The Slums of Business

by Jordan Lofton

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” – Mother Teresa

Mother-Teresa

On Sunday, September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was declared a saint by the Catholic Church, giving the world an opportunity to honor and reflect on the life and works of an ordinary woman who did extraordinary works.  Her focus was on the “poorest of the poor”.  Mother Teresa was known for her work going into the slums of India to give food, education, and medical aid to the poor.  In an interview given in 1974, Mother Teresa explained that poverty is not only something found in third world countries, but in our own societies.

“There are two kinds of poverty.  We have the poverty of material.  For example, in some places like India, and Ethiopia, and many other places, where the people are hungry for a loaf of bread, a real hunger.  But there is much deeper, much greater hunger and that is the hunger for love, and a terrible loneliness, being unwanted, unloved, being abandoned by everybody.”  As I reflect today on the example of St. Mother Teresa’s life, these words convict me, because in them she has reminded me that I am called to help the poorest of the poor who suffer this second type of poverty.

I’ve been asked many times to explain what a “consultant” is and what they do.  My most recent answer to this question has been, “We are called to walk with our clients through their trials and to offer them aid as they go through them.”  I often get glassy stares back when I say this until I go on to explain, “Consultants are rarely called when things are going well.  It is when something is going wrong that consultants are brought in to help.  There is often a crisis, or a tough challenge, or a past failure that the business is trying to move through to get back to some state of health.  As a consultant I can’t fix every challenge or problem, but I can through my skills and experience, be there with my client to guide and give help to them.”

Marrying this definition with the words of Mother Teresa, consultants are those called to the slums of business.  Where I might see great material wealth, I may also encounter great interior poverty.  A manager who is called to take on an “impossible project” without support from executive leadership.  The person who has taken on the task that no one else wanted to do and goes on day after day putting in the time to do something entirely unnoticed and unwanted by the business.  Walking through the rows of cubicles, I have the chance to encounter the suffering of poorest of the poor in our society, just as Mother Teresa did in the slums.  So how should a consultant alleviate this suffering?

One At A Time

In the same 1974 interview, Mother Teresa was asked if she felt “despondent” that she was just one person trying to fix the problems of so many.  Her response was, “For me I can do only one, because Jesus is only one.  And I take Jesus at His word.  He has said that, ‘You did it to me.’  So my sisters and I, and the brothers, take one person, one individual person, one person at a time.  We can serve only one at a time.  We can love only one at a time.  Yet the whole world, it sounds so big, and so much, yet it is only a drop in the ocean.  But if we didn’t do that, that ocean would be one drop less.”

Consultants are challenged with despondence many times in their career.  Many times isolated in their assignments in a sea of clients, each one expressing desperation and need just as the children in poverty clamored to Mother Teresa for bread.  As the project timeline is built out and the calendar is filled with meetings and deadlines there is this overwhelming feeling that the work being asked is “too big” for one consultant to fix by themselves.  Yet good consultants don’t try to “boil the ocean” (to use a McKinsey phrase). They look at their work as one task at a time.  The change that Mother Teresa is asking us to make is to look at our work as one person at a time.  In your next meeting can you give a voice to those sitting in the cubicles outside the conference room by sharing their point of view with management?  As you respond to a question or someone voicing a concern, can you offer comfort and encouragement?  As you walk to the break room for a cup of coffee, can you simply smile and ask someone how their day is?  It is in the small acts of charity done one on one that another drop is added to the ocean.

Go Into The Gutters

Two saris, a pair of sandals, a crucifix, and a rosary.  This is the list of items that a sister in Mother Teresa’s order owns.  This material poverty is in solidarity with those they serve.  More than that though, the sisters go into the streets, picking up the dying and sick from the gutters to comfort and care for them.  Their hands are dirty, their sari soiled, and while death and suffering are all around them they exude joy.

Armed with only a laptop, a notebook, and a borrowed desk in a borrowed closet, consultants go into the gutters.  Often they are afraid to get their hands dirty by doing the labor alongside their client.  Rather than hiding behind a spreadsheet or a nicely designed PowerPoint, consultants need to offer to an extra pair of hands.  If we limit ourselves to what is “in scope”, we never see what opportunity we have to give joy.  The truth is, consulting is a dirty job.  So get out of your swivel chair, sit beside your client, learn what his pains are, and offer to help him in his pain.

Restoring Dignity

Whether it was comforting a dying man in her arms, giving jobs to the lepers, rescuing abandoned disabled children in the midst of war, or greeting a princess trapped in the spotlight, Mother Teresa looked past what the eye could see and offered herself so that each person was treated with dignity.  She is quoted as saying, “I will never tire of repeating this: what the poor need the most is not pity but love. They need to feel respect for their human dignity, which is neither less nor different from the dignity of any other human being.”

How many times do consultants walk in feeling different than their client or give the appearance of being better than their client?  While we hope as consultants that as our clients get to know us, and we get to know them this initial first impression changes to be something more mutual, do we actively seek to change the relationship so we are not pitying our client with our services?  If we’re not, we should be restoring our client’s dignity by recognizing their accomplishments, encouraging their perseverance in pursuit of their goals, and acknowledging that their career has had an impact and provided growth for us, just as much as we hope that our project has had an impact and provided growth for them.

I Thirst

In each of Mother Teresa’s convents there is a crucifix and next to it a small piece of paper with two words: “I Thirst”.  The stated reason for these words is to remind the sisters that in serving the poor they are answering the call that Jesus gave from the cross that He was thirsty.  One might imagine though, that Mother Teresa herself identified with these two words.  After her death it was revealed that she suffered from a darkness which was hidden from the world.  Could these two words have been Mother Teresa’s own cry that she herself longed for someone to comfort her?

In my previous points I addressed consultants, but here I address clients.  Don’t fail to recognize that those who walk among you offering their services suffer from the same pains of being unwanted, uncared for, and unacknowledged.  They thirst for a smile.  They thirst to be welcomed.  They thirst for the dignity of their work to find recognition in your eyes.  Your consultants go parched without complaint, but a single drop of your kindness can revive them.

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