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By David Witkin '06, Laurent Jabre '06, Salah Zalatimo '07 and Shervin Setareh '06
Before the end of the last academic year, three MBA students at Columbia decided to initiate a speaker series as a forum for business leaders to share their achievements and, more importantly, the spiritual foundation that inspired them to follow their paths to success.
Dr. Robert Ouimet with MBA students.
The thinking behind this series is that most CEOs and other senior executives speaking at the business school focused on informing the student body about interesting achievements in their respective domains. However, the spark that inspired those leaders to go beyond wealth-creating fundamentals of the business and to look at the broader impact on the prosperity of society as the ultimate objective behind their activities was often only incidentally mentioned. In short, next to the what a leader accomplished, we were interested in the why a leader felt that what he or she was striving for was the “right thing” to do.
When coming up with a list of speakers, all team members were open to host a speaker from any religious denomination. In fact, the Muslim team member proposed a Hindu speaker and the Baha’i a Christian one. In addition, the Jewish member suggested that in order to credibly demonstrate the support and respect of the entire organizational committee for a specific speaker, a committee member from another faith tradition than the speaker should be the one to welcome and introduce the speaker to the audience.
To launch our speaker series, we secured Dr. Robert Ouimet ’60 as an inaugural speaker. A highly decorated French-Canadian CEO with numerous board seats and awards, Ouimet was inspired by Mother Teresa’s deeds for the poor and sick and decided to pay her a visit. They developed an immediate kinship, lasting until her death in 1997. Upon his return from his visit, Ouimet adopted her prayer as part of his company’s mission.
Ouimet believes that while companies should create wealth, this should not be their ultimate purpose. One should ask the question for what purpose profits are made. In answering that question he takes into account the primacy of the human being. Now, what is the order of priority for a chief executive in providing for humanity? To answer that he entrusted to the audience the following story:
At some stage in his life, Ouimet was helplessly overworked, neglected his wife and family, and fell prey to alcoholism. He decided to visit Mother Theresa and asked her: “What should I do with my wealth?” She responded: “It has never been yours! It has been entrusted to you by God. Since you have a wife and family, take care of them first, then your employees, and then the wider community.” When departing from Calcutta, Ouimet decided on the plane that upon his return he had to change himself, his family life, and the way he conducted business.
Ouimet inherited Ouimet-Cordon Bleu, a mid-size frozen food manufacturing company in Canada. The firm employs more than 400 people in two Montreal plants. Some 35 years ago he began experimenting with what he calls “Integrated System of Management Activities” (ISMA). The idea was to balance economic interests and human well-being in a company’s operations and thus create both economic and human value.
Since 1988, the company has measured its progress quantitatively and qualitatively and found that certain management tools and activities have demonstrated a close correlation between the long-term growth of the personnel’s psychic, moral and physical well-being with the long-term growth of the company’s competitive profitability. (see below)
Novel management tools Ouimet introduced include:
- Gestures and prizes for generosity: Small employee groups voluntarily provide direct assistance (on paid time) to needy people in the local community. Ouimet observed that employees often discover the richness of volunteer work and the joy that can come from helping people who need them.
- Two consecutive meetings with laid-off personnel: Four years ago he developed a management practice where each manager must meet each laid-off person face-to-face, within twelve months after the lay-off. This practice has proven to render revolutionary results on an interpersonal level according to Ouimet.
- Equal annual sharing of profits: The company shares a portion of its profits with its personnel—regardless of the individual’s responsibilities.
- Authentic internal communications: The company aims to continually create an internal communications environment that is warm, authentic, satisfying, and human. Managers with exclusive focus on meeting economic objectives are frowned upon.
- Periods for reflection: Individuals, on their own accord, can take a brief period of silence, sharing, reflection and sometimes prayer. Observation revealed that these individuals start to think more clearly about themselves, their colleagues, and that a foundation for wisdom, faith and hope emerges.
Ouimet explained that he had to introduce these management tools into his company slowly, as a distrusting workforce needed some time to believe in the sincerity of his efforts. Some employees could not help but think: “Okay, where is the catch?”
Ouimet stressed that balancing economic and human interests isn't always easy. In fact, he acknowledged that “it is bloody tough.” He believes that the shift to a more balanced corporate culture has to come from top management: “It has to start with the leaders; those who have power. Then, it will slowly trickle out into the rest of the organization.”
Love—the central message of all faith traditions—found its way into Dr. Ouimet’s presentation, and his example demonstrated how a single deed is often much more inspirational than a thousand words.
Our speaker series’ focus on this central message attracted the support and financial commitment from clubs encompassing a diversity of cultures and faith traditions at Columbia. Gratitude is particularly owed to the Student Leadership and Ethics Board of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center, the umbrella for activities on leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, who supported and sponsored this event.
The vision of the speaker series is: “To inspire the student body at Columbia Business School to explore spirituality, ethics, and business as essential ingredients and a complementary combination when pursuing their careers as leaders in the business world with integrity, charity and honesty.” The challenge now is to find volunteers to carry on that thought in their own ways. All but one team member who initiated the speaker series have graduated. If you are interested in continuing this speaker series contact Salah Zalatimo '07.
For details see: Dr. J-Robert Ouimet, Ph.D., C.M., C.Q., L.Sc.Com., MBA, L.Sc.Pol., “Reconciliation Of Profits And Human Wellbeing: Is It Too Late? A Case Study by Ouimet Cordon-Bleu Inc”, available online (pdf):