“I’m an overcomer and a maximizer in that I persist through obstacles.” -Caryn Ryan
[00:00:00] Caryn Ryan: At the end of the day, sometimes it’s the simplest questions and sticking with the simplest, high-level questions that matters for solving problems and creating transformation. Because I remember one of the first questions I asked the traders was, “Where did the oil go that you thought you were trading?”
They didn’t know where the oil had gone. And so, we spent a lot of time having to come back to that question and analyzing, digging through years of data and models that would go from trading models that went from the floor to the ceiling. But we always had to come back to that basic question, “Where did the oil go?”
Our guest this week is Caryn Ryan, the founder and managing member of Missionwell. Missionwell was formed out of the belief that nonprofit organizations should benefit from the same efficiency and expertise as the for-profit sector, despite the significant resource differences between the two sectors.
Caryn spent 20 years with Amoco Corporation and BP plc, and then later with the merged company BP / Amoco. She was recruited by World Vision International, where she served as their Chief Financial Officer. Caryn was an early champion for virtual and shared services models for the nonprofit sector. Let’s pick up on my conversation.
[00:01:20] Tommy Thomas: Before we dive too deep into your professional career, let’s go back to your childhood. I’m always curious about how people got their start. What’s your happiest memory of your childhood?
[00:01:30] Caryn Ryan: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I have a single happiest memory, but certainly one of my happiest memories is a trip to downtown Detroit.
I lived just north of Detroit growing up, going shopping with my mom and my grandma and my sister and getting a new winter coat, and shopping at Sanders. Have you heard of Sanders?
[00:01:48] Tommy Thomas: No, we didn’t have that in the south, I don’t think.
[00:01:51] Caryn Ryan: They’re a local chocolatier near Detroit, and sometimes even out here on the west coast, you can find chocolate from them. But we had a hot fudge sunday after we went shopping. So, it’s a wonderful memory.
[00:02:03] Tommy Thomas: Thinking back on that, what was the greatest gift you got from your parents?
[00:02:07] Caryn Ryan: My perseverance. My parents themselves came from families that didn’t have much and so they had come through a kind of late depression era and they knew the value of a penny and they knew that to get ahead, you had to really persevere. And they passed that on to their kids.
[00:02:26] Tommy Thomas: What are people who don’t know you always surprised to learn about?
[00:02:30] Caryn Ryan: A lot of people meet me through my company Missionwell. And they assume that I’m an accountant, and that I like the details, but I don’t and I’m not. And over time as time goes on, usually they see that I’m more of an analyzer of leaders and situations and work and, a really pragmatic solution finder, a really persistent person looking for solutions.
I’m an entrepreneur, although, who would have thought it? And I’m a reasonable strategist. And those who are extra observant will probably also be able to tell that my work is my Christian mission in life.
[00:03:07] Tommy Thomas: When you went to college how did you decide on your major?
[00:03:10] Caryn Ryan: Hey, I’m from Detroit. It’s the Motor City. And growing up in a rather poor family, I wanted security. So, I thought right away I’m going into business in some capacity. I didn’t have any idea what aspect of business, so I double majored in economics and psychology for my undergrad and for my MBA. I added finance and information technology and some organization development and organizational behavior.
So, it was all general business-oriented, but with a core of finance and HR-ish kinds of things. And that’s pretty much been what I’ve stuck with throughout my entire career. It’s always been something to do with business whether that’s a non-profit business or a for-profit business, and something to do with that core of finance and HR, but then a whole bunch of things peripherally around that, that those can branch out into a whole lot of things.
[00:04:02] Tommy Thomas: Thinking back to the first time you had a staff to report to you, what do you remember about that?
[00:04:08] Caryn Ryan: That would’ve been in the Financial Analysis Department of Amoco production, that’s part of the old, pre-BP, part of the oil and gas exploration production division.
There. And I have to say, I was a mediocre boss at best. I didn’t see the role as servant leadership initially. I really saw it as leading a production team to goals. And in addition,
I had a boss at the time who was a great example of how not to treat people.
But as my time in that seat progressed I learned that every boss has to protect their people. They have to advocate for them, and they have to develop their staff. And these are the things that allow people to flourish. And to this day maybe just based on how tough that job was, one of my joys is mentoring young people and bringing them along.
And going back to that bad boss, as the years have gone by, I’ve thought about that bad boss from time to time. And I think that people who don’t treat other people well, usually have one or two things going on in their life. Tommy one, they either have really low self-esteem and they must assuage that by criticizing and tearing down other people.
Or two, they’re motivated by greed and power. Understanding that has helped me quickly diagnose, is this a person type A or is it a person type B when they’re really behaving badly. And if it’s an issue of self-esteem, there’s a way you can work with people over time to just bring them up, help them feel better about themselves, and help them transform how they interact in the world. And I think that’s part of our job too. So, he taught me a lot.
[00:05:44] Tommy Thomas: We can learn from sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances that’s for sure. In September of 2002, you were living in London, you have a senior-level finance position with BP, probably very well compensated, I would imagine. What happened to cause you to leave the private sector and take that CFO job with World Vision International?
[00:06:04] Caryn Ryan: It was really lovely working in London. I thought you might ask that question. I had my family with me and I bought and remodeled an old home in Hamstead for the family, and we had an amazing life with fun schools for the kids and lots of travel and adventures.
But if I step back from that, go back about five years before I’d already started noticing in the late, mid to late 1990s before the merger of Amico and BP that something was missing in my life. And this feeling grew while I was in London. And until around the year 2000, I went to a choir practice at the American Church in London.
And I saw a poster and it was for an Alpha class and I was convicted. I needed to go and talk to my pastor about it. And he tried to persuade me not to, and I said, no, I need it. I need it. And I went to this Alpha class. It was 10 weeks long, and these questions about faith just poured out of me. And I was talking about Doubting Thomas in the Bible.
That was me. And I told God eventually that if he would speak to me plainly on two big life questions, I’d be his person forever. And he did, for better or for worse, he did. He spoke to me in the Holy Spirit that week of the Alpha class, and very clearly in very plain language, and advised me what I needed to do.
And I have been his person ever since. Although I’ll never be the type of Christian who believes easily, and definitely I was a late comer to having a really true deep belief. But it’s a commitment and it’s a promise. And entrances, interestingly, I left Amoco with BP at that time without a job about two years later.
But shortly around that time when I took the Alpha class, BP very generously referred me to Nick Isbister, who you know.
And he is a consultant or coach who looks at motivated abilities. And during this time when I was wrestling with various issues including my career, I cannot tell you how much his SIMA profile meant to me.
As I was really trying to decide whether to stay or leave BP, where was I going next? And it was really part of God’s gift to me. He was part of God’s gift to me. And to see my gifts laid out so beautifully and my motivated abilities laid out so clearly really helped me move forward.
And it helped me take that step to give my notice to BP and really have the view of, God has a plan and I just want to see what adventures are out there next. And I’ve used his profile from time to time. I go back and read it and review it and just try to understand this is still me and, what do I need to pay attention to now? And it’s been amazing.
[00:08:37] Tommy Thomas: So did World Vision come looking for you, or did you go looking for them?
[00:08:41] Caryn Ryan: After I left BP I made a matrix about 57 different things, and over the next few months I whittled away at those to try to figure out what I should do. And when I got it down to the top three, I was like I don’t think being a CFO was the problem.
I like that. I don’t think I was in the right place in a for-profit. I think I need a nonprofit or a Christian organization. And I had one-third criteria also, but around that time that I’d just gotten that narrowed down, I got a call from somebody else who you know, which is Rob Stevens.
And he said to me, are you interested in a CFO role with World Vision International? And I paused for a minute, and I said, is that a Christian organization that helps kids overseas? And he said yes. And I started thinking, isn’t that amazing? This hits these top criteria that I’ve just spent months trying to get whittled down to.
And I said, yes, I’m interested. And it went from there. So, he shepherded that process. And I did end up working at World Vision for over three years.
[00:09:49] Tommy Thomas: Was that in London?
[00:09:52] Caryn Ryan: No, that was actually World Vision, out here in California. After I left BP, I moved back to the United States, to Chicago, and then that’s when Rob connected with me, and then I ended up moving out here to California. I love it here. And I’m staying here. I’ve been here ever since.
[00:10:11] Tommy Thomas: So, years ago, probably, I guess probably about the time, that you were doing that transition. I was doing some work for World Vision in Seattle, and I had the privilege of recruiting a guy named Atu Tandon from Citibank.
And about six months after Atul started to work at World Vision he gave me a call. He is an Indian fellow, so he had that clipped British Indian accent. And he says, Tommy, If we had this many meetings at Citibank, we wouldn’t have had a bank. And he just was overwhelmed by the number of meetings at World Vision.
My question to you is, what was the biggest surprise you had from leaving something like BP to going to the nonprofit world in World Vision in particular?
[00:10:58] Caryn Ryan: That Atul, he is so efficient. I can see where World Vision’s style of just having so many meetings to build consensus would make him go crazy.
But for me, when I went there, I mentioned earlier that although I’ve been a Christian nominally since my baptism as a baby in the Catholic Church. And spent a lot of my entire life going to church in my twenties and thirties. I actually view my actual timing of becoming a truly committed Christian as the beginning of that Alpha class I talked about.
That’s when I intentionally said to God, I’m yours. But it was so late, it was in my early forties before Christianity meant more than just going to church on a Sunday and sending my kids to Sunday school programs or singing in the choir or volunteering at all these to do all these financial and HR tasks.
So it was shortly after that commitment that I went to World Vision, and I have to say that I expected something different from the industrial sector that I had just spent 20 years working in. And it was a surprise to me that it was an organization of regular people with similar people issues to any for-profit I’d ever worked at.
And I just had to go back and think, okay, wait a minute. Okay. The 12 Apostles were, for the most part, just really regular guys. But they were just called to be where they were. It’s not that they were people who were outstanding in any way. In fact, they were ordinary people.
And at World Vision, it was the same thing. It’s just a strong sense of being people being called by God. But they’re regular people and they have regular problems, and they’re like all people. They’re broken. And that was a surprise. I just felt like it was going to be something different, that I’d be working at some higher plane. But it was really a great lesson that people are people with all the usual awards and that Christians or we’re all just in need of God’s grace.
[00:12:55] Tommy Thomas: Looking back over 20 years in the private sector, what was the greatest experience or lesson you learned there that you were able to take forward?
Transformation emerges from tackling problems.
[00:13:02] Caryn Ryan: I think it would have to be that transformation emerges from tackling problems. When I was in London, working at BP after the merger of Amoco at BP, my business unit experienced a very tiny little loss. Maybe 100-150 million – in one month. And it was just big enough to get the attention of the CEO of BP you know Sir John or Lord John Brown.
And that was while I was serving as the CFO of BP’s Global Oil Trading Operations. And I had to take responsibility for that loss. And for all of these financial calls that were actually outside of my direct reports, they were spread all the way across this huge global trading operation where oil and gas were just traded in and out day and night, and I had to dig into that loss. Why did we have that loss? Even with a lot of pushback from these genius traders, who said you wouldn’t understand. I had to find all the weak controls, diagnose some pretty complex issues, and bring in teams of people and experts to help.
And we did. We brought in smart staff and great consultants, a new compliance officer, and it just really professionalized our services and made us stronger and really better as a result. So what I took away was that digging in and taking responsibility for that loss and working it through in detail, was really the start of a journey toward transformation.
And so you can’t look at a problem and think, oh my gosh, I’m doomed. Or, this is just a problem. That problem is probably going to be an opportunity for you. And I’ve seen this over and over. If you dig into a problem from that problem, if you work at it, you can get transformation and you can end up in a much better place than where you were.
And even if people think you’re wrong early on, and if you just need to persist through, get the job done, work through the problem, and then later you’ll see as I did that it was transformative. And people tend to come around over time, even if it takes a long time, and they’ll say, wow, it’s really good that you did what you did and wow, we really saw some good things happen as a result of you and your team of people who came in to figure out why things went wrong.
And I guess another thing that comes to mind here is that at the end of the day, sometimes it’s the simplest questions and sticking with the simplest, high-level questions that matter for solving problems and creating transformation. Because I remember one of the first questions I asked the traders was,
Where did the oil go that you thought you were trading?
They didn’t know where the oil had gone. And so, we spent a lot of time having to come back to that question over and analyzing, digging through years of data and models that would go from trading models that went from the floor to the ceiling. But we always had to come back to that basic question, where did the oil go?
And that really helped guide us through and get to the bottom of it. And by getting that simple question asked, everything changed about how we traded oil over the next few years. So that kind of led me also into thinking that re-engineering is important and that even now at Mission I go back to a lot of my re-engineering experiences and when we have a new church or a new ministry, or a new nonprofit that comes and works with us at Missionwell, we like to re-engineer, rethink, how do they do their work? What are the problems they’re facing? Doing that and solving those problems even if we have to push through some barriers with our business partners, really helps us deliver high-quality services.
And it gives them more time to focus on the mission and it can become a piece of their transformation. So, this idea of viewing problems as opportunities for transformation, I think is important for me and for our teams at Missionwell, and probably for more people, more than they think.
[00:17:00] Tommy Thomas: So of all the work you’ve ever done, what’s the most ambitious project you’ve tackled?
[00:17:07] Caryn Ryan: That project I just mentioned might have been one of them, that was very all-encompassing. But another one that comes to mind is at Amoco, and this was before I moved to London.
We implemented SAP and SAP is an integrated end-to-end business and financial system. And it affected everybody on how they worked. Just everybody across the entire organization. At that time, I was working in the chemical sector of Amoco and what I did there is I just found a great leader to come in and take that job.
I had an inside track just from the networking I had done, and I just knew somebody who had the skills to do this. And after she came, she helped the chemical sector, and our sector did better than most in terms of implementing this. It was happening across the entire corporation, and our sector did better than most.
And when I was then transferred to another downstream sector the one that retails oil and gas and has some refineries, I brought her in there because they had so many problems that they couldn’t even, this is for a huge Fortune 15 company. They couldn’t close their books.
They didn’t know how they were doing in terms of trucking oil back and forth to refineries. Everything was not working. Nothing was working. And when she came in, just bringing in the right leader, just calming things down focusing on the right problems. There was so much that needed to get fixed.
And she really just had the expertise to do it. So you really just have to bring in the right person. But it wasn’t just her, it was the whole team. It was all the leaders. It was pretty much this commitment that we have to get in and solve this problem. Knowing it wasn’t going to be easy, knowing that it was going to be messy and complicated, but it was such a high priority.
You just, we all knew it was a top priority. And the team, because they understood that it was such an important priority. Everybody was involved, and this was hundreds of people, hundreds and hundreds of people. Everybody got involved and took their piece and parts and just worked on delivering it so we could get the business back up and running and get the books closed and make sure that the downstream operations were functioning with the information that they needed.
[00:19:22] Tommy Thomas: With ambition I guess can come risk. What’s the biggest risk you ever took in business?
[00:19:27] Caryn Ryan: I might go more personal on the risk side. Maybe one of the biggest risks I’ve taken with starting Missionwell. While from a business perspective, the risk was not having enough capital or knowledge or understanding.
I risked a lot of my own savings and my earnings potential. And I knew that if we failed, I was responsible for my staff losing their jobs and my business partners losing services that can be difficult to get filled. So I think that was a pretty big risk. And my SIMA profile, if you were to read it, says
I’m an overcomer and a maximizer in that I persist through obstacles.
And all those things have been true. And I think if you go into a situation where you’re taking risks and you understand what risks you’re taking then you’ll manage them and the rewards that you get are really incredible. It’s been all the time at Mission Oil and our growth over the last few years has just been amazing.
We recruit better and stronger people. We don’t need as much capital now. And we just help so many organizations with great missions. Taking risks – you have to do it. No pain, no gain. Risk is the pain of managing it is significant, but the rewards are definitely worth it.
[00:20:44] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned hiring and building a staff. What’s the main thing you’re looking for in a senior person?
[00:20:50] Caryn Ryan: Right now, essentially our recruiting is guided by our values. I’m looking for a fit in terms of, is this a person who really believes that nonprofits and or religious organizations matter in the world?
And if that box is checked, we can proceed. And then we ask, does this person value people? And do they know how to value people and how to motivate people? And then we’ll ask relative to our partnering value, is this a person who can relate well to others? Is it a person who can help them?
And they need to be able to pass that too. And then relative to principles, we’re looking for character, good, really good character in people. So we are looking for people who can talk to us about character and when they’ve used aspects of the character to make decisions. And then finally we’ll look at process and ask, is this a person who really knows how to look at, we’re in the business of offering services, so they need to be able to look at work as a process and say, how can we make this better, faster, smoother work better for our business partners? And if they can hit all those and have the technical or functional expertise that we need, then chances are they’re going to be a good fit.
[00:22:01] Tommy Thomas: Wow. So, what does the interview process look like for you? Say you spot somebody, and you think this looks good. What does the interview process look like from start to finish? Is it a day, is it a week?
[00:22:12] Caryn Ryan: The interview process at my company starts out with our HR department. They do a variety of pre-checks, pre-screens, and then depending on the seniority of the person I might do up to three meetings with the person.
And those are typically via Zoom because we’re oftentimes hiring people to work remotely. Even now moving from our regular professional staff to the leadership level. We’re looking to start moving more and more remote with that. So sometimes I don’t even meet our staff or our senior people now in person.
It’s strictly via Zoom. So, we’ve learned how to form relationships. We’ve learned how to test and assess. We’ve learned how to talk to people on Zoom and make the connections that we need to make with them and do the assessments that we need to do. It helps that one of my HR staff is actually remote too, so she really deeply understands remote recruiting.
And by the time a candidate comes to me, they’ve been pretty well vetted by my team. And I will dig in on the leadership qualities sometimes so that the questions that I’ll ask are similar even to some of the questions you’re asking me. Tell me about a time when you faced a big decision and how did you handle it?
So, we’re looking for not only the values match, but to some extent what are the leadership competencies that are going to be needed for that particular job. And asking them to come back with behavioral or observational data to us so that we can actually get a feel for how they actually operate day to day.
We allow people a lot of time to ask us questions too. We’re always constantly trying to stop and pause. It’s not a one-way decision. We know that. We also allow a whole lot of time to answer questions when we bring a person on. That’s not the end. We know that a great orientation for the person is important.
If they’re going to be a fit, they need to be oriented really well. And we need to do a lot of check-ins with them early on to just be sure things are working okay for them. So, we view it a little bit holistically, you have great job descriptions posting appropriately doing the right amount of interviewing with people, and then making sure that they get settled in when they come.
[00:24:27] Tommy Thomas: I want to change gears a minute and say that if you were on a nonprofit version of a Shark Tank show and you had nonprofit organizations presenting their case to you, what are you going to have to know really well before you open up your checkbook?
[00:24:46] Caryn Ryan: This is interesting, but really Tommy, I don’t think it’s any different for a non-profit, than it would be for a for-profit organization. So, you’re always asking, do you have a good vision? And a really big and important question is, do you have the resources? And that’s in terms of money but it’s also in terms of the network of people to support you in making steps towards your vision and making things happen.
And then do you have the drive? Do you feel called for this? How do you demonstrate that? How do you demonstrate that you have the call and that you have the drive? Are you a persister? One thing that will happen for every new organization is just tons of obstacles and problems. They’re nonstop.
And so, you have to have that ability to persist and to say, look, I see this obstacle. Am I going to go over it, under it, or around it? But for sure I’m going to go around it or get through this. You need to have that kind of a foundational trait characteristic. I think the difference really between a for-profit and non-profit is where you get the money from.
The Shark Tank for the for-profit might be from investors or a bank. Whereas the Shark Tank for a nonprofit might be from stakeholders, donors, and grantors. You’ve got to make sure that the business plan reflects that. But you still have to have the money and you still have to have the people.
And the sense of call might be different too. I think if you’re working in a for-profit, you may have a vision around some new product or service. In the nonprofit world, your call may be even more deeply embedded. Especially if it’s a religious calling. It may be something that’s very right-tied or connected to your faith, but it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter how deeply connected it is to your faith. If you don’t have the same things that a for-profit needs, your chances of being successful fall. Now, God can always come in and intervene, but if you’re going to do your part in it you need the same things that a for-profit does.
Our guest next week will be Jerry White. Jerry’s a retired United States Air Force Major General, and a former International President of The Navigators. Earlier in his career, he worked in the startup days of NASA as a professor at the Air Force Academy.
[00:27:23] Jerry White: We prayed and told the Air Force, send us anywhere you want. Just give me an engineering job somewhere. And with absolutely no hint from me or any input from anybody that I know, the Air Force sent me to Cape Canaveral in the New American Space Program.
Tommy, I didn’t even know what it was, and I became a mission controller, got right smack in the middle of all of the new stuff that the Air Force was doing. The manned flights, the Mercurys, the Geminis, Atlas, Titan, Polaris, you name it. And every conceivable kind of rocket. And in that, I got a new glimpse of the future.
“I was serving as the CFO of BP’s Global Oil Trading Operations, and I had to take responsibility for that $150M loss.” -Caryn Ryan
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