In a Responsible Entrepreneur’s business, not all work is equal in importance or in financial or societal return. Some work has more chance of producing success and making bigger a difference. But for a busy entrepreneur, it’s hard to know which effort or what kind of work will make a significant contribution.

There are four levels of work, and you have to learn to do them all in parallel. And as you get better at them, to do them all at once. If you aren’t differentiating among them, you are just keeping busy and hoping for the best.

Foundation Level – Operations Work

Running effectively, making your customers happy and glad to pay for your offerings  

Far too many responsibly-minded entrepreneurs don’t even meet the conditions of foundational work. They aren’t creating the conditions for a growing business, and they may even be copying traditional business practices in their accounting, relationships with suppliers, and ways of generating customer loyalty. This does not serve customers well or provide what is needed for innovation.

Operational work begins long before you take up societal considerations. There are responsible and non-responsible practices in every realm of basic operations, from hiring and pay systems to planning and strategic thinking. Getting solid at the foundational level takes ongoing commitment and effort and requires that you examine every practice for contamination with non-responsible, traditional ways of operating. All this is for the sake of creating a good, solid business.

Market Level – Maintenance Work

Ensuring your relative competitive advantage in a dynamic market place and world

If you feel that you’ve got foundational level work under control, then the question becomes, how good are you at understanding the ways market dynamics affect your business? How do you position yourself not only for competitive effectiveness but also for changing times and conditions that threaten to take you far beyond your bailiwick? How do you avoid the traps of changing trends and crises in the market? And if you are subject to increasingly heavy regulatory guidelines, how do you make them a part of work and avoid hiring more full-time staff or contractors to handle the challenge?

It’s interesting how, when it comes to market-level work, many Responsible Entrepreneurs begin to act like traditional businesses. They hope their desire to do good will make up for one area of “business as usual”—but the old ways of thinking about competition can be very damaging to your business and your values. The Responsible Entrepreneur relies on managing principles that suggest when to compete, when to cooperate, when to collaborate, and when to change the game in the industry.

Social and Planetary Level – Systems Change Work

Making choices and acting in ways to create systemic effects

From the operations and marketing to systems change work is a quantum jump. If you aspire to become a Responsible Entrepreneur, you have to get really good on the first two levels and at the same time take on at least this next level up in terms of impact and platform. This involves learning to see how systems work and where the best nodes—“acupuncture points” where you can make important differences—are located, which also means learning to “image” patterns at work and make sense of them.

For example, you might need to ask yourself what makes community-building work and where in this regard your business is falling down. This is especially difficult if the community where your suppliers live and create is overseas. How do you engage in such a way that you actually make this community healthier, rather than simply avoid unfair trade practices?

Another example: How do you make buying and development choices for raw materials that are not just less harmful and in line with best practices. How might your choices actually improve the product, make the supplier’s business better, and even improve thinking about materials and their way of being sourced? This work requires asking totally different questions than the ones businesses usually ask.

You must take this work on yourself; you cannot trust it to third-party certifiers or consultants because they rarely have the skills needed for systems change. In the current business world, third parties are creating “best practices” to reduce damage and ameliorate harm, rather than working at the roots of systems to transform them.

Evolution Level – Regenerative Work

Developing the capacities of industries and greater whole systems to evolve and play their unique roles in healthy ecosystems

All systems are unique and each has an essence. Regenerative work involves learning to see the essence in all life, all systems, all beings—including customers, suppliers, “lifesheds” (rethinking the idea of watershed), communities and all entities the business touches.

Every system needs the capacity to evolve itself toward its own essence. This is where regenerative work focuses, on learning to see each of your customer classes not as commodities but as living beings with unique character and potential. Innovation took off at Seventh Generation when they shifted from treating their customers as environmentalists, which commoditized their reasons for buying, to seeing them as persons whose lives the company could contribute to evolving. They discovered essence groupings around “natural parenting” and found ways to serve parents who wanted everything in their children’s lives to be natural. No one was attending to that. Seventh Generation developed partnerships and did so very successfully. They also discovered “hyper-sensitives,” individuals with severe allergies to many of the ingredients in traditional cleaning products. This also led to new formulations that improved Seventh Generation product lines.

Knowing how to work at all levels is critical. If you want to know more about the series that teaches these capability, check it out here. And sign up to be kept up to date on the new independent learning products as they are revealed here.