Leaders That Last is a series featuring interviews with seasoned nonprofit leaders on the practices and principles that helped them excel and maintain longevity in their roles.

Andrew Scott has been a leader virtually all of his life.

At the age of 19, he joined a missions agency called Operation Mobilization (OM) and worked aboard one of its ministry ships, MV Doulos, for two years. Andrew’s life and worldview was fundamentally changed by the travel, experiences, and training he received as a crew member.

Upon returning home to Northern Ireland, he completed his studies at Belfast Bible College and then became an associate pastor in one of Ireland’s largest Baptist churches. Andrew and his young family later returned to OM and served on the Doulos for another five years, where he directed care and development for the international crew.

In 2002, Andrew moved to the United States to lead recruitment at Operation Mobilization USA, with a special focus on college students. In 2010, became President and CEO of OM USA. Andrew also authored the highly acclaimed book Scatter: Go Therefore and Take Your Job with You and is a popular speaker.

In a recent interview, we asked Andrew to discuss the challenges he’s had to overcome in leadership, how leaders can build a healthy culture, the skills he’s had to grow in, and the disciplines that have helped him become a leader that lasts. As a nonprofit executive search firm, we couldn’t be more excited to learn from Andrew’s extensive leadership experience.

What are the disciplines or practices that have helped you thrive as a leader over the long haul?

One of the first things that comes to mind is to find a mentor that you trust and can look up to. In fact, the primary reason I chose to come to the U.S. with OM was because the CEO here invited me to come and agreed to be my mentor.

I had no idea what the job was going to look like when I took it. Mentorship is critical. I need people around me who can continue to shape and challenge my thinking.

The other discipline is constant curiosity, which drives me to read quite a bit and listen to podcasts. They’re focused—on leadership, theology, or current thoughts. Being constantly curious is something that has helped me stay fresh and constantly push myself beyond where I’ve been.

The third discipline is balance, life balance. The guy who mentored me, Rick Hicks, taught me this: work hard, play hard. I make sure I have time with my family, time for my hobbies, and good vacation time throughout the year. That’s helped me stay fresh as well. I learned to switch off. I’m a huge believer in hobbies. I love playing soccer. I show and breed dogs. I love to scuba dive. Things that get me completely out of my world that I’m in day to day.

What are some of the specific challenges you’ve faced in your role and how did you overcome them?

The first challenge, and maybe it was an internal one more than anything, was, “Oh boy, what do I do next?” I was still quite young when I became president and CEO of OM. I believe that when a new leader comes in, God is wanting to do something fresh and new through that leader. Not because what has been done is bad, wrong, or stale. That’s just part of it.

Early on, the challenge was to take bigger leaps in shaping the culture and the direction I believed it needed to go. Now, it wasn’t an unhealthy culture, but it needed to change quite dramatically and rapidly. We went about that and probably failed more than we succeeded in those early years. It took us a while to get the momentum we needed.

A second challenge was seeking to understand the role of a missions agency in today’s world. Over the past ten years, we’ve been seeking to reframe missions for a generation. We’ve restructured our organization, reframed our story, and developed a new posture towards those we serve. That’s been a challenge, both doing the work and bringing the whole team along. But, I think we’ve made good progress in that space.

What kinds of skills were required of you in your leadership role that you hadn’t used before?

One skill was moving from leading a singular function to leading a comprehensive strategy that spans multiple functions or departments. As a senior vice president, I led a department. Now, I oversee multiple departments and we’re all supposed to be pulling together in the same direction. That definitely took time to adjust to.

Another skill was seeing part of my role as CEO as being the Chief Culture Officer. To recognize that the culture of the organization was going to be influenced greatly by the direction I was taking, by how I did things, what I said, etc. The culture was going to be formed no matter what I did, but was I going to choose to shape it? I think learning how to do that is incredibly complex. It was a huge learning curve.

How can leaders build a healthy culture in their organization or change an existing one?

I’m no expert in this, but let me just share what we did. We put together a group from different levels of the organization that ended up meeting every other week for years. The whole team went through exercises to help us determine what we wanted the culture to become. Of course, it was based on our strategic plan and vision for the next five to ten years.

We came up with one hundred and fifty-seven statements of what we thought the culture should look like, and we distilled it down to nine maxims. They weren’t core values. They were just statements. Then, over the next five years, we taught on them and did exercises around them. Every time I spoke, I mentioned one or two of them and gave examples.

We articulated the culture we wanted to embrace and become. Then, we taught towards it. Every event we did, we tried to shape it around those maxims. We measured against it, encouraged people when we saw it happening, discouraged it when the anti-value happened. We stumbled around in the first years, but we got better and better at it. It took time.

Honestly—and I think as Christian nonprofits, we’re not very good at this—we also had to become comfortable with allowing and even encouraging people to leave who didn’t want to go in the new direction we were going. Some people opted out while we were shaping. Sometimes in our organizations, there’s a scarcity mentality. We tried our best to keep them, but we recognized when they were not coming with us.

We had to be okay with them leaving. Then some we had to encourage to leave. It wasn’t so much that they were getting fired but that they couldn’t fit with the culture and where we were going. They were great people, but we had to because they were regularly going against what we were trying to do.

It was one of the weaknesses we had to deal with and strengthen—the skill around letting people leave and asking people to leave. If you took a snapshot of our organization today versus six or seven years ago, you’d probably see 80 percent difference. I think you have to be okay with that.

What are the three most important leadership qualities you look for in a team member?

There are a few givens I’m not even going to touch on, like character. Having solid character is the price of entry. But I really believe you have to have the competency to do the job. I will take it even broader than that: are they the right S.H.A.P.E. for what we’re trying to do? I use the acronym in my book: spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experience.

Do they fit the role and do they bring the competencies with them into that role? I think in our previous culture, we were just happy to find somebody who’s available to do it. They didn’t necessarily have the S.H.A.P.E. or the competencies to do it.

I believe deeply that God has uniquely shaped individuals with certain skills, abilities, and passions. I want to find those people to do the jobs we have, because when somebody is doing something they’re good at and passionate about, they will go farther faster—and so will the organization.

I think about cultural fit as well. We’re not even hiring to fit our current culture. We’re trying to hire people who will take us to the culture we want to become. They can’t be too far ahead or else we will frustrate the life out of them, but they’re ahead of us.

The third trait is being curious. I truly believe this is one of the traits missing so often in leaders. I get dismayed often when talking to people, how few questions people ask today. If we’re not constantly curious in today’s world, we will fall behind and become irrelevant. I’m looking, especially in leadership roles, for curious people.

What can organizations and nonprofits do to not only keep their top talent but help them succeed in their role?

We’ve been on a journey with this one. I think giving this younger generation a voice, making sure their input is encouraged and received is critical. Keeping them constantly connected to the vision and purpose of your organization and never letting them lose sight of that. It’s critical for all people, but I think it’s even more important for the younger generation coming through.

Empowering them is important too. It’s not that they don’t want any boundaries, but if there’s too much micromanagement, they will leave quickly. I think constant encouragement is necessary as well. Celebrating wins is something we’ve had to learn how to do. How do we celebrate success? And even celebrate the failures, so that people—not that we want to fail all the time—understand that it’s okay to fail as long as we learn from it and move forward.

What’s one piece of wisdom, advice, challenge, or encouragement you would give to nonprofit leaders who are seeking to be faithful and fruitful in their work?

I would reiterate something I said earlier, partly because I’ve learned the benefit of it myself, and partly because I am constantly amazed at how little of it I see out there. And that is as a leader, be curious. Another way to say it is, be a learner. Pay attention to the world around you because our world is changing fast—faster than it’s ever changed before. If we’re not paying attention, we will become irrelevant very quickly, if not extinct.

A scripture verse would be the men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what Israel had to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). We need to be people who are asking lots of questions, constantly being curious as to what’s going on around us.

Every time we meet with someone, we should be fighting for the first half of the conversation to be the one asking the questions and trying to learn from the people we rub shoulders with. What are you seeing in the world? What are you learning? What are you experiencing?

We as leaders need to be more curious than we are. And if we are, I think we can lead our organizations better and into a much more impactful place.

At DickersonBakker Executive Search, we’re committed to finding leaders, like Andrew, who thrive in their position over many years. To read more Leaders That Last profiles and learn more about our guaranteed services, visit our website. To learn more about our Executive Coaching Services, visit our contact page.