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.
Roy Peterson never intended to become the president of Wycliffe Bible Translators or the American Bible Society. In fact, he never intended to be president of anything.
After a successful career in business management, Roy and his wife Rita moved to South America in the early 80s to serve with Wycliffe, the world-renowned Bible translators. They’d been serving on teams in Ecuador and Guatemala for almost a decade when, out of the blue, the board of Wycliffe U.S.A. contacted Roy and asked if he would allow his name to be put forward to serve as president of the organization.
“That was so unexpected,” said Roy. “We thought, ‘There’s no way it’s going to be us.’” But the Petersons were wrong. Out of dozens of candidates amongst 4,000 staff members, Roy was elected president of Wycliffe.
Roy served a total of 28 years at Wycliffe, including as CEO of Wycliffe Affiliate, The Seed Company, which he led for 11 years. In fact, he helped lead the meteoric rise of the $2M company to the preeminent $26M Bible translation agency that it is today.
Eventually, Roy was tapped to become the CEO of the American Bible Society, where he oversaw the move of the organization’s 200th anniversary and the headquarters’ move from New York to Philadelphia. After serving six years at ABS, Roy retired to Orlando and now serves as a CEO Coach with DickersonBakker Executive Search.
As a nonprofit executive search firm, it helps to have someone with such a wide range of leadership experience as Roy. His extensive experience and history of overcoming organizational challenges has equipped him to help nonprofit executives excel with a powerful vision, growing confidence, and transformational ministry impact.
In a recent interview, we asked Roy to discuss the challenges he’s had to overcome in leadership, the skills every leader and team member needs, and the practices that helped him become a leader who lasts.
What were the disciplines or practices that helped you thrive as a leader in the long run?
Great question. I think the genesis of each one of my assignments was a real genuine walk with the Lord and a sense of calling. I didn’t just go and do things. This is not what the marketplace would call “career path or advancement.”
I never set out to be the president of anything. In fact, I find it ironic that many young people today want to be the CEO of something. They come up to me and ask, “How can I get to be the CEO of something?”
I often surprise them saying, “Well, you’re going the wrong direction just asking for it.” The role of CEO is a path of suffering. You’re probably pursuing it for the wrong reasons if you want it. I think having a heart of a servant and then having a calling are the foundational steps.
What were some specific challenges you faced in your leadership roles and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges of a big, diverse organization is creating a sense of unity on the team around the initiative or vision that you’re trying to implement.
At ABS, the process of moving the headquarters from New York to Philadelphia was incredibly challenging. We had to vet eight cities and get the board to agree on one city. I was actually on the wrong end of the decision. I was advocating that ABS move out of the northeast to a city with more churches, lower cost of living and a tax-friendly culture. But the board overrode my proposal and said, “No, that’s too drastic of a move.”
Through the process, we connected with the history of Philadelphia. And even though it wasn’t tax friendly, cost-of-living friendly, or rich with churches, there were some strategic reasons why it made sense. The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center would never have been possible if we’d moved to Atlanta, Orlando or Dallas. It fits perfectly in Philadelphia.
I came to the realization that the vision I was casting for ABS was grounded more in my experience and worldview. I had a decision at that point early in my tenure: I could resign and say to the board, “We’re out of sync with each other. You guys are crazy.” Or I could say, “You know what? I’m going to trust and accept their guidance. And I’m going to build the vision that they’re casting.” I chose that option. It took some humility, but it worked well.
How can nonprofit leaders seek support and guidance in their role?
I think having a peer group is one way to seek guidance. I’ve benefited all through the decades from being in a peer group—a cohort where you get insight, support, and encouragement. I also got help from my board. I almost always had a board chairman or member who was more experienced and very helpful in mentoring me. So I was blessed with board members who were really positive influences on my life.
And then lastly, I think it’s helpful to find an executive coach (which is what I do now). If you don’t have a peer group or board members, find a business coach that you have chemistry with. Someone who it’s safe to process your challenges, ideas, vision, and things you’re grappling with. And so I would shamelessly promote my coaching services.
What kinds of skills were required of you in your leadership roles that you hadn’t used before?
It’s interesting—in organizational work, you often get promoted because you perform well. And the individual performer actually has a propensity to keep working that way, as an individual.
In leadership, the tension is not to perform well individually but as a team. So team management and cohesiveness is a really critical skill set. If you’re trying to be a leader who lasts, you have to have the ability to truly delegate. No leader today has all the skills needed to lead a large or even a small nonprofit. When you think about all the different areas of expertise—fundraising, finance, legal, HR, communication, public relations—no CEO has all that. CEOs need to surround themselves with great people with these really honed disciplines.
What wisdom or advice would you give to nonprofit leaders who are struggling to manage team dynamics?
There are well-researched best practices in change initiatives, and there’s great literature out there on building cohesiveness on a team. Every leader today needs to be schooled in those best practices.
If your organization isn’t constantly adapting and changing, it’s going to be irrelevant. If you’re going to lead today, learn those change management best practices and begin practicing those with your team. Also, you have to move at the speed of people. You might be able to move a hundred miles an hour, but if your team isn’t with you, who are you leading? You’re just out there by yourself.
You have to bring people with you or you’re leading no one. And bringing people with you is a process. It’s communication. It’s an inclusive, participatory process of sharing your ideas, getting people to shape them, getting buy-in, and then moving forward together. That’s real leadership.
What are the three most important leadership qualities you look for in a team member?
The first would be spiritual vibrancy—real evidence of a sense of calling and a walk with the Lord. Once you get the power, authority, finances, and opportunities that come with leadership positions, if you don’t have the moral integrity and character, you won’t last. We see that in the fall of high-level pastors and leaders all the time. So that’s a huge number one.
The second is emotional intelligence—the ability to work with people. Having the humility to work with others in a collaborative way that’s not about them. If they have to be the center of the story, they’re not on my team. They’re not going to be on anybody’s team, actually.
Thirdly, I’d like to see demonstrated excellence in their domain. I’m not a great believer in hoping somebody is going to show up and all of a sudden have an ability to do something they’ve never done before. I’ve actually tried it—it’s not a great strategy. With the importance of these positions and the urgency of time, I think it behooves us to hire people who have a track record of success in their field.
While these are my personal beliefs, they closely align with DickersonBakker Executive Search’s Three Elements of Fit*. As a CEO coach, and as a consultant for DickersonBakker, I find these are essential to the growth and excellence of a team member. I am honored to point you to our services.
What can organizations and nonprofits do to not only keep their top talent but help them succeed in their roles?
Yeah, that’s an important question. Retention of great people is a competitive advantage today. To run a successful nonprofit, you really need marketplace leaders in their domains. You really should be shooting for high-quality, high-caliber talent for the positions.
And nonprofits can, at times, take people for granted. Sometimes we think, “Well, God called them, and they’ll be happy to serve. So we don’t need to do anything to cultivate and serve them.” I think there’s some wrong assumptions there. I think we have to individually develop each one of those leaders so that they’re growing, thriving, and finding joy in using their gifts.
We want them to feel like they’re being good stewards of what God’s given them because the organization is allowing them to use those gifts and make a significant contribution. We want them to know there’s investment in their ongoing growth. That the CEO cares about how they’re experiencing his or her leadership.
So I think we have to be really intentional with our top leaders and care for them so that they want to stay. That includes a really competitive, market-rate salary. In the nonprofit world, we have to pay people if we want to keep them. I don’t think we should force them to take a vow of poverty to be involved in a nonprofit.
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 say prioritize and invest in your own personal walk with the Lord, in your own health and wellbeing. As a leader, you have to live from the core of who you are. You have to live from who you are. And if who you are isn’t healthy, you’re not going to have a healthy team or a healthy organization. Leaders need to live from a place of integrity with God and with themselves.
DickersonBakker Executive Search is committed to finding leaders, like Roy, who thrive in their position over many years. In fact, we’re so committed to recruiting leaders who last that we have a Two-Year Placement Guarantee, which you can learn about here. To learn more about our Executive Coaching Services, visit nonprofit-executive-search.com/contact-us.
* The Three Elements of Fit: (1) Professional Acumen (2) Mission Match (3) Cultural Alignment. Click here to learn more about DickersonBakker’s transformational approach to executive search.