‘Team troubles’ were one of the top 4 reasons BAM mentors gave for practitioners giving up and going home. The ability to build effective teams and work through difficult team dynamics is therefore crucial for the sustainability of BAM companies. In this interview, we talk to Luke, a BAM business owner living in the Middle East, about his business story and what ingredients make for healthy business teams.
Luke, you have a company in the Middle East that offers corporate team building experiences. What lead you into that business?
My professional background is in engineering and engineering requires a high degree of collaboration. There is a strong need to work in effective teams. Then early on in my career, I worked on some projects in the Middle East that got me interested in the dynamics of business and recognising how companies create employment and other benefits for communities.
Over 20 years ago, we got involved in youth ministry with a mission organisation. As part of their training, this mission uses a very intensive week-long personal and team building exercise. Trainees are put under extreme pressure to see how they cope in a team situation. Our experience with that opened my eyes further to the need for healthy team dynamics. Mission workers spend months, maybe years, preparing to go overseas, but if their team falls apart, they may have to come home.
I realised I’d had years of training as an engineer and I didn’t just want to give all that away. I was learning lessons about effective teams myself and becoming motivated to help others be effective. Alongside that, I felt drawn to do business at a heart level. So I had a sense of calling to business, but it was also becoming a personal passion. I was praying and asking God, “What should I do, youth ministry with this mission organisation or business and engineering?” When God spoke he said, “It’s AND, not OR – do both.”
How did you start the company?
We formed the business in 2001, registered in our home country, and got a group of interested people together. We began leading training events, adventure-based team building courses. We were seven friends, all excited about the idea, but we had no business!
Looking back, we were relying on prayer and good intentions to launch the business – somehow, as if by magic! We’d forgotten a really important piece: marketing and generating sales. I think this is a common pitfall. So when our only two potential clients fell-through we ended up limping along for a couple of years
In 2004 we borrowed US$9000 and got more serious. We created a website, developed literature and got legal advice. We did have some corporate clients, but business was still slow and we often questioned whether this was the right thing to be doing.
Then in 2006, we landed a really big corporate client through another BAM company and out of that successfully ran a big corporate team building event in Central Asia. Once you have one big client that really helps others follow, so we picked up another major client in the Middle East and established a company team in the city there, as well as in our home nation.
What challenges has the company faced that have impacted you personally?
Two years ago, after me running the company largely from our home nation for 10 years, our family moved to another strategic location in the Middle East. Shortly after that oil prices collapsed and the industry we serve went into recession. Suddenly we lost our two major contracts and we had a lack of other business in the pipeline. In the last two years we’ve worked hard on developing new business, we’ve diversified and we’ve managed to win some crucial contracts just in time. Now things are a lot more stable and business is looking brighter.
I’ve learned that challenges often come from directions you weren’t expecting. And I’ve learned what the point of member care is for BAMers or mission workers! My wife is really involved in member care of mission teams, and I have always thought what she did was fantastic, but personally I didn’t fully grasp the point of member care. That was until we went through this crisis and I suddenly understood the need to be well supported.
What have been some major threats to the healthy functioning of your own business team?
We are in the team building business, so our relationships with each other are at the heart of the integrity of the business! We are selling good team work, so if we aren’t in a good place as team, we don’t have integrity.
I’ve seen threats to our team around two key areas: the first being the financial stability of the business, and the other being personal challenges.
Learning to do business well has been crucial, and there are no short-cuts there. We’ve needed investment and we’ve needed wisdom and experience on how to handle our finances. Do we have the cashflow we need? How do we prioritise spending? How do we grow the business? Related to that, what kind of investment do we need and how can we find it? These are the stresses placed on our team related to the survival of the business!
Then there are the stresses related to people and our own personal growth. When the company is struggling, and even when it isn’t, there is usually a spotlight on what different team members have or haven’t achieved. To what degree am I going to hang on to my own pride and let that be a blockage to the business growing? Or, am I going to be humble and see this as the Lord’s business?
It has sometimes been a challenge to know when to go with flow and when take a stand and say, “This is what God is called us to do, so let’s stick it out.” Things often don’t work out how you expect and you have to be able to let things go sometimes. That can be a challenge when your identity is caught up in the outcome and you have a strong expectation of how things are going to look for you.
All of those issues, financial and personal, put relationships under pressure. They introduce tension and strain communications. As soon as you are under financial pressure, you are under relational pressure. That pressure gives you the opportunity to build very strong relationships within the team. But at the same it provides a temptation to become isolated, to feel misunderstood or wronged.
Jo Plummer is the Co-Chair of the BAM Global Think Tank and co-editor the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission. She has been developing resources for BAM since 2001 and currently serves as Editor of the Business as Mission website.
With special thanks to Luke.
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