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7 Key Decision Points When Launching a New Venture

Should I stay or should I go?

On two occasions I set out to start a new venture – once with a partner, once on my own. Each time I had to weigh the benefits and risks. I am sure the idea of stepping out has crossed your mind. If not, then you can stop reading.

My last “launch” was more challenging for two reasons – I had been with the organization for 18 years, and I had more to lose (security, health insurance, resources, steady income, etc.).  I was older and had more financial obligations – such as kids headed to college. I weighed the decision for a couple years prior to venturing out, and wrestled much of that time with the age-old question…Should I stay or should I go?

The Big Book on Small BusinessIn The Big Book on Small Business, Tom Gegax offers 5 insights that I believe apply to apply to almost any venture…for profit, non-profit, or faith-based.

Key Decisions

Here are Tom’s categories, and I have added a couple of my own key decisions.

  1. Consider the Impact on Your Family: Any transition – even if it does not require a physical move – can have an impact. If it involves a physical move, and you are dragging your family along kicking and screaming, this is NOT the time to step out. Is there a financial downside? What do others say who have made similar moves? Where you go is a important – maybe more so – than what you will be doing. Place matters; culture matters.
  1. Face the Fear: It is easy to let the fear get you down. For me it was more about uncertainty and where I would focus my energies first. But od not avoid the fear – list your fears and potential impact as you see it. Then shop the list to key, trusted advisers, family and friends. Your fears will get right-sized and your courage will grow.
  1. When in Doubt, Gut it Out: Don’t run from the old; move toward the new. If you are running away because it is hard or you are just angry and frustrated, that is a bad idea. I felt the same, but stuck it out. I continued to explore new ventures within the organization, but all roads led to a dead end. They were going in a much different direction and could not see what I brought to the table. But I did not run. Gutting it out has lots of advantages: character growth, finishing well, and time to get clarity, build connections, etc.
  1. Think About Partnering: You don’t have to build rom scratch. Others have done or are doing similar things. Can you link up? Join their team? Or can there be a mutually beneficial relationship? I worked with others, got some referrals, and made some great connections. Look at potential partners and don’t let your ego tell you, “Be your own man/woman, you wimp!” Keep the long view in mind.
  1. Live Lean: I did not blow money but probably rented an office too soon. I wanted to establish a presence in the community where most of my business and contacts might develop. Turns out they were all over the place. A home office is fine and lot’s of business is done on Skype, in coffee shops and in restaurants. Beg and borrow before you buy!

 And I would add…

  1. Consider the Impact on Your Soul: Any transition affects your inner person. What will a change mean for your heart, character, energy, passion for your values, ideals, and so on? Will it be a soul-filling move or a soul-draining one? I find most of my coaching and consulting with leaders at every level deals with issues of the soul, as much as it does with leadership and strategic issues.
  1. Believe Beyond Your Resume: Don’t undersell your abilities. Your past employer probably does not know—or sometimes does not want to know—what you can really do if you spread your wings. Usually they have pigeon-holed you into a role or a persona. I discovered this was true with SO many talented people where I had worked. You have so much to offer, especially if you have been around for 10 years or more, been learning and growing, and have a “brand” of your own that people value.

Are you ready? Are you sure? Then pull the trigger and go for it! Let me know if this is helpful and how you are doing!

Does Your Work Matter to Your Church?

10 Ways to Know

“I don’t think my pastor understands what I do or believes my work and ministry matter.” This oft-repeated, sad comment reveals bad theology and, more sadly, the neglect of church leaders. How can we ignore the ministry and work of so many people, often leaving them to believe their lives, work and ministry are less important than the paid staff?

I just returned from a weekend retreat to discuss “vocation” with Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. We discussed this issue at length and why the church still has so far to go in valuing people’s work and calling in the ordinary everyday world.

Garber’s work addresses the whole range of what it means to be alive and engaged in the world with our whole being. Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.  He says “vocation” includes our occupation, but is so much more. It includes “also families, and neighbors, and citizenship locally and globally” and that “faith shapes vocation, and vocation shapes culture.”

Speaking specifically about our occupations, Garber mentions friend and pastor Tom Nelson, author of “Your Work Matters,” as one who gets it right, a leader who needed to repent before his large congregation of his ignoring their work and not supporting their ministry.

Here’s a few minutes of his story and why he wrote the book.

Does your work matter to your church leaders?

Here are 10 red flags suggesting there is a problem and that maybe Ephesians 4 has been turned upside down.

1 – The staff consistently pleads for more volunteers to help them do their work.

2 – You are asked to give more money so “we (the staff) can get more ministry done.”

3 – Announcements are filled primarily with “what is happening here” and “how you can get involved and serve here” with the ministries “on campus.”

4 – “Success” is measured primarily by attendance at services, dollars donated, buildings completed, and how staff members have met their ministry goals.

5 – When there’s more ‘ministry’ to be done, plan A is hire more staff who recruit people to their team.

6 – You hear more about the staff members’ lives and work (often the pastor’s family, ideas, vision, writing, travels, etc.) that vision, ministry, lives and callings of people in the church. (We hear, ‘pray for pastor as he travels…’ yet there are so many members who travel the world each week for their work. Who prays for them? I wonder what they think when they hear such a plea.)

7 – The “pastoral prayer” almost never includes a blessing or intercession for people who labor in the name of Jesus each week in their daily work, except maybe on Labor Day weekend.

8 – “Ministry” is defined primarily as that which is done in programs officially sponsored by the church.

9 – Reports about “how we are doing as a church” are limited to updates about finances, building programs, or peak attendance at holiday services.

10 – High capacity people and influential community leaders (particularly the wealthy who “have the gift of giving”) are only viewed as potential board members or donors, not as people to partner with as they use their vast influence, skills and experience to impact to shape our world for the gospel. (One executive said, “Basically, the message I get is, ‘leave your work at the door, but be sure to bring your wallet.’” – Yikes!

Turn This Around

To turn this around leaders and members alike must recover a biblical understanding of vocation, work and “ministry.” And we must pray with and for those who labor in their ministry – their calling—every day, everywhere.

God of heaven and earth, we pray for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Teach us to see our vocations and occupations as woven into your work in the world this week. For mothers at home who care for children, for those whose labor forms our common life in the city, the nation and the world, for those who serve the marketplace of ideas and commerce, for those whose creative gifts nourish us all, for those whose callings take them into the academy, for those who long for employment that satisfies their souls and serves you, for each one we pray, asking for your great mercy. Give us eyes to see that our work is holy to you, O Lord, even as our worship this day is holy to you. In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. (by Steve Garber, Visions of Vocation, p. 239)

LEADERS: For one pastor’s journey into this transformation that helped him reframe how he viewed his calling and the work of the congregation, please read this short article in Christianity Today.

Leveraging Your Leadership Story

Most leaders are so overwhelmed by the present and consumed with the future that they fail to leverage the learning of the past.  In his work on the subject of authentic leadership Bill George from Harvard interviewed hundreds of leaders. They ranged from their 20’s through their 80’s and had held leadership roles in for-profit and non-profit organizations.

George tracked their successes and failures by capturing and mining their stories. The results are captured in True North, one of the tools I use when coaching strategic leaders. Bill begins with the same process that I begin with – digging into a leaders leadership journey. Using some of Bill’s guidelines and adding a few components from my experience with leaders, the process looks like this.

  1. Identify defining moments in your life, one in each of these eras: early childhood, high school years, college years and work life.  Write at least a half page describing the defining moment, why it impacted your life, and how it affects your leadership today.
  2. Look for themes in the stories. How do you react to failure or success? What issues from the past have you ignored or failed to process? What was the key learning from each experience?
  3. How has your current leadership role and style been affected by your story, and how does your story impact the way you lead and make decisions today?

Though this is only part of the process, you can already see how helpful it can be in moving ahead as a leader. For example, here is what 2 leaders have said

“Mining my story helped me discover a pattern – conflict avoidance under stress. It started in high school and has been evident in two leadership roles. I tend to withdraw and hesitate when making key decisions as a result.”

“Overseeing staff has been a strength and a weakness in my leadership. I soon realized the strength was my ability to create a sense of team and community among these key leaders. But the weakness I discovered was an inability to share authority and power. I lost some key people along the way.”

So what can you mine from your story? Who is giving you feedback and helping you process your leadership experiences? What is the best next step for your growth?

Every Day is NOT Friday

I walk the hallways of the rehab and care facility where my mother is recovering from a fall – a broken rib, gash in the head, skin tear on the arm, and ongoing healing from a minor operation – and I look and listen.

The hallways are filled with nurses and caregivers, pushing their portable healing stations, dispensing medications and changing bandages, filling out charts and greeting patients. Sliding past them are janitorial workers, therapists, doctors and administrative staff, all working to make this 200-bed rehab/nursing home facility run smoothly and efficiently.

And then I turn and look, from left to right, into each open door along the hallway, and face the reality of longevity. For the most part, it’s not pretty. Part of me does not want to look. But like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol I am forced to confront my life and my past, and I ponder the realities of suffering and dying and life’s ultimate meaning. And I grieve.

But I also choose to learn, remembering the wise writer in Proverbs 24:32.

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw.

My eyes meet the gaze of a woman in her 90’s, lying on her side, a red-white-and-blue stocking cap on her head to celebrate the 4th of July. We smile at each other. Her eyes twinkle. Her body is broken, frail and withering but something in me whispers, “Don’t judge too quickly, Bill…there’s a lot of life in that smile.”  Yes, and our smiles are gifts to one another, a momentary treasure we share.

I look across the hall and see a man who stares at me from his crumpled bed sheets, lying awkwardly, clearly with multiple maladies. His body is present…but his mind is not. This time I hear an unwanted voice, one that haunts me for a moment…”This is where your life is headed, Bill…Someday one of these rooms will be yours.”

So I do the math. I am 56, my mother is 85, and many here are in their late 80’s and 90’s. Maybe 30 years…maybe much less. If you are over 40, look back at the last 30 years. How quickly did they pass?

Ok, so this is not winning “Positive Post of the Day!” But let’s be real —  every day is NOT a Friday.

Now a new voice is speaking. It is His voice. “Yes, Bill. Life is short and fragile and hard. So what choices are you making today?” I see a man looking at me two rooms down the hall. As I approach I smile, and say hello. “How are you today?” I ask.  “Dumb question,” I think to myself. He is in a rehab center, moron!

With a slight smile he surprises me and says, “Pretty good,” shifting from his slouched position to an energized upright posture. I ask how long he will be here in rehab. He does not know, but likes it here much better than where he lives. Hah! It is all a matter of perspective. This is a prison for my mother for 2 weeks, but an oasis for this guy!

Suddenly, I am aware my perspective is changing. Partly because of this man. Mostly because God has been teaching me all along this hallway journey. This place has served as a metaphor for life, filled with all the sadness and pain it brings, along with joy-filled surprises and gentle graces along the way. Soon I will leave, passing through a doorway into the blaring sunlight, taking in the fresh air carried along by a warm summer breeze.

Soon many here will also depart to a new reality. But I am wrong to picture them simply as people with one foot in the grave when, in reality, they stand at a threshold. Beyond lies eternity…and for some it is filled with light and joy and freedom from all that holds them captive in this bed. For others, a sadder reality awaits. Are they ready?

More importantly, am I ready? Is my life what I hope it can be, what God desires it to be?

I sit here today fully aware of my past and I regret the foolish choices, bad decisions, mismanaged relationships and other disasters that lie in my wake. And I am tempted toward depression, anxiety and grief. But then, as if on cue, in perfect timing, His voice whispers once again. Actually, this time it shouts, “Forgiven! Loved! Redeemed! Gifted! Treasured! Loved! (Did I say Loved??!!)” And I am free. Inside I smile.

I have today. . A day to serve and love the least of these, praying some prayers, sharing some smiles. And I take joy in this moment, and in this place that so many people want to avoid. And I watch my mother, who for two weeks has been loving people here and sharing the good news of Jesus with nurses and just about everyone who enters her room whether they are ready to hear it or not! (This is one of the cool things about being 85!)

And I smile.

Today may not be a Friday. But is it a good day. Not because life is good; but because God is good. And if you and I are willing to listen, today He will teach us…right where we are. And He may just show up in the smile of an elderly, bed-ridden woman wearing a red-white-and-blue stocking cap.

And that will be your gift today.

The ABC’s of Deep, Personal Change

We Admit we are powerless…

 We Believe a Power greater than ourselves can heal us…

 We Conform our will to God’s by turning our lives and wills over to Him…

These paraphrases of the first 3 steps of AA/Al-Anon are essential to any program or process of spiritual growth. In effect they are all aspects of surrender, something about as desirable as warm, mayonnaise sandwich with a sour glass of milk.

Unless you want to change.

When my pain is great, my hope is small and my problems seem overwhelming, surrender is my only option. Forget the fact that it is the best option in the first place. Which is perhaps why virtually all people point to pain or suffering as a major factor in spurring them on to real change and growth.

So why do we often start our “discipleship programs” with Bible memory, attendance at events, “accountability” partners, quiet times and serving opportunities? Why not start with these words.

“Tell me about your pain.”

Because it sounds “too therapeutic” and what do therapists know?  (News Flash – therapeuo is the NT Greek word used for physical and spiritual “healing.” ) In Matthew 9:12 Jesus said, “It is not the healthy but the sick who need a Physician,” and it’s pretty obvious that the Great Physician does not do surgery on healthy patients.

Are you sick? Where does it hurt? What is broken? What do you hunger and thirst for? What needs attention? Let’s start there. It could be…

  • Your unhealthy or distorted view of God
  • Your false view of self
  • The way you hide, run, or withdraw from deep friendships
  • How you avoid challenges or suffering
  • How you medicate your pain
  • How your family reacted to loss or failure in your life and theirs
  • The destructive habits/patterns that hurt you and others
  • Whether you believe what others said about you is true

Or dozens of other ideas, events or beliefs that have shaped you into who you are right now. This is who you are, and yes, the causes behind how you got here do matter and should be explored. But they cannot be changed. Being attentive NOW and taking responsible steps to move forward TODAY is the only choice you have.

Are you willing to surrender? To give up and let God begin His redemptive work in new ways, and in new places in you? I thought I had done a lot of that work early in my Christian life. And maybe for that phase, I really did. But the reality is that I need the first 3 steps again today, and every day – not an event, but a daily process of awareness and a bold declaration that I cannot fix, manage or control all the people and circumstances surrounding me. I must place them in His hands and work, by His grace, on me.

I need God to show up in ME first. And so do you.

Your “symptoms” – anger, fear, arrogance, control, pride, self-hatred, are all indicators that places deep within are damaged. It is who you are right now.

So let’s start there. If you want to.

Or, you can focus all your energy on the outside – language control, showing up at the required meetings and services, following the program, memorizing the material – all of which is good. But can also make you a good Pharisee if the inner work is neglected.

Don’t get me wrong. The outer practices and support structures are necessary and helpful for long-term growth. But be careful never to confuse the structures that support spiritual change with the processes that produce it.

The ruling religious elites in Jesus’ day saw the structure, not themselves, as the problem. And it was other people, not themselves, who were ill and sinful; and “those people” needed to be managed and changed and to get with the program. This kind of thinking is a sign that legalism is taking root, not to mention evidence mental illness.

So begin with surrender. Listen to your pain and sorrow – they are great teachers who will tell you where to start.

They will point you to the Great Healer, and your “discipleship program” can begin.

So let’s start with the letter A, then B… then….OK , you get it. Now you’re making progress!

Do You…(I mean, I) Have The Courage to Change?

Change is hard. Change is necessary. Change is good.

And I do NOT want to change. Not really.

Well, …maybe a little.

In recent months I have come face to face with my real desire to change. Unhealthy patterns, undesirable habits, unrealistic ways of thinking, unnecessary actions; do I really want to get beyond them and re-form my life?

Of course I do…and so do you. At least intellectually we do. Trust me, my intentions are good. (What is it they say about good intentions? That “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and “God save us from people who mean well!”).

Here’s the truth sometimes – maybe too often – about me. I intend to change. I think about intending to change. And I even sometimes consider thinking about intending to change.

But of course that does not bring about change.

I have a decision to make and some actions to take. A woman shared this morning in a meeting I attended that “nothing changes if nothing changes.” This is not just some simplistic slogan or positive-thinking hype. It is just a plain, simple observation about the spiritual life and about any organization or organism on the planet.

To be sure, there are those who think God does all the work for us. I believe this is a theology driven by fear, not truth, an abdication of our God-given responsibility. If we screw up, then we can blame God, say He caused it, or make some theological excuse for our inaction (“must be His will I do not have a job” even though I do not look for one.) How sad it would be if God caused everything.  (FYI: I believe God is so powerful that He can control everything without causing everything).

Why create a community of people for the sole purpose of manipulating and causing their every thought, word and action? If that is true there is really no need for change. We are simply floating adrift on the sea of predetermination. Let’s just pull in the oars, take down the sails, let go of the rudder and take a nap, arriving wherever, whenever. Whatever!

What a waste of Divine energy and power…coercing the actions and activities of 7 billion people 24/7. This cannot possibly be a joyful use of the Creator’s power.  (Ever notice how much work it talks to try to control just one person so they do what you want? Imagine manipulating a whole planet!)

If God is simply the Great Manipulator instead of the Glorious Creator then there is no need for His help or our prayers. No need for the power of His Spirit, no need for the guidance of His Word or the sacrificial life of His Son. All that remains is a dark fatalism, and unending circle of boredom and depression, and the ultimate realization that we do nothing and are nothing (or as one ill-trained pastor has said, “We are all just worms.” WOW… THAT’s a day-maker!!).

But if I really believe I can change, that God has given me the power to change, then anything really is possible – even my growth! I can affirm that I really place my trust in Him (and—here’s a scary thought – that He trusts what He is doing in me!), that my decisions and actions to cooperate with His will and purposes make a difference, that when I obey the scriptures to “make every effort” to live in the truth, I can grow!

When I admit the truth about myself, about God and about the world, then there is HOPE! As I walk with Him as Father, Friend, Leader, Lover, Forgiver, Healer, Victor, and Teacher, I enter a new, ultimate reality! I discover there is meaning and activity and purpose and joy and work and reward and celebration and love and …LIFE !!

“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” – Jesus of Nazareth, The Message, John 10:10

And so I persevere, not because I can bring change on my own but because my God is with me. He is before me to guide me and behind me to urge me on, beneath me to carry me and above me to protect me, beside me to walk with me and inside me to empower me.  And He beckons me to act!

So today I will act – I will pray, I will listen and I will step out in faith and with courage (even if only taking the tiniest of steps), and I will find He is there, He is already at work, and I am growing.


I can change. And I want to. Really.


Do you?

When Leaders Get it Right

News stories tend to focus on destructive and tragic events in our culture. Like most major metropolitan areas, the Chicago evening news fills the first ten minutes with murders, fires, accidents and natural disasters. Kind of a “bad news, then good news” approach, with emphasis on the bad news (like some preaching we hear!).

When it comes to leaders, we like to point out where they got it wrong. Politicians behaving badly, pastors talking arrogantly, athletes living shamefully – all these provide journalists with more than ample fodder for “BREAKING NEWS” at almost any moment of the day.

Because so many of us have a stake in a leader’s failure, we tend to overlook the leadership successes around us. After all, when a notable leader stumbles, it makes us feel better about ourselves, gives us someone to blame for our apathy and ignorance, or provides interesting lunch conversation for our otherwise boring and meaningless lives.

But when leaders get it right (and many do!), a lot of good stuff happens. We need to tell their stories – to our teams, our friends and ourselves!

Because when a leader gets it right…

Energy flows to creating solutions and rather than making accusations

Team members feel empowered rather than overpowered

A compelling shared vision replaces a crippling ego-driven “visionary”

Conversations are truthful and gracious, instead of ruthless and tasteless

Tough decisions are boldly faced and, not cautiously feared

Movement is fostered by a mission, not forced through manipulation

Justice is rightly pursued not wrongly ignored

People feel honored and valued, not shamed and used

Success measures how people are treated, not just how profits are made

Workers are promoted by quality performance, not a deal-making cronyism
We need more of leaders who get it right, and we need to ferret out the real ones from the posers, the platform personalities who talk the leader game at conferences and conventions, but who play by a different set of rules behind closed doors. Lance Witt  describes this difference by comparing the leader you see on the front stage versus what is going on “back stage” where character, the soul and the real personality are seen.


We need real leaders whose performance “backstage” – off camera, away from the excitement and spotlights – is congruent with we see up front. Some are pressured to perform even thought their souls are damaged, and they cover their broken parts. Others are just mean “Jekyll and Hyde” types who present well publically but are awful to work with, toxic to their staff and self-centered ego-driven tyrants.

Ask people who work with these leaders about the “back stage” persona – is it the same person you see “up front” in public settings? Are they as funny, winsome, easy going, and likeable after their scripted, “front stage” persona is set aside and the back stage personality – the real person – emerges in the darkness?

Maybe that is why we give the media so much material to work with. But if we can become leaders with increasing integrity and healthier souls, admitting we are not the center of the universe, not letting the front stage make us posers, we will get it right.

And when leaders get it right…great stuff happens. It really is amazing. And the stories … oh, the stories are grand. They won’t make the evening news—they’ll just make the world a better place.

And that’s the real story.


How to Have Healthy Conversations About Tough Topics

Nothing creates fear in a relationship more than entering a difficult conversation. We tell ourselves that so much is at risk, that we fear the very thought of failure in the convo and so we avoid it altogether.

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillian and Switzer is a researched base guide to “talking when the stakes are high.” And the stakes are always high in a marriage, business partnership, church staff meeting or a dozen other high expectation environments.

In their chapter about how to speak persuasively not abrasively, the authors offer this acronym as a tool: S.T.A.T.E. my path. I have found this helpful and want to pass it along.

Share Your Facts
Tell Your Story
Ask for Other’s Paths
Talk Tentatively
Encourage Testing

Share Facts: Facts are not very controversial or insulting, so simply state the reality. I like to say, “here is what I am hearing…seeing…feeling…what I observed that happened.” Don’t start with your story (how you are feeling about the facts), but start with the facts themselves. “You tend to look around the room when I am talking to you and it appears to me you are not listening.” IF I add anything to that like, “and that’s just awful” or “and it hacks me off!!” then I am going beyond the facts.

Tell Your Story: Here is where you add your feelings or reactions, but do it with discernment. “You often raise your voice when you disagree with the discussion. That makes the environment really emotional for me because I am not sure if you are mad at me or just don’t like the idea I shared.” Use grace but be direct, clear and – according to the authors – do not apologize for your views.

Ask for Other’s Paths: Here is where you ask others to express what they are seeing and feeling. Don’t dump all your truck. Share Facts, Tell some of your story, and invite a reaction, input and their point of view. “Do you see this happening like I do? Help me understand …”

Talk Tentatively: You can be direct, but using the right words signals you have humility, are open to dialogue and might even have some of the facts wrong. “I might be wrong or have misunderstood what you said, but it sounded like…” is a softer way to engage a difficult topic. “I was wondering if our meetings seem as contentious to others of you in the room as they feel to me at times (then provide some general observations about the tone of conversations the team has had.) Not too hard (you are rude!) and not too soft (I feel really bad having to say this) but just right (it appears when we argue a point we can get edgy with one another pretty quickly).

Encourage Testing: As you invite others to talk you must genuinely want to hear their ideas and be open to the fact that you are not seeing everything clearly or accurately. The authors exhort us to really mean it when we invite input. I served in a church environment where the top leader invited input but it was clear to everyone he had already made his decision. It killed creativity, broke trust and built walls. The authors say,

“You must be even more vigorous at encouraging –even pleading with—others to disprove it. The real test of whether your motive is to won a debate or engage in real dialogue is the degree to which you encourage testing.”

How do you handle tough stuff in personal relationships? How does your team engage and process tough conversations at work? What insights can you add to this that have helped you along the way?