Business

Firm faith: The company bosses who pray

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Media captionReligion or spirituality is often seen as a taboo topic at work, with many believing mixing the two simply doesn't work.

Saying prayers with colleagues would feel a bit uncomfortable, too intimate an activity in the workplace for many people.

Yet at Chinese real estate giant Tiantai Group, known as Tentimes Group in English, that is exactly what they do in the boardroom before making important decisions.

Three-quarters of the firm's eight-strong senior management team are Christians and founder and chairman Wang Ruoxiong, who himself became a Christian seven years ago, says that when the company has to make difficult decisions, it turns to the Bible for guidance.

In fact, he goes as far to say that it's not him but God running the firm.

"He controls everything. I am merely a housekeeper of Jesus, assisting him in taking care of the company," he says.

Image caption Wang Ruoxiong believes that Christian values have helped his firm to succeed

'Universal values'

Mr Wang admits that Christian beliefs alone have not driven the firm's success, acknowledging that employees' technical skills such as marketing and sales capability have also played a big part.

But he believes that following Christian values have helped to make the firm more effective.

He says that employees feel cared for, helping them to perform better, and that treating the company's suppliers more fairly has created stronger relationships with them, for example.

He also believes his approach is unique, which he says will help the company to survive despite increasing competition.

"When the senior managers at the top are willing to use the values in their own work and life, the values are passed down. Eventually they become the shared values of the common employees of the entire company.

"At that time, the company becomes truly irreplaceable," he says.

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Image caption Gavin Oldham says he is careful not to "flash the brand" at work

Nonetheless meeting a company boss who is so open about his religion at work is rare. While organisations themselves must make allowances for their staff to be able to practise their religious faith, providing prayer rooms for example, those at the top normally keep their beliefs private. Typically they're wary of being seen as promoting their own faith to those below them.

Gavin Oldham, executive chairman of retail stockbroker The Share Centre, is an elective lay member of the General Synod - the highest governing body of the Church of England - a fact he states openly on his firm's website biography and his Twitter account.

But while he never hides the fact that he is a Christian, he says he is careful not to "flash the brand" at work.

"It can't be overt. There's such a huge range of backgrounds. It may be that people have no faith. You have to respect others," he tells the BBC.

But he says his faith does guide his business life as well as his personal life - particularly, he says, his belief in God's unconditional love, which he tries to apply in his own life.

He says the belief of "love your neighbour as yourself" provides a structure for when he's making difficult business decisions and ensures a consistency which he believes ultimately has helped him to make better judgements at work.

"It's not even necessary to chart them down as Christian values, they are universal values," he says.

'All you need is love'

Image copyright Thinkstock

It's a view shared by Whole Foods Market co chief executive Walter Robb, who says that while "spirituality" is often a charged word for people, it could just as easily be replaced with "love".

While for many, "love" at work may seem equally inappropriate, Mr Robb believes that a softer approach from those at the top, emphasising that the firm is part of a larger world with wider responsibilities, can be very powerful.

He recalls recently holding his granddaughter for the first time, reminding him of holding his own children when they were young, as an explanation for the feeling.

"That depth of feeling in your heart, your capacity to bring that to your work as a leader, your capacity to develop that capability in the organisation and to celebrate it, to reward it, to acknowledge it, to model it.

"Those sorts of things are part of creating a wider vessel and not a narrower vessel. And to the extent that that's spiritual, then I think that's a good thing."

Chen Feng, chairman of Chinese conglomerate HNA, whose empire spreads from aviation to real estate and financial services, draws on Buddhist teachings to help underpin his company's culture, but emphasises that religion alone isn't enough to create a successful company.

"Incentives and profits must also be given so that people are guided to the right way of life for themselves and the right way of development for the company.

"Buddhism is my thing. People have to solve their problems on their own. We cannot simply use one culture for all. We need to use all good cultures, and integrate them with modern management methods," he says.

This feature is based on interviews by leadership expert Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig.

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