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Clearing time: The controversial tenets behind Lululemon

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson is famous for many things, one of them being his punctuality. According to the Vancouver-based billionaire, that trait is linked with integrity: Doing what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.

Wilson credits Landmark, a personal and professional growth and development company, as helping him understand the connection between integrity and business performance. And being late, according to Landmark proponents, means “being out of integrity.”

Here’s how Wilson explained it in a recent New York Times feature: What would happen if he were to arrive late to a design meeting? The designers might assume that it’s acceptable to deliver to the production department past deadline. Then the product would arrive late in stores, which could lead to items ending up on the clearance rack. Selling the product at a discount would result in less money to market the product and to put into its quality. Ultimately, there would be less profit. Everything would fall apart.

Punctuality is just one of Landmark’s principles that help form the philosophy behind both Lululemon and now Kit and Ace, a Vancouver-based luxury-clothing company run by his wife, Shannon, and his son JJ Wilson.

Based in San Francisco, Landmark had US$85 million in revenue last year. The Landmark Forum, which is a three-day $675 program, is the company’s flagship offering. It’s one that Kit and Ace offers to all its employees as a “gift”. Similarly at Lululemon, employees are said to be strongly encouraged to participate.

The organization has been frequently criticized online for its cult-like precepts as well as its blending of psychology and philosophy, selectively cribbing from P.T. Barnum, Dale Carnegie and Zen Buddhism, among others. Its proponents believe the teachings to be transformative.

Shannon Wilson first attended Landmark with Chip before the two got married several years ago; he turned to the program while running his previous company, Westbeach. JJ first went at 13 for a teens’ version. Shannon and JJ have done other Landmark programs since.

[Kit and Ace owners J.J. Wilson and Shannon Wilson pose in their flagship store in Vancouver. REUTERS/Ben Nelms]

“I’ve found it really had me looking at how I showed up in the world,” Shannon Wilson says in a joint phone interview with JJ. “It held a mirror to who I was being to other people in my family life and in my work life, and then when I did an advanced course I found it gave me the tools to put into practice how I wanted to show up in the world.”

“Being in choice”

She and JJ both say the program has helped them with “being in choice”. For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, Shannon explains, you can react with rage and carry that with you throughout your day, “or decide at that moment it’s not worth it, to move on and change your attitude. You have the choice of choosing in any moment how you want to see the situation. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth practising.”

In addition to providing common sense learnings, JJ says Landmark has also helped Kit and Ace with communication.

“We have a lot of different tools to communicate in a way that allows us to be aligned much quicker,” he says. “It allows us to move really fast, which is really great.”

How meetings should start

An example of one of those tools is something called “clearing”. If someone at work has to leave early because their child is sick or they have some other stress on their mind that may distract them at work, identifying and talking about it before zeroing in on a task helps clear the way for productivity, apparently.

“What are things going on in people’s lives… that may get in the way of them being meaningfully present?” JJ says. “At the beginning of any meeting we ask if there are any clearings. Is there anything that’s holding someone back from clearly understanding what we’re talking about or from having their contribution to the project or a deliverable compromised? It’s about making sure we’re all on the same page for communication.”

Shannon adds: “It’s a tool for clear communication without allowing misinterpretations or emotions to get in the way. It’s so critical.”

So is being on time. “Time is precious,” Shannon says. “Time is precious for everybody; we recognize time as being an individual’s most precious commodity. If they’re going to invest their time being in our shop or experiencing our products we want to make sure everything we do values their time. We consider that in the design of our shops, how people move through our space, how we design our products—with preshrinking and you can put everything in the washing machine so you’re not running to the drycleaners—we value their time.”

Mother Teresa for execs?

Landmark has its detractors. Some have called it cultlike. Karin Badt, a writer who attended and wrote about it for the in Huffington Post discussed how participants were urged to sell the program to their friends, calling the methods used “brainwashing” and also using the word “manipulation”. She found that participants, who are pushed to have emotional breakthroughs (often in the form of breakdowns) lacked critical thinking and note that the leader compared herself to Mother Teresa.

Now marking its 25th year, Landmark offers programs “designed to enable people and empower them in living extraordinary lives,” says the company’s director of public relations, Deborah Beroset. “Our programs are designed to have them [people] look at what’s important to them as individuals… People locate blind spots in their lives.”

Landmarks’ teachings can help improve communication, diminish drama, and enhance relationships, she says. People are said to identify beliefs, often self-defeating ones, that may go way back to childhood and overcome them.

“It’s about people getting clear about what is important to them,” Beroset says. “Whether you’re a CEO, whether you’re an entrepreneur, whether you’re a cashier in a fast food restaurant and everything in between, if you don’t have a commitment that’s clear to you you’re just going through the motions….This is about the examination of the nature of what it is to be a human being, and when you get mechanics of that then you have a major breakthrough in your power and effectiveness.”