William Wordsworth, a well-known 18th century English poet, wrote:
“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”
Wordsworth was making a salient point: Our past experiences shape our present reality, and how we steward today impacts our future. Before founding Simple Modern in 2015, I worked for a non-profit ministry for nine years, and that experience powerfully shaped my approach to business and culture.
Three lessons, in particular, stuck with me as I began my journey as an entrepreneur. Each of them directly impacts how I lead Simple Modern—both now and into the future.
Lesson 1: Creating A Culture Of Humility
Humility is one of Simple Modern’s core values, and it profoundly impacts our company’s culture and day-to-day operations. I would define humility as having a sober-minded view of self. It is not pretending that we aren’t any good in an area that we are truly gifted. Conversely, humility also is not having a puffed-up or overly elevated view of our importance or abilities. As a former leader of a ministry team, I experienced how critical it is to a team’s culture.
As with most non-profit organizations, our team was small but dedicated, usually consisting of 6-8 people at any given time. Everyone had to be willing to do the unglamorous day-to-day work needed to keep the ministry operating. No team member was above any task. Another area where humility was critical was in our self-awareness. Ministry is about helping other people to experience internal breakthroughs in how they view themselves and the world around them. Howard Hendricks once said, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” It is impossible to help others have a higher level of self-awareness unless you have personally done the hard work of personal excavation.
Each of us has areas of our character that we consistently struggle with throughout life. For me, my pride has been the most consistent thorn in my side. I have learned that, when left unchecked, it leads to me having an inflated view of self. Humility is the antidote to pride. It neutralizes the poisonous effects that pride can have on our relationships and career. When we check our ego at the door, we become better teammates and better leaders.
One of the most impactful decisions I have made in my life happened about halfway through my college career. It started when I realized that I was far more flawed than I had ever been willing to admit. Up until that point, when I received negative or even constructive feedback, I would immediately respond with defensiveness. In my mind, it was up to the person offering the feedback to prove that their observations were correct. This epiphany led to a small but significant change in mindset. From that point forward, when I received unflattering feedback, I assumed that it was true instead of having the default assumption that it was false. This simple decision has transformed my self-awareness and led to countless growth opportunities as I have learned more about how others experience me. The key was my willingness to lay down my pride in search of a more accurate view of myself.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the 2-3 best basketball players in the world. He is a two-time MVP and is now the reigning Finals MVP and leader of the world champion Milwaukee Bucks. Recently, a reporter asked how he dealt with his ego as he grew as a person and player. I thought his response was remarkable:
When we founded Simple Modern in 2015, we knew that humility needed to be a part of the foundation. Over the past six years, we have been fortunate to experience a lot of success. Our collective desire to prioritize humility has helped prevent competition, ego, entitlement, and pride from eroding our culture. Not only that, it has spurred tremendous internal growth for our team.
Lesson 2: It’s Not About The Profits.
The word non-profit means precisely what you would think. No profit. During my years in ministry, my team and I raised support to pay our salaries. All additional funds and resources went towards the organization’s administrative costs. In the non-profit world, the point of the money is to enable serving others. For this reason, in the ministry world, profit can seem like a four-letter word.
You can imagine the tension I felt when I first transitioned from ministry into the business world. In the business world, especially e-commerce, there is a bias toward numbers and profit. An organization’s success criteria usually revolve around what drives the most profit. I wrestled with this for several years before seeing how these seemingly contradictory ideas could work together.
Simple Modern’s culture is founded on the idea that generating profits makes generosity possible. As someone with non-profit and business experience, I now understand that profit is not necessarily bad. Profits can be redemptive and beneficial when used to care for and serve employees, partners and customers. For our company, this looks like giving generously to worthy non-profit causes, investing in our team members and their families, and offering premium quality at generous prices to our customers. In other words, in a healthy business, the profits make it possible to impact more lives positively.
Lesson 3: Explain The “Why”
In the non-profit world, you come to understand the need and importance of mission and vision. Mission and vision motivate people. In my non-profit leadership role, I wasn’t paying my team. We were all raising our salaries. To keep them invested in the ministry, I had to repeatedly articulate “why” we were doing what we were doing and coach and lead them using motivation.
Author Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start With Why. In his book, he explains the significance of starting with the question, “why,” as opposed to “what” or “who.” According to Sinek, explaining “why” we are doing what we are doing is critical. It unifies the team and creates a common reason for everyone to work together, leading to increased engagement and success.
This lesson translates to the business world. Whether it is sales or recruiting, leaders must get people to buy into the overarching mission and vision. When employees feel connected to the mission and vision of the company, they more deeply bond with their teammates, have greater job satisfaction and are ultimately more empowered to do their best work.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French writer and poet, captured the essence of this when he wrote:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Rather than telling people what to do, communicate mission and vision, and tell people why they are doing what they are doing. Teach them to yearn.
My perspective was irrevocably shaped by my years working in a non-profit context. That experience had a profound impact on how I view my life’s mission and the purpose of my career. Not surprisingly, the Simple Modern mission statement is straightforward:
We exist to give generously.
It is possible to fuse the most potent aspects of the non-profit and for-profit worlds to create thriving organizations. We all want our lives to be a part of impacting the world in a positive and redemptive way. When we lead with humility, generosity, and vision, it enlarges all our futures.