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The One About Alan’s Half Hour

Alan can’t for the life of him see why God still has him in this organisation.
It’s a chill place – this big bank – and he’s been thinking about leaving for a while. He’s been brought in to a team that’s being led by a much younger man who’s destined for great things but who right now needs an older head to steady the ship. Alan is that older head. There are 130 in the team, their profitability is plummeting, and their employee engagement numbers are plummeting faster than their profitability. And apart from that, their technology belongs in a museum.

When he arrives his boss tells him, ‘Your work space isn’t quite ready, so let me take you round to where you’ll be sitting for now and introduce you to your No. 2.’

‘Great. I’d like to meet the other people there too.’

‘Why? You’ll never need to talk to them.’

‘But they will be working for me.’

‘But… well, okay then,’ his boss responds with a hint of tetchy frustration in his voice, ‘I’ll introduce you to your No. 2 and he can introduce you to the others.’

What kind of culture is this? What kind of man is this? Alan wonders. And quickly discovers. He is immediately asked to restructure the whole team and ensure that he ‘restructures’ a particular person, Keith, out, for reasons unnamed. Alan wonders, ‘What am I doing in a place like this? Where’s God in this?’ It’s more like the court of Xerxes with Haman plotting the destruction of Mordecai and all his people (Esther 3), or the satraps of Babylon conspiring against Daniel (Daniel 3:3–16).

I wonder how you would respond in a situation like that.

In the event, Alan tells his younger boss that he won’t be restructuring the team quite yet – how can he do that before he knows what people can do?

About a month into his new role he offers everyone in his team half an hour of his time. They can, he tells them, talk about anything – career, family, hopes, ambition, God. Most of them, he discovers, aren’t happy in their work – the leadership is poor, the politicking rife, the appreciation non-existent, genuine interest or care for people absent… Alan’s ‘half hour’ opens the floodgates for genuine communication: ‘People told me all kinds of things. One man, John, was an outstanding performer, on the cusp of being given more responsibility. He told me that he’d been divorced, that his daughter lived with his ex-wife, was suffering from a severe case of anorexia nervosa, and wanted to live with him… He was in tears in my office. Actually over 50% of the people told me really quite personal things. None of them had ever had a conversation like that with a manager.’

Alan, it turns out, has done this with every team he’s led. He really cares about his people. I can see it in the frustration and outrage and compassion in his eyes. He begins to tell me about another colleague in personal difficulty… and then pauses, ‘Maybe that’s why I am there’.

Maybe?

And then he tells me about Keith, the man his boss wanted to ‘restructure’ out. ‘I knew Keith had applied for my job and hadn’t got it. He’d also applied for my boss’ job and hadn’t got that either. He told me that he’s been divorced. He’d had a very tough year. He was in tears. I could see he was a man of substance, so I told him that we would look at why he hadn’t go those two jobs and figure out how he could work towards the next promotion. Keith was flabbergasted.’

Alan also discovered that Keith was the only person in his subteam who was client-facing. He had all the relationships. If Keith was ‘restructured’ out, he’d go to another bank and take his clients with him, at a potential future loss of £185 million.

I wonder what you would do if you were Alan in such a situation.

Well, when it came time for Alan to see his boss, Alan told him that unless they wanted to risk losing £185 million to other banks it would be unwise to get rid of Keith. As for John, Alan asked him whether, given the difficult situation with his daughter, he would prefer, if it were possible, to be made redundant. To Alan’s surprise, John leapt at the prospect. Then Alan set about the hard and detailed task of seeing if there was a business case for such a move.

Interestingly, the organisational structure that emerged turned out to be the optimal solution for the overall business. Good for John, good for the bank. As Alan commented, ‘That’s usually the case, do right by the employees, and it will be good for all.’ When Alan informed John that it would all go through he prefaced it by outlining his own priorities in life: God, family, people, community, work. John was hugely grateful, and as it turned out, his daughter’s situation improved dramatically.

A few months later, Alan tells me, ‘Last week my team did five deals. Five deals is outstanding by any measure. Outstanding.’ And the employee engagement numbers in the team of 45 that directly reports to him are soaring. The HR department can’t understand it. Alan tells them, ‘I just talk to people.’ They still don’t understand it.

It’s not surprising really. There’s an assumption in some companies that caring about your staff is a nice luxury if you can afford it, but not really essential. The only things that really count are professional competencies and drive. Increasingly, research is showing this to be false. Still, as ever, old attitudes die hard. Doing the best thing for a business, or indeed any organisation, ought to include ‘doing the loving thing’, the thing that humanises, the thing that honours the other person as created in the image of God, the thing that seeks the best for them in the context they’re in, tries to understand their talents, their hopes, their situation.

Paul’s prayer for the Philippian Christians sums up the approach: ‘I pray that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight’ (Philippians 1:9).

Yes, Alan has formidable international banking knowledge and outstanding problem-solving insight, but they only take you so far. It was Alan’s abounding love, his soul-deep, authentic care for his people, his deep desire to know what they were good at and what would help them be their best at this point in their lives, that shaped the knowledge he sought to acquire and the range of insight he brought to the challenges they were facing.
Maybe that’s why God has Alan there: to demonstrate that you really can bank on love.

Alan’s leadership reminds me of the way Boaz leads his team and protects Ruth in Ruth 2. She’s a newly arrived foreigner, a widow, and so poor that to feed herself and her mother-in-law she has to glean fallen grains of barley in a stranger’s field. Boaz, the wealthy owner, recognising that she’s so poor that she might not have anything to eat at lunch, provides for her immediate needs by ensuring she has access to water and by offering her roasted grain. He then proactively provides for her medium-term needs by encouraging her to glean in his fields until the end of the harvest season, and by creatively empowering his workers to leave whole stalks of grain on the ground so she could increase her personal harvest. Furthermore, recognising her vulnerability as a single woman in a corrupt society, he deliberately goes out of his way to protect her from sexual harassment, telling the young men not to touch her and alleviating any fears Ruth might have had by telling her that’s what he’s done. In addition, he both praises her character and prays for her:

‘May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ (Ruth 2:12)

Boaz doesn’t have to do any of these things. The only thing that the law requires is that he allows her to glean. But the law was not there to limit love but to inspire it and Boaz responds creatively to the needs of the person in front of him, not only physical but social, inviting her to sit with him and the team at lunchtime. Love abounds.

As it did with Alan. He didn’t have to go out of his way to develop a business solution that would also benefit John, but he did it.

These days Alan can see why God has him there. That doesn’t mean that his boss’ attitude to people has changed. It doesn’t mean that the overall culture in the bank has changed, even if the climate in his own team has. And it doesn’t mean that he will be there in a year’s time. Or that he wants to be there right now. Actually, he doesn’t. But it does mean that he’s confident that he’s in the right place for now, confident that he’s not wasting his time, confident that God is at work.

After all, take Alan out of the equation, and Keith gets fired, John gets more work to do at a time when he needs less, half the team leave, that department misses its targets, the young boss gets demoted…

Take you – the salt, the light – out of your frontline, your gym, your bus route… and maybe something good doesn’t happen, the light doesn’t shine, the salt doesn’t do its work…

 

***

I wonder what strikes you about Alan’s approach? What biblical connections do you see?

What are the challenges in the places you spend time during your week? How do you imagine Christ sees them?

‘I pray that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.’

PHILIPPIANS 1:9

 


 

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