Mending Your Relationship with Your Boss - Femi Sokoya (Podcast Episode 24)
Guest Femi Sokoya flipped a bad manager situation, first by seeing his work as a place where he represents God, and then by inviting his manager into conversation.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (NRSV)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NRSV)
Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (NRSV)
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace. I’m Mark Roberts.
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
There’s a modern workplace proverb that says, “People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers.” If you have a manager who’s working against you, it’s hard to stay productive in a job for very long. The question is: can you turn the situation around with God’s help? Our guest today flipped a bad manager situation, first by seeing his work as a place where he represents God, and then by inviting his manager into a conversation of mutual sharing and personal disclosure. He also discusses how God has used his workplace to grow him in patience. My guest Femi Sokoya is a project manager at a big insurance company in Madison Wisconsin. I recorded this conversation with him when I was at Upper House, a Christian learning center in Madison. So Femi Sokoya, welcome to the Making it Work podcast. Femi, you've been here at Upper House before talking about your work but you don't work in ministry.
Femi Sokoya: Correct.
LA: You work for a secular company. Did you ever think about working in ministry? Was that a challenging question for you?
FS: Yes, I did. In 2015, I was leaving a job at a healthcare IT company also in the Madison area and figuring out what I would do next and in that discussion, the idea of seminary came up, of being able to have all this free time to say, "Okay, I'm gonna not work for a little bit." It gave me a lot more time to read Scripture, it gave me a lot more time to listen to sermons and I really enjoyed it. I said, "Okay, I could do this scholastically." I feel like I like talking to people but I think part of the reason why I decided to go back to work was there are a lot of skills that I like using at work but also, there is a big mission field in the workplace where I just felt like I can learn still and be humble in both learning some of these skills in the business world and in the management world as well as help people on both sides relate to each other and sort of build a bridge in that way. At least for this season, God was like, "Yeah, that's what I want you to do." And so I stayed and I got a job and it actually kept me in the Madison area. But through that process, I think God was very gracious to say, "Yeah, there's not a lot of people who are like you who live in Madison, in the Madison, Wisconsin area. You have some skills that are gonna be beneficial. You still have a lot to learn about how to work and what it means to be a good employee instead of getting too big for your own head too soon and there's a lot of things that I wanna teach you about people." So, He sort of said, "This is how I'm going to ordain that you are where you are right now." And a lot of things have happened in between that have given me some potential glimpses of other things but God has been really gracious to keep me at the company I'm at and give me a lot of different experiences with local non-profits, within the school system, with farmers in the area, things that if I was just doing my job description, I would not have seen as options but as I've performed at work, they were like, "Oh yeah, do you wanna do this? Do you wanna try this?" And as a black guy at a mostly white company, that helps with my visibility so both as a black person in a white company, mostly white company but as a Christian to sort of go, my behavior is noticeable and it will be noticed for good or for ill so how can I make sure that I'm performing well when I have meetings, when I have reports, things like that?
LA: That sounds like a real challenge to go into your work every day knowing that you stand out in a different way.
FS: Yeah. I think that everybody wants their home to be like "I just wanna wear sweat pants and a hoodie and relax." But there is something about wearing the label of being a Christian that now that I'm married... I just got married a few months ago but like...
FS: Thank you. I realized that I have to wear that label still in the house. You have to wear the label of, if we're annoyed with each other, we still have to wear the Christian label to each other and then that makes more sense of why it feels like I have to wear that outside the house and at work and at church and not be performative but really figure out, "Okay, how much of the things I say I believe am I really putting into my day-to-day? I don't wanna go to this meeting. I could skip it. I could just stay at my desk and take it by the phone or I could go physically and participate and take notes and ask questions. Let me try to do that because that is something in being humble. I'm serving my master in this way and trying to do things to the Lord." And that's still a struggle all the time 'cause you're like "Man, I only have 24 hours in a day." But something that I think is extremely important for me to learn as well as try to example.
LA: How do you... So you mentioned doing your work unto the Lord, which is obviously a... Which is verse from Scripture.
LA: How do you get the inspiration every day to show up at that meeting when you're exhausted, when you don't want to? Does it come from your time in Scripture? Does it come from your practice? Where does it come from?
FS: It does. Unfortunately not first all the time. The first thing it comes from my dad and my mom when we were growing up. I forgot when he said it but he said at one point in my education like, "If people are gonna pay you, at least make sure they're getting the value that they're paying for." And my company pays me very fairly and I think I wanna at least make sure they're getting what they're paying for and then, after thinking about that, I go, "Well, God gave me His life and so I can at least give Him that." If everything else in my life doesn't go the way that I want it today, but they're trying to learn what it would look like for me if I didn't get anything I wanted and how that, I can... If I can do that with resilience, that'd be just trying to say, "At least God got what He paid for," not as an earned thing, as like I had to do it to earn it back or pay it off 'cause I can't but as a, "Hey, they're paying for you to work, at least work. If you don't want them to pay you to work, then don't work." And the same thing is like, "God gave you His life." So like... And then, at the same, going back to the Scripture like, "Whose image is on this coin?" Like, "Caesar's." "Okay, pay to Caesar what is Caesar's and pay to God what is God's." He has given me his image so trying to live more into that I think every day, sort of helps me go, "Okay, I'm tired but I can do this."
LA: So have you seen your attitude in the workplace reflected back at you in your co-workers? Do you see that your showing up has an effect on the people you work with?
FS: I think it does. People will be happy when I'm on their project or assigned to their work. Like okay, this is gonna go okay or at least it won't be horrible, which is really good. In my early working career, the attitude around the work that we did was very complain-ey. We were young and we were working a lot of hours and it didn't feel right 'cause we didn't have anything to compare it to for most of us. So now that I have something to compare it to, I can be more patient with myself and in being more patient with myself, I can be more patient with other people.
So my frustration at things not getting done wasn't really helpful to them but my patience is counter-cultural to them and my patience hopefully continues to grow because I'm not naturally a very patient person. I like things lined up and knocked down all the time, which is why I like project management. It's like, "Give me a project. There's the scope. Let's do it. Done." And that moreso goes into even how God is with us He... If He wanted to do things like save the world efficiently, he would not have done it the way he did it 'cause he could just snap his fingers proverbially and everything be done. Like if he can say, "Let there be light," and there be light, he could save everybody he wants to, whenever he wants to, however he wants to. He doesn't need to use us, but he chooses to and to be gracious to us and to give a lot of us working bodies and eyes and breathing to say, "Hey, now use these things I've given you to help other people." And that has just been part of my maturation and hopefully sanctification to see that reflected in my co-workers in the softening of their attitudes and the way that we don't complain as much and in the way that they like being able to succeed in the work and not see people as enemies but as places where they can go "I can grow in patience here. I can move that way."
LA: Have there been other ways God has met as you’ve thought about how you represent him at work?
FS: The biggest change for me was having a really hard time with a manager on a project that I was working with and just saying "Okay, I can't keep having this person say bad things about me to my direct boss." So I said "Okay, can we meet on Friday from like 4:00 to 6:00?" And I was like, nobody wants to meet on Friday from 4:00 to 6:00. Nobody wants to do that but she said yes and so, we talked and asked a bunch of questions about each other's personal lives. So I asked her like, "Why are you here? Why did you take this job? What did you wish you knew? Who are your friends? What's your family like?" And then getting into the job stuff of like "What are some things that are you find difficult? What are things that you... " And after listening to that for a while and seeing her more as a whole person than just somebody who was speaking badly about me behind my back and with things that I was struggling with and not mastering quickly, I was able to then say, "This is my family life. This is where I'm from. This is how I was raised. I'm not trying to be annoying to you or not do these things well. What can I do, of the things you wish you had help for, I would like some help with these things but I can try to make your life easier this way." and trying to have that attitude in meetings now with people, realizing, especially with people who are much older. The average age of that company was younger. They have kids in college who they're worried about and kids at home they're worried about and school cancellations and everything.
LA: Tell me more about this experience with your boss because it's such an interesting window for people coming into their first jobs and so many people have a negative experience with their first boss. But it sounds like a real growth opportunity that you went through. What was the situation before you had this difficult conversation? Was it a mismatch of communication styles or was there really work that you did not know how to do or what was the...
FS: Yeah. The work that we did, we would have teams and so there would be people who were more senior than you on your team and one team lead. Person on my team who was a more senior than me, she had been there for a little over a year, longer than I had. She had already had gone through her own experience and was overseeing me on my first big project. As I would do things, I would screw things up here and there, messed a bunch of stuff up. They were small to me, writing an email too quickly, responding too fast, not formatting it a certain way. She was like "Oh, this guy is not doing the things that he needs to do, that I've learned how to do." And she would give honest feedback to our team lead who was both of our, in that sense, boss and then he would come to me but she wouldn't come directly to me and I always feel like, "Well, go directly to the source." Instead of talking bad about her, which I knew was wrong and because I still needed her to help me, I was like, "Hey, I feel like I'm frustrating you, so can we talk? What's going on? 'cause I shouldn't... I know we work closely but I shouldn't be this much of a source of frustration. I feel inflated in my head about my importance but I realize that I'm not that important so what's going on?" My wife and I did just talk about a bunch of relationship stuff with other young adults in the city. We had a small retreat and this power dynamic one is a hard one but being able to tell someone who has biblical and/or legal authority over you, the Bible's clear like, "Respect the governing authorities. There's no authority over you which God hasn't established." To speak up to power is hard because we sometimes think there's gonna be retaliation and there can be unless we're really wanting power to succeed. If we want them to be the best they can be, which makes it hard to pray for presidents or senators or congressmen you don't agree with to say, "I want you to be the best and in this role right now, because of the way that I feel, I'm doing something that's making you not be your best." Like, "If I'm being this frustrating, then I need to learn more about who you are or something to make your job easier so you can be who you are meant to be. If you are meant to be a future CEO of this company, you can't treat other people like this, you can't go behind their back, you should come to them face-to-face and ask them directly. If you do that continuously, it won't just hurt me because I'm not that important, it'll hurt a lot of other people who will then go and cause damage to their families and the families that they affect." And that gives a different motivation to speak up to power, if you think somebody is doing something wrong, to say it it's helpful to them to be the leader that God wants them to be. If they talk down to you sometimes figuring out a different angle of attack is helpful but that was super helpful for me to realize I'm not just trying to defend myself, I'm trying to make her the best person she can be and if I don't do this then I'm failing.
LA: It sounds like you had to go through a little bit of a personal journey in humility to get to that point to have that conversation. If it were me, I'm just saying if it were me and I had a supervisor who was talking smack about me to my boss, I wouldn’t be like, "You know what? I wanna find out about her life." like that would not have been my first.
LA: I admit, it would have taken me a couple of more steps and a little more careful reflection to get there.
FS: I'm also 6'1. I'm black. No longer have a beard I have a goatee now and 315 pounds so I look intimidating just in general. So I've had to learn, if I have the same emotional reaction as somebody who is 17 years old but a twig, we look like we're reacting differently but one person's considered dangerous and one person's not and unfortunately, that's just the world we live in but it made me realize I couldn't pop-off on her and be like, "Well, how did you say this about me?" Why did you say that? What's going on?" 'cause it would look it would look worse because physically, I am more intimidating although she has more on paper power than I do in the organization. I think that helped me a lot to realize "Okay, I'm emotional but I can't react out of the emotions that I'm feeling." It's okay for me to feel them but the way that I express them has to come out differently." And that little bit of slow down is really helpful for me to continue to process and I'm really, really blessed that I still think fast so I think it happened on like a Monday and then on Tuesday, I sent the email and I was like "Okay, can we talk about this on Friday?" And Friday was a good time just 'cause it's the end of the week, there's nothing, unless she was gonna go out with friends that she had after work so trying to pick a good time that would work for both of us, yeah all of that was luckily in that slow down time.
LA: And then, what was it like? So you had this conversation with her, how did it feel? It sounds like it might have been a challenging conversation to manage, emotionally speaking to set the right tone. How did you set the right tone?
FS: I had paper, which was great. I had all the questions I wanted to answer about myself but then I asked her about those first so that I could have them and there was definitely an internal transformation that I've had a couple of more times in my life around seeing a person more holistically, where by doing that, it slowed everything down. She knew she was being heard and she cried a couple of times and I saw her differently as somebody who was more lonely than I thought and who was not as outgoing as I thought and we just had, we had different pictures of each other and so that was really helpful just having it written down and then it gives them space to know you're not gonna ask them anything weird and off-ball. You can just be like, "Hey, these are the questions I'm gonna ask you, I'll just ask them but outside of that, you don't have to say more." And she had a loss in her family recently, so all this stuff was compiled into how she could express it and part of it was "He didn't format this correctly and he should be formatting this correctly at this part of his tenure."
LA: How did your relationship change after that conversation?
FS: Oh it was, the rest of the project, it was great. [chuckle] She would come to me and actually ask me like, "Hey, could you reformat this?" Or I would ask her quickly. I would be able to go to her, I wouldn't feel like I had to figure it by myself. I knew I could ask her. I knew I could ask other people because she told me what she did when she was struggling when she was new. Which my mentor at the time, it was a traveling job, just couldn't do. So all of those things allowed us to have a better working relationship where it wasn't contentious or two people on the same team butting heads or having that discomfort around each other. With the sites that we would work at, people would be like "Oh, they're a really good duo working on this stuff and he's becoming much more competent. I really like reading his emails now and she seems much more relaxed, not so stressed" so all those things started to become better looking at each other more human.
LA: There's this... I'm reminded of this passage in the letter of 2 John where he says, "There's so much more I wanna tell you but I had to wait until I come talk to you face-to-face." and I think there was that, there's this biblical value of people facing each other at the table and having a real face-to-face interaction.
LA: That sometimes gets lost when we're only focused on going back and forth with email or on conference calls that there's a real deep human connection that we could only make face-to-face.
FS: Right. We're trying to figure that out in the business world by combining our love of efficiency, with different methodologies of how we can work faster and face-to-face and I think it's somewhere it's gonna just give 'cause you can't maximize efficiency if humans are involved because we're just not efficient people. You're saying you're a mother of three, so that... You're just not efficient.
LA: You can't do like a morning scrum.
FS: Right. Exactly.
LA: It's just like here's what you got today... Here's what's on the agenda...
FS: Exactly. Exactly.
LA: And that, it doesn't work like that.
LA: In the way it works in the business workplace.
FS: We love it because it's like, "Oh, it's gonna make us solve problems faster and we'll get a better return on our investment" and it's like "Well yeah." But at a certain point, people will feel burned out or that they're pigeonholed and you gotta talk about their emotional stuff. You just have to because they're human and they have some even if they're not talking about it and if they're not talking about it, if they have no problems, get them to teach somebody how to not have problems, because I would love to know but it's all that work of the human side of it, it really, really helps me a lot.
LA: When you came in and started this conversation, you talked about seeing your work as a ministry. It sounds like this is one area where you see yourself in the workplace as being a minister to the people around you.
FS: Mm-hmm. Letting people talk and putting my PowerPoint to the side to let someone who's stopped by my desk talk about their family's military service or talk about something that's going on with their kid for a few minutes is sort of like a way for them to tap into, "Oh, I'm still human. I'm not just going from thing to thing." Some people who don't have any religious background will do nice things around the office for people, one of them, if he knows somebody's having a bad day, he goes and buys a full-sized candy bar and just puts it on their desk with a post-it note and so, if I see people in the hallway and I'm passing and they have a bad day, I'll just send them an instant message going "Hey, I know you said something really quickly, but I hope you, the rest of your day goes better than it currently is." And those little tiny things are pastoral in that way. "I'm gonna... Have a development plan, that's not visible by my company, it will be, I'm gonna have personal conversations with my team. I'm gonna have them know that I go to church, I'm gonna make sure that they know that this is a priority in my family. I'm gonna make sure they... Even if they can't name all my kids, the number of kids that I have, all of those things are other types of goals that get people to open up more to you and in so doing, you can hopefully use your theological education to say yeah, when I'm struggling with this type of issue, it makes me feel like this. In my faith and in my thought process, this is how I'm taught to deal with that because our God is not a God who just says all of your problems are simple and stupid and you can't deal with them. He says no. Yeah, that's a hard problem, having a mom who's sick or a kid who has a chronic disorder, that's hard. It's not to ignore it but it's to embrace the opportunity that's in it in this way and these are some Scriptures that I use. I know you don't agree with me on this but if you ever wanna come to my house for dinner, you can do that and then trying to figure out how you build hospitality in your life and just all that stuff works. It's just much slower than me or anybody else wants it to be but I know that people prayed for people for years and years and years and then they've come to faith and trying to be patient with myself in that, I'm going 30 miles an hour and I wanna go 70, to really try to do that.
LA: It sounds to me like you buy yourself this permission by doing your work well, by showing up to those meetings, by being a humble person who says, "Am I doing this right? Can you give me feedback if I'm not doing this right?" You buy yourself those moments of permission being allowed to speak into other people's life. Whereas if you weren't doing your job, no one would be giving you those opportunities...
LA: To share that.
FS: They're like, "You can't even manage that right so how are you gonna manage my life right?" [chuckle]
LA: You mentioned that one of the reasons you continued to work in the secular world instead of going to ministry is you felt like God was trying to shape you in some way through your work. Talk more about that. What do you feel like is the learning edge for you now in your work?
FS: Yeah, so I can say my personality, I'm gonna define using the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, for a split second. I am naturally more like the characterization in the play of Alexander Hamilton, just go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go or do the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. Talk like I'm running out of time as you're not picking up on and write like I'm running out of time.
LA: Nonstop as they say in the play?
FS: Yes, the last of Act One.
FS: Yes, track 23 and I've learned that because of other situations in my life and what I look like and how I am on my presence, people have told me to be more like Aaron Burr, like "Just calm down. Wait, wait. Be patient. Be patient. Eventually you'll get a chance. Maybe you'll get a chance. Maybe you won't get a chance. You don't really need a chance. It's fine. Things are gonna be okay." And using those two characters is helpful to get at that battle within me 'cause it's extrapolated in the show. I don't feel like I'm moving fast enough and when... I say definitely I feel that God is telling me there's stuff to learn. It's not being so brazen as Hamilton and not being so manipulative as Burr. That there's a balance that I can learn in between, of not being so patient that I never take initiative to share my faith if I find the opportunity. Not being so patient that I think that people are just gonna see me, send an email and go, "That email was so good. I'm gonna believe in Jesus." There are ways for me to learn how to be methodical around things instead of the way I naturally wanna operate. Some people are really lucky that the way that God gifts them matches their personality really well. They're a good talker and God gifts them as a teacher that people respect and is rewarded as such. Some people are gifted as artists and people who can be alone by themselves for a long time, and God gifts them and people recognize them as such. And I feel that the things that I do that are slow are better respected even though I wanna move fast and that has been something that God has been using to say, "You don't know this yet and if you don't get a handle on this well, you're gonna cause a lot of damage in trying to do things quickly instead of taking the care to learn and be slow." And being humble and going, "Yeah, God can use me how he needs to use me and it might not be the way that I think." And yeah, very, very humbling. Very humbling.
LA: So I would like your advice for other Christians who work in secular workplaces who are starting off their career or who are facing the challenge of "How do I use my position in the workplace for God?" What would be some advice that you would give them?
FS: I actually have an answer for this. This is great 'cause I usually don't like giving advice. I think that it's really easy to look at people who are working in secular jobs as people who are either following a rat race or to characterize them as Christians, as people who don't have the right ideas or the right focus and therefore, we sort of keep our faith to ourselves sometimes at work. I think really getting into the lives of our co-workers to understand, we can check up on them and ask them how things are going. Especially if they move. If you are connected on something as banal as Facebook or as divisive as Facebook to see when they buy a new house or dog and to just hit like or something to keep some lines of communication open. In doing so, I think that it shows them love first in a way that they don't feel from other people who wanna be their friend because they're gonna be a good partner for them. The shorter way to say that is alignment with your co-workers and their goals. Understanding all the stuff that the person who's trying to sell you AdvoCare is doing, is trying to feel more whole in themselves. They're not trying to sell you shakes because they just wanna get rich but they didn't feel good at one point and you can try to make them feel good about who they are and how they're fearfully and wonderfully made. The person who's trying to get money might have had a background where they expect a certain level and you can show them how, in all of these things, that Christ is the answer to whatever that alignment is. "I'm scared." "Well, he is a protector. He will not leave you." "I am nervous about my kids." Like "The kids are not the only goal and you are a child still of God." Like, "I'm nervous about this relationship that has gone wrong in my life." "There is ultimate hope in reconciliation but this relationship is better than all of these other relationships at the same time. I would love to help you in this way but you don't have control over other people and that picture that you had about what that relationship would look like, that's not the best relationship you could have had." Alignment is so much more helpful than trying to call people out of their, they're that, they're this, they're that, which is really easy to do. As I work with my co-workers who have different ideas than I do, I can go, "Oh man, all you really want is this thing and I promise you that Jesus is better. I can promise you Jesus is better." And it's hard for me to believe it every single day, all the time but Jesus is really better and I will send you an email and it's well-formatted to make sure you know it but that's hopefully the culmination of me in this sort of slow and learning and trying to grow in patience and humility phase of let me figure out what people's hopes and dreams are. All of them and understand how I can use my theology and my friends and my small group and my wife and my pastors to help me align that goal with how Jesus helps satisfy that and it will be a much easier time to have that conversation.
LA: Thank you for that. Amen. Amen.
FS: Thank you.
LA: Femi, thank you so much for coming down and talking with us today.
FS: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I feel very honored.