Good-tempered leaders invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine.
(Proverbs 16:15, The Message).
These words describe Barry Slauenwhite, President and CEO of Compassion Canada, to a tee. Yet, as he admits today, it took a thunderclap of awareness, along with God’s grace, for him to fully appreciate the powerful link between faithful prayer and the organization’s remarkable transformation.
To Start Out . . .
- The mission of Compassion Canada is to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. The organization partners exclusively with nearly 7,000 local churches and reaches nearly two million children and their families.
- Compassion Canada’s goal is to minister in four biblical quadrants of human development found in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom (cognitive), and in stature (physical), and in favor with God (spiritual) and with man (socio-emotional).”
- Against the backdrop of these God-honoring realities, Barry was refreshingly candid with me in our interview: “When I became President/CEO 25 years ago, our workplace culture was quite unhealthy.” He then gave some specifics.
The Challenge Ahead
Several factors had contributed to our culture’s demise, including autocratic leadership, lack of empowerment of staff, and lack of strategic attention to culture. I believed there was a lot of room for improvement.”
“The first BCWI Staff Engagement Survey we completed in 2004 revealed certain strengths within our culture, such as inspirational leadership, one of the eight drivers of healthy, flourishing culture. Yet, to be honest, I felt a little overwhelmed. In my new role I hadn’t taken time to stop to see our progress.
“As a culture, our biggest challenge was building trust. When I stepped into my new role, trust was in short supply. There was a lot of suspicion among our staff that had become used to a lot of top-down leadership decisions without knowing why.
“I assumed everybody was trustworthy, and I assumed everybody believed me when I said, ‘Trust me.’ What I didn’t quite understand was that when people have not experienced trust inside their culture, they become suspicious.
“For one, our staff was ostracized from our board. Because the board met off site, the two groups didn’t really know each other, much less trust each other.”
What might you have done, as a new President/CEO, to help ignite new, needed levels of trust throughout the organization? Take a look at what Barry did. . . .
Two Action Steps That Made a Difference
“I knew if we didn’t build relationships, we wouldn’t be able to build mutual trust between the staff and the board.
“First, I assembled photographs of each board member and invited our staff to begin praying for them on a regular basis.
Second, we held the first of what was to become many board meetings at Compassions’ office. Board members and staff shared a meal, followed by a devotional and prayer.
“This began a journey that’s become incredibly precious. Today, our staff absolutely loves and trusts our board, and the board greatly appreciates our staff.
Still, More Work Remained
Like a good, refreshing rain, Barry’s own compassion began to wash over the culture.
“I took the staff through the biblical principles of culture, what I think of as ‘people care.’ What does the Bible teach about how we should get along, care for and work with each other?
“I challenged our people with this question: ‘What would it look like to create a workplace where everybody looks forward to coming to work every day?’ The individual responses from our staff, combined with my own biblical teaching and personal convictions, became the values of our corporate culture we set out to build.
These values included:
An Obvious “Before-and-After” Difference
“Prior to our dramatic culture transformation, says Barry, “there was quite a bit of individualism among our team. Silos were common. If someone saw a colleague struggling, there was no incentive to come along that person for the sake of the organization.
“As our new culture took root, I saw dramatic changes in behavior. One example was an ambitious, new cross-training program where each staff person came to learn and appreciate the other person’s role in his or her department. This opened the door to innovation. Compartmentalization never incentivized new ideas that led to better, workplace efficiencies, ideas and approaches staff members freely raised and began to own.
Culture is like an automobile: Don’t dare take your eyes off the road and risk hitting a tree.”
Why Prayer is Directly Linked to Growth
When Barry brought up the word, “prayer,” I fully realized why, today, it’s no accident that prayer, healthy culture, and greater organizational growth are in such strong alignment at Compassion Canada.
“When culture isn’t healthy, prayer doesn’t always get done. When married couples and families aren’t getting along, they don’t tend to stop and pray together. Our staff suggested weekly, early-morning prayer meetings. This led to the creation of a prayer room anyone could use during work.
“Of course, prayer naturally involves God. Yet, it’s equally important and thrilling to see a staff praying to God pray for one another! When you pray for a person you work with, it changes your attitude. After all, it’s hard to argue and disagree with someone all day long when you’re praying for each other.
“Through faithful, loyal prayer, we confirmed our commitment to make Christ the center of our ministry.
“It’s a fact that our organization’s exponential, growth is directly tied to our recommitment to, and reliance upon, prayer. We’ve cemented this commitment through regular practices such as:
- stopping to pray throughout all meetings for whatever needs may arise,
- hosting weekly staff chapels, and monthly chapels in which the entire hour is devoted to prayer,
- empowering all work groups to hold daily times of prayer, and
- offering all mid- and senior-level leadership the opportunity to take their own annual spiritual retreat, with all expenses paid.
Then, I Had to Ask Barry “The Question”
I asked him, “If completing your first BCWI Survey was so valuable, why keep surveying year after year?
Here was his response:
“Culture is like a marriage or other important relationship; it requires constant attention. The moment you assume it’s self-propelled you make a fatal error. As a pastor, years ago I saw this in married couples who naturally like to be with each other early on in their marriage. Then, over time they put their marriage on autopilot and before they know it, things start to erode.
“I couldn’t allow our workplace culture to go on autopilot. I also know that the enemy works overtime to erode culture in Christian organizations. He knows that if he can negatively impact culture, then negative impact on an organization’s ministry will follow.
“Culture is like an automobile: You don’t dare take your eyes off the road and risk hitting a tree.
“I’ve learned that unless you inspect your culture, you often don’t receive what you set out to achieve. There’s never a leadership meeting when we don’t talk about culture. That’s why I believe it’s so important to regularly survey our culture. In fact, at Compassion Canada, we’ve found BCWI’s Staff Engagement Survey the best tool for us to keep the health of our culture front and center.”
Then, Barry delivered this zinger:
“One constant in organizations is change. Our people and our work are constantly changing. Therefore, if we had only surveyed once we wouldn’t have had a true, accurate measure of our current culture–and that would have been very dangerous.”
I could tell Barry had more to say. “Culture has had a huge impact on our productivity. A healthy culture makes an organization a fun place to work. In fact, we can point to growth charts that show the improved health of Compassion Canada’s culture is directly linked with increased productivity.
When the culture is healthy, the staff and ministry are healthy. And when the ministry is healthy, the impact and outcomes are far greater.
Culture’s Endearing, Enduring Results
“During my ten years in marketing at Compassion Canada, prior to becoming CEO, I saw all the things that could go wrong and found it very valuable (and a lot less painful) to learn from others’ mistakes instead of making my own!
“One day, I felt God convict me of my complaining. I made a little cardboard file folder and titled it, ‘If I Were President.’
“Whenever I saw something I didn’t like, or I felt could be done better, rather than sharing my thoughts with others until they became gossip, I wrote my complaints down on note cards and tucked them away in the file folder—never dreaming that one day I would be the leader.
“I told God, ‘I’m not going to complain to others, I’m just going to keep these complaints to myself.’ Years later, when I was named CEO, I pulled out my file. I had a rich collection of ideas on how to get things done.
“The first thing as the new CEO was to close the office for two days and take the entire staff on a two-day retreat. I took a piece of paper and typed on top, ‘If I Were President.’ I invited each person to find a quiet place and make a list of all the things you would do if you were me.
“Some of the best things Compassion Canada is best known for today came from the ideas of our staff. It was very profound for me and very empowering for my staff.”
“Come Fall 2019, I’ll be retiring from Compassion Canada. Knowing this drives home my deep desire to encourage Christian leaders everywhere: Steward the ministry God has entrusted to you.
“When I consider the importance of culture, my advice to leaders is the same my mentor gave me years ago: ‘Love the people you lead. Don’t drive them; lead them and love them. And leave while they still love you.’”
It’s Your Turn!
What is your biggest prayer to God for your organization and your culture? How will you make this prayer a part of your own spiritual prayer practice today, this week, and throughout the coming month?
“Why a Transformed Leader Means a Transformed Organization”
Steve Macchia, Leadership Transformations
Find out more about Barry’s book: Strategic Compassion
The BCWI Employee Engagement Survey
Click here to learn more!