Career & Success , Nonprofit , Social Impact

Jonathan Reckford: Success Comes from Following My Faith and My Heart

Why the CEO of Habitat for Humanity left corporate leadership to lead the global nonprofit.

April 01, 2010

| by Michele Chandler

Jonathan Reckford’s career has taken him from corporate leadership to his current post as chief executive officer with global nonprofit Habitat for Humanity. His success, he says, comes from following his faith and his heart.

“As I look back now, I can see how all the different experiences along the way helped prepare me for this job, even if I didn’t see it at the time,” said Reckford, who joined Habitat in 2005.

The North Carolina native and MBA ‘89 alum recounted his circuitous path from Wall Street through executive corporate suites to church ministry and eventually to Habitat, an ecumenical organization dedicated to helping to eliminate poverty by providing simple, decent shelter to those in need, during his “View From The Top” speech at Stanford GSB on April 27.

His career began at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as a financial analyst after earning a political science degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It was there that he learned an important lesson from John Weinberg, vice chairman of the financial services firm: How you treat subordinates matters. “He took a personal interest in virtually everyone and he had a deep personal respect for everybody in the firm,” Reckford said. Following that example, he said he still takes note of how each new employee treats everyone, from higher-ups to the receptionist and the custodian. “That,” he explained, “is a sign of character.”

In 1986, Reckford left to accept a Henry Luce Foundation scholarship, a prestigious cultural exchange program designed to bring young American leaders from a variety of fields to Asia for internships. As part of the program, he traveled to South Korea to work with the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, drive marketing sponsorships and even coach the Korean national rowing team.

His decision to seek something beyond business success also took place there, prompted by a chance meeting with another Westerner, a pastor and ethics professor at a Korean university. The pair hit it off and for months conducted a weekly Bible study, informal sessions that Reckford called his “private seminary” and an experience that shaped his decision that “the kind of life I wanted to lead was one of faith.”

He also determined that the skills he’d learn in business school — how to help companies grow and thrive — were desperately needed in the nonprofit and service world. So, after returning from Korea, Reckford entered Stanford GSB and its Public Management Program.

His first steps after graduation were into the corporate mainstream, in the Marriott hotel chain’s corporate strategy group, before moving on to work for Disney Design and Development and then working as senior vice president of corporate planning and communications at the Circuit City chain of electronics stores. After that, Reckford became president of stores for the Musicland Group, a retail company Best Buy acquired in 2000. He stayed on at Best Buy to assist in the transition, but his job was eventually phased out.

After his post at Best Buy, Reckford stepped up his level of volunteer work at the 4,300-member Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., where he was a member. He embarked on his first church mission trip to India to assist the country’s “untouchables,” a group he said were literally only allowed to hand-clean latrines and clean up dead animals. “It shattered me to see people living in those conditions,” Reckford said. The experience reignited his feelings of wanting to do something to help the poor and prompted him to apply for management jobs at nonprofits.

Back at Christ Presbyterian, where he had coached pastors about management and leadership challenges, he was soon asked to become the church’s executive pastor, a job he wasn’t expecting and that many friends told him was a lousy career move. “But best as I could tell, it was what I was supposed to do, so I went into full-time church work and loved it. It was very fulfilling to me,” he said.

While working for the church, he got a call from a recruiter seeking suggestions for people qualified to be chief executive at Habitat for Humanity, which was gearing up for rapid worldwide growth. That was his dream job, Reckford realized, the kind of position he’d been preparing for informally for years. Today he is immersed in the faith-based group’s new set of complex goals.

Habitat is the largest private homebuilder in the United States, largely due to efforts to help residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he said. In addition to building new houses, the organization is also buying and rehabilitating foreclosed homes. Last year, the group made it possible for 61,000 needy families to buy houses that they either helped build or repair, triple the number of families served in 2004. Reckford aims to assist 100,000 families annually by 2013.

The organization is also involved internationally, helping fill housing needs for tsunami victims in Asia and earthquake survivors in Haiti and Chile. And, with as many as 95 percent of the world’s families without access to home loans, Reckford said his next initiative will be to help launch a global housing microfinance fund.

While he started his career in the corporate world, Reckford told students that wasn’t the only path to success. Whether they choose to enter the private or nonprofit arena, he urged them not to work anywhere that doesn’t mesh with their personal values.

He also encouraged MBA students to learn from the career detours they’ll undoubtedly encounter and to be as eager to learn from failure as success.

“My life changed dramatically for the better during one of the quiet times in my life, when I wasn’t earning a dime and was probably the most frustrated,” he said. “I don’t think I could have ever intentionally charted this path.”

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