Since leaving FORTUNE at the end of last year, I’ve thought a lot about how to spend my most precious asset—my time. Happily, I’ve had choices, and so as I sift through them, I’m looking for work that will (1) make a difference in the world (2) enable me to keep learning (3) be fun and (4) pay the bills and, ideally, replenish my downsized 401-k. I also want to work with people whose values I share. Yes, I know, that’s a lot to ask, especially in these dismal economic times.
Yet that’s what led me to Dov Seidman. Until recently, I’d never met Dov and I was only vaguely aware of his company, LRN. Tom Friedman writes about Dov in The World is Flat and he has devoted a couple of columns to Dov’s 2007 book, HOW: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…In Business (And in Life). This Friedman column, Why How Matters, explains why HOW is relevant to the financial meltdown:
Seidman basically argues that in our hyperconnected and transparent world, how you do things matters more than ever, because so many more people can now see how you do things, be affected by how you do things and tell others how you do things on the Internet anytime, for no cost and without restraint.
“In a connected world,” Seidman said to me, “countries, governments and companies also have character, and their character — how they do what they do, how they keep promises, how they make decisions, how things really happen inside, how they connect and collaborate, how they engender trust, how they relate to their customers, to the environment and to the communities in which they operate — is now their fate.”
Last year, LRN acquired the sustainability consulting firm, Green Order, whose CEO, Andrew Shapiro, is a friend. At Andrew’s suggestion, I met Dov last month in New York.
We hit it off right away. We share some fundamental beliefs—essentially, the idea that the most principled businesses are also the most profitable in the long term. That’s been at the core of my writing for nearly a decade. For his part, Dov, who is 44, started LRN in 1994 and turned it into a successful company that has helped millions of employees, managers and leaders do the right thing in the workplace. Privately-held LRN has 350 employees, with headquarters in Westwood, Ca., and offices in New York, London and Mumbai.
LRN’s core business today is online courses—750 of them in 50 languages—that help companies make responsible business conduct a part of their everyday practice. “At LRN, we apply philosophy, especially ethics, to the rough and tumble world of business,” Dov says. “In so doing, we help workers do the right thing.”
Philosophy? That’s not a word you hear a lot in corporate America. But the study of philosophy helped shape Dov, whose personal story is unusual. Dov was raised by a single mom in a bunch of places–San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles—and for years he struggled in school.
“My high school transcript boasted A’s: two of them, in Phys Ed and auto shop,” he joked, when he gave the commencement address at the UCLA in 2002. His SAT scores never topped 1000. Only later did he realize that he was dyslexic.
But he wangled his way into UCLA, and then stumbled into a philosophy class because other courses were full. It was a good fit for a kid who didn’t like reading. “By rewarding me for the careful consideration of one idea instead of reading hundreds of pages of text, philosophy helped me conquer dyslexia,” he says.
Philosophy and ethics became his passion, and he went on to earn a B.A. and an M.A. in philosophy from UCLA, a B.A. in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford (where he captained the Balliol college crew team) and a law degree from Harvard. Not too shabby.
Soon after leaving Harvard, Dov started LRN as a way to make legal research more widely (and democratically) available, to explode some of the mystique created by the guild of lawyers who like to overcomplicate what they do. LRN—the initials stood for Legal Research Network—began as a subscription business, offering legal research to companies for less than it would cost them to hire their own counsel. This was a disruptive idea. An article about LRN in The Wall Street Journal ran under the headline: “Law Firm Fat Threatened by a Lean Network.”
LRN has evolved since then, from helping companies solve legal problems to helping companies prevent them through better ethics and compliance. Now Dov wants to take LRN to the next level, by helping companies “inspire principled performance.” He’s passionate and energetic about achieving that goal because he knows that companies with a sense of purpose and a great culture don’t have to worry about compliance because their people will be inspired to do the right thing.
I’m helping Dov and LRN with a variety of projects. Today, I’ll participate in LRN’s Knowledge Forum, a meeting of the company’s clients where they will talk about business, values and performance. I’m hoping to find ways to turn my knowledge of corporate responsibility and sustainability into online courses. I may lend a hand at Green Order.
Over time, Dov, LRN and I plan to develop a website about business, values and sustainability. Building off the title of Dov’s book, we’ll try to explore HOW to lead a great business, inspire people, make money and make the world a better place. My hope is to make HOW online a place where people will come to read relevant news stories, be exposed to fresh ideas and connect with others. We’re obviously going to need lots of help, so I will be calling on people I know in the corporate and NGO worlds to solicit advice, ideas and contributions. I’m going to try to make it easy and worthwhile for thoughtful, caring business people to contribute to the website and collaborate with us.
LRN is not a full-time commitment for me. I’m going to keep blogging, writing, speaking and consulting, all of which I’m enjoying. But it’s a big commitment. And I am fully committed to making it a big success.