LifeWay Is Imploding

Heard this week that the LifeWay building most people associate with the downtown headquarters is going to be imploded to re-develop the site following the sale of the campus to investors. As a former employee of LifeWay, I have a few reflections.

Great Employer

LifeWay was a great employer. I was there from 2002 to 2006, mostly under the leadership of Jimmy Draper. In my experience, Christian publishers pay with salary or with an inflated title. LifeWay paid a fair salary. While I was not Southern Baptist and therefore was not likely to move up in the ranks at LifeWay (LifeWay is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), I always felt treated fairly and felt like a part of the team.

Pace of Change

LifeWay has faced a number of challenges in recent years: the rise of digital as a challenge to print, the rise of Amazon as a challenge to location-based retail, and decline in Christian retail that took down a number of chains. LifeWay is one of the biggest organizations in one of the most quickly changing industries – so to be fair, we should expect a few implosions. Fortunately for LifeWay, there is a plan and a move to a great looking new headquarters in Nashville.

Culture of Fear

Large organizations that have been around for 100+ years struggle with culture. I never saw LifeWay struggle – I saw them succumbed.  My experience of my fellow workers at LifeWay was one of watching most people afraid of most things – ideas, bosses, direct reports, colleagues. It was a 360-degree fear. Oddly, I never saw this from the top leadership – it was always the middle managers and departmental leaders worried about making a wrong move. Maybe I wasn’t privy to the conversations that inspired them to seem to be afraid all the time. Something about “big and old” companies attract people looking for security – and LifeWay has a zero-based budgeting process that flies in the face of perceived security. At the end of the day, the culture of fear made risk and innovation a rarity; and occasional innovation does not provide enough new opportunity when the world is quickly changing around you.

Going Forward

As a beneficiary of LifeWay in my career, I will always be thankful for my time there and the relationships it sparked. I also am happy to see the excitement among current employees for the new headquarters. Here’s to another 125 years for LifeWay and increased flexibility for the leadership working within a smaller organization.