Confession: The Latest In
Corporate Strategies

Think of it as a huge public Wall Street confessional. Lots of companies, willingly or unwillingly, are going to be making public confessions about how they have sold their souls.

Big companies who yesterday wouldn’t let you and I walk on their carpet are going to confess. Even smaller “Mom and Pop” businesses will examine themselves to ensure that their practices will bear moral scrutiny. What else is “sin” but a violation of a high moral standard? What we are seeing are sins of deception on debt and earnings declarations. The sin of putting profitability over product safety. The sin of paying huge bonuses to inept leaders while workers continue to lose. The sin of putting shareholder value ahead of doing what is right and of making the world a better place.

Chief among sinners right now, it appears, is the leadership of Enron. Are you caught up in this whole thing? Probably to most of us it is a distant happening. It wasn’t our employer. We didn’t have our money in Enron’s 401k. None of those zillionare executives invited us to a party at their mansions. Yet we are not as distant from occurrences like this as we may think. The whole story of Enron’s sins is immensely sad. Sad because thousands of people have been betrayed. Sad because Enron’s former vice-chairman J. Clifford Baxter shot himself because he “could not take the pain,” leaving a wife and two children to make sense of it all. He was only 43. He had a brand new 2002 Mercedes the papers were careful to point out, as though the kind of car you take your own life in is important. May God grant his family unusual courage and peace.

I can’t follow the unfolding Enron story without recalling an ancient teaching along the lines of: “What does it profit someone if they sell all their shares based on insider knowledge, accumulating extra-ordinary wealth at the expense of others, and lose their soul in doing so?” (Well it goes something like that.) Now it seems to me that once you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back. There is not some grand universal Pawn Shop in the sky. You sell it, it’s gone. You can pay a fine, settle a lawsuit and even build a park in the middle of the city – but that doesn’t mean you get your soul back. You get it back only if you confess and come clean before God, man and the marketplace. Obviously, I am no Enron expert – apparently no one is. But it seems to me that this company went to a great deal of trouble to sell its soul. According to various news sources, they set up between 900 and 2,000 different ventures to conceal billions in debt. We have here a sin of commission if there ever was one.

Cliff Baxter “complained mightily to (former CEO) Jeff Skilling…about the inappropriateness of our transactions.” Some think his suicide was really a reflection of his despair over participating in selling the soul of Enron – that he deeply regretted not being able to stop it. Like I said, once you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back. “Soul” is one of those words where everybody knows what it means but nobody can really tell you.

Every business, has a soul – that is if it hasn’t sold it already. It is that mysterious spirit you feel but cannot measure. It is the light in the eyes of those who work there. It’s the fire in the belly. It is the pervasive sense of calling that gives reason for every activity no matter how mundane. It is knowing that together you are fulfilling a higher calling, helping creation come to perfect fulfillment. It’s making the world a better place. It is what distinguishes you from all others. We shop at a Safeway store near our home. This Safeway has a soul. I don’t know if they all do. It hits you like a breeze when you walk in. The spirit of the people who work there. The genuine friendliness. The willing offers to help. And it’s not just what people do – it is much more permeating than that.

Does your grocery store have a soul – or does it just have groceries? How about your bank – does it have a soul? My observation is that most people just roll their eyes and smirk, like the answer is obvious. Our small local bank used to have a soul. Then it merged with a big bank and, well, let’s just say it’s different now. Now it just has checking accounts, makes loans and does various other financial transactions. Let me be clear – it is possible for big banks to have a soul, it’s just harder for them. Been in touch with a law firm lately? Does it have a soul? How about your accounting firm? I think accounting firm Arthur Andersen is fighting for its soul right now don’t you? AA is trying very hard to confess lately, offering a penance of $750 million. Money won’t cleanse, however. Does the United States Senate have a soul? Congress? Where do you buy your office supplies and does that supplier have a soul? For vet care we take our lab puppy Destiny to Dr. Debra Scharrer because her animal hospital has a soul.

Ever gone to a very expensive restaurant that has no soul? You feel it instantly. It can have chocolate lava cake and still have no soul. When you do find a restaurant with a soul you become a faithful and frequent patron. The cynical reader will instantly protest, “You go to a restaurant for decent food, not for a spiritual experience!” I disagree. Most people do want a spiritual experience – oh, and of course good food too. A restaurant that has soul will do everything it can to ensure your meal is the best it can possibly be.

I believe your customers want a spiritual experience from you too!So do your customers think your company has a soul? I would like to convince you that that is precisely what keeps customers loyal. Do your employees think the company has a soul? I would like to convince you that that is precisely what will keep them committed to supernatural service and performance.We are spiritual beings and we grow and perform best in spiritual contexts. If your company has lost its soul you might as well forget about performance improvement! Asking spiritual beings to perform in a situation with no soul is like trying to grow a maple tree out here in the Arizona desert. Or a cactus in northern Canada. Can’t be done because the object and the circumstance aren’t meant to go together. If your company has sold its soul, the only remedy is confession followed by correction. There is no other way.

Just how does a company lose its soul in the first place? Most businesses start out with the most admirable of intentions – at what point do things start to be compromised? That question will be the subject of the next column!In the meanwhile, if your company has a soul I want to know about it. Please contact me and tell me the story. Maybe you have something to teach us all.

Ian Percy is a business speaker, author. Reach him at www.ianperc.com

 
 

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