Joseph's Business Model The tenth commandment should be part of every induction pack
I wasn't sure what to do. Sitting in my agent's office in Seoul I knew the prices on the contract in front of me were cheap — in fact, too cheap. The salesman from the factory had inadvertently made a large mistake. "Just sign it", advised my agent, "it's the factory's fault. Your shareholders aren't going to thank you if you point out the factory's error and pay more. Business is business; you are paid to get the best deal possible."
What was I to do? What would you have done?
Whether we like it or not, business decisions are often not clear cut. The commercial world is filled with complexity and it is sometimes suggested that being a Christian adds to this complexity. After all, making money smacks of profiteering. Surely a successful Christian businessman or woman is almost a contradiction in terms? As Christians, shouldn't we aim to pursue careers that help others, such as teaching, medicine or perhaps social work? If you are "in business", perhaps you should seek work in the "softer side", like HR. The "pointy end" of business should be left alone by Christians or should it? It is all well to earn money as a successful doctor but to make money as a business man or woman — is that the kind of success a Christian should pursue?
I started to think about success and profits early in my career. What was written on the subject was unsatisfying and there was very little Christian literature on the subject. In those early years, the story of Joseph (Genesis 39-50), challenged and puzzled me; it still does. Joseph was a great success and a great businessman. There is much to think about from a business perspective in his story. He is an interesting example of someone who displayed many qualities which are relevant in today's business world.
As Christians, our attitude and approach must be excellent. Joseph modelled such an attitude long before Tom Peters wrote about it in his management books. Excellent not good or very good, but excellent. So often we are tempted to compromise. Our boss may be disappointing, in his or her approach or perhaps unfair. Maybe our staff have not lived up to expectation or we have been treated poorly by the organisation. Perhaps it is just plain hard, we are tired would prefer to be doing something else.
We need to resist the temptation to rationalise our behaviour and compromise our attitude and approach. Excellence is not an optional extra, it is not something we should aspire to, it must be our default position, each and every day. Simply put, we must always do the best we can, as an employee, as a manager or as an employer — that's what Joseph did. His circumstances changed but his attitude and approach did not. It was not dependent on the situation but was at the very core of how he did things. Joseph did not change his approach or attitude when things did not go his way. He also did not change them when success and high honour came his way.
Second, we must be committed. This is often difficult as it can be an area of potential conflict with our faith. We need to be able to commit to the activities of the organisation in which we work, and if we cannot do this then we really need to think about what we are doing there. The pay might be worthwhile and the conditions wonderful but if we cannot commit then this conflict will slowly gnaw away at us. Can goods be bought from the cheapest factory without undertaking an investigation as to how the staff are treated? What about our attitude to taxation? Do we play the game to the very edge and compromise our witness? Is it simply safer to work for Christians or Christian organisations and abandon the corporate mission field?
Third, we need a willingness to question, despite the consequences. This is not the same as being argumentative. It is about being thoughtful and applying skills and intelligence to work. If necessary, it may mean challenging the status quo. Sometimes it can be about questioning the way things are done. This can be difficult and sometimes unpopular, and the issues can be complex and sometimes unclear.
It is also important to be willing to question ourselves, our own motives and actions, our manner and behaviour in the workplace. Self awareness is critical. We are not immune to error. Be thoughtful, be prayerful and be willing to question. Joseph was discerning and wise. How many of us have had that written on our appraisals?
Fourth, we must be trustworthy in every way, even with our enemies. Trust builds relationships and can set us apart from others in the workplace. Think about the chief cupbearer in Joseph's story. Joseph had interpreted his dream and it became a reality. Joseph asked the cupbearer to repay him by remembering him and showing him kindness when he was restored to his official position. Not an unreasonable request, a small request really. Remember what happened? The chief cupbearer forgot his promise; he forgot Joseph completely and left him in prison for two years. Perhaps many of us would not be very happy if, after two years, someone who had forgotten us suddenly wanted help to impress the boss. Yet Joseph did not seek revenge.
We must also be trustworthy with what we are given to do and manage. In many cases we do not own the assets we work with. In business, many people stumble in this area. They blur the line and forget that it is not their money. Often long lists of management excesses are uncovered when businesses collapse.
Read about the collapse of HIH or look at the bonuses paid immediately before the global financial crisis it is astonishing the degree of self-interest that fuelled the outcomes. Often, people in management roles behave as owners, rather than stewards and trustees. Consider how executive pay rates have ballooned this century despite shareholder complaints — is that a characteristic of faithful stewardship? The tenth commandment should be part of every company induction pack. Greed undermines trustworthiness. It rusts our integrity, it corrodes our witness and if we are not careful it can engulf our lives.
Finally, a word on management and leadership. A manager's role should be seen as a supportive one — aimed at helping staff carry out those tasks which are particularly difficult or onerous.
The fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22f) should underpin the approach of all Christian managers. It does not mean that problems in the office should be ignored or a blind eye turned to difficult situations and people. Rather, the qualities Paul espouses should permeate our approach to the way in which we do things, even the tough things. This approach will show us as servants. The focus will be on others, not ourselves, and our colleagues will notice the difference. Some may even reach for the salt shaker!
An Athenian general once said that a captain is not necessary on the bridge of a ship when the seas are calm. This is the essence of leadership. A leader sets the course and then allows everyone to play their individual part. It is in the times of rough weather that the captain's presence on the bridge is necessary.
Similarly, in business, leaders must act in times of stress, difficulty and unforeseen circumstance. Every eye in the organisation will be on the leader, watching not only what they do but the way in which it is done. These will be the moments of greatest witness, for better or for worse.
Consider what Joseph achieved for his employer, Pharaoh. He built enormous wealth. He made profits, incredible profits, even in the harshest times. It was part of God's plan, but it was not straightforward. His success was uncommon.
Making profits as a Christian through trade does not have to diminish our spirituality, but the way in which such profits are made and, subsequently, how they are spent may do so. We live in a world of increasingly interconnected markets and we must not retreat from the challenges these present. We must be thoughtful about our actions, prayerful and we must seek wisdom and grace. We need to embrace the discussion, not avoid it, for the business world needs salt and light in today's global climate more than ever.
How do Christians steer a course through the complexity of the commercial world? What really is fair trade? What do we do when things go awry, when markets crash and new plans are needed? How do we know what do when even a simple contract is wrong? It is not easy but our God is gracious and merciful and watches over the way of the righteous.
Back to the story of the factory salesman. About 10 years later we were having dinner together — both now directors of our respective companies.
He told me that recently one of his very large American customers had made a mistake on their purchase order and were paying almost twice what they should have for the goods. He said he had told his staff the story about how when he was a young salesman a young buyer from Australia had pointed out his error, and, as a result, paid him the correct price. He said that he had always been very grateful for my action at the time.
I asked him what he had done about his American customer's mistake. He quickly answered: "Kept quiet, of course."