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The Answer is Always People

Several years back, I was invited to watch presentations by senior business school majors at the university. Their project involved making recommendations to a hypothetical non-profit business involved in charitable work about how to better utilize their resources. I teach classes on Catholic social justice, which is probably why I was invited to this little shindig, as if to say to those of us in the Humanities: “See; business school isn’t all about profit; we can work for non-profit organizations too!”

I believe, with St. John Paul II, that work is a good thing, an ennobling thing, allowing people to support themselves and their families and produce things other people need. So there was really no need to tack on the “non-profit” part for my benefit. Working for a good company that produces a good product and pays a decent wage is a tremendous social benefit. There’s no need to be ashamed of the fact that the company makes money, as long as the prices are fair and the distribution of the profits equitable.

And yet, non-profits do important work as well. Either way, I’m always honored to be invited to almost any gathering if the snacks are tasty and free.

Two problems struck me immediately, however, about these very well-intentioned students. The first is the extent to which you’ve crippled yourself from the start if you can’t string together a series of grammatical sentences. Words are important. Words mean something, or are supposed to. Your words communicate something about you, especially when they communicate very little about anything else. Empty verbiage suggests an empty mind. If you assume “it’s all about the numbers,” then you’re wrong.

Which brings me to my next point. My wife has a motto: “The answer is always people.” This motto also has a coda: “If you’re dealing with managers for whom the answer is not people, then you need to get rid of that manager as quickly as possible and find someone for whom the answer is always people.”

Here were these earnest young business students plotting out the future of some noble, little non-profit – doing good for the world, engaging in good Catholic social justice-type stuff – and yet I couldn’t help but think: “Business for these kids is all about levers and pulleys. It’s all about moving numbers around on a spreadsheet. Get a loan here. Expand operations there. Reorganize operations in this way. Make more effective use of technology in that way. But above all, use social media to get your message out. (In my experience, the universal answer to all business questions for young people today is: “Use social media to get your message out.”)

St. John Paul II and Lech Walesa, Poland (1991)
Justice: St. John Paul II and Lech Walesa, Poland (1991)

What about the mission of the non-profit – the ends it was created to serve? Yes, yes – we were repeatedly informed that all these various machinations were to be in service of “the mission” – whatever that was. It wasn’t clear any of the students had read or understood the mission. How could they have? It was a hypothetical non-profit. And real non-profits, like all real businesses, are made up of real people who interact with other real people. There was no sign of an awareness of actual human beings in anything these students proposed.

These students, however “noble” the non-profit they were planning for, were getting just that sort of training that characterizes a certain sector of today’s managerial class, for whom “business” is about moving “stuff” around, numbers on a spreadsheet, financing, constant reorganization of sectors, and social media, all carried out with constant lip service to (but precious little understanding of) the mission, the goals to be served, or the people to be served.

How many mid-level managers in your organization can prattle on endlessly in empty pieties about “the mission” of the institution, but do little more than disturb all the people who do the actual work, uprooting and moving them around in constant “institutional reorganizations.” I know people in institutions that have had four re-organizations in the last five years, six different bosses to whom they had to answer, and been forced to move offices three times, once with a complete re-design of their working space, from closed offices to cubicles.

Had the institution spent all that time, energy, and money doing what their institutional goals said they were supposed to be doing, they would have: (A) been distinctly more productive; (B) had a much happier workforce; and (C) been able to pay each worker $1000 more at the end of the year — $3000 if they had gotten rid of the six-figure salaried vice president who spent most of his time reorganizing sectors and moving people around.

There are no “hypothetical” companies with “hypothetical” challenges any more than there are any “common, average, everyday” families. Years ago, a friend of mine read a statistic stating that the “average family” had 2.4 children. “That’s absurd,” he replied. “There is no family that has .4 of a child.” Such is the difference between statistics and reality.

We need to challenge our future business leaders to move beyond the levels of mathematical and mechanical abstraction. They need to learn to walk the halls and corridors of the businesses they are called upon to serve and meet and talk to the people who work there. Only by immersing themselves with love in that concrete reality will they begin to perceive the real needs calling out to be met and encounter the people whose skills can meet them.

Soulless bureaucracy is the “iron cage” of our time. The answer is always people. If you don’t understand that, quit. If you’re at a school that doesn’t understand that, find one that does.

Catholic social justice begins with people – regular, everyday workers – not with the latest fad popular among the bourgeois class.

Think eternal, act local.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.



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