An inspiring story of one CEO's big career move
- Posted on Feb 9, 2010
When the phone rang in my office that morning, I had no idea how it would change my life.
I assumed it was a business call. In some sense it was. The caller was Bill Bryce, an old friend from church. “Hi, Rich,” Bill said. There was something funny in his voice.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” he replied. He paused. “It’s just that our president’s leaving World Vision.” Bill had moved away several years earlier to take a job raising money for World Vision, an international humanitarian organization. I was one of his first donors, but I still didn’t know a whole lot about the organization.
Bill paused again. And then our phone call turned very weird. “Actually, that’s why I’m calling,” Bill continued. “I’ve been praying, Rich. And, um, the thing is, God told me you’re going to be the next president of World Vision.”
For a moment I was speechless. My eyes darted around my office. I was CEO of Lenox, one of the world’s largest makers of fine china. I sat behind an imposing cherry wood desk at our headquarters near Princeton, New Jersey, surrounded by oil paintings and cabinets lined with elegant plates and teacups. A fountain splashed in a pond outside. A door led to my private bathroom. “You must be joking,” I said to Bill.
Bill insisted he wasn’t. “I know it sounds crazy,” he said, “but I’m certain God spoke to me.” He told me where to send my résumé.
“Bill!” I finally barked. “I’m not sending my résumé anywhere. I like my job. I don’t know anything about international—whatever it is World Vision does. I’m not qualified, I’m not interested and I’m not available.”
Bill was silent a moment. “Rich, you’re not listening to God’s plan.”
Huh? That was almost rude! A few awkward moments later we hung up.
Not listening to God’s plan! I’d been listening for 25 years, ever since that day in business school when I fell to the floor and cried out, “My Lord and my God!” I’d been a hard-headed atheist before then.
Coming from a dysfunctional family, I’d been determined to get a business degree, become a CEO and get rich. My girlfriend Reneé, a committed Christian, broke up with me when I told her I’d never follow her in faith. Then I started reading the Bible and other books on religion and philosophy.
Gradually I became convinced Jesus Christ really was God’s son, and one day I committed my life to following him wherever he might lead. Everything afterward flowed from that decision. Reneé and I married and had five wonderful kids.
I climbed the corporate ladder, each rung an affirmation from God. We attended church regularly. Tithed. Participated in Bible studies. Supported missions.
The fruits of listening to God’s plan were all around me. My job at Lenox. The private school where we sent the kids. Our 10-bedroom, 200-year-old farmhouse in Pennsylvania. My company Jaguar. Just recently I’d told Reneé we could afford to retire in less than a decade. How could I listen any more diligently?
Bill called periodically to update me on the World Vision search process. A colleague at Lenox even mentioned seeing an ad for the job in the Wall Street Journal. I shrugged it all off. Eventually, World Vision would find a president and the issue would go away.
One day my assistant buzzed to say a job recruiter was on the phone. Absently I told her to put him through. “Hello, Rich, I’m Rob Stevenson, a recruiter for World Vision. They’re looking for a new president. Do you have a few minutes?”
A chill ran down my spine. “Did Bill Bryce put you up to this?”
“Bill who? No, I got your name from a list of World Vision donors.”
I regained a bit of composure. The recruiter asked if I knew anyone who might be a good fit for the job. Relieved, I said, “You’d have to be part CEO, part Mother Teresa, part Indiana Jones. I don’t know anyone like that. Sorry.”
“What about you? You interested?”
“Me? Hey, I run a luxury goods company. I don’t know anything about international relief and development.”
Rob persisted. “You’re not going to believe this, but while we’ve been talking I’ve sensed the Holy Spirit telling me we ought to meet. I’ve talked to two hundred people so far. You’re the first I’ve had this feeling about.”
Whoa. I felt a stir of panic. I knew World Vision was a Christian organization. That was one of the reasons I gave them money. But this was unbelievable. “We don’t need to meet,” I said.
Rob paused. “Let me ask you a different question. Are you willing to be open to God’s will for your life?”
I practically dropped the phone. This was becoming a dangerous conversation. “Of course I want to be open to God’s will,” I stammered. “But I’m pretty sure this isn’t it—”
“Let’s find out,” Rob interrupted. “Have dinner with me.”
That night I told Reneé about the latest encounter with World Vision. She said, “You never know what God might have in store. We need to be open to his leading.”
I cringed. It was never a good sign when Reneé and I disagreed. Since our first impassioned discussions about faith all those years ago, she’d been setting the spiritual bar for our family.
There had to be a benign explanation for all these signs pointing to World Vision. I hadn’t gone to business school to run a nonprofit! Obviously Reneé wasn’t thinking about paying for the kids’ college.
Rob must have enjoyed our dinner. To my chagrin I found myself on a shortlist for the World Vision job. I was interviewed along with three other finalists. I did everything I could to explain to the search committee why I was a terrible fit. Rob called the next day. “Congratulations! You got the job!”
Flabbergasted, I told him I wanted to fly with Reneé to Seattle to visit World Vision’s headquarters. “I’m not committing yet. I need to find out more. I need time to think!”
Rob arranged the trip and I spent the days leading up to it in agony. How had I gotten myself into this jam? I’d been trying to turn these people down for a year. Still they offered me the job! It fit no definition of God’s plan I even remotely understood.
The very day I was to leave for Seattle a visitor arrived at my Lenox office. Keith, a successful tableware executive about 10 years older than me, said he was planning to buy an English china company and merge it with his own. “I’d like to hire you as CEO of the merged company,” he said. “You’d get a ten-percent ownership stake worth about twenty-five to fifty million dollars.”
My jaw dropped. I stammered for a moment until I realized the only way to preserve my sanity was to tell Keith the truth. I explained I’d been offered a position leading a charity and wouldn’t be able to consider his proposal until I’d dealt with the other job offer.
For a moment Keith seemed taken aback. Then a strange look came into his eyes. “That’s really admirable of you,” he said. “But you know, I think I understand.” He launched into a story.
Years before, devastated over the sudden death of his 10-year-old daughter, he’d begun sponsoring a little girl in India. That simple act of helping another child had eased his grief like nothing else.
“The charity that put me in touch with her was absolutely wonderful,” he said. “They’re called World Vision. Whatever charity you’re interviewing with, I’m sure they’ll benefit from a man with your experience. I hope you’ll take my offer. But I’ll understand if you don’t.”
By the time Keith finished speaking I seemed to hear another voice, the same voice that had spoken to my good friend Bill Bryce and recruiter Rob Stevenson all those months before. I realized Reneé and I were witnessing something profound—God working directly in our lives, showing us, plain as day, that his plan for us involved something more amazing than I ever could have imagined.
My corporate career, my comfortable life, my safe and tidy church involvement—all of it was just prologue, maybe even a distraction from serving the Jesus I had committed my life to 25 years earlier. I knew then that if I truly wanted to follow that Jesus, I would have to follow the one who gave himself for the poor and dispossessed.
Rich, Jesus seemed to say, you promised you’d follow me wherever I might lead. Will you follow me to the poor, to the refugee camps and to the garbage dumps where children scavenge for food? Will you follow me there, Rich?
I’m embarrassed to say it took several more weeks and a lot more prayer before I finally gave in and became World Vision’s president. Today, more than a decade later, I can hardly believe my agony over that decision.
Friends from our Lenox days still marvel at what Reneé, the kids and I gave up. I try to explain that corporate perks and Jaguars mean nothing after you’ve tasted the reward of doing the real work God always meant for you to do.
In the end, though, words fall short. Follow me, says God. And when we do, we find our deepest purpose and the true adventure begins.