The Soul of the Firm

Author: C. William Pollard


Bill Pollard has been Chairman Emeritus of ServiceMaster since 2002. He served two different periods as the CEO, taking the firm to a $7 billion dollar business through dramatic growth and diversification in the 1990s. This book is a dozen years old but it presents a good perspective illustrated by interesting real life people and situations.

The book is about people and values. It's message is that leadership has a responsibility to the ethical, professional, and personal development of every individual in the organization. This can be accomplished only through the belief that all of us are created in the image and likeness of God. (Foreword)

Key Chapter: 3. Harness the Power of Purpose

"People want to work for a cause, not just for a living." (45) "Every firm should be able to articulate a mission that reaches beyond the task and provides a hope that the efforts and activities of its people are adding up to something significant…." (46) "…a greater sense of mission and purpose comes when we are given the opportunity to contribute to another by serving, teaching, and helping." (47)

"A firm that does not develop its people will not be able to care for its customers. A firm that does not profit from its work will not survive." (48-9) Pursuing a cause does not ignore the need for profit. (49)

"If the firm does not have a moral reference point, it has the potential to contribute to the bankruptcy of the human soul." (50) The firm has an obligation to help people live within a moral framework where some things are clearly right and others clearly wrong. (51-2) "At ServiceMaster, we have chosen to build our objectives on the conclusion that we live in God's world, and that every individual has been created in God's image with dignity and worth. It is where we begin as we try to determine the right way to run our business." (52)

Key Insights

The people are the soul of the firm. "At ServiceMaster the task before us is to train and motivate people to serve so that they will do a more effective job, be more productive in their work, and yes, even be better people. This task…is, in fact, our mission." (17) "People and profit are part of our mission. Profit is how we are measured by our owners." (18)

"…we never allow religion or the lack thereof to become a basis for exclusion or how we treat each other professionally or personally. At the same time, I believe the work environment need not be emasculated to a neutrality of no belief." (21)

People have three ways to contribute in the organization. They create value for customers, owners, and each other. (29) "Recognizing the potential, dignity, and worth of the individual has been one of the most important factors of the success and growth of our business." (31)

Regarding diversity. "Mere acceptance of differences within the firm will not accomplish results and may cause confusion, disunity, and lack of direction. It is the acceptance of difference with a commitment to a common purpose and mission that allows for both homogeneity and heterogeneity. The firm then can harness the energy and creativity of difference to produce results." (36) "When people are recognized for performance, the integrity of the process will add to their dignity and self-worth." (37)

"Customers are not companies, institutions, or governments. Customers are people." (71)

"Although some may be better at painting the expectation [sales] and others at fulfilling the expectation [operations], every member of the firm should view her job as a continuing selling effort. The work of satisfying the customer is never over. It requires star performance." (72) "In our pursuit of excellence, we are often pleased but never satisfied." (73) "A customer's perception of service and value may be subjective, yet it is very real." (74)

"You provide dignity and profit through improved productivity." (79, quoting Peter Drucker) "Our ability to meet and exceed our customers' expectations is dependent on continuous productivity improvement." "It is a never ending quest of defining the task, improving the task, and setting a standard for quality performance, all of which are part of the productivity cycle." (79)

The relationship between the manager and worker is an essential element of the productivity cycle. The manager must be concerned both with what the worker is doing and what the worker is thinking and feeling, his sense of self-worth and accomplishment. (79)

"The most important people in any firm are those closest to the customer. They represent the firm to the customer. They have the greatest influence on whether or not the customer becomes an appreciating asset." (85) "The higher one gets in an organization, the less she knows what the customer needs and wants." (85)

"In the innovative firm, leaders listen to the ideas of those close to the customer." (91) "If growth is to sustain itself, the people of the firm must also grow" "We must learn to major in people's strengths and not just correct their deficiencies." "We must reward performance that benefits the customer and doesn't just please the boss. We also must extend rewards to those who mentor and encourage others to develop their gifts." (95-6)

"People…are increasingly searching for an alignment of their personal values with the values of the firm. And it is the responsibility of the firm's leadership to be proactive in seeking an integration and alignment of these important interests." (97) "But the firm operates in the marketplace where there is one uncompromising standard: you either make money or you don't." "There is a risk of performance, and we all share it together." (98)

You cannot buy enthusiasm, initiative, loyalty or devotion. When people really buy into the results, they are empowered to provide consistent and even extraordinary service. (104) Ownership begins with dignity, pride of accomplishment, and recognition for good work. (105) "People will not own the result unless they have an opportunity to participate and understand the reason for their work." (106)

"People must be encouraged to recognize their failures, correct them, learn from them, and then move on. But, in no event can the firm afford to live with them. In the process, the leader must always remember not to shoot the messenger who brings bad news." (108) "You cannot avoid firing some people. If you put up with people who work against the objectives of the company and are not producing, you steal from those who are performing." (110)

The opportunity to learn is the best thing you can give your workers. Learning and innovation go hand in hand. Leaders must set the pace as both teachers and learners. Learning is a life-long experience. (114) We must openly reward those who mentor and develop others. (115)

"Build your team of people around the talents and skills of the ordinary person, not just the special skills and talents of those few extraordinary people." (147) There are many ordinary people and few extraordinary people. But well-trained, motivated, and empowered ordinary people can do extraordinary things. (148)

The Soul of the Firm
Zondervan, 1996, 176 pp., ISBN 0-310-23487-5

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Book Notes by David Mays
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