How Catherine Bell created The Awakened Company — and three tips for ‘awakening’ your own business
After completing an Executive MBA from Smith School of Business, while working full time and making partner at an executive search firm, Catherine Bell knew she had the capacity for a big undertaking. It would take a few more years of experience, but she eventually launched The Awakened Company — a management consulting firm that helps companies focus on the individual, engagement and culture in order to improve the bottom line. “Companies focus on financial metrics, and we need to also be measuring culture,” she says. We asked Catherine how her journey unfolded, and how other organizations can start the process of ‘awakening.’
By Hailey Eisen
Catherine Bell spent most of her childhood moving from city to city across Canada. It was challenging, but she attributes much of her personal development and success to it. It was through the challenge that she grew.
“Always finding myself in new situations, new schools, with new people was not easy — but it has served me well as an adult,” says the founder of The Awakened Company, a global management consulting firm focused on igniting interpersonal and cultural transformation within organizations, and the author of a book by the same name.
Being prepared to handle change — even embracing it — turned out to be a superb life skill for Catherine to acquire at a young age, given both the academic and career path she would embark on later.
Catherine began her undergraduate education in Waterloo studying science. Partway through, she changed both her degree and university, and eventually graduated from Western University with a Bachelor of Social Science in sociology. Having lived nearly everywhere from Montreal to Vancouver, Catherine chose Calgary to settle after university, first working in market research and then switching to executive search. “In 1998 when I got that job, no one was hiring,” she recalls. “But they took a chance on me, and I decided then and there that I would make partner before I was 30.”
It was around this time that Catherine began thinking about furthering her education. “I needed a broader perspective; I wanted to understand financial statements and taxes,” she says, of her decision to find an MBA program that would provide her with such skills. In her mind, an MBA would equip her with a problem-solving toolkit.
“At the time, Queen’s had a two-year Executive MBA that I could do in Calgary, and I especially liked their team approach to learning,” she recalls. In 2000, Catherine began her studies at Smith School of Business while working full time and — just as she had set out to do — made partner at her firm that same year, at age 29. After her experience as an entrepreneur she joined one of the largest international executive search firms to get a broader perspective.
By 2008, Catherine felt she had enough career experience under her belt to start her own boutique consulting and executive search firm, which she called BluEra. Along with her co-founder, she decided to focus the business on building awakened and evolved teams, using mindfulness as a business tool, and shifting the focus from “me” to “we.”
“When happiness is up and engagement is up, turnover is down and companies profit as a result.”
“From everything I’d learned, I knew there was a different way to do business, a way to build companies that focused on the individual, relationships, and team culture.” BluEra grew from a small startup to being ranked on the PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.
Starting a business with two small children was a challenge. “The EMBA experience was definitely capacity building,” she says. “Knowing I could work full time, make partner and complete my degree made me realize I could do anything.” She believes most people, when they set their minds to something, can achieve it.
Catherine’s passion for a new way of doing business evolved naturally into a book project — The Awakened Company. It was an opportunity to share her learning and perspectives with a broader audience. “It took me seven years to write my book, but along with my two brilliant collaborators, I interviewed more than 20 world-renowned business leaders in the process,” she recalls. “I really had to throw caution to the wind when reaching out to these individuals to ask them to contribute to the book. It was an invitation to let go of fear, to up my game and to step into vulnerability.” The book merges practical know-how, wisdom traditions and business research.
One of the book’s contributors was Julian Barling, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business, an expert in transformational leadership and one of Catherine’s professors during her EMBA. “I’ve used Julian’s framework for leadership time and again, in my coaching and consulting and in my own leadership,” she says.
Finding a publisher proved to be another challenge and another opportunity to strengthen her perseverance. “I specifically wanted Namaste Publishing — the publisher of Eckhart Tolle’s books — but because they hadn’t published anything like this before, they said no many times before they finally said yes.”
With a book under her belt and BluEra thriving, Catherine was just about ready for the next challenge. When the opportunity came to sell BluEra and move on, Catherine decided to focus all of her attention on The Awakened Company, the management consulting firm she’d been growing on the side, based on the contents of her book.
“These days I’m taking the learnings I had from building BluEra and sharing them with other CEOs,” she says. The Awakened Company now has a team of six coaches working to move organizations toward an “awakened” approach — valuing culture, happiness, social good and service over profitability and the bottom line. Catherine believes culture builds profitability and her focus is on measuring culture.
“The outcomes we notice, when we see and think about things differently, is a dramatic increase in profitability,” says Catherine. “When happiness is up and engagement is up, turnover is down and companies profit as a result.”
How can your own organization start on the path to becoming an awakened company? Catherine explains there are three keys to awakening well-being in an organization:
At the root of self-care is your relationship and connection to your awakened self. Once you are in touch with your inner compass and aim, you can make positive decisions toward the world you want to create.
- Develop your self-awareness. This includes knowing your gifts, your work-ons, and how to silence your inner critic (that voice in your head can take up way too much space and time).
- Celebrate the things you have accomplished in a journal, or with a colleague or friend over lunch.
- Develop a centring or mindfulness practice. Your presence is your power. And the power of the pause cultivates better leadership.
Establish genuine relationships
While relationships play a significant role in employee satisfaction and productivity, they aren’t always valued enough within organizations. There are many ways for leaders to cultivate the ability to go deep and establish genuine connections.
- Make time to have one-on-one meetings.
- Use ‘I’ language and speak from your three centres: I am feeling, I am thinking, I am doing, and my request for action from you is…
- Listen. Listen. Listen. Write down the exact words the person is saying, or repeat what the person has said in your head.
Collectively create a healthy culture
Research shows that organizations that focus both on cultural and financial metrics perform best — but many continue to only measure their bottom line. There are a number of actions that can be taken to improve the health of an organization’s culture.
- Develop a clear sense of where the organization is headed; a unified vision that informs meaning in people, in relationships, in transactions, in the choice of suppliers, in choosing employees, in social media strategy — in everything.
- Develop a clear understanding of the organization’s values, with policies that reflect it.
- Develop cultural metrics, like turnover and satisfaction, that are measured quarterly and reported.
Unlike other executive MBA programs that draw their students from a single city, Smith’s Executive MBA is a national program that draws participants from every region in Canada, creating a broader perspective in the classroom and a powerful alumni network that spans the country. Learn more here.