By Eddie Pipkin

Richard Montañez’s rise from janitor to respected global food company executive is American as it gets.  He took an idea, backed by hard work and belief, and turned it into an inspirational success story.  Montañez is the genius behind Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and his feel-good tale of triumph is not only a celebration of the power of the individual to rise up in an egalitarian society.  It’s also a further illustration of the principles we explored in this space last week when I wrote about the power of unexpected insight to make a major impact IF institutions are willing to listen to ideas with equal interest no matter where they originate or who brings them to the table.  A great idea is a great idea.  Frito-Lay proclaimed just such a policy a generation ago, and a fiery insight from an unexpected source and billions of dollars in new revenue later, that policy paid game-changing dividends.

Montañez was a first-generation Mexican immigrant in the 1960s who dropped out of school after the 4th grade, who began working with his family as a teenager picking grapes and performing other basic labor, until in 1976 he got his wife to help him fill out a job application and landed a major upgrade when he was hired as a janitor by the local Frito-Lay plant.  Vowing to be the best janitor the company had ever seen and learning all he could about the plant and the food business by indulging his “insatiable curiosity” whenever and however he could, he was perfectly positioned to respond to a company-wide video distributed by CEO Roger Enrico in the mid-80s.  By then, Frito-Lay was struggling big time, and Enrico’s message encouraged all 300 thousand employees to “act like an owner.”

Montañez took him at his word.  He had noticed that Frito-Lay had no products specifically targeted at the Latino market.  So, he decided to spice up some Cheetos, concocting his own recipe of spices and putting them on some Cheetos that had not yet been dusted with cheese.  His friends and neighbors raved, and after fine-tuning his recipe, he picked up the phone and called the CEO of the multi-national company.  Yep.  He was naïve enough and enamored enough of his idea that it did not occur to him that when the CEO had said “if you have an good idea, let me know” he really meant it.  The whole story is great – read the entire, inspiring account here.  The gist is that the Southern California janitor ended up in a room with high-level executives pitching his spicy, hot Cheetos; the idea was a success; and Montañez himself eventually became a VP with the company!

There are two parts of this story that are amazing: 1) Leaders told the employees to dream – no matter where they were on the food chain – and those employees dreamed.  And 2) – and this is part I really want us to focus on – the CEO took the call.

We are, many of us, CEOs of our ministries.  Do we find ourselves always making decisions based on the same inner circle?

  • Are we caught up in the same meetings with the same people week after week?
  • Are we on the phone with the same few players for hours and hours? The person who can always get through to us and bend our ear (even when other people say they have a hard time getting time with us for a conversation)?
  • Do a select few people have undue influence (particularly veto power) based on their connection to us, alignment with our perspective, generosity to the ministry, job title, educational credentials, or sheer longevity in the system?
  • Even if we advertise that we love to get ideas from everybody, are the structures and procedures for sharing those ideas so onerous and intimidating that they discourage people?
  • Do staff dominate the idea generation and decision making at the expense of lay people?

It is standard stuff for leaders to solicit ideas, involvement, engagement, and input.  But to ask for it means people are going to offer it – people have ideas and passion projects, and they love the opportunity to engage those ideas and passions.  In fact, ministry at its best and most powerful frees people to live into those God-callings with creative energy and focus.  So, if we encourage this process with our words, but then shut it down with our actions, we do damage.  This is the definition of inauthenticity.

On the other hand, if we solicit the enthusiastic contributions (not just labor, but ideas) of everyone involved in our ministry, we nurture a community in which – in the words of the executive leadership at Frito-Lay – everybody is an owner.  It is an incalculable benefit to work in a ministry culture in which everyone involved feels empowered ownership.  And it’s rare.

Local churches can feature intense power dynamics and fierce protection of territory.  Leadership structures can be complex, competitive, and coercive.  This is the natural trajectory of leadership structures that are not actively working to promote an egalitarian discipleship.  To counteract the natural pull to isolate our decision making, it is important to have plans in place to promote participation:

  • Stress the value of all ideas and perspectives regularly in worship, in meetings, and in all communications. Then be faithful in providing a structure for sharing those ideas and perspectives.
  • Publicize meeting times and places for leadership groups, and make it clear that all people are welcome to attend, observe, and participate (when practical).
  • Have strong feedback loops.
  • Have regularly scheduled events/meetings/forums which are specifically targeted to generate new ideas from your membership and help them understand the practical aspects of moving ideas to practical outcomes.
  • Get out of the meeting room and spend time with the people (volunteers and participants) who are making ministry happen.
  • Reach out to the people in the trenches who are making ministry happen – do this on a regular schedule with different people in different aspects of ministry – and solicit their input one-on-one. Treat them to coffee and a conversation.  Or send them an email saying, “Hey, I am wondering if you could take a few minutes to write down how you think this ministry is going and what you’d like to see for it in the future.”
  • Make a special point to occasionally hear from people you know to be disgruntled with the ministry – even if their complaints are ridiculous, good can come from listening to them neutrally and letting them have an opportunity to share.
  • Highlight the examples of ministry successes that have stemmed from the vision and unexpected insights of “regular folks.”

Imagine inviting a “regular person” (volunteer or ministry beneficiary) to your high-level executive leadership gathering, right into the inner sanctum, and giving them an opportunity to share their perspective on how things are going.  That would be groundbreaking, wouldn’t it?

This is the imitable aspect of the American idea that takes its inspiration from the Gospel: all people matter; all people have a worthwhile contribution to make.  Celebrate it.  Embrace it.  Build leadership structures that lean into it.  And let us know how it goes!  Happy 4th of July from all of us at EMC3 Coaching, and blessed ministry months ahead!