A Lesson in Leading People

The doorbell startled us. Late night guests are not common in our quiet neighborhood. I opened the door cautiously and saw two men bundled in snow gear. Before the door even cracked, one man interjected, “Listen, we don’t want any trouble, but we’re in a rough spot and just looking for some honest work. You need someone to clear your sidewalk?”

The biggest snow storm of the year hit Denver that morning—and brought with it a lesson in differentiating good from great.

Sixteen inches of powder heaped up in our yard and barricaded the cars lining our street. The duo at my doorstep averted eye contact, snow shovels poised at their sides. They pitched their snow removal services. After a brief negotiation, we shook on the deal and I returned inside to find cash, feeling quite pleased with my actions.


When opportunity presents itself, I love hiring folks. It breathes of dignity to provide a fair wage for hard work. I stepped outside and paid the men, quickly stepping back into the warmth of our home. But looking across the living room, I saw Alli rushing to heat a pot of water.

“It’s freezing outside, Chris,” she said. “Let’s at least share a cup of hot chocolate.”

Later that month, I visited Steve and Jim, two friends who lead a small manufacturing business in north Denver. Sandwiched between a rail yard and tire depot, their nondescript warehouse looks much less remarkable than what takes place inside. While touring their facility, they explained how their team converts stacks of sheet metal—what looked like an oversized stack of paper—into massive fans that improve the efficiency of machinery.

They shared about the steel-and-rivets nature of their business, but it was clear their success had little to do with metal fabrication. They succeeded because of how they cared for their people. With an average tenure of 15 years, this warehouse acted more like second home than a factory.

“My dad had a simple philosophy when he started this business,” Steve said. “‘Let’s pay people well, give them great benefits and really get into their lives.’”

When Steve and Jim talked about the men that worked on the shop floor, their energy intensified. They liked manufacturing, but they loved their people. The hard-nosed crewmen roaming the warehouse floors were not just workers. To Steve and Jim, they were friends, peers, and fathers.

Jim summarized their leadership approach:

“Here’s what we believe: Walk beside the foul-mouthed. Treat them well. Invest in their lives over a long period time …and watch what happens.”

And over time, great things did happen because of how they militantly defended their culture of dignity and respect. They didn’t use gimmicks to achieve organizational excellence. They just remained fastened to treating people right. And the results told a story: Business was good, work wasn’t just for the weekend, and their people thrived.

Steve and Jim operate by a simple premise: The best way to do business is to hire hard workers and unleash them to use their abilities. But their special sauce is how they care. And that’s what I missed with the shovelers. Paying them for snow removal was fine, but it was the cup of hot chocolate that made it great. When we shared the warm beverages with our late-night guests, a smile lit up their faces, starkly contrasting with the cold night air. A sincere drink of worth for two men parched for it.

Originally posted at SmorgasblurbRead more about Steve and Jim’s business in this profile at Christianity Today.

Christian Shoddy is Still Shoddy

A tense cloud hovered above the desk that separated us. Meeting in an aging office building in a small Romanian town,  Dorian articulated a troubling reality about his organization: Nobody liked it.

I was in Romania to find a good microfinance organization. Friends of HOPE funded an exploratory trip to determine whether Romania would be a good place for us to expand. With a presence nearby in Ukraine, Russia and Moldova; Romania was a natural next step for our expansion. Traveling the country by train for three months, I met with dozens of leaders to learn more about the needs of entrepreneurs  and about the current resources that were available to them in their country. It was largely encouraging, but my meeting with Dorian gave me pause.

Dorian aired many grievances about his clients. His organization planned business training sessions and no clients show up. They offered business loans, but very few paid them back. They offered consulting services, but nobody was buying. Their clients didn't like or value their products. That reality would normally prompt sympathy from me, not frustration. But I felt much more of the latter because of his closing remarks:

We're sad that nobody is showing up for our training sessions or paying back their loans, but you know, we're telling them about Jesus. And that's all that truly matters.

Dorian's comments contained a semblance of truth. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to share Jesus with those we serve. And in that light, Dorian's enthusiasm about the gospel is admirable. But that's where my agreement with him stops.

Slapping an ichthus on a jug of spoiled milk does not honor God. Searing a cross on a hamburger doesn't make it taste like filet mignon. I don't care how "Christian" your school is; if all your students fail, I'm not sending my kid there. We serve a God who created an earth that holds its axis and planets that hold their orbit. God articulated a breathtaking and precise blueprint for his tabernacle. And our God instructs us to do likewise, commanding we do our work with excellence.

 

 

Dorian spoke as if creating a substandard product was honoring to God simply because of the words he spoke. But Christian shoddy is still shoddy. Our creator demonstrated superb taste and strong attention to detail in his craftsmanship. When we ignore the needs of our customers, treat them with disdain and "ichthus-wash" it with spirituality, we do not reflect the full nature of our creator.

 

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.
Photo: 
Johan Koolwaaij

Air India Sticks it to the Poor

Over the past eight days, I boarded thirteen separate flights as I hopped across the Asian continent. I spent the most time in India. Actually, I spent time in “both Indias,” a phrase my Indian colleagues used. I visited the skyscraper-heavy financial district in Mumbai and met families in slums nearby. I drove past the most expensive house in the world and walked through one of the world’s poorest shantytowns. Both Indias.

As a connoisseur  of fine airlines (e.g., Southwest, my favorite), India’s airlines impressed me. I flew Jet Airways several times and they did everything right: Prompt departures, quick boarding, no fees, and friendly service. It was hard to believe this upstart airline didn’t exist just seven years ago. Actually, seven years ago, there was only one airline in the country: Air India.

Air India – Source: iFreshNews

Until 2005, the Indian government held a monopolistic stranglehold on the aviation industry. Air India was the only show in town. And it was a really bad show. Prices were sky-high, service was terribly low and Air India consistently lagged in innovation. It is a classic story of government-intervention-gone-wrong.

The real victim of Air India’s failure, however, was the poor. Not only could they not afford to fly, but they also were continually forced to bail out the floundering “business.” As taxpayers, they were on the hook for Air India’s failure. Created under the auspices of “protecting the Indian people,” Air India did exactly the opposite. The vitriol for the company by the people of India is apparent. On my final flight home, I thumbed through the pages of The Telegraph, an Indian newspaper. The editorial title about the airline summarized the country’s sentiment: “A long, sordid and pathetic tale of failure.”

Riddled with inefficiencies and waste, Air India was actually crippled while I was in the country. The entire staff has gone two months without salaries and they were on strike last week. The editorial reviled in the failures of the airline, noting for example, that they recently purchased new planes without doing any price negotiation whatsoever with the manufacturers.

Jet Airways and a handful of other upstart airlines like IndiGo and Spicejet are charting a different and refreshing course, however. Led by aggressive Indian entrepreneurs, these budget airlines deliver on their promise to customers. And, they bring abounding opportunity to the poor. The data doesn’t lie: Since 2005, air traffic in India has tripled, fare prices have dropped dramatically and the quality of service has increased.

 

I’m an admitted believer in the power of entrepreneurship and the free markets.

While not without its warts, I’ve argued that capitalism is the “best broken system” for the most vulnerable in our world. There is a role for government in helping the poor, but Air India illuminates that sometimes the best social service they can do for the poor is unleash the Indian entrepreneur to be the solution. Jet Airways, IndiGo and SpiceJet are up for the challenge; and the world is opening up to low-income Indians as a result. SpiceJet’s motto says it all, “Flying for Everyone.”

 Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

An Open Letter to the CEO and President of Costco

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that if you find good people, give them good jobs, and pay them good wages, good things will happen.

– Jim Sinegal, CEO, Costco

Below is a letter I recently sent to Jim Sinegal and Craig Jelinek (CEO and President, respectively) at Costco Corporation, an international chain of membership warehouses. I am publishing this letter publicly because too often the only businesses we hear about are those which are in some way abusive to customers, vendors and/or employees. As you’ll read in the letter and elsewhere, Costco is an absolute world-class business (and they’re not alone!).

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Dear Mr. Sinegal and Mr. Jelinek,

Throughout the 90s, my older brother Matthew worked part-time at a grocery store. He was punctual, cared for his customers and he completed his work (clearing grocery carts from the parking lot) with excellence. But, the part-time minimum-wage salary, lack of benefits and toxic work environment prevented this job from becoming a career.

When a Costco opened up in our neighborhood (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) in the late 90s; its reputation for treating its employees with dignity preceded it. Matthew applied immediately in hopes of joining the Costco team. A few short months later, Costco took a chance on him. Today, 11 years later, after several promotions, consistent pay increases and with a supportive team around him, Matthew has found his career. The very generous salary and benefits package allow him to enjoy life in a debt-free home in a great neighborhood, within walking distance of Costco.

For his entire life, Matthew has been classified and known by his “special needs”. Since the day he began at Costco, however, his coworkers and customers have valued him because of his unique strengths. There are many companies which “succeed” at the expense of their workers. I am a firsthand witness to a counterintuitive company: Costco succeeds through the flourishing of its employees.

Matthew worked for years in the Costco parking lot (bearing the wind, rain, cold and snow), taking pride when it was free of carts. And, true to the rumors (that Costco promotes from within), he eventually was given the opportunity to work in the warehouse as a cashier’s assistant, supporting customers as they check-out. He absolutely loves his job…and his customers absolutely love him.

Matthew raves about his friends at the eyeglass center, bakery, pharmacy, food court and customer service desk. He always talks about the tire crew members who allow him to park his bike under their watch–and make sure it is tuned and safe to ride. He pays tribute to his many supervisors, each of whom has taken special care to help him succeed. Matthew enthusiastically participates in Costco’s Children’s Miracle Network partnership month, the annual Christmas party, and he recently won an employee Biggest Loser competition (losing over 65 pounds).

Costco has become much, much more than an employer to Matthew. Thank you for giving him a chance. I have always deeply believed that Matthew does not need any handouts — he just needs opportunities to apply his incredibly unique gifts and abilities. The purpose and care with which you approach business has literally changed the course of my brother’s life and has been an unspeakable blessing to him and to our family.

My warmest thanks,

Chris Horst

If At First You Don’t Fail, Fail

From what I could tell, early October 2006 fed into the beginnings of a great semester. I was getting settled into college life, playing in my first preseason lacrosse scrimmages, and watching the Detroit Tigers battle their way toward the World Series.

Life was good.

It was a typical dorm night: I was watching the Tigers in the midst of their ALDS series versus the New York Yankees. As a part of the celebratory atmosphere, the Mountain Dew was flowing and there were copious amounts of gummy bears, worms, and other delectables.

Oh so suddenly, life happened.

A stomach ache from excess sugars was not what it seemed; as it turns out, appendicitis left me struggling on the should-have-been-cleaner carpet of my living room floor. I’ll save you the details–––which included choosing the worst hospital in our metropolitan area, projectile vomiting iodine-laced orange Gatorade in preparation of my CT scan, and immense, immense pain–––but I left the operating table one appendix lighter and on indefinite classroom leave.

 

My loving parents flew across-country at a moment’s notice, and if I was a smart student, I would’ve spent just a day or two with them following my hospital release. I didn’t. Instead, I posted up at The Colony pool (or those fluffy, magnificent beds!) and elsewhere for two weeks. Resort living was easier than classes, I reckoned, and I was right.

Unfortunately, as my standard of living increased, my grade point average did not.

It didn’t help that my surgery came just before midterms, but I embellished my cause. In fact, failure became commonplace that semester. Professors were only able to extend so much grace, quite frankly, and that left me scrambling.

I have this vivid memory of showing up to a class that only met once per week. It was one of the final classes and my group was presenting something (of which I don’t remember). Here’s the kicker though, I didn’t present with them. They shut me out… on presentation day. I can’t tell you how mortifying it felt to stand up their with my group, all speaking, sans me.

 

As it happens, I finished that semester with a 1.5 GPA. That’s a whole lotta failin’.

Gone were my chances at a degree in film production (and my goal to work in post-production audio and “be the soundtrack guy”). I had to fail many, many times that semester to prepare me for future success. In fact, it was only the A’s I received in subsequent semesters that paved my way into business school and allowed me to graduate with a degree in entrepreneurship and finance.

 

If you’re not failing, you’re failing to make progress.

…which means you’re still failing? I don’t know. I just think about it and write. You’re the one that has to make sense of it.

Anyway.

If you’re failing to make progress, you’re not failing in the best way possible.

 

Nobody ever got anywhere by playing it safe.

Do you want to make your dreams come true? Take some risks and make it happen.

Take a risk and tell your boss why you deserve a raise.

Take a risk and ask out that cute little thang at the gym.

Take a risk and travel the country, seeing all that there is to see.

Before Quarterlife Man, there were tons of failures… half-websites that never quite made it. Did they have anything to do with QM? Not really, but you don’t need direct correlation to learn something. Through years of messing around–––figuring out what worked and what didn’t–––I was able to launch an incredible ministry for college-aged and 20 something men.

 

Your failure will pave the way to your success.

Start failing, today. Your future depends on it.

[alert style=”info”]What’s your biggest fear? What’s your ultimate goal? Does the fear of failure play into the accomplishing of that goal? Let us know in the comments. [/alert]

The Secret Hero in the Trafficking Battle

Human Trafficking

The battle rages on. Across the globe, forces for good assault a great evil–human traffickers. Ruthless, shifty and complex, our formidable opponent lurks in red-light districts and shantytowns.

“More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade…generating profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year [GDP of Costa Rica] for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children [population of Houston] are exploited in the commercial sex industry.” – International Justice Mission  (IJM)

Leaders rally coalitions to combat villains who perpetrate these crimes on innocent children. Pioneers like IJM and Not For Sale convene activists and churches to fight this injustice. Together, they bring freedom to the darkest corners of our world. I pray these organizations grow. I pray justice is served. I rejoice with each girl whose chains of bondage break. And, I mourn to think of the many who are not yet free.

These pioneers are not without allies, however. On the front lines, a quiet hero is emerging.  Inconspicuous, yet powerful, their chief ally wages war often without even knowing it.

Our hero? A good job.

Perpetrators rarely kidnap girls off street corners. More often, they lure girls into slavery with job offers. This explains why the poorest neighborhoods in the poorest countries are at greatest risk. Traffickers swarm in slums, offering parents a shot at prosperity. Give me your girl and I’ll get her a call center job across the border. They bait desperate families with financial opportunity.

Poor families are the bull’s eye for traffickers. Fewer poor families means fewer girls sold into slavery. How many parents in your neighborhood have gifted their daughters away to job placement agencies? Traffickers ignore our towns because our families aren’t starving.

Last month, I visited HOPE’s work in India. We work in a city known as a regional hub for the trafficking industry. I met with dollar-a-day families in slums throughout the city, watching our Indian staff breathe life into the oppressed. Jon, our country director, hates that his city is a target.

“We train the 6,000 families we serve how to spot a trafficker. And we help them start and grow businesses so the trafficker’s bait is irrelevant,” Jon told me.

HOPE International clients in India

Motivated by his faith to bless an at-risk place, my friend, Rick, recently opened the doors of a “trafficking-fighting agency” (pictured below) in another trafficking hotspot, Vietnam. This agency, a manufacturing facility, employs over 100 Vietnamese people. Linh, a beautiful young woman who was trapped in prostitution, now manufactures medical devices. She left a career of slavery for a life of freedom. The job changed her course forever.

Rick’s “Trafficking-Fighting Agency”

The CEO of a medical devices business, Rick doesn’t sign petitions and he doesn’t raid brothels. Instead, he creates opportunities for dozens of people to engage in dignifying work. His business provides an upstream, economic solution to an economic problem by putting traffickers out of business.

“I think our Vietnam operation will surprise us and become more than we’ve dreamt. We reflect Christ’s purposes in this place: To be God’s instruments to reclaim, to reconcile, and to redeem. To make all things new. That’s why we are here.” – Rick

In the war against trafficking, we need to deploy more than activists. We need to deploy an even greater force against our imposing foe. We need to unleash our secret heroes—the job creators.  We need to affirm the big businesses, mom-and-pop shops, and social enterprises that create good jobs. We need to unlock the creativity of the human spirit to build new job machines, enterprises that strike the engine of the trafficking industry. We put the very fear of God in the heart of evil when freedom-fighters like IJM join arms with freedom-fighting job creators like Rick and HOPE International.

Fight the Coffee Purchase Guilt!

Visiting the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle last year was like a party for my senses. Delectable sights, sounds and smells emanated throughout the re-purposed train station Starbucks calls home. As part of my MBA program, my cohort had the privilege of visiting with several Starbucks executives–and tasting lots of delicious coffee, of course. Sadly, despite my hopes, there were no vanilla latte water fountains. The visit has got me thinking.

Have you ever been a part of a church service or conversation when someone said something like, “You selfishly spend $20/month on coffee purchases — imagine what good that money could do if you gave it to a non-profit!” I’ve heard it many times and am sure I have even said it more than once. There is some truth to that comment, and I am not writing this post to justify excessive consumerism, but I am increasingly convinced that is a misleading admonition.

Your purchases, be it for your favorite coffee, the car you drive or the computer you are using right now, are doing good. Did you know that Starbucks provides wages and health insurance to over 115,000 individuals people and are supporting over 75,000 rural coffee farmers throughout Latin America and Africa? Learning about the Starbucks Farmer Support program (see video below) was like watching a HOPE International marketing video — incredible how much of an impact the gourmet coffee craze is making on the lives of poor rural farmers.

Many times we assume that all our spending is selfish and detrimental to the world…as if only money given to charities is “money well spent.” That’s just not true. Look at India, Chile, Brazil, Hong Kong and even Rwanda. These countries are seeing massive numbers of people’s livelihoods improved and are seeing the flourishing of many of their communities. Many factors have contributed to these countries’ collective emergence, but the engine of entrepreneurship is leading the charge. We often judge the worth of businesses by how much they give charitably to charities. In my view, the primary good they contribute to our society is their provision of valuable products, services and meaningful employment to the world–from the smallest “mom and pop” shops to the world’s largest companies. Their donations are great too, but it’s their inherent value which is doing the most good.

Next time you buy your white chocolate mocha, use your Blackberry, or read your Bible, think about the people whose livelihoods, perhaps across the globe, you are supporting. Sip that latte with your chin-up. Your habit is putting food on the table for over 75,000 rural farmers in the developing world.

Dig into the ethical policies of your favorite companies, as you are voting with each of your purchases and charitable donations. Are you voting for candidates you believe in?

TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods

TOMS Shoes

TOMS Shoes defines cool. These hip slip-ons  are the garnishment of urban hipsters, but even much-less-cool folks like me love when companies give back. The winning equation for TOMS has been the “buy one get one” approach they pioneered: You buy slick kicks…and poor kids get free shoes. This equation has propelled TOMS to corporate superstar status.

All companies practice and celebrate their do-goodism. There’s even a cumbersome title for it–corporate social responsibility (CSR). Analyzing corporate charity models is one of my hobbies. Today’s doing good battle is between TOMS Shoes, the hipster heavyweight, and Whole Foods Market, the granola momma’s utopia.

 

TOMS: Lots of good, but some areas that could be tweaked. Please: Don’t chuck your TOMS at me just yet. Hear me out.

The good: They connect their product–shoes–to their charity–shoes for poor kids. Rather than supporting something entirely unrelated, like well-drilling in Africa (leave well-drilling to Aquafina and Dasani), TOMS’ charitable endeavors are a foot-in-shoe fit, you might say, with their business.

Needs Improvement: First, though fabulously intended, I’m in the choir of skeptics about the impact of distributing free shoes to poor kids. In short, giving away free stuff, whether its TOMS Shoes, school supplies, or castaway Super Bowl t-shirts, almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.

Second, their social mission is sold as an add-on to their business. Like many other companies, they slice off a share of revenue and use that to fund charity. Giving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but companies like TOMS celebrate the toppings rather than the sundae itself. They splash a “charity cherry” on top of their business, but often neglect to acknowledge the core contribution they make to society: Providing meaningful jobs and cool shoes to our world.

Whole Foods Market: Though much more nuanced than TOMS, their approach to doing good is “best in class.”

The good: On a recent trip to Whole Foods to buy a bouquet of flowers for Alli, I left deeply impressed with the way their charitable efforts are woven into their core business: Selling healthy, fresh groceries. Rather than highlight their food donations, or the food relief agencies they could financially support, they celebrate the livelihoods they support across the globe and the nutritious goods they provide to their customers. I got this simple flyer with my flower purchase featuring Alfredo, one of the farmers:

Let’s be clear: Whole Foods profits from my purchase. They are not motivated to work with Alfredo solely because they want to help the vulnerable. They work with Alfredo because he grows gorgeous flowers and enables shareholders to earn big returns.

Still, they do business with Alfredo in a redemptive, equitable way, shedding light on the real people–the breeders, bakers and butchers–who produce their groceries. Like Whole Foods, Starbucks shines as a kindred spirit in the way they treat and celebrate their 75,000 coffee farmers.

The verdict: Like TOMS, Whole Foods gives a percentage of their revenue to provide additional support to farmers like Alfredo, but that becomes cursory, their add-on, to the livelihoods they support. Rather than voicing poetic kudos to their corporate tithing, Whole Foods highlights the inherent and more significant value their business brings to our globe. The clear winner? Whole Foods. They do good well.