An anonymous business leader writes:
My career has consisted of owning and working in small to medium businesses like Esalen, and for 5 years I worked in a large corporation, so I am able to hold both sides of the Esalen coin. Esalen is and organization and an organism. Here is what I know from personal experience of living at Esalen for 18 months (ending in 2008) and returning each year for 1-2 months ever since.
As a company, Esalen is unhealthy. It is top heavy in management, and lacks a clear communication mechanism to get concise an accurate information between the top and bottom. It lacks an effective chain of command with ‘buy in’ of a common vision from all levels. The hybrid factor of community amplifies these problems. [Making the 'obvious' solution to erode the community. —Ed]
In such an environment, first reactions to events and dictates tend toward fear of the unknown. Leadership has repeatedly and consistently refused to tap in-house expertise, breeding more mistrust of management. The regular practice of hiring from the outside the organization is like bringing in a grad student to ‘fix’ an indigenous culture. It hurts the organization in the long run because of the the ramp up time and cost to inculturate newcomers, and the cultural damage done in the interim.
The business structure has been reshaped by a Board of Directors which in itself is unhealthy — being unbalanced in skills, experience and conscience. A balanced Board would be diverse enough to guide an organization as multifaceted as Esalen. To be successful, the proposed business structures require everything to fit into box and be measurable. This model simply cannot be applied to a place such as Esalen because of its dualistic business-community nature and all its accompanying intangibles.
A failing model of direct income — per head, per bed — has been implemented. Land and facility restrictions, as well as the cost of a top
heavy management team, have doomed this model. The ancillary and unseen costs of this strategy are becoming more evident with the severe cultural casualties and development delays seen to date.
Until a year ago, the leadership did not actively pursue grant and donation income — funds which would have easily bridged the financial gap between corporate and community philosophies. Done properly and aggressively, grants and donations are the saving grace of any nonprofit. Indeed, most nonprofits require board members to procure substantial donation money as part of their duties. Esalen’s Board has fallen entirely short in this regard.
My first round of recommendations:
- Cut loose about half the management (Directors and their assistants)
- Empower departmental managers to do what it takes to stay in the black and make their departments thrive
- Establish a top to bottom, transparent communication system
- Cut loose the board members that aren’t pulling their weight and aren’t aligned with the heart of Esalen
- Find a new CEO — she’s a good person, but (like her predecessor) does not have the skill set or the right demeanor for the position
- Find a new Human Resources director/manager. That position is one of ensuring compliance with the law. This position should
never be in charge of hiring. Hiring is normally done at the departmental level. HR is only part of the checks and balances in a healthy organization. The current HR dept has a disproportionate amount influence over Esalen as a whole.
The Nine reply:
We take exception with the characterization of the Board as lacking diversity, although it may lack competence. The makeup of the Board is irrelevant in the face of the power of Chairman Sam Yau, whose iron endorsements by Founder Michael Murphy and President Gordon Wheeler tightly binds the hands of the other trustees.