Integral For the Masses: Integral Leadership: Living Life at the Spear Tip of Evolution, An Interview with Robb Smith, CEO Integral Institute

Keith Bellamy

Robb Smith

Keith BellamyAt the tender age of eight years old, Robb Smith had already started to build a portfolio of stocks and shares. Born in the 1970s and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area he was just doing what all the other kids were doing at the time. This was the time of the “Barbarians at the Gate,” “Gordon Gekko,” and, of course, his immortal mantra, “Greed is good!” Psychologist Jean M. Twinge has coined the terms “Generation Me” and “i-Gen” to describe these narcissistic offspring of their narcissistic Baby-Boomer parents. This is the generation that believes it can achieve anything and is entitled to everything.

Yet as the young Robb Smith scanned the markets to decide on his next trade, he knew that there was more to life than just making money. Deep down in his heart of hearts he knew that there had to be something else, even if he had no idea what that something else might be. In this respect Robb Smith was different from many of his generation. And it is this difference, perhaps, that has led him on a path to what may be the most exciting, yet challenging phase of his still relatively short life. At the beginning of March 2007, Robb took on the mantle of Chief Executive Officer of the Integral Institute in Boulder Colorado.

By the age of 18 Robb remembers thinking to himself, “ I have this seriously materialistic bent.” He recognized that the behaviors that were emerging from this facet of his character would probably not serve him well for the future. Today, as he muses on his late teens, he acknowledges that, “ this materialistic bent was where much of my shadow material came from.” Not that he had that much time to consider such deep and esoteric issues at the time. He was too busy mapping his life out: a good school, followed by a job on Wall Street and then who knows what might arise out of the riches that he would generate?

But in the vein of life being what happens whilst you make plans to do something else, Robb hadn’t taken into account the yearnings of his heart. Four months before he was due to graduate, he fell in love with a girl who was moving with her parents to Carson City, Nevada. Without batting an eyelid, he leapt into his car and followed her out into the desert. Calling the University of Nevada on the way, he asked if they had a place for him? One look at his academic record and the seeds of a second love affair were sewn for Robb, this time with the State of Nevada.

Demonstrating that this romantic streak has not been quashed over the years, Robb almost sighs wistfully as he describes his relationship with the State that has been his home and source of prosperity and growth for more than a decade. In his words, “ I heard once, that it is really hard to love something that doesn’t have a flaw. It is always the flaws that make us love things the most. I would say that Nevada is a little bit like that for me. It’s a wonderful place, and yet it’s got these flaws that make it wonderfully lovable for me.”

The pull of the Nevada Desert can be seen by the fact that on completion of his education, Robb chose not to reactivate his original plans and move to the concrete jungle of New York, or even back to Silicon Valley to seek fame and fortune. Instead he looked around and asked, “ The whole culture here, the social ethic here is so much different to what I came out of in the Bay Area. Why can’t I help bring some of that innovation, some of that innovation mindset, some of that entrepreneurialism to Nevada?”

He concluded that there was no reason why he couldn’t change this part of the world that he had fallen in love with. With his partner, Chris Howard, he established the first Venture Capital company in the State of Nevada. As he reflects back on that move Robb modestly adds, “ We founded the Private Equity Industry here and got an order of magnitude more Private Equity here into the State than had been delivered in the previous 20 years.” By the traditional metrics of the industry in which he chose to operate his company Nevada Ventures has been successful and Robb has been recognised by the State on numerous occasions for his contribution towards building socio-economic wealth in the region.

For ten years Robb was intimately involved with a wide range of companies providing capital and expertise. Succeeding in some areas, failing in a bunch of others he started to reconcile the dichotomy that he had first detected in his childhood. It was possible to make money and do something good and beneficial at the same time. The two were not mutually exclusive and when they were wed to one another they provided a recipe for fun—and fun was what Robb was having.

Don’t make any mistakes; it was hard work, and the romantic Robb was never going to be any pushover for every crazy “get rich quick scheme” that came across his desk. A visit to his web site gives some glimpses of the solid titanium core that drives his focus when starting a new business and investing his investors’ money. It’s about people, but it is also about discipline, focus and execution. When Robb commits, he expects to roll up his sleeves and get stuck into the dirt of execution. He knows no other formula for making a start-up a success.

It was just one such venture that led Robb down his personal road to Damascus. As he describes it, “ I was doing a turnaround of a very hard, damaged company back in 2003. I got to the point where I had taken so much on my plate, that fundamentally what happened is my ego just collapsed.” The stress of attempting to rescue this venture left him walking around in a complete daze. He had no idea what happened to him, but was aware that he had experienced something really profound. He continues, “ I went from a position of complete manic stress all the time, and not getting much sleep, to a position where I felt completely at peace.

In an attempt to understand what had happened, he started researching and investigating a number of different knowledge paths. A keen interest in philosophy welled up, and he started a graduate degree in the subject. It wasn’t until many months later and a lot of research and exploration into various cultures and traditions that Robb came to the conclusion that he had experienced a Kensho, the Zen Buddhist process of initial enlightenment.

During this exploratory period, Robb was visiting his grandmother in Washington. He found that in every bookshop that he entered, there was a poster of the bald headed one “staring” back at him. His immediate thought was, “ How can he call his book, ‘a brief history of everything?’” He loved the audaciousness of the title and immediately dove into the Ken Wilber’s take on Integral Theory. What he really loved most of all was that Wilber gave him something that nobody else did—a framework onto which he could hang all of his experiences and realize that they were not contradictory, just reflections of the AQAL model at play.

It wasn’t until October 2006 that Robb, the Integral Institute and Ken Wilber intersected on a physical plane. In the meantime, Robb had been looking to introduce the Integral model into his personal domain of expertise. Specifically, he had been drawing up plans to build a nationwide chain of Integral Health Centers. His desire was to solve the “last mile” problem for Integral—to create the Integral equivalent of Starbucks, a place where individuals could practice the model in a “hands on” way close to their own homes. In his vision, “ it would encourage frequency of practice and give depth of face-to-face interaction, but supported by a cognitive map.”

When the call for a “Turquoise CEO” went out from Boulder in late fall 2006, Robb decided to throw his hat in the ring. The same invisible force that drew him to the desert of Nevada was now drawing him to the Mountains of Colorado. Being a successful partner in the State’s premier Private Equity Firm wasn’t enough to make him think twice; neither was the fact that his wife had just fallen pregnant with his first child enough to make him miss a blink. The need to reconcile his material bent with the desire to make a real difference sent him to Boulder to meet with the Institute and the man who had made a real difference in his life, Ken Wilber.

What he saw when he got there didn’t really surprise him at all. Integral Institute was just like the many dozens of early stage Enterprises that Robb had been working with for more than a decade. As he says, “ There is not something that Integral Institute has done or gone through that I have not seen as a director of a company that has gone through the exact same thing itself. There is just nothing new here!”

Having been through so many start-ups in his career, Robb sees this as good news. He continues, “ It means that what we are going through is not atypical and the solutions tend to be pretty typical as well. Get the right people. Get the right Business Model. Get the right support. And do it with great intention, and what you can achieve is really profound.

One of the major challenges that he sees ahead for the Integral Institute is to cut a swath through the confusion that surrounds it and the expectations that the extended Integral Community have of the Institute. As he puts it, “ IIneeds to be open-minded with complexity and close-minded with chaos!” He sees emergent complexity being part of the natural process through which Integral will evolve and expects Integral Institute to play a critical role, sometimes at the center and sometimes on the periphery. However, when that complexity turns to chaos and becomes dysfunctional or ineffective he is prepared to walk away from it.

Integral Institute will be responsible for planting the seeds that allow a thousand flowers to bloom. However, Robb is not so naïve as to believe all of them will turn into prize-winning successes. In fact, he sets the bar quite low and wants to ensure that everybody in Boulder is totally focused on the ten or so successes that do emerge. The worst thing that could happen would be to allow the other 990 failures to drag the whole Enterprise down.

As part of his courtship with Integral Institute, Robb proposed that he take on the role of CEO on a provisional basis for three months. There were two reasons for this; the first was to see if there was a chemistry between the two parties that augured well for the future. The second was to see if the folks at II were ready to knuckle down and take on the hard work that he knew lay ahead if II was to become the world-class organization that everybody believed was its destiny. By the end of February 2007 the conclusion of all interested parties was that the chemistry worked and the desire to work hard was to be found in abundance.

Not that Robb didn’t take his interim role seriously; he set about building the team of senior executives that he believed were needed to move Integral Institute forward. At the time of our talking, he had already recruited four “heavyweight” executives to take on critical roles. Liz Davis has joined as Vice President of Human Resources, having performed the function in the Private Equity sector and for a number of Fortune 500 companies. Joel Jewitt has taken on the role of Interim Vice President of Business Development. Joel has a track record of developing start-up businesses, being the fourth employee at Palm Computing and having recently sold his last venture, Good Technology, to Motorola.

David Riordon has joined the Institute as Vice President of Media and is taking responsibility for the new narrative that is being developed. With a long and distinguished track record in TV, Movie, Music and Game production, David is a former Creative Director at Disney Interactive and Vice President for Time Warner Interactive. Finally, Robb has recently announced the appointment of Kees Steeneken as Chief Technology Officer. Having been responsible for creating the technology platforms for DirecTV in Japan and XM Satellite Radio in the US, Kees is looking to work his magic on the Integral Institute’s technical infrastructure.

Robb feels that his experience in the Venture Capital and Private Equity sectors has positioned him well in recruiting talented individuals into a wide array of organizations. He admits, however, that the challenge at II was much harder than with the traditional companies that he has had to recruit for in the past. As he puts it, “ You are looking for a one in a hundred kind of person—somebody who is very functionally qualified and, at least as it relates to my experience in the venture business, you are also looking for somebody who has what I call ‘Emotional Zen’.” This was not some flight of fancy or manifestation of obsessive compulsiveness as he continues, “ In the places where we have lost money, it has always come down to some problem that was not cognitive in nature. It was not a cognitive altitude problem; it was either an emotional altitude issue, or a spiritual altitude issue. It was an issue of greed, an issue of something that went on and ultimately made the company fail.

At Integral Institute the challenge was compounded by the fact that the individuals that Robb was seeking had to be, as he describes it, “ stably coming into 2nd tier, or is at 2nd tier in order to build the team that we wanted.” The odds went from one in a hundred to one in three or even four hundred, as the number of people who combined both the aptitude and altitude that was being sought are very scarce.

Whilst tools like the sentence completion test developed by Suzanne Cooke-Greuter form an important part of his armory, Robb has developed a ‘litmus test’ of his own that he tends to use to filter out potential candidates for more detailed examination. Whilst accepting that it may not be the best test, Robb believes that those who are stably settled in second tier or above are hard to offend. During the interview process, he attempts to push around the edges of the individual’s self-identification system. Those that take offense at his probing do not make it to the second round.

Robb is acutely aware that bringing new talent into an existing environment is fraught with difficulties, but in his mind there is no alternative and little time to waste. He is emphatic when he says, “ We’ve got to build a world-class management team. We have to have world-leading people at every stage of this thing. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everybody in the organization, because they get to learn from some of the best people out there.” Clearly, the arrival of the new talent is being presented as an opportunity rather than a threat to existing II staff, and Robb believes that message is going down extremely well.

Interestingly, when it comes to assessing the impact of his own input to this emerging world-class management team, he is extremely low key. “ I don’t think I am particularly talented,” he says with sincerity. He then goes on to describe the strengths that he has developed over the years. “ I have an ability to face reality and test it constantly.” He continues, “ I have a willingness to be very candid about it, for better or for worse.” In the same vein he persists, “ And on my best days I am reasonably good at picking talent. It will be interesting to see if those talents serve the Integral Institute five years from now. But that’s another part about being able to face reality and test it. If I don’t think I am the right person then I know how to move myself out.

When asked whether any outside interests will impinge upon his role as CEO, Robb emphatically responds, “ This will be my full time job; it is my full-time job today. I still have a few board obligations, which are just obligations and I’ll continue to serve those. I will not be doing any new investments in the Private Equity business. This is more than a full time job!” He goes on to add, “ This kind of role is going to have to be done on the ground, and so I will be moving to Boulder. The big question, of course, is when? I have a newborn coming in a month, so picking up and leaving in the middle of that activity is pretty tough. It may be some time before I make the final move, but I do have a place in Boulder and I have been commuting back and forth.” Although he lets his guard down a little when he says, “ I’m there every other week. A week on, a week off in Boulder and the off weeks I’m just working from my real office.” As if he still doesn’t fully realize that this is now his reality.

He feels that the reaction to him personally has been reasonably favourable. His experience in the Private Equity Sector has taught him the power of humility. When everybody around you is high on his or her own self-importance, being humble can make a great deal of difference. Not that he is suggesting that the staff at II is on an ego trip, just that he is finding humility a great approach to getting things done and been has stressing it a great deal when he is at the Institute. Although he is quick to add, “ I’m humble on my good days and a pain in the ass on my bad ones.” Which is just another dimension of his humility playing out.

As he describes it, “ We have this great blessing and great privilege to be able to work in this environment. I think at the end of the day we have a real responsibility to be very humble about what we are trying to do. To do it as well as we can and to recognize, at the end of the day, the only judgment that matters is the one from the community that says here’s what you guys have accomplished, what you guys have done, not what we think we have done.

Robb is very aware that Integral Institute has a record of being long on promise and short on delivery. He doesn’t want to get into an analysis of why this happened, as he does not believe that it serves the Institute moving forward. What he is certain of is that under his stewardship, things will be different. In his experience, “ Don’t tell people a lot about what you are going to do, because the best outcome is that you meet their expectation, the worst is you don’t. So there’s not a lot of upside.” His view is, “ Not to get people all worked up about representations and promises about what we are going to do or what we are going to become. Frankly those are all future projections that are irrelevant anyway.

He has developed his own Integral Institute Bodhisattva Vow: “ Delight our audience members; figure out how we can best serve them. Just get deep down into the dirt of service and execute!” At a tactical level he recognizes that there is nothing more important than executing and delivering. At a strategic level this is so much more difficult because the Integral framework is so broad and relevant to so many different areas. However, Robb is convinced that without the solid tactical foundations that he is putting in place, the strategic aspirations are just pipe dreams.

Possibly the most controversial plank of his plans is the replacement of the technological platform that underpins Integral Institute’s offerings in the marketplace today. He declares, “ Until we have a technology infrastructure in place, which allows for the broad, global distribution of what is today one of our primary assets, content; then we really don’t have any degrees of freedom around any other area that we touch!” He goes on to elaborate, “ I don’t care if it is events, trying to fill a room with a thousand people; whether it is a new book, trying to sell it to 100,000 people; whether it is a consulting arrangement where we want to help a partner start consulting with a lot of people. Until you have that technology framework with a wide reach and broad distribution capability I don’t think you have anything.

His focus since he first sat in the CEO’s chair in Boulder has been to build the team that is up to the challenge of establishing the technology platform that will make everything else possible. When asked whether this means developing a new engine to go under the covers of the existing Multiplex, his response is even more startling, “ If we do our job correctly, most people in two years will not have heard of the Multiplex! We will have a completely new site; a new invitation to people who have not read Ken; a new narrative.” In his analysis, gaining access to the offerings of the Integral Institute is, in his words, “ It’s a Steep Climb. You have to basically read a book, one of Ken’s books, before you have any sense of what’s going on, on our website.

“ How does my mother use Integral? That’s the question I want to have answere!” He muses, “ how do we get that bridge narrative so that my mother in a two or three minute online Flash presentation can get a slight State glimpse of ‘Wow! Look at this. This looks really neat, really useful. I see how it is relevant’.” As one listens to the passion in his voice it is clear that Robb Smith is a man on a mission, he will not be content to continue to peddle Integral to the elite and well informed, he is seeking a much wider audience for the greater good of the world.

But the new technology portal is just one leg of the three leg stool that he believes needs to be built. The other two legs are the continuance of II as a recognised thought leader and the establishment and nurturing of the Integral Community. Doing research, publishing journals such as AQAL, working with large consulting firms to make a difference, and building the opportunity for individuals and groups to experience deep face-to-face Integral in their own neighborhoods are all on the radar screen. However, these are all dependent upon establishing the platform that will enable them to come into being.

Whilst Robb recognizes that his primary focus is to get the basics in place, letting go of ten years in Venture Capital/Private Equity sector is not going to happen over-night, if at all. In his occasional quieter moments, which are few and far between, he ponders the creation of an Integral Investment Fund. Raising between $200M and $400M he could see the Integral Institute planting seeds around the Integral Universe. As he says, “ I think you could probably fund 50 deals at $8M apiece and say, ‘some of them are going to ‘knock it out of the park,’ and some of them are going to fail, and some of them will be mediocre’.

He has also given some thoughts to the philanthropic dimension of II. Without hesitation he asserts, “ We should have the ownership of a whole new category of philanthropy called ‘Moral Growth’.” He goes on to explain, “ It’s not specifically addressing famine; its not specifically addressing war; its not specifically addressing health crises. What it is addressing is the delimiting altitude, which is failing to solve every one of those other issues around the globe.” He is convinced that AQAL is the model that will raise the level of consciousness out of the mire that created the other problems and that Integral Institute should be at the vanguard of that transformation.

When asked about how he would like his success to be measured in the future, he immediately reconnects to the humility that he is stressing should be adopted across II. One gets the sense that this humility comes from a sincere place that reflects a partial reconciliation and resolution of the paradox that he identified as an eight year old in the Bay Area. If he has his way, success will not be credited to him, instead he believes that, “People will credit what the whole team has done; what the Integral Institute has done. That it has given them a vehicle for more fully co-creating their own sense of the integral unfolding.” By people, Robb is referring to his mother and the millions like her who will come to a better life through the efforts that his team are undertaking today.

His hope is that, “ the real compulsion to co-create has been enabled in a great way by this community that I am a part of. I really feel that I have a loyalty, that this community has made meaning for me.” He further wishes that this will be achieved and recognised as coming from, “ Excellent execution with really openhearted intention.

Talking with Robb Smith it is clear that much as he might protest, he is a man of many talents, vision and integrity. Trying to distil his essence of what is Integral Leadership is not something that he is particularly comfortable with today, probably because he is still on a steep learning curve of discovering what it means to be an Integral Leader. In a nutshell, he describes Integral Leadership as, “ Bringing out the humanity in the organization.

Being an Integral leader is not in his opinion about being an encyclopedia of answers to every question that might be asked. For Robb it is about, “Being a living example, courageously at times, of the ideal of the group such that it is willing to follow the leader’s vision.” Moving up the chain of caring and compassion necessitates that leaders become more adequate and more expansive than at their lower levels.

One thing that he has discovered in the Integral Community at large is that, “ there seems to be a tendency to confuse second tier and first tier a lot. In this sense: I don’t think good intentions and bad execution are Integral! I know that sounds really simplistic and doesn’t even need to be said. It strikes me, that sometimes, as I’ve learnt more about how people are really executing Integral, that they kind of skip right past conventional.” In his opinion, “ The liberating freedom of the Integral Organization is that humanity is not hidden. It’s not covered up; it’s not repressed in any way. It’s allowed; it’s fostered; it’s celebrated. At times it’s mitigated, but it is never disassociated. I don’t think its all roses, but there’s something about an Integral Organization that’s compelling and inspired. As one of my mentors used to say, ‘I’d rather have a mule that I have to kick in the balls to slow down than one that I have to kick in the ass to get going.’

As he thinks about the Integral Institute he comes to the conclusion, “ We don’t have a get going problem.

Leaders from all of the great traditions have gone to the desert to seek inspiration and ultimately came back with the wisdom and insights needed to create the institutions that affect the lives of the majority of the planet’s population. Robb Smith has returned from his desert with vision, passion, and understanding as to what is needed to establish the Integral Institute as a future pillar of society. Under his compassionate and humble leadership will the days of “stop-start” at the Integral Institute finally be over?

With little more than 100 days in post, it is too soon to tell. Yet talking with Robb Smith has given this slightly jaded observer of the Boulder compound an increased sense of the potential for success. May it come speedily in our days!