The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Inspirational Words from BCWI’s New President and COO“
November 30, 2020
Intro: Today’s special guest is none other than the new president and chief operating officer of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. Enjoy my conversation with Jay Bransford.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
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And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
To everyone who’s listening, you’ve got a front-row seat to a very special conversation. And on Tuesday, November 3, we at BCWI made a historic announcement, that Jay Bransford has been named the new president and chief operating officer of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. And for more than 20 years of leadership in respected Christian organizations and for-profit companies, Jay was the top choice of an international search that involved more than 600 candidates. I wondered what the best way would be to let you know about Jay and Jay’s great credentials, his character, his deep Christian commitment, but the best way, really, is just to have you meet him and to get to know him yourself. And so I’m delighted and grateful to welcome the new president and chief operating officer of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Jay Bransford. Hi, Jay.
Jay Bransford: Hi, Al. It’s great to be with you today. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Al: Oh, I am too. So, the new president and chief operating officer. How do those words sound to you, Jay?
Jay: Yeah. Well, quite honestly, those words sound a bit daunting and like big shoes to fill. I have recently come off the international mission field after working for many years with a wonderful mission organization that didn’t use formal titles for any of their leaders. So this title definitely feels strange, but I really consider it to be an incredible honor that God clearly orchestrated this opportunity for me to join the BCWI team. And having said all that, I believe that my new job title means that you must have a new title as well, right? What are those three new letters behind your name, Al?
Al: Well, I’m the CEO and co-founder, so that’s my new title. And I want to tell everybody, first of all, this came out—people kept asking, “Al, are you retiring?” And let me say I’m not retiring. This is a part of perhaps a long-term transition-and-succession plan. But I’m not retiring. I’m the chief executive officer and co-founder. And I’ll say this is really an exciting time. And as we see the growth of BCWI and continue to plan for the growth, I plan to be kind of the visionary, and Jay is going to be playing the role of integrator, and we really see the two of us teaming up so that BCWI can continue to grow and be laser focused on our goal, and that is to equip and inspire a thousand flourishing workplaces in the year 2030. So as CEO, I’m going to carry the torch, the vision of the organization, and I’m going to ask Jay to really kind of step in as an integrator and to move the organization towards maximum effectiveness and trust with all of our current and new ministry partners.
So, Jay, I’m curious. Let our listeners know, where were you and what were you doing the day that you learned the news that BCWI was looking for a new president and chief operating officer? Tell us that story.
Jay: Ah, yes. You know, Al, when I first heard that BCWI had begun to search for a new president, I was truly blown away. I was sitting in our church’s guest house in Lebanon, Tennessee, when I received an email from an executive recruiter detailing out the job description for this role. I was stunned and a bit in disbelief as I read the job description. And I quickly walked over to my wife, Andrea, and I asked her to read it, and she had the same, exact response as I did. She said, “This sounds like you wrote it about yourself and described your ideal job.” So it was amazing. It almost felt like we were reading my own resume. So needless to say, the job description caught my attention, and I was really excited and yet cautiously optimistic, as I knew there must be a lot of other qualified people out there.
Al: Well, yeah. And I remember talking with Andrea about that. I think she kind of maybe accused you of writing that yourself.
But tell us a little bit about your background and experience that relates to creating effective workplaces. You know, we believe that Christian organizations should set the standard as the best, most-effective places in the world. So tell us about how you’re going to fit in and what your background is that’s going to help you fit into this puzzle.
Jay: Sure. Well, you know, I’ve spent nearly all my life in the pursuit of helping to maximize the effectiveness of people, teams, and organizations. It started at a young age, working with my father. And by the time I graduated from college at the age of 22, I began my consulting career with Anderson Consulting as a human performance consultant. And then for 12 years, I had the privilege of consulting for some of the largest companies in the world, helping them to navigate huge organizational change, crystalize strategic plans and priorities, improve processes and quality, and develop strong leaders. Now, for the past 16 years, I was able to serve in a similar consulting role but on the Christian mission field. So I had a very unique role on the mission field, one of serving as a consultant to mission organizations and teams and leaders throughout Asia, helping them to be more effective in fulfilling the kingdom purposes of their organizations. In our years in Asia, I had the privilege of serving many different mission organizations and teams and churches and Christian foundations.
And, you know, just like any other business, school, or church, mission groups can often find themselves needing assistance in clarifying their vision or developing a comprehensive strategy to move forward or just helping their teams to work more effectively together and developing their future generations of leaders. So I worked with many hundreds of mission leaders over the years on just those things, oftentimes utilizing evaluative tools, not unlike BCWI’s Employee Engagement Survey, to assess strengths and potential weak spots, and then provide training, coaching, and consulting services to help them maximize their effectiveness.
Al: That really, then, leads into one of the things that got my attention. And of course, we’re all about helping build flourishing workplaces, but that takes leadership and developing leaders, and there you also did a lot of work on leadership development. Tell us about one special project.
Jay: Yeah. I think it’s been maybe for the last five or six years, I was able to serve as the chairman of what’s called the Asia Leaders Learning Community—a mouthful, so we call it the ALLC—for a mission organization called YWAM, or Youth with a Mission, which is where I was working with. And the purpose of the ALLC was to equip, connect, and resource Asia’s mission leaders for growth and multiplication. We had a group of our international YWAM leaders who had envisioned the ALLC as a response to the huge, growing global trend of more and more missionaries being raised up from the global south or from non-Western nations. And they recognized how it was absolutely critical for us to proactively put program structure, tools, and processes in place to develop and grow this next generation of mission leaders across Asia to reach the final frontiers. Because, really, those emerging mission leaders, I believe, are going to represent a huge percentage of the future missions forward. So it was really an honor for me to be asked to leave this large leadership-development initiative.
And over the years, my colleagues and I at the ALLC surveyed nearly a thousand of our leaders and were able to identify what they reported as their top leadership needs. And then in response, we created trainings, resources, tools, webinars, blog articles, and even an annual leadership conference directly targeting those top leadership needs. It was super rewarding to see how hungry and responsive our emerging leaders were to these initiatives. And we now have an annual leadership conference in Asia. We have a couple of books published on leadership, a couple of leadership-training schools being offered, periodic webinars, and really hundreds of leaders are now involved in ongoing mentoring and coaching relationships all across the world.
Al: Yeah. That’s a fantastic background. Thanks, Jay.
Looking back at the process, I just remember seeing your interview. Steve Hayes at the Human Capital Group had put a group of finalist candidates together. And first of all, I was just thrilled at the high level of caliber of each one of those candidates. I was just really excited. And then I ran across your bio, and I thought, “Wow, that’s just a great combination of professional experience and training in the business world and then a lot of Christian experience working with Christian organizations.” And then we went through the process.
And first of all, I want to thank not only Steve at the Human Capital Group, which is a best Christian workplace in itself because they’ve worked with us, but we also had an outside team, much like a board committee, made up of Doug Mazza and Jeff Lockyer and Tami Heim and David Pickering and Mike Sharrow. These are all certified Best Christian Workplace leaders that are leaders in their fields. And then we had an internal process of interviewing, and each group came up with the same recommendation, and that was you, Jay. So out of 600 worldwide candidates, Jay you were our unanimous, first choice. And again, it was quite a process. And I remember doing extensive interview checks and even interviewing people that you didn’t even suggest that I interview, because we had some interesting connections over the way. But yeah, you were the unanimous choice.
So what was it that drew you to our work and vision, that Christian-led workplaces set the standard as the best, most-effective places to work in the world, or even our mission: to equip and inspire Christian leaders to create a flourishing workplace? What really started to draw you in to pursue this?
Jay: Yeah. I’m still blown away about this whole process and how it worked, but I think there were really two main factors that drew me most to BCWI. One factor was the overall purpose and vision of BCWI, because my passion and life calling has always been to help maximize the performance of Christian people and organizations in achieving their God-given purposes. And actually, my life and ministry verse that I believe God gave me is found in John 17, where we hear Jesus praying to the Father for believers to be united together and how that unity of believers will serve to draw others to Him.
Yeah, I think Christian workplaces, whether that be a business, school, church, or foundation, can be of huge kingdom significance and impact in demonstrating that kind of John 17 unity to the rest of the world. I really believe that really Christian workplaces, including BCWI, have a biblical obligation to represent Christ to the world in such a way that accurately reflects the nature and character of God. And I believe that unity and effectiveness is exactly what BCWI helps its ministry partners to achieve. So that was really the first factor that immediately drew me to be BCWI.
The second factor that drove me to BCWI related to the skills and work experience that you guys were looking for in a president and COO. You wanted someone with significant organizational development-consulting experience in the corporate business world, as well as someone with deep experience in the sphere of church and missions. And that’s not probably an easy thing to find. You guys wanted someone who had experience successfully leading and growing organizations, teams, and leaders. And all of those things that BCWI was looking for seemed to me to represent pretty well what I’ve done over the past 28 years, because I spent 12 years as this OD consultant with some of the largest companies in the world and then the past 16 years as an OD consultant and senior leader in the missions and church world. So to me, God really seems to have matched BCWI’s needs with my own personal passion, skills, and experience really well.
Al: You know, through our team and individual interviews, you showed each and every member on the search team that you were prepared and ready to lead BCWI into a great new era of growth. And we believe that you’re God’s person for this organization for just such a time as this.
Jay: Thanks, Al. That’s really encouraging to hear. It does really indeed feel like God divinely orchestrated this, preparing both me and BCWI for this next season.
Al: So, let’s talk about some basics here, and maybe you can give us a brief look at your own Christian journey, your faith walk. So who has Christ become for you in this season as you think about going forward from here?
Jay: Yeah, great question. To begin with, although I was brought up in the church as a kid, I wouldn’t have really considered myself a Christian with a personal relationship with Christ until the age of 31. However, I’ve always been, I always was, a seeker, and thankfully God put a number of wonderful key Christian friends in my life, starting in my high school years.
And I eventually made a commitment for Christ and invited the Holy Spirit into my life while I was attending a 12-week Alpha program that my local church provided. And for anyone not familiar with Alpha, I encourage you to look it up. There have been countless people like me who have come to know Christ through that amazing program over the years. It was the perfect environment for an analytical and yet relational person like me who has lots of questions to ask before making important life decisions.
My decision to follow Christ was really based on the realization I had that believing in God and Jesus is not simply a fact-based decision that we can gather enough evidence for and then make a perfectly well-informed and logical decision about—that’s what I was hoping for—rather, choosing to follow Christ is an act of faith, which by definition assumes that we don’t have all the necessary facts and information. We can’t prove it, but we choose to trust and believe anyway.
So that general concept of faith and trusting and God has been a recurring theme in my life, definitely over these past 16 years on the mission field. It’s evidently an area that God has wanted to grow me in. But leaving the comfort and relative financial stability of the corporate consulting world to go into full-time missions, where we had to raise our own financial support, that was really a next big leap of faith for me. Every day since then has really been a continual reminder for me of my utter dependance on God for all things, including, but not limited to, my monthly paycheck, my family’s well-being, our son’s education, and our retirement savings, our health and health care, etc., etc. God has absolutely become the Person I have to run to on a daily basis for my own faith, trust, and reassurance about all those things.
Al: Yeah, amen.
Al: 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.
So, I’d love for you to tell us a favorite story of how a significant organizational change became an opportunity to lead and serve God’s people, you know, somewhere in your background.
Jay: Yeah. I think I’ve probably got a number of possible situations to choose from. One example of a significant organizational challenge I faced was when I was suddenly and unexpectedly asked to lead our local mission organization within Chiang Mai, Thailand. At the time, I was enjoying serving numerous mission organizations in Southeast Asia, with my OD consulting services, and I felt that’s what I was supposed to be doing as my primary focus.
However, God suddenly had a new plan for my next few years, or, at least, it was a new plan to me. The leader of our local mission organization had resigned, and as a result, a significant leadership vacuum existed. We had about 35 full-time missionaries who were leading around 10 different ministries throughout the city at that time, and all wonderful people and good friends. But we were lacking a cohesive vision and strategy. Our level of cohesiveness, teamwork, and collaboration was concerningly low, and I was asked to try to remedy that, by our senior mission leaders.
So after wrestling with God about whether this assignment was truly meant for me, I finally accepted it. And for the next three years, I engaged our people in annual feedback survey, similar to an Employee Engagement Survey, to determine what our greatest needs were as a missions community and family, and to develop goals and action steps to grow in those areas. And together we were able to clearly define God’s vision for us in the province; create a leadership team; provide weekly and monthly opportunities for our missionaries to experience Christian fellowship, prayer, encouragement, and support; and we even set up peer-mentoring groups for our key leaders. And really, as a result, our level of staff engagement, fellowship, collaboration, and overall morale went way up, according to our annual survey. Our staff members increased nearly threefold in three years, and several new ministries were launched. So it was really a humbling and encouraging experience for me to work along with God to serve our missionaries during that time.
Al: Those are great stories, Jay, and certainly left an impression on me as I learned about them and the way you stepped in, and then the fruit that came out of that experience was really significant.
You and your wife, not only this story, but this also impressed me, when your wife founded three different Christian nonprofit organizations that are operating and thriving today, even though you’re not involved in them on a day-to-day basis. So what have you learned through those involvements about who you are as a leader and what leadership is on the inside and what a leader must do out front with colleagues and stakeholders and possibly even then to step back?
Jay: I think one of the biggest challenges and learnings I had while working on the mission field relates to what I think it really takes to be an influential leader. I think God really worked on me on that. My mission organization, like many others, was made up entirely of volunteers who raised their own support to serve full time on the mission field. And as a leader of volunteers, you quickly come to realize that the people you lead are not there because you’re providing them a paycheck, because you’re not. And they really aren’t that concerned or impressed with your organizational title, your educational credentials, or your resume of experience. On the mission field, your staff come to work every day because they were called by God to be there, and they are simply obeying that call.
So as a leader of volunteers, you quickly learn that there’s only one true way to lead and influence people, and that’s really to earn their trust. And trust is built one experience and interaction at a time. It’s built by spending time with your people; letting them know and experience that you care about them; asking them for their feedback, questions, ideas, and concerns; considering what they have to say; and then doing what you feel from God is best while you continue to involve your staff as much as you can along the way.
So these are a few of the life lessons on leadership that I think I learned firsthand on the mission field as a mission leader. But I also think these principles apply equally well to any work context, be it in a Christian business, school, church, or foundation. On the inside, like you asked, we as leaders, number one, I think we have to have confidence in knowing what role God has called us to, and we have to have the humility and faith to trust Him to guide us. And then on the outside as leaders, we need to be humble servant leaders who are bold enough to seek to understand the needs and ideas of our staff and stakeholders, and then to collaborate with our staff and stakeholders in solving problems and making the decisions.
Al: Amen. That’s for sure. I certainly agree with that.
You know, you’ve already become quite involved in the day-to-day rhythm and work of BCWI, so you’ve been getting to know each of our team members on a one-on-one basis. So what’s caught your attention so far in the first week and a half or so?
Jay: Yeah. It’s been wonderful getting a chance to start to get to know the outstanding BCWI staff and engaging in our weekly, monthly, and quarterly planning meetings. Probably the two most immediate and encouraging things that have caught my attention in my short time so far at BCWI is the amount of genuine fun and enjoyment I see in every staff member as we meet in our virtual video calls. That, to me, is a strong indication of a positive, healthy work environment that people want to be a part of.
And the other thing that’s caught my attention about BCWI is really the quality and quantity of input and ideas that the staff give in every meeting. It’s just clear to me that BCWI has been able to grow an extremely talented and committed group of people who strongly believe in the mission and vision of BCWI and who enjoy making their individual contributions.
Al: Thanks. That’s especially true. As I think about working remotely because of COVID, that’s really not new at BCWI, because we’re pretty much a remote organization to start with. And you already are embracing that reality from Nashville, Tennessee, where you and your wife, Andrea, are making your home. So tell us a little bit about your place and why Tennessee is natural to you. You’ve already mentioned that a little bit, but why is it so natural for you and your family, including your grown son, Graham?
Jay: Yeah. Well, although I’m originally from Minnesota, growing up as a kid, I actually spent every summer of my life in Nashville, visiting my dad. And then I ended up attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and after I graduated, I began working with Anderson Consulting here as well. I even met my wife while living in Nashville. So although we moved initially to Colorado for a short season, we returned to the Nashville area again, just after our son was born. In addition, my wife, son, and I are all big music lovers, which makes Nashville an even more fun place to live. So we’re thrilled to be back and somewhat moved into a new home now after being away for 16 years.
Al: Let’s talk a little more about your background. In getting to know you, I’ve come to know there’s a pretty important individual that influenced you greatly growing up, and I thought this was really an interesting story. So tell us about this person and what he imparted to you.
Jay: Yeah. I’m guessing you’re referring to my father. Like many young boys, I really looked up to my dad growing up, and I hoped that I could accomplish a small fraction of what he achieved in his life. In reality, I was blessed with an amazing mother and stepfather as well, who greatly shaped who I am today. But if I focus for a minute on my dad, he was a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, was considered to be one of the top educational and cognitive psychologists in the world. He was an amazing collaborator who loved giving away the spotlight to his younger colleagues and helping them to succeed. He believed in people, and he championed them in any way he could. He was brilliant and yet completely humble, and he really dedicated his life to making a positive impact on the world through his research in the field of learning and education. So I really respected those things about him.
In addition to my dad leading the largest educational technology center in the world, he also published eight or nine books in the field of teaching and human learning, was credited with his own learning theory, and elected to the National Academy of Education, and even served as an adviser to the president of the United States on matters of education.
So it’s really an honor for me, from a very young age, to have the privilege of working alongside my dad in his research on human learning and with his award-winning technology-based learning curriculums and methodologies. And actually, it was my work with my dad that ended up landing me my first consulting job out of college, with Anderson Consulting, into their newly formed consulting practice of change management, which I think they now refer to as human performance consulting. So, yeah, needless to say, my dad has had quite a profound influence on my life’s journey.
Al: Yeah. That was a fun story to just listen to see how even as a young boy, you would show up on campus and work with your dad kind of shoulder to shoulder on projects. That was really interesting.
And one more thing. I know our listeners would love to hear what it means to you to be a father. So tell us just a bit about your son, Graham.
Jay: Oh, yeah. Happy to. My amazing wife and I are really blessed to have an awesome child, a son named Graham. He is 18 years old and in his first year of college at Trevecca Nazarene University here in Nashville, studying worship and music. And God has really gifted him in the area of music. He plays a number of instruments quite well, such as acoustic guitar, jazz drums, saxophone, which he actually played in our city’s philharmonic orchestra in Thailand. He plays the piano, electric guitar, bass guitar, and he has a great voice. And actually, he recently signed with a record label, and he wrote, recorded, and produced his first solo song called “See You on Monday,” under his artist name of Wes DeFord. And the song talks about the challenges we all face in life, of having to say a difficult or insufficient goodbye to someone you care about. I think we can all relate to that. He was prompted to write the song as he thought ahead to graduating from high school in Thailand and having to say goodbye to his fellow classmates who were from all over the world and who, after experiencing life together as missionary kids for so many years, would likely, after graduation, never get a chance to see each other again. And this year, of course, the pandemic unexpectedly cut his goodbyes completely short by several months when the schools closed down for the year. So overall, our son, Graham, has just brought all sorts of laughter, fun, and beautiful music into our household, which my wife and I are forever grateful for. He’s a great kid.
Al: Yeah. Bringing things into your household. You’ve just been through a bit of an experience yourself, and I know you don’t mind sharing this. So tell us, besides accepting the role of our president and COO, you and your family have faced another challenge. What’s that?
Jay: Yeah. Our wonderful son that I just told you about was also nice enough to bring the COVID virus from his university to my wife and I. We all three got it. He felt better after a few days, but it took my wife and I closer to a month before our lungs cleared out and our energy levels returned back to normal. And that just happened at the same time I was in the final interview stages with BCWI. So the timing was a bit challenging.
Al: And how do you feel now?
Jay: Thankfully, all three of us seem to be back to good health now. We know there were a lot of people around the world who were praying for us.
Well, Jay, this has really been a very exciting and informative discussion. And let me just say at this point, is there anything that you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about?
Jay: Not really at this point, Al, but I just want to express again how thankful I am to God for leading me to BCWI. And I’m excited to be, again, getting to know our many ministry partners and adding value.
Al: We’re looking forward to it, too. Thanks, Jay.
And how about—we like to give our guests one final thought or encouragement that you’d like to leave with our listeners who I know are celebrating your arrival. How about one final thought?
Jay: Sure. You know, I think I’d just like to thank each and every Christian leader out there who is courageous enough, humble enough, and disciplined enough to take the somewhat scary step of asking your staff for their input about your organization and then truly listening to what they have to say. That is a scary thing. I think those are the kind of Christian leaders who will not only successfully achieve high levels of employee engagement, but more importantly, those are the leaders who will have substantial kingdom impact through their workforce. And that’s really what it’s all about. So I think my challenge for everyone is to keep asking yourself what your commitment level is to being courageous and asking people those scary questions about how you’re doing, to being humble to listening to what they actually have to say and considering it, and then to be disciplined and following through on what you say you’re going to do to continue to improve your organization. And I have a feeling you’ll be hearing more about those three things from me in the months to come.
Al: Jay Bransford, the new president and chief operating officer of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, congratulations and welcome. 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.
Jay: Thanks, Al. It’s an honor to be with you.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba.
Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.