"If you can create a sense of community in your business and work, you have a winner." - Claude Chouinard
Leading your people and learning to let go with Claude Chouinard
Claude Chouinard | Co-Founder Zen Jiwa Raga
In 1992, Claude Chouinard, a French Canadian, found himself embarking on an unconventional and spiritual journey that eventually led him to Indonesia, a country that he is most passionate about, and at the turn of the millennium, he ended his voyage of eight years of travelling and established himself in Ubud, Bali. It is on the sacred island that Claude and his partner of eighteen years, Iyan Yaspriyana, have been building their successful wellness ‘empire’, Zen Jiwa Raga (meaning Zen, body and soul), a hospitality consulting company. Zen is the parent company of Oneworld Retreats, among others. I’ve visited Oneworld twice for retreats over the last few years and I recently shared an afternoon with Claude, discussing his heart-led approach to management and business, learning how to let go in order to grow, and one of his influencers, Richard Branson.
Based on my experience and interactions with you and your staff, the way your staff are with me, and the general feeling of your business, I can feel that there is a lot of heart and soul within your business. Can you tell me how you create that?
I guess, it’s not how I create it within my business, but it’s how it’s unfolding. I have been in Indonesia for the last 24 years and in Bali for 19, I studied the country and understand its people. The strength of Bali is the sense of community and family. If you can create a sense of community in your business and develop a similar culture, you have a winner.
My nickname that was given to me in the 90s is Pak de, which means the uncle that is older than your father. It is a respectful nickname and for me it was a gift, but at the time I didn’t know what would happen with that name. Now, when new staff come in and hear that my name is Pak de, it has a relative connotation - it’s not a boss, it’s closer than that. It’s the uncle that you can trust, that you can share things with, I think this is part of the secret [of management]. It’s the respect also, I have a lot of respect for my people. I understand very well that if they aren’t here then I am not here. I don’t want to feel like I am above them, I want to feel that I am in the centre. My people gravitate around me, not under me.
"I have a lot of respect for my people. I understand very well that if they are not here, then I am not here."
How do you create that respect and the feeling of being in amongst everybody?
When I start a new business, I am there full time. Here, with Oneworld I was here for a year and a half, living and breathing the place, teaching and training the people. In my mind, that’s probably the only legacy I will leave on this planet, my knowledge. Here we work in hospitality, and I have always been a good host - I have always enjoyed hosting big parties and conventions. Bringing people together is something that I love doing, and that is what I teach my to my team.
Here, you are in Bali, you are not in London, it is much easier if you respect their traditions. The Balinese are very grounded spiritually, so when possible, we do meditation and yoga together. I encourage them to do that, for example at Oneworld Ayurveda they do yoga every Sunday. My tribe understand that participants are guests, they understand the meaning of retreat, which has two meanings. So it is a retreat, and re-treat. We are here to treat people and we treat them well. Always, whenever my staff have a decision to make, they think will that please one of our guests five senses or will that bother one of their five senses.
How do you instil this concept of the five senses in your staff and management?
We have a short animated video all about the five senses and giving, which we had done by a young Javanese woman. It’s easy to understand, and it is fun. When we have new staff, it’s quite easy, because they get into the ambiance. We don’t really have any staff turnover - when staff leave it’s because they are going to work on a ship or going abroad, which I encourage. They know that whenever they come back they will have a job with us.
“At one point you have to accept that two plus two equals four and one plus three equals four. You reach the same goal, but in a different way.”
Now that you have over 300 people in your business, how does everything run so smoothly when you can’t be everywhere at once?
I always look at one of my idols, Richard Branson. He has 400 companies and more than 70,000 staff, and he’s not there all of the time, he’s not everywhere. So it’s a matter of trusting, and finding the right people at higher level management. It is difficult when it’s a company that you’ve built yourself, and I’m sure Richard has gone through the same thing with Virgin to start with, when he let go of the management. For me he is a mentor, in a way. I don’t need to be a billionaire, yet have a lot of respect for what he is doing. At one point you have to accept that two plus two equals four and one plus three equals four. You reach the same goal, but in a different way.
What was it like for you when you had to start letting go of the reigns at Oneworld?
It was very difficult for me, I had to go through hell. My assistant, Ulla, went through hell with it as well. It was me, I was unable to let go, it was causing conflict. I was holding onto my business like it was my baby and not allowing another mother to come in and help. In the end I had to remember that helping is exactly what I had hired Ulla to do. I was very picky, all about the details.
There was one time that I’ll never forget when Ulla and I were both sitting at each end of the conference table and we were looking at each other and we both started crying. The pressure had become so high. We had known each other for years so straight away we talked and laughed, hugged and cried. At this point I understood that the business could not go on like this.
What impact did this experience have on you, not letting go?
It was the most stressful time. I was checking everything, checking every bar on every t and every dot on every i, it was a test. It was a test, we are always being tested in life, and this was one of those times, the impact was growth, once I was able to let go, then I had time to focus on more important issues, the growth of our company.
And did your management team make mistakes when you started to let go?
Yes! Of course they did! But whenever they did, we discussed their mistake. The first five months of letting go and accepting help were the most intense. Part of my work is knowing how not to get upset. It’s when you get upset that things go wrong. Instead of getting upset, I try to choose to discuss things. Here in Bali, people don’t yell. It’s more civilised than in the West. But even here in Bali, there is pressure, and sometimes I feel like I need to get upset to get my point across. When I notice myself getting upset, I ask myself, “Do I really have to get upset?”.
What values underpin the way you lead your business and your people?
Faith - in myself, in others and mainly faith in the magic of this life. I’m a believer, I believe that there is a greater power, and I am a part of that greater power. I’m not out of this power, I am in it and I am a part of it. All I need to do is connect with the power and I do that a lot through mediation.
For my people, I value their knowledge and their desire to grow. To me their growth is very important.
Can I ask you, what keeps you up at night?
Right now? Jet lag [laughs]. No, I sleep well. If I am going through times where my mind wants to spin, I will listen to Eckhart Tolle and Jason whats his name, and their voice puts me to sleep.
What do you do that is essential things that you need to do to take care of yourself?
Every now and then I need to leave the Island, I need to go and travel to reconnect with my own world. Bali is so beautiful and I love it, but it is not my island. I was not born here, I respect the culture but I am not Balinese and I will never be, so sometimes I need to leave. I will go to Singapore, Hong Kong for a weekend, or Australia or Europe. Recently, Iyan and I left for two months. The internet has made the world a lot smaller, so we’re always available and contactable. I need to take time for walking the dogs, meditation and yoga although I haven’t been practicing yoga enough. Once a year, in February, I do a 28 day Panchakarma to reset my body.
I know you also enjoy your wine and good food; would you say you have a very balanced lifestyle?
Oh yes, and I like my bread and my cheese and I love chocolate. One of my problems is that I am too much in front of my computer screen but that is what my work needs me to do. My staff are all in different locations, so I need to spend a lot of time on the computer in meetings and communicating with them. Vive la nouvelle technologie.
“You need to let go of the reins when you start to become the product.'“
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a new leader or to an entrepreneur who is running a business that is starting to become successful?
Keep the lead and hold the reins tight to start with. You need to be very aware of what is happening in your business. You cannot be nonchalant and think that it is just going to work. You need to be ready to work many long hours, I don’t think it is possible to do it any other way.
You need to let go of the reins when you start to become the product. For example, I could be here at Oneworld all of the time, but if I’m not here people say, “oh Claude is not here, it’s not the same”. I made a point of being here in the beginning, and it was the same with Bridges (one of the most well-known fine dining restaurants in Bali). When I opened Bridges people would say, “You’re crazy going into the restaurant business” and “You will have to be there all the time”. I would say, “I’m not the chef, I’m the manager”. At one point we received a comment on TripAdvisor saying, “Claude is great, he is there, where an owner should be”. This was the point for me when I was becoming the product, so I knew I had to start stepping away.
How can you avoid becoming the product within your business?
The only way to not become your product is to duplicate or clone yourself with your people! At one point, a long time ago, Iyan said to me, “You’re the boss. You need to be like a spider. You are the spider and you have many legs. It’s not you, it’s the legs that make things move.” The legs are my management team.
I have a friend who owns a restaurant and never takes a holiday. I ask him if he is afraid that no one else can make a good pizza. He says he cannot afford to have anyone come in and mess it up. With this approach he will be there until he dies, or until he sells the business. He’s become a prisoner of his own business, stuck, and he can’t let go! I think it is important to set up your business so that the profit margins allow you to hire people to work for you so that you can take time off.
I said years ago that if anything, in Bali, we need to invest in human resources. Our team are very young, they are all gung ho and ready to learn. They know all the gadgets and technology - they were raised with it. I was not, I am 61. I try to stay open to learning about technology from them, but I don’t need to know everything. I only want to know enough to understand it. It’s their job to follow what is happening on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s always changing. I have one staff that tries to keep up to date with Google. Any news, she knows what’s happening. I always employ people who know more than me as much as possible, it is fantastic!
Do you think you would have answered these questions the same 30 years ago?
No, no no. That is one of the advantages of aging! You learn how to let go of things and slowly, you become wiser in your decision making.
Would you say that you don’t let the ego get in the way too much?
Well, the ego is like the brain, right? It thinks and then the soul has to try to control the whole thing. The ego is part of the form, the soul is what gets you to overlook the ego and have compassion for other people and for yourself. The ego will always be there. It will be gone only when you die. Maybe it goes away when you become a monk in a cave. I’ve lived with monks and in ashrams and I understand the whole principle, but I am not there yet. Maybe in another life. Once you understand how to connect with your soul all of a sudden it’s not very difficult, when you believe in it. For me, believing is everything - it’s be and live.
Zen Jiwa Raga is a hospitality consulting enterprise and the parent company of Oneworld Retreats, Bridges Restaurant Bali, One World Retreats, Bali Botanica Day Spa and One World Ayurveda. Learn more about Claude and Iyan and the beautiful experiences they create at www.zenjiwaraga.co.id and oneworldretreats.com