Bob Utsurogi is a retired business executive who served corporate America as Vice President of Kellogg’s Snack Division (Western Region), Market Unit General Manager, Pepsi (San Francisco market) and Board member: California Grocers Ass’n and City of Hope.
Though only in his mid-forties, Bob is retired and now makes his home on South Vancouver Island. He serves on the Advisory Council of Transitional Leadership Ministries. His driving passion is to see Christian churches and individuals walk in unity and work cooperatively rather than competitively in Christian ministry.
Doug Harris interviewed Bob to learn from him what corporate America has to teach us in the area of transitional pastoral and leadership ministries.
Doug : Is there any kind of standard procedure for senior leadership transition in corporate North America?
Bob: In corporate north America change is made in a constant and normal way, because it is a constant in business. So when you look at changes in corporate America (whether it’s retirement, whether it’s bad business results or leadership, whether it’s lack of vision or understanding business in the landscape) I would guarantee it that big changes would go through the board. I don’t know what the common procedure would be but I will guarantee you they will be ready for change.
Doug: Is the board elected by the shareholders?
Bob: Yes, but most of the time, that election is really a formality. Normally they are appointed by other board people.
Doug: Please describe the role of the corporate board in the process of change and transition.
Bob: Corporate board members are normally high visionary people. In corporate America change is common, normal, and healthy. In churches - change is so rare there is no real procedure. Boards are appointed on their expertise and their capacity to be visionaries. The vision is set by the board, and the executive staff then is responsible to implement that vision. One of the big differences between corporate America and churches is that the executive staff and CEO’s and CFO’s are very, very close to their respective boards.
Doug: How would a large North American company sustain seamless corporate leadership during the transition process?
Bob: By keeping the people focused on the work at hand. This is very difficult. During major changes in the business world there are always winners and losers. People get promoted, people get demoted. One of the key elements of success is keeping focused on meeting customer needs and answering their questions during this time of change. The most important things in the organization are the customers and the employees. It is important that the employees keep their eyes on the customers and not worry about the changes that may be occurring. While it is very difficult, it is a key success principle. In the church it is critical to keep the usual focus on teaching, preaching, pastoral care, an on keeping communication lines open with those who are hurting or questioning. While there is a change happening at the top, it is important to maintain quality ministry and effective communication.
Doug: How does this happen? How does the board retain this control so that things don’t change and that the customers/business goes on. How do they make sure this really happens, when the senior administrator is gone.
Bob: It is critically important that the people and customers know of the plans that are in place and really keep them thinking they are the up-side of positive changes. The business plan should be firmly in place and that doesn’t change even if there is transition at the senior leadership level. Transitions in the corporate sector tend to be quick and clean. Senior leadership positions tend not to be vacant for long. Succession planning is a key element here. If churches did their succession planning properly, there wouldn’t be the same need for transitional pastors. If they did it properly, the congregation would have confidence in the leadership because they were already prepared for it. Some organizations (including churches) get caught off guard when they bring in a lot of externals because they are not building within the organization. TLM needs to encourage churches in responsible succession planning and then provide alternatives when they haven’t done it.
Doug: What is the role of the Board in the transition process.
Bob: In the corporate sector the board gives strong direction. The board hires the new CEO. It is always the chair of the board that will come forward to introduce the new CEO. The CEO is always accountable to the board through the chair. The difference between the board in the corporate world versus the church is the board is usually very in tune with the business environment and are professionals in the field. Church boards should look for appropriate outside help in the leadership transitional process and in locating suitable leadership candidates. We should be training church boards. This is why the ministry of TLM is so important. If boards don’t realize they need this training, they won’t look for it. One good thing about church boards is the members can touch, talk and pray with each other and with church members during these changes. In the corporate world this is not an option.
Doug: What should be the role of staff in the senior leadership transition process?
Bob: Keep focused on the work at hand. Just as traffic on the highway tends to slow down in order to view the results of an accident, so there is a tendency for the attention of staff to be sidetracked when transitions occur. It is important that the staff remain focused on their respective ministries so that positive results will be enjoyed during the transition period.
Doug: What would be the role in place of the customer in the transition process?
Bob: This is an interesting one. In corporate America the role of the customer during the transitional process is minimal. There are times when corporations will go to customers for feedback. However, the board often already possesses the pertinent data it requires.
Doug: How does corporate America address the matter of closure?
Bob: It depends on the circumstances. It’s usually very fast. Communication is usually good. It is quick and clean. It’s amazing how quickly it all happens. Many times in an organization it happens in a single day. Sometimes the day is referred to as “Black Monday” or “Black Tuesday”. Churches are usually very messy in this matter of closure and don’t do it very well at all. The key is that churches experiencing the need for closure need to communicate, compensate and have compassion. Normally, they don’t do any of the three very well. Unless it’s a long term retirement, businesses do not do the compassion thing. When its over, its over. However, they usually communicate well and compensate generously.
Doug: What special steps should be taken to sustain staff morale during this process?
Bob: I think the key is to communicate what is appropriate, and be as honest as you can. Whether it is through special meetings or conference calls, people need to be told what is appropriate for them to know. There are certain things that boards know but cannot communicate to others. Some churches have town hall meetings, small group meetings, and one-on-one discourses. The key to all these meetings is knowing what you are communicating and making sure al communicators are saying essentially the same thing. Don’t tell Jim one thing and Joe something else. In corporate America boards only communicate what they want to communicate in order to keep the people focused on their work. In the church, you are probably obligated to communicate a little bit more. However, it is important not to communicate until you have all the facts and you are fully prepared.
Doug: What special steps would be taken to sustain customer support and good will?
Bob: Just communication.
Doug: How does the corporate board determine what kind of leader it needs and desires? How does it determine required giftedness, training and characteristics in its prospective leader?
Bob: The board in a corporation will look at changes that need to occur and how the changes are going to affect the company. It will seek out the right person who it believes can facilitate those required changes. This determination is made in the light of the corporate vision and information received through appropriate data and research. In the church setting, it is crucial that boards and congregations have a clear vision prior to appointing a new senior leader. In the case of corporate boards, this process is done silently for a long time. However, when it does is happen, it happens quickly. This is where I think churches need the most help as they go through senior leadership changes. he church board is not usually equipped to find the right person. There are exceptions. Church boards need to pray and to rely on the Holy Spirit. Corporate Boards usually know where they want to go, because they receive good information from senior staff who understand the trends. They are usually better equipped to make these crucial decisions. This is why I think there is a huge need for church boards to seek and receive outside help during the whole transitional process.
Doug: Do corporate boards target the senior leadership transition as an opportunity for meaningful directional changes?
Bob: yes, yes and yes! To me this is an ideal time to make changes. Organizational and structural changes may take from one to three years to complete, but they often start them during the transition. This time of leadership transition is a perfect time to commence organizational change.
Doug: The board probably has been preparing for succession. When the president resigns, do they have a good idea as to what they are going to do.
Bob: I would say when you get to that level, they usually don’t wait for him to resign. They often make it happen.
Doug: In the corporate world do leadership changes come through resignations or firings?
Bob: Senior leadership changes are often initiated by the board. It’s usually a mutual agreement involving both communication and compensation. In my experience, when we were downsizing or moving people out, there was always a separation package including a clause that the person who was released would not come back to sue. If he or she did, their compensation agreement would be in jeopardy. So people just leave very quietly. They don’t tell anyone what they have received, they just leave very quietly.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about how corporate boards go about initiating change.
Bob: Someone has said that if you are a group that continues to do little changes all the time, the multiple changes will burn people out. If, however, you make bigger and better one time changes, you won’t burn people out as much. Churches are often afraid to do this. They often do the nickel and dime thing and end up exhausting people. Little changes are sometimes more difficult than big changes. Sometimes we need to do it all at once. The old Japanese business plan was to make huge changes. They decide that whether or not the changes work, they will give it at least five years.
Doug: What can the church and parachurch organizations learn from corporate North America that will help make leadership transitions positive, harmonious, and effective?
Bob: I may have already answered this. What I learn about change in the business world is that it’s quick and clean. There is usually no looking back. The new leader is in place and ready to go. There are sound reasons why corporate America is good at changes. They are great at people planning. They practice succession planning. It’s part of their culture. They seldom get caught with bad results. They are very aware of how healthy they are. At Pepsi we did organizational health surveys every year. It focused not on the business results but on the health of the organization. Pepsi used outside consultants to help but not dictate. They used consultants that would give honest and sometimes difficult feed back. Also, they were very aware of the customers.
Doug: This is what Outreach Canada does in vision renewal and church health.
Bob: Yes. Corporate America is very aware of their customers, their needs, their changing habits, their behaviors and their priorities. In terms of the church it would involve being very aware of the members and adherents – their needs, their changing habits, their changing behaviors, and their priorities. Changes in church are so rare they often do not know what to do. In a company, it’s the norm. Change happens every year, if not every quarter - not always big changes - often subtle changes. The difference between churches and corporate America is that churches are not in tune with their customers. Corporations are in touch because they have every data point you can think of to look at. They look at buying habits, eating habits, etc. I see this as one of the biggest differences between churches and corporations. Corporations are very aware of every trend that happens by generation.
Doug: In some ways, churches are ahead of corporations. Churches profess to believe and practice the agape (love) principle. Corporate America usually does what it does purely for profit reasons. If corporate America is so sensitive and knowledgeable about the customers for profit reasons we ought to be even more sensitive and more knowledgeable for reasons of love.
Bob: Absolutely. Understanding the data point also allows you to understand how you reach these people in their environment.
Doug: How can we know the people in our community and how can we reach out and really minister to them in order to help meet their needs?
Bob: One of the biggest words in business is synergy. I never hear the word used in churches. A number of years ago the mom and pop grocery stores developed a group call the IGA (Independent Grocers Association). Why did they join forces together? As a single outlet, they didn’t have the buying power to compete against the Safeway and other large food stores. They created this IGA group to be competitive with the bigger chains. The synergy was the buying power. Joint ventures have become huge in the grocery world. Churches today need to band together for the cause of Christ. While our worship may be different, our meeting times may be different, our dress codes may be different and we may even differ some in our interpretations of the Bible, we all have one God, one Christ, and one Holy Spirit. What if churches came together and pooled their resources? That would be a transition worth watching.
Doug: Interesting. Interesting. It is critically important that churches who believe the same thing fully cooperate with each other in communicating those beliefs to the entire community where they are situated. This is something Outreach Canada could take initiative to do. It needs to carefully consider creating and fostering this kind of cooperative Christian community among churches who believe the same things.
Bob: Well, you know it’s interesting because you talked about a church knowing its neighborhood. I just look through the eyes of people in a given neighborhood. When I lived in California, I used to pass eight churches on my drive to church on Sunday mornings. None of them seem to want to talk to each other. If I were a non-believer, what would I think? What if all the evangelical churches in our communities were to create synergies based upon truth? What could happen if these churches were to work closely together in reaching their respective communities? What if we said good-bye to selfishness and isolation and were to pool our gifts and resources for the good and blessing of the communities around us? In many ways, our churches are the mom and pop grocery stores. We need that synergy of the Holy Spirit in our individual and collective ministries for God.
Doug: You realize that Outreach Canada is perfectly positioned to be a catalyst for this.
Doug: This cooperative ministry among people who believe the same things is the key to fulfilling the Great Commission, the key to revival and actually turning our country around.
Bob: I believe so, I really believe that. I see some things happening in my community, but I honestly believe that when we get to a point of love and unity, the evangelical churches in the community will send a wonderful message.
Leave your comment