Current Issue

June 1, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 14


When God comes to the office

Princeton’s David Miller says faith works at work

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the June 1, 2011, issue

Expressing faith at work takes many forms. After witnessing the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the AIG bailout, and the Bernie Madoff scandal, Max Anderson ’01 — then approaching his graduation from Harvard Business School — enlisted 30 classmates to develop the M.B.A. Oath, which emphasizes long-term values over mere monetary gain. The oath has been endorsed by more than 300 schools around the world. (Read the oath on page 35.)

At Toro, Melrose allowed his faith to shape his decisions: He kept a Bible on his desk and believes to this day that God meant for him to take over leadership of the company, which he did when it was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. He guided it to solvency, using methods that to his fellow CEOs seemed risky and unorthodox. “I hated the idea that if we didn’t meet the analysts’ number, our stock was going to go down,” he says. “That’s not how I ran Toro. It was employees first, customers second, and stockholders third. That didn’t sit so well with Wall Street, but we got past that, and after a period of turnover to a more long-term shareholder base, we did fine.”  

Melrose promoted the slogan “Genuinely Valuing Others,” which got shortened to GVO. “We used the concept that we were our brothers’ keepers,” he says. In practice, this meant that instead of battling customers who were suing the company because they had been injured, Toro would send out a team of representatives to express the company’s sympathy for what had happened. Before this program began in 1991, virtually all such cases went to court. But “when we started doing this,” says Melrose, “virtually every one was settled right there in the home. And we developed customers for life.” Toro’s costs from injury litigation went from $17.3 million per year in the 1970s and ’80s to $4.3 million a year from 1991 to 2006. “A lot of the things that I think are faith-based are just common sense or the right thing to do,” says Melrose.  

Most companies require employees to go through some form of ethics training. But, says Miller, there’s a wide range in how seriously they take these efforts. In preparation for a recent visit to Miller’s class, Craig Philip ’75, CEO of the marine-transport company Ingram Barge, took the time to read his own company’s ethics handbook, and was surprised to see how legalistic it was. “It didn’t help very much,” he says, noting that three visits to Miller’s class have forced him to think hard about how these guidelines might be improved.  

Ingram Barge also has established a network of chaplains to visit its employees whose work, by its nature, can be remote and lonely. Philip regards such measures as an extension of the support the company has been trying to give its employees: “Providing support in the spiritual dimension is, to me, a natural progression of that,” he says. “We try to ­present it not as something new, but as the natural evolution of dealing with our associates in a holistic way.”

Signs are that Miller, Philip, and their co-believers are onto something. Miller’s e-news list has grown to 8,500 recipients. Last summer he joined 11 distinguished representatives of the three Abrahamic religions at the Caux Mountain House in Switzerland to discuss the recent recession and the role faith might play in averting another one. He was invited to China to speak about Christianity to officials trying to figure out how Confucianism might help curb rampant corruption. In June he’s hosting on campus about 30 human-resource officers from major companies.  

This is all gratifying, but it’s the smaller satisfactions that he’s most proud of. After he gave a recent presentation to a conference of institutional investors, 50 people lined up to thank him. One, a longtime churchgoing Presbyterian, stood out, saying, “Never once did I realize that my work could be a calling. I thought for it to be a calling, I had to sell everything and go be a missionary in Africa. You presented a theology to me that suggested I can still be a money manager, but how I do it and how I treat my people in the process can be a noble calling.”

Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.
Max Anderson ’01
Jodi Hilton/The New York Times/Redux
Max Anderson ’01

The M.B.A. Oath

Max Anderson '01, a speaker in the Faith and Work Initiative who works in a consulting firm, enlisted 30 Harvard Business School classmates to compose an oath for M.B.A.s that emphasizes long-term values.

As a business leader I recognize my role in society.

•   My purpose is to lead people and manage resources to create value that no single individual can create alone.

•   My decisions affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and tomorrow.

Therefore, I promise that:

•   I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.

•   I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and ­contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise.

•   I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.

•   I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.

•   I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.

•   I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise ­accurately and honestly.

•   I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from those I serve. I will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions and for upholding these standards.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.

Post Comments
5 Responses to When God comes to the office

Ellen Zweibel *77 Says:

2011-05-31 16:46:57

I see at least two threads in this interesting article. One relates to ethical conduct at work. Of course, we should all aspire to high ethical standards, whatever belief system they spring from, and it is appropriate to discuss this in the classroom. The second thread relates what role religion and other facets of employee life should have in the workplace. Here, I believe the best answer is "as little as possible." If I walk past the break room and see my supervisor leading a prayer meeting or organizing phone banking for a political candidate, I am going to wonder how participating or not participating in that group will affect my trajectory at work. On the other hand, it is important for employees to feel valued as "whole people," and there are other ways to do this, for example: granting a certain amount of paid, personal time, allowing flexible work schedules, matching charitable gifts to organizations that meet a broad set of criteria, providing an ombudsperson, and setting very clear policies against discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Donald Mintz *51 Says:

2011-05-31 16:49:19

I hate to sound a nasty note, but not so much as not to sound it. The purpose of business is to make money. The old-fashioned ideas that there should be some limitation on the tactics employed, and there is an obligation to a company's workers -— all these things are pretty well gone. And against this background, I must say first, that business ethics have a very long way to go before there is a reality to which these words refer, and second, that when a corporation or an executive begins to concern him/her/its self with my spiritual well-being I will take off just as fast as I can. (There's probably a scam lurking somewhere in that professed concern.)

Lorena De La Pena *98 Says:

2011-05-31 17:30:39

Professor Miller is wrong on so many levels, it's difficult to know where to begin. “Whether they’re Christian or Jewish or something else, they think about that decision differently than if they weren’t a person of faith.” This is a tremendously insulting sentence. I would hope that any person making a decision that could affect the lives of other people would make it based on ethical standards. Princeton and all schools would do well to emphasize ethics, and we would all do well to remember that being ethical does NOT mean having faith. Those of us who are not "persons of faith" are no less ethical in our lives than any of those "persons of faith." As proof, we could enumerate the myriad atrocities that have been and are being committed every day in the name of religion. Miller also implies that those of us who have no faith can not "think in terms of eternity." I need to ask, has he ever spoken to a cosmologist? I find Miller's ideas discriminatory to people of "no faith," and I believe that Princeton is wasting its resources teaching students how to bring their religion into the workplace when it should be teaching students how to think critically and develop a strong ethical foundation. As a perfect example, the M.B.A. Oath developed by Anderson is strong in ethics and has no mention of faith. Professor Miller would do well to leave religion and faith out of ethics and the workplace, lest our ethics be compromised by our faith.

Adrian Woodhouse '59 Says:

2011-06-23 11:01:17

While the program has lofty ideals, it is difficult to see any great impact on the business community. The last five years have shown a "God-awful" period of highly unethical behavior in the financial industry that has led the country in the worst depression since the 1930s. Also, regarding top executives looking out for their workers, this is belied by an astronomical rise in executive pay versus no growth in worker pay and/or the outsourcing of jobs to Third World countries!

Boe Parrish Says:

2011-11-21 13:35:10

Work has its own set of challenges, problems and pitfalls, that everyone experiences at one time or another during their professional careers. Once one has lived through many of the seasons of life, some of which we win, and some in which we don’t fare as well in. It doesn’t take long to realize that after a couple of tough seasons, we may need to seek counsel from those more experienced than ourselves, where we may need more wisdom. Success comes from seeking advice, and a wise man has many advisors. I have legal, financial, health, management, growth, strategy, and yes even spiritual advisers I meet with regularly. Not only do I meet with them, I have chosen to allow our employees the very same voluntary option. I want the healthiest, wisest, and most productive employees possible. Most companies today have gained an understanding that healthy employees are productive employees, and one way to total health involves body, mind and spirit. Corporate America over the past decade has continually encouraged their employees to engage in corporate wellness programs touching all three areas of our being. Having walked through some of the toughest seasons of life and business, I have grown to appreciate wisdom, regardless of its origin, that assists me in life and business. Ultimately, we are here to earn the highest possible return on investment as possible, but if that is all that life is about, then we’ve all missed the point of it all. With thirty-five years of successful business experience behind me, I can boldly state that ROI is not what life is all about! It is very nice to have profits, because that allows us to influence, and make an impact in the lives of others along the journey we call life. Certainly, we should all be respectful of one another, and the varying degrees of each other's faith, or the absence of faith, but rest assured that Dr. Miller has struck a chord that is being investigated and instituted by America’s finest top-rated corporations. Ultimately we aren’t given all these people to build big business only, we are given our businesses to build big people. We can’t take a single thing out of this world when we exit at the end of our days, except what we have chosen to invest in the lives of other people. Faith is not a dirty word even though in today’s politically correct environment, most would want you to think it is. Dr. Miller is tracking in an area of profound interest in in business today, as we all are trying to find the keys to success in business and life.
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CURRENT ISSUE: June 1, 2011
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Video: The M.B.A. Oath
A conversation on campus with Max Anderson '01, author of an oath for M.B.A.s based on integrity and long-term values.