The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Healthy Culture Provides Stability in the Midst of Uncertainty“
June 15, 2020
Intro: As a leader, what would you do if you discovered you had an unhealthy workplace culture where there are strong silos between departments, poor communication, and a lack of trust between leaders and staff? Well, today’s podcast is a great case study of an organization that has seen its culture transformed, and as a result, are better prepared to face today’s unique challenges.
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.
It’s my pleasure to welcome to the microphone Mike Kremnitzer, the director of benefits and human resources for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Hi, Mike, and welcome.
Mike Kremnitzer: Hi, Al. Thank you for having me.
Al: Mike, let’s start off. Give us a little idea of the size and scope of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Mike: So, the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, we have about 1,000 churches in the Conference. Geographically, if Ohio is a clock, our territory stems from twelve o’clock down to four o’clock, so, roughly, up from Lakeside on Lake Erie, all the way down through Athens County towards the southeast.
Al: What are some of the larger cities in that area?
Mike: So we have Columbus, of course, the capital, Columbus. We also have Toledo up in the northwest, we have Dayton towards the west, and then we also have Cincinnati south of us.
Al: Thanks, Mike. Well, you’ve got quite a story to tell, and it’s a before-and-after turnaround that really can inspire every leader that’s listening in every organization. But before you tell a story, I want to ask, how are you coping, not only you personally, but maybe the conference, in the midst of this pandemic?
Mike: It’s a good question. You know, personally, doing well in the midst of all of the change that I think everybody is experiencing right now. Professionally, here at the Conference, like every other organization, we’ve had to adapt. So our Conference offices have been closed for a number of months, and we’ve gotten used to and had to incorporate telework into our repertoire. And we had some capabilities, but we never used them to their fullest, and so we’re getting an opportunity to grow with our technology, grow with our understanding and how best to use it to accomplish our mission and objectives.
Al: There’s a famous saying that goes something like this: no pain, no gain. I don’t know who said that. I don’t think it was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. However, he certainly would have empathized with this painful situation that we’re working through and that you’ve worked with in your workplace culture since 2016. So take us back, Mike. What wasn’t working in your culture now four years ago?
Mike: So, going back to when I started, so I came aboard, really, in January of 20106. My hire date was end of December, but really January 2016 when I started with the Conference. And before I explain what wasn’t working, I’ll just tell you some of the interactions that I had right off the bat that alerted me to the fact that we had some areas that we could grow in as far as our culture.
So one of the first conversations I had was with a gentleman, a leader in the organization, and basically told me word for word that this place is toxic. And right then and there, it kind of took me aback, to be honest. I didn’t really know what to say. But I took it and I said, “Well, I need to compare and contrast with what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing, and what I’m hearing from other folks.”
So what I decided to do is to interview each staff member. Now, we don’t have a large staff here in the Conference office. It ranges from 35 to 40. We also have eight districts as well. But generally speaking, here at the Conference, the culture really is for those that are here. So what I did is I started to meet with each staff member one on one and have a real honest communication and conversation about what they were experiencing in the Conference. And I had a set list of questions that I went through to get to understand as deeply and as quickly as possible where the culture was at.
So during that, I also came across a piece of information I thought was really enlightening. It was meeting notes, staff meeting notes from 2011. So this is four or five years prior. And on these notes, basically, it listed some of the issues that the organization was working through at that time. And what was interesting to me was those things that weren’t working in 2011 that were on those staff meeting notes, those issues, were still some things that we were working through and dealing with years later.
And what were some of those things? Well, first, collaboration. I heard the word silos kind of over and over again. We work in silos. So departments aren’t, they’re not speaking. They’re not working together. They’re not working in collaboration with each other. So that was one of the issues. My second issue was communication. We’re just not getting information that we need to be effective at our jobs. And a third thing that really, I think, is the largest or the most important was really there was a lack of trust between staff and senior leadership. And a little bit later on, I can talk a little bit more about trust and what it means for us, but there was a divide between senior leadership and staff and the way in which they interacted in building trust.
Al: Wow. Well, congratulations for taking the effort, really, to do that listening tour and interviewing your staff. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how culture is so thick. Five years later, and still many of the same issues that were in those staff notes from the staff meetings in 2011. So, okay, so you’ve discovered these things. Collaboration was an issue. Communication was an issue. There was a lack of trust. You were then introduced to the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, and you did an engagement survey of your staff. Tell me, what motivated you to start the journey?
Mike: I was motivated to start the journey for a few reasons. The first thing was I knew that this survey was going to act as a mirror. And by that I mean it would be an objective look inside our organization and really give an accurate representation of our culture, a mirror that basically shows us for who we really are and our outward appearance. They show us our wrinkles. And I needed a way to do that. The survey would let us do that.
Another motivator to use the survey was I knew it would benchmark our ministry. We not only had to have a mirror to show us who we really are, but we needed to benchmark ourselves against other like-minded organizations. I knew that the survey would do that for us. Peter Drucker, management guru, says what gets measured gets improved, and we had to measure our culture.
Finally, we needed a tool for the job. If you’ve ever done any home improvement or any work on your car, you know how important the right tool for the job is. And I knew that the survey, from using it in a previous employer, I knew that the survey was the right tool for the job in measuring our culture.
Al: So, you knew it was a mirror—you had actually used it before—that gave you a benchmark, especially in a church environment, a Christian-based tool that really helps measure the health of your culture, as you say. Yeah, I love that Drucker quote myself: what gets measured gets improved or managed. It’s another interpretation. That’s exactly right.
So what did the honest anonymous feedback tell you about the state of your culture? Probably, you weren’t completely surprised at that point, but what did it tell you?
Mike: No, I wasn’t surprised. So, basically the survey covers a range from—it’s a scaled score, and the highs and low is basically from a 3.5 to a 4.5 is where an organization on a five-point scale would fit. And the first time that we surveyed, we were slightly above a 3.5. And I knew—it wasn’t a surprise. It was disheartening. It was very tough to look at. And I mentioned previously that it was going to be a mirror, and it was. It was a mirror to myself, it was a mirror to our leadership, and you bring up a good piece or a component of the survey and that it was anonymous. And I mentioned the trust issues that we had. And even when we started to survey, there was a question of just how anonymous it was going to be. People would hear me say it’s anonymous, but did they really believe that? And the first year that we surveyed, I think some did and some didn’t. Now, four, five years down the road, they know that it’s anonymous. But basically, we got the results back. As an organization, we were broken. We needed to be fixed. We needed help. And those, we were broke, those were my exact words to senior leadership when I discussed the results of that first survey.
I’ve used this phrase often. We had a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. And we really, really did, but we were not functioning as a team. There was no chemistry. There was no trust. If I can use a rowboat as an example, that we had some folks that were rowing really fast, we had some staff members that were rowing slow, some that weren’t rowing at all, some that were using one oar and not two, and some rowing in the wrong direction. Basically, we were just going in circles. And that’s why the issues that we had in 2011 were the issues we had in 2016, because we were not taking active steps, not measuring and changing the course of our direction. And we were broke.
Al: Yeah, Mike, that’s fascinating. And before we get to the “what did you do?” I’m just curious about how your leaders reacted to what they were seeing. Were they surprised, were they hurt, and how did they get beyond that?
Mike: I think there was hurt for everybody. I think it was, how did we get to this place? Let me say that hurt can be a good thing, and I’ll talk about that later, because hurt leads into dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is key in change management. And we were hurt. We were dissatisfied. All we needed were action steps and hope. And I think those are the things that, after we got past the hurt, that we started to put those into play.
Al: Now let’s talk about what were some of those early action steps that the Conference took to improve the health of your culture. Our listeners can’t wait to hear. So what did you do from a 3.5 to move the culture forward? And I’ll say, when your culture is in that kind of shape, it’s harder to move it in a positive direction, isn’t it?
Mike: It is. I mean, there’s a couple of ways to look at it. One is the only way is up. And so that’s where we kind of, once we got past the hurt, we said, “Well, we can only go up.” And a few things that we did do, and there were quite a few, but I just want to highlight a couple here for you.
The first thing that we did is we said we got to get together. We got to be together. We got to give ourselves opportunity to interact with one another, not just on a professional basis, but on a personal basis. We needed to bring the human back into H.R., if you will. So we were going to consistently get staff together. Previously, there have been staff meetings, and they became a little bit sporadic. We decided that every month we’re going to get staff together. We’re going to carve out space where we can share what’s going on, Conference-wide, departmentally, where we can celebrate as well, where we can just spend time being together. That was one of the things that we did. We wanted to meet with a purpose. Not have a meeting just to have a meeting, but we wanted to have meetings with a purpose.
Number two is core values. So we had a mission statement, but we didn’t have core values. So we created core values that really defined our culture, our ethos, who we really are, our identity. And we created four: respect, commitment, collaboration, and celebration. That’s who we are.
The third thing we did is we emphasized hiring the individuals that not just had the talent skills to do the job, but lived our core values. Not simply agree to the core values, but lived them out. We put a premium on hiring.
Those are three things that we did very quickly and has paid dividends for.
Al: Wow, Mike. That’s a great start. So, again, you kind of redesigned, brought people together so they could interact personally, but also to meet with a purpose. You created four core values that really defined your ethos, as you say. And those stick with you today, don’t they, these four years later. And then the important thing is you say hiring to values not just based on competence, but putting values as a core aspect. Boy, those are three great steps.
Well, let’s fast forward to today, and your workplace culture has certainly turned around from what we consider toxic area to really healthy. And there’s a great story I’d like to have you share. I’m sure it’s a story that’s grounded in a process your team engaged in, and it has to do with the simple check-in process. It sounds like you’d created kind of a check-in process. So walk us through decision to design and take this simple-but-transformational step to help with the design of your culture, the health of your culture.
Mike: So check in. Check in’s really interesting. I like check in personally. You know, you used the term simple, and it is. And by design, we’ve created something that was not meant to be a burden and overly taxing to folks, but still meet the objective. So the decision, how did we come about creating this check-in process? So the first thing is in surveying our folks, okay, we learned that our scores in this area were really low. And I knew that they were low. We knew that there was an issue here. We knew that there were gains to be made. We knew that feedback, if it was going on, was inconsistent. We didn’t have a consistent-across-the-board method for doing feedback or reviews. Additionally, we wanted to create more opportunities for staff and leadership to dialog and listen to each other, to really open the lines of communication. And again, that ties into our core values. All the programs we put in place, we want to tie back and link to our core values and our mission, and check in does just that. Additionally, we wanted a strengths-based approach. A lot of times in performance reviews, you get into discussions about weaknesses—how can you improve this situation or that skill set—which I think is important, and it has its place. But when the sole focus is in how to move the needle incrementally regarding someone’s weakness, I don’t know that that’s the best use of time and resources. And so we decided we want to be a strengths-based environment, we want to know what people inherently are good at and are drawn to, and then, we want to play off those strengths. And so check in allows us to emphasize and maximize the strengths of each person.
Al: And you really wanted to improve your scores and the communication between supervisors and employees. You wanted to really create a more consistent way of having discussions and feedback opportunities to dialog and listen with each other that aligned with your core values and strengths-based approach.
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.
Mike, you’ve heard about progress reviews. We’ve all heard about progress reviews, performance-management systems. They take on a variety of names, and they seem to change regularly. But you decided to simplify and to shoot for broad acceptance in this approach. How did you build commitment to bless each team member with this shared experience?
Mike: Well, to be honest, Al, it was a little slow in the beginning because check in was different. It was new. And so having consensus is something that has evolved over time. As we focus on objectives and ministry goals, it really is a—it’s a communication tool, but it’s also a manage-by-objectives tool. And so we have from four to six questions that we use with each check-in period. We do them quarterly. But ministry-by-objectives component is included in each check in. And so we’ve been using it for a little over a year now, and I would say that our supervisors and our direct reports are becoming more comfortable with the process. And the questions, we change the questions every quarter so we can tap into what’s currently going on, for example, with a pandemic, with telework. That’ll be one of our questions. How is telework? What are pros and cons, and what are the things that you’re seeing? And it’s an opportunity to listen to staff, because I believe that those that are actually doing the work have really good ideas about how it can be done better, and we want to tap into that. And that’s what check in allows us to do. And as we continue to grow into the process, I believe that we’ll continue to see an increase in commitment.
Al: Mike, this is really interesting. And you mentioned, how is telework going? because that gets back to your first action step about getting together, and of course now at COVID-19, getting together personally is not something we can do. How are you accomplishing this get-together action as a telework, and do supervisors have a process that they go through just to make sure they’re in touch with their people?
Mike: So, prior to COVID-19, we did not have mass telework. So exempt staff had options and opportunities. They’re much more mobile. Nonexempt staff did not. However, a couple months ago, we closed down the Conference, and everybody was working from home. And to be honest, everyone has done an amazing job. They really have. I don’t think we’ve missed a beat. I have not heard that we’ve missed a beat. And actually, we’ve had some departments that have taken on additional roles and duties and projects in the midst of this pandemic and have done a fantastic job.
One of the things about telework can be isolation. So how do we create and maintain that connection? And you have to be deliberate. You have to carve it out. And that’s one of the things that, actually, this morning in talking with leadership, I was just reminding them that we need to carve out time to be present with our folks. And sometimes an email works well. But an email shouldn’t be the only method. Sometimes a call works well, and it shouldn’t be the only method. We’re using teams a lot, and I like teams because you can see the other person. So we’ve tried to incorporate a lot of different technology and do the best we can at maintaining that connection. And if you’re wondering about the staff meetings, are we still having them, the answer is yes. We actually have it this coming Monday. We’ll all be on Zoom, all 30, 40, or 50 us because we’ll have some districts involved. It’s just a way for us to feel connected, to see each other, and to maintain that space that we’re trying to carve out in the midst of this uncertainty, and telework.
Al: Yeah. Oh, congratulations.
So, Mike, what are three words that might best describe your workplace culture today? We’ve talked about the transformation that you’ve seen. What three words would describe it today?
Mike: The first word I would use to describe our workplace culture today would be chemistry. And by chemistry, I mean the pieces that we have in place, they fit well together, kind of like a puzzle. All the pieces fit well together. You know, Al, I’m a basketball fan, a huge Celtics fan. And when I think of chemistry, I think of the 1986 Celtics. And if you’ve ever watched old-school basketball, the passing, the cutting, the teamwork, the camaraderie, it was beautiful to behold. And I think that that chemistry that you get maybe in an athletic contest is similar to the type of chemistry that a flourishing culture has. The pieces work together, the communication is high, and people are accomplishing great things together. So number one would be chemistry.
Number two would be respect. And by respect, I mean care and concern for each other. And that care and concern doesn’t start in the office. Care and concern starts with you as a child of God created in His image. It means that I care about you because you are God’s child. So I’ve seen that respect grow, that care and concern for each other.
And then number three, I would say trust. Trust in God. Okay, we’ve grown in our trust in God, which filters down to a trust in each other. The Bible tells us over and over to put our trust in God. And so we’ve put our trust in God. The more we put our trust in God, the more it can filter down into trust for each other. And basically, you know, we talk about trust, and trust for us is when our words and our actions align; when what we say is actually what we do and vice versa.
So I’ve seen those three things that really have come to fruition here: chemistry, respect, and trust in God and each other.
Al: I’ve been reading in my own devotions, in John 17, Jesus’s last prayer and how He just describes about how we should have unity in the body, and He prays for unity for us. And then you’re saying, well, now you’ve got chemistry. You’ve got respect. There’s trust. Those are key elements to unity.
You’d be interested to know, on a side note, speaking of Celtics, actually, Bill Russell lives in the same neighborhood I do—
Mike: No kidding.
Al: Yeah. So it’s interesting to see the great Bill Russell of Celtics fame every once in a while at a coffee shop.
Mike: Wow. That’s great.
Al: Yeah. Well, off the point. Let’s get back to it.
One of the core foundations that we found in our survey is that it does measure trust. And boy, your trust scores, your trust between your leaders and your staff—and you mentioned this was one of the big gaps when you started, but now it really has improved. And also, your people believe that the organization is well managed much more than it had at the beginning. You know, when you look at your culture makeover, what’s one of the biggest takeaways that you think every leader should know, every leader that’s listening today?
Mike: I think if there’s one thing that I would highlight, it’s that the culture of your organization is your responsibility. As a leader, you set the tone, you set the example, you set the expectations. You either create the culture you want and you take those steps—you survey, you take those steps to create the culture you want—or, here’s the key, it’ll be created for you. And if it’s created for you, it’s probably not going to be the culture that you would want. But it really is—we’ve heard it before: everything rises and falls on leadership. And culture is no different.
Al: Yeah. Wow. And it’s intentional. Basically what you’re saying, it is intentional. Culture is the responsibility of every leader, and leaders do—they set the tone. They set the example. And you have to have integrity and lead by example as well as the expectations. And that’s great takeaways. Thanks, Mike.
You know, these are trying times. And how important has this culture work been in trying to bring stability in the midst of this pandemic uncertainty?
Mike: That’s a great question, Al. So I believe for us, the culture work here at the Conference has been the key factor for our current stability as an organization. I firmly believe that. In the United Methodist Church today, there are many uncertainties. First—and not just for the Conference, but really globally, the pandemic. So we’re working and caring for others while trying to stay safe ourself. I mean, that’s a huge uncertainty.
Denominationally speaking, if you’ve read the news, you’ve kept up at all with the United Methodist Church, we have continued discussions around possible separation regarding human sexuality. We’re supposed to have General Conference 2020 to maybe finally iron out some of those issues. Of course, that was postponed. We’re looking at, I believe, the fall, maybe September of 2021. That’s an uncertainty.
And then, the financial impact that the pandemic and the church, the U.S. church at large, mainline denominations are experiencing in worship, not having in-person worship due to the pandemic impacts finances to some extent. And so we’re learning, how do we accomplish our goals and mission in light of these uncertainties?
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to staff, and I told them that times like these, in great uncertainty, either pull people apart or they push people together. And I told our staff that I was proud that they had chosen the latter. Because I’ve seen us grow closer together even though we had these uncertainties, even though we have telework and we’re not physically together, we’re drawn closer together. And despite it all, we found ways to do that, lean on our core values. And honestly, I really have thought about this the last couple months, where would we be or what would it look like if we had never started this culture journey? And to be honest, I believe it would have been devastating for us, and it would have been incredibly challenging and difficult to maintain our current productivity and the love that we have for each other.
You know, a toxic culture and a crisis do not go well together. They really don’t go well together. And the culture work that we’ve done, I think, has given us a firm foundation to kind of weather these storms.
Al: Yeah. I’ve said several times culture is more important now than ever when it comes to organizations. And the work that you’ve done, four years of preparation to improve the health of your culture, certainly—I mean, just the way you’re talking, you can get a sense of how healthy it is. And as you say, toxic culture and difficulties don’t go well together.
Mike, there are people listening right now, where their culture is, in fact, in a world of hurt. So what true story of hope or change would you like to suggest or recommend to them?
Mike: So, if your culture’s hurting, then, no doubt, your people are hurting, which actually means you’re in a great place. You say, “How can I be at a great place when everyone’s hurting?” And I think it’s similar to Revelation; I kind of wish you were hot or cold. If you’re cold, okay, if you’re hurting, you’re at a place that you know change is needed, and, really, you’re on the doorstep of change. And that’s really what we’re talking about is change management. So if you’re hurting, you can be in a good spot.
So back in the ‘80s, Beckhard and Harris, they created a formula for change. And I like this formula, and I’ve used it, and I’ve seen it work. And the formula goes something like this. It goes, dissatisfaction, okay—we’re at dissatisfaction. Dare I say, hatred for the current situation—dissatisfaction times vision times hope for the future times first steps—a plan, actionable plan—is greater than the resistance to change. Now, everybody knows that change is hard, and normally there’s a resistance to change. People don’t like to change. I don’t like to change. But I’ll change when I’m really dissatisfied, I have hope, and I know what to do. And so what I would say, if you’re a leader and your culture is in turmoil or it’s toxic, if you’re dissatisfied and your whole staff is dissatisfied, then you’re ready to chart a new course. And you can. You can. And I believe ours is a testimony to that, and there are many other organizations that have seen their culture shift over time—and it will take time—but it can be done. And I tell you, the difference that you will experience on the other side of it is greater than what you could possibly fathom.
Al: Boy, Mike, that’s fantastic. And a shout out to Cary Humphries, by the way, who has worked with you now for the last four years, as you’ve kind of transitioned through this time.
The dissatisfaction times vision times first steps is greater than the resistance to change. I love that formula. And you’ve followed that formula, just as I think about our conversation today, because you started off with dissatisfaction. You did a listening tour; you’ve talked with people individually; you measured the health of your culture with an engagement survey; you benchmarked against other organizations; you found a tool that was a Christian-based tool; you gave vision based on action steps—a vision of having a healthy culture, working towards a flourishing culture. You started those action steps of getting together in a meaningful way of creating core values. And, again, that’s a key, where you’re bringing people together on how it is they want to actually behave, and to break down those issues around silos and a lack of communication and a lack of trust. And then, thirdly, hiring to values. That’s just a critical step and an important step in the hiring process. Then, you built in other steps, as you described—the check-in process, and how that’s even being morphed in this time of COVID-19. But to describe your new culture with the three words of chemistry, respect, and trust, and the encouragement that you give to leaders, that culture is a responsibility and how having a positive, healthy culture in a difficult time is really an important step. Boy, this has just been a rich conversation. Thanks so much.
How about—just putting a bow on our interview, Mike—what’s one final thought that you’d like to give our listeners?
Mike: One thing that I’d like to leave is really the importance of culture itself. It’s been said that the culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can have the best laid-out plans, but if your culture, your chemistry isn’t healthy, you’ll never achieve your organizational objectives. You’ll always come short of where you can be. And that’s what culture is. Culture allows you, or it gives you, the opportunity to really live in to all you’re meant to be as an organization. And so I would remember that culture eats strategy for breakfast. You know that everybody likes to strategize. Everybody likes to have the best plans, the five-year plan. And they’re necessary, and they’re needed, and they’re great. And they’ll never be accomplished unless your culture, unless the pieces to the puzzle all fit together well.
Al: Well, that’s great advice. Thanks, Mike. And again, ladies and gentlemen, Mike Kremnitzer, the director of benefits and human resources for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, thanks for being with us, and thank you for your wisdom, insights, and for helping inspire and equip our listeners to build a healthier, flourishing workplace culture.
Mike: 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.