The Heart of Business

By David Williamson.

The Monday morning section of the StarTrib had this title for the lead article: “Ex Best Buy CEO’s Quest for ‘Human Magic’.” The article was about Hubert Joly. It attracted my attention for four reasons:

  1. Because Best Buy has made a significant turnaround, from edge of failure, to strong retail and service company in the high-tech arena.
  2. I am a customer of Best Buy, both its retail store and its Geek Squad tech services area.
  3. I am often proud to point out its headquarters on my way from the airport with a friend who is new to the Twin Cities.
  4. Joly’s new book is entitled The Heart of Business.

Can business have a heart? Can it genuinely and effectively care? Could business be an “echo of a voice”? N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, suggests that things like beauty or widespread interest in relationships, can each be an echo of a voice – God’s voice. Could business have a heart? Could it be an echo of the heart of God, though often distorted; a vehicle through which the heart of God can be expressed?

The article quotes Joly as saying: “I wanted to add my voice and my energy to what many believe is a necessary refoundaton of business and capitalism around purpose and humanity.” This reminded me of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? Scripture says that the first basic command is to “love God” and the second is “To love my neighbor as myself.” This is God’s clear purpose for our lives. Business is to be purpose-driven and people-focused. Loving God and loving neighbor is a useful purpose, and can be a way to think about running a business for the “common good” (a phrase that appears often in the article), a way to love our neighbor as ourselves, to spread love. This could indeed be the “heart” of business.

To be sure, there are many ways in which business has not only not contributed the common good, and has instead demonstrated a heart of greed or exploitation. Yet the Eden-driven purpose of work is to manage or steward, or have dominion over, all of creation for the benefit of all of creation, humans as well as animals, birds and sea creatures. In Genesis 2, a co-worker is formed to be a participant with the original human to work the land for mutual benefit, and eventually, all humankind. We are made in the image of God, the original worker.

The article asks if the purpose of work is “punishment” – a common misperception of work. This thinking indeed anticipates the Fall and consequences of the Fall in Genesis 3. But work as punishment, or work as a resource for something else, is not the original purpose of work, but the consequence of a human heart serving its own desires rather than joining with God in God’s creativity and careful management, or stewardship, for the well-being of all creation – for the common good. In God’s original intention, God and humans work together to manage and serve the common good together.

As we work for and with God, we discover meaning in our work and in our lives, reflect the image of God, and with God provide something of value – something that is good – for the good of all. Thus, against Milton Friedman’s famous claim, Joly asserts that the social responsibility of business is not to maximize profits for stockholders and investors, but to do something good for others: customers, workers and the general public, as well as investors.

Joly tells the story of a customer who came to a store with a child with a “sick” T-Rex. Rather than thinking first of the revenue possibilities in selling the customer a new toy, the store personnel found a quick and effective way to provide a “medical” non-revenue-producing way to help the sick toy. While this may be an occasional exceptional incident, it reflects the desire and decision to do something good for the customer: healing, well-being, and the common good as a driving purpose. I am not sure that my experience at the store is always that customer-serving (which may reflect my own suspicious or self-serving expectations) but this senior management philosophy hopefully informs a general corporate culture.

Joly tells the reporter that the customer’s needs come first. An important management challenge is to reimagine business around the needs of the customer (perhaps a living illustration of the practice or fulfillment of the “Golden Rule”).

Joly also indicates that it is the responsibility of his or any company working for the common good to speak to social issues and work against harmful social policies, in and through the company and community in which it is located. There is risk involved in this to be sure, including possible conflict with the wishes and needs of the general public, particularly those who are shareholders and eager to maximize their investment. Yet the company or organization is concerned about the common good faces those risks and challenges.

I imagine there are risks and implications that counter or balance out an idealistic picture of Best Buy or any major corporation, especially those in the consumer goods area. But it is interesting to think just a bit about the possibility that a major corporation selling consumer products could indeed be intending to express the “Heart of Business.”

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