Blog reflection: The ServiceMaster Story
Navigating the tension between people and profit
CFB | Book Review / Announcement
Albert M. Erisman, The ServiceMaster Story (Hendrickson Publishers, 2020)
March 8, 2023 pp. 254
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many service workers became known as “essential workers.” Today, that term is seldom heard anymore for service workers. However, since 1929 the essential dignity of each person and their unique contribution to society through their service-industry work was very much a part of the corporate ethos of ServiceMaster. The ServiceMaster Story is a wonderfully crafted account of the ServiceMaster organization, written by Albert (Al) Erisman. Following 32 years at The Boeing Company, Erisman retired as Director of Technology. He is the executive in residence emeritus and former director for the Center for Integrity in Business at the School of Business, Government, and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. He is also the co-chair of the Theology of Work project and a Center for Faithful Business Fellow.
This book provides an in-depth survey of the first five leaders and their influence on the development of the organization’s corporate culture. We are invited on this leadership journey with Marion Wade, Ken Hansen, Ken Wessner, Bill Pollard, and Carlos Cantu as they lead through a commitment and deep perseverance in pursuit of their four goals: To Honor God in All We Do; To Help People Develop; To Pursue Excellence; and To Grow Profitability. According to Erisman, “The ServiceMaster Story offers insight to both the leadership and the workers in these organizations” (p. 10). This is a story of how leaders learn from and commit to a vision of an entity, built by those who came before them. Notably, “Early in his time at ServiceMaster, it was important for Bill Pollard to learn what Marion Wade, Ken Hansen, and Ken Wessner each had to learn: service work is important, dignified work, and those doing the work are human beings worthy of dignity and respect” (p.103).
From 1929 to 2000, these ServiceMaster leaders developed the company’s culture because “Each successive leader connected a deep understanding of what had gone before with their own insights and skill set for achieving further growth” (p. 4). As a result, the phrase “shingles on a roof” (p. 4) was coined, for this unique way of co-creating corporate culture focused on the company’s four goals. “It took significant humility for each of them to build while continuing to listen,” as Erisman notes (p. 4).
Through each successive leadership change, we are provided with an insider’s view of the changes, challenges, and commitment to these four goals. As ServiceMaster leaders navigated the tension between people and profit, they came to understand the importance of sequencing the goals into “means goals” and “end goals.” The first two goals of honoring God and developing people were ends goals. The third and fourth goals of pursuing excellence and growing profitability were means goals. This sequencing of goals laid the “…foundation for a multinational, publicly traded company that was deeply connected to its roots as expressed in Marion Wade’s first stated objective: ‘To Honor God in the Marketplace” (p. 37). That foundation underscored the inherent dignity of all humans, and more specifically service workers whose work is an essential contribution to the operating of society. If you would like to explore how to put employees first, or to navigate an abiding commitment to a founding mission amid leadership changes, this book is a must read!
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