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Richard Stearns: How to Lead with Excellence

Richard Stearns: How to Lead with Excellence

Good outcomes do not lead to excellence; excellence leads to good outcomes. We need to reward excellence. We can’t always control the outcomes of our work, but we can control the effort we put forth and celebrate those who work with diligence.

Excellence is not about winning; it’s about producing the best result we are capable of achieving. A commitment to excellence simply means that we will strive to do our very best and expect the same of others. This leads to a culture that rewards effort rather than outcome. In Christian terms, excellence means that we will always strive to use the gifts and abilities that God has given us to the fullest extent possible.

When I left the corporate world to join World Vision, I went from a for-profit secular organization to a not-for-profit Christian ministry. The cultures were completely different. In my corporate jobs, outcomes were everything. They were typical “perform or perish” cultures where profit, or shareholder value, was king. Everyone had scorecards and deliverables, and everyone’s bonus was based on achieving those results. Failure had consequences, from loss of compensation up to and including termination. It could be brutal at times.

But at World Vision I found a different ethic. There the culture was shaped around embracing the inspirational cause of helping the poor and World Vision’s unique approaches to accomplishing it. Relationships were important in the culture, and people took great pride in identifying with the organizational mission, vision and values. But in this Christian nonprofit organization, I found that money, or revenue, was seen more as the means to the end rather than the end in itself. That subtle difference led to less attention on some of the financial goals of the organization.

While World Vision US was right in not placing the total emphasis on financial outcomes, it had also not placed a strong enough emphasis on accountability and excellence in their fundraising. There weren’t clear goals, scorecards, or metrics in place that were visible to the entire organization. I dubbed this the “we’re good people doing good things and that’s good enough” culture. Don’t get me wrong, World Vision was doing some amazing work all around the world and helping millions of people. But I felt they had not created a culture of excellence around their fundraising and financial goals.

For those of you reading this who may be working in a Christian ministry context, this may sound familiar. Sometimes striving for excellence is seen as a “worldly” aspiration that feels inconsistent with Christian values such as kindness, forgiveness and unity. When you’re praying with someone in the morning, it’s hard to give them a difficult performance review in the afternoon, even if they’re failing at their job. But, when real performance issues aren’t being addressed, it can result in dysfunction in the organization. A culture of excellence is not contrary to Christian values; it is actually central.

If we are Christ’s ambassadors in our workplaces and communities, the stakes are high. We are called to do our best because we carry with us the reputation of Christ: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

During my first weeks at World Vision I began to address the issues of accountability and excellence. We did a deep dive on clarifying the mission, vision and values of our fundraising organization. Then we established financial goals and metrics captured in both an organizational scorecard as well as individual scorecards. All these new initiatives understandably sent some shockwaves through the culture, and I started to hear some rumblings.

My human resources VP shared with me that people were saying things like: “We’re now being run like a Fortune 500 corporation — I thought we were a ministry.” I felt I needed to address these issues at an all-staff meeting. I spoke to our staff saying that yes, if excellence and accountability are hallmarks of a Fortune 500 corporation, then I am guilty as charged.

If excellence is expected of us when we work in a for-profit business, like Microsoft or Procter & Gamble, then how much more should we strive for excellence when we are serving God? I said that I wanted World Vision to be a model for excellence that even the Fortune 500 would admire. Most people enthusiastically embraced the new mentality because they wanted to do more and do better for the people we served. But a few chose to leave rather than adapt.

Over the next ten years World Vision’s revenue tripled, and efficiency improved as overheads were reduced by a third. This wasn’t because of any brilliance on my part. It happened because we released the pent-up potential in our people by creating a culture that celebrated excellence and embraced accountability to be the best we could be. This resulted in a massive amount of money being released into our ministry with the poor.

Millions more people received improved nutrition, better health, clean water, education and microloans to start their own businesses. This was not because we focused like a laser on outcomes but because we focused on excellence, the best results our people were capable of achieving. Good outcomes do not lead to excellence; excellence leads to good outcomes.

Adatped from Lead Like It Matters To God  by Richard Stearns. Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard E. Stearns. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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