Profile from Merchants of Vision by Jim Leibig

It’s not a question of bringing spirit and heart to the workplace. They are already there. — Barbara ShipkaIn trying to assist the starving multitudes in Africa, Barbara Shipka says, “I discovered there was no way I could do enough. It was the first time I grasped the sense of what it means to influence a system. And I was having no influence on the system.”

Barbara is a teacher by training and a group process facilitator by experience, acquired initially with the Experiment in International Living and later at Honeywell. She began her consulting business in 1980 and, after taking time out in 1983 to work on African relief projects, she returned to Minneapolis in 1986 to resume her consulting practice.

“My business is generated by word of mouth,” she began. “I don’t have any brochures or materials. Generally the way it works is that I am called into an organization based on some way they define me. It could be a crisis situation, or one requiring the acceleration of change, or the development of a new organization.

“Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed one of the times I get called into organizations is in situations where people feel they’ve tried everything and the only course left is to file a complaint or sue.” Intervening in crisis situations, Barbara assists people in sorting through their differences. “I enter with the attitude that people want their work lives to be positive and productive. But sometimes they feel they have no other options. So, if someone shows up and says, ‘I think there are,’ they grab at it.” The issues range from alleged discrimination or harassment to conflicts between employees and supervisors. Barbara notes that her success in helping people be more creative with their differences “has almost always cascaded into some other kind of larger intervention.”

Acknowledging and working with differences involves accessing spirit and heart in the workplace, Barbara says. “In my work I try to bring forth the spirit and heart that are already there, to have people see what is already there.”

Barbara also frequently works with teams, helping them to increase their effectiveness, almost always in partnership with line managers. Her objective is to create self-sufficiency, assisting managers and teams develop both their human process skills and their ability to sense when they know what to do without outside help. She notes, “I really don’t care particularly about teams per se. What I care about are relationships. Sometimes it’s remedial work. Other times it’s like breaking a log jam, cleaning up from the past. Our educational system doesn’t teach people how to work together,” she says. “It puts us in competition.”

The essence of good relationships, she notes, is personal authenticity. “But that is still something that is hard to hold: the idea of being authentic, being who we really are, especially in the workplace with all our taboos and fears. When we work the issues of relationship, a lot of creative energy that was spent trying to second guess, or avoid, or worry about what somebody thinks, can be freed up for people to move closer to their potential.

“When I work with a group of people, I’m working at the micro level of the issues of the world. When two people can’t find a solution to working together, even if the solution is to not be together, why should we expect that two cultures can do it? The best way I know how to work global, macro level problems is one by one by one. So I find this work satisfying. When I work with a group of two or more people, I’m achieving my global vision.”

Barbara observes that though the word GLOBAL may often be used in a jargon sense in business, it implies greater inclusivity that the word INTERNATIONAL. Global encompasses ALL. Furthermore, she notes, the word implies more that physical geography.

She views the physical poverty she’s witnessed in Africa, Asia, and South America as being analogous to the spiritual poverty she sees in corporate settings. “The same way that food is nourishment for people who are starving physically, authenticity is nourishment for people who are starving spiritually. The way the workplace is set up, it can starve us spiritually. Some people have quit on the job; they feel despair; they work out of fear that if they don’t have a job they won’t survive. In our culture we have attached our identity to our career, and if the job is a place where you live in fear or despair, that’s an impoverished life.” Barbara has elaborated on her comparison between physical and spiritual poverty in a women’s anthology chapter, “Corporate Poverty: Lessons from Refugee Camps.” (From When the Canary Stops Singing, Berrett-Koehler, 1994.

Barbara observes that, in business today, “the way in which suffering occurs is changing. It used to be sweat shops, people working 16 hours a day. Now I notice that with technological changes that are supposed to make work easier, stress is increasing. People are having to work harder, longer, and often fewer people are doing the work. It’s leaner and leaner and less human in some ways.”

She suggests that we are living in an adolescent culture, unwilling to acknowledge that we live finite lives in a finite world. She also believes that a major wave of transformation of our consciousness is in progress. “We can be battered by it; we can struggle. Or make a sport of it,” she says, by “surfing on the waves of change.” Helping people do that organically, within the problems and workings of their organizations, is her vocation.

“The image that comes to mind is midwifery. What is happening in the world is like a birthing process. What I’m doing is helping this come into being; supporting that it’s happening, so it happens more easily, with less pain.”

Borrowing on her experiences, she says, “I use the model of relief and development the same way that it is used in international work. You really can’t provide development to people who are starving (or in conflict) until you provide relief. When we do relief work, we often find that the development work that follows is not work to be done at the personal level. Once personal needs are taken care of, the development needs may be structural. They may involve a resource issue. Many things begin to open up as developmental opportunities. People who don’t have enough food can’t dig wells. That’s what it’s all about.”

In her work, Barbara integrates the processes of healing and learning. For example, she observes, “Another thing that our education system has not taught us is that recovering from mistakes is actually far more important that the mistakes we make. The healing piece is learning how to recover and move on, away from despair and fear, recapturing a sense of integrity in one’s life.” Learning, she says, is like eating. It’s a fundamental human process.

Barbara’s vision for her business demonstrates that her concern for authenticity is more than a conceptual exercise. She recalls briefly feeling inadequate when a colleague who was setting up his own consulting practice said he had developed marketing and five-year plans. “I had been successful for seven or eight years already, but I didn’t have those things.”

“However, my vision for my business is to stay open. If I stay open enough, I see how other people define me. I don’t know that I would ever have marketed myself as someone who can work in a crisis situation with a gay man or a black woman, for example, who the company fears is getting ready to sue for discrimination. But that’s how others see my skills. Part of my vision is to stay organic and dynamic. That’s why I don’t have any brochures, set programs, or have a company name. I’ve thought a lot about a company name and decided that it is attached to the old form. Itt is not where my attention is. I personally have tremendous vision, but it doesn’t feel important in terms of a business plan per se.

“When I haven’t had enough business, I’ve thought maybe I should define things more. Yet when I let go, the divinity of what I’m doing, the support of the divine, comes right in. So not getting too contained around the business is related to the fact that this is a partnership with a larger system. The more I can allow that, the more exciting it is. It’s a level of security that doesn’t come from the containment, because every time it seems tough, something comes through.”

From her vantage point as an independent consultant, Barbara has observed a phenomenon that she feels may not yet be well recognized: “The number of people who were out on their own ten years ago was maybe a tenth or a twenty-fifth of the number that are now.” She foresees the possibility that in seeking further leanness, companies may outsource everything that they don’t need as overhead. She suggests, “Maybe the smartest thing people can do is to see how they can create self-contained or small-group employment. The idea of the individual as a company is part of a vision I see, something that breaks into smaller, more streamlined ways of doing things rather than needing to have all the infrastructure around it.”

A new level in her search for her own authenticity and passion for global community began recently when she went to Peru and adopted an Amazon Indian infant. She is excited to watch a new life unfold in him. “At the micro level, I’m actually seeing a soul manifest itself on earth! And I’m also discovering that by bringing that human part of me into my business, I have been able to allow other people to be more human. If Michael is sick, I get to learn about my client’s families, too.”

From Merchants of Vision, James E. Liebig, Berrett-Koehler, 1994.

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