The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“The Road to High Employee Engagement and Flourishing Culture “
June 7, 2021
Intro: You’ll find today’s guest has a fascinating story of how he inherited a very unhealthy culture at a Christian college and turned it into a flourishing one. Listen in to how he did it.
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.
We all know that tremendous employee engagement equates to a tremendously flourishing workplace culture. And a lot of leaders would be glad that if maybe 60 percent of their people felt engaged in their work. Well, my guest today has led his organization where there are 79—that’s nearly 80—percent feel engaged in their work. And how do they do it? What’s their secret? We’re about to find out. So I want to welcome my return guest, Mark Maxwell, the president of Prairie College in Three Hills. That’s Alberta, Canada. Mark, welcome back to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Mark Maxwell: Thank you, Al. It’s a delight to be back. It really is. You’ve done amazing things for my reputation with that last podcast. I’m so grateful for who you are. I’m also really grateful for the encouragement, actually, when we have had different Surveys. I’ve always felt an enormous amount of support and encouragement for us in what we’re trying to do here. So thank you for both your encouragement, thank you for your honesty, where we need to get cracking, and also thank you for the opportunity of being here again.
Al: Well, it’s a pleasure, Mark. And I do appreciate—our last podcast was one of the most highly rated podcasts. We’ve had more people, just about more people, than any other podcast download that than any other. And I know that today’s story is going to be very similar.
You’ve got 79 percent of your employees who are actually engaged at Prairie College, and that’s fantastic, especially for a Christian college. You must have some very highly motivated and very fulfilled people working at Prairie College.
Mark: Yeah. We have some great people here. I mean, really, I can walk across our team and point to this one does this and this one does that, and walk across and show, one, what they do that fits against the others; two, what they do well by comparison to their peers, a genuine group. But really, really what they’ve done is they’ve begun to own or they have taken ownership of our mission. So, yeah, we’ve got a lot of good people. I could go on about this, Al, if you like, but…
Al: Well, we’re going to go on. Yeah.
Mark: Okay, good.
Al: We’re going to go on, Mark. Yeah.
So, in a few minutes, I’m going to ask you to kind of tell the story of the biblically grounded and collaborative approach behind the thriving workplace culture that any leader would want. And for our leaders that are listening, listen up, because I think you’re going to hear some great advice today.
But before you tell us the story, first, I’d like to kind of set the scene. So what is Prairie College all about, and why do so many Christian young people continue to flock there every year, year after year, for a Christian college education?
Mark: I think the really important part is our roots. We started as Prairie Bible Institute 100 years ago, 99 to be exact, so we’re going into our centennial year. So we were created by God, I believe, to teach Bible, and that was, with that created purpose, my grandfather was actually the one who came, showed up to teach this small group, eight people, a little bit about the Bible. And that turned into Prairie Bible Institute, which became Prairie Bible College. And then as we added other school, other disciplines, majors like aviation and nursing and so on, we changed our name to Prairie College. We didn’t take Bible out of our name until we had resoundingly put Bible back into the classroom. And that was one of the things that we’ll talk about is what happened in between.
Al: Well, I love these words that you use to promote your school, put your career on faith forward. That’s rigorous, transferrable, discipleship, and education that prepares you for the rest of your life. Thrive in a Christian-centered post-secondary community that equips you with the credentials, the tools, the character to meet the greatest needs of the world. That’s fantastic.
Mark: Well, if nothing else, we have a good wordsmith in our marketing department. Emily Allert-House, I could sing her praises for a long time. She’s our managing director of marketing and enrollment. She’s the one who penned those phrases together.
But yes, faith forward is a great phrase. It’s a bit like thought leader, good turn of phrase. We believe we are fulfilling a complimentary space in the continuum of kingdom builders in college education. In some ways, we think we’re unique among Christian post-secondary schools because of our combination of vocational training and Bible.
Let me take a minute to talk about putting Bible into our curriculum, if I may.
Mark: When I arrived, this was now 11 years ago, I asked God. I asked Him to give me wisdom. I happened to be listening to a guy named Mark Francisco from Coquitlam Alliance in B.C. Lower Mainland. And he said the wisdom that Solomon asked for was actually to hear from God and from the people, to hear from God and from the people, so that he could lead this great people of God’s. Okay. When he said that, I was like, okay, those are my marching orders: to hear from God and from the people and do what God tells us to do, whether it’s directly or through these people. Well, that became sort of my guiding light. So I listened and listened. And in the midst of that, whether it was through people or directly from God, I felt Him saying, “I’d like you to teach the whole of the Bible. Go back to your creative purpose.”
In the midst of this, Elaine and I had the privilege of visiting one of our board members who worked at Dallas Theological Seminary, DTS. They do full coverage of the canon for their seminary students. We have undergrad. We have—it’s easier in four years to fit in coverage of the canon. And I understood that we did it basically with a survey of the Old Testament, survey of the New, and yes, we taught most of the rest of the Bible. And I asked the question, do we teach the whole of the Bible? Oh, yeah. So I did the math. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We taught about 80 percent of the Bible. I’m like, we’re so close. Could we get across the line? We used Dallas’s formula of four Old Testament courses and three New Testament courses to combine over the course of four years, that’s only one Bible course per semester. And it keeps them walking forward in their career path and with the canon. And then we started to look for great Bible teachers, and we moved those seven courses into the core so that every degree-earning student at Prairie will take the Bible, and the whole of the Bible, not “survey of” or “survey of,” or better yet, one survey of the whole Bible. That’s the smartest people that do that.
So we stretched it out. We dive deep. It’s a full reading of the canon. Guess what happened. Well, people on staff settled back into our created purpose. We harmonized around this common flagpole. And then you can guess how the parents reacted. They loved it. Okay, do I need to ask the question, how do you think our donors reacted? Our donations in the following year to that, I believe it was, doubled. So do it only for the economic reasons. I’m kidding.
But here’s what’s really surprising is the students. The students actually love this. It’s real hard-hitting value for their careers. We did that. We gathered around this. We explained why.
I think if we’ve got good engagement—and we do; 80 percent, 79 is a great number. And I thank God for that number. Every day, I thank God for that number—it arrived because of transparency and harmony, those two major conduits of love. So we began telling the truth about where we were, what had happened, why we were making changes. If there were ugly truths to tell, I told them.
I remember one stage we had a CFO who had just finished the statements before I walked into our monthly staff and faculty meeting. We call it family meeting. And that’s a key to communication was this monthly meeting every Wednesday, the first Wednesday of the month, not every. But the first Wednesday of every month, we have a family meeting, and that’s all staff and faculty. Not required, but they’re invited. And then I try to put some information in there that everybody will want to be sure to be at. And he handed me our statements. And it said in the last month, we had lost $500,000. I mean, really?
Al: Yeah. Right.
Mark: And I looked at it, and I turned to him. “Really?” And he says, “Yeah, it’s all in.” “Okay.” I walked into the family meeting, and I told everybody, “This says we lost $500,000. Now, nobody head for the door. I think what’s happened is our CFO”—and he was right there. He handed them to me. He has to own it. So he’s now going to stub a toe, maybe. He handed these to me. “I think what happened was he was behind on entering his expenses. And my guess is our year-to-date number is accurate. My guess is the month is kind of the summation of the previous eight months.” And that turned out to be true. But it’s an illustration. Why would I say five hundred thousand? Some of you on the line might be thinking, just don’t bring out the number. No, no, no, no. If I hadn’t brought out the number, it would have come up. It would have come out in the [unclear 10:41], in the—
Al: The water cooler, yeah.
Mark: The rumor— Yeah. Rumor mill. And the rumor mill would have made it worse. Maybe it’s five million, and five hundred thousand is a terrible number for us. I mean, our normal year is $10 million. And you can’t lose five hundred thousand in a month and hope to have another month.
But nonetheless, I wanted to get it out there because if it hits the rumor mill, it will be worse. So give the worst news as quickly as possible and then deal with it, either change course or get it corrected. And so a month later, we were able to say our year-to-date number is this, and it’s probably accurate, or it’s going to be close enough. The first two numbers are right. I don’t care if the last three numbers are right, but get the first two numbers right. We’ll be fine.
Al: Well, that’s, yeah, transparency and harmony, that’s just fantastic, Mark.
Mark: Let me go there, on the harmony, if I may, Al.
Al: Yeah, yeah, please. Yeah.
Mark: The other thing that we had when we arrived was we had 186 people on payroll for students of 250. Something’s off with those economics, right?
Mark: So we needed to cut our payroll in half, and we needed to do it fairly quickly. I didn’t have any Black Friday, but we needed to do it fairly quickly. So we did—I did a systematic walk through of the entire team around our four Cs. We could talk about those, if you like. But I had a system of looking at everybody, and I just simply walked forward. And as we got through it, we needed to do all of this on the way through in harmony. How do you lay off a bunch of people and still have harmony? You’d be looking at it ahead of time. You’d be saying people are going to hate you. No. If you’re getting rid of the right people, they’re going to love you.
So start with the bullies. Start with the self-righteous, religious ones. Start with the ones who are divisive and causing disruption. And then end up with the lazy ones, because all of those are dragging down the rest of the team, and every time you get rid of the right person, I found, when I use the boat illustration, the boat lifts and goes faster through the water every time. And people are coming in saying, “Thank you. Been waiting for that to happen.”
Leaders are called to that work. And guess what. If we don’t do that work, the Almighty has to replace us. And if we don’t do that work and if He doesn’t step in to replace us, then our mission is in jeopardy and we may lose our entire mission because we’re not willing to do that hard work. God gave us harmony in a way that was miraculous, like a person being healed from blindness, like a person being fixed who couldn’t walk, a lame person learning to walk. Harmony at this point in my work here, I had been sort of bedded in the New Testament, so John, Galatians, and Corinthians.
Elaine and I were speaking at a conference in Ontario. It was a three-way assembly, MAF—Mission Aviation Fellowship—people and SIM people, and Prairie people. We came together around the common alumni that we had from Prairie. So, we’re in this room, and I was talking about harmony that God had given us. Like a miracle. Like God tipped His beaker and gave us harmony. Afterwards, a Chinese pastor stopped Elaine and asked, “What book was Mark reading?” What did Patrick Lencioni have to say about this? And so she stopped me. When we were up in our room after, she asked, “He wants to know what book you’re using as your guide.” And I’m like, I laughed. “Well, tell him John. Tell him Galatians. Tell him Romans. Tell him Corinthians. Tell him Timothy.”
But Jesus, in John 17, talked about the importance of loving one another to prove that Jesus was the Son of God. That’s an amazing sentence. But anyway, that was the big thing. We had a, I would say, a very poor reputation in our town as people who did not get along well, and frankly, we didn’t get along well with the people across the street, either. And we had to fix that. We needed to get along with our neighbors who didn’t agree with us theologically, and we needed to get along with us here on campus who did sort of share certain theologies. So God gave us a miracle.
Al: Yeah. Well, you’ve written that L. E. Maxwell, Prairie’s co-founder and your grandfather, shared the quote, “None of us dreamed what God was going to do out here on these barren prairies.” Then you say, “In truth, no one could have dreamed that over the years there are 17,000 students who leave this place prepared to serve God in 114 countries around the world.” Now, that’s what you call a continuing legacy, Mark—17,000 students in 114 countries around the world.
Mark: Yeah. It is very, very cool. It’s a cool story. And in truth, I am the shoemaker’s son. Grandpa came, he started the school, and I’m, you know, you might say just carrying his shoes down the track a little ways. He was here for 60 years and did a tremendous job. I have nothing but respect for him. And then we tried to move into modern education in modern times and all that kind of stuff. And in that way we started to sort of marginalize some of our core values to be Bible based, to be Christ centered, to be discipleship making, and be mission mandated, not missionary, but missional. And so we came back to those, and that was really, really important.
The truth? We spent a century watching God work things out here at Prairie in ways that we could never have expected.
Mark: We’re still letting go of our ambitions. What’s the first thing that goes, that gets sacrificed when you become a leader? Your personal agenda. You have to put that aside. But God replaces it with a much better agenda and much greater happiness in doing what we’re doing. So Elaine and I have never done anything more rewarding. But as you know, we’ve had the privilege of doing many rewarding things. So this has been just a great chapter of our lives, and we’re honored to have this privilege.
Al: Yeah, that’s great.
And Mark, growing up, you know, you had a dream to use business to support charities. In pursuit of that vision, you completed your university studies and then invested 20 years—and I use the word invested—20 years in your career in investment banking and portfolio management. And so at what point did you begin to realize why a flourishing culture was absolutely essential for any organization to fulfill its mission? You’re a finance guy, and sometimes finance people don’t really understand the value of culture. But I think you did.
Mark: And I got, oh, Al, I got in so much trouble with my grandmother, Grandma Maxwell. I was on my way to Baylor to do an MBA, and I thank Baylor, I salute Baylor for the scholarships, many scholarships they gave me. They did help me with a full-ride scholarship—
Mark: —tuition, room and board, and an MBA—and I’m thankful to this day. I should go back there and write them a check or something. But I am so grateful that they helped. But my grandmother, as I’m packing up my car and loading and saying goodbye here in Three Hills and on my way down, “Mark Maxwell! What are you doing going into business? Christian ministry needs you. You should…” you know, and I felt like a black sheep.
Al: Yeah. You’re betraying your grandmother. Oh, my gosh.
Mark: And then I probably said something that I didn’t really mean at the time. But I thank God that I said it because He helped it come true, and that was, “Well, Grandma, I don’t know any MBAs who are in Christian ministry. There just aren’t many. And maybe that’s my plan, is to go get an MBA, get some experience, and end up helping in boards, helping in missions, and helping.” And I really love missions. That is my reason for being. We made a lot of money, yes, and we gave a lot away, and we didn’t give it all away, so don’t want to be struck with lightning. We kept more than we deserved, but we gave a lot away, and it was a delight all the way through. We were cheering for our true heroes, and that was one expression of using our business career to drive missions, because missions don’t happen without money. And it’s an equal partnership. And so—and I also felt like I was something of a missionary in Toronto in that corner of the world, in the investment-banking world.
But then, this door opened up, and Elaine said, you know, “We are being called. This is not something that’s a lightweight, you know, just a passing interest. This is a call. I think you should go out there and look after that school.” And it was supposed to be until we found the right person. So we’re still looking for the right person.
Al: Yeah, 11 years later.
Mark: Yeah. But God continues to bless, and so we feel like our call is still here.
Al: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Mark: And then when it’s time for us to move, we’ll be the easiest people to move on.
I saw a model in Toronto of what we practice here, with a company called Gordon Capital. Now, Gordon Capital, a private boutique investment bank, partnership fashioned after Goldman Sachs, and really just a wannabe Goldman Sachs. But in that world, Goldman Sachs rules. And my apologies to everyone at Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, but Goldman Sachs rules. In Toronto, that firm was Gordon Capital. We did about a third of the trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange every day. Unbelievably, we dominated the Toronto Stock Exchange in a private partnership, and they gave me a chance to come in. And what I found there were these really smart; point two, hardworking; point three, nice people. Three different things: smart, hardworking, nice people, who could come into a room, get some decisions made, throw away your territorial walls, just get the decision made. That was the model I saw that I wanted to duplicate or replicate at Prairie.
Then, I heard Bill Hybels speak at the Leadership Summit, and he had four Cs: character, competence, chemistry, and culture. And I use those to expand on this. Now, what we do is we think of it as three legs and a cushion on the stool, three legs of the stool. And if you think of those three legs: character, person who’s hardworking and learning, that’s good character, right? Not all Christians have good character—
Mark: —despite our self-importance. So, character.
And then competence, being good at what we’re supposed to do.
Mark: And then chemistry, being nice about it. Being nicer. And maybe we as Christians are really good, hardworking, and smart, but sometimes we get prickly. That’s not good. And sometimes we get really, really nice to cover up the fact that we’re incompetent, or we get really, really nice to cover up the fact that we’re lazy. Those three legs have to all be long and strong, but you won’t go the distance if you don’t have the cushion on the stool to help you last through the tough times, because Christian ministry is very difficult. So that’s how I put those three back together. But it was at Gordon Capital that I saw it first, and then Bill Hybels sort of put a frame of mind that I could use.
Al: Yeah. Communicated. Yeah. And that cushion would be the culture.
Mark: We flipped culture to calling.
Al: Oh, calling.
Mark: And the cushion is calling.
Mark: And the cushion is calling, yeah.
Al: Okay, all right. Yeah.
Mark: Yes, yes, yes.
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.
Mark, we’ve been learning about communicating, and in order for people to really understand an issue, they have to understand what’s the problem that needs to be solved. Donald Miller talks a lot about this. What’s the problem that needs to be solved? And you walked into Prairie, you were the chairman of the board, so you knew what you’re getting into. But tell us—
Mark: Sort of. Sort of.
Al: Sort of. Sort of. Yeah. I mean, you were, what, thousands of miles—he lived thousands of miles away, so, yeah.
Al: Tell us a little bit about what was wrong. And I know, again, we just want to understand and appreciate, when a culture’s wrong, what’s it feel like? Can you tell us?
Mark: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a good question. Siloing happens. Professionalism shows up. Bureaucracy becomes the idol around which everyone gathers. Those are three things that are very, very similar. Professionalism, I think, is an impediment to effectiveness. Some of you are going to be going, “Whoa! He just threw professionalism under the bus.” Yeah, yeah. If you have to, get rid of professionalism, but never give up effectiveness. Never give up productivity. And professionalism can get in the way of that. Now, doesn’t always. And the idea would be to find a balance of those two. But siloing must be torn down, and the sooner we begin to tear down the silos, the better.
So when we had to cut our payroll in half, it wasn’t hard. You know, I began to look for, well, where is there duplication? And then all I would do is identify the one to keep.
On those four Cs, as early as 2011, I built out the four Cs, and I was scoring everybody one to five. If I had 16 as my sum—four, four, four, four—they were a keeper. If they were higher than that, must keep. And I would go to them, and I’d say, “There’s going to be a lot of fur flying. I need to have you stick around.”
Mark: But if someone’s 12 or below, something’s got to change, and most of the time, they’ve got to go. But if they’re willing to work hard, if they’re willing to move around in the organization, then they might be keep-able. But you can’t give up mission just to try to keep people because you don’t want to deal with getting rid of them.
Mark: You have to talk about it.
So, the cure for it is harmony. The cure for it is identifying core values and mission. And we became fixated on these two big things that hit me out of Psalm 138, verse 2: to exalt above all things the Name and the word of God. The great name of God must be first, and the great word of God. And of course, these both come together beautifully and poetically in Jesus, who is the Beginning Word, in the beginning, and who is the Name above all names, centering on Jesus, centering on these in everything we do. And so those were things that we began to use as our gathering sticks.
The next was gratitude. And we just began habitually saying thank you, thank you to God for everything. You know, it it’s a rainy day, we thank God for the rain. If it’s a sunny day, we thank God for the sun. Whether that’s donations, more students, or amazing faculty and staff who do their job, we began thanking people for the small jobs that they do.
And I would illustrate with there’s a tremendous store chain in Canada called Superstore. I don’t think it’s in the U.S. They’re big blockbuster stores, or block stores. But they have beautiful fruit, beautiful vegetables, amazing inventory all the way across the thing. The place is clean. You walk in and you go, okay, you know, this is just a great experience, except if you go to the washroom. And I use this as a very specific illustration. Never, never go to the washroom at the Superstore in Airdrie, okay? I’m identifying a very specific postage stamp. It’s a mess, you know, and obviously whoever has been given responsibility for looking after the washroom in the Superstore has decided it’s not missional. It doesn’t matter to the Super—it does!
Al: It does, yeah.
Mark: Guess what. It matters. And so we would find the one who is doing their job out of sight and we say thank you in family meetings. These are our once-a-month meetings.
And then someone handed me a piece, a nice big hunk of rock, petrified wood. And he said, “I don’t know why, but this is for you.” And I’m like, “Man, what am I going to do with this rock?” So for a while it sat by my door, as if it was a doorstop. It was too big to move.
I was in a management-team meeting. So we have management team, and we use management team as a we. That is how we make decisions. Very few decisions I make, very few. But I enable people to make it, and then I make sure. Every once in a while I’ll pull my trump card and make a decision. But most of the time, we arrive at better decisions. Why? Because God is speaking it to us through all these different people.
Mark: So we’re in here, and we’re saying, “What could we do for these unsung heroes?” “And I got it. I’ve got a rock on the—” right? “And we’re going to have a You Rock award.”
Mark: And so every month, we recognize a new—we give them that rock, and then we take it back, and give it to someone new. And then at the end of the year, we celebrate the 12 You Rock winners, who were there through the year.
So this attitude of gratitude, thanking the achievers, a culture of encouragement, celebrating our wins, laughing at our losses. There are times in a family meeting, I’ll just get up and say, “Okay. So here’s what we tried. Yeah, that didn’t work.” And it’s just not a big deal, because if I can fail, and I will, then everybody can have a chance at that shot. And what happens is so often we succeed. And we do have enemies, so we cluster around to protect against them.
Al: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting that your number two item on your top 10 is that your employees are encouraged to experiment and be innovative. And you try things, and sometimes you fail and you laugh at your failures, and then you—
Al: —celebrate your wins.
Al: And that’s fantastic.
Mark: And didn’t we celebrate the Best Christian Workplace win?
Al: You did, absolutely. That’s a great video. And I think it’s on YouTube, isn’t it, Mark? We should put that in the show notes so people could go to it.
Probably three years before you started as the president, we worked with your predecessor and unfortunately discovered that the culture was probably in the bottom five percent of all our organizations that we’ve Surveyed. And then you came, and you waited five years, but in 2015 you chose to Survey your employees to get their honest and anonymous feedback about your workplace. And what caused you to want to do that at that point? You were five years into it?
Al: There was probably a downside you looked at. Maybe an upside. What were you thinking?
Mark: Yeah. Let me answer a different question first, Al, and that is, why didn’t we do it as soon as I arrived?
Mark: And I was afraid it would just convince everybody that that’s who we were, and I didn’t want to do that. I knew we were not in good shape. I knew we were siloed off. I knew we were divided. I knew all kinds of stuff that wasn’t good. And I didn’t want to mark it as this is who we are. So I chose to pass 2010, ’11, ‘12. And then in 2015, I was sure that we would show a remarkable improvement, and I thought, well, let’s give it a shot. Maybe, maybe we’ll get over the line. And I think you kicked the ball closer to the hole for us. So we got a 4.01.
Al: All on your own effort there. No question, yeah.
Mark: And for those of you who are listening, I called Al, and I said, “Thank you for nudging our ball in.” And he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. I wouldn’t do that.”
So why wouldn’t—was there any risk in doing it then? No. That’s the answer. There was no risk in doing it. If we were below what I thought, that would be okay. But I did want to identify independently where we were and then begin marking it toward moving into areas of excellence.
Al: Yeah, yeah. So, that first Survey result showed that you were healthy, you were certified, certainly not flourishing yet, but then 55 percent of your employees were engaged, which is a great starting point to grow. So then you really continued on that journey to flourishing. What were some of the steps that you took to get traction from that point?
Mark: Yeah. Probably a little before this and after it, some of the, both, what were some of the steps? I needed to break down professionalism because we had become fossilized around professionalism. That was the high bar. So I began bringing my dogs to the office. And they’re little dogs, and they never have accidents. You know, they’re perfect little dogs. But I did want to go with this idea of do something that improves the human touch. Dogs do that. Otherwise, bring your babies, right, because it’s the same thing.
And secondly, break down the posture of everything looking perfect. I mean, my office was pristine. I don’t know if you’re doing this on video, but you can see pictures on the wall behind me on this video. By now—one, two, three, four—three out of four walls are covered with pictures. What are they? Pictures of students. You know, it’s a little messy. And guess what. Working with students is a little messy. But I’ve got pictures of all the students from the years—I don’t think I got the first two years, but every year we get these collage of pictures, and I just stick them all up there. And it looks like a mess, but, in fact, it speaks to our mission. So it’s a bit of a reminder, and that’s a little bit of dropping the professionalism.
Another thing that we did, we prayed openly for a miracle. We prayed openly. We have to live together, and God answered that. We started working as a management team. I mentioned that I was not so much the CEO making decisions; it was our management team making decisions. We moved to a structure of latticework.
Let me show you this, Al. I’ve got one here. So instead of being a hierarchy of organizational chart, I got this piece of latticework. Now, I don’t know if you are going to do this podcast or video. But what we have here is a typical latticework, and I use this to illustrate our organizational structure.
Mark: So everybody is connected. You don’t have to go through the organizational structure; you just have to pop up and go straight across to talk to someone.
And then thirdly, there’s on-demand leadership. So there are a few companies that have practiced this. I think the one, the Velcro company uses this as well. But it’s on-demand leadership. And when it’s your turn to pop up and lead, you pop up, and the rest of us follow. That’s the beauty of the biblical follow one another, love one another, serve one another. So I am duty bound to follow them when it’s their on-demand pop up. When they pop up, I follow them. I no longer try to lead. But if they don’t pop up, we have a problem. That’s my pop up. If they haven’t popped up, then I will actually go to them, and using this language, I’ll say, “Listen, buddy. It’s your on demand. You’re supposed to be leading us. And if you don’t, I got to find someone who will. That may not go too well. Shall we talk about this, or do you want to just get out there and lead?”
Mark: Let me see what else. I had some notes here because I wanted to not forget.
We talked about effectiveness and productivity.
Mark: Talked about empowering performers, and we removed bullies. There are bullies, and religious bullies, I think, are the worst of all because they’ll figure out how to be self-righteous and still beat people up. We talked about flexibility. We talked about having a propensity to say yes. We don’t say yes to everything, but if we don’t, we’re going to have a good reason why we’re not doing someone’s good idea.
There are many general truths. I want to talk about these. There’s a general truth in the textbooks. Whoever does the cutting can’t stick around for the rebuild, because they’ll have burned all their capital. Right?
Al: Right, yeah.
Mark: I am so in the face of that. Like, no. Whoever does the cutting needs to stick around because they have the game plan, I would say, from God on how to rebuild. It’s like being a coach for a team. Just because the coach cut some players doesn’t mean he shouldn’t stick around for the game.
Mark: So this idea in business that if you’re the turnaround person, you’ve got to come in and trash the place, and then someone else comes in. No, no, no, no, no. That’s really bad theology. God works all the way through all those different stages.
Another general truth. If you cut people, everyone will be nervous about their jobs. Not if you cut the right people. Get the right ones gone. The ones who are not fitting in those three Cs of character, competence, and chemistry, get the right ones, they’re gone. Everybody else knows their job is secure now.
Mark: Job security goes up.
Al: Up, yeah.
Mark: Not down.
That last few, what took you so long? when you do that. So what have you been—that’s your job as a leader. You know, at my previous workplace, I created the jerk-free environment. That’s kind of like your point—
Mark: Love it.
Al: —removing bullies, you know. I mean, we’ve got to have a jerk-free environment. It was not a Christian workplace. It was a—but, oh, people rallied around that. And of course, that was the leader’s job. If somebody’s acting like a jerk, they needed to be talked to about it because, you know, that does not create a positive environment. Yeah.
Mark: And there’s collateral benefit to getting rid of the right person. Many, many collateral benefits. But one of them is everybody else is trying to slide under the same style. They’re either going to smarten up or get out. And so you actually can probably, if you’ve got five people who are like that, getting rid of one, the first and worst one, may end up rescuing the other four. And that’s worthwhile. That’s so worthwhile. So to me, if a problem starts to show up, quickly, quickly, quickly, I beg you, step in quickly because early it’s so much easier. It’s not become habitual.
Mark: But there are some absolute truths. Profitability is a core value of nonprofit organizations.
Mark: It’s a must if our mission is to survive. And so no margin, no mission. And if you’re willing to run an organization at a loss, you’re saying your mission doesn’t matter. So maybe the people who work there are more important, and that will last for about four years until the whole thing goes under, and then everybody loses their job. So if you want to save jobs, get some profit in there. If you want to save your mission, get some profit in there. And God has put us in this position to be profitable. But you don’t have to aim for profit as your first goal.
Mark: No, no, no. The first goal is in John 17, work for harmony because harmony, people who are working well together will drive revenue. Together, you can talk about the fact that we’ve got to cut costs. What can we do? And you can talk about this openly. What can we do to cut costs? Everybody will contribute cost-cutting measures, when you’re working in harmony. What comes out of it at the end? Profit.
Al: And ability to invest into new ministry. Yeah, exactly.
Al: So, this has been great, Mark. I believe that people listening right now probably even have more questions than answers about how their organization’s culture is. And we’ve all been there. What do you say to fellow leaders wondering how to begin, who don’t look at a way out but really want to fix where they are and have a way forward even to get on the road to flourishing, as we’d describe it? What advice did you have to help them move forward in their organization?
Mark: Yeah. Al, I just know you would be saying the same thing, so this is hardly original, but it’s so basic. Let’s be sure to turn to God in prayer.
Al: There you go.
Mark: He cares. He cares. If our work matters, He wants to be part of it. And so all we need to do is humble ourselves and turn to Him, genuine surrender to God for His plan. Again, sacrifice our own small ambitions for His to come in and walk it through and the joy that comes out of that. I would say transparency is mission critical. Numbers are friends. Bad numbers are good to talk about. We build our own personal capital by talking about bad numbers, bad data. We own them. We show that we’re not perfect, but they’re the beginning of changing. And when we talk about them openly, we invite our colleagues to help find solutions that we need to have. And I mentioned this earlier, but rumors trump facts, so get the facts out there because the rumors will be worse.
Al: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, right.
Well, Mark, as you look three, five, ten years down the road, what do you see for Prairie College, maybe other Christian colleges, as a role in achieving God’s kingdom here on Earth?
Mark: I think I’ve only begun to have clarity on this in the last year or two. It’s interesting. My first was glorifying God’s name and put His word top, dead center on our campus. But more recently, I’ve begun to imagine Him building a boutique, Bible-based university that prepares people to meet the greatest needs of the world, vocational combination with Bible. And so all of our undergraduate will come with full coverage of the canon in seven courses. That’s now a board-level decision. We may move it even into our bylaws. I’m not sure we see that sticking, but it needs to be well protected and ensuring.
So we begin with heart needs, moving towards physical and medical and emotional needs, defining what type of programing, schooling we would have. But I think it’s a boutique university that’s genuinely Bible based. You might say it’s putting the queen of the sciences—theology—back on the throne.
We hope to contribute to dialog in the public square, not because we fit in the public square, but because we’re different in the public square. And I think we will be welcomed into the public square. And the Canadian public square is an unfriendly marketplace. But if we’re honest about it and gentle, reasoning Christians, then I think, and I believe this, we’re being invited into the public square to be part of the university system, but not to fit in and conform, rather to bring a complementary perspective. So in our small space in the square, we will be there because we bring a biblical perspective, and people will value that as, well, that’s another perspective, and diversity is okay.
We turn 100 this year, so we’re building actually for the next 50 years. And so we don’t have to be in a huge hurry to get it done. We just need to do each step really well. So we’re adding one degree in the next year about serve education, we hope, trusting God for it. And that’ll be training teachers to be in one of the most important pulpits in the land, K to 6, K to 12, grade schools. Those are great pulpits, and we need to fill them with Bible-believing people and so on.
Well, Mark, I certainly appreciated everything we’ve learned today. You know, I go back to one of the first things that you said. One of the things that really improved is the ownership of employees at Prairie College, that the employees are owners. That latticework was a great analogy of everybody has a role to pop up and lead where their role is to do that. But also, you’ve said something that really connects with me, and that is transparency and harmony. You mentioned those two together. Transparency, you know, to share the facts, even the bad facts. You know, facts are our friends. We got to get them out there. We have to understand that we can’t be shy about it, and it’s important to get out even bad news early because then the rumors will take it even worse positions or worse places than if you’re the one sharing it. But then harmony. What that tells me is that you’re listening, and, you know, I look at your top 10 at Prairie and, you know, you’re involving employees in decisions that impact them. But to know that there’s transparency, to hear from God, and to hear from people, there’s harmony, and you’re listening, you’re telling the truth. Those are all good things. And then you’re talking about the importance of prayer and having a good leadership team and the lattice structure and on-demand leadership, where you’re able to love one another, how it’s really not top down. You make a few decisions, but your leadership team and others are making decisions because you’re empowering your performers. And, you know, we’ve talked about bullies. You’ve removed bullies. And bullies, servant leadership and bullies don’t go together, do they?
Mark: We don’t get along.
Al: No. And your propensity to say yes, and your encouragement, again, to pray. And as in James 1, to pray for wisdom, and if we pray for wisdom, then God will give us wisdom.
Mark: And if we define wisdom like Solomon, you get so accessible to hear from God and from the people. That’s an amazing definition of wisdom. Not I’m going to be so smart. I’m going to picture the right answer three points before I need to or three-quarters before it comes up. No, no, no, no. I think it’s wisdom for the next step.
Al: And I’d also encourage our listeners, you know, what you said about going through and listing in your case, the four Cs of character, competence, chemistry, and calling as your fourth C, and a scale of five, but using that process as a way of looking at whether that employee is going to be one that will have continuity with you is a great tool, and I’d encourage our listeners to consider that.
So anything we haven’t talked about, Mark?
Mark: Here it is, Al. What is the greatest gift God can give us? Okay. Now the right answer is Jesus. We all know that. But it’s not. He’s already given us that. What He can give us now is the Holy Spirit. I believe the greatest gift that God can give us is the Holy Spirit. Filling us, guiding us, showing us opportunities is more important than more dollars. It’s more important than money because the Holy Spirit will lead us to the right donors and to the right money and on the right path. I think it’s worth—I mean, everybody on this call is probably agreeing we trust God. Yes. But He wants to give us the greatest gift of all, His Holy Spirit, to guide us so we can walk forward with courage, with courage through the valleys, by streams of living waters, to mountain meadows and amazing vistas. That’s what God wants for us. And I just—don’t in any way belittle the opportunity of what the Holy Spirit can do for us. And I don’t think you do, Al, but I just want to say to everybody, beg the Holy Spirit to come and live on your campus. Assure Him He’s welcome and you will do your best, we will do our best to clear the roads so He’ll feel unoffended by our habits. I feel a constant, overwhelming feeling of love for my colleagues here at work, of love for our personal, external partners here at Prairie, for friends and alumni, and for my fellow Christians in education. I feel this great yearning to help them, and especially those, I feel it real big for Christian executives whose walk of faith is undervalued by those of us who think we’re in faith-based missions. I’m telling you, executives in business understand the challenges of a walk of faith, and I feel this great love for them. And so my heart goes out to them. I look for opportunities to encourage them, and they’re always an encouragement to me.
Al: A spiritual gift of love. I mean, that’s one reason why I believe that Christian workplaces should set the standard as the best, most-effective places to work in the world. Absolutely.
Mark Maxwell, president of Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, thank you for sharing the inspiring story that you’ve just shared with us and ways to build a flourishing workplace in a place of Christian higher education. And I appreciate and respect your style and leadership as I’ve watched it over the years. I admire your Christlike integrity and devotion to serve our loving God. So may we continue to work together to build the kingdom by creating flourishing Christian workplaces.
Mark: Amen. Amen. And thank you, Al. I have felt your love and support as we’ve walked forward together over the last decade. From all of us at Prairie, we wish you well in your mission of helping Christian organizations up their game, and through you, we wish God’s richest blessing on all your many clients. So, thank you, all. Glory to God, and thank you for helping build His kingdom.
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.