The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Seven Steps to Move from Toxic to Flourishing Workplace Culture“
February 15, 2021
Intro: What are the characteristics of a leader who has faced the challenges of a toxic workplace culture and moved it to flourishing? In today’s episode, you’ll witness how this leader faced the challenge, with prayer, courage, humility, and perseverance. Stay tuned to hear for yourself.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
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And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
I’m so grateful that my guest, Kevin McKee, the senior pastor of The Chapel, which is a growing church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So, Kevin, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Kevin McKee: Al, thanks so much for the opportunity. Thanks for giving me some time to visit with you. And as I said earlier, I have some certificates from BCWI with your name on it, and the last one has all of our staff signed the edge of it, and they know how hard we work together. So it’s great to be with you.
Al: Well, Kevin, the connection between BCWI and The Chapel is really a significant one. And I really think everybody listening is going to really discover something new and needed in their relationship with Christ, but also with their staff. And where this all begins is the mission of The Chapel, and you know that by heart, Kevin. Tell us, what’s the mission of The Chapel?
Kevin: Our mission is to help people meet, know, and follow Jesus on the campus, in the city, and around the world. Our LSU location is on the campus of Louisiana State University, so that’s why I said it that way.
Al: Okay. Uh-huh.
And you’ve anchored your mission what you call a distinct set of values that made The Chapel who you are. So tell us about these five values.
Kevin: Well, as we prepared for our time, I saw this, and I’ll tell you what they are. They’re the gospel of grace, which is foundational to who we are as a church; biblical truth, standing on the Bible; authentic relationships is key really in any church, but it’s been a hallmark of The Chapel; empowered people; and radical generosity. I would say a couple of those are a little more aspirational than some of them, but we’re moving toward them all.
Al: Yep. Great. Sounds great.
Well, leaders like yourself can appreciate the fact that living out the mission and values of any church, particularly when it comes to your workplace culture, can be challenging. And The Chapel really faced a very challenging situation some time back. So you surveyed your people—he did an Engagement Survey with your employees—and asked for their open, honest, anonymous feedback. And what did their feedback reveal about the condition of your culture?
Kevin: Well, it revealed what we were all feeling. For me as a leader, it was some really challenging times, obvious that our staff was struggling. And there were many on our team that had quite a voice about the problem, and I wanted to objectify it.
And that’s where Best Christian Workplace Inc. came in. I didn’t want to guess, and I didn’t want to listen to the loudest voice. We had been exposed to it at a Willow Creek Association leadership weekend. And then a friend of mine, Kevin East, who is from our church and is in Texas now, had used y’all’s services, and he recommended it. And so when we had that moment, I jumped on it. And the staff was excited and honest, and they would become more honest, Al, because we didn’t do it just one year. We did it multiple years. And so we got through the first year—I think they settled into even being more honest—and our scores went down, depressingly so. And so what it revealed about our culture, it revealed what we already knew, that there was a problem. What it helped us with was identify that problem.
Al: And Kevin, let me just say how great it is that you use courage to take that feedback and then even see it go down, the survey results go down, the next year. But you didn’t stop there. You continued on. So that takes courage, and I just want to honor that.
So given all that you’ve shared, Kevin, what was at stake with your leadership and staff that made up the workplace at The Chapel?
Kevin: That is a great question. It felt like we were dying. We were struggling to pull together in the same direction. So we were actually struggling, probably, to love each other and to respect each other. And some on our staff were really struggling to respect me, because when there’s some obvious problems that go unaddressed for a long period of time, it’s a leadership issue. And so many saw that when I didn’t act, it weakened my leadership. And I don’t want to overstate it, but, really, the future of the church was at stake in the sense that we would not be able to move toward a God-given vision without unity. We were unable to pull together over a long period of time, unless we got that straight. Actually, I can say that a little more clearly in hindsight than I could at that moment. But if I’m honest, I think that we were going to stay in the muck and the mire until that problem got solved.
Al: Yeah. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Yeah, a good way to describe it, what you said.
Well, with that in mind, so what happened first, Kevin? I’m curious. How did your values that you mentioned earlier maybe even play a part in righting the ship in your workplace culture?
Kevin: Well, first, we had to just address some staffing issues. And it really came down to, as we stepped into it, as things got clearer, we had to do that. And I had to transition two dear friends, one of which was extremely close to me. But this had to happen. And interestingly, Al, I had a church member ask me, was it worth it?, which is a fascinating question. On a relational level, no, it wasn’t worth it. On an organizational level, yes.
And the difference between a church and maybe another organization is I’m held accountable for my leadership in the church by the Lord, and so I needed to make that next step. It had to begin with me. That had to happen first. And once that move was made, we began to see some other changes.
As I’ve told you, your team was extremely helpful in coaching me, and Cary Humphries was there, gently reminding me of some things. He actually wrote me an email that I put in a recurring reminder file that I read probably for a year, pretty much every month, because I was coming to grips with what he was saying. But once I acted and other things began to move and began to move more freely, the Lord did a number of things.
And actually our staff culture and our staff values were born out of health. And so, I’d just love to share those with you. Our staff values leadership. We love first and lead second, but always do both. Attitude, we choose to live on the solution side of every situation. Risk, we have a big God, so we take big risks and trust Him for the results. Gratitude, we regularly celebrate all that God is doing in and through us. Team, we’re going to take the hill by pulling together in the same direction. Outsiders, we consider those not yet here in each decision we make. Fun, we love what we do and who we do it with. And model, we commit that our public talk will match our private walk.
And so I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank you and your work for helping us get there. So thank you for that. I was talking with a team member who’s just now reading Jim Collins’s 20-year-old book, Good to Great. And one of the axioms in there is First Who, Then What. And so the first step was to make some transitions, and it signaled a clear call that we’re going to move in this direction, and the Lord came in and did some wonderful things along the way too.
Al: So, no one person can single handedly restore a culture, so it takes God-directed wisdom, gifts, even careful work of a trusting, collaborative team. So Kevin, walk us through the steps of one important change that you made to ensure the health of your culture. I think you’ve already mentioned one key one, but I know there are a couple of others.
Kevin: Yeah, well, clearly identify the problem, and that’s where BCWI was so helpful. There were many issues, but we focused on foundational issues. That’s what I’ve liked about y’all’s work is it’s foundational. Our staff values are the uniqueness of who we are, but they have to be built on those. Then, address the problem, and then, adjust as you address.
So, as we began to address the problem, it became clear that we needed to adjust some people. Now, the same people were the problem. There’s lots of angles to that. It was competency or character or calling and, really, our chemistry on the team. Most of our issues kind of had to do with chemistry. And what I found was to move to health was going to require too much for some, and they just didn’t want to make the journey, either personally or corporately. So that was it. Once you find the problems, address them, you’re going to have a new situation, so we had to adjust.
But as soon as we began to do that, Al, we were able to hire new staff. I was very bad at that. I’d hired some good friends. I’d heard some people I love. But the creating of a team, it didn’t work. And so we hired a consultant to help us do that. But we knew we were hiring them into a healthier culture. And some of those hires have really allowed us to move to flourishing because of the skill set they brought. That was just a God thing. It was just huge. And we had 26 staff transitions in 26 months, and we’re a staff of around 30 to 32. So it’s huge. You would think that that would turn a whole church upside down, but God brought us some amazing people. And again, Cary was the one that would say there are good people out here that want to do this kind of work without as much resistance as you’re getting.
And I’ve been here, I’m starting my 26th year on staff in various roles, right, 10th year as lead pastor. But when you’re in an organization that long, you’re part of the problem. And so I had to just—I just had to own that and say, “Okay, I’m part of the problem.” But we identified, we correct it, we hired some new staff toward that. Then, we could start crafting our unique culture of fun and team, because I need team members to help the whole thing be fun, and then monitor it. That’s kind of where we are now. I don’t know that we’ll stay as high as we’ve become in our scores, but you have to monitor it and adjust.
Al: I’d say, Kevin, you still have a little bit of room to grow, to be optimistic now.
But anyway, I’ll bet you’ve got a memorable story of the early breakthrough that you made, maybe even a God moment, that really made all the difference and showed what things were possible, what change was happening for the better, particularly.
Kevin: Well, I think a couple initially. I mean, the story for me was the leadership one that required me taking those initial steps of confrontation, as difficult as they were with my personality. I had to own those problems. It was a very difficult time. I used y’all’s material, and I just shared it with somebody on staff yesterday, the results of your 360. They did not know I had done that. And the results of that I reviewed monthly also, as a way to just kind of go, “What do I need to own? What do I need to do? How do I need to act?”
And our church had not really borrowed or solicited help from the outside successfully. We’d had a couple consultants over the years that were, well, I’ll just say, it didn’t work. And so there was a moment, particularly when our scores were going down and we were focused on this, that I remember in an elder meeting being asked by an elder, “Don’t you think you’re wasting your time? The goal of health has become consuming.” I had to bite my lip a little bit because it was a frustrating comment to me and I got defensive because I had yet to see what had been promised. And what I mean is, I’d yet to see health. So I was defending the move as opposed to being calm and go, oh, no, it’s worth it. But today, I would say it’s mind boggling how much difference a healthy staff makes when you’ve lived in unhealth.
Something a little off script is we’ve hired lately four people from industry, just from our community, in little roles and in big roles on our team, a couple of them women. And I just mention that because they’re a little more generous with their emotions. But for two in particular, they just cried through our staff meetings for months because of the horrible conditions that they worked in nine to five, and to be appreciated, to be welcomed, to understand where they fit on the team, to be celebrated, to have a voice, all of the kind of things that go into a flourishing model. So that’s not a direct answer to your question. It wasn’t just one axial moment, but there was a couple, but they would start it within me and go and if we’re going to move forward, I got to face some realities.
Al: Yeah. And isn’t that a wonderful thing, Kevin?
Al: Really speaks to our vision that Christian workplaces should set the standard as the best, most-effective places to work in the world. And when you come into a Christian workplace, like these women experienced after another workplace and just to have tears of joy because of just the opportunity to serve in the church and be an uplifting, loving, Christian environment, that’s just wonderful.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
Now let me interrupt our interview to announce an important new offer from BCWI. Mark your calendar, Wednesday, February 24, for a free one-hour webinar on the must-have tools you need to steward your mission and your talent for recovery. We know leaders are exhausted because they’re dealing with the multiple challenges this past year. We’ve developed a webinar series that will help you refocus your efforts to improve your mission and talent for recovery. This webinar will give leaders practical tools to position your workplace cultures and organizations to flourish in the months and years ahead. Again, mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 24. That’s at 10:00 a.m. Pacific, which is 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Register today at bcwinstitute.org.
And now, back to our podcast. And now, back to today’s special guest.
Give us another turning point where leadership’s commitment to listen, understanding, and make the wise, yet difficult, decision to building even a stronger, more unified, trusting culture.
Kevin: Well, we mentioned some of the new ladies on our staff. I would say this: when we first started, some of the tenured staff, dear friends, a little older than me, some of them 20 years on staff, they were eager to find an anonymous way to talk about how they felt. And I just went to a couple that I just really trusted and said, “Wait a minute. This is what I’m hearing. Is it really that bad?” And the answer was, “Well, yeah, Kevin. It is.” And I’m like, “Okay. I need to check. Let me go ask one more person.” I asked three different women on our team. And they all said, “Yeah, it’s been bad in the past.” So not all of what they felt was currently under my leadership. But nevertheless, it required us to listen, not become defensive. We are a complementarian church, and that’s no excuse for demeaning women or not having a clear path of advancement on your team and all that kind of stuff.
And so we, through listening—and we didn’t do it well, Al. I mean, we didn’t do it perfectly. I think we did it well. We didn’t do it perfectly. But it was hard. It was hard because like some of the issues that are being talked about today in our culture, it requires patient listening until the other party has felt heard. They had varying views on what were the real issues. But nevertheless, it allowed us to really clean up our language, our organizational structure, titles, compensation. All of that became much clearer. I’m really, really glad of that. And of course, we, as you said, we still have room to grow. But it’s a much better place in those regards, and I think they would say so.
Al: And that issue came out through the Survey, looking at the scores of men versus women at The Chapel.
Kevin: I think it—I can’t remember exactly, because it was happening at the same time, but I think so, yes. I think when you get those debriefs, all those numbers—I’ve gotten better at it, but I’m no expert, by any means, because we’ve been doing it now for six years. But Cary would say, you know, you need to notice the difference there. You need to notice the difference there. And then some of the ladies that were on our kind of executive team were helping us through this were also voicing it. So the process kind of yielded conversations inside the tool and outside the tool. But the tool really helped us and helped us again this past year because there was some disparity in different scores related to kind of our support teams didn’t feel quite as excited as some of our core teams.
Al: That’s what it does, yeah.
Al: You know, every culture finds a way to celebrate and honor their people for who they are and what they’ve done. How do you do that at The Chapel?
Kevin: Well, one of those new staff that came on I mentioned, he brought with him a value of celebration, and that’s how it became a part of our staff culture, gratitude. And so we start every meeting that we’re in with gratitude, and we celebrate not only what God is doing, but what each other is doing. And so it’s something we now do in our elder meetings because it’s so changed the tenor of who we were and what we do. And I’m looking for a little card that’s just now fallen off my desk. But we have our team values, and we printed them up and made little holders so that they’re everywhere. But we’ve been doing Zoom for so long now.
But what we’ll do is we celebrate. Somebody will say, “What staff value did you see them promoting? How did it come into play? Was it team? Was it attitude? Was it leadership?” And so every single meeting we start with celebration, really, to make sure we give God all the glory due Him and then to, really, just applaud and reinforce those. So we talk about them all the time now.
Al: Linking values to behaviors, that’s a great thing.
So, we know our podcast audience well enough to know that there’s a person out there right now that would love to hear a winning tip for how to improve their workplace, especially in this time of COVID, hopefully with vaccines will be rolling out of it, but it’s going to last for a little while longer. So what would your suggestions be?
Kevin: Well, I would start with prayer always and ask God to be discerning, maybe Psalm 139, a great inward look as a leader. That’s where I’d start and just go, what needs to change in me? It’s really hard to lead a change if you feel like it’s all external and everybody else thinks you’re finger pointing.
It requires you to stay really humble. And I’ll be honest with you, you know, low scores, dropping scores, even as you’re working hard to increase them, I would come home, and my wife would go, “I don’t want to know the score. I don’t want to know.” And I said, “Yeah. It’s okay.” So you’ve got to stay humble. Look deeply in the mirror.
Listen well. Prof. Hendricks, over in my seminary days, used to say, “McKee, you’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionately.” And you just have to listen a lot more than you think you do.
Bring the board along, which I tried to do. Those are two different worlds, and not everybody—we live in kind of engineer world down here in southern Louisiana, a lot of chemical plants. And your staff culture, it’s important everywhere. But not everybody talks about it like it’s being talked about in the church currently. So bring your board along. Prepare for the long haul.
So humility and just determination and diligence. We’ll be 50 years next year, not 2021 but 2022. And we’ve had three lead pastors—I’m the third—and staff culture is not something that changes quickly, and a lot of it is built maybe on predecessors. So if you’re new and you think, “Ooh, I want to just change this culture,” be careful that you don’t wreck it in the process. It takes time.
Again, I’m going to plug BCWI here. I know it’s y’all’s podcast, but I think some younger leaders want to kind of create the unique culture and set that. And I wouldn’t do that first. I would set the healthy culture first and then the unique culture. It’s so much easier to lead. Once you get health right, then you can say—now, I don’t know which of those comes first, but in my mind and our experience, it was health first, then a kind of a unique culture. But don’t simply work for health, but work for the unity of the spirit, would be my final one there.
Ephesians 4, be completely humble and gentle. Be patient, bearing with one another. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There’s one body, one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. But each one of us, grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
So being gracious with one another.
So that’s more than a point, but if I had to put it in two words, it would be diligence and humility.
Al: Yeah. That’s fantastic.
So how is this recovery and even flourishing of your culture affected you the most as a leader and especially even, then, as a follower of Jesus? How has this had an impact on you?
Kevin: It’s had a wonderful impact. As a leader, it’s allowed me to lead with greater ease. I’m not great at delegating, but I’m definitely poor at it when there’s lack of trust. I think of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and I didn’t always declare my distrust. I would just kind of pocket it and just not work for accountability. So it’s given me a great deal of ease, and it’s allowed us to move forward into a ten-year vision that we could have never attempted without it. So it’s allowed me to lead with greater ease, and it’s allowed me to lead with greater effectiveness, and it’s allowed me to lead our church in places that I just I dreamed about but didn’t know how to get there. And as a follower of Jesus, it’s given me a lot of joy. I’ve led good teams before as a lead pastor because I didn’t build the team. The one we have now I’ve built. But over ten years it’s changed. But when I inherited it, there were all kinds of pieces to it. So it feels like a family and a gospel community, and I think that that is going to be one of the hallmarks moving forward. And do you have real, authentic community that you’re inviting people into? That’s why one of our values is authentic relationships.
Al: Yeah. Gospel community. Well, I think we’re going to talk about that in just a minute too.
But let’s look here. We’re at the early stages, towards the end of January, as we’re recording this in 2021. And as you think about your leadership, what’s one improvement or growth step that you want to look at as a Christian, as a leader here in 2021?
Kevin: Well, I prayed—I haven’t done this every year, but I know friends that if you kind of ask the Lord for a word to focus on, and I had two. One, kind of personally, was joy. The lack of joy in my life is a direct indicator that I’ve moved from living in the Spirit to living in the flesh when I’m frustrated and joyless. So as a person, that having more joy kind of brought me into the realization that I need to loosen my grip. And you can do that with a healthy team, and there’s trust, there’s communication, and maybe there’s more room for the Spirit to move. It definitely is for me as a leader. So joy, and I want to be joyful around the team.
And the other word was excellence. Excellence. We are attempting to do some things that are going to require us to be excellent in our execution of things because of the scope and the scalability of what we’re attempting to do. And so we’re going to have to up our game there. And again, it’s going to start with me. I don’t have it of myself or probably, more accurately, of the team, then I’m going to struggle.
So, those two words: joy and excellence.
Al: Well, Kevin, we certainly enjoyed everything that we’ve learned today. And just want to start off by saying I appreciate your humility and your transparency, as we’ve talked through this today. That’s really outstanding. And at the top of the podcast you talked about one of the key steps was how you had to transition a couple of people, actually good friends, off the staff to make the staff healthy for everybody else, and that you sought some outside counsel on how to better recruit new and really good people onto the team. So congratulations.
And I appreciate your seven steps that you outlined on how to create a healthy culture, starting with identifying the problem, to addressing the issues, adjusting, hiring towards health, having new hires propel you forward to really craft a new culture and to monitor it. I think the monitoring part is going to be a very important part going forward. But you’ve listened to others, particularly with this issue that you described, how you listened until you knew that they were heard. Oftentimes, we just don’t listen and hang in there long enough to really understand what we’ve heard. So we appreciate all of the tips that you’ve given us.
How about, is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about yet?
Kevin: Well, again, it starts with the leader. If you’re trying to bring change from the side or from the second chair, it’s going to be really hard, I think. And if you’re a leader, it’s going to be even harder because you’ve got to deal with the deficits that you bring. But if God’s placed you there, then be courageous. And I guess I would say God wants church leaders to create healthy environments. It’s not a trend. It’s not the latest buzzword. I think a staff culture might be new language, but the idea of a healthy family team, that’s biblical, and it should, as you said earlier, exist in the church and in Christian organizations, that it should be hands down. These are the folks setting the pace. I think Andy Stanley has also said things like that.
So, it’s worth the work, I would say that. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth the work, especially if you’re going to be and achieve the vision God has put you in the church that you’re leading.
Al: And I loved what you said. Once you’ve achieved a flourishing culture, you don’t want to go back. Yeah. Just whatever it’s going to take, you don’t want to go back, because it’s so much better.
Well, I’ll bet you there’s one thing that you’d like to leave with our listeners. Just one final thought, Kevin. What would that be?
Kevin: Well, I think you said it. If you’re not there, it’s worth the effort. It’s worth the investment. It’s worth the work. That would be it. Because I think, you know, I’ve talked to Cary about other churches doing this, and some will do once and feel like they’re okay, and then not—BCWI’s been a great tool for us. It’s just been a great partnership for us. It’s been a great learning for us. You were thanking me; I thank you. But it’s worth it. There’s few things that are going to change the environment of your church more than a healthy staff.
Al: Kevin McKee, senior pastor at The Chapel in Baton Rouge, thank you. Thank you for being so open, honest, transparent, about the things that really matter in the health of a culture. So I sense your integrity, even your true commitment to your colleagues. And most of all, I appreciate your devotion for and the service to our loving God. Thanks for taking the time out today and speaking with us into the lives of so many listeners today. Thank you.
Kevin: Thank you.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba.
Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.