Years ago, I heard a quote attributed to the late Peter Drucker, although some have questioned whether he really said it. Regardless of the source, the message stuck with me: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
When we consider what it takes to thrive as Christian leaders, we may tend to rely heavily on strategy. After all, that’s how we make progress ― by developing strategies to help our ministries succeed. But is strategy really what leaders need most to thrive? And does it enable those we serve to thrive?
Whether Drucker or someone else said it, I believe the point about culture is spot on. When it comes to helping us flourish as leaders and ministries, culture can eat strategy―for breakfast. As in, it’s the first meal of the day. Strategy won’t even make it into the office.
Compassion International has been around for 66 years. With a global staff of more than 2,800 people in 26 countries―who serve 1.8 million children through more than 6,700 church partners―our ministry model is somewhat complex. We have multiple strategies in place to develop, market, implement and evaluate our holistic child development programs. And those strategies are essential.
But if we’ve learned anything in our nearly seven decades of ministry, it’s that a healthy culture is foundational to everything else. Even with the most sophisticated corporate strategy in place, a ministry cannot achieve its full mission without a healthy culture.
So, how do you ensure your culture is healthy?
First, establish a biblical basis for all you do to shape culture. Without being grounded in biblical principles, all other efforts are in vain. As our CEO, Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado says, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” Our staff need to have ever-growing relationships with the Lord in order to effectively minister to each other and those we serve. Compassion comes alongside each staff member in their spiritual journey through dedicated times for prayer, chapel services, group devotions, providing an on-staff chaplain and encouraging each employee to be engaged in their local church.
Second, listen. Over the past few years, Compassion has partnered with the Gallup organization to conduct ongoing employee engagement surveys to help us gauge how our staff are feeling and identify areas we need to improve. We have learned that we need to strengthen our approach to talent management, continue to develop our leaders and pursue greater diversity in our workforce. All of these growth opportunities share a common thread: they have an impact on our culture.
Last year, Compassion introduced five Cultural Behaviors that we have asked all staff to embrace.
We have also realized that as Compassion grows and builds capacity to reach the most children possible, we want to help shape an unstoppable Jesus-centered movement of child advocates who are flourishing in releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. To fuel this movement, we must have a compelling culture that is directly connected to our cause. And we need to be more intentional about building this desired culture, rather than letting it develop naturally.
So, Compassion senior leadership agreed to make a new culture-building initiative one of the ministry’s top five strategic priorities.
Intentional Cultural Development
Last year, Compassion introduced five Cultural Behaviors that we have asked all staff to embrace. We expect each other to live out these behaviors in everything we do on a daily basis. In fact, we now include these in our regular developmental conversations with those we lead. These Cultural Behaviors equip us to do God’s work in a way that builds God’s work in each of us:
- Here for a Reason ― the Mission. We share one common mission that drives everything we do: releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.
- Serious About Personal Growth ― Ours and Others. We are committed to our own personal growth and encourage the development of others.
- 100% For One Another. We seek the best in others and look for ways to lift each other up. We pray for each other, have honest conversations and manage conflict with love.
- Careful with Our Words. Because words are powerful, we use them to build one another up, not tear each other down. We speak the truth in love and listen with patience and understanding.
- Invite Others In. We are a relational organization. We make meaningful connections with one another through honesty, genuine connections and open conversations.
Compassion is developing a new approach to talent management that starts at the recruitment phase and continues throughout an employee’s tenure with Compassion. It will provide a combination of experiences, relationships and formal learning opportunities to help our staff learn, grow and make their best contributions to the ministry.
And, in keeping with best practices shared by other global companies and ministries, Compassion has transitioned from a traditional performance management process, with annual reviews and ratings, to a more developmental approach. Managers and their team members discuss progress and performance more frequently, with an emphasis on coaching and encouraging the employee’s development. When you can demonstrate to your employees that their development is a priority, you open the door to helping them thrive.
As part of our effort to build a culture that embraces leadership development, we’ve launched a comprehensive new program called “Equipping Leaders.” All employees with direct reports, which amounts to about 550 people across the ministry, will participate in the first building block of the program. During this phase, we assign each leader to a small group made up of leaders from other countries and departments. As they experience the program together, they will build valuable relationships and have opportunities to listen, question and challenge each other along the way.
A healthy culture creates an environment where strategies flourish.
The program includes a total of four building blocks, and at the core of each phase is spiritual development. When we leaders grow in our spiritual journeys, the culture of our ministry benefits. Soul care is critical to culture.
As a global organization that works on four continents, Compassion has had success at matching ethnic diversity in our workforce. For example, even though our Global Ministry Center is located in the U.S., two-thirds of our staff are not U.S. citizens. One strength of our model is that we hire indigenous staff in each of our countries who are already familiar with the local culture, the families who need our support and the local churches that can be equipped to meet those needs.
This model has been a win-win, allowing us to learn from those who live in the communities we serve while allowing them to see how a maturing global organization operates. However, when it comes to leadership opportunities for women and minorities, we have some growing to do. One goal of our talent management and recruiting efforts is to help identify, internally and externally, women and minorities who can become future leaders.
One of the things I appreciate most about Compassion is that after nearly seven decades, we still have a strong desire for learning and growth. We want to be better. And that is where thriving starts: with the passion to be better than you were yesterday.
Yes, culture can eat strategy for breakfast, but a healthy culture doesn’t have an appetite for devouring strategy. A healthy culture creates an environment where strategies flourish. When culture and strategy are both healthy, that’s when we thrive—as leaders, as individuals and as an organization.
Tom Beck is the senior vice president of global HR for Compassion International. He is responsible for overseeing the attraction, selection, development and well-being of Compassion's Christ-centered global staff. Before joining Compassion, Tom was a founding partner of Blockbuster Midwest and Boston Chicken, Inc., and was instrumental in launching the Blockbuster Video, Boston Market and Einstein Bagel franchises.