What is work all about?
How does work and business fit into Christian thought? Susanne Janssen interviews Andreas Widmer, director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America
How did you get into the business world?
I came to America because I met my future wife, who is American, in Rome, and the easiest way to come to the U.S. was to study here. I didn’t have a work permit, but a technology startup company offered a non-paid internship. I was disinclined to accept a non-paying job, but my wife said, “Take it, at the very least, you get some experience.” I did, and they ended up sponsoring me to get the green card. I became the vice president of the international subsidiary and was entrusted with the building of our international presence. And I discovered that I just loved it! I learned that entrepreneurship was about much more than simply money. If you do it just for the money, then you are better off pursuing other opportunities.
What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?
This question really comes down to asking ourselves, “What is work all about?” For example, if your work is to write, you are starting with a blank piece of paper, there’s nothing on it, and you write down some thoughts and then you have something that didn’t exist before. This is very much the work God did in creation, first the heavens and the universe, the animals and ultimately us. It is interesting to note that only humans can work in this way. Work is something above the physical, because it is transcendent. We can make something out of nothing. Whenever you do that, you cooperate with God in his creative power. Entrepreneurship is continuing in God’s creative power; it is our opportunity to develop the world as it were. It’s a very noble vocation, and the freedom God gave us allows us to either follow that vision or abuse it.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens. I’m referring, for example, to the wrath that emerged with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Business and entrepreneurship can bring good things to people, they can create value. They can be a path to holiness. This is why I’m very critical when people say, “I want to be a social entrepreneur,” or “it’s only business,” because you’re really saying to all the others doing normal business is, “You don’t have any responsibility to others.” This is not true. Business ought to be a good for society because it creates value and creates jobs.
How can we bring this meaning back to business?
Not easily. The problem lies deep. Many of us have lost with our nihilism and materialism even the curiosity in what it means to be human. “Why are we here, what are we doing and where are we going?” If we don’t answer these questions anymore, then we are more inclined to be oppressive to others.
And then, the focus on short-term profit, on momentary pleasure and no worries about what comes after, takes over. I’m afraid that that is the real threat to our society. This view is not only prevalent in business; this is also prevalent in marriage, in government, in any other aspect of life.
I have a lot of friends, across various faith traditions, who get so frustrated with this materialism that they become angry, and they try to convince others and tell them what to do. The problem is that this doesn’t work.
What we need, and this is what Pope Francis tells us, is to learn to love unconditionally. Once a person experiences unconditional love, the door opens up. However, we have to understand love in the right way. If we say, “I love you” in English, it has a very broad meaning: “I love ice cream, I love my dog, I love my spouse and I love God.” It is not a very differentiated word. Saint John Paul II pointed out that the Italian language has a way to distinguish things, and that an interpersonal relationship, that Christian love between two people is more expressed with Ti voglio bene (“I want your good”). I find that to be a really great term. Do you want the good of your employees, your customers, your investors?
The greatest good for another that I can think of is eternal happiness — entering into that final happiness. How often do we, in our family, in our business, in our government, do things that hinder others from entering into that final happiness?
So what is the secret for a successful business?
When I coach businesses, the first question I ask is: “Do you produce goods that are really good? Or do you provide services that truly serve?” What is truly good? You have to find your answer to that. What all businesses have in common is that they ought to create. That is the first objective of business: to create something good, as God did, who after creating the world “saw that it was really good.”
The second objective is to be supportive. What is work all about? Work is fulfillment, so if you work, you don’t just create more, you become more — more human. Everybody in your company should be able to become more fully human through what they do.
The third objective is: be rewarding. Work has to be rewarding and productive, otherwise you could say, “Let’s give everybody a teaspoon and start digging,” and everybody is busy for a while. Work has to be productive, meaningful and profitable at the same time.
The employees have to be able to earn high and rising wages, the customer to buy a good product at a competitive price, the investors to obtain an above-average return on their investment — that’s rewarding. I actually took these three objectives from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. My specific attempt in teaching at CUA is to apply the Theology of the Body to business. Creative, supportive and rewarding are the three objectives of marriage.
Marriage is of course a sacrament and thus a very special situation, but every single relationship is an imitation of God.
You work better if you identify with the company, if you feel appreciated. I’m not sure if the over-emphasis of competitiveness really helps.
I’m somewhat in the middle. Competitiveness is very important for humans to actually do something; we perform better under pressure. As humans, we are called to pursue excellence — “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). There is a danger that I see in the approach of a more social democracy: to be happy with mediocrity and to become complacent.
I have an 11-year-old son who plays soccer. In little league we were supposed to not count goals, because then somebody wins, somebody loses… They did not want that. But does that actually achieve the intended objective? The fact that companies might fail or that people could lose their jobs is a very important motivator. The pursuit of excellence is not a comfortable thing to do. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a social net, but there has to be some pressure on humanity to perform well, otherwise we won’t grow.
People get upset because some people earn billions while others do not earn enough to feed their family. What should be done with the profit?
Every company ought to be profitable. And if you have a family business, you can decide, for example, that the first 10% goes to God. But as a Wall Street company, if I’m listed on NASDAQ, I can’t do that, because if I’m the president of the company, that profit doesn’t
belong to me, it’s not mine to give.
There’s great tendency in our world to abdicate our moral responsibilities. You and I, we are moral agents. If I know that a product was made through child labor, then I should not buy it.
If you have too much profit, then pay higher wages, lower the prices, organize training programs to qualify people for jobs ...
You could decide to give your employees five more vacation days, so that they stay healthy and have time for their families.
Very often we say, “It’s just business,” as if moral rules don’t apply there. A good business has employees that flourish and gives good returns to everybody involved. Coming from a rural community, I like the idea of the “law of the farm.” The reason why farmers practice crop-rotation is that they can’t plant the same crop every year. That would diminish the yield. They even sometimes sow plants that serve only as fertilizer for the field. For a business, that means, you can’t just milk, milk, milk the cow, you also have to feed her. We need entrepreneurs; we need visionaries who first invest in their employees. The human person is the only investment that offers infinite returns … an A-team can win with a B-product, but a B-team can’t win with an A-product.
Does that mean that in the long run, business owners who treat their employees well will win?
One of the talks I give is about “The CEO as a creator of culture.” When I first joined the company that hired me, as their CEO, they were losing money. They had three more months to go before facing bankruptcy, so I tried to create profitability, but I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried to focus on it.
Then I heard my business partner talk about emerging markets, and how the way to get out of poverty is to change the culture. I suddenly realized what that meant for my company: what is our culture? Ours was one of fear of failure and avoiding responsibility, because if you took responsibility and something went bad, you were chastised publicly. I started to focus on changing this culture.
Our employees seemed to be afraid to sell this product, so I asked the chief developer, “Tell me the truth about this product,” and he said, “It sucks.” So if that’s true, don’t talk it up … it’s time to change strategy. So we got together and said, “Let’s develop something of value for the customer.”
On the selling side, everybody was afraid to fail, so we started to make a game out of it, using three different strategies, and every Friday we came together for coffee to see what worked — it was a playful atmosphere in which you were encouraged to experiment. The culture changed, and we were profitable in three months.
So you can become profitable by setting an example.
Look at Pope Francis. It’s less about what he says, it’s more about what he does. Since he drives that small Fiat, everybody in the Vatican is downsizing their cars, and some bishops are moving into smaller apartments — pretty good!
What is Pope Francis telling us when he urges us to help the poor? What does that mean for the business world?
First we have to see: who are the poor and how are they poor? There’s spiritual and material poverty … Speaking about material poverty, I think it’s too easy to look at it like the World Bank and the UN, who define poverty by the per-day income, which lies now at $1.90 — whoever has less is poor. But it is not through mere redistribution of wealth that we escape poverty. Prosperity comes from doing business, because each time you do business, you create value, and added value creates wealth.
John Paul II defined poverty in a very different way: to be poor is to be excluded from networks of productivity and exchange. We have to integrate the poor into our networks of productivity and exchange, that’s the challenge. Does Starbucks have a coffee bar in a poor area? No, you’ll find there are only liquor stores and 7Elevens ...
We as business people, how do we see the poor? Do we see them as a problem to be solved, or as people with potential? We also have to distinguish between humanitarian aid and economic development. It is effective (and a human non-negotiable) to donate in case of emergency, to “give” to alleviate a humanitarian crisis. For economic development, on the other hand, this same approach actually hurts. To help the poor, we need to practice solidarity … do business with them, integrate them into our networks of productivity and exchange, in other words, allow them to work and flourish.
Andreas Widmer is author of The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s
Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.
If you are interested to read more articles like this::