fill that void in his own work, Lynch started studying the traditional music he was playing. “I wanted to have an understanding of what I was singing about. What it was all about. The background, the history of the songs.” If we translate what we do at Zingerman’s into Ian Lynch and Lankum’s musical world, then it’s equally important for the people who work here to have a sense of what they’re “singing” about when they come to work every day.

Grace Lee Boggs said, “History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories—triumphantly or self-critically … has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.” This little class—backed up with meaningful manifestations of our values and beliefs in daily action—can provide some of what Ian Lynch has made clear is missing in so many parts of modern society. Taking time to share how we started, my own uncertainties, and struggles, matters. I mean, how would anyone who comes to work at Zingerman’s in 2021 know that I started my “food career” after finishing college 42 years ago, as a dishwasher. That my bond with Paul was built across the organizational equivalent of “class lines,” when he was a general manager, and I was working at the dish machine. Or that Frank who started the Bakehouse with us years later was a line cook and Maggie who founded ZingTrain with us was a waitress. That when we opened most people in town thought we’d be out of business within a year. Or that Paul and I spent a year of hard conversation before coming to agreement on our 2009 vision. When I close out the class by asking folks what the most “helpful, interesting, or surprising thing they learned” was, that history is one of the most oft-shared learnings.

Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book Together is all about the epidemic of loneliness. It’s everywhere. The dehumanizing workplace cultures that are now so common are a big part of the problem. We have the power to help make some of that loneliness go away. Letting people tell their stories at the start of the class—and then coming back to them regularly, even in small ways, over the course of the session—I’ve come to realize, is big. As Dr. Murthy says, “Only by sharing our individual stories can we connect and begin to heal our divided society.” And as Irish podcaster Ainle Ó Cairealláin says, “We all need to feel a sense of belonging…”

When we feel that sense—guided by a positive inclusive vision, caring values and a meaningful mission—great things can come of it. (Clearly, that sense of belonging can turn dark when the bond comes over negative beliefs and anger at others.) David Graber said, “Together we create the world we inhabit.” And, he adds, “We can all imagine a better world.” This class is one small way to help new staff see that they have a say in creating the organizational world we inhabit here at work. When people are valued for who they are, when their voice and their view matters, when they realize there are ways that their thoughts can be included and heard, their energy changes. When we make that inclusion more than another buzz word and actively work to turn it into reality, good things start to happen. As Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering, “My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust, and connect for a larger purpose.”

It’d be easy to get down in the current state of the world. Still, as I wrote in “Working Through Hard Times,” things will get better. We can’t, any of us alone, cure coronavirus, eradicate racism, or rebalance the health care system. But we can, per Grace Lee Boggs’ beautiful charge, do meaningful small things that move our little corner of the world in the right direction. Teaching this class costs next to nothing. The benefits are beyond big. And it will work, I believe, in business, in schools, in not-for-profits, in medical practices, in university departments, in government offices… As Brené Brown says, “We are hardwired for connection.” This class—whether it’s for your organization overall or for a department within it—can make that connection happen.

Many business owners or managers I talk to about this class say they like the idea, but can’t afford it—either they don’t have the time themselves, or the money to pay staff to go. I would argue the other way—the benefits are so big that I can’t afford not to do it. I’ll close here with the last paragraph of Secret #49:

Lest I doubt the wisdom of my decision to continue to teach it, I have only to wait until the conclusion of the next class to be reminded of how important it is. Watching the energy that grows within people reflected in their eyes as the class unfolds, hearing their stories, listening to the perceptive comments they make and the questions they ask, I’m consistently blown away by the insights, the awareness, the intelligence, and the passion of the new folks that come on board here. I’m reminded every time of how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to work with them. Writer Neil Gaiman writes, “good stories should change you.” A great orientation class does exactly that—connection, caring, and great stories told in ways that will change the people sitting around the table. And both you and the people you are teaching are better for the experience.

You can read a LOT more about why this class matters, in Secret #49, in either the pamphlet (like buying the single) or in the same essay as it appears near the end of Part 4 (the album). Let me know how it goes. I look forward to learning from you!

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!