There's only one subject that's still off-limits at the office. Some new books suggest it's time to change the rules
It used to be that you didn't discuss sex, politics, or religion in polite company (which included, theoretically, one's coworkers). But sex seems to be an acceptable subject these days -- providing the content can't be construed as harassment -- and do you know anyone who doesn't talk politics?
All of which leaves religion as the only office-chatter taboo. Spirituality, however, has made headway. Consider values-based investing. Nowadays it's easy to find financial planners who can steer you around companies that sell tobacco or run gambling facilities. Money for Life, by Stephen R. Bolt, which came out last year, covers ethical investing in detail. And on the management front, Laurie Beth Jones, in her 1995 book, Jesus, CEO, holds up Jesus' leadership style as a model for today's CEO. But the Jesus in Jones's book isn't anyone as risky as the Son of God; he's just a really, really smart manager. Jones downplays the religious angle.
She is one of a growing number of managers, consultants, and authors who advocate bringing religious faith into the workplace and who sincerely believe that it is only by committing fully to God -- without exception they are referring to the Christian God -- that one can succeed in business as well as in life.
Jones now has written a follow-up tome, Jesus, Inc.: The Visionary Path. And a new book by Larry Julian, God Is My CEO: Following God's Principles in a Bottom-Line World, treats faith-based management as a silver bullet. The book by Julian, a Jewish-born consultant who has "developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," is the better of the two.
Julian got 20 senior managers and leaders to talk on the record about business and their faith. Some of the inter- viewees are well-known for their religious beliefs, such as C. William Pollard of ServiceMaster and S. Truett Cathy, head of Chick-fil-A; others are just well-known, such as Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Tony Dungy, Coors brewing scion Jeffrey H. Coors, and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, head of the Carlson Cos. (Radisson Hotels & Resorts and Carlson Wagonlit Travel). Some small-company CEOs are also quoted.
Julian presents 20 mini case studies. First he outlines a common business or leadership problem in the form of a question, such as, "How do I avoid becoming a slave to urgent, short-term pressure?" or "What do I do when faced with choosing between a bad solution and a worse solution?" or "How do I balance employee needs with profit obligations?" He follows the question with a passage from the Bible and then shows how two of the managers used that piece of Scripture to answer or explore the question.
But the book, published by a midsize publishing company based in Massachusetts, has serious flaws. You'd be hard-pressed to find revenues or earnings figures for the various businesses profiled. And how the book's executives have actually put their faith into action isn't explained in any detail. Yet the book is noteworthy; it may very well break the ice so that bigger publishing houses and more-experienced reporters can tackle the subject of faith in the workplace in more depth.
If you're looking for the definitive how-to book, complete with formulas to guide your daily managerial behavior, this isn't it. However, there is no doubt that "the vision thing," the ability to frame a company's daily work in terms of larger aims, is a key part of running a business. Even if you are an atheist or an agnostic, God Is My CEO will probably spur you to rethink some of the ways in which you do business.
That was also the idea behind Jones's second book. The problem is that the work isn't very, um, inspirational. Somewhat like Julian, Jones begins each chapter with a line from Scripture, such as "New wine must be poured into new wineskins" (Luke 5:38), and then spins a business moral around it. The moral she divines from the wineskins passage is that business procedures "have to change as the times change." Jones ends each chapter with a short prayer designed to reinforce the message of the chapter. For this particular chapter the prayer reads, "Dear Lord, You see all -- know all. ... Give me your gift of discernment and help me always to seek current information." All in all, the "lessons" never seem to rise above homily.
The search for the best way to apply biblical wisdom to leadership and business practices continues.
Maybe you can help out that higher authority
Old joke: A deeply religious man is trapped in his house as the flood- waters rise. A neighbor comes by in a rowboat, but the man says, "I'll wait. God will provide."
The waters continue to rise, and the man is forced to climb to his roof. A helicopter swings by, but the man says, "I'll wait. The Lord will provide."
The waters continue to rise, and the man drowns. When he meets God he asks, "How could you let me die? Why didn't you help?"
God responds, "I sent a rowboat and a helicopter. What else did you want?"
The point is that no matter how strong your faith is, you have to do some of the work. For psychologist Don Greene the work in question is identified in the title of his book Fight Your Fear and Win. Greene, who has worked extensively with athletes and performers, starts with the premise -- attributed to General Omar Bradley -- that "bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when you're scared half to death."
He then describes seven attributes that will help you overcome your fears -- determination, energy, perspective, courage, focus, poise, and resilience.
Although the list is not groundbreaking, Greene is particularly good at pairing each of the seven traits with bite-size exercises that will help you increase your energy, perspective, focus, and so on.
Once you have honed those attri- butes in yourself, the idea is to instill them in your employees. Or you could wait for a book that Simon & Schuster will bring out soon titled Thirty Days to a Happy Employee, by Dottie Bruce Gandy. Or you could read Truth, Trust, and the Bottom Line: Seven Steps to Trust-Based Management , by Diane Tracy, an "executive coach," and William J. Morin, a well-known headhunter.
Gandy's advice: tell employees something you like about them every day for 30 days. That's it. The compli- ments don't even have to be work related. Just something you like about them. We're not even halfway through the year, but this book may already have won the award for "Slightest Book of 2001."
Truth, Trust, and the Bottom Line is more substantial, though it could be encapsulated by the axiom "Honesty is the best policy." Tracy and Morin do an excellent job of summarizing their approach to management. "(1) People cannot change unless you tell them what they need to change. (2) People want to succeed. What they say and do makes very good sense to them even if it looks off base and absurd to you. (3) You cannot grow a business unless you grow the people."
The authors offer seven steps that show you how to explain to employees what you think they need to change, and how to coach them to do it. The pair are at their best when showing you how to conduct such a discussion so that it has a chance of success.
They stipulate that there's no point in trying to coach someone toward better job performance unless the job being discussed is already clearly defined, the person is suited for the job, and the person understands that he or she will be evaluated on certain clearly defined goals and objectives. It's only under those circumstances, say Tracy and Morin, that a trusting relationship can be created.
Beat them all
Of course, instead of emulating those managers who advocate being nice and building trust, you could follow the counsel in Secrets of Power Negotiating, by Roger Dawson. In Dawson's view, lying is OK, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for more even after you've agreed to a deal, and "power negotiators are not restrained by the need to be liked."
Given all that, it's no surprise that Dawson doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the advantages of creating customers for life.
Now, what do you suppose God the CEO would have to say about that?
Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of DirectAdvice.com.
President and CEO of Bowstreet, a software-infrastructure company headquartered in Lynnfield, Mass.
Competing on Internet Time, by Michael A. Cusumano and David B. Yoffie, and Digital Capital, by Don Tapscott, David Ticoll, and Alex Lowy. " Competing was the first book to describe in detail the opening battle for Internet turf," says Crowley. "It's full of fascinating examples of what to do and what not to do on the Internet. And Digital describes the most pervasive fundamental change in business models in 100 years: that businesses will focus more on the services they provide -- not the products they make -- as their core competency, and will use the Internet as a power channel for creating new services with new partners in places never before imagined.
"Both of these books are invaluable to anyone starting or running a technology company in the 21st century. Leaders today must understand both the changing business models of their customers and the shifting, competitive climate that is on hyperdrive thanks to the Internet." --Jill Hecht Maxwell
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.