One of the highlights of the recent, fourth annual Principled Entrepreneurship conference organized by the Napa Institute in conjunction with the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, was Carly Fiorina’s talk, “Work and Spirituality.” Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP), drew from her personal experiences to address a wide range of practical and abstract questions, ranging from the importance of mentorship to the nature and inherent dignity of work.
For this talk, I found myself seated next to Julie Larkin, the Director of Operations for the Leonine Forum here in Washington DC, which seeks to cultivate an emerging generation of virtuous leaders and empower them to form fully-integrated lives of faith in order to apply the Social Teachings of the Church within their professional and civic lives. (http://www.leonineforum.org/)
The principle of subsidiarity
Larkin was struck by how Fiorina’s talk—and the conference as a whole—highlighted the principle of subsidiarity.
“Subsidiarity always sounds pleasant and inspiring,” said Larkin, “but it can be much more difficult to enact in real life.”
Fiorina addressed this difficulty through several compelling stories.
Among Fiorina’s examples was the story of “Jim,” a lower-level engineer at AT&T whose excellence in his work and attention to detail caught a discrepancy in paperwork. When he approached her with his discovery, she empowered him to follow up on it. What he found was a serious company-wide issue which, when rectified, saved the company $100,000,000!
“Carly Fiorina respected her employees enough to trust their understanding of the task at hand,” said Larkin. “She approached her organization from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down, which I found extremely compelling.”
Another story about a woman in the slums of New Delhi was even more powerful for me and for Larkin. This woman had received a business grant from Fiorina’s non-profit, Unlocking Potential. Despite objections from her family and community, and despite her own fear at challenging cultural norms, this woman seized the opportunity to give herself and her family a chance at a more dignified, more human life. Her courage and hard work were rewarded as she established a successful business.
When Fiorina met this woman and asked how her family feels now, Fiorina reported that the woman replied, “Oh they’re happy: they all work for me!”
This experience in New Delhi, said Fiorina, revealed that the organization had done far more than give this woman a loan. What it had done was to say to her, “You have value. You can live a life of dignity, of purpose, of meaning.”
Larkin noticed how personal this experience was for Fiorina. This story was much more than a business connection: it was a story of personal empowerment.
“Carly couldn’t help but reveal her pride in this woman, and we all consequently felt it too. I’m grateful to her for sharing this story of perseverance and bold decisions in the face of obstacles,” Larkin explained.
My seat-mate found Fiorina’s perspective and focus on the dignity of the individual worker to be particularly inspiring as well.
In addition to her work with the Leonine Forum, Larkin is the Founder and Executive Director of Girl Talk, a non-profit which works to empower high school and college young women through personal relationships and storytelling. (http://www.ourgirltalk.org/)
The dignity of each individual at work
“As a female business leader,” said Larkin, “Carly Fiorina was extremely inspiring for me. She painted a beautiful picture of how we are to treat our colleagues, employees, customers, and restroom cleaning staff.”
Work dignifies individual human lives
Too often, the individual is overlooked for the interests of the company, the worker for the work he or she does. Fiorina, however, reminded her audience that “if we value the dignity of work, then we must value the dignity of the people who do the work.”
These stories showed what in many ways was Fiorina’s central idea: that work is central to a good life because work dignifies human life. Work, she said, provides three essential elements to a good life: Structure, Accountability, and Connection.
Without work, “meaningless days drift by, self-confidence and pride are eroded, human connections are lost.”
The dignity of the work we do, and its humanizing power, comes from the way in which or the attitude with which we do the work, not from the work itself.
Fiorina drove home this idea by addressing the students in the audience.
She spoke to a problem which many young professionals face: the crisis of finding a job that we “love.” Young people often struggle with finding work because we are too concerned with finding the “perfect job.”
But, Fiorina reminded us, what we do is far less important than how we do it: “Get a job, Any job. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do it with excellence and price.”
Toward the end of her talk, Fiorina turned to more practical considerations.
Opportunity for holiness
There is no room for fear of failure: Opportunity for holiness lies in what is immediately before us
Since work is so integral to human dignity, she said, it is important that every individual have the opportunity to work. She noted that fear of failure, rather than lack of opportunity, is often the largest obstacle to finding employment.
Fiorina described a conversation with a single mother of two she met at a Diaper Bank who had been given an opportunity to receive training to work as a beautician. The woman spoke frankly to Fiorina. She was afraid to find work because that would mean losing her monthly welfare check; and if she were to lose her job later, she was afraid of what would happen to herself and her two young children. This woman was unhappy with her current status, but she was afraid to take advantage of an opportunity to give herself and her children a better life.
Fiorina used this story to emphasize the need for policies which empower people to find work.
Programs, she said, need to focus on saving lives rather than on saving money. Our programs are discouraging people from finding work, she said. This is much more than an economic problem: it is a human problem. If it’s true that the ability to work is integrally tied up with living lives of dignity, purpose and meaning, then we need to shape policy which empowers men and women to find work.
We need policies, said Fiorina, that will foster hope and courage rather than fear.
But even in these policy questions, Fiorina maintained her emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity:
“Change,” said Fiorina, “is a lot like Heaven: everyone wants to go there, but no one wants do die.” It’s easy to talk about how someone else or something else needs to change; it’s much harder to consider how I need to change.
Fiorina’s talk left me re-convicted of what the Church has told us for centuries: that our opportunity for holiness lies in what is immediately before us.
“Carly Fiorina emphasized that the way we work is just as important as what our work actually is.” As a corollary, said Larkin, business leaders must remember that “If we can’t reach our goals through integrity and respect for every single person, then these goals are not worth reaching.”
The job of Catholic business leaders, then, is to remember the inherent dignity of each person, and to empower them to live lives of dignity, purpose, and meaning.
Jane Forsyth, a new correspondent for the Catholic Business Journal, received her BA in Liberal Arts at Thomas Aquinas College and her Master’s in English Literature at The Catholic University of America where she is currently pursuing her PhD. Jane is interested in 20th century poetry and fiction, with an emphasis on British and American modernism. She lives, writes and teaches in Washington, DC.