You might call it an eclectic career. Jonathan Reckford describes it as “highly illogical.” The CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, which builds and finances homes for the poor in some 80 nations, has worked as an executive for several well-known companies. They include Goldman Sachs, Disney, Marriott, Circuit City and Musicland.
Reckford, 49, a competitive rower when attending UNC-Chapel Hill, helped coach the South Korean Olympic rowing team at the Seoul Summer Games in 1988. And he was the executive pastor of a 4,300 member church before taking the top job at Habitat seven years ago. Reckford talks about what he learned from a career driven, in part, by “pivotal phone calls from recruiters.”
Q: You’ve had many jobs and several careers? What’s your best advice to younger people starting out or seeking more fulfillment?
A: You’ve got to find the right organization to be part of, but you also have to find the right role in the right organization. I’ve seen people miss on both sides of that. At nonprofits, I’ve seen people who are so excited about the mission that they’ll try to do a job they’re not suited for.
The flip side of that is that you can do a job that you love, but it’s not for an organization or a mission that you’re excited about. Ultimately that is not going to be as fulfilling, either.
Also, I think today you have to have international experience to be successful. Even if you’re not part of a global organization, I think the ability to manage across cultures and across different barriers is so critical to leadership. If you can find a way to work or live overseas, it is an extraordinary learning opportunity.
Q: When you were an MBA student at Stanford, you were encouraged to consider nonprofit work. What happened?
A: I had a business professor who believed very passionately that the nonprofit sector needed more professionalization and that there was not enough accountability. His belief, which is more accepted now, is that there are a lot of transferable skills.
My experience is that you can’t run a nonprofit as a business. They are different. But the principles of good management absolutely cross all sectors. It’s all about people management. Early in your career, you have to be really good at finance or marketing or strategy. But when you get to a certain level, it’s about how you hire, motivate and provide direction to a team. That is true in any management situation.
In hiring, for example, I always hire for talent versus experience. In a perfect world, you might have both. But if I have a choice between somebody who has top-tier talent and only part of the experience needed, versus someone who has all the experience but is not as gifted, I would err toward great talent. Then I would give them the opportunity to learn. I think that’s how you build a great team.
Q: What did you learn about motivating and directing people from your days as executive pastor of a large church near Minneapolis?
A: I think the most challenging management positions are ones where you don’t have authority, where you’re managing volunteers. If you learn to manage through influence rather than through authority, it works really well when you do have authority.
A lot of churches do a terrible job of getting volunteers into roles that best use their gifts. They misuse their volunteers. What I learned was that volunteers should have job descriptions. They should have accountability and real responsibility. I learned that you can actually fire volunteers. They can destroy your organization.
They should be treated very much like you would treat a highly motivated employee. Everybody wants to know that what they’re doing is having an impact. There’s nothing more de-motivating than feeling like what you do doesn’t matter, regardless of where you’re working.
Also, if want to see a tough challenge in “change management,” try changing the music at your church or synagogue. That’s real change management in terms of culture because people have such ownership.
Q: What did you learn when you worked in strategic planning for Circuit City?
A: It’s very sad to see them not exist anymore. It’s hard to believe. They were on top then. Retail is brutal. Because you won the last war doesn’t mean you’re going to win the next war.
Circuit City had so convincingly destroyed all the old-fashioned electronics retailers that it made it harder to recognize how different the world was going to be in a world of Costco, Walmart and Target.
They didn’t transition fast enough. You can become a victim of your own success, because it can make it harder to face the next level of change to reinvent yourself.
Q: How has the housing crisis affected Habitat and the lower income people you serve?
A: We’re not immune. We had always done a mix of new and rehabilitated houses. But in the U.S., we predominantly did new housing because there had been an undersupply. Starting four years ago, we never saw the volume of foreclosures that came with the housing meltdown. We have been passionately pushing our affiliates to think about making long-term commitments to specific neighborhoods, and do a mix of housing. So we actually have been aggressively buying up or taking on empty houses in foreclosure. We’re tearing down the worst ones and replacing them with new, and fixing up the ones that can be improved.
In the U.S., foreclosure rates in some areas went from 10 to 30 percent, but for Habitat it went from just 1 percent to 2 percent. And we only loan to sub-subprime borrowers who couldn’t qualify in the heyday of mortgage lending.
They’re still in their homes. The reason is families have to work really hard to get the house. They put in hundreds of hours of sweat equity working on their house and other people’s houses before they get it. And they go through financial and homeowner education before they can close on the house, so they are prepared to manage it. We sell them a very simple, energy-efficient, low-cost home on financial terms they can afford.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.