Q & A WITH MARC GUNTHER:
What led you to write Faith and Fortune?
I wrote a cover story for FORTUNE in July 2001 called “God & Business: The Surprising Quest for Spiritual Renewal in the American Workplace.” The response was so extraordinary — hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters — that I became convinced that there were lots of people looking for ways to live their faith at work. Two months later came September 11. The events of that day, I think, caused even more people to reflect on their priorities. The recognition that life is short — that it can be taken away in an instant–intensified people’s desire to do meaningful work, work that makes a contribution to society.
We all admired the work that the New York City firefighters did on September 11 because it was important work, even worth dying for. I think all of us want to do important work. We want to work for organizations that have a purpose that goes beyond making money. That goes for those of us in the business world as well.
So is this is a book about faith and work, or corporate social responsibility?
Both really. The thing is, I’m defining faith very broadly. It’s not just religious faith, although some of the business people I write about are devout in traditional ways. Others, though, are driven by faith in the broader sense — the faith that people are good, that things can change for the better, even that businesses can be a force for good. These leaders want to leave their companies, and the world, better off. So they are all deeply into the issues of corporate social responsibility.
I must say that finding the right language to talk about these questions is a challenge. In the book, I describe a set of “spiritual values” that are common to all of the world’s religions. They include the belief that people should be treated with dignity, the belief that people should be a valued for who they are, the belief that we are all interconnected, and the belief that our purpose is to serve others and to promote the common good. Great companies — companies like Herman Miller and Timberland and UPS, all of which are profiled in the book– live by those values.
How can you argue that companies are changing for the better, given all the scandals we’ve seen?
Actually, the scandals have become an important driver of corporate reform. There’s so much cynicism out there about corporate America that companies feel the need to show that they are about more than greed.
And if you take the long view with respect to a number of big issues–the environment, the role of minorities and women in business, human rights in the developing world, workplace cultures–I think you have to agree that big business is becoming more responsible than it used to be. Not all big companies, of course, but many of them.
What other forces are driving what you call the quiet revolution to reform American business?
By far the biggest and most significant is the desire of companies to attract and engage their people. Most people don’t want to work for just a paycheck. They want meaning as well. Companies that are guided by humane or spiritual values — those that see their role as serving their people, serving their customers and serving the greater good — attract the best people. Look at Southwest Airlines. They aren’t just an airline. They are about giving their passengers the freedom to fly, at affordable prices. That’s their mission. And they get fabulous people who work their tails off for the airline.
Issues of reputation come into play as well. Companies that are known for their strong values have an edge in attracting customers, partners and investors. No corporation wants to be seen as uncaring or irresponsible. Look at some of the problems Wal-Mart has run into lately. Or what happened to Nike in the 1990s. Nike, by the way, has become one of the most socially responsible companies out there.
How did you choose the companies for the book?
Mostly by doing lots of reading and reporting. Some of the choices were obvious — everyone knows that Hewlett Packard has been a special place to work since it was founded in 1938. Others were surprises. We all know UPS, but not many people realize how worker-friendly the company is. Most people who go to work there never leave. It’s almost like a cult!
A few of the choices will be controversial. Starbucks has taken a lot of heat because it’s a big, global chain. But the company provides health insurance and stock options to people in an industry — fast food — where that had never been done before. What’s more, it is going the extra mile to be fair to coffee growers in poor countries around the world. Starbucks’ CEO Orin Smith keeps a low profile but he’s a terrific leader.
What surprised you as you worked on Faith and Fortune?
The biggest surprise was that I abandoned my original thesis! When I wrote the “God & Business” article for FORTUNE, I set out to explore what I expected to be the inevitable tensions between religious faith and capitalism. I figured that people of faith would always be making compromises if they wanted to succeed in business.
Now I think that that just the opposite is true. Yes, there are tensions between spiritual values and the demands for short-term profits. But I think it’s actually much harder to suppress one’s values at work than it is to live them honestly. More importantly, I have come to believe that spiritual values and business success are aligned, at least in the long run.
Is that a leap of faith, or do you have evidence to back it up?
The evidence is partly anecdotal. All the companies I write about in Faith and Fortune have enjoyed conventional success — measured in terms of profits or shareholder returns — while living by spiritual values. H-P, UPS, Starbucks, Southwest, Timberland, Herman Miller — they have all been great investments as well as great companies. And their CEOs all told me that values were key to their success.
But logically, doesn’t the idea that companies can do well by doing good makes sense in today’s interconnected, transparent business world? It comes down to the fact that people want to work for, invest in and do business with companies they can trust.
Again, taking the long view, what we’re seeing is an old way of doing business being replaced by new thinking. That old way, which goes back to the industrial revolution, saw business as a series of disconnected transactions: Companies paid their workers and suppliers as little as possible and charged their customers as much as they could. This approach works for a while, but not for long. People don’t like to get screwed.
The new way of thinking is different. Here the idea is to build a company by developing a network of long-lasting, win-win relationships with workers, partners and communities. These relationships are based on fairness and trust. Companies that think long-term — about the next quarter of a century, not the next quarter — do business this way. All the companies in the book operate this way.
What do you want readers to take away from Faith and Fortune?
A sense of optimism. The belief that corporations, run right, can do enormous good. And the desire and determination to make the world a better place. That’s all!