Tom Donaldson: Helping people flourish by building trust

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Deep in the Hearts of Texans began in 2016 by featuring pastors and grew to include denominational leaders and other ministers in Texas Baptist life. After hearing from some readers interested in profiles of Christians in the marketplace, Deep in the Hearts of Texans is growing again by including those profiles.

Tom Donaldson is a member of the First Baptist Church of Plano. He is a professional coach and provides organizational development. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on being a follower of Christ in the marketplace. To suggest a Texas Baptist leader in the marketplace to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.


What other businesses have you been in, and what were your positions there?

Prior to my current “third” career, I began my professional life with 14 years of vocational Christian ministry, building on a seminary degree and resulting in two roles.

For nine years, I was a Baptist Student Union minister, working with students in two locations in Oklahoma—Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell and Rose State College in Midwest City—and at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

After BSU ministry, I returned to my home state of Texas and served for five years as the minister to single adults at First Baptist Church in Plano—where we are currently members, since 2002.

My second career was in the computer software industry. I worked for a small software company in Irving, Texas—Membership Services—focused on church administration systems, doing sales, service and training for three years.

After a layoff there, I was fortunate to join Microsoft Corporation, also working in Irving, where I spent 23 years in their customer service and support division as a support engineering manager.

Where did you grow up?

Garland, Texas

How did you come to faith in Christ?

Through a strong spiritual upbringing at the First Baptist Church in Garland, I grew up hearing the gospel of Jesus. At age 9, I made a profession of faith and was baptized in that church, which was the foundation of a spiritual journey continuing to this moment.

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Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

• Garland High School, Class of 1966

• North Texas State University—now The University of North Texas, Bachelor of Music degree in music education, 1970

• Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity, 1975.

• University of Texas at Dallas, graduate certificate in executive and professional coaching, 2011

Christian life in the marketplace

Why do you feel called into the marketplace?

In 1988, I decided to leave vocational Christian ministry and relocate my ministry in the marketplace.

It was a “soft” transition into the area of church administration software, followed several years later into what was then the world’s largest software company—Microsoft Corporation.

Although I had many priorities and expectations in my Microsoft career, I always was aware of the potential witness of my values and my words, relating to my faith in Christ. I also was amazed at the opportunities to impact people positively by listening without judgment, and instead encouraging and building up, sometimes sharing a specific faith response to the issues of the day.

It was a privilege and blessing to bring with me out of Microsoft many significant friendships, both believers and those “not yet.”

How does being a Christian influence your decisions in the marketplace?

In this season of life, I have a lot of freedom to choose how I use my time, energy and resources, so aligning those decisions with my identity as an image-bearer and citizen of God’s kingdom is a huge challenge and consideration.

Beyond ethical behavior and uplifting words, I have a responsibility and an opportunity to invest in work that will help people flourish and find new ways of working together to achieve results. This is especially appealing to the younger generations coming into leadership and prominence. It also highlights the importance of human interaction and collaboration, which is exactly the area I love to address.

What one aspect of the marketplace gives you the greatest joy?

I am energized most by the dynamics of teams. We are on the cusp of a whole new body of knowledge about the culture, dynamics and systems of teams.

There will always be a need for coaches working one to one with individual leaders and professionals, but the cutting edge is understanding and increasing the effectiveness of the team as an organism that has a distinct personality and presence in the marketplace and in the world.

What one aspect of the marketplace would you like to change?

Coming back to my theme of teams, there is a huge need for genuine, vulnerability-based trust at the foundation of teams. This kind of trust feeds into accountability, which happens most effectively between peers.

Trust also supports “positive conflict,” which sounds like a misnomer, but simply means: Get all your cards on the table, let everybody have their say, then agree on what you are actually going to do moving forward. This is the only path to achieving organizational results, whether you are Microsoft or a church staff or nonprofit leadership team.

How has your place in the market or your perspective on the marketplace changed?

My obvious big change was moving from the corporate environment of Microsoft—which was very structured and fast-paced—to the somewhat more ambiguous world of a solo entrepreneur. This change has uncovered significant blind spots and dependencies on comfort zones that have been a huge challenge.

Conversely, I have learned from people in very different corporate and business cultures who have widened my view about what is possible and what is needed.

How do you expect the marketplace to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

Changes in technology and the nature of business organizations point to the growing importance of knowledge-based work. In this context, education and learning will be a continuous process involving training and retraining.

Lifelong learning will be the key to success.

If you could launch any new venture, what would it be? Why?

Combining my church and ministry experience with my current work focused on individuals and teams, I would love to extend coaching and team development more fully to church pastors and leaders in the Baptist family. There are already pockets of this work scattered around the country, but our congregational polity and multiple denominational groups have worked against this expansion in the Baptist world.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your place in the market.

1. Developing a unique brand among all the coaching and consulting voices in the marketplace.

2. Marketing myself effectively to my “ideal customer.”

3. Distinguishing “coaching”—of individuals and teams—as a unique approach in contrast with consulting or training.

What do you wish more people knew about the marketplace?

I wish for more coaching leaders who will invest in the growth and development of their people along with the traditional business functions of product and service development, marketing, sales, finance, etc.

About Baptists

What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?

The biggest issue is: Who are Baptists? We have significant organizations at various levels that compete with one another for support and engagement. Modern issues—such as the role of women and human sexuality—have divided us into camps with a list of policy positions.

It is difficult for our fellow citizens to see Baptists in a positive light when we squabble with each other and focus on what we are against instead of what we embrace and support.

What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?

Aside from the difficulties already cited, the change we need is to develop a transformational leadership makeover from local churches on up that is willing to step away from “what we have always done” and “what we know works” into new ways of engaging our communities and deploying our members into mission and ministry in the post-Christendom world. And by “post-Christendom,” I mean the very real world of the 21st-century in which the majority influencing group is not white, Protestant Christians like me.

About Tom

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

A high school choir director, Jim Henderson, who created a magical team experience filled with loyalty and excellence at Garland High School in the 1960s.

A pastor in West Virginia, Dr. Carlisle Driggers, who believed in me in my 20s and treated me like a full partner in ministry.

A manager at Microsoft, a woman named Chris Thompson, who combined passion and energy with a person-centric approach that inspired greatness.

The most prominent one is my life and spiritual mentor of over 50 years, Dr. Britton Wood of Fort Worth. He was our BSU director at North Texas when I was a student, went on to pioneer single adult ministry in the SBC, and then became a leading voice in marriage education. Today at age 85, he and his wife Dr. Bobbye Wood speak, lead marriage enrichment events and have just published their latest book, showing no signs of slowing down. Britton models everything I want to be as a Christ-follower and leader in today’s world.

What did you learn on the job you wish you learned elsewhere?

That vulnerability and trust are the keys to success. When I learned to say: “I messed up … I’m sorry … I don’t know,” and quit trying to look good all the time, I found a new freedom to lead from a more authentic and believable place.

What is the impact of the marketplace on your family?

Being a part of Microsoft for 23 years had a positive impact on our family. We were able to fund college education for our daughter and son and had many other advantages and experiences in our family. In contrast, I don’t miss the days when I woke up, checked email on my phone and sorted through 40-50 messages arriving overnight to find the three or four that needed immediate attention.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

• Come to the Party by Karl Olsson, which puts ministry and performance into perspective.

• Leadership and Self-Deception from The Arbinger Institute, which nails the idea of vulnerability-based trust.

• The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, one of many Keller books that fuel modern conversations about the gospel.

• The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, who writes extensively, leads in the area of organizational health and happens to be a Catholic layman.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

Matthew 11:28-30—especially in The Message—which begins with: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me … ” and closes with: “I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” This reminds me that joining with Jesus in the work he already has underway is the best way to live and serve.

Who is your favorite Bible character, other than Jesus? Why?

Barnabas. He is the coaching leader in Acts, working offstage to connect people and advance the kingdom. He believed in a young John Mark and had the courage to part company with Paul when they disagreed. Much later, Paul asks Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Full circle…

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.

From a young age, I have been a “car nut.” Drive by in your 1960s collector car, and I can tell you the year, make and model without fail.

If you could get one “do over” in the marketplace, what would it be, and why?

I would have the courage to reach for positions of greater leadership and responsibility at Microsoft or elsewhere. For too many years, I took the “safe” road, recycling what I knew would work and not putting myself at too much risk.

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