The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“How Flourishing Culture Builds Momentum for the Future “
January 18, 2021
Intro: Do you want to see your organization on a growth path that is sustainable? Listen in to see how today’s guest has driven his organization onto the road to a flourishing workplace culture to build momentum for future impact.
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.
Trace Thurlby is the president of the Global Orphan Project. The Global Orphan Project exists to break the orphan cycle through the power of community, commerce, and the love of Jesus. Trace, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Trace Thurlby: Hey, it’s great to be with you, Al. Thank you for having me.
Al: It’s really a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to our time today.
So tell us a little bit about the Global Orphan Project. And I also know there’s a second, amazing inside story of how your workplace culture has been transformed. So give us a little insight.
Trace: Yeah, I’m looking forward to digging into both of those with you.
One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, and he said there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children. The bad news in that is our society’s soul is sick. Just in the United States alone, there are about four million children that live on the brink of the child-welfare system each year. Hundreds of thousands of them end up in the foster-care system, and thousands of them age out of that foster-care system every year, with really bleak futures. But that’s not the whole story.
The good news is the church, the bride of Jesus Christ, is stepping in to provide this care for these children and their families. So in 2014, God gave us this idea for CarePortal. CarePortal is a connective ministry platform that catalyzes church, state, child connections in local communities all around the country. You can think of it kind of as an Uber for child welfare. And over the last six years, more than 2400 churches have made real-time connections, providing the right help in the right way at the right time to care for more than 85,000 local children and families that were at risk, in the name of Jesus. Each one of these kids has their own story. Each one matters greatly in the eyes of God and should matter greatly to those who claim to follow Jesus. And the best part of this is we still feel like we are at the very front edge of this movement of God, through His church. He’s raising up His church to care for His children, and in the process, He’s purifying His church. The blessings flow both ways. It’s a beautiful thing.
Al: Well, let me just follow up on that. The Uber for child welfare—there’s a modern analogy, for sure. And so you’re not just working in your area. I know you’re in Kansas City. You’re not just working in your area. So your scope is much beyond that. Tell me more.
Trace: So the Global Orphan Project is in 11 countries. We always work through the local church. We believe that the local church is God’s anointed instrument to care for children and families when family breaks down. But in all of those communities, whether it’s the United States or in Uganda, there are children and families living at risk. And there are also churches and businessmen and rotary clubs and social workers that want to care for them. And so CarePortal simply connects them, just like Airbnb connects people that want to rent their house or people who want to rent their house, or like we said, Uber, people who want to ride with people who need a ride. CarePortal allows social workers to make local churches aware of vetted needs in their community. And they bring those needs right to the inbox of the church, giving that church an opportunity to respond to that family in crisis in the name of Jesus.
Al: Thanks. Yeah, wow, that’s fantastic.
This work only happens when your organization is well run and your culture is healthy. And so what led you to first complete our Engagement Survey with your employees? What did you feel like you needed to know about your culture that you didn’t already know and didn’t want to leave to chance?
Trace: Yeah. Well, one thing I knew is I knew that we were growing. When I started 11 years ago, we had four employees. And today, by God’s provision, we have close to 60. So in those early days, it was really easy to get together and know where everyone was. We started Monday mornings in a prayer circle, and we would spend an hour, sometimes two hours, just to connect with each other and with the Lord. About three years ago, we realized that that season and that size was past. Most of our employees had never even experienced those days. I was reluctant to acknowledge that we might have a problem. Based on my own perspective, I think I believe that at some level, our mission of helping break the orphan cycle would be enough to keep our team connected. But on the recommendation of some friends from outside of the organization, we challenged that assumption in partnership with BCWI, and we found that assumption to be deeply flawed. We had some problems in our culture that we needed to address immediately.
Al: Yeah. Well, good for you. And, boy, you got that first report, and it wasn’t quite healthy. Let’s just say your culture wasn’t quite healthy. But now, after three Survey cycles, literally within two calendar years, you’ve moved from healthy to what we call flourishing, the top level of level 4.25, with our Survey. So what do you attribute your progress to in this tremendous transformation over the last two years?
Trace: I think the first step was awareness. The first Survey didn’t just show us we had a problem; it showed us what the problem was. And specifically it was that our team was having one of two experiences at GO Project. We basically had a barbell-shaped satisfaction code. Some people on the team were being really fulfilled, and another group was less than satisfied. And that was painful. It would have been better, I think, if everyone had been dissatisfied. But to realize that some people were having a great experience and other people weren’t was really difficult as a leader to come to terms with. But that’s what the data was telling us, and it was really important to embrace that and to own that as the beginning of changing the culture in our ministry.
Al: Yeah. So, awareness was the first step. And that’s really interesting, the way you described the barbell in results. Some people were experiencing it well; others, not so well. At two different ends. And so that really created some action on your part. So how did the Engagement Survey help make this possible? What were some of the significant changes in your approach to leadership that opened the door to make this transformation over a short period of time helpful?
Trace: Well, the really helpful part of the Survey is they don’t just tell you that you have a problem. That would be kind of discouraging if BCWI just said, “You guys have a problem,” and that had been the end of the dialogue. But as you know, Al, you all give your partners a lot of information, and the information is based on our team’s input. So the Survey directed us to specific areas that our team said would be most effective in helping our culture. It was very targeted feedback and unbelievably valuable.
For instance, in year one, the Survey showed that our team wanted more communication. They wanted both communication to the team as a whole on what were our goals, how were we doing challenges, victories, and they wanted more individual communication. They wanted more professional, more meaningful performance reviews.
And then the second thing that we saw from the Survey is our team wanted to slow the rate of change. They felt like we were kind of chasing this shiny object when we needed to stick to our knitting a little bit longer. And when we got that feedback, we knew that they were right. And we did our best to then say, “What are two or three things that we can do to improve the communication and to slow the rate of change?” Honestly, it was just listening to our team and then trying to respond in the areas that they said were important to them.
Al: Yeah. Congratulations. First of all, you listened. That’s really the first step. You became aware by listening. That’s fantastic. And then things can happen. Yeah, I love that. Two or three things. Communication, slow the rate of change. And again, I give you credit for listening to that, because aggressive leaders don’t necessarily want to slow the rate of change, and to take that kind of feedback and actually act on it, that really is a wonderful thing.
But here we are in the midst of COVID, and you saw some things improve that dramatically would require face-to-face opportunities such as progress reviews with teams, and conflict resolution. And there’s certainly really significant improvement in staff experiencing the Global Orphan Project as well managed, one of our other big indicators of employee engagement. So how did this happen, during COVID, working remotely? I mean, that is even more challenging.
Trace: Well, one of the things that we tried to do is stick to some of those routines that were important before. This goes back to the other question. We didn’t look at the culture Survey as a one-time thing. We didn’t think that it would be a silver bullet, and we didn’t tell our team that it was going to be that. In fact, we just said, “This is the beginning of a process, and we’re not going to be able to get to all of the issues that you’ve raised this year, but we’ll try to get to the top ones. And then we’ll do it again next year, and we’ll get to the top ones that you raised then. And we’ll do it again next year.” And so three years in, this annual Survey has become a really important part of connecting with our team.
We’re all facing the challenges of doing life in ministry in COVID. Fortunately, we live in a part of the country where the lockdown wasn’t fierce. So we’ve been able to keep the doors open and have more of a hybrid operation. So we still look for opportunities to get together safely when we can. And we also have not given up on trying to have some fun.
For instance, every year we get together for an in-person Christmas party. Well, that just wasn’t going to happen this year. So instead, we had Santa visit our team, with Zoom, and we played a GO Project Jeopardy game virtually, and we made the best of it.
More than anything, though, I really think that COVID has brought clarity to the importance of our mission. Our country and the global community was living in a child-welfare crisis before COVID started. Things like unemployment, economic hardship, the illness and death that’s pervasive during this time is only added pressure, and it’s been clear to our team that it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to care for people in crisis. Like, we exist for such a time as this. And so at GO Project we like to say, “We get to do this. We get to help the church care for local kids and families in crisis, both domestically and around the world.” And I think getting to be part of that probably has done more to bring us together and give purpose than any single thing our leadership did or didn’t do.
Al: Yeah. When you say GO Project, we haven’t referred to that, but that’s short for Global Orphan Project. So I love the acronym, the GO Project. Good for you, still having some fun even in COVID, and so many of us, what do we do for that Christmas party, right? Well, Santa on Zoom isn’t quite the same as Santa live. It’s still Christmas, and it’s the next best thing. And I love the Jeopardy game. We actually did a white-elephant exchange, so it worked. We had fun. But I love, Trace, the way you described the mission and the clarity of the mission and the added pressure and how your people really do care for people in crisis. And of course, yeah, we’re facing a huge crisis at this point. That’s exceptional. So congratulations. Keep up the good work.
I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
Female: As we come through the COVID-19 crisis, leaders everywhere are asking, how do we understand the tensions our employees are experiencing coming back to work? How do we keep our employees engaged, hold on to our best talent, and position ourselves to thrive as an organization going forward? If you’re looking for a way forward, the Best Christian Workplaces Institute can guide you onto the road to a flourishing workplace.
The first step to begin the journey is our well-known Employee Engagement Survey. This proven online tool pinpoints where your organization is already strong and where you can improve your employees’ workplace experience, resulting in more productive people. That’s right. You’ll have more engaged, productive, and fulfilled people. Time-consuming guesswork won’t get you there. Instead, let us help you with a fact-based, hope-inspiring action plan that only our Employee Engagement Survey and skillful coaching can provide. Sign up now to begin the journey to build a flourishing workplace culture and a thriving organization. Find out more at bcwinstitute.org.
Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
For teams to work effectively, trust is so important, and trust is exceptionally high at the GO Project, trust between leaders and staff. And it’s also one of those questions that we ask on the Survey, there’s a high level of trust between leaders and staff. And you’ve done very well at the GO Project on this question. So tell us, our listeners are asking, what’s the key? How have you developed, especially in rapid growth, I mean, from four to 60 employees over a short period of time? Tell us about that trust.
Trace: I give a lot of credit to our co-founders, Mike and Beth Fox. They are amazing servant leaders. They’re giving, they’re caring, they’re transparent, they model integrity. They really set the tone for the organization. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have lead as our chairman and vice chairman.
The second thing is we welcome bad news. I’ve worked for organizations where this wasn’t the case, and this is really a pretty big [unclear 17:08]. If something is wrong at GO Project, we want to know about it. And we work really hard not only not to shoot the messenger, but to actually thank the bearer of bad news for having the courage to come forward, because as our team believes that, there’s less reason to hide or diminish the truth.
But most importantly, I think, and again, I think this starts with Mike and Beth, but we care about each other. I feel very loved at GO Project, and I love my teammates. And at times, we’ll tell each other that we love each other. Again, that hasn’t been the case everywhere that I’ve worked. We have our problems and differences, but at the end of the day, when you know that your teammate is pulling for you, not just in your job, but at home with your family, they know your kids’ names, that means a lot.
Al: I love that. Three things. We’re always looking for a number of things that we can do. You mentioned the servant leaders, your founders, credible, trustworthy. Let’s be credible and trustworthy people. And I like the second thing, welcome bad news. Oftentimes, we don’t really want to understand what reality is. And I love Max De Pree statement of a leader’s first job is to understand reality and to communicate what reality is, because only then, when you have a true picture of truth or reality—and I see those two words almost the same. What is truth? What is reality?—then we can really act effectively from there. And then, yeah, let’s love one another, care for each other. Those are three keys right there to building trust in any organization. Thanks. Thanks.
Another thing I love about the GO Project is you’ve really got momentum going. You’ve got wind in your sails, even in COVID. I mean, your employees are saying, hey, over the past year, things have changed for the better, and for them to feel that and to really feel that on two years’ running of how did you make this happen? How do you reinforce the sense of momentum over a couple-of-year period of time?
Trace: One of the things that is true and might be a topic for another conversation, but we do really believe that we’re living in a movement of God. We think that it started about 20 years ago, and we could go to the beginning of the Christian Alliance for Orphans or the beginning of Orphan Care Sunday, Wait No More conferences. There are lots of different data points you can point to, but we believe that 20 years ago God began a movement where He was raising up His church to care for children in need, and the process was purifying His church of individualism, materialism, and a small view of family. And so GO Project is really just swept up in that. I think that our team sees that. So as the church moves to care for children, we’re actually seeing the foster-care crisis in our country reverse in front of our own eyes.
Al: Oh, fantastic.
Trace: And it’s amazing. And I think that that’s a lot of what they’re pointing to externally with the Survey. Internally, like we’ve talked about, we’re really trying to listen to what our team is telling us is important, and act on it. God has brought us some amazing people to lead the team as we’ve grown, and we are learning to listen to them. We’re learning to listen to them better.
And one last thing that I want to talk about, because it’s just very practical and it’s very true, our donors have been very generous. And that has allowed us to do more and to do better for kids and families in crisis around the world and also for our team. So we are very thankful for our donor partners.
Al: Yeah. Do more and do better. That’s great. And there’s nothing more exciting, is there, to actually see the work you’re doing and how you’re reversing the foster-care problem that has really been an issue around the world. And to see that reversing, that’s so encouraging. That’s great, Trace.
You’ve made dramatic improvements in the question related to progress reviews, of all things, in the last six months. What did the progress and improvement reviews look like for the GO Project?
Trace: I think that there are two ways to look at performance reviews. One of them is to look at it as something you have to do, and it’s kind of an item on your checklist. And that’s how we were looking at it as a team. The right way to look at it is an opportunity to really connect and to affirm and to sharpen as an opportunity to make the team better.
So three years ago, we were all over the board with reviews. Some supervisors gave them on a regular basis. Some didn’t give them very often. Some people would use a performance-review form; other people didn’t. Actually, it was pretty dysfunctional. So I guess when you’re starting from a really low place, it’s fairly easy to improve. And we just owned that we had a lot of improvement that we needed to make in this area. We owned the fact that we had been poor stewards of the opportunity to give meaningful feedback to our teammates. So we kind of got in a room and just talked about who is doing what, why, how, and then tried to implement more uniformly the best practices of our team.
Al: Yeah. And also, what you’ve done is you’ve really improved that middle layer of management, the manager-director level, really significantly. So what brought about this change?
Trace: The favor of God is the real answer. If I try to put some more detail on it, I think that as we grew, the organization was able to hire some really dynamic leaders and put them in a director level. So when you’re four employees, which where we were in 2011, there aren’t many levels, right? That’s a pretty flat organization. And then you have these growing pains. When you’re 10, when you’re 15, when do you reach that point where organizationally and financially you can begin to invest in leaders that can really carry the organization forward? And I think we crossed that threshold two or three years ago. And now our directors, Debbie McMullin and Jessica Ray and Scott Platter and Jake Barreth, they lead this organization forward. They have so much responsibility and influence. And we are unbelievably grateful for them.
Al: And we’re seeing a number of these themes kind of coming together. So you’ve got a strong middle-management team. Your directors are really strong. They’re communicating with performance reviews, where they’re connecting, affirming, and sharpening your people. The old saying is people join organizations like the GO Project because of what you’re accomplishing, what you’re able to do, but they leave managers. And you’re seeing a really healthy culture because you’ve got great managers who are communicating effectively and connecting and even loving, as you’ve expressed, with your employees. That’s fantastic.
So, I’m wondering, what tips or insights do you have for leaders who want to recruit, hire, and retain a really high caliber team of people in this uncertain time? What do you see?
Trace: Yeah. I think as ministries that exist to advance the kingdom of God, we have two advantages over other organizations in the marketplace. The first one is we have an incredible missional opportunity, an incredible missional opportunity. I know that there are secular organizations that advance the kingdom of God and honor God, and I fully believe that. But as an organization that exists specifically to advance the kingdom of God, we have advantages over other organizations that we can offer that opportunity to our team.
And secondly, I think that the opportunity to establish a God-honoring culture is an advantage that we have. You know, it’s more difficult for other organizations to pray together, to read the Bible together, to talk about what they see God doing in the world. Again, there are some that do that, and I have great respect for them. But just frankly, it’s easier for us to do that. Our team expects that of us. And when we give that to them, if we’ve hired the right people, that’s going to mean a lot. And so we’ve tried to build our team around people who love our mission and who are drawn to our culture.
Al: Yeah. The advantage of a God-honoring culture, we don’t focus on that enough in Christian ministry and Christian-owned organizations, for sure.
Trace, this has been a great discussion. I’ve really enjoyed all we’ve learned. I love, you know, as we go back, you described kind of getting on the road to flourishing. We’re beginning to kind of describe this road to flourishing. And you described it very well, where you start off with this discovery phase. Okay, where are we? You did an Employee Engagement Survey—often organizations will do focus groups or other things—but just to kind of discover where you are. And then you began this growing process, and you’ve made several steps along that process to flourishing. So discover, grow, flourish. That’s what we see as the steps on the road to flourishing. And you’ve done that with such great precision and the way you’ve built trust with your employees and where you’ve created momentum in the organization, including some performance reviews, including really recruiting and developing just outstanding middle management. This has just really been a very insightful conversation.
How about one thing that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about, Trace?
Trace: Thanks, Al, for that. And I just want to say that we are a work in progress. We still have miles to go, and we really appreciate BCWI’s partnership and help.
The one thing that we haven’t talked about that I really want to emphasize is prayer. I’ve gotten older. I’m more drawn to the power of prayer, and I’m more grateful for the word of God. If there is any good story at GO Project, and there are some, Jesus is the hero of the story. We want to stay as close to Him as we can. Time in His word and in prayer are two of the main ways that He has given us to get to know Him and follow Him.
Al: Amen to that.
So, one last thing, Trace. One final thought or encouragement that you’d like to leave with our listeners.
Trace: I love that question. And people who have stuck with us to the end, they’re probably people who deeply value others and who want to establish a life-giving culture and who, like me and like the team at GO Project, want to do it better, recognize that we need a lot of help. So the good news for all of us is this: that Jesus is faithful to complete the good work He has started in us. That’s His promise in Philippians 1:6. If we give our best, we can rest in faithfulness of the Lord. He wants our organizations to have life-giving culture, and He will make it so as we can remember His leadership.
Trace Thurlby, the president of the Global Orphan Project, the GO Project, thank you for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for all you’ve invested in everyone who’s been listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. Thanks, Trace.
Trace: 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.