Monday, January 31, 2011

Law and Grace in Business Management

I am a senior manager at a large, multinational corporation. Before that, I had the opportunity to work for a few other companies who were also influential in their industries. In my career, I have seen 8 different Plant Managers and their approaches to leadership. As I reflected on their management styles this weekend, I realized that I see a very “Law and Grace” illustration developing.

Seven of the eight plant managers have followed what I will call “Systemization” leadership. This management style falls on the belief that if we measure the right things and put the right people in the right places and work hard enough, we will get the right results. As my VP says, “What gets measured, gets done.” This is the typical, modern American method of management. It is “management science”, to use the Taylorism term. We have set policies and procedures in the employee handbook and follow them to the letter—so that we are ‘fair’ to everyone. We analyze risks in our processes using FMEAs and implement corrective and preventative actions and control plans. We seek reduction of process variation through Six Sigma and elimination of waste through Lean techniques. We establish key metrics to measure our progress, and grade ourselves against these Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). If something goes wrong, we approach it with highly detailed, carefully controlled methodologies such as 8D analysis. Be careful about what information you share with people – you don’t want to distract or muddy the waters or create legal liability or lose intellectual property. Carefully control your information: give people what they need to do their jobs, and no more. In short, work smart enough and hard enough, and you will reach your goals.

This is the typical major company today. We believe that if we put the right systems or controls in place, and if everyone works hard enough, then we will be successful. The key to success, then, is based upon how cleverly you design the systems/policies, and how hard everyone works. Do that, and you are successful.

And then, there is my current boss (let’s call him Joe). His management style is totally different—I will call it “Relational” leadership. And wow, is it radically different (to the point that some managers at the company have left or are considering leaving, because they cannot deal with the departure from the norm). Joe believes that success will happen when we engage relationships with as many people as possible. What our metrics are is less important than how we agree to them and communicate them. What we do is less important than who does it, and why we are doing it. It is not important that our people are doing the right things, it is important that they know why they are supposed to do the right things, and that they were engaged in the decision. Systems and processes and procedures and policies are good as far as they go, but they do not accomplish anything in and of themselves. Engaged, motivated people are what drive success. People who have a relationship with the leadership. As Joe would say, management is building systems; leadership is engaging people. When you engage people and develop trust and relationships, then they will actually follow where you lead. If all you do is set up systems, then all people will do is try not to get fired by violating rules.

Joe has said, time and again—“It is the relationships that make all the difference. In the end, nothing else matters; it all comes down to the relationship.”

So, what does this have to do with Christianity? I think, everything.

Consider how God approaches humanity. First He gives us the Law—a perfect system. A system which tells you how to “succeed” with God. A system of policies and rules that perfectly and thoroughly define exactly what you must do in order to achieve God’s goals for humanity. No greater system has ever been created. It is perfect management. Read the book of Deuteronomy, and you will see the Law perfectly stated—clear and organized. We have our “Employee handbook” to succeed in God’s industry of spirituality.

If anything ever showed the failure of the Systemization management approach, it is the Mosaic Law. Because even given a perfect system, clearly explained, and people being raised in that system for generations…no one succeeds. “No, not one” (Rom 3:10).

So instead, God also offers us a Relational way to achieve His goals. Instead of worrying about setting up systems and metrics and processes and policies, God sends His Son to be a mediator for us. He sets up a relationship with us. He engages us through His word, and seeks to communicate with us constantly through prayer. He no longer says, “You must do X-Y-Z in order to be righteous.” Instead, He says, “You are made righteous because of Jesus. I hope you do X-Y-Z…but it will not change where we stand. You have already succeeded, because of My Son.”

Just like the relational approach to management, God seems to think that relationship is the only way to actually succeed. Following systems and laws makes one either depressed about his failure, or a hypocrite pretending success. We see this in business of course. Last year, under a previous plant manager, I had 46 objectives. I am a “high performer” at work, yet I probably failed to achieve more than half of these objectives. And yet, I went through and rated myself to those goals, I rate myself as doing quite well. I have a list of excuses as long as my arm for every metric I failed; every one that was a success I take credit for (whether I had anything to do with it or not).

Is that a gage of my success? How well I can justify myself to a long list of metrics? Under Joe’s leadership, we will have 3-7 goals, many of which we will approach by trying to engage the whole workforce. Our success will be measured by the strength of our teamwork, rather than our adherence to a set of rules agreed upon a year before.

Which one do you think causes less stress? Now, instead of focusing on adhering to metrics, I can focus on doing the right things for the business. Now I know that I will be judged not upon my adherence to rules but upon my relationship with Joe, my employees, and the workforce at large. The stress melts. The pressure relieves.

Jesus said of this relational leadership: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-29)

So which do you prefer? You can have your systems, your laws. And you will be crushed under its holy, perfect weight. You will not achieve your desired success.

Or, you can develop a relationship with God. You can communicate constantly with Him. You can learn at His holy feet. And you can be loved, just as you are. You can succeed not because of who you are, but because of who He is, and how you relate to each other.

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