Managing with Aloha – The Hawaiian Way

While in Hawaii, I had the great pleasure of coming across the work of Rosa Say, a workplace culture and leadership coach, author and speaker. Rosa brings a unique Hawaiian perspective to business and workplace focusing on core Hawaiian values which also have a universality and parallel with many indigenous cultures. Her beautiful and very practical book, “Managing with Aloha” brings these values to life and I feel privileged sharing this interview with Rosa,  with you.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself – your roots and cultural background?

I was born and raised in Hawaii, the oldest of 5 children: I was 5 years old when Hawaii became the 50th State of USA. Like many in the islands, I represent a melting pot of ancestry, and I’m Filipino, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese, yet I consider myself keiki o ka ‘aina (a child of the land) in my value system and prevailing habit, in that I’m completely a product of the islands’ sense of place. In our islands, the locals would call me Kama’aina; one who is native born and bred, but not of Hawaiian blood ancestry. “Of Hawaii” is who I am, in that it is all I know as a resident, other than a very short time when I lived in the Philippines as a teenager, but I’ve been fortunate to have traveled outside of the islands quite a bit – more than most residents do. Haven’t been to your islands yet though, and believe me, it’s near the top of my bucket list!

2. Can you tell us about the traditional Hawaiian culture and its value system?

Oh my, how do I answer that in a single paragraph! We all can trace our roots elsewhere, for even the ancestors of those of Hawaiian blood arrived in Hawaii via sailing canoe long ago, however our location gave us a unique Polynesian identity very quickly, as our islands arose on what would become the most remote inhabited spot on the earth. We’ve had a fascinating history, and in the snippet I’ve had the good fortune to live through, we became quite Westernized after Statehood, and then embarked on the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970’s starting with chant, music and dance. The exploration of our cultural identity has broadened and deepened ever since, yet the technological revolution has assured that our worldwide viewpoint remains a global and connected one, especially given our strategic military presence for America. In very general brushstrokes, our value system is largely about family and connection to the land, and it is very spiritual: Everyone here would likely say that Aloha is our primary value, and shared by everyone regardless of race or heritage.

3. What has been your journey leading you to the work you are doing now?

I started working in the restaurant business when I was 15. My dad was sent to the Vietnam War, and I had to contribute to our family income. I kept working through my schooling, grabbing hold of my first management job at 17 because being the one in charge seemed to make everything easier. When I graduated from college I was awarded an internship with Hyatt Corporation, and my hotel career began in earnest. I was a property opener for most of my career, eventually transitioning into resort residential development. I was a manager throughout it all, and so I became singularly focused on getting that thing we called “management” done well, and done better. For most of my career, ‘leadership’ was this buzzword in business-speak and I didn’t relate to it all that much, but I held great respect and admiration for effective managers, and I was lucky enough to work with several of them and have them mentor me. I’ve always been a great student, totally in love with study and with learning as my primary personal value, and once school was over I had the chance to set my own curriculum, starting with values-based management as my target. It became my passion.

4. How and where do you see the intersect of these values with business? How relevant are these values to modern business?

I don’t see any situation where values and business don’t intersect! In short, values are a kind of packaging of our beliefs and convictions, and we gravitate back to them constantly because we also believe they are inherently wise, and good for us. Thus values do two very important things for us: They define our Why – and about mostly everything we want to filter through them – and they give us a How-to we feel we can comfortably rely on: Values drive our behavior.

That question of relevance is exactly what I tackled when I outlined my book. Up to that point I had identified about 50 different values in the Hawaiian culture within my study and interviews with our elders, and I wanted to give managers a modern reference and resource to the values I felt could help them best fulfill our responsibility as managers: I chose 19 as the values I wrote about in Managing with Aloha. I don’t consider it a scholarly or historical book, but a practical and useful one.

5. How do you go about teaching and facilitating these values in the workplace?

I help in culture-building using values as the universal building blocks they are. My initial goal is to help managers understand their own values better than they do (theirs, not mine), so they can reckon with their own behavioral drivers first, and second, so they can better identify values in play in their workplaces as embodied by everyone else – the people who should be their partners. I’ve found that the most effective way of doing this is to get the language of values into their day-to-day work: I call this the MWA Language of Intention. Whatever we talk about most, is what we’ll tend to work on most – we have a naturally human need to honor our own good word, and get our verbal statements and commitments to become true: This is what that phrase “walking our talk” is all about. I push conversation constantly. Managers will say, “I talk to my people every day!” but that’s not what I hear from their people.

6. What is the typical feedback that you get from the clients you work with?

When I started coaching, I’d often hear, “I wish you were my manager.” because I was the only one speaking that Language of Intention people wanted to hear, and I had to learn to stop managing too much! As you know, we who coach need to actually coach ourselves out of a job: We have to coach others to be the great managers we leave behind us — they’ll be doing the work needing to be done. What I’d learned about values, as described in answering  question #4, helped me become a better coach by focusing my training for them on their Why (their culture’s value structure), while challenging the managers themselves to get the How-to done. There are some things I offer in my toolkit, which focus on vocabulary building, conversational agreement, and value alignment, such as the Daily 5 Minutes. So today, what I hear most often as feedback is that “You’ve connected the dots for us.” Very, very rewarding when I know the dots they refer to are their values, and how they’ll newly align them within the way they work.

7. What are your top 3 or 5 values which inform the work you do?

Aloha (unconditional love and acceptance) is my rootstock. Ho‘ohana (the value of worthwhile work) shapes my goals and coaching objectives. Alaka‘i (the value of management and leadership) is my passionate and still-constant study, and ‘Ike loa (the value of learning) is why I derive so much joy from what I do, and try to be creative in my efforts. Another value is one I call Hō‘imi which is about positive expectancy, and always seeking better and best so you can do your part in making it happen. There is beauty to be seen everywhere we look for it, and I’ve always been a hopeful optimist expecting to find it.

8. What gives you the most joy about life and living?

Family gets increasingly important to me as I get older, as do friendships (which I realize I’ve got to be better about participating in). I’ve always been one to thrive in my connections to those I knew depended on me: I liked the responsibility, and I think that made me a good manager. As my career transitioned into coaching I had to learn to let go a bit more – let the baby birds fly out of the nest so to speak! However we never let go of family, and so we begin to discover how they keep growing us no matter how much we feel we’ve aged. Those relationships are comfortable, yet they keep changing, and I’m enjoying that learning of new experiences. Outside of my work and my family, I love dabbling in the different creative arts that appeal to my tactile/visual nature. Photography and gardening are hobbies I enjoy.

9. What is your vision for workplace culture? Humanity?

We know we need work, needing it for all kinds of reasons, yet we underestimate it, or only consider it a means to an end. My vision is that work becomes a choice we thrive in, giving everyone the joy it can give them as sense of place, sense of belonging, and sense of purpose in life. Good work makes for a healthy and happy life, and great work is the stuff of legacy. I place my hope, and all my own work’s efforts in managers, because I believe managers matter – with Aloha as their driving force, Alaka‘i Managers can reinvent workplaces to offer that healthy, happy work humanity will thrive in.

Jasbindar Singh is a coaching psychologist working with managers and leaders to enhance their self awareness and leadership effectiveness. She is also accredited in the powerful Integrity and Values profiling tool to help her clients identify their strengths and trust blind spots.


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