Some people derive their vicarious reading satisfactions from cookbooks, car or guitar magazines. For me, it’s the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and the Financial Post Business magazines, or spending a rainy afternoon with a book by Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Guy Kawasaki, or James March.
Much of my time over the past twenty years has been spent in conversations about business—over coffee after a church service, at a workshop presented by the Work Research Foundation, or sometimes in conversations brought about by the Christian Labour Association of Canada.
From these conversations and the leading edge business literature I devour, I can perhaps distill three questions that seem to be raised regularly by thoughtful business people.
1. Why start or join a business?
A friend and colleague of mine recently started as a student in an MBA programme and was amused by the treatment in the first lecture of the programme of the question, Why study for an MBA? The professor assured the students that the point of an MBA is to earn more money, with which you can shop more.
Now, I will not scoff at the importance of money—I’m reminded of its importance every month that my beloved Angela and I try to plan our household economy and our children’s futures. But that said, I find the mere pursuit of money uninspiring as a purpose for work and in life. I know I’m not alone in this regard.
I am convinced that the epidemic of stress and fatigue plaguing North American workers has less to do with poor balance between work, play and rest than with a lack of more significant purpose to the work that we do. Truly meaningful work must grow authentically out of who we are, and out of our deepest loves. At the same time, truly meaningful work must respond skillfully and imaginatively to the needs of people around us, for goods and services.
Christians who find themselves drawn to work in business sometimes fear that their work is somehow less significant, and less authentically expressive of the Christian faith, than work in the church or for charitable organizations. If we want honest and inspiring answers to the question Why start or join a business?, we need a discussion that neither reduces the purpose of work to earning money, nor denies the significance of working in business.
2. How should I handle money?
If we do not start or join businesses for the sake of the money, does that mean that the money does not matter? Hardly! Managing money is a considerable challenge, whether we are trying to take care of the needs in a single household or overseeing the activities of a global corporation.
A helpful basic insight into the proper place of money in the operations of a business comes from Peter Drucker, whom I recall as writing somewhere that profit is to a business as breath is to a person. A person cannot live without breathing, but no-one lives for the purpose of breathing. Similarly, a business cannot exist without making a profit, but does not exist for the purpose of making a profit. Profit is a means to an end, in particular, to enable a business to grow and to innovate.
If money is not our master but our servant, then we must learn to put it to good use, to manage it frugally, and to give of it generously when we have more than we need. But again, the question of money is not answered simply or easily—mastering the art of money management requires both book learning and experience in the school of hard knocks.
3. How should I relate to my employees?
Most of the business people I talk with don’t entertain the dangerous notion that the employees of a business simply constitute human resources or human capital, or an abstract factor of production. Tomorrow’s business leaders need to deeply understand that labour is not a commodity, and that employees are people, not things.
A close friend lost his grandfather recently. At the funeral eulogies were given by several of the grandfather’s employees, testifying how they would have been different people—and worse off for it—had it not been for their employment by and friendship with the grand old man.
I am not suggesting that the relationship between managers and employees must necessarily be one of friendship—but it must certainly always be recognizably a relationship between human persons, and not one in which either party is dehumanized and treated like a cog in a machine.
The question of the proper relationship between managers and employees raises the question of the business firm or corporation. My friend and colleague Jonathan Chaplin, Senior Fellow with the Work Research Foundation, recently challenged a group of young working people to think through the meaning and character of the corporation, and to consider it as a nexus of interpersonal relationships rather than as a nexus of contracts. It would appear to me that we can only properly understand our relationships as managers and employees if we have a proper understanding of the nature of a business itself.
This issue of Comment contains advice to students who plan to make a life in the world of business—including, but not limited to college business majors and MBA students. In addition to the valuable advice offered by our authors, I want to suggest that future business people read widely and think hard about the three questions I’ve asked, and engage in serious conversations with mentors and friends in an effort to come to the kind of answers that will help guide a lifetime of good stewardship and leadership in the marketplace.
For the few of our readers who plan to become business scholars and economists, these questions should also be of academic interest—and a good way of starting a lifetime of responsible economic scholarship might be reading Bob Goudzwaard’s as yet unequaled Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society, or the unpublished 1981 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation by Frederick Fourie on A Structural Theory of the Nature of the Firm.
Of course, there are many more questions facing prospective business leaders than these three . . . What are the responsibilities of businesses with regard to the earth and the things in the earth, the ocean, the atmosphere, the plant and animal life who share the planet with us? What is the place of business in the complex weave of social relationships? What is the proper relationship between businesses and political communities, for example, or between businesses and labour unions? Is size an issue when it comes to doing business responsibly?
We would be delighted to receive your letters on these and other questions that should be considered by tomorrow’s business leaders.