#104 – Business A Better Way “Without Faith”

ESSENCE:  In our last post we looked at why Biblically faith-based non-profits can have cultures that stray far from God’s design for work–good work on the outside with unhappy people on the inside.  In this post, we consider the other end of the spectrum–secular businesses that appear to be faithfully “doing right” through business a better way (i.e., business as God intended in accordance with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities) seemingly without being faith-driven.  Every leader–every human–was created in the image of God with hardwired  “first-order beliefs” such as the Golden Rule and a sense of what is “right” and “good”, but the societal pull of business as usual is strong.  While many organizations “do good” because it is (and only for so long as it continues to be) good for the bottom line–Profit as Purpose–others really are driven by a WHY of prioritizing people, even without a conscious faith motivation.  SAS Institute is one such (very large) organization seemingly exhibiting what you might call “faith without faith“.

In our last post (#103 Business As Usual in Ministry), we reflected on a seeming anomaly–how Biblically faith-based non-profits can be led down a business as usual path (i.e., business in the way of the world) with cultures that stray far from God’s design for work–good work on the outside with unhappy people on the inside.

In this post, we will consider the other end of the spectrum–secular businesses that appear to be faithfully “doing right” through business a better way (i.e., business as God intended in accordance with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities) seemingly without being faith-driven.

Case Study: SAS Institute

SAS Institute is a big company providing data analytics solutions.  It has over 12,500 employees spread across the world with customers in 145 countries.  Its software is installed at over 82,000 business, government and university sites.  SAS was started by Dr. Jim Goodnight in 1976 with four employees.  SAS is renowned for the benefits it offers its employees and its award-winning culture:

In 1998, it was included in Fortune magazine’s inaugural list of the Best Companies to Work For in the US and has been on Fortune’s list of the top 100 every year since then.

Over time, SAS’s offices in Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Portugal, Finland, China, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Sweden joined the list of “Great Places to Work”.

In 2012, SAS ranked No. 1 on the World’s Best Multinational Workplace list.

In 2017, SAS ranked No. 2 in Fortune magazines Best Workplaces for Millennials list, and People magazine named it in the top five of its first annual 50 Companies That Care list.

In 2020, SAS received 13 global workplace and leadership awards, including Great Place to Work, Top Employer and America’s Best Employer for Diversity.

The author of a 2013 article about SAS noted that it had experienced 37 consecutive years of record earnings, and following the 2008 financial crisis announced that none of its then 13,000 employees would lose their jobs.  The author concluded:

More than anything, SAS has found that by being an especially benevolent and respectful organization, they consistently produce the most optimal workplace performance. Their highly nontraditional insight is that workers instinctively and positively respond to an organization that routinely demonstrates that they matter and are individually valued. . . . The foundation of employee happiness at SAS, Goodnight believes, is its culture of trust. By ensuring that workers consistently respect the organization’s management, he knows that they will put forth their greatest commitment and contribution.

A 2016 article in Forbes called SAS “a pioneer in the “happy work-place” movement that caters to worker’s every need” but contrasted SAS with the “indulgent campuses and services offered by Facebook and Google to it millennial employees.”

In 2017, a Forbes article noted that SAS extends its respect and caring benefits not only to its creative types, but also to “landscapers, cleaning crews, and daycare employees” on its payroll.  Although the article says the result is lower revenue per employee, Goodnight responded “I just believe it’s proper and the right thing to do.”  The author noted that “Goodnight differs in his thinking about what makes for a great work environment than his Silicon Valley tech competitors“.   He thinks people are not very productive after 40 hours per week, believes in private offices to reduce distractions, and prefers people coming to the office (rather than being remote) for the informal human interactions that occur.

How did SAS build this extraordinary business a better way culture seemingly “without faith”?

Mike Stallard may have discovered the answer in a 2017 interview of Goodnight.  Stallard wrote:

Earlier in his career when he worked for a NASA subcontractor on the Apollo program, he observed the dismal environment of employees working in cubicle farms and how it contributed to annual employee turnover of around 50 percent.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the negative effect that work environment had on organizational performance. From the start, he treated SAS employees as he had always wanted to be treated.

Whether or not he made the connection, Goodnight appears to have built the culture of SAS by applying a simple but powerful Biblical principle–the “Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12–treating people with the care and dignity with which he would have liked to have been treated.  It has worked.

Faith Without Faith

In post #101 (Restore–God Glorified), we asserted that the ultimate “SO THAT”–the ultimate WHY–behind business a better way must end up in Glorifying God.  Drawing on a teaching by Bill Hybels and the prayer of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 19:19 (“Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, SO THAT all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God”), we suggested that when pursuing something or praying for something, we need to add “SO THAT” at the end.  If the immediate iteration of the SO THAT exercise is still removed from Glorifying God, then we need to ask SO THAT again and again until we can get to our ultimate purpose.

There is no evidence we have found to suggest that Glorifying God or even Biblical beliefs, values and priorities were the conscious motivation of Jim Goodnight in building a business a better way culture.  But as Tim Keller points out in his book  Every Good Endeavor:

People have innate consciences that are preloaded with senses of honesty, justice, love, the Golden Rule, and so on. . . . This universal knowledge of God and of good—this aspect of natural revelation—has been called “first-order beliefs.” All people hold these beliefs at some level, even if their conscious, intellectual, culturally conditioned “second-order beliefs” deny them utterly.

Whether or not conscious to Jim Goodnight, the “SO THAT” that inspired the heart of the culture of SAS was, in fact, aligned with God’s heart and God’s commands–it was about treating people with dignity and respect and genuinely caring for them–not to manipulate them but because it is the right thing to do.  It was what you might call “faith without faith“.  A few quotes from Jim Goodnight give insight into his heart and the heart he instilled in SAS:

It turns out that doing the right thing – treating people right – is also the right thing for the company.

Treat employees like they make a difference and they will.

I’ve never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur.  I think of an entrepreneur as someone who wants to make a lot of money.  That has never been at the top of my list.

 The fact is that if our profits don’t grow and continue to grow every year so what? We have our comfort level of what our profits should be and we try to maintain about a 15% profit level. That is sufficient growth for us so we don’t have to be draconian and say “Oh my gosh, better go and lay off a 1000 people”. . . .  It makes me really mad when a CEO lays off thousands of workers, and is rewarded with the stock increasing.

It turns out that doing the right thing – treating people right – is also the right thing for the company. (Dr. Jim Goodnight)

When Business a Better Way May Really Be Business As Usual

Although only God truly knows a person’s heart, the track record of SAS’s culture over many years, the desire of Jim Goodnight to “do the right thing” for people, and Goodnight’s willingness to limit his profit expectations to care for people, suggest that people really are the priority and profit is a means to that end as well as a by-product of that priority.

We have noted in past posts that even organizations pursuing Profit as Purpose may institute benefits and initiatives that look like those provided by SAS or like those that might be adopted by an organization faithfully “doing right” through business a better way.

The difference–and it is a BIG DIFFERENCE–is the WHY behind the initiative–because that makes ALL the difference.  The faith-driven leader is putting the initiative in place because it represents faithfully “doing right” in furtherance of business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities.  The Profit as Purpose business is likely putting the initiative in place because its leaders have determined that, in the long-run, it is good for bottom-line in furtherance of “business as usual” (or, at a minimum, they believe it is not inconsistent with Profit as Purpose).

For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article about the trend toward “mission-driven” companies notes “A big part of it is still about the money, namely chasing consumers’ pocketbooks and trillions of dollars of potential investment from environmental, social and governance funds.”  And when the Business Roundtable did an about-face to downplay maximizing shareholder value and stress the importance of other stakeholders, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “Is There Real Virtue Behind the Business Roundtable’s Signaling?” (sadly, the authors concluded that the signatories could be just trying to pre-empt regulatory scrutiny).

While we can be optimistic because every leader of every organization was created in the image of God with hardwired  “first-order beliefs“, the pull of business as usual is powerful.  In the words of Max Depree:

Unless somebody articulates something different, you are going to adopt a secular standard without even thinking about it.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):   The SAS case study seems like a good time to reiterate something I shared way back in post #066.  In pursuing Integrous and developing the path to Integriosity, a few people suggested dropping the “faith” focus in order to appeal to a much broader business audience that would resonate with integrity.  But I wondered about the “Why” that would be driving someone to care about integrity.  If it is integrity in the sense of “wholeness and alignment”–the integrity behind Integriosity–then exactly what would they be aligning their business with? There is a legitimate desire to align an organizational culture with its values, but what is the genesis of those values?  To appeal to recruits?  To qualify for ESG investors?  To impress customers?  To define a culture of care for employees to improve retention?  To define a culture that is customer-focused to drive sales?  To drive a culture that is law-abiding to avoid trouble?  All fall victim to the “SO THAT” test.  Keep asking “SO THAT” and it is likely that the absence of faith-inspiration–a transcendent standard–leads you to Profit as Purpose.

Of course, SAS seems to be an example of a desire to “do good” being motivated by a genuine prioritization of humans without a faith-inspired plumb line, and I am confident there are other businesses and other leaders doing the “right thing” for the “right reasons” without being consciously faith-driven.  After all, it is part of Imago Dei.

But I believe it should be far easier to reach the faith-driven–the “low-hanging fruit”–and they should be the “light of the world”–“articulating something different” in the words of Max Depree.

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Photo Credit: Original photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
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