DOES a firm have a soul? Corporations have often been depicted as soulless entities that move inexorably on in its pursuit of profit. And individuals who join the corporate world, especially those in management, are sometimes perceived to be as soulless.
A profitable corporation in the United States shows that a firm can have a soul as well as profits. Known as one of the Fortune 1000 companies in the United States, this corporation is listen on the New York Stock Exchange with over 50,000 shareholders. The combined marked value of its shares is over $3 billion. Engaged in a business that provides a service regarded as “menial and mundane,” this corporation has expanded to a level where it employs more than 200,00 people and serves more than five million customers in 30 countries.
The firm is called ServiceMaster and it provides cleaning and housekeeping services to hospitals, schools and homeowners. It trades under major brand names of ServiceMaster, TruGreen-ChemLawn, Terminix, Merry Maids and American Home Shield.
How has this firm transformed a simple service into a billion dollar business? According to C. William Pollard, chairman of Service Master, it has done do by recognizing the dignity and value of its service providers and by cultivating a “vital, living soul at work.” In his book, “The Soul of the Firm,” he recounts the story of his company.
It is a story of a company that, because of the nature of its business has realized the importance of people and values them, not just as “a pair of hands,” but as a whole person, body and soul. It is a story of a company powering its people to provide an excellent service that is much needed bur is least regarded. What’s surprising about this book is that, while most management literature is preoccupied with bottom lines and market shares, it puts forth a claim that there is a place for spirituality in the workplace and that there is a need for a firm to nurture its “soul” as a precondition for success.
The book unabashedly talks about honoring God as a legitimate corporate objective and of placing God above all in the workplace as well as in our lives. It also prescribes a management perspective that’s totally pro-people.
When you enter the headquarters of ServiceMaster in Illinois, you will read its corporate objectives on the wall: to honor God in all we do, to help people develop, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitability.
Pollard sees the first two objectives as “end goals” and the second two as “means goals.” He believes that “profit is a means in God’s world to be used and invested, not an end to be worshiped.” However, in the same breath, he says that “profit is a legitimate measurement of the value of our effort…it is a requirement for survival of the individual, the family unit, and any organization of society, whether it be for a for-profit company or a not-profit organization.”
This, he asserts, while his company is not soft on profits, they are not focused exclusively on it. He writes: “Money is like manure. It doesn’t smell any better the more you pile it up. If we focused exclusively on profit, we would be a firm that had failed to nurture its soul.”
Reading its corporate objectives and looking at its outstanding financial performance (it has a return on equity of about 50 percent), a cynic may ask: Is this for real? Aren’t highly profitable companies usually suspect in its modes of earning profits? However, Pollard insists that: “God and business do mix, and profit is a standard for determining the effectiveness our our combined efforts…For us, the common link between God and profit is people.” He also claims that “The objectives of our firm are not just carved in stone on the lobby wall. You can see them working every day in the lives of our people.”
The book is replete with interesting stories of how employees of ServiceMaster pursue these objectives.
Pollard writes that in ensuring excellence in service, the company trains its executives by first assigning them to a housekeeping team. When Pollard accepted the job of senior vice president in ServiceMaster, he was assigned to work with the housekeeping team at a hospital cleaning rooms and floors. He narrated that while mopping the floor, a relative recognized him and asked him if everything was all right at his home. This incident gave him a better understanding of what his company’s employees encountered in their work and the importance of valuing their human dignity.
Developing people is a cornerstone of the company’s philosophy. Pollard recounted the story of Maria Barany who joined the company 20 years ago as a housekeeper in a long-term care facility in Chicago. When she was hired, she spoke only Spanish, had limited formal schooling and no prior regular work experience. Today, she is proficient not only in English but also in various college level courses and is one of the valued managers at the company.
Another success story is that of Dick Armstrong who, although retired from his senior position at the company, is still part of it along with his family. Armstrong, his wife and his son bought ServiceMaster franchises which they are presently operating.
Are these stories real? Or just image-building for ServiceMaster? Whether real or not, Pollard’s book sounds sincere. It is also a rich source of quotable quotes for the avid management reader.
On valuing the person, he writes: “We will never be able to pay people what they are really worth, but sometimes we act like we can.” With this simple statement, he goes to the root of the issues affecting labor and management. For Pollard, employees contribute in three ways: “First, they contribute value to customers, with the products they produce of the services they provide. Second, they contribute value to owners, as their combined effort is worth more than the sum of the efforts of individual participants. And third, they contribute value to each other, as they learn together and experience the satisfaction of accomplishment and advancement and as they develop their own self-worth.”
On corporate ethics, Pollard comments: “If the firm does not have a moral reference point, it has the potential to contribute to the bankruptcy of the human soul.” Here, he points out that what a person does in the workplace is not separate from what he does in his personal life. Thus, ethics in business really means ethics in life.
On leadership, he states: “Servant leaders are givers, not takers.” The concept of leaders as servants had not really gained popularity in business circles (who can blame them?) bot for Pollard, to be a leader, one must be a servant first. Which explains why ServiceMaster, senior executives regularly serve in various housekeeping teams at client establishments.
Searching for a soul may be a unique corporate objective in these turbulent days. Spirituality in the workplace may be a strange phrase on a businessman’s lips. But who knows? Perhaps, these are what companies and businessmen need to put some sanity in these uncertain times.
The Soul of the Firm
By C. William Pollard, Zondervan Publishing House,
USA Published in the Philippines by OMF Literature Inc.
1996, 176 Pages
Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer March 2, 1998.
Photo credit: www.sxc.hu