Cancer can startle you, humble you, literally sicken you. In the case of Alec Hill, President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, cancer brought to life everything that truly mattered to him, including the necessity of leadership succession. In the first of his special, two-part story, Alec reveals what cancer set in motion both for him and an organization suddenly facing a leadership change at the top.
“In March last year, the day after my daughter’s wedding,” says Alec, “I was in my kitchen, when I opened the refrigerator door and promptly fainted. A few weeks later, after tests, came the diagnosis: myelodysplasia, a rare form of bone marrow cancer. The odds of survival were less than a coin toss; of returning to a normal life? 20%. I needed a bone marrow transplant, and fast.”
A key question every board must ask itself and the CEO is, “What do we do if you get hit by a bus?” While the rigor of bone marrow treatments required Alec to step away from his daily duties, InterVarsity had a carefully thought-out short-term response in the person of Jim Lundgren.
“I was thrilled by the board’s decision of naming Jim as interim president. Gifted, savvy and having been on staff for 44 years, he was just the person to continue leading InterVarsity’s ministry team of 41,000 core students and faculty and 1,700 staff, serving on 649 college campuses.”
Prior to cancer, Alec and his senior team had already put the organization ahead of the curve with calculated foresight, by planting, cultivating and harvesting future leaders. Alec spearheaded at least four strategic initiatives to accelerate and build upon the leadership development work of previous InterVarsity President Steve Hayner:
- InterVarsity invested in 15 prospective senior leaders. Over 18 months, these rising leaders were given a week with John and Nancy Ortberg, mentoring by Alec and his vice presidents, special projects and individualized training funds.
- A new Vice President for Leadership and Talent raised the bar on the skills, giftedness and calling of existing staffers, as well as new hires. InterVarsity’s continuing emphasis on creating a healthy culture was felt by its entire full-time staff.
- Affirming the roles of 150 Area Directors proved fruitful beyond measure. “We realized the quality of our area directors largely determined whether the campus leaders, who reported to them, had a positive experience and thus wanted to continue with InterVarsity,” notes Alec. “That’s why more intentional strategic training and coaching for our Area Directors was a wise investment.”
- Introducing 360 performance reviews to all senior leaders injected fresh, new accountability to Vice Presidents, who conducted performance reviews to their direct reports. “It was tough work, yet our leaders soon saw that the 360s created a conversation in which their boss said, in effect, ‘Yes, it’s an evaluation, and I want to see you improve and be a better leader and follower of Christ.’”
As Alec’s cancer treatments continued, InterVarsity’s ministry didn’t miss a beat. These leadership development initiatives paid dividends.
A prime example is Greg Jao, who leveraged leadership training and resources to move from National Field Director to becoming Vice President of Campus Engagement; today he is a primary spokesperson for the organization.
And the story continues. . .
Next week: In the final stages of his painful bone marrow transplants, Alec’s red cell, white cell and platelet cell counts drop to zero. Down to his high school weight, he ponders his own morality: “I was ready to die, but I didn’t want to die because I loved my family. Yet, I was ready.”
His honest resolve and InterVarsity’s historic leadership move, coming next Tuesday.