The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“How Employee Engagement Helps to Navigate in a Crisis“
April 13, 2020
Greg Mengarelli and Joe Zizz
Intro: Leaders of Christian organizations are facing the most-difficult challenges of their life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, our podcast highlights two leaders who believe the health of their culture is more important now than ever. Listen to a source of hope in their voices as they link survival with innovation, that’s all made possible by a flourishing culture.
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 guests.
It’s my pleasure to welcome executive director Greg Mengarelli, and the chief operating officer Joe Zizz, of the United Christian Youth Camp, or known as UCYC, based in Prescott, Arizona. So, thank you both for joining us on Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Greg Mengarelli: Thank you, Al. Pleasure to be with you.
Joe Zizz: Yeah. Thanks for having us.
Al: UCYC is a nondenominational organization affiliated with the independent Christian churches throughout Arizona and Nevada. And you’re governed by an executive board of pastors and business professionals who are passionate about seeing lives transformed into the image of Christ. Joe, Greg, for our podcast listeners who are new to your organization, what makes UCYC so distinctive and appealing to the thousands of kids, teens, and adults that come to your camp each year?
Greg: Yeah. Thank you, Al. We exist to help churches make more and better disciples. So we really see ourselves as a strong partner to our local churches and in helping them accomplish their mission. And we feel like that we have a very important space in doing that with the outdoor setting where it allows young people to get out of their normal setting, to get into the outdoors, to experience who God is in an outdoor natural setting and really kind of away from the other influences of the day to day, away from technology and screens and all those things that tend to crowd out God’s voice. And so I think our unique setting, our programing, and just our outdoor kind of adventure activities make us pretty unique.
Al: Yeah, that’s right, Greg. I appreciate that. And boy, I tell you, the impact that summer camps or camps in general have on changing people’s lives for Christ is really fantastic.
Joe, as the COO overseeing ongoing operations, what’s the one thing that you’d like everyone to know about the people who make up your workplace culture?
Joe: So, Al, I can spend the rest of our podcast talking about our team, I think. But I would just say first, we’re really proud of everybody on our team, and one of the reasons is that they’re just simply learners. Just insatiably curious. So they don’t ever arrive, but they focus on getting better every day. And then on top of that, they don’t just learn, but then they apply what they learn, and they really love people well. And so they love each other well, and that shows when our guests arrive, and they really love our guests well and just serve them in ways that, thanks to you and others, we’ve got metrics to demonstrate that. And so finally, they just put the needs of others ahead of themselves, and so they’re always willing to step up and really make sacrifices for the greater good. So that’s just a few things I think that I would say about the people who make up our culture here at UCYC.
Al: Oh, that’s great. Thanks, Joe, very much. And yeah, I love that—a team of learners, where they love each other, and that allows them to even more effectively love your guests and think about the needs of others.
You know, your organization has a phenomenally healthy workplace culture, where people trust each other, they serve with excellence, and they love coming to work. They love the work that you do. But tell me, where would your organization be if your workplace culture was maybe suddenly toxic, on the opposite end of the culture spectrum?
Joe: So, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve experienced toxicity in our culture, and Greg could touch on that as well, but the bottom line is when I think about a toxic culture, what I think about is it’s just a great big red flag of a lack of trust, because that really is just kind of the foundation of relationship. And so, you know, I think if I see a toxic culture, it’s an opportunity to start building trust, and there’s lots of ways to do that.
Greg: Yeah. In 25 years, Al, I’ve seen, I’ve experienced a toxic workplace. And really even before coming to UCYC, I’ve experienced that. And it actually motivated me to not ever be in that spot again. We’re a people-driven organization, serving people. And if you don’t have a healthy culture, then you’re not going to want to jump out of bed and get to work and go work with those folks that you do work with. So I think I have experienced those bad cultures, and I don’t ever want to go back, and it’s motivated me to ensure we have a healthy culture now.
Al: Oftentimes I’ll ask leaders that question, and they’ll say, “It makes a difference for me personally. It makes me want to get up and go to work when we’ve got a flourishing culture. And when it’s toxic, I just don’t even want to go to the office.” So, yeah, that just really helps us, helps each of us as leaders.
It’s all about strengthening employee engagement and building our culture, isn’t it? You’ve just really done a great job and made great progress in your workplace culture. Just three years ago, your staff were engaged. We saw that there were maybe 60 percent of your staff were engaged, and now it’s 86 percent of your employees. You know, that’s fantastic. And that’s a great improvement in a short period of time, which caused us to think maybe you’ve got some secrets for us. But now we’re in this environment with this coronavirus, and we’re facing in our ministries a very different scenario, and I know this has significantly impacted Christian camps overall. In your mind, how does a strong employee engagement help you navigate and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Greg: Well, we’re in unchartered waters. I think all of us are, in ministry. I feel for the churches out there that they can’t meet together, and they’re figuring it out how to get everybody together in a digital world. In camping, we rely on meeting as well, so we’re experiencing the same kind of thing.
And I have to tell you, Al, that I wouldn’t want to be in any other place than where we are with this healthy, engaged culture facing this, because I know as I lead the charge up the hill, everybody’s with me. And we had a meeting recently of our top leaders here. And at the end of the meeting, Joe asked, “Well, how do you feel? What are you feeling?” And we talked about some pretty drastic measures in that meeting, and they were all ready to go. They were charged up, fired up, ready to take the hill. And I think that’s because of engagement, because of a healthy culture.
Joe: I would just add that, Al. Greg captured it perfectly. But just the idea, again, that we never feel like this is all on us. I think it’s easy as a leader to get into that mode, but we’ve got a great team that is engaged. And so you leverage that and you really do—you know, people, as they say, the old adage is that you buy into what you’re allowed to weigh in on. And so even when we end up making a decision that goes a different way, the fact that I got to weigh in on that means I’m with you. And so we’re really intentional about empowering the team and really just cross collaboration across the organization. Let’s solve these hardest challenges together and not just kind of draw a map in a room away from everybody else, and then here you go; here’s the plan.
Al: You’ve learned great lessons.
Let’s now go back. When you were first looking at measuring your workplace culture seriously, what were some of the concerns that grabbed your attention?
Greg: We’ve been talking about culture for a long time now, working on culture. I think, for myself, I had a 360 review that you guys helped with, and that was very beneficial. I worked for a board that’s remote from my local work site here, and so that was helpful. And then as we got engaged with you guys, we learned more about your resources and how we could be way more intentional about culture if we were measuring it. So, you know, while it had been important to me for a long time and I had done what I knew I could do, measuring it and then taking those results and being able to apply back to our staff, we could see where we were weak, we could see what we were doing well, we could make adjustments. So I think the ability to work with Best Christian Workplaces to measure and then to adjust allowed us to be more intentional.
Al: So you’d taken the Survey. It’s something you’d never done before. You surveyed your people. You asked them their honest, anonymous feedback about the workplace. And bottom line in that first year, what did you learn?
Joe: First, I’d say that I think that we’ve done your Survey three consecutive years now, Al, and every time we get the results, we’re pleasantly surprised—I mean, shocked probably actually is the word. We always look at it. Okay, it went up again. Uh oh, it’s going to stop eventually, right?
And the other thing is that there’s just always some gold in there. There’s always something we’re going to discover and maybe a few things that we can improve in. You know, we really appreciate just kind of your organization’s guidance around the whole idea of like, “Hey, this is something we can improve in. So, hey, what would it look like if you agreed or strongly agreed that this was true here?” and really just, again, getting those conversations going around, well, what’s the discrepancy between what is and what could be, and letting people really speak into that. And so that’s pretty powerful. It’s very humbling. Again, quarterbacks get the credit when the touchdown is scored, but the team is really who is changing the trajectory of our results. And so it’s humbling, and again, we are always excited to kind of share the good and the bad, the opportunities for growth as well as the strides that we’ve made.
Al: So, Greg, Joe, a surprise. Was that your reaction, too?
Greg: I have to tell you, absolutely. When we took the first Survey, Al, there were some things going on with some staffing, where we were having to have some critical conversations with folks, and some people were leaving. And I was very concerned about what that first one would be, and pleasantly surprised. But, you know, you have to start somewhere, right? And that’s what I would encourage any organization out there that’s looking to do this is you have to start somewhere. You have to create a benchmark. You have to find out where you are to then be able to navigate to where you want to be.
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 guests.
After that first year, the health of your workplace culture really improved—in a way, it soared. Like a 25-point improvement is the way we talk about it. Tell us, what was it that you did that caused the turnaround and saw that kind of an improvement? What was the strategy or the action step that really sparked your transformation that first year?
Joe: So the first year is actually kind of a funny story, Al, because I remember there was a question on the Survey around—I don’t remember exactly how you worded it, but it was around the retirement plan that we had in place. The only issue is that we didn’t have a retirement plan in place. And so we asked everybody how they felt about that. And then we got the results. Obviously, we didn’t score really high in that area. Over the next year, we talked about it with them. We said, “Okay. So this is what we’re seeing. We see that you want this. Who all is interested in being a part of this?” And we’ve got some different interests from different areas of the organization, and we didn’t actually do anything with it. And then we took the survey again. And I think we climbed a point or a point and a half in that area. And we were like, “We didn’t even doing anything. We just talked about it.” Again, it was demonstrative of this whole—just talking about it shows us that you’re listening to what we’re saying. And so then, fortunately, by the next year, we had a retirement plan in place that people could be a part of. But so when I think of that first year, yeah, I just kind of have to look back and laugh.
Al: Yeah. It showed you were listening. Well, that’s a lesson that many people learn is open communication. That’s great.
Well, let’s move ahead, because the second year, your culture really saw another huge improvement. And for instance, the perceptions of trust between leaders and employees, the improvements of operational excellence, the humility of your leadership, all increased. What are some of the things that you did to bring about those kinds of positive changes?
Greg: Yeah. You know, every time, Al, I always appreciate the debrief. So Joe dives way deep into all the data, which is great. I love the executive summary. But more importantly, I love the opportunity with our leadership team and your facilitator to debrief and look at where we’re strong, where we’re weak, and there’s so much good data that comes out of these. And I think we really focused on transparency, and we really looked at how do we lead in such a way where there is a deep trust with the leadership team and with your supervisor. How do we lead in such a way that our employees feel included and involved in decisions and they know that their best interest is represented every time the leadership team gets together. And a lot of that has to do with listening. I think we really focused on how do we better listen to our team.
Al: So, focusing on transparency and listening, how that builds trust, involving others in decisions. Yeah. That in itself makes a big difference.
And, maybe, Joe, back to you. Were you surprised the second year?
Joe: Yeah, again, Al, I would say every time we’ve seen the jump in, you know, again, it’s just like, “Oh, oh, well, hey, yeah, I guess some of that stuff did pay off.” And so the word is humbled, right? Our team has always been honest. We’ve had great participation. And just again, the opportunity to be able to demonstrate both growth in specific areas and then also just continually find ways to get better.
Greg: I’m going to go on a limb here, Al. We’re all dealing with COVID-19 right now. And I’m going to make a bold prediction. In light of the hardship that we’re going through and all of us are going through, I’m going to tell you that based on our healthy culture, from where we’re starting, going through this hardship, I’m confident that we will see the same or better score on BCWI going through this hardship together. I think it will just embolden us, it will refine us, and I think we’re on this trajectory that we keep talking about. And again, not out of pride, but just out of pride, I guess, in our team, but not out of myself. I think it will galvanize the trajectory that we’re on because we’ve never been through this kind of hardship before. And I think once we get through it, this team will be tighter than ever.
Al: Oh, that’s encouraging, Greg, because sometimes—I’m sure you’ve seen it – a fear experience. I’ve seen it in mine. You know, when you have difficult times, that either brings people together or causes them to break apart. And that’s a great projection. We’ve got it on tape here, and we’ll see next year how that comes about.
But I love what you’re saying. You know, you’re not taking your eye off culture, even with the pandemic that’s in front of us. That’s fantastic.
Well, this has really been a great conversation. As we wind up our time together, given the current pandemic, what’s one real-time situation you’re facing, so our listeners can pray for you and your ministry?
Joe: Thanks for asking, Al. We will take all the prayers that we can get, and we trust that there’s a lot of people, they’ve got a lot of time to listen to podcasts on their hands right now. So, we’re not going to lie. We’re in the business of Christian hospitality. Like Greg said, our mission is helping churches to make more and better disciples, but our model revolves around gatherings. So we’re going to need to get pretty creative in order to continue to serve our churches well. So just prayers as we navigate this with our churches, because again, I know that we’re all in this together, trying to figure this out.
Al: Well, Greg, Joe, I’ve certainly enjoyed everything that we’ve learned today. I really appreciate just the way that you guys work together with your team. You’ve created a team of learners, a team that love people, a team that really focuses on the needs of others. And I think as we even think about this pandemic, that is such a key to our own emotional health is to get off of ourselves and think about the needs of others, and how you really love being part of a flourishing team versus what we’ve all experienced in the past, perhaps in different situations of toxic teams. And yeah, we’re in unchartered waters, as you say. And what a comfort it is to know that you’ve got a team of people that is really cohesive and ready to go, standing with you side by side in the journey. So what you’ve learned about the engagement-survey process, of the importance of listening and communication and how transparency really builds trust, and involving people and including people really brings them closer together and more aligned with the organization. So this has really been a great discussion.
To put a bow on our interview, what’s a final thought or encouragement you’d like to leave with our listeners?
Greg: Yeah, I think culture is more important than ever now, Al. I don’t know that organizations with a toxic culture will survive this. And I hate to say it like that, but I truly believe that. I think, you know, you’re going to have to have a strong culture to face the future, particularly during this pandemic. I think it has the potential to be our finest hour. I see innovation happening like never before, and you have to really innovate to survive. And in order to innovate, you have to have a healthy team, a healthy culture that collaborates, that’s willing to listen, to bounce ideas off. You have to have that trust on that team. And so I think I’m encouraged myself during these kinds of times, even though it’s difficult, because I know I have teammates I can trust, that we’re going to lock arms, and we’re going to figure this out. And beyond that, God will do what He needs to do to get us across the finish line.
Joe: And Al, I would add to that. And, again, it doesn’t matter what organizations we’re talking about, churches or parachurches or businesses or whatever. This idea that creating culture is sometimes still an abstract concept. And people are, “What is that? What do we do?” So I guess a word from the operations guy here, some nuts-and-bolts practical. It really isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to be a genius to create culture. It really boils down to just two things. A culture is created by design or by default. We’ve heard that before. So either you’re going to get what you’re going for, or you’re going to get what you deserve. And so if you want to create a culture with intentionality, it’s just about celebrating the right things and refusing to tolerate the wrong things. And so the things that we say we value, we want to make sure and actually demonstrate that we value those by celebrating it when people get it right. And then when we see something that we don’t want to be true in our culture, we don’t look away, and we don’t avoid it. We lean into the uncomfortable, and we talk about it, and we confront it. And so by doing those two things, you build a culture that you’re going for. And so, again, just to kind of take the abstract and make it, again, concrete. I think if you focus on those things, you’re going to build exceptional teams wherever you’re at.
Al: Fantastic. Well, Greg, Joe, thanks so much for being with us, and thanks for sharing the stories that you have about the United Christian Youth Camp, and thanks for sharing your wisdom, your stories, your insights. It’s really been helpful. And thanks for investing yourself into everyone who’s been listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. Thanks so much.
Joe: Grateful for you, Al. Thanks for having us on.
Greg: Thank you, Al.
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.