The Spiritual Side

Dec. 21, 2004
CEOs speak up about how spirituality helps their companies, employees, customers -- and themselves.

The place of spirituality, or religion, in the workplace has always been a sticky, often taboo, subject. It's a personal issue, and most business leaders are content to leave the idea of God in the company parking lot. They can pick him (or her) up again on the way home. There are signs, however, that spirituality -- which usually conveys a broader meaning than religion -- is taking on more meaning and importance in executive suites. At the least, it's being talked about more. John D. Beckett, president of R.W. Beckett Corp. in Elyria, Ohio, is one of the more outspoken CEOs. His recent book, Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul (1998, InterVarsity Press), is an attempt to bring spirituality and business closer together. "These two worlds need to be merged," says Beckett, who is incorporating "Biblical concepts" into his medium-sized company, the leading manufacturer of residential oil burners. In these efforts Beckett takes a low-key, nonpreaching approach, but as an evangelical Christian he wants to share with a broad audience the "personal and vital relationship with Jesus Christ that has transformed" his life. He believes business leaders have a forum for doing this, as long as they don't abuse their influence. Of course, it's easier for the heads of privately held companies such as Beckett's to spread the "good news" than it is for CEOs of publicly owned corporations. Even among the latter, however, spirituality in business appears to be a growing trend. Archie W. Dunham, for example, president and CEO of Conoco Inc., Houston, publicly attributes his success to "striving to be obedient to God's will for my life and waiting for God's timing. Neither has been easy. I'm a strong-willed, sometimes stubborn individual who likes to do things on my own time schedule." Beckett and Dunham are among nine CEOs who discussed their spiritual beliefs and practices with IW. They were selected because of their willingness to speak about the subject, because they are known to practice what they preach, and because they and their companies have been successful. Six head up private companies and three direct public corporations. Formal religious denominations are not central to the discussion. Beckett, for instance, was raised Episcopalian, but now calls himself simply a Christian, attending a nondenominational, Bible-based church. "Labels tend to get in the way," he believes. "The term religion has become so hackneyed that it's often used in almost a derogatory tone. I want to be known as spiritual, not religious. A religious person to me has too much of the connotation of the Pharisees who gave Jesus such a tough time." Among these executives, the concept of servant leadership appears to be a common goal. They strive to serve their associates who, in turn, serve the customer. In other words, follow the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and the customer is king. Everybody wins. All this is not to indicate that no pitfalls await the spiritually guided executive. In her book Believers in Business: Resolving the Tensions Between Christian Faith, Business Ethics, Competition, and Our Definitions of Success (1994, Thomas Nelson Publishers), Laura L. Nash points out that CEOs are struggling with a "very large discomfort" about how visible they should be about spirituality. "When this gets too public, it either gets cynical or runs the danger of creating an abuse of power. It can be misinterpreted as proselytizing," says the program director of the Institute for Value-Centered Leadership at Harvard Divinity School. She adds that despite these conflicts, attention to spirituality in business has "erupted" in the '90s. Here, then, is how some successful CEOs follow spiritual guidelines in running their businesses and lives. Discovering God's plan Ever since John Beckett found himself the point man in a successful dispute with the government three years ago over proposed guidelines that he felt would have restricted religious freedom in the workplace, the Beckett Corp. president has been in the forefront of the spirituality-in-business movement. Beckett, 60, who calls his main mission in life "to know the will of God and do it," says he discovered God's plan for him in his late 20s, when he was wrestling over whether to stay in business or enter the ministry. After much soul searching, Beckett offered to release to God all that he owned, even his company. It was then that God confirmed he wanted him to stay in business, Beckett says. Since then, the born-again Christian says he has found true peace -- and prosperity. He has built his late father's small business into a group of three companies employing more than 500 people and generating about $100 million in annual revenue. Beckett's corporate philosophy is based on "integrity, excellence, and a profound respect for the individual since every person is created in God's image." He tries to translate these values into company policies. Maternity leave is the most notable. Because a child's first years are critical in bonding, a mother can stay home up to a half-year, while her income continues at 25% of normal, and she can borrow an additional 25% at low rates. After this, she can return to work part-time, possibly even at home, for up to three years after birth. At the core of all of Beckett's activities are daily prayer and Bible reading. The latter did not come easily. For years the Bible simply didn't seem "relevant," he says. But at a seminar about 30 years ago, he accepted a challenge to read it daily. "At first it was sheer drudgery," Beckett admits, "but soon it became a delight." To any businessperson he advises: "Think on the word, meditate on the word, and let it become alive." A burning loyalty When fire destroyed the heart of his century-old Malden Mills Industries Inc. textile plant in Lawrence, Mass., in December 1995, President/CEO Aaron Feuerstein refused advice to close the mill, pocket the $300 million in insurance money, and move the operation. Rather, Feuerstein (who rushed to the fire after attending his 70th-birthday party) continued to practice the strong Orthodox Jewish faith he had learned from his parents and his study of the Talmud at Yeshiva University. Those teachings stress that "not everybody who makes money is wise in the eyes of God," praise a good name as "the greatest treasure a man can acquire," and call for all to be decent people and to take care of others if possible. Feeling that obligation to his employees and the community, Feuerstein vowed that night to rebuild the business. He also announced that all 3,000 employees would receive full pay for the next 90 days and health benefits for 180 days -- despite the fact that this cost him $1.5 million a week and risked his entire life savings. "When all the textile mills in Lawrence ran out to get cheaper labor down south, we stuck," he reminded his workers. "We're going to stay -- and rebuild." The third-generation family-business owner kept his promise. With workers toiling day and night to restart production and new machinery air-freighted in, within 10 days the mill was operating again. Within two months 70% of the workforce was back on the job. In September 1997 a new, high-tech $130 million factory was dedicated, and by the start of '98 all employees who wanted to had returned to work. Not only that, production of the company's Polartec fabric, used in outdoor clothing, increased sharply. Malden Mills now has more than 2,700 employees (some facilities have since closed or moved) and annual sales of about $400 million. At the plant dedication Feuerstein, treasurer of his synagogue, offered a Hebrew prayer: "I thank you, majestic God of the universe, for restoring to Malden Mills and its employees our life and soul." About his beliefs he declares: "It was unthinkable for me to run away when we were in crisis. We must show workers the kind of loyalty they extend to us. When companies act in an ethical way, it's good for business and good for the shareholders." Keeping Sunday special When he first entered the restaurant business in 1946, S. Truett Cathy kept his tiny Atlanta diner open six days a week, 24 hours a day. It was closed on Sundays -- "not because we were all that religious, but because we were all that tired," Cathy chuckles. Ever since then, all the more than 800 restaurants in his Chick-fil-A Inc. chain have remained closed on Sundays. "Now we dare not vary from this policy," the 77-year-old CEO declares. "God has blessed us and I feel helped us to attract the caliber of people who appreciate having Sunday off. Whether you go to church or not, its a day to be with family and friends, which is important." The company Cathy built around a chicken sandwich has grown to $800 million a year in sales. "We try to operate our business on Biblical principles because they work," he says. "The Holy Bible ought to have a subheading -- Success Book. Many things in the Bible tell you how to wait on a customer and how to treat your employees, and, in turn your employees treat you. The problem often is that we get our priorities in the wrong order," the Southern Baptist notes. "What does a man gain if he gain the whole world and loses those things that are really valuable, like his family?" His family-owned, Atlanta-based companys corporate purpose reads: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us," and "to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." One of the spiritual activities is a voluntary, devotional prayer meeting at headquarters every Monday morning when, says Cathy, "we share each others' burdens, making us closer together." Cathy, who with his wife Jeannette recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, remains active not only with his company, but with his many volunteer and philanthropic activities. For the last 45 years he has taught Sunday school for 13-year-old boys. And through his companys 11 foster-care homes, more than 100 children from disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds are getting a better start in life. "The greatest joys of living are the joys of giving," Cathy says. "Seeing these kids grow up and be somebody is an experience you just cant buy with dollars and cents." Listening . . . and patience When Archie Dunham is in a really important meeting, he frequently jots these letters at the top of his notepad: QTH STS STA. The initials remind him to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger." It's advice from the Epistle of James that the Conoco president employs to help him exercise good judgment. "Learn to be a good listener, gather information from many sources, don't react too quickly to what you hear, and above all else, don't become angry," Dunham advises. "Anger impairs your ability to make good decisions. It also contributes to a poor attitude and can keep you from enjoying the many opportunities life has to offer." To Dunham, 60, success requires, most of all, "a willingness to relinquish control of your career and seek God's will for your life and then the patience to listen for his answers." A deacon at his Baptist church in Houston, Duncan says he turned his career over to God in 1976 when he had "plateaued out" as a middle manager at Conoco. "I had achieved about all I was capable of achieving with me making all the decisions," he says. Restless and unhappy, Dunham nevertheless "told God if he wanted me to stay for the next 20 years in the same job, I was ready to do it." Since then, despite a "desire sometimes to resume control," he has enjoyed a series of promotions, which he believes is no coincidence. A duty to give As a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jon M. Huntsman is among the most spiritually active of all CEOs. The 61-year-old founder of Huntsman Corp., the largest privately held chemical company in the U.S., has been a lay minister (the Mormons have no paid ministers) for almost 40 years. He has conducted church meetings, marriages, and funerals, as well as counseled. "Jesus Christ has been a great comfort and tremendous anchor in my life," says this member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, a Mormon position below only that of the full-time Council of the Twelve Apostles. Huntsman travels about 20 weekends a year to teach leadership, and approximately every other weekend he delivers gospel messages and sermons. Two decades ago he spent what he calls "the greatest three years of my life" as a full-time Mormon mission president in Washington, D.C. A self-made billionaire, Huntsman is one of the world's leading philanthropists and humanitarians. With Karen, his wife of 40 years, he has donated more than $250 million to philanthropic causes (not including his annual 10% to the Mormon church). Making substantial charitable contributions is one of the main priorities of his $4.8 billion-a-year, Salt Lake City corporation. "If we're blessed with money, it's our duty to put it back into the community," he believes. In talks with employees, Huntsman stresses family values and spirituality in a way that's not specific to any religion. "I find that people really hunger to hear more about this," he says. "I think it's important that they hear they're good people and that their most important successful assignment in life will be the accomplishments in their own home, and their effectiveness as a mother or father, and their love for family members and neighbors. I would hope that each of them would realize that their workplace is not nearly as important." Altar-boy management That's the way Jack Kahl describes his style at Manco Inc., the Avon, Ohio, developer and distributor of Duck-brand tapes and other adhesives, office stationery, and housewares products. The description springs from his duties as a boy serving Catholic mass. "It was basically get the wine and ring the bells. You were obedient to the needs of the priest," Kahl says, likening this to focusing first on the customer in business. In other words, he explains, "The No. 1 boss of our lives is Jesus Christ, or in some cases Muhammad or Buddha. That's who we report to, something greater than ourselves. That's a very high spiritual calling, and you are obedient to the needs of those demands." Kahl, 58, who is serving his final two years as Manco CEO after selling his $167-million-a-year company last year to Germany's Henkel Group, doesn't ordinarily discuss his spiritual beliefs openly. "I think spirituality comes across in our actions and value systems and language," he says. "We call ourselves partners and a corporate family, and we have taken on responsibility for the lives of the people here. If you can bring the enthusiasm, energy, and values of the spiritual world into your business, to serve the customer, then you're going to bring altar-boy management to work." Although his leadership style is based more on inspirational deeds and sayings from business and sports, Kahl acknowledges that "spirituality plays the primary role in my life. All things in business are based on trust, and your relationship to God is all about surrendering to somebody greater than yourself. Surrender your will to God. Live within his house, and you'll have a good life. More important, you'll have a better life after this one." All this is no mere "lip service," stresses communications manager Tracey Egan Bradnan, in an observation applicable to any of these CEOs. "We at Manco know that Jack really does lead his life this way. And it motivates and enlightens all of us." Reconnecting to Hinduism Five years ago Krishan Kalra was, by his own admission, one of Silicon Valley's "cutthroat CEOs," interested in amassing wealth. But while the founder and CEO of BioGenex Laboratories Inc. was prospering financially, his marriage was failing and his children were alienated. This led Kalra to recall the joy, even in poverty, of his early life in India. And so he took a three-month leave from work to immerse himself in the Bhagavad-Gita, one of Hinduism's major sacred scriptures. Now Kalra's marriage and home life are healthy. His San Ramon, Calif., company -- which develops, manufactures, and markets molecular and cellular diagnostic systems used to detect cancer and other diseases -- is thriving. And he has experienced a taste of the bliss that comes from right living. He attributes all this to reconnecting to his Hindu spiritual roots, the Bhagavad-Gita in particular. "The Hindu religion is very democratic, and the Gita gives you a lot of options to reach divine [a force or power]," he says. "The way you run your business helps you to reach divine without going to the Himalayas or to temple or church every day or doing anything special." One major way to attain divine is called karma yoga. "This means that whatever I'm doing as a CEO, my primary objective is to do it for the divine, meaning society," Kalra explains. "As a result, my focus is first to be the best CEO, ahead of making a lot of money. Money is a byproduct. The Bhagavad-Gita teaches that I have rights on action, but no rights on the fruits of action, nor should I be attached to inaction as a result. So I have the right to be the best CEO but no right to how much money I can earn. And I should be skillful, active, hard-working, and so forth. "As a result of this, I have no fear of failure, and I can take risks. I am much more composed, at ease, and relaxed," says the mid-50s executive. All this has led the privately owned company he founded in 1981 to "develop some technologies for cancer testing that were thought impossible," he says. "The number of patents and technology breakthroughs we have brought to our small company [150 employees, estimated $12 million annual revenues] is amazing. And I directly attribute this to my belief in spirituality." Kalra sees no conflict between his spiritual and business life. In fact, he believes spirituality keeps him "grounded," returning him to "home position" every morning when he closes his eyes, totally disconnects from his work, and offers this simple prayer: "Lord, I am at your service. What is it you want me to do? Lead my way." Last August Kalra chaired an international conference at Stanford University to discuss how following the Gita can help reconnect spirituality and technology. Targeted at Silicon Valley business leaders, the conference was attended by about 1,200 people, convincing him that "there absolutely is an increase in spirituality in business. This is something that is in everybody. All we have to do is give it an opportunity to manifest in a bigger form." Seeking to serve In running his company, David L. Steward frequently refers to the Bible he keeps in his desk drawer. He reads it daily and highlights his favorite passages. "There's a scripture that says seek me first and everything else will be added onto you. That means seek to serve," the CEO of St. Louis-based World Wide Technology Inc. says. "The way we run this organization is to serve and support the people [employees] and serve them well. That's what Jesus did. This process then permeates down to our suppliers and customers, and, in turn, we are blessed." An Internet solutions integrator providing high-tech services chiefly to phone companies and the government, the company Steward founded in 1990 has grown to an estimated $210 million annually with more than 200 employees. Steward, 47, who recently started a class at his United Methodist Church centered around spirituality in business, believes his privately held company is flourishing largely because of business practices centered around the Bible: care, support, love, integrity, loyalty, commitment, and trust. These help to create "a sense of energy, pride, excitement, security, and fun, working for one another and serving and supporting one another, and interjecting a level of hope back into our community," he says. Asked for an example of spirituality's impact upon him, he tells about how he prayed to discover what to do about a trusted employee who had stolen several hundred thousand dollars from him. "Scripture says that 'Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.' So I did not sue the individual or pursue the money. I just fired him and got him out of our business," Steward relates. The decision not to try to recoup the money was difficult because of "the level of trust and integrity that was breached," he explains. "I had to pray about it and make sure I had forgiven as well. You can't be forgiven if you can't forgive." A personal relationship Jeffrey H. Coors, president and CEO of ACX Technologies Inc., is an evangelical Christian who attends a nondenominational fellowship and abhors labels. "I like to stress a personal relationship with our heavenly father through Jesus Christ, because then you're just talking to a friend, and you get direction, understanding, and wisdom from a higher power," he says. "The problem with religion is that man gets things really confused with all the rules and regulations and procedures, when the important thing is whether Christ is on the throne in your heart." A daily Bible reader, Coors, 53, left his family's brewery in 1992 when it spun off its ceramics, packaging, and developing technologies to ACX, also based in Golden, Colo. Although it, too, is a public company, with annual revenues of about $750 million, Jeff Coors manages to inject spirituality into the business. "You can be good, righteous people in the workplace and conduct your affairs in a righteous manner without getting overly religious or threatening," Coors says. "But I'm very open about my faith with fellow employees. I regularly talk about the fact that we are created in God's image and that He has given us free will, but that our duty is to respect others. I encourage people to be all that God created, the best you can be. And I say that life consists of relationships and that the most important relationship in my life is with our heavenly father through his son Jesus Christ. "You can function perfectly well as a very upright company, obeying all the laws," Coors concludes. "In fact, I actually think you can prosper better as a company if God is your focal point."

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