Deb Nelson's first "aha" moment came as she stood on the pavement outside a Montreal restaurant, struggling to summon the courage to go inside.
Ms. Nelson, head of the Social Venture Network in San Francisco, didn't normally hesitate over mundane decisions such as where to eat. But this was different. This time, the executive was dressed in a janitor's uniform, a bag of cleaning products slung over her back following an evening spent scrubbing floors and wiping desktops at a nearby office.
Even as she stepped through the door, she worried the people inside would judge her, even reject her, because of her appearance. Then, it dawned on her. This was the lesson she'd been waiting for.
"That was such a humbling experience," she recalls. "I had to let go of my feelings that I don't belong here because I don't look right. I had to learn to relax, sit down and eat."
If it sounds odd, Ms. Nelson doesn't disagree. But, two years later, she maintains that the four days she spent as an unpaid employee of Montreal-based Zenith Cleaning was one of the most valuable in her career to date. And she's not alone.
Zenith Cleaning is quietly gaining a reputation among corporate leaders, particularly young and socially minded entrepreneurs, as the place to go to kick-start stalled creativity and reignite professional passion through the simple practice of cleaning.
Montreal resident Tolulope Ilesanmi, company founder and chief executive officer, believes cleaning is as much a spiritual service as a physical act. For the past two years, he has invited executives to tap into a deeper sense of purpose by coming to Montreal and working alongside his professional cleaning crews. Ms. Nelson was one of those pilgrims.
Corporate participants are issued uniforms, taught how to properly use the various cleaning tools and products and sent into homes and offices to vacuum, mop, dust and, if necessary, scrub toilets.
Cleaning, Mr. Ilesanmi said, "is about caring. It is about empathy. It forces you into the present moment. If you clean and you are not present, you will definitely do a bad job."
For years, Mr. Ilesanmi could hardly articulate to himself exactly what inspired him to start a cleaning service, never mind one with such an unusual agenda.
Many of his classmates at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management, from which he graduated with a master of business administration degree in 2005, had gone on to lucrative, high-powered careers in finance. It seemed only natural he would follow the same path given his professional background in banking.
He only knew that he liked to clean. "I thought it was very meditative and relaxing and therapeutic," he says.
It was only later that Mr. Ilesanmi was able to connect the unexpected career diversion to the sudden death of his younger brother, Gdenga. "That more or less rearranged my world," he says. "I think I would be in investment banking and doing something very normal but that experience made me unafraid to take risks. It made me realize that I don't want to spend my life doing anything where I think: This can't be the last thing that I ever did."
Practising mindfulness in the workplace is not a novel concept. Companies including Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and General Mills have all introduced programs and brought in speakers, including Buddhist monks, to increase productivity by helping employees find ways to reduce stress and quiet their minds.
Google considers mindfulness – that is, the practice of being aware of yourself and your surroundings – a pathway to developing strong leaders and actively encourages its employees to find ways to harness their potential through meditation, yoga and like practices.
Karl Moore, associate professor of strategy and leadership at Desautels in Montreal, said Mr. Ilesamni's company taps into that same notion, noting a growing desire among people, regardless of age or stature, to find deeper purpose beyond profit in their lives and their work.
The very nature of cleaning, an occupation many people do every day, both paid or unpaid, can also help ground corporate leaders and better connect them to their employees. "It's not humiliating. It's humbling," Dr. Moore says.
Mr. Ilesanmi further touches the business world by being a guest teacher at McGill's undergraduate business class yearly. He has spoken at a McGill MBA class event three times since graduating, as well as the Business Beyond Tomorrow conference jointly organized by McGill, Concordia and HEC Montréal.
He is also a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Spirituality Mind Body Institute in New York, and will be speaking this month at Columbia Business School seminar entitled, Career Success from the Inside Out.
The traditional side of the business employs a dozen cleaners and has more than 50 clients. To date, Mr. Ilesanmi has no paying participants for the "cleaning as practice" part of his business, but said that is the direction the company is moving. He is negotiating with two companies, including a construction company in the United States, who will pay a minimum of $500 a shift to Zenith for its staff members and executives to take part.
Julian Giacomelli, former CEO of Crudessence, a vegan restaurant chain in Montreal, has twice worked with Zenith Cleaning. His first stint, in 2012, lasted for three days. He liked the experience so much he signed up for another three days last summer.
It wasn't a spiritual awakening Mr. Giacomelli was after. Rather, he was drawn by the notion of immersing himself in physical labour that was so different from his daily work behind a desk.
He found the experience both tiresome and refreshing. Yet, he says, "The humility part is the most powerful. It's not about putting you in your place. For me, it is about remembering that all of the people who contribute to the organization are in some way vitally important to its success."
Ms. Nelson from San Francisco said her own experience was uncomfortable. At times, she felt like an outsider and, as a novice in the cleaning industry, found it difficult to accept she wasn't the expert in the room.
But there were also unexpected joys.
"It wasn't the moments when I was scrubbing their toilets," Ms. Nelson says. "But a mother opened her home to me and I got to meet her kids and look at the pictures of her family as I cleaned. I was surprised that I had such a strong feeling of connection, I would even say love, for that family.
"It was very bizarre and it was not something that I expected to feel, but it reminded me that we are all connected."