Permission to learn


Yesterday I mentioned how much I love Harvard Business Review, and I was reminded of how true that is today after reading Amy Edmonson’s article, The Competitive Imperative of Learning, in this month’s issue. Her article contrasts those organizations focused soley on executing business strategies and those that execute with a conscious desire to learn throughout the process. She used two eighties-era mega-companies as examples (GM as an example of the former and GE as an example of the latter). She points out what most of us know but so many managers are blind to see – that those companies which build opportunities for feedback and learning into their processes win over the long haul. In effect, they give permission to their employees to spend time learning (and not necessarily in a classroom) and they create, as she calls them, “psychologically safe environments.” These are places where people don’t work in fear of punitive reprimands, but are intentionally encouraged to try new things (which will often fail), learn, and share.

What a wonderful lesson for the Christian and the Church. For us Christians in the workplace, it’s up to us (particularly those in leadership) to reinforce what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 13:16, that “every prudent man acts out of knowledge.” Not every idea will be successful, but failures can produce invaluable knowledge. We have the power to create environments where learning and collaborating is not only safe, but deeply valued, and where rank and status take a backseat to dedication and thoughtfulness. Likewise, this is one of those arenas where the Church (the Christian church as a whole) can learn from it’s own mistakes and that of the marketplace. Like a company too rigidly focused on a tactical business plan, faith is not a series of tasks to be executed by legions of minions, but rather a dynamic and inspiring process during which we, as God’s precious creation, learn more about him through our shared experiences following Jesus. As Paul told the church at Rome (now, somewhat ironically, the Vatican) in Romans 3,

“But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight – not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.”


Better aisles


Happy Monday – I hope you had a blessed holiday weekend! I had a great one because it was thoroughly relaxing, and I even managed to read a book in-between hanging out with the wife and kids. I confess, though, it wasn’t a business book. Is it just me, or is reading business books slightly less fun than most dental exams? With the exception of a few gems (my favorites still being those brand books by Marty Neumeier), I’ve found most options on the business aisle shelves at Barnes and Noble remarkably empty. My biggest issue with them is that most, including those considered to be modern-day classics (Friedman’s The World is Flat) and vogue newcomers (Heath brothers’ Made to Stick) is that the content gets precipitously less interesting after the first chapter. In some cases, the author just goes to deep, but often  it’s the opposite – that these books really could have been written in 100 pages or less but the author or publishers felt the need to unpack until the suitcase is in pieces.

There are exceptions, though. In the vogue author category, Seth Godin’s marketing books are short and to the point. Here’s a guy who is smart enough to know that some of us will pay $15 for a 80 page book (as I did recently with his book The Dip) if it means we won’t be bored to death reading it. But the best business read out there, in my opinion, isn’t a book. It’s Harvard Business Review. It’s better than almost any other resource and I actually enjoy it.  And while it’s expensive, it’s not compared to the dozen business books I wish I hadn’t bought last year.

But if I really consider what I read and how I’ve grows at work, I’m not sure that business books hold a candle to my other favorites – political biographies and, of course, the Bible. With respect to the former, I thoroughly believe that learning how Washington leveraged his exceptional but horribly dysfunctional advisory triumvirate (Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson) is much more useful than reading some guy’s new management theory. But even those biographies I love to read so much pale to the wealth of riches that can be found in scripture, particularly the Book of Proverbs. Perhaps it’s time we all re-evaluate how and what we learn in preparation for future career growth. As the Apostle Paul once told his protege Timothy in 2Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” You just can’t find it in the business aisle.

Starting over

Most people I know have had to start their careers over at some point. Sometimes these moves are voluntary, like when someone wants to make a major career shift late in life, but often they aren’t. Living here in Michigan, where the job base is shifting away from manufacturing and unemployment is high, I know quite a few folks that are starting over. I was reminded of this last night when my father-in-law was discussing how he started over thirty years ago. He had decided to open a restaurant which unfortunately didn’t make it. Left with a lot of debt and a young family, he looked for a job that paid him a modest amount that could grow into over time. He found a job in sales that he enjoyed and could do well at (extremely well, actually), and it wasn’t long before he was out of debt and one of the owners of that company.

It reminds me of the woman described in 2 Kings 4. Widowed and deeply in debt, she found herself with virtually no options (women couldn’t just find jobs in ancient Judah) so she sought out the help of the prophet Elisha. He asked her “what do you have in the house?” and she replied that she had nothing except a small flask of olive oil. He told her to borrow as many empty jars as she could from her friends and family and once she had, he miraculously filled every one to the brim. She was able to sell these jars of oil, get herself out of debt, and have enough left over to support her children.

This is a story that can teach us all a little something. Left with few options, the widow sought help from God, and he allowed her to build on the little that she had. The combination of a flask of olive oil and a few friends whom were willing to lend a hand allowed her to climb out of the hole she was in, and to provide her a foundation for her future. The key, I think, is that it starts with asking God to help us build on the gifts he’s already given us.

Modern-day Elijah & Elisha


When I moved from Grand Rapids to Chicago back in the late nineties, I was blessed to meet someone that changed the course of my career. Deb is a veteran salesperson, greatly respected for both her talents and her character. Over time, she began to mentor me (although I’m not sure I ever called her my mentor until after I left Chicago), and I can thank her today for teaching me the ropes and giving me a tremendous foundation upon which to build, much of which I now share with our younger employees.

There are a variety of mentorship relationships in the Bible, but perhaps top on my list of interesting ones is that of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah’s incredible efforts to thwart the worship of the idol Baal has made his name synonymous with Israel’s great prophets. His protege Elisha stuck close to Elijah, not just learning from him, but offering him his sound loyalty (“As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”) When it came time for Elijah to die, Elisha’s only request was that he receive a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2), and he went on to perform some of the most amazing miracles recorded in the BIble.

With mentorship programs on the rise in Corporate America (check out this article from March’s Businessweek), now is the perfect time to look for a mentor, a protegee, or both. What a great way for us to learn, share, and perhaps earn the right to invest in someone else’s life.


Modern-day Asa


“The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.” – H.L. Mencken

We continue this week’s look at Old Testament figures that can teach us a think or two about being a Christian in Corporate America with a look at Asa.  Before Asa became king of Israel, the nation had been led for decades by those who worshipped idols. Upon becoming king, Asa wholeheartedly gave his heart and that of his nation’s to the Lord. He purged the nation of idol worship and relied upon God for sustenance and wisdom.

One of the great moments of Asa’s reign was when a huge army of Ethiopians came north to invade Israel. After Asa cried out to the Lord, “O Lord, no one but you an help the powerless against the mighty! Help us, O Lord our God, for we trust in you alone.” the Lord helped Israel achieve victory despite being outnumbered.

However, with age Asa began to rely too heavily upon his own knowledge and no longer felt that he should trust in “God alone.” When another smaller army came threatening, Asa came up with his own scheme – a partnership with the local pagan Arameans. The plan worked, but a prophet told Asa that he had blown it by not seeking God’s input. For the rest of his life, Asa remained too stuborn to admit his wrongdoing and never fully turned back to the Lord.

I’ve been surrounded by veteran members of our company for many years and have found that they are a very diverse lot. Some seem to reinvent themselves constantly, learning new things and engaging with new (and often younger) people, while others seem stuck in earlier eras. In our world of constant change – where markets, strategies, technologies and conventional wisdom change quicker than the price of gasoline – growing too reliant upon our own smarts can be a terrible liability. Wisdom is timeless, but being wise means remembering how we grow as professionals  – through keeping an open mind, learning from others, and always seeking God’s will in important decisions.

Spiritual legitimacy

I love to read history, particularly about the formation of the U.S. during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years. I’ve been Reading a book about Hamilton by Ron Chernow that reminded me that winning the war against Britain was just the first step towards creating a legitimately independent country. The second step, which was nearly as challenging, was making the US financially solvent. Only through millions of dollars worth of loans secured from the Dutch by John Adams, combined with the formation of the first federal bank by Hamilton (two men that, ironically, couldn’t trust one another), was our new country truly considered by others to be legitimate. It was weapons that enabled our independence, but currency that gained the trust needed to secure it.

In our modern economy, money doesn’t buy trust. In fact, it’s the opposite. The musical Cabaret got it wrong when Liza Minnelli sang that money makes our world go round. Trust is what makes the world go round. Our world is a highly interdependent ecosystem of relationships and trust is what makes those relationships legitimate. This is true of all relationships: child-parent, customer-salesperson, husband-wife, friend-friend, lender-borrower, coworker-coworker, employee-boss. Trust is the infrastructure upon which each of these relationships is built and if we want to legitimately impact our world, trust must be present in our relationships.

When it comes to faith, we should remember the role of trust in helping others grow closer to God. People come to faith through trust. Paul wrote in Romans 3:22 that, “We are made right in God’s sign when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins.” Likewise, others who know that we’re Christian will over time either come to trust that our faith is true or otherwise and most of these impressions are formed on a day-to-day basis. Sure, big life moments can prove our trust, but trust is built daily. Brendan Manning (I first wrote Brendan Morrow – can anyone tell it’s Stanley Cup playoff time?) offered us this fantastic quote,

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”  

If we aspire to be positive spiritual influences in our workplace, it starts with first proving our own faith legitimate by making the small, daily decisions that allow us to build the trust of others over time.

(Speaking of trust, I’ve got some big things this week that need my attention – my new team is spending the week together in Grand Rapids, I’m celebrating an anniversary with my wife, and I still need to put the finishing touches on the message for a wedding I’m performing this Saturday… as such, I wanted to give you a head’s up that I’m going to be blogging less frequently this week but I’ll still post occasionally. Trust me.)

You can quote me on this, part deux

A quick add-on to yesterdays post…

As powerful as quotes can be in terms of enlightening and persuading others, have you ever noticed how few people seem to be able to quote (or paraphrase) scripture naturally into conversation? This is particularly important when talking with non-Christians who aren’t used to pulling numbered quotes out of their brains to apply in daily situations. For some reason, people think they need to introduce Biblical ideas differently than they would other ones.

Some seem to slow down their speech and breifly borrow Charlton Heston’s voice, Well you know,the Apostle Paul wrote in First Thessalonians that Jesus will someday… COME FROM HEAVEN WITH A LOUD COMMAND!!” 

Or how about those folks that like to quote the King James version verbatim? “Well Bill, that’s a good question. I like to think of 1 Thessalonians 4:8 when God said, ‘He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.”‘Uh huh. Okee-dokey.

The worst offenders are those that have actually gone to seminary (yes, me included) and have payed $40k to learn how to stop relating to all non-theologians. “Oh, you’re feeling like the world is turning for the worst, Mary? Well, allow me to reference the eschatalogical prophecies found in the Pauline epistles, specifically the fourth chapter of the epistle to the church at Thessalonia.” Oh, please do.

Moses made things pretty clear for the Israelites when he gave them God’s law. He told them that God’s words should “be upon your hearts” and he told the people to “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut 6:6-9). In other words, they should really know them and talk about God’s word and see how they apply in their lives.

If we aspire to be Bible quoters, we first need to be Bible-appliers… applying God’s word in our own daily lives and sharing relatable perspectives that are derived from doing so.