Navigating People vs. Profit - Al Erisman (Podcast Special Episode)
How can you navigate the tension between people and profit, and what does the Bible have to say about it?
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
John 1:14 (The Message)
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
Additional Resources Referenced
The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension Between People and Profit by Al Erisman (Hendrickson Publishers)
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts.
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
There's a tension in most workplaces today. On one hand, you wanna take care of the people working under you. On the other hand, you're responsible for your bottom line. And the better you take care of people, the more that costs. How can you navigate the tension between people and profit, and what does the Bible have to say about it? Our guest today is the author of a new book on a group of managers who did just that. The book is called "The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating the Tension Between People and Profit." Al Erisman is a seasoned manager himself. He managed a team of 300 scientists at the Boeing Company, and he's here today to talk about how you can leverage your faith to make good decisions in your workplace. Al, welcome to the Making it Work podcast.
Al Erisman: Thank you, Leah. It's nice to be here.
LA: Thank you so much. So, tell us, for the layman who hasn't heard of ServiceMaster before, tell us just a little bit about what the company does and what the company accomplished.
AE: So they started in 1929 with a man named Marion Wade and basically that was the time of the Depression. And so Marion Wade had decided he needed a job, he needed a way to get an income. And the company he had been selling for went out of business suddenly. And he decided, "I could sell the same products myself." And so in 1929 he started this moth-proofing company. And over the course of years, he began to improve the product. Here's a man with an eighth-grade education, who was able to do research at a lab at Northwestern University to find a better way to deal with moth-proofing in homes, later to discover a better way to clean rugs and carpets. And so, these things led to a series of products, and a very small company that started to develop. But in 1944, he had an accident with his mothproofing system and thought that he was going to be blind for life. And he was in and out of hospitals for about a year. And during that time, he said, "This was my Damascus road experience." He made the comment that he'd already been a Christian, but it had been kind of separate from what he was doing in his business, and he had kind of thought that these were two separate worlds.
And that awakening from God, he said, caused him to think about his business in a completely different way and he committed to build a business that would live way beyond him and honor Christ in the way it did it's work and in the people that did the work. And that set the foundation back in 1944.
LA: Now, you mentioned this scene from the Bible, Marion Wade called his temporary blindness, "A Damascus road experience." Mark, could you give us a little bit more context for this image?
MR: Sure, so that comes from the Book of Acts, and it's really the story of a man. His Jewish name was Saul, his Greek name Paul. And initially, he was a very zealous and conservative Jew who was very negative on the early Christians and, in fact, was involved in chasing them down and persecuting them. And he was actually on the way to Damascus in Syria when Jesus appeared to him in a miraculous way and asked why Saul, Paul was persecuting him. And this was really a transforming moment. For a while, Saul became blind and then later was healed, but that encounter completely turned around his life, gave him a whole new way of thinking, a new way of acting. So, people use that metaphor pretty commonly in some circles to talk about something in life that really turns us around, some kind of experience that makes us think and live in a completely different way.
LA: Al you mentioned that for Marion Wade, the founder of ServiceMaster, his Damascus road experience turned the way, turned around the way he wanted to think about building his company. What happened for him after that experience? How did that change his work?
AE: Well, he adopted a mantra for the company and it was to honor God in the marketplace, and that became the overarching theme of all that they did. In addition, he established a slogan that he used to say quite frequently. And it said, "If you don't live it, you don't believe it." And so he was connecting this concept of knowing and doing in a way that was foundational for him and for subsequent leaders.
LA: Now Al, I wanna connect this to the story of your own work 'cause we're super interested in ServiceMaster, but we're also interested in your experience through your leadership in the marketplace. I'm wondering if you... Did you ever have a Damascus moment over the course of your leadership career, or did you have a moment where you thought of, "How can I bake in my Christian principles to my work?"
AE: That was a gradual thing that happened through the 1970s while I was at Boeing, but then I had one of these dramatic moments. And I think back to it, between 8:15 and 8:30 in the morning, driving to work, I was listening to an interview with a man named Wayne Alderson who was Vice President of a steel company. And he talked about the idea that he felt that he was in full-time Christian service while working as a steel company executive and how it changed and affected everything he did in his work. I was completely taken by that. So on the way home, I bought a copy of the book, it's called "Stronger Than Steel" and RC Sproul was the author. And after dinner that night, my wife graciously allowed me to sit down and just read the book all the way through cover to cover. And the next morning I called Wayne, and he and I became friends until he died about six years ago. So that started me on an exploration of, "What does it mean to live as an organizational leader, as a business person and as a Christian full-time in full-time Christian service?"
I'm still working out what that means in all of its aspects, but for sure, that was a part of the process that I was going through and it was the moment that really affected me, and I think back to it a lot of times.
LA: And what did it mean for your work afterwards? How did it change your work at Boeing?
AE: Well, first of all, I began to see that God cared not only about the people that were working in my organization and my colleagues, but He cared about the work itself. And so, beginning to think about, "How do I empower and encourage others to identify purpose and meaning in their work," I remember one very specific thing. Boeing rolled out a new airplane not too long after that, and the research people on my staff had had a significant part in this. And we posted a picture of the airplane in the coffee room and we put the names of the people next to the part of the airplane where they had brought some technology that made a difference for the product. And it was then on display for everyone to see that we were making a difference. And it was a really important image, and we continued to do things like that to make sure that people understood the value of what they were doing and how that contributed to a greater cause than themselves.
LA: Al, do you feel like the way that you valued people, the people who were working under you at Boeing and the way that Marion Wade valued his employees at ServiceMaster, is there roots in the Bible for that or is there a particular Scripture that you draw on for inspiration in that?
AE: I think certainly I did this, and I know that Marion Wade did as well, if we begin to realize that every person is an image bearer of God, and we get that from the first two chapters of Genesis, then it becomes clear that there are no little people and there are no unimportant tasks. And, in fact, the first two chapters of Genesis also describe different kinds of work that humans were engaged in, from taking care of things to creating things to leading things. And I think all of those represent a way of thinking about people that changes your image. This person is not a utility to get a job done, they are a human being. Ultimately for ServiceMaster, this led to a set of four objectives that they had, and the second one was to help people develop. So they wanted to create an environment where their goal was to help others develop as people.
Peter Drucker, the famed business consultant, made this comment after analyzing what ServiceMaster was doing. He was in the boardroom talking to them about, "Why are you in business?" and they talked about their various services and he said, "No, I think that you're really in the people development business." And so that permeated everything that they did, and it permeated the kind of things that we tried to do, imperfect as it was.
LA: I'm loving this image from the first two chapters of Genesis because I think it really ties in to ServiceMaster's second goal of helping people develop. Because I'm imagining God created this world as a place where he helps people develop. He didn't pop people into the garden perfect, he popped people into the garden with work to do to develop them. Mark, tell me what you think. Am I going off on a tangent? Or is there a connection?
MR: No, absolutely. Well, if you think about it, God actually didn't make the world complete. It was good and very good, but there was still a lot to be done, and that was assigned to human beings. So this notion of developing people is a part of even the larger work of helping the world to become all that God intended it to be.
LA: But the challenge in business today is that there is this tension that I mentioned at the beginning, right? Our ultimate goal could be to help every person in the organization develop, but then there's this tension that as a business we're also supposed to be generating profit, and those two things can... There can be different... There would be a different choice that you would make, a different business decision if you're just trying to maximize profit first. It's a different business decision if you're just trying to take care of people. So Al, tell me how ServiceMaster dealt with that issue?
AE: Let me give you a little bit of imagery that came from the second of the CEOs in ServiceMaster, his name was Ken Hansen, and he said, "Think of this like an exercise band that you stretch, and on one hand you have the profit that you have to deliver in order to be a viable business. On the other hand, you have value in people and you stretch this out in tension." He said, "One thing you know for sure, you better not let go of either end or you'll get hit in the face." [chuckle] And what they used that imagery for was to help people understand that under this tension, when you're holding on to both, comes creativity that allows you to find a solution that you might not have found if you were focusing only on people and not caring about profit, you'd go out of business, or focusing only on profit and not caring about people and that would be wrong. And so what they found is that by holding on to these things together, that that would drive creativity and produce great results.
LA: Was this the tension also at Boeing? I know there's a difference between Boeing and ServiceMaster, Boeing didn't have expressed Christian ideals in its charter, but how did you hold this tension in your management there?
AE: I felt like by valuing people, that they would actually feel a sense of ownership in what they were doing, they would feel empowered, and this would create actually better work. There's an interesting line here to draw, and I credit Wayne Alderson with this. "If you treat people," Wayne would say, "with love, dignity and respect, they will value what they're doing, they'll value their work, they'll work harder, and your organization will do better, but if you treat people with love, dignity and respect so that they will work harder, they will see through you in an instant. It's gotta be real." And I think the line there is a very narrow line between those two, and the leader must own this and believe in it not to get results, but because it's the right thing to do, but when they do, it actually produces incredible results.
One of the people that studied the ServiceMaster company during this era was a man named James Heskett, who was a Harvard professor and studied the service industry. He made the comment that ServiceMaster had cracked the code on the service industry by not treating people as low cost labor, but by empowering them with an understanding of the purpose and meaning in their work. So for ServiceMaster, what this meant was, how does a janitor or a maintenance person see purpose and meaning in their work?
One way it would be that they are valued themselves. A second way would be that they would see the net end goal of this work that they were a part of. So the company would ask doctors and nurses to come in and talk to their janitors, and they say, "You're not just helping clean the floor, you're helping the patient get well. Here's the link between what you are doing and what the hospital is doing, and you are a part of it." Now this had a two-fold message. It had a powerful message for the people doing that work, but it had a strong message for the doctors and nurses who talked with them to begin to realize that they also needed to show respect to these people because they were a vital part of the healing process. So I believe that this whole idea of identifying the work that you're doing, empowering people, and caring about them in an honest way actually gave rise to incredible productivity.
One of the interesting by-products of all of this, in about 2001, at ServiceMaster…There was an illness with a senior leader, the company went out to find a new senior leader outside the company, the company was very large by this time, $6 billion in 40 countries, and they brought in someone who didn't own these as deeply as the previous leaders had and things began to change. And one writer that I read made this observation, first of all when he first read about this, he said, "I'm excited that they're bringing in a leader who will apply six sigma, that's a modern statistical management method, rather than looking for biblical principles. [chuckle] But then he observed later, he said, "I have observed, however, that with this new leadership away from the biblical principles, there has been an increase in the number of losses against the company and a declining financial performance." So it was a recognition that this subtle thing that they were doing really did work well for the company, not because they were manipulating it, but because they believed it. And so these are complex issues that you can't over-simplify.
LA: You can't fake it. You're really driving it home to me that you can't fake it. I have this quote from Marion Wade, the founder of ServiceMaster in front of me, and he said the whole purpose of reading the Bible and keeping it in mind is to learn how to conduct ourselves in our daily affairs. It's not something to put a slogan on the wall and then keep going about your business, it's actually something that he integrated into his daily practice. But it's gotta be real. You can't be faking it.
AE: Absolutely. [chuckle] Yeah.
LA: Now, Mark, I know you've worked with a lot of leaders and discipled leaders and done leadership training, how do you... Can you sniff out the difference between someone, someone using Christian principles as a band-aid solution and someone really living it?
MR: Oh yes, usually very quickly and easily. And there are some who adopt certain biblical words or language or ideas and sort of paste it into their own sort of business practices and it sort of seems to be Christian, but you can really pretty quickly get the sense of what they're really about and what they're really seeking. And at the same time you can... Just by watching people, but also by talking about... Talking to people who work in the company what it's like to work there, generally you can pretty quickly get whether this is a place that is really living out the biblical affirmation of people as whole people or not.
LA: Al, something that stood out to me as I was reading your book about ServiceMaster is how often these anecdotes would come up about the CEO of ServiceMaster or the top leadership of ServiceMaster on the floor cleaning up a spill. There are anecdotes all throughout your book about different CEOs, different of these leaders. Part of it was it was mandated in the company training when you came on to ServiceMaster, as a leadership position you had to do several shifts in the hospital cleaning the floors, but even when that wasn't in your training shift, you see instances of leaders throughout your book getting their hands dirty.
AE: Right. Yeah, I think that that's absolutely necessary. And when I reflect on this, I think about John Chapter One, where I think it's in the message where it says that Jesus lived for a while in our neighborhood, he lived for a while among us, and I think the idea of a CEO living in the real experience of the people that he leads or she leads is just such a powerful and important concept. And when you don't, you miss everything about what the worker is feeling. In fact, one of the things that happens with a janitor and one of the experiences that was told over and over again is that when you do the work of a Janitor and put on that green suit that they did at ServiceMaster the person almost became invisible. It's like they were treated as a part of the furniture. And when managers experienced that, they had a new empathy for what the workers were going through, and it made them better able to lead. And so I think of it as an incarnational kind of experience to represent this is the way, this is why it's so important to lead in this way, is to make sure that you are understanding the life of the person.
LA: And the image from John 1 of Jesus lived among us or the Word made flesh, dwelt among us or Jesus moved into our neighborhood, whichever translation that you get to look at, we have often this interpretation of John 1 as a spiritual reality. But here in the case of ServiceMaster, Al, you're really saying, "This is a workplace reality."
AE: Absolutely, and I think the parallel is very clear, that if we lead without really knowing the experiences of the people, we can lead poorly because we don't really understand the implications of what we're asking people to do.
LA: I feel like coining a new management term like "incarnational management," or so, Mark, what do you think?
MR: Yeah, you know what, I bet you somebody else has already come up with that.
LA: Someone's already stolen it.
MR: You think you have a unique idea, and then you go to Google and it turns out it, no. But it's a great way to think. But as you mentioned, sometimes there's sort of a spiritual overlay on our understanding of the incarnation. So Jesus is the Word of God in human flesh, and we affirm that and believe that. But mostly we don't really take seriously, for example, the fact that he worked probably about 18 years in the small family business, first being in all likelihood apprenticed into it by his father, and then it seems that his father died. We don't know that for sure, but we don't see Joseph in the Gospels. And so it's likely that Jesus did that. So the Incarnate Word of God, the Son of God is an adult on this Earth for around 20-ish, 21-22 years and spent the vast majority of his adult life working in an ordinary business. So many things come from that. One is just the extraordinary truth that God did not think it was a waste of God in the flesh's time to work in a small business. I mean, that's an extraordinary affirmation of the value of human work. Then, although again, we don't really get a picture of this. I think we can use our imaginations and the guidance of the Spirit to think about what kind of business would Jesus run? What kind of business person was Jesus? What kind of negotiator was he? What kind of products did he make? How did he treat the people? And again, I wish we had that in the Gospel record. We don't.
MR: But I think it could be a profound reshaping of how we think about our own practices in the workplace, whether we're running a small business, where we were the CEO of ServiceMaster or whether we're a worker way down in the line. But what does it mean to work like Jesus? And how does it feel to know that Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, spent most of his adult life doing ordinary work just like ours.
AE: That's a really good, Mark. At the end of Luke 2, it says, "Jesus grew in wisdom and in favor with God and men." I pondered that verse forever and thinking about the fact that he even as God in the flesh, could grow in his understanding. And someone speculated, and I know this is speculation, but he said he could imagine Jesus working with his father earlier in his life, working on building a house. And as he was digging to lay the foundation, he said to his father, "Have I dug deeply enough yet?" And his father said, "Well, have you hit rock yet, son?" And he said, "No." He said, "Well, then keep digging." And then later we get, "The wise man built his house on the rock." And so, perhaps, some of that work even showed up in the stories that he told. [chuckle]
MR: Well, and as you know very well, Al, it's so much in the Gospels, so much of that actually comes out of the workplace. You really get the sense that Jesus lived in and valued the workplace.
AE: Right, that's good.
LA: And it means the tensions that we face in the workplace today are not unknown to Jesus. They're not absolutely new.
LA: So, Al, as you've done this work now that your history of ServiceMaster is completed, what is your biggest takeaway for your own faith and your own work life from the story?
AE: Well, I think that there's one key thing. From 1929-2001, the world changed a lot. [chuckle] You think about going through the Depression, going through the World War, coming through the '60s, going into the era of technology. ServiceMaster had a set of principles and ways of operating, but they had to modify the way they applied those over time because the world was different. And so this idea that what you learned from this, you have to be very careful in saying, "Here was the principle they were applying, here's the way they applied it, but here is the context of that world." And how would I do that in the 21st century is a question that you have to adapt very carefully. And so watching ServiceMaster make these adaptations over time was equally instructive and important. Another message that I learned was that this kind of leadership is fragile. And when in 2000, from 1929-2001, the company had five leaders. Between 2001 and 2020, they've had seven. And the financial performance has been less, the foundation has been less. And this change has really made a difference. And almost like a scientific experiment when you change one variable and you look at its impact, you begin to see that that variable was very important, and this deeply rooted foundation in trying to do things in a biblical way,
When that went away, everything changed. And I guess one other thing that I need to mention. It seems like it's a bit of a downer to close on that part where it isn't working the way it was. But what I found in doing the interviews of people in different parts of the world, people who had spent a period of time at ServiceMaster during these years who are off doing other things, their whole mindset about leadership and training was rooted in what they learned at ServiceMaster and it is being carried on in places all over the world. And so I think that the idea that this only works in one place in a very special environment, that isn't true. It goes on in camp grounds in Texas of a large camping company, in a leadership training group in the United States, in three companies in Saudi Arabia where the person I talked with said, "I am now running three companies. And in every one, we have four objectives, to honor God in all we do, to help people develop, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitably." And he said, "Everything I did, I learned from ServiceMaster." So I think the idea of the value of these ideas carries on even if it doesn't go on at the company.
LA: And as you're talking, there's a plane flying over head, is that one of yours Al.
AE: I hope so.
LA: Is that one of the ones you're responsible for? It's saluting you in your work [chuckle] as we're talking.
AE: I hope we contributed to it. I'm not responsible for it.
MR: Say, Al, a question. I'm thinking of those who are listening to this podcast, and my guess is most of them are not CEOs or Presidents or even senior leadership in their company at this stage of their life. Why would someone like that, someone just getting going, someone who doesn't yet have a great deal of authority, why would The ServiceMaster Story be a good story for them to read at this stage in their professional life?
AE: So let me offer two quite different answers to that. If the person is an entrepreneur and starting a business himself or herself, one of the key things from ServiceMaster is Marion Wade built this foundation of honoring God in this company, and it was on that foundation that everything else rested. And so I believe that putting that foundation in very early in a company, not waiting until after I'm successful to start thinking about values and how I'm gonna treat people and ethics and all of that, but to start early is very important. So for the entrepreneur, it's the foundation.
If you're a person who's just working at an organization, maybe you bag groceries at Safeway or maybe you are a part of a tech company, and your management isn't treating you in this way, what do you do? Well, I think in this case, you can certainly work at seeing the purpose and meaning in your own work by looking at how your piece fits in with a bigger piece. You can recognize the value of those around you and encourage and recognize that you're a part of the whole and have dignity, have respect and in the way you think about the work of others. You can even if you are not encouraged to train and develop your skills, you can say, "I'm going to initiate that because I wanna be a learning and growing person who can understand in a bigger way the world that I'm a part of." So I think there's many, many things that a person can do within an organization that the ServiceMaster leadership encouraged, but that really made a difference for the people in the workplace. So I think some of those things can be initiated.
MR: Yeah, thanks, Al. I love that answer because some might think that The ServiceMaster's Story would be mainly for C-level leaders or something, but I think you've really explained how The ServiceMaster Story can be inspiring to folks in very different work contexts and, yeah, that's great.
LA: Al, thank you so much for joining us today and telling us about ServiceMaster and your work here.
AE: I'm excited about it as you can tell. And this was an amazing project and it was a lot of fun to do. I'm glad I finished it, but it was terrific and I'm glad to talk to people about it.
LA: Thank you.