The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Building a Culture that Reinforces Itself and Accelerates Success“
September 14, 2020
Intro: Have you heard “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Do you believe it? In today’s podcast I interview a CEO who has turned three faith-based organizations around by focusing on workplace culture as the strategy for change.
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.
If you can share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
I’m so pleased to have with me Dusty Rubeck, the president of CDF Capital, based in Irvine, California. Dusty, it’s a real pleasure to have you with us here on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Dusty Rubeck: Thank you, Al. It’s a pleasure to join you and your listeners today. I’m a big fan of the work of Best Christian Workplaces Institute. So thanks for the opportunity to join you.
Al: Well, we’ve known each other for some time now, haven’t we?
Al: Yeah. Well, there’s a story I’d like you to tell, and it’s a story about kind of how this all began.
Dusty: Well, CDF Capital is a ministry that was founded in Southern California way back in 1953. And at that time, many new and young churches had trouble finding loans to buy real estate or to build their buildings. And so a group of Christian church leaders got together and decided to raise the money to start a small, nonprofit lending fund to help those churches out. So from our very first project of about $10,000 back in the early 1950s, CDF Capital has grown into a national ministry. We’ve got more than $600 million in our revolving loan fund. We’ve helped right around 1,000 churches do $2 billion in projects. And behind that growth stands a group of 10,000 individual investors who are members of those same churches, and they place funds into our CDs and other accounts to provide the capital for these projects. A bit over five years ago, we decided to begin offering additional types of capital, but I think we’re going to talk about that a little bit later in the interview.
Al: Ah, more than one type of capital. Yeah. So in other words, CDF Capital makes money available to churches for capital improvements that help them and allow them to grow. But more than money, the real story is about the amazing transformation of your workplace culture. In 2014, when you started, the culture of CDF Capital was hurting, I think would be one way to describe it. We’ll describe it another way a little later. But give us a story, Dusty. What wasn’t working when you came on board?
Dusty: Well, a couple of things had happened. Coming out of the economic downturn in that 2008, 2009, 2010 period, CDF Capital went through a very turbulent financial crisis at that time, and right in the midst of that was probably an even more turbulent leadership transition. So over the next few years, financial health was preserved and strengthened, but the culture never fully healed from that transition time. When I arrived in 2014 and began doing culture interviews with people at all levels of the organization, I think the easiest way to describe it is that people said that there were now two CDFs. They were no longer one unified organization, but they were two, and that this division, this lack of alignment, had resulted in stalled decision making and some very toxic cultural elements.
Al: Yeah. Oh, gosh. So early, two organizations. Yeah, silos internally.
Well, you know, the BCWI engagement survey revealed your workplace culture was just an eyelash away and above from being what we call toxic. You’ve already created what you call the five level of corporate culture. Tell us about one of those levers that allowed you to say, “We can do better. We will be better as leaders, because without a healthy culture, nothing works the way it should.”
Dusty: Well, I’d had some really good experience in using the BCWI tools in previous ministry culture turnaround, so we connected with you all right off the bat in 2014. And I just use that as a baseline measure of the key elements of our culture. So while I could see the things that were clear to me, this tool was extremely helpful in getting our entire team revolved around what some of the real key elements were with the problems of the culture. So I just wanted to mention that as a preface to my answer.
About 20 years ago, I began developing a tool, as you mentioned, that I called the five levers of corporate culture. I’ve used it with ministries around the country that I’ve led. I’ve also used it in consulting for nonprofit ministries and for-profit corporations. The five levers themselves are very simple: history, mission, vision, core values, and norms. It’s been my experience that these five must have great clarity with the team, they must exist in balance with each other, and the entire team must be aligned around each of them to create the culture that you want rather than the culture that you have or that you’ve inherited.
So we set our immediate focus on the lever of mission. For nonprofit ministries, this is typically the point of departure towards bad culture. And of course, mission is the actual heartbeat of the ministry. Without crystal-clear mission and absolute alignment around it, creating effective ministry and healthy culture is nearly impossible.
Al: Wow. So mission, yeah.
And then from 2014 to 2020, your workplace culture has dramatically improved and is now absolutely flourishing. So what’s one of your favorite stories, a before-and-after story, that you can tell about that transformation?
Dusty: Well, although the ministry had gone through many revisions of its mission statement through the years, it actually had become an informal statement from team members, loosely around the idea that CDF loans money to churches to buy land or build buildings. So regardless of what was on the paper, this is what people said the mission was. And as we began to spend time reviewing this statement, we quickly came to an important conclusion: nobody actually wants that product, if I can use the word product. There’s no pastor anywhere in America who wakes up on a Monday morning and prays, “Dear Lord, please help me take this church deeper into debt.” That’s not what they want. They simply want one thing, and that’s growth. Period. Always.
And so we restated our mission very simply to say, “We help churches and ministries grow.” And we built a very strong list of why statements to support that mission. And I think that I could say the timeline of our ministry’s history and culture can really be divided into before and after the adoption of the new mission statement. When we put that in place and made it clear with everyone, the culture began to heal immediately.
Al: Wow. So it was mission.
And Dusty, go back. Repeat one more time your five levers for our audience, if you don’t mind.
Dusty: The five levers: history, mission, vision, core values, and norms.
Al: Hm, wow.
So, why don’t you tell us maybe a pivotal strategic action step that wound up really changing your culture for the better? I mean, you’ve talked about mission. Is there a specific step that comes to mind?
Dusty: Yeah. I might suggest even changing the question just a bit for our situation. If the old saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is true—and I believe it is—then building a great culture is strategy. And in fact, that was my very first strategy when I went to CDF Capital, was to transform the culture. So when we changed, when we clarified our mission and our mission statement, that was the most strategic thing we did. A clarification of mission is not usually considered a true strategic move, but for us it was, and it’s made all of the difference. Once we began to focus on this clear biblical mission, the strategy revealed itself to us pretty quickly.
So back to the five levers. We began to focus on intentionally shaping each lever to support the others and to reinforce what we wanted to have happen in the ministry of CDF Capital. At that point, we put together some very simple action items, just a group of tools that we’ve put together for building culture. So some of those were simple things like rebuilding all of our employee evaluations around mission impact and core-values alignment. We began doing monthly culture plus-delta exercises, and we’ve driven those down in the organization, and that’s made a huge difference. Our planning retreats, our team retreats, were built around core values and mission, both understanding and implementing. All of our internal and external communications were built around reinforcing our mission and were motivated around our five levers. So like I say, I’ve probably put together about 20 tools, but those were the ones that were the most practical and that really began to drive the culture in the direction that we wanted to go.
Al: Hm. You describe culture plus-delta as one of those tools. Tell me a little bit more. What does culture plus-delta—what does that look like?
Dusty: So it’s a really simple exercise. We began doing this once a month with our executive team, and I had walked them through the five levers of culture, and, really, we got very serious about the culture that we wanted to create. And after we did that, then I began doing this on a monthly basis with our full management team. So it’s a really simple exercise that any organization can do. I typically lead the conversation, but I’ve got other team members who do it as well.
But once a month, we sit down and say, “On the plus side, what are all the things that have happened in the last 30 days that have helped to improve our culture that we would like to reinforce and make sure that those things continue to happen?” Now, typically, back before the pandemic, we would do this right before our monthly team luncheon. And as part of the team luncheon, I would go into that team luncheon with, here are three or four people who need to be called out and praised for things that they’ve done to help create a stronger culture.
Then the delta part of it was the flip side, “What has happened in the last 30 days that’s had a negative impact on our culture, or if it goes unaddressed will have a negative impact on our culture? And in this meeting, what are we going to do to address that issue?” And so really what you create there is this sense of when good things happen, they get reinforced and recognized right away. When bad things happen, they get recognized and addressed right away instead of what so often happens in culture is things just continue to build and build, and the frustration builds.
The other thing that happens with the culture plus-delta tool—and you could do it weekly. I think monthly works. Quarterly could work. I think monthly works well—is that really drove through our executive team and our management team, this is how we build better culture. This is how we address culture. And so now all of them are, in a sense, culture evangelists. They are noticing what’s going on. And many times, you know, as we’ve gone through this through the years, the list tends to get shorter and shorter, because what happens if a manager or a leader sees a detrimental thing happen, they know it’s going to come up in the meeting. They know I’m going to require that we do something about it. So they just go ahead and take care of it right then. And it becomes this really powerful, self-reinforcing tool for the culture of an organization.
Al: Yeah. So if something that a leader sees, a manager sees, a relationship that goes south or an event that happens that is going to damage that culture, they take care of it right away because they know it’s going to come up. And so easy for people, for managers, leaders to see something and then let it slide, and, of course, then, it just builds up in the dark.
Dusty: Well, and disempowers them as well.
Al: Yeah, yeah.
Dusty: They know it’s a safe place for them to bring concerns about what’s going on because it might be something that happened in another person’s department. But they know that monthly meeting, the culture plus-delta, it’s a safe place where everybody says what they really see and that my reaction is going to be, “Okay, let’s fix it. Let’s not spend a lot of time on blame. Let’s just dig in and fix it.”
Al: I like that, Dusty. So, culture plus-delta, but also rebuilding employee evaluations, team retreats, and really focused improvements for communication, those are great elements.
I meet leaders all the time who want to talk about how organizational effectiveness hinges on building a healthy workplace culture. You’ve already really expressed some of your thoughts about it—“culture eats strategy for breakfast,” for example. But what other thoughts do you have about this conversation?
Dusty: Well, there’s another thought that I like to use when I’m talking to leaders of other organizations, because I think there’s a sense in which for many, cultural issues and corporate culture is a soft issue. They don’t feel that they can really evaluate it. I think part of why I built the five levers was to show that you could. But they just don’t have an understanding of what it is.
I oftentimes refer to culture as a river. I mean, you think about it, the current of a river always wins. You know, the direction of the water, the water is always going to go. You can throw a rock in there. You can stand in the middle of the river. You can do all types of things. But ultimately, the river is going to go where the river wants to go. And I think culture is very much like that. Unless you fundamentally transform the culture, the river, to get it to go where you intended it to go, it will always revert to its previous path. And unfortunately, in culture, the previous path is usually not the good way. Ultimately, you want to build a culture that reinforces itself and that accelerates success and a culture that naturally takes people in the direction you’re trying to go, and in fact, helps them move faster in that direction.
Al: Yeah. Reinforces itself and keeps its boundaries and then accelerates success. Boy, I love that. Yeah.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
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Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
At CDF Capital, you’re all about sustainable strategy, inspirational leadership, and outstanding talent, which are three of our eight essentials of our BCWI FLOURISH model. And, you know, I was just looking at your recent report, and those three elements just stick out as really outstanding results. So what’s the simple biggest lesson that you’ve learned about how to attract, retain, empower, and motivate outstanding talent, especially in these uncertain times with a pandemic?
Dusty: Well, Al, I’m afraid you’re going to get tired of my answers, but I’m going to come back to the power of the mission lever once again. I simply believe that a crystal-clear, compelling, vital mission is the core. The right mission communicated in the right way, given the right fuel, naturally attracts people to it. And perhaps just as importantly, people will also deselect themselves if they’re not on board, if they don’t fit in with that. It’s the old principle in the church of blessed subtractions, of people, once they know that this mission is for real and you’re going to stick to it, if they’re not interested in it, they don’t want to be around for very long. So when people are hired, fired, and rewarded according to their impact on the mission rather than on whether they’re considered a part of the family, good things happen.
And I’ve got kind of this pet peeve. I don’t let our team focus on building a family culture. That’s a whole other dysfunction that we could talk about at another time. But we focus on team, we focus on mission, and we don’t let the, may I say, sloppiness of family relations get in the way of what we’re all about doing.
Al: I fully understand what you’re saying there. There’s a lot of things that are different between a healthy, effective team, a flourishing team, and a family, because families aren’t all going in the same direction. There’s no question about that. And, you know, you just can’t fire family members. So maybe that’s a little—
Dusty: It can be difficult.
Al: Yeah, it can be difficult.
Well, let’s continue on. So how much would you say a healthy, maybe even a flourishing, culture is worth in an ongoing, successful, effective, even as you look at the future of CDF Capital? How important is that?
Dusty: Well, we’ve got an organization that tends to focus very heavily on financial evaluation because we have a lot of financial assets; we do lending and investments. So I’ve given some thought to that. I don’t have any idea how to place a financial valuation on a good culture. What I can evaluate from this experience and several other turnaround experiences I’ve been involved in is that there’s really no strategy that you can pursue effectively if you first have to overcome a bad or weak culture. I go back to, the river always wins. And so it to me is the foundational piece of doing anything else that you want to do in ministry.
Al: Yeah. And I know that, in fact, I’d like you to share the three phases that capture the heart of CDF Capital and your culture. You know what I’m going to say. The three phases: financial capital—I really like this—leadership capital, and spiritual capital. Three things: financial, leadership, and spiritual capital. How do these three add up to what you’ve named transformational capital?
Dusty: You bet. And again, this really comes back to when we focused on what churches want—what church leaders want is to grow—and we changed our mission that our mission is to help churches and ministries grow, well, right away, we realized it takes a lot more than financial capital for a church or ministry to grow. We all know churches that have plenty of financial resources, and they’re not growing. They might even be declining. And we’ve all seen churches that have very limited financial resources, but they’re hitting it out of the park. So, you know, we began to think about and pray, what is it that churches need to grow? Financial capital? Certainly. We’ve been doing that since 1953. We’ll continue to do that. But in addition, it’s leadership capital. That’s the real X factor of how well are the leaders leading and the direction that they’re going. And along with that, in the church setting, is, of course, spiritual capital. And your hope is that financial capital plus leadership capital will lead to more spiritual capital. But we actually believe there’s things to focus on in building and expanding spiritual capital in the church.
So our vision is this. We think that when God brings the right blend of those three types of capital to any given church, that’s when transformation is going to occur in people’s lives, and that’s when transformation is going to increase. And I don’t think there’s any one blend that’s right for every church. It’s like the rest of leadership, all leadership is situational. But I think when we lean into God and ask Him to help us identify where we’re strong and weak in each one of these three areas and how do we bring it together, yeah, we truly believe transformation happens at that point.
Al: Wow, that’s really fantastic. And of course, leadership is really crucial, and it’s the leaders’ effectiveness that creates a healthy culture in those organizations you’re lending money to as well, isn’t it.
Dusty: Yeah. It doesn’t take a lot of money to build a great culture. It doesn’t take a lot of money to have spiritually healthy people. And I think we, unfortunately, live in a time of significant materialism that’s impacted many of our churches and ministries who think that we can’t achieve what we want to do or even what God wants us to do because we don’t have enough money. And what we find in our work is that is the least important of the three types of capital.
Al: So, Dusty, you know, as our time is coming to a close and as a leader of a successful organization, what is it that brings you to your knees as you think about the future?
Dusty: I think that right now it’s the pain that I’m observing in people that I see and know, our churches, our nation, the pain that we’re going through. It’s not just the pandemic. It’s not just the racial tensions. It’s not just the political divisiveness. It’s more than that. You just see humans experiencing pain at really significant levels. I had a wise mentor early in my ministry say, “Dusty, never underestimate the amount of pain that people are going through.” Well, I think this period of time, it may be causing pain. You might argue that, but it’s certainly unmasking how much significant pain is out there. And it’s time for the church and ministries, it’s our opportunity to address that.
I think the other one is just the uncertainty of the future. And I guess that’s just another form of pain. But, you know, there is no one who really knows how this thing is going to end, when it’s going to end, if it’s going to end. And that level of uncertainty, that’s causing an anxiety and a pain that can be really detrimental to people’s spiritual lives, or, perhaps, it can drive them closer to God.
Al: Yeah. That’s really true. Yeah. Pain and uncertainty of the future.
Well, Dusty, this has really been a great conversation, and we’ve really enjoyed all we’ve learned. I’ve really appreciated how you’ve shared the five levers of corporate culture, particularly how mission has played, and the clarification of mission, has played such a key role at CDF Capital, and how building a great culture is strategy itself, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And I love the way you describe culture is like a river, and it needs to reinforce itself and accelerate growth in order to be effective. The three forms of capital: financial capital, leadership capital, spiritual capital, these are all great reflection points for us to take home. Thanks so much.
Is there anything you’d like to really add to what we’ve talked about now that you’ve had a chance to reflect on it?
Dusty: You know, I think just remember, if you’re a leader, you get the culture that you allow, or you get the culture you build. But no matter what, frankly, you get the culture you deserve. And when I came to that reckoning once, when I was complaining about the culture, my organization and I realized I’d gotten exactly what I deserved. I think that’s what put me on a different trajectory of saying, if you don’t like the culture and you’re the leader, you have nobody to look at other than yourself. It’s time to dig in and build what you want.
Al: Yeah. I really like that. You get the culture you deserve. And that does take intentional effort, doesn’t it. I mean, it’s not just something you can, as you say, like the river, it’s going to flow, and it needs fortification, really, to keep it going the way it should go. Yeah, no question.
Well, how about, then, just one final thought that you’d like to leave with our listeners?
Dusty: I would just say, again, when it comes to culture building, be wise, be knowledgeable, study and understand what it takes, be very intentional about what you want to create, be steadfast, and last but not least, connect with BCWI and allow—I’m just, I’m very serious. I’ve seen the impact of your work in three ministries that I’ve led. And I’ll tell you, this is an organization that will help you get where you need to be. So I highly recommend that they connect with you, Al.
Al: Yeah, thanks, Dusty.
Well, Dusty Rubeck, the president of CDF Capital, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for investing yourself in everyone who’s been listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. This has really been a treat.
Dusty: Thank you, Al. Best wishes for growing the influence of your work.
Al: I appreciate it. Thanks.
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.