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The Firm's Godly Service in a Secular Society

R&L: How did you come to be involved in the business world, and what role has your faith played throughout your career?

Pollard: I came to ServiceMaster from the academic world; I was both a professor and a college administrator at Wheaton College. Prior to those roles, I was a practicing attorney. So, in one sense, I have had three separate vocations, but each time I made a change, it was around circumstances in which I felt very clearly that it was God’s decision to make the change.

My career has been a constant process of being challenged to relate my faith to my business decisions and to my relationships with people in the marketplace, and, at times, to seek confidence and guidance when major decisions have to be made. In this way, my experience in the marketplace has been a laboratory for living out my faith.

R&L: In your book, The Soul of the Firm, you list ServiceMaster’s four core values: “To honor God in all we do, to help people develop, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitably.” I would like to look at each of these in turn. First of all, do you take much flak for having such a forthright theistic conviction as the first of your firm’s core values?

Pollard: Well, I would not describe it as “flak”; I would describe it more as questions. It is a unique objective for a large public firm to have.

The most-asked questions are, What is the relationship between God and profit? Is it appropriate to mix God with business? Is it an exclusive standard, or can it be consistent with a pluralistic environment? More fundamentally, it raises the question about God, and that is a relevant, timeless, and appropriate question whether we are in our businesses, families, or communities.

R&L: There is a lot of talk today about how the modern workplace is somehow fundamentally dehumanizing, so your second value may strike some as surprising. How are the demands of the firm consistent with the development of the dignity of the person?

Pollard: In our business, which is fundamentally a service business, we have found that we all learn by serving others and that, in fact, the workplace can contribute to a process of continuous learning and development. Work, consequently, can be considered more than drudgery, more than something done from 9-to-5 to earn a living.

R&L: In connection with your third value, you write in your book that “the firm is like a university.” How so?

Pollard: Learning is a lifelong experience, not something completed at the end of our school days. In fact, as we experience the knowledge explosion happening around us today, one must view the firm as a university, as a time for learning. At ServiceMaster, we consider learning not only as it relates to a particular job assignment but also as it relates to understanding history and culture. To this end, we provide various learning vehicles. (Today, for example, I just finished teaching a section of our management-skills course, the equivalent of an MBA program.) ServiceMaster has a simple principle: If managers are too busy to teach, they are too busy to work here. We are all involved in teaching and learning.

R&L: And this teaching and learning involves more than just technical training?

Pollard: Yes. It involves a variety of readings and discussions. For example, in our most recent senior management planning session, one of the assigned books was Peter Drucker’s Management Challenges for the Twenty-First Century, but another was Leo Tolstoy’s essay, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” We assigned this essay to raise questions such as, How do your earning of money and creating of wealth contribute to the kind of person you are becoming? How does your work contribute to your role in your family and community? And what does it add up to? We think it is appropriate to raise these sorts of questions in the workplace.

R&L: Fourth, for some, the idea of “profit” contradicts the spirit of Christianity. How do you respond to those people?

Pollard: I relate that question to the question Jesus asks: “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” Implicit in this question is that, in fact, there is something to gain, whether it is this life or it is eternal life. This idea is also implicit in Jesus’ parable of the talents. And it is implicit in the whole concept of Christian stewardship. The concept of profit is surplus–that after one expends his time, effort, or money, there is something gained in return. Profits certainly can become the end goal of one’s life and, hence, totally counterproductive; whenever profits become an end instead of a means, that person has his eyes on the wrong ball. So, in my judgment, the problem is not generating profit, it is the use of profit.

R&L: For others, the idea that a firm should have any other values (especially Christian values) besides profit contradicts the spirit of capitalism.

Pollard: For most, the firm is all about maximizing profits. From my perspective, it cannot and should not be the sole purpose of the firm. When it is, I believe it is ultimately self-destructive, because I do think you cannot generate profits without people; if people do not have a purpose and meaning beyond generating profits, you will come up against the law of diminishing returns. In the long run, you are not going to have consistent production of quality products and services unless people see a mission beyond profit. People work for a cause, not just for a living.

R&L: Would you forego profits in the short run in order to invest in people for the long run?

Pollard: In some cases we have done that, but the choice is not always in such stark contrast. One of the challenges of managing in the marketplace is that you have to do both: You have to generate profits, and you have to invest in people. Our firm is a marketplace vehicle, and the marketplace has a standard of measurement, an expectation that we grow our bottom line. In the process, we have to serve our customers and to retain good employees who want to serve. So, in many respects, we do not have the choice of saying, “Today we want to honor God, and we don’t care about making money,” or, “Today we want to make money, and we don’t care about developing people.” We have to address all these concerns concurrently in our decision making.

R&L: That sounds complicated.

Pollard: It is. It creates tensions. Tensions can be destructive, and tensions can be creative. For example, all of us have built our muscles by the tension of one against another. We would not be able to lift anything if we did not have our biceps and triceps working against each other. Tension gives strength; that is a reality of life.

R&L: As a Christian and a businessman, how do you view the free-market system?

Pollard: The free-market system is morally neutral. It can bankrupt the soul if there is not an influence higher than the market. On the other hand, the free-market system allows for choice, and I believe in a God who created man with the power of choice–ultimately, a choice to accept or reject him. Choice and freedom are the factors that typically govern what is produced, sold, and manufactured in a free-market system. So I think it is positive in that respect. On the other hand, we all know that choices can be destructive.

R&L: And since the market is morally neutral, the individuals participating in it must bring moral behavior to the system.

Pollard: Exactly. Unless that happens, you have chaos. We have great examples of that today in some of the former communist countries where there was no moral reference point outside the state. When the state fell away, there was rampant corruption in significant segments of the economy. There is now a market system of sorts, but there are many negatives to it because there is not the moral stability that supports truth, disclosure, and honesty. When the majority of people are not expressing these moral attributes, the system becomes very destructive, even though goods and services are being bought and sold.

R&L: Ministers’ views of the business enterprise sometimes range from the moderately suspicious to the famously critical. Has this been your experience?

Pollard: I do not know if I would characterize my experience with ministers exactly the way that you have described it. In fact, one of the founders of ServiceMaster left the ministry to start the business. I do think, though, that there is a misunderstanding or, better, a lack of understanding of the marketplace. There needs to be a greater appreciation on the part of ministers of what their parishioners are faced with on Monday morning. As ministers think about the relevancy of their sermons, I think there is some room for improvement in putting the message in the context of where people have to live every day.

R&L: Consequently, what should ministers know about business and economics as they prepare their parishioners for Monday morning?

Pollard: That is a huge question. I think some seminaries are beginning to think about what role this plays in their curriculum–and I do think it should play a role–and are inviting business men and women to share with seminarians some of the practical issues they have to face. For example, one of the issues I have to face as a Christian not only in the marketplace but also in an increasingly secular society is that as I talk to people about what I believe, I am finding that they do not share my frame of reference. If I use my church vocabulary, I do not communicate with them. So, I think it would be healthy for ministers and parishioners to talk about how to communicate to a secular culture. I suggest that part of that will be raising questions more than giving answers, going back to Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill and the way he was able to raise fundamental questions with the Athenians. He, too, was dealing with a totally secularized culture, and he had to raise the questions.

R&L: In your experience, what is the heart of Christian business ethics?

Pollard: I think the heart of Christian business ethics would be the same as how I often answer the question of what I believe: I am a follower of Jesus Christ. In other words, it would be the example of Jesus’ life. So I continually ask what Jesus would do, and when I ask that question, it typically leads to disclosure. To put it another way, when I am dealing with a difficult ethical issue, I ask myself, Can I stand up in front of one thousand people in ServiceMaster and explain my decision? If I cannot be open about the decision, if I cannot disclose its rationale, it is not a right decision. In this way, disclosure is one of my standards in determining whether or not I have reached the right conclusion.