Part 1: What Is Stewardship?

Man sifting grain

The term “stewardship” has multiple meanings in various contexts, but the Merriam-Webster definition fits the business context well: “The conducting, supervising or managing of something; especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” The business world has focused much of its time and resources on developing as large of a monetary return on investment as possible. However, over the past 40 years or so, this has produced an ever-growing culture of greed and malfeasance with the likes of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Valeant Pharmaceutical — and the list goes on.

Also, the income or wealth gap continues to grow, with the majority of the wealth of the nation under the control of those who are responsible for leading businesses. Just before President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address, the media reported that the top wealthiest 1 percent possessed 40 percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80 percent owned 7 percent. More recently the media reported the “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent.” The gap between the top 10 percent and the middle class is over 1,000 percent; that increases another 1,000 percent for the top 1 percent. In his book, “The Next Money Crash,” author Uli Kortsch states the average employee “needs to work more than a month to earn what the CEO makes in one hour.”

Win-Win and the Triple Bottom Line

The traditional business approach is about focusing on scale and speed, reducing costs, getting bigger and beating the competitors. In many cases business is approached as a zero sum game, meaning either you win or the competition wins. There is no consideration of creating a win-win environment. The concept of win-lose is certainly true in gambling, however in business I believe that an environment should be set up in which a business is profitable, people will be developed, partners are treated fairly and the community can flourish.

The triple bottom line consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet. I would add a fourth P for partner.

Many of us are familiar with the phrase “the triple bottom line.” This phrase was first coined in 1994 by John Elkington, the founder of a British consultancy called SustainAbility. He argued that companies should be preparing three different (and quite separate) bottom lines. The triple bottom line (TBL) consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet. I would add a fourth P for partner, representing customers and vendors. TBL aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of the corporation over a set period of time. In the view of many, focusing attention on all three of these areas creates a sustainable business — a company that creates profits for its shareholders while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom it interacts. It operates in a such a way that business, environmental and societal interests all intersect.

I believe that corporate and small business America would be wise to begin looking beyond attaining as high a net profit as possible, seeking out ways to help their people develop to their best potential, operating with integrity and fairness with vendors and customers, and working towards helping their communities flourish. When a company generates a reasonable profit, develops the people who work for it, treats clients and vendors with respect and is proactive in investing back into the community, this creates a healthy ecosystem for all to flourish.

Stewardship in the Real World

Stewardship is all great in theory, but what are some practical ways a business owner or leader can implement this type of strategy? How can a traditional numbers kind of CFO start looking at business as a CSO (chief stewardship officer)? What does stewardship in business look like? In this series, I will break down stewarding profits in a way that is tangible and relevant to the business world.

Check back next week for part two of this series, “Practical Applications of Stewardship.

About the Author

Photo of Art Zylstra Art Zylstra brings over 35 years’ experience stewarding resources and people to small-to-midsize private and nonprofit organizations to help them flourish and grow. With his MBA in organizational leadership and a doctorate in transformational leadership, Art collaborates with key members of the executive team to develop and implement key strategies across an organization, providing leadership and coordination in its administrative, operation, business planning, accounting and budgeting efforts. He is highly motivated by mission and operates with integrity, confidence, professionalism and resourcefulness in a way that allows all stakeholders of the organization to flourish.

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