Getting Economics To Serve The Spirit


Author Michael Rennie

Michael Rennie is a partner with McKinsey & Co. He is one of Australia's leading management consultants and treads in territory that a small but increasing number of his colleagues are prepared to go. In this edited version of an address he gave last year to The Global Scenarios Workshop at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Michael talks about the importance of bringing your soul to work and the need for economics to serve the spirit.
The balance of passive and active in our society today is wrong.

We have a very strong sense of action. I go home at night and think, “I did a lot today” as opposed to, “I had the right balance of reflection time and active time”. But things are changing and I think the shift is going to come. But just to take time out from daily activities is hard. It is, nonetheless, very, very important and extremely valuable in the long term.

There are two thoughts that I want to leave you with. The first is this issue of taking your soul to work.

What I find is happening in business in Australia today is that there is a terrible tension in our society because people don't bring themselves to work. Most people basically work in an environment of fear. They are afraid they are not going to make it. They are afraid that it is not going to happen. And as we all know, you're not allowed to be vulnerable at work.

There is a sense in the hard core business world that the real person stays at home and from 8am to 6pm you fit into a cardboard mould. I actually think that creates a lot of tension and sickness in our society and a lot of unhappiness. I see that changing fundamentally and I think it is going to change in the next thirty years. Firstly because it has to, but secondly because (and this is a wonderful thing) competitive success for big companies or small companies in the next generation is around creativity, team work, energy, passion. To have those things in a company environment you have to bring your soul to work.

So suddenly clients are saying, how do we create an environment that is more conducive to passion and creativity? What we find is that everyone would like to have a high performance environment that is very empowered. But most companies still manage largely by command and control.

You actually have to create a performance ethic first and when you have a performance ethic, then you can create a more supportive work environment. I think we are going to see in the next period in Australia, that companies that try to go straight to a wonderful, loving environment without having the performance ethic in place die on the vine and create bad names for people trying to go to empowerment cultures. It is an important thing to understand in your organisation. Do you have a high performance ethic? Will people deliver? Is there a sense of wanting to make it happen? When you have a strong sense of that, you can push very strongly down the track of making work more of a soul journey.

What we find in our organisation is that for the first time ever our very good people are demanding an environment in which they think they have balance, and where they are growing personally. We are finding that to keep people, they have to feel that they are growing personally faster here than they could anywhere else. That is actually a wonderful dynamic to have. So I think there will be a very fundamental shift in the nature of work in our society.

One of my issues is only how fast is that going to happen because so long as it goes too slowly there will be tension and pain as there is today and a lot of sickness with it.

The second point that I wanted to make was on the issue of spirituality.

I had a conversation a number of years back when I was working in New York with a missionary. He said, "In any society there are a number of institutions. There is the family. There is religion. There is politics. And there is economics". Then he said “There is a sort of spirituality which is something separate from religion”. He called it “the Kingdom of God for Christians”. What he was saying is that in any society you can look at it at any time and see which of these are dominant and all the others end up serving it. In our society today, economics is dominant.

Politics serves economics. Paul Keating has added a little bit more but basically it is about economics. I would argue religion serves economics the whole Calvinist and Reformation tradition of hard work serves economics largely. Family serves economics. The extended family that we are all calling for today, the community, has broken down. It has gone. Why has the extended family gone? Because you can't cart forty people around when the job moves to Adelaide. It's getting to the point when I worked in New York that even the two person nuclear family is breaking down because you have a husband and a wife who both have career ambitions and one has a job in Chicago, and the other has a job in L.A. So you end up getting this single person economic entity and so the family serves economics. What he was arguing is that in any balanced society all these things should serve spirituality.

The missionary went on to ask me "If Christ was around today where would he be?” He said, “In Christ's day, it was religion and politics that dominated the society and spirituality was out of it so that's why he made his play on the steps of the temple and against Rome. If Christ was here today, he would be working here in New York and making economics serve the spirit. And I think we won't get a balanced society until that happens, until economics serves the spirit”. That's why I am very excited about the concept of bringing the soul to work. I think we have the potential to move in the next 30 or 50 years to a place where economics is really part of the whole spiritual experience.

The reason for my optimism is that I have seen a fundamental shift in business in the last ten years in Australia.

Ten years ago there was a group in Australia that believed about the creation of wealth and a group that believed about the distribution of wealth and never did the two meet. What has happened is that those two groups have largely come together and there is acceptance that you have to create the wealth and then distribute it equitably. There is much more of an acceptance of that in Australia. As part of that social contract, business now understands that it has a right to go out and make wealth so long as it does it in a way which is more holistic.

Ten years ago the CEOs of Australian companies would have said, “Forget all of that; we are here to make money”. Today they say “We are here to make money. We are here to do the right thing by the environment. We are here to provide opportunities for people so that they can grow and have a good work experience. We are here to pay taxes and be a good member of the community”. We talk about stakeholders rather than shareholders. It's absolutely at the core of every strategy I do. That's new, perhaps five to seven years old. It's now just the way people think and it is going to continue.

I think there is a tremendous opportunity for us to mould this all together and make it much more serving of our real selves. I think we are part of the way down that track but there is a long way still to go. I see Australia is one of the places in the world that is changing fastest.

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