Hendrickson Publishers asked Al Erisman, author of The Accidental Executive, some questions about his new book . . .
If you are not familiar with the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), read it. If you are, I encourage you to do two things. First, think about your own workplace experience. Then imagine you are Joseph and try to enter into how you might have responded at various points in his story.
While you were writing this book, what were some of the successes?
I tried to do what I suggested for the readers. It felt like I got to know Joseph in a new way through this writing, and it made me want to talk with him about some of his thinking. But it also focused my attention on how I would handle similar situations. For example, I had not thought before about Pharoah’s staff standing around him when Joseph was brought out of prison. How guarded would I have been to make sure none of those people took advantage of what I said, and to make sure I got out of prison? I was surprised both in how relevant his experiences are to our own world, and how well they connect to modern leaders I have interviewed.
What were some of the challenges?
The Scripture is silent or has only a few clues on some of the issues he faced (his management style, how he did his staffing, or why he played the deception games with his brothers). I tried to avoid reading into the story what is not there, yet when there were clues I tried to draw reasonable conclusions from the clues that are given. I also wanted to enter his story but not impose my 21st century thinking on his steps.
What is your favorite aspect of this book? Why is it your favorite?
I have lots of favorites! Joseph had part of his career at the bottom of the organization, as a slave and in prison. It is essential to learn how he handled this time, because all of us are in this situation at some stage of our own careers. He did some things that probably were not wise as we do. Then he encountered some challenges we face. He was falsely accused. He was forgotten. After his hopes had been raised by the opportunity to send a message to those in power, he was disappointed. He found himself in a position of speaking to power and had to weigh his own desires with the requests from the one in power. But Joseph also had a position where he had power, authority, and position beyond what most of us could imagine. I found it helpful to watch how he seemingly avoided the ego traps and self-serving steps so common in our own world.
Why do you think The Accidental Executive is essential to the business world?
I had not thought about the story of Joseph as a source for learning about a business career before that moment (discussed in the Preface) in my own business career almost 30 years ago. I was surprised to see how much insight for business can come from such an ancient story. It is my hope that anyone working in an organization, from entry level position to leader will find the helpful guidance for work in the 21st century that I have found in this well-known account. For anyone who wonders if business can be a worthy calling (too many people associate business with greed and excess), I hope this will be helpful. For someone stuck in a dead-end job that seems meaningless and painful, I hope they can learn from Joseph’s example. And for the Christian who somehow has come to feel that work in business is a second place choice to more traditional ministry work, I hope they will gain a bigger perspective and see God’s call in their own career.
How long did it take you to write this book? How much dedication was required?
The idea for the book, which I mentioned in the preface, came almost 30 years ago. Starting about ten years ago, working in small increments, I drafted a ten chapter book. I was able to teach from this, and my wife did a Bible study from this early version. Then my wife and I went to the Los Angeles area for a month in 2012, where I could get away from the routine distractions to focus, and the structure of the current book was completed. Editing, responding to helpful editors, tracking down new ideas all took additional time. More speaking and teaching, as well as comments from colleagues, led to more modifications than I expected. These “little details” took much longer than I anticipated, but they all added value. I feel like I have lived with Joseph for a long time, and have come to know him.
Joseph is an incredible story to find connections into the business life and you address countless important themes and lessons. What is the main theme you hope readers will take away from your book?
Because of Joseph’s varied career (first job as a teen ager, difficult circumstances as a laborer with minimal opportunity, and time as the CEO of a large and important business) I hope anyone working in business, and in other types of organizations, will be able to gain insight from this story. The story of Joseph is a wonderful account of God’s faithfulness. It is a great illustration of a picture of Christ bringing redemption to the brokenness of his world. It gives great insight into making moral choices in our lives. These are the ways I had always seen this account. Pushing further allows us to gain insight on another level, directly related to our careers. I hope those familiar with the story will let go, for a moment, of their pre-conceived notions of what this account means, in order to gain new insights for what they do 9-5 (and beyond) in their daily work.
If you could meet Joseph in person, what is something you could ask him?
Over the past 15 years, I have had the opportunity to interview many great business leaders from around the world. In preparing for these interviews, I read as much as I can about them, and then prepare questions to fill in the gaps I see that I believe would be helpful to understand. What led to this decision? How did you react to this success, or this difficulty? What might you have done differently? In the same spirit, I have prepared some interview questions for Joseph, and these can be found in chapter 29. I hope I have the opportunity to do this interview. One of my questions is whether he had doubts or questions as he laid out plans based on the insight he gained through his dreams and the dreams of others.
What do you think was the most important lesson that you ended up learning while writing The Accidental Executive?
Perhaps the most important lesson, beyond what we have already discussed, comes from gaining guidance for the ordinary parts of life from Scripture. Over the past eight years, I have been involved with the Theology of Work Project, where we have written a commentary on the Bible and what it has to say about our daily work. When we started this project I had no idea how much guidance the Scripture offers us for our lives during the week. It is not simply about things to avoid, though there are some of these. But it is more about learning from God about the what, how, and why of daily work. Joseph is a wonderful example of this, and there are so many others: direct instruction, examples, insights, purpose. It is so important for Christians to embrace God’s call on our work lives, knowing that it is both a part of his purpose for our world, and a part of his shaping and developing us. It is too easy to reduce Scripture to guidance for the after life, the moral life, and the spiritual life. Scripture is bigger than this!
What works can we expect from you in the future?
I am a mathematician by training and practice. Previous books and articles reflect that background. During my 32 years at Boeing and my 14 years in the academic world at Seattle Pacific University, I have learned about business and academics. Time on the Theology of Work Project and teaching at Gordon Conwell seminary have helped me learn a little about theology. This helps explain why there may be three quite different books coming out in the next year. I am jointly editing a book with David Gautschi called The Purpose of Business: Contemporary Perspectives from Many Walks of Life (MacMillain, scheduled for October 2015). A graduate mathematics text called Direct Methods for Sparse Matrices (the second edition of our 1986 text jointly written with two mathematics colleagues in England, Oxford Press) is almost complete and will come out either later this year or early next. I doubt that many from the audience for The Accidental Executive will have interest in this one! With two colleagues (David W Gill and Bill Peel), we put on a Faith at Work Summit Conference in October 2014 in Boston. We hope to have a collection of edited papers from this conference completed as a book early next year, well before the second summit planned for October 2016.
Finally, earlier this year I began drafting a book tentatively called A Mathematical Way of Seeing. It includes illustrations of how mathematics offers insights on relationships, God, faith, business, technology, and life. While it is a big part of what I am working on today, my experience with The Accidental Executive suggests it may be a longer project than I now anticipate!
For more information about Al Erisman’s The Accidental Executive, check out Hendrickson’s website.