The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Is Your Organization Readied for the Storm?“
April 27, 2020
Dr. David Pickering
Intro: Listen to how this organization’s investment in culture over years has readied the ship for whatever storm comes. And my colleague Cary Humphries pursues this conversation about how, with leadership, commitment, alignment, and the use of data, Olivet Nazarene University has built a durable culture, ready for these trying times.
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.
Cary Humphries: Okay, welcome to today’s podcast with the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. This is Cary Humphries filling in for Al Lopus. I’m a consultant with BCWI, have been with BCWI, I’m now in my sixth year, love being a part of the team. And it’s my pleasure to be with Dr. David Pickering, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Olivet Nazarene University, located in Bourbonnais, Illinois. David, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
David Pickering: Thank you, Cary. It is always a pleasure to talk with you.
Cary: Me, too, David. I’m really looking forward to having you share with our listeners a few of the strategies that have created new levels of trust and effective communication at your workplace at Olivet Nazarene. It’s been really inspiring to watch what’s happened. So thank you, right up front, for being the kind of servant leader that models the humility of Jesus.
David: Well, thanks, Cary. I’ve been blessed to work here for a number of years and work with great people. And as you know, it’s the people you work with that make all the difference.
Cary: Indeed. We’re thousands of miles apart, a couple of thousand miles apart, and in a kind of a strange time. What’s it feel like using technology? And you’re using it a lot there, but it’s quiet around the campus, I imagine.
David: It’s unbelievable. Yeah. So I’m actually on campus, and many people are working from home, but I’ve been here quite a bit. And it feels like you sit in front of your computer screen all day and just do meetings, and you’re staring at people across the screen. Radically different.
In fact, I just shot a video, kind of an update, to the campus community a couple hours ago, in front of one of our main buildings on campus, was able to do the video and not one person passed me, which is just radically different from what would be normal, where you’d have hundreds and hundreds of students walking past.
So, you know, I think for most of us who work and have a lot of contact with people, the Lord is helping us, but it’s very challenging. It’s disappointing. We miss the face-to-face interactions. And technology is helpful, and it’s wonderful, and it’s allowing us to even do this communication today. But there is nothing like being with people and seeing people. And so it’s a challenge for us, but the Lord’s going to get us through this. We know that.
Cary: Yeah, indeed. And I know that our listeners, in whatever venue they’re in, the lights are off, to some degree. Some businesses, some ministries are ramped up and responding and even more active than normal ways, but many are not. So with that in mind, I’d love for you to share one or two things you’re doing right now at Olivet Nazarene University to encourage, equip, strengthen your workplace in the midst of the coronavirus.
David: Sure. Well, as I just mentioned a few minutes ago, one of the—I just did a video today to all of our employees, just giving them an update, kind of what’s happening on campus. I found myself, not just during this time but even just recently, doing more short videos, giving updates, encouraging quick, encouraging comments and actually utilizing that with other people on campus, just information for employees, doing a little more video than just emails.
One of the things, it’s always a challenge to balance communicating enough with different facts. And also, people are very busy just adjusting to this new life. So especially, I’m thinking a lot of faculty who’ve had to adjust to delivering their content online rather than face to face. So we’re trying to be careful with how much we email, how much we communicate. We don’t want people to feel overloaded, but at the same time, making sure we’re communicating well. And we found videos have helped with some of that.
Cary: Given all that’s still unfolding in your university community, if you had to pick one thing, one lesson, one conviction, that matters most to you and the people you work with, what would it be?
David: I think it’s always trying to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. So try to think through the lens of your average employee. So what are they thinking right now? What are they needing from us right now? What are they wanting from us right now? It’s like being a parent, right? I can’t meet every want that my child has. But what we want to do is thinking through the lens of each person, so everybody’s unique, they have unique needs during this time. So try to put yourself in their shoes to meet their need.
Cary: And like you, everybody listening to us wants the very best for the people they work with. That means creating a healthy, enjoyable, flourishing workplace. This might be a natural segue to have you take us inside the culture of Olivet.
Prior to 2017, you served as the director of Business and Human Resources. You definitely had your eyes on the university’s work environment. Things weren’t perfect. No workplace culture is. Tell us what was keeping you up at night and what motivated you to survey your people and, in effect, say, “I want to hear from you. I want your feedback.”
David: Yeah, it’s a great question. A university is a people business. We’re not a factory. So we are here engaging with people. So students choose to come here, whether it’s residentially coming here on campus or it’s an online experience. But they come here because of the people. So we do have a beautiful campus, and we have great facilities. But the reality is that people come here because of the people here. So our job is to know that our people are doing well and to know what are the things that our people are focused on that we can adjust and help them with. So for us, the Survey gives us those tools to help us know how our people are feeling and how we can make it even better for them.
Cary: It was some time ago, but as you think back on that first Survey experience, what was one pleasant surprise you came away with?
David: I think for us it was feeling like, okay, we’re starting from a position of strength. Maybe the Survey came back a little more positive than maybe what I was expecting. So it helped to realize, okay, so our focus needs to be on all the different things we can improve, and so tried to focus on those type of areas.
Cary: And something happened. You didn’t benefit from the honest feedback of your faculty and staff just once; you developed an ongoing pipeline of feedback and growing trust by surveying every year, now 16 years in a row. It’s amazing. What, in your mind, continues to be the biggest benefit or take away of that kind of annual commitment to surveying?
David: Well, I think part of it is you get great trendlines. So the challenge with the Survey is that if you do it once a year, so people can wake up that day overly positive, overly negative. So doing it over time allowed us to see areas or issues that had trendlines. So it just allows us for better understanding. So we always tended to pick the same week every year so it fell within the same period in the academic calendar to make sure that we were getting consistent data. And so you didn’t have something that had just happened on campus. So we’ve had an employee meeting on campus, and that could skew the vote up or down. So we always try to be consistent, as far as timing, when we did it and also consistently doing it every year so we could see the real trendlines.
Cary: Yeah. Allow me to embarrass you for just a minute. During your tenure overseeing H.R. at Olivet Nazarene University, you all have been the best of the 66 organizations in Christian higher ed that BCWI has surveyed—the highest results, the most significant participation by staff, and the most regular participation.
David: I mean, it’s amazing to hear that. We’ve been blessed, and we’re blessed. We have great supervisors, we have great employees, so I’m not surprised to hear we’ve done well. Though to hear I guess that we’ve been the best, it’s a huge honor. So thank you.
Cary: In just the past couple of years, David, you’ve been promoted to executive vice president and CFO. But for many years, you were responsible for H.R. and business services. How did your experience leading human resources help in your leadership development?
David: Working in H.R., you obviously are working a lot with people. So it helped me to get a better sense of the pulse of how people were feeling. I think the challenge all leaders have is getting real feedback. So before I worked in H.R., I worked for 15 years in the finance world at the university, and then my role was kind of merged with H.R. So I had this dual role of business and people. And I found that merging those two was really critical. People impact the business. Working in H.R. helped me to learn how to deal with problems and navigate through some tough conversations, which obviously that helps in the executive VP and CFO role.
Cary: And Christian higher ed—and I think even some people could translate this into the church world or their business world where they survey even rescue-mission world and other sectors of Christian ministry—it seems Olivet Nazarene’s approach to human resources is unique and I would say a bit more comprehensive than most others. And H.R. has a broader role at ONU that includes responsibilities for faculty and staff. What are the advantages? Maybe describe the approach a little bit, and what are the advantages to that approach, in your mind?
David: Yeah. So it’s true that in academics, in a university setting, an academic often has a lot of the responsibility for faculty from an H.R. standpoint. That’s the case here. But I’d say, over the years, we’ve partnered with various vice presidents to provide what they needed, so all different areas across campus. And we view our employees, and it’s the same. They all need the same services from an H.R perspective. So we try not to look at our employees as “faculty and staff,” which is how they’re often referred to, but as employees. So every employee on our campus has a different role and different function. And so even the wording that we use is important to everybody’s an employee. Everybody has-H.R. is here to serve all employees, not just this type of employee or this type of employee.
And so I think for us in higher ed, maybe that’s a little bit maybe more unique. But I think overall that it’s really helped, and to get all employees engaged in the things that impact them on campus. So, like our benefits committee, which is benefits tend to be an H.R. function. There’s lots of faculty representation, just trying to make sure we’re very, as best we can, collaborative in nature and in everything that we do.
Cary: That’s really great. I can see comparisons or ways that that can apply in so many different kinds of organizations for people that might be listening today.
Some time ago, you and Al did a podcast, and you outlined your approach for building culture through annual departmental action planning. And I can remember, for the last five or six years that I’ve been doing your debrief with you on behalf of BCWI, many times, we’ll hustle to get that debrief set up right after the Survey closes. But when we’re on Zoom together, you’ve already begun. You’re a quarter of the way or a third of the way through meeting with leaders to go through their data. You’ve used a treasure trove of data from the staff engagement Survey to drill down into departmental results. Maybe share an example or a story of how this steady, disciplined approach has benefited the university.
David: Sure. Happy to. Yeah. So as I mentioned earlier, doing the Survey every year so we get trends. And so we created department report where we put in the last four years of information. So what we can see that is the particular department we’re seeing trends on particular questions. And so that’s been very, very helpful.
So an example, that I can think of, recently was we were looking at appointing somebody to lead an administrative area. So one of the things that we discussed, which was a very critical piece in making a decision, was the fact that she had consistently had some great scores from the departments who were reporting to her. So she already was in an administrative position; we were just looking to elevate her to a higher position. And so we were able to show that, boy, she’s a great supervisor. She consistently gets above-average scores for the questions that relate to supervisor. My supervisor cares about me as a person. My supervisor helps me some work-related problems. We have great teamwork in my department. Somebody listens to me. I get job-performance reviews on a regular basis. All those questions, great, great comments. So while we may think she’s good, having the data over the years allows us to have confidence in that decision we were making. And it’s not just we think she’s good. No. We know, based on her scores from her employees for the last four years, she really is good.
Cary: So here we are now. Online classes are front and center. In your mind, how does greater staff engagement produce greater results for staff, faculty, their students, in this current online culture?
David: Well, as you know, it’s a change for everybody, especially for faculty members who are used to going to class every day and in front of them are going to be their students. And so for them, it’s obviously a significant change. And so some of our faculty has taught online, so the shift maybe is not quite as great. But for those who haven’t taught online, it is a large shift, and the same is true for our students.
So it’s a lot of work for employees. Many have transitioned working from home and things are just different. We are a very relational campus. I think some are missing the physical piece of just being together, kind of as we mentioned even in the intro. So even though we do see each other through our technology, I just think it’s been challenging for people.
So having employees who are already engaged helps you when you then have that challenge. It’s kind of like climbing a hill. So if I’m in pretty good shape, climbing a hill may be a challenge, but it’s much easier if I’m already in shape. So if I’m out of shape, before we start, it’s going to be a challenge. So I think for us, having a good culture, healthy culture, helps us in these moments of challenge and helps us to be more successful.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
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Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
Cary: Healthy communication is one of your culture’s top 10 strengths. So the university is known for seeking employee suggestions, encouraging innovation. There’s nine communication questions in the Survey. Another one, explaining the reasons behind major decisions. You’ve worked long and hard at this. How do you tackle the communication challenges in a university setting, even normally, not in a COVID-19 environment?
David: Sure. Yeah, I think we all know communication is always a challenge. Communicating to people takes time. Dr. Bowling has a gift. Our president, he has a gift for communicating. And so the other leaders at the university, we all have a high standard to live up to, and I think it challenges us to communicate well. So communication is always going to be something we need to improve. I think it’s hard to over communicate. So my experience is we just need to be authentic and real in our communication, and then people will listen to us. If all they hear when people get up our platitudes or conversation that they don’t feel is genuine, they’re not going to listen. So my experience is that people just want you to act like yourself. So we all communicate differently, which is great. We just need to be ourselves. So whatever our style is, use that style. And really, when it comes down to it, we just need to communicate.
Cary: That’s great.
And I’m thinking about the CEO of a business, the pastor, the parachurch leader, the CEO of a ministry that’s listening in, say a little more about this core principle of healthy communication that you’ve just talked about, that can motivate and benefit every leader.
David: I think, again, just be yourself. Don’t try to act like someone else. So our president here at the university, Dr. Bowling, he has a style that he has. And when he speaks, he has a style, and he tends to be formal in the sense that he always wears—this has always been fascinating to me—so he typically wears a suit, tie most days. And when he speaks in chapel, he’s one of the favorite chapel speakers. And often what I notice is we’ll get chapel speakers who come, and they often tend to, I wouldn’t say dress down, but maybe dress in a way that is definitely more relaxed than Dr. Bowling. But what’s fascinating to me is students don’t care about the way he dresses. What they care about is his communication. And so I tell people, you know, he is who he is. He is who he is. And people respect that. Students respect that. So people respect people who don’t try to be something they’re not. So I found that just relaxed communication helps.
I think for me, I’ve found videos to be helpful. Email’s much more challenging because you can’t always manage so many of the nonverbals. So I prefer videos or live communication because people get a better sense of what we’re trying to do. And even videos, I mentioned I did a video earlier today, and that one I actually had scripted out, and I’m reading it, sort of. I mean, they can’t tell I’m reading it, but I am reading it. But most of the videos I do, I’m not doing that. It’s just a live video. Three days ago, four days ago, the actual group that directly reports to me, went outside of my building, stood in front of a pine tree. I held up my phone, I did a two-minute video, just thanking them for their hard work, telling them we miss seeing many of them on campus, expressed appreciation to our physical plant department who is on campus working when many other people are at home working from home. It took me two minutes, very simple, no script, and it comes across informal, definitely informal, and relaxed. And I think people connect with that sometimes better than a very polished presentation.
Cary: No doubt. And that’s through Marco Polo or a host of different technologies. That’s the way people are communicating with each other. So they look forward to having it. That’s been a tremendous strength of Olivet Nazarene, and it shows in the level of trust between leaders and staff. And I think, as you already pointed out, your longtime president, Dr. Bowling, has been dedicated to building trust with faculty and staff. How do you think he’s done this? I mean, can you give us two or three things you see in him that are essential to building trust in this area? And I would just add, as you think about that, one of the things about Olivet Nazarene that has made you the leader of the 66 different Christian higher-ed organizations that have surveyed with us is the strength of your faculty responses, because sometimes that disconnect between administration and faculty is a barrier to engagement. At Olivet Nazarene, it has been one of your strengths.
Cary: Yeah. And so number one, he’s a great communicator. So number two for him, because he relates particularly to faculty, he was a faculty member. So he can empathize. He can understand. He can relate to them. Over the years, he’s always been open to talking to employees and students. So any employee who wants to see him can go see him, any student who wants to see him can go and see him. So I think his communication, not just his style, but also just the fact that he’s very willing to do one-on-one communication has probably been the strongest way of building trust. He’s consistent. And so I think people want a leader who’s consistent. They can count on him. So, you know, he’s not going to be up one day and down the next day. When things are challenging, which many organizations right now, there’s challenges, there’s financial challenges, different types of challenges, he’s a consistent leader. And I think especially in times of where we’re at today in the world and when it comes to people having concern or whatever that is, you want consistency in your life. You want stability. And so having a leader who is consistent is really something that helps build trust.
Cary: And accessible is a word I think about when you tell that story.
And say just a little bit more because sometimes organizational leaders tend to cloister themselves kind of in the back, far reaches of a building, protected by one or two administrators who guard them like police. And then other times people have just created a culture with their admins or somehow they’ve made this accessibility possible. What’s been Dr. Bowling’s strategy on that?
David: Yeah. I think so. He’s very accessible. And I think part of that is he’s communicated to people that he’s going to talk to people. And so for people who work for him—for example, if somebody had a concern about me, and I’m a leader on campus, and they go to see him, he’s going to talk to them. That may be hard for me as a leader, and I might be thinking, boy, why doesn’t he just push them to me? Like, why is he talking to them? So I could question that as a leader who works for him. But I think what we’ve learned and found is people need to feel like they can communicate their concerns and frustrations to whoever that happens to be. And they have a level of trust. So they trust him. I also trust him, that if there’s something I need to know, he’s going to tell me. If there’s something he needs to correct, he can correct me. So to have this trust where he trusts them, they trust him; he trusts me, I trust him; if we do that, we’re not worried. We assume people—one of our people principles is assume good intentions. So if I assume good intentions, if he assumes good intentions, we’re going to be fine. And it builds trust when people know, if I’ve got a problem, I’ve got somebody I can go talk to.
Cary: And rewarding compensation’s another area that ranks on your strengths list. How would you describe Olivet’s total-comp philosophy?
David: Yeah. So we would focus on that word total. Total compensation philosophy. So what we try to do is unique things like extra days off around Christmas or July 4th. So for the last two years, we surprised our employees—I think it was two years ago—where we gave them a whole week off on July 4th. July 4th was on a Wednesday. So we used it as a moment to kind of shock them, because I think that year we had done a wage increase maybe, but it was smaller than normal. So we kind of said, hey, we want you to take this entire week off and kind of surprise them. So I think trying to surprise people every now and then, that’s a great benefit.
Our benefits have always been strong. And this is a challenge for us financially. But our goal has always been do the best that we can with compensation, but also recognizing that it’s not always cash compensation that really makes people feel good. I mean, we all need cash. We all need a certain dollar amount to live. But for many of us, other benefits, time off is huge for people. And so being as generous as we can and surprising people every now and then, I think is a great philosophy.
Cary: As we begin to wind down our time together, David, what distinctive role can a healthy workplace culture play in creating a successful university, or any organization for that matter?
David: A healthy culture is kind of like having a healthy diet. You don’t see the impact right away. So if I don’t eat right, I can’t see it tomorrow, but you’ll see it over time. And so like culture, healthy culture, you see that impact over time. So things change slowly. But we always need to be focused on change and always looking to be better, not expecting our Best Christian Workplace score to go up .2 in a year. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to see steady, continued growth in those numbers and be realistic.
Cary: I often use the phrase when I’m talking to ministry partners or businesses that survey with us, a good year’s worth of progress, what does it look like every year to identify and act on and trust God for a good year’s worth of progress? And just to be on that slope.
Given what you shared, let me ask you, David, if Jesus were to be online with you and your team during your next video conference, what do you think He might say to all of you in the midst of what you’re going through?
David: I think He would challenge us to be faithful to what we’ve been called to, and He’s called us. The words of the Lord are very clear. What were we supposed to do? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. And when we do that right, in whatever phase of our life, whether it’s at work or at home or wherever we have to be, so when we do that right, everything else, I think, falls into place.
Cary: I’ve really enjoyed what we’ve learned today. We’ve talked about your commitment to annual surveying, getting that data regularly. We talked about doing it when timing is right. People are your greatest resource and that you recognized God’s had His hand in all this, and He’s been working. You’ve had a disciplined follow-through process of walking through the data with leaders and empowering them to act on their data. You’ve talked about Dr. Bowling’s commitment to trust, his accessibility, the quality of your relationship, and I’m sure other members of the leadership team and their relationships with him as well. And then you’ve used the insights from the culture Survey to recognize and develop talent, to have data at least play a part in selection reward, growth, those kinds of things.
Is there anything you’d like to add, just a thought that you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about?
David: Yeah, thanks. I would just say we appreciate the work you do. I appreciate the work you do. So over the years what we valued working with Al and with you, Cary, the work of your team, Best Christian Workplaces has been a tremendous help to us. And for leaders, it’s critical to have a way to get feedback from employees. And however you do that, people do it different ways, for me, it’s just critical that you get feedback and then you use the feedback.
Cary: And to put a bow on our interview, what’s one final thought or encouragement you’d like to leave with our listeners?
David: As we’re leading people, try to put yourself in their shoes. That doesn’t mean you still don’t have to make hard decisions, but just that you do those decisions, whatever decisions we have to make, put yourself in their shoes. It just helps you to know how to do things in the right way. So as leaders, our role is to set an example for those who serve organizationally, either above us or below us. So our job is to set the tone, or as Paul could say to Timothy in the scripture, he could Timothy, be an example. And so I think for all of us who are leaders, be an example to people above us, people that are our peers, or people that we may lead. If we have that, I think, as a goal, be an example, put ourselves in the shoes of other people, I think that will—I found that helpful for me. And trust me, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I found it to be helpful guidance for myself.
Cary: Very good. Dr. David Pickering, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois, thank you 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.
David: Thank you, Cary. It is always a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for all that you do to help all of us do our jobs just a little bit better. Thanks.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba. Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.