Tag Archive for McMaster

Yes, Relationships Are Important

February just seems to be a good month to talk about relationships. I’m sure it has something to do with Valentine’s Day, with it’s accompanying emphasis on flowers, chocolate, and Hallmark cards, and a focus that seems to primarily be on romantic relationships. The reality is, however, that relationships are a vital part of everything we do, whether that involves family, friends, or work. We operate in relationship with others, and more and more it seems that research and study are recognizing this.

Much of the “brain-based education” research in recent years has resulted in the realization of the importance of the teacher-student relationship in the shaping of children, and even, literally, in the shaping of their brains. The concept of social intelligence has pointed out the cellular biological connection and influence that happens in an interaction between people, underscoring the importance of being able to connect well with people. Leadership studies have developed theories that account for both task management and people management, and the most recent theories of leadership – related to authentic leadership – heavily emphasize the need to develop and maintain genuine relationships with people.

You probably realize that this simply makes sense. People matter, and relationships are important. Therefore, we need to intentionally foster relationships with people, and in a great variety of ways. We need to build relationships with people from whom we can learn, mentors who will help us to grow. We need to build relationships with people that have potential to grow, so that we can mentor and develop others. We need to build relationships with our coworkers and peers, our supervisors, and our subordinates, so that we can better function together within the organization. We need to be investing in the relationships we have with our family members – our spouses, our children, our parents (because, after all, your family is more important than your job). Everywhere that we connect with people, we need to be intentionally building relationships.

What is most important in all of these relationships, though, is that they be genuine. They cannot be based on ulterior, selfish motives that seek to take advantage of others for personal gain. If that’s the case, then it is no longer relationship-building, but manipulation, and manipulation will only cause damage and frustration and hurt to both you and them. We need to build relationships, but we need to be genuine about it, connecting with people and caring about people because they matter, and connecting in ways that are beneficial for them as much as for us.

Recently, my boss – the chairman of the board of directors – spoke with me about the need for me to take more opportunities to personally connect with our constituents. I had been guilty of hiding behind my introverted tendencies, and was letting others stand up front at events in the visible role. I was reminded and encouraged by him to put myself in front of people and make myself more accessible, because they needed to be able to feel connected with me, for the benefit and health of the organization. And he was right.

I immediately began putting myself on the agenda at the beginning of public events, even if only to stand in front and take a couple of minutes to welcome everyone. I also started standing at the main exit door after events to simply smile, greet, and thank people. In addition, I took a page from Verne Harnish’s “Scaling Up” and started building into my schedule regular interaction with customers, in the form of a planned personal interaction with two or three individual families a week. All of these things were specific steps to help me meet, connect with, and build relationships with people. I knew it was important to do, but I had allowed myself to let it slip as a priority, and so I needed the reminder to continue focusing on relationships.

Now, I’m reminding you. You also need to be connecting with people and building relationships. You probably have your own story that illustrates the importance of this (and feel free to share your story), but perhaps you too have let it slide. Get back out there, meet with people, invest in people, and put a priority on relationships. Relationship building and maintaining (in a genuine way) are integral and essential to your life – at home, at work, and in your community and social life – therefore you need to be intentional about doing it. Build relationships. It matters.


“Finding Purpose at the Intersection of Passion, Ability, and Opportunity,” by Jeff McMaster

Finding Purpose coverFinding Purpose at the Intersection of Passion, Ability, and Opportunity is a book I originally wrote almost ten years before it was published (I even went so far at that time as to apply for a copyright and submit the manuscript to a publisher). However, much like what happened with the rebuilding of the temple described in Ezra 4 and 5, God – in His divine sovereignty – saw fit to put a stop to the process until the time was right. It seems He still had more to teach me on the matter.

Now, I know that I will continue to learn and grow for the rest of my life, and I also know that “the more I know, the more I know I don’t know,” which means if I waited until I have full and perfect knowledge, this book would never have happened. And so eventually I reached a point in time when God prompted me to pick up where I left off and re-engage, and – with some revising and additions to the original – to publish.

In essence, this book addresses the question of “How do you know God’s purpose? How do you know what He wants you do?” When I look back over many of my experiences, it is clear that God was working out His purpose in my life. So then, as I have analyzed the circumstances and events that have taken place, I have focused in on three common factors that keep appearing in these situations that have helped me to know His purpose. These three factors are:

1)    Passion – the things that I strongly desire, that I want to pursue,

2)    Ability – the things that I have the talent to do, and

3)    Opportunity – circumstances that occur in my life.

It is these three lines in our lives – passion, ability, and opportunity – that, when they intersect, form the point where we find the greatest fulfillment and contentment, with a certainty that we are where we should be. Picture a geometric graph, with three separate lines, one representing our passion to do or be something, one representing our talents and abilities, and one representing the opportunities that appear before us. At some place on this graph these three lines intersect at one specific point. This is the place where we find that we are doing something that brings us joy and that matches our talents well.

These concepts first came together in my mind while facilitating a student retreat quite a few years ago, and over the time since, I have seen them applied in my life many times and in many ways. God has placed opportunities in front of me that matched my passion and abilities in ways that have allowed me to be His instrument while finding fulfillment in my work. My prayer for you would be that you would identify these three factors in your life and find your purpose.

To order a copy of my book, Finding Purpose at the Intersection of Passion, Ability, and Opportunity, on Amazon, click here.

“Quotable,” on self-assessment

It’s a new year, a natural time for assessing yourself – reflecting on your past experience, identifying your current abilities and passions, and deciding on your direction for the next year.  So do it, do it purposefully, and do it to grow.

It’s Time for a Self-Assessment

When I started my graduate school program, I first had to attend an orientation program with the other students who had been accepted as part of that year’s cohort. During those two weeks, we read books, listened to lectures, interacted in discussions and activities, and wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Several of the writing assignments were specifically aimed at helping us to formulate our own personal IDP (Individual Development Plan) for the program, or, what we intended to accomplish and get out of our graduate school experience. One assignment in particular required us to take a variety of personality and ability inventories, to outline our life experiences, and to think through the things that most drew our interest and brought joy and fulfillment, in order to identify our passion and calling.

It was this exercise that really helped my to clarify what it was that my experiences, abilities, and passions had prepared me to do, and why those things were driving me. Through this process of reflection and writing, I realized what I loved doing and why I loved doing it, and how I was making a difference, and it confirmed and affirmed in me what I was doing with my life. (For me personally, it was also an affirmation of how God had gifted and prepared me, and what He had called me to do for His Kingdom.) It was a very valuable thought process, one that became a touch point in later years for keeping myself in the place where I best fit.

In the years since, I have incorporated a variety of other tools and activities to help me refine my own skill set and passions, and to help me continually improve at what I do. One of those activities is a yearly practice, in December, of listing my major goals for the coming year, and maintaining a list of 5-year goals. The categories that work for me include personal/family goals, spiritual goals, financial goals, intellectual goals, and physical goals. This annual practice is one of the things that helps me regularly self-assess, thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing, and what I need to do in the near future in order to grow.

It’s now that time of the year when many of us do some self-assessment. We remember what we did (and didn’t) accomplish in the last year. We determine what we might want to accomplish in this next year. We try to make a fresh start. We make New Year’s resolutions.

So, as you make your resolutions this year, I would encourage you to be very intentional about this process. Identify your own specific interests, abilities and opportunities. List your own one-year and five-year goals (and put them in a place where you can refer to them regularly). Take advantage of self-assessment tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Temperament Analysis; the One Page Personal Plan (OPPP) from Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up, on the Rockefeller Habits, which incorporates the 5F’s (Family, Faith, Friends, Fitness, Finance); or use a tool that works for you. Regardless of what you use, be purposeful about assessing yourself – reflect on your past experience, identify your current abilities and passions, and decide on your direction for the next year.

It’s a new year, a natural time for this kind of review. Do it, do it purposefully, and do it to grow. Happy New Year!

How do you know when to make an exception?


Groucho Marx famously said, “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” We laugh when we hear it, and we probably also have a name (or a face) that pops into our heads, but the truth is, we are often looking to either make an exception or to be one. And if we are not, someone else is probably asking us to make an exception for him. It seems that people (we) always want an exception; which makes me think of one of my favorite lines from the movie, “The Incredibles,” when one of the characters – Dash – in response to the comment from his mother that “everyone’s special,” says, “which is another way of saying no one is.” This also true for exceptions – if you always make an exception, it’s no longer an exception.

The question, then, that follows is, how do you know when to make an exception? Well, it begins by first knowing the norm.   That seems to be common sense – you can’t make an exception to the rule if you don’t first know what the rule is – but it also seems to be something that people forget to do. If you don’t know the standard, the normal expectations and boundaries, then there is no way you can determine where the exception should be granted. This therefore first requires clear standards of normal behavior and process that have been established and communicated. That’s why Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” You see, it as only after you are familiar and confident with the application of norms that you can begin to determine when and how to make exceptions.

I had the opportunity to learn when and how to make an exception early in my first experience as a headmaster, when I was faced with an exception dilemma. I had been asked to make an exception on something, and I was struggling with whether or not it was the right thing to do. It seemed like I could see both potential positive and potential negative impacts of either decision, and I just wasn’t sure what to do. So, I picked up the phone. I called Larry, who had been a Christian school administrator for many years and had been influential in my life, to seek his counsel. After explaining my situation and the internal turmoil it was causing, he shared some wisdom with me that, since that day, has set my parameters for deciding on exceptions.

Larry explained to me that there were two guiding principles that he used, two questions that he asked, to determine whether or not he should make an exception:

  1. Is it an exception I could make for anyone else?
  2. Is there a legitimate reason I could make an exception for this person and not for anyone else?

The answers to these simple questions – either yes or no – he said made the decision a clear and justifiable one. If he could clearly justify that it was an exception he would be willing and able make for others in a similar circumstance, then it was an exception he could make in this instance as well. In this way, it really became a standard exception, a precedent or guideline that he could use to provide a fair exception in all similar situations. And if he could clearly justify – in a way that could be documented in writing and presented to others – that it was an unusual situation that warranted an exception for this person or this circumstance only, then it was a rare exception that he could make in good conscience. The key to this one, he said, was that you could look someone else in the eye and justify with integrity and credibility why only the other person or situation qualified for an exception. If he couldn’t do that, then he knew it was not an exception he could make; put another way – if he had to hide it or cover it up, it was not an exception that should be made.

These guidelines have become my standard response. In any organization, when faced with having to determine whether or not to make an exception, I first make sure I know what the standard policies, procedures, and expectations are. Then I find out if there have been any precedents that have set the guidelines for standard exceptions. Finally, I apply the two questions I learned from Larry. Applying these guidelines has taken much of the struggle out of these decisions, enabling me to manage exceptions in a fair and justifiable way, while still maintaining consistency.   I still get asked (more often than I would like), but at least now I have a helpful process for determining a good answer.

When A Plan Comes Together

I was fairly young and had just become the headmaster of a small Christian school. I knew that the school had been operating with an interim headmaster, that enrollment had drastically declined over the previous couple of years, that they had recently gone through a major shift in identity, that resources were very limited, and that a desired plan for building a new school facility appeared to be stalling out. I felt the emotional mix of excitement about the possibilities and anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and in over my head, but I also knew that God had clearly and specifically directed in my life to put me in this position. I had previous administrative experience, but not as a head of school, and I had had no real training on strategic planning. I simply knew that I had a major project ahead of me, and so I rolled up my sleeves and began to assemble a plan of action.  

I wish I could say that I took time to listen to people as I prepared my plan, but I didn’t (this was one of the other major lessons I learned in the process). I did, however, begin an intentional process of trying to determine the current status – resources, people, programs, obstacles, etc. – and identify direction and goals, followed by prioritizing those goals and deciding what steps would need to be taken to achieve them. My simple process involved writing these things (both the current status items, and the goals and needs) on individual, notebook sized sheets of Post It notes, and placing them on a large empty wall. When they were all up on the wall, I stepped back and began to look at them, individually and together, and then began to sort them into categories and themes and to look for connections, arranging them by groups, priority, and sequential order of process. When I was all done, I had my first official strategic plan.

Strategic planning could be defined as the process of creating and initiating a specific plan to address a determined and identifiable goal need, and my own process in that school was a very crude (although efficient and effective for me at that time and place in my leadership development) form of strategic planning. In the years since, I have learned from experience, education, and training much more about effective – and ineffective – strategic planning (and about the importance of listening to people and giving them a voice in the process). Therefore, even though I helped to facilitate excellent change and growth (with credit actually going to God much more than me; I was only the instrument He chose to use) I now know a number things I would have done differently, or additionally, in my first attempt at strategic planning.

There is an experience that takes place in the book of Ezra, in chapters 9 and 10, that provides a great source of learning for us on this topic. Ezra had already successfully led a group of leaders back to Jerusalem from their place of captivity. The physical temple had already been reconstructed, and now Ezra had returned to facilitate the restoration of the spiritual temple – the hearts of the people. After he arrived in Jerusalem, he took the time to assess the situation and determine the issues (in this circumstance, they were the issues of unfaithfulness and unholiness), and prepared a strategic plan to address the issues and restore the people and the nation before God.

This is the process we see when we focus in on Ezra 10:6-17. When we analyze the description of this event that takes place in these verses, breaking it down into its sequential steps, what we see illustrated is an eight-step process of strategic planning. We find a description of the process, from inception to implementation, of a specific and measurable plan to address the issue that they faced. In this process, Ezra led the way by his example and his intentional methods, showing us how we too can undertake the task of strategic planning for our ministries and organizations.

1. Preparation: Step one in the process is preparation, which Ezra models in verse 6, where we learned that he “ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity.” As a leader, you need to enter the process ready, and with the right attitude, taking ownership. Spend some time in reflection and analysis, resolving yourself for the task ahead and building your own enthusiasm and commitment. And as Ezra demonstrated, this includes your spiritual preparation, humbling yourself before God, ensuring that your own heart is clean and submitted to him.

2. People: Step two is to gather the right people together, and in verses 7 through 9, there is an important guideline that we can glean about gathering people. The guideline centers around identifying who should be part of that process, and these verses reveal that they should include (a) all those who will be affected (“ all the descendants of the captivity”), (b) those who will help make the process happen (“the leaders and elders”), and (c) representative leadership from among the followers (“ all the men of Judah and Benjamin”). These three categories are the same three that we need to include in our own process of gathering the right people. In addition, we can see illustrated the value of providing the appropriate motivation to get the right people to participate (“ whoever would not come with three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly”). Notice that Ezra’s method of motivation was appropriate for the time, the culture, and the circumstances; we would not use the same method in our time and place, but the lesson of providing motivation is just as valuable.

3. Need: Step three is to identify the issue or need that must be addressed, and for Ezra, that issue was sin that needed to be resolved, as we see in verse 10. He stood up in front of the people and stated simply and clearly, “You have transgressed,” and then proceeded to tell them in what way they had transgressed. Likewise, as leaders, it falls on us to provide a succinct and understandable statement of the issue, problem, or need that must be addressed, attacked, or resolved. Before you can prepare a plan, you must be able to articulate what it is that needs to happen, or where it is that you need to go, based on where you currently are and what you are currently doing. Identify the issue and state it clearly, and don’t make it complicated.

4. Goal: Step four is to identify the goal or goals that are to be achieved. This implies identifying the means and steps of correcting or resolving the need that has been identified. More specifically, it means determining what will need to be accomplished that, when done, will fulfill the plan. For Ezra, this was communicated immediately following his expression of the need, when in verse 11 he stated, “Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.” He identified for the people the goals or steps that would need to be accomplished in order to meet the need (confess, obey, and separate), and these goals which were necessary for the restoration of the people were specific and achievable. In the same way, you need to follow your identification of the need with the establishment and communication of how that need must be met. You have given the vision and direction, now give the steps it will take to get there.

5. Listen: Step five is to listen, giving people a voice in the process. People need to be given the opportunity to to respond to the information that they are hearing, which we can see happened in verses 12 and 13. After Ezra spoke, the people responded and said, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do,” indicating that they had heard and had bought into Ezra’s vision. However, their next word was “But . . .,” and they proceeded to give input into the issues and factors that would impact the outcome. The key here is that Ezra let them speak, and he listened to what they said. Likewise, we need to let people have voice, especially those people who may be impacted or affected and those people who have “ground floor knowledge.” Then, listen to what they say, and let them know that they have been heard.

6. Process: Step six is to establish a process for implementing the plan, and there are four pieces to the process that we can infer from verses 13 and 14, which state, “Let the leaders of our entire assembly stand; and let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of their cities, until the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter.” In this establishment of the process that the Israelites chose to implement, we can draw out these implications: (a) it is important to determine the steps in the process, from start to finish; (b) it is necessary to select leaders to oversee the process of carrying out the plan, and this also helps to provide accountability; (c) a calendar, schedule, or timeline needs to be created; and (d) when all is said and done, it needs to be more than just talk, and so the process has to be initiated.

7. Obstacles: Step seven is to identify and prepare for obstacles and opposition. Ezra’s experience illustrates this in two places – in verse 13, when the people said, “there are many people; it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside. Nor is this the work of one or two days, for there are many of us who have transgressed in this matter,” and in verse 15, when we learn that “Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite gave them support.” The first instance illustrated the importance of seeing the obstacles early that will hinder the plan, and the second instance shows us that we can expect both opposition and support, yet neither one needs to be the primary factor for determining direction. There will be obstacles, there will be opposition, there will be support, and you need to develop the ability to “foresee,” learning to identify where these might or will come from so that they can be addressed or responded to.

8. Implement: Step 8 is the final step, the one of implementation. It is the action of implementing the plan and the process, which we can see that the Israelites did in verse 16, which says, “Then the descendants of the captivity did so.” Verse 17 also points out that not only did they start, but they continued until the goals were reached, when we read, “By the first day of the first month they finished.” The lesson for us is a reminder that words and ideas have little value if they are never put into action. Once we have the plan prepared and communicated, put it into action, keeping the end in focus, and identifying when the goals have been reached.

I am sure that there are other tools, strategies, and principles for strategic planning that can help you in your effectiveness as a leader, but these eight that are illustrated through Ezra’s experience provide some basic steps that we can use. Along the way, one of the tasks of a leader is to periodically assess what is happening, in order to confirm that the process is working (so that adjustments can be made, if needed) and to ensure that the goals are being reached. And then, when you arrive at the end, take time to celebrate!