David Hurst Quoted in Forbes
Doing Business The Quaker Way
Mark Lewis, 10.09.09
Continued from the home page…
"I think that managers can adapt certain elements and the guiding spirit of the Quaker
business meeting to their purposes," said Margaret Benefiel, a Boston-based management
consultant and the author of Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations.
Those elements include "a quiet, reflective frame of mind, mutual respect, [and] the idea
that no one person has all the truth, but must listen deeply to others to gain a fuller picture
of the truth," said Benefiel, who is a Quaker herself, and teaches at Massachusetts'
Andover Newton Theological School when she is not advising managers.
Quakers are more properly known as The Society of Friends, which comprises not one
organization but many. Each meeting house sets its own procedures. But they are all
egalitarian. Quakers have no priesthood or hierarchy and defer to no human authority
The faith was born in England during the 17th century. Persecuted for their beliefs,
Quakers banded together for self-protection, forming communities and networks based
on mutual trust. Supported by those communities and empowered by those networks,
Quakers invented new ways of doing business. (At least one of their innovations is still
with us: the traveling salesman.) Indeed, author David K. Hurst locates the cradle of
capitalism in the little town of Coalbrookdale, England, where Quaker manufacturers like
Abraham Darby forged the iron sinews of the Industrial Revolution.
During early Quaker meetings, "the business activities of their members were scrutinized
by their peers, not only for their soundness but also to ensure that the interests of the
broader community--not just the Quakers--were protected," says Hurst, a management
consultant based in Oakville, Ontario, who wrote about Quaker business methods in his
book Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change. The Quaker
congregation "would stand behind the activities of members who were in good standing,
and if one of them got into trouble, they would supervise the liquidation of the business
and make good the deficit."
Quakers soon crossed the ocean to Nantucket, which they made into the world capital of
whaling, and to Philadelphia, where they planted the seeds of America's own Industrial
Revolution. Bethlehem Steel, for example, was founded by the innovative Quaker
entrepreneur Joseph Wharton, who also endowed the world's first collegiate business
school at the University of Pennsylvania.
These days, the Wharton School is not known for propagating Quaker business
techniques, and most people associate Quakers more with oatmeal or activist
organizations like Greenpeace. But Quaker business methods are not necessarily
obsolete; they have merely fallen into disuse, which is not quite the same thing.
In their meetings, Quakers do not let anyone impose a decision on the group. Instead,
they wait for a consensus to emerge from a free and open discussion.
Probably the most distinctive feature of the Quaker meeting is that it begins and ends in
silence. This approach may not lend itself easily to a corporate conference room.
"I suppose that on a very small scale, if you are trying to get people who already trust
each other somewhat to express real concerns or come up with different ideas, it can help
to think about starting a meeting without an agenda and in silence," Hurst says. "The
pressure of silence is immense, so you can't just spring it on an unsuspecting group. They
have to know its coming and what the objective is. A complete change in physical
context from the office environment might help too."
Hurst, a non-Quaker, says he admires the Friends' theology and their community-oriented
business methods. But he notes that modern corporations long ago grew too big to be
managed the Quaker way.
"Huge scale undermines innovation and entrepreneurship and our ability to control our
own creations," he said. "Unless we can make our large, complex organizations a lot
smaller, we cannot hope that modern board meetings will ever resemble their Quaker
Nevertheless, some firms may feel that they have little to lose by experimenting with
Quaker methods. After all, most managers already spend much of each day in meetings
that seem like a complete waste of time. These meetings may be conducted "efficiently"
in that they plow through a long agenda and produce decisions for each item. But as those
early Quakers knew, efficiency is not necessarily the same thing as effectiveness.
"Studies show that half of management decisions fail," Benefiel said. "Quaker practices
can help managers make better decisions."