The Business of Faith – An Interview with Al Erisman

For much of my career I’ve worked in the faith community but lately I’ve been asked by a few companies to conduct workshops on professional and personal development. I found it a little challenging to make the transition. During that time I met Michael Erisman, a VP of Human Resources . One of the things Michael and I discussed, and what prompted our relationship, was that he saw the similarity between what I was doing with the gang culture and in leading in the church, as needed and relevant in the business setting. The core issues of relationship, purpose, belonging and leadership are the same whenever people are involved. He provided some context on how to translate the key points of my work with terminology and events common to business settings. During one of our conversations Michael offered to introduce me to his dad Al and sent me a copy of his new book The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith and Calling from the Life of Joseph. The book was extremely insightfully and I couldn’t wait to talk to Al about the intersection of faith and business. It was an eye opening conversation that I had to share with others. Al agreed to be interviewed.

Here’s a snapshot of Al’s career followed by his answers to my questions.

Albert M. (Al) Erisman is the Executive in Residence and the past Director for the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. He teaches business ethics and business and technology both at the undergraduate and the graduate level. He is also executive editor of Ethix magazine, which he co-founded with a colleague in 1998. In this capacity he has interviewed business leaders from around the world on issues of ethics, values, and purpose. In April 2001, Dr. Erisman completed a 32 year career at The Boeing Company where, for the last 10 years, he was director of R&D for computing and mathematics.

RT: Al, I pulled this quote from your book. “For people in the workplace, there is a great deal to learn from Joseph in the book of Genesis. He spent time both at the top and at the bottom-as a leader and as a slave in Egypt. In this new book about faith and work, author Albert M. Erisman shares lessons learned from the frontlines of business, government, and education, and how they connect to Joseph’s life. Through the author’s own work experiences and interviews with business leaders across the world, you’ll learn that Joseph dealt with issues that are still common in the business world today. Studying his life can offer guidance and encouragement in any workplace.”

RT: What compelled you to write The Accidental Executive?

There are two dominant things that led me to write this. First, almost 30 years ago while at Boeing, a challenging year caused me to consider how Joseph dealt with the difficulties of his workplace while he was in slavery and in prison. The story helped me through that period, but it also focused my attention on the story of a career. Second, I have been engaged over the past eight years with an international team writing a commentary on the Bible and what it has to say about our daily work (www.theologyofwork.org). This work gave a framework for me to see the Scripture in a new way.

RT: Who is your intended audience?

When I started, I was thinking about people in a leadership position, since Joseph ended up as the CEO of the Egyptian International Food Company. But as I got into it, I realized that his first 13 years in the workplace, he worked from the bottom of the corporate ladder as a slave and in prison. I thought of my many students who start out doing what might seem like menial jobs, and what they could also learn from Joseph. Also, I started by thinking of people of faith who are familiar with the biblical story, but later realized that there is common wisdom found in this account. Dealing with office politics, acting professionally, executing a strategy, and dealing with success are just a few of these. So my hope is that anyone in the workplace can make connections with this book. Early responses from people who do not identify with the faith community indicate this to be the case.

RT: What do you want readers to take away from The Accidental Executive?

It starts with purpose. Joseph saw purpose, even a call from God, on the “ordinary” work he did. But it extends to how the work is done, navigating through the long and challenging tasks each of us face in our workplaces. The big project Joseph took on lasted 14 years. It is important to plan well, but it is also important to carry out the work when things get difficult and the glamour is gone. Joseph had to work through all of these things.

RT: Based on the overview of your book it sounds like you believe that there are things business professionals can learn from Biblical leaders on business success. Is that an accurate assessment? Do you also think that there are principles that Christians can learn from the business leaders?

I absolutely believe there are biblical lessons people can learn that apply to 21st century business. But as you say, Christians can learn from business leaders as well. I tried to make this point when examining how Joseph handled particular situations. I linked what Joseph did with the way 21st century business leaders do similar things. Over the past 15 years I have had the opportunity to interview prominent business leaders across the world. People like Alan Mulally (Ford), Jim Sinegal (Costco), Fu Hua Hsieh (Singapore Exchange), Bonnie Wurzbacher (Coca Cola) and so many others show up in the book as illustrations for the business principles discussed.

RT: In some circles there seem to be misconceptions about the role of faith in doing business and similarly, in the faith community I sometimes find that people don’t like to talk about business and specifically money. What are your thoughts in these issues?

Some people reduce the connection between faith and business to acting ethically or sharing their faith. But it goes much deeper than this. What we do, why we do it, and how we do it are all matters that need to be informed by our faith. Jesus said as much about money and property as he did about the afterlife. Faith is about a new way of seeing all of life, not just a compartment of life. That said, I believe business is about a great deal more than making money, and reducing business to money is a problem. Business is about creating great products and services that make a difference in society. It is usually easy to tell the difference between people trying to make as much money as they can, and people with a passion for the products and services they produce.

RT: In The Accidental Executive you share a lot of life lessons. What are two or three of the most important life lessons you learned as a business leaders and Christian?

One is the role of leadership. As a leader, it is not about you, but about serving others. Second, our work is not about the titles, perks, or money, but about delivering value. Third, our work needs a bigger purpose that makes a difference. Our work is not just about getting by, but has a purpose from God in this world. Joseph learned these lessons. He spoke a bit too boldly about his dreams early on, thinking the promise of his dreams would lead him to authority and power. But time in slavery and in prison put him in a position to serve others, even while in slavery, in prison, and ultimately when he had power beyond any we could imagine. At the end, he recognized the call of God when he told his brothers, “You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good, for the saving of many lives.” In developing these points I was reminded of times when I found a way to do these things, and times when I did not. These are challenging lessons that are never finally learned.

RT: Many employees find themselves suffering from the “Monday Morning Blues”, a state of mind that is often symptomatic of a lack of enthusiasm, passion, meaning, value or finding purpose in the work that they do. As a result, Mondays (workdays) are dreaded.
• How does one find or deal with purpose in our work?
• How important is discovering one’s purpose in light of work? (personal and world impact)

One of the business leaders I quote from in the book, Barry Rowan, makes the point, “We don’t find meaning in our work, but we bring meaning to our work.” It is important we view our work beyond the particular task to see its impact and how we can contribute to that impact. One of the challenges in trying to discover one’s purpose, is that we believe it comes from our work. Further, we must recognize that many of the people in the world have little choice about what they can do. Joseph was one of these people, yet he saw the purpose in his work. Another leader reminds us that if we are constantly waiting for the perfect thing, we miss what we can contribute where we are. Make a difference where you are. It doesn’t mean you must remain stuck, but while you are there, do the work well, and identify how that work contributes to a bigger purpose.

RT: In what ways can Christians begin to see the marketplace as a “scaling opportunity” to affect positive social change; i.e., in terms of economic impact in addressing issues of joblessness, poverty, instilling value/dignity in persons, and for human flouring and affecting the wider culture?

As we have studied the Bible to look for the role of work in our whole lives, we see two quite different purposes: developing capability that carries on what God began with the creation. This involves creating products and services that bring value, dignity, and opportunity to our communities. The second type of work, because of the brokenness of our world, is to do work that helps overcome the ravages of this brokenness. Again, Joseph’s work had both of these characters. The logistics system he put together for the 14 year project was a creative marvel. But he was saving people from the ravages of famine at the same time. When Christians see their work as meaningless except for the paycheck, they miss all of these opportunities. Bill Pollard, former CEO and chairman of ServiceMaster, helped the people doing the dirty job of cleaning hospitals see the role they had in helping the patient get well. It was more than the task, and more than the paycheck.

RT: What roles do money and business play in the work of ministry? I ask because, I sometimes find that in some circles Christians talk about money like it’s a bad thing and in others, people with money downplay that fact that they have it in order to avoid being judged harshly by others.

I need to clarify your definition of ministry. There is a common view that ministry is within the church, but I have come to believe we are all ministers, and I tend to use the term ministry in its broadest sense. But I certainly understand the issue you are raising. Money has a distorting capability. Both the Scripture (the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil) and psychology (Daniel Khaneman in Thinking Fast, and Slow, says that money makes us isolated and selfish) teach us this. When we see someone with money (more than we have, a relative thing) we either elevate them, envy them, or put them down. Money is a tool, and we cannot become servants to our tools. In the same way, I would suggest that when a business focuses only on money it can distort purpose, decisions, and everything about the business. This is a much longer subject, but we can also tie this back to the Joseph story. When Joseph came into fortune through his big promotion, he needed to take some deliberate steps to keep this fortune from taking his eye off of the goal. In general, he seemed to handle this well and provides a model for dealing with success.

RT: What do you think is required for non-religious business institutions and the faith community to find common ground?

There are many places of common ground. As Christians in business, we need to be careful about how we take our faith to work. It is not the place for proselytizing. But the principles we have already discussed including purpose, fairness, treating others with respect, honesty, transparency, diligence are all deeply rooted in our faith, and a place for common ground with others. There is one other point here. As Christians we can understand the tension between the goodness of our work (God created humankind to work before sin entered the world) and the brokenness of our work. So it should enable to do our work in the presence of both purpose and challenge.

RT: What do Church leaders have to offer the business community that would be welcomed and not make them feel like we are proselytizing or making them feel judged?

All of the above practices are a part of this answer. But perhaps another dimension of this question is how pastors can better equip the business people their congregations. Thus pastors need to understand and communicate the purpose and calling of work in the marketplace. The pastor can play an important role in encouraging or discouraging marketplace people in the congregation. Don’t expect the pastor to become a business consultant, but do expect engagement and support. Business people likewise should encourage and support their pastors in their work.

RT: How can faith community leaders learn to better communicate with the business community? One of the lessons that I learned from you and your son Michael, is that when speaking to the business community it’s important to know which “religious” words translate and which words do not when speaking to potential business allies. Understanding the language or communication style of the business community is critical to creating cross sector networks. In The Accidental Executive you did an excellent job of making this a book understandable for people of faith and people in business who may not identify with the Christian narrative but can identify with the story.

Psychologists talk about something called “Theory of Mind,” working to understand something in the language of another person. Every community develops its own lingo that is totally incomprehensible outside that community, and it breaks down communication. Christians suffer from this as well. Really getting to know another person allows you to communicate with them in their language. Joseph dealt with this early in his life when he told his brothers of his dreams of leadership. He wasn’t considering how they would hear the message. Later, after time in slavery and in prison, we see he learned this lesson. His communication with Pharaoh was brilliant in looking at the situation from Pharaoh’s point of view. It is amazing to see that after 13 years in slavery and in prison he said nothing about his own situation, and focused on Pharaoh’s problem. We need to work at this, and it is not easy.

RT: Thank you Al for taking the time to do this interview. Are there is final thoughts you would like share?

Once I started reading this story as the story of a career, I was amazed how many lessons popped out that are relevant to 21st century business. We’ve have talked about many, but here are a few more. Like us, Joseph had an education that was helpful but he also was taught some things that he had to unlearn. His approach to strategy seemed remarkably like what is taught in business school today. Joseph had to deal with difficult bosses and had to learn good “upward communication.” By the end he did very well. Taking bad news to a boss, for example, is challenging today, and something Joseph had to learn. There are some things I would like to ask Joseph about that are not in the text. I tried not to speculate, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to prepare some questions for him. I included these in the last chapter.

RT: The Accidental Executive is a great book that shares an amazing journey. I highly recommend it. You are purchase it here http://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Executive-Lessons-Business-Calling/dp/1619706210/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1441129937&sr=8-1&keywords=Al+Erisman

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