This month, we sat down with Don Manning, both Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry alumni and member of the Dean’s Executive Advisory Board. Don currently serves as President and CEO of Agros International, an organization that is “committed to breaking the cycle of poverty for rural families in Central America and Mexico by enabling landless communities to achieve land ownership and economic stability.” The road to Don’s leadership at Agros is full of the twists and turns that make a great storyline and plot, and his educational experience at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and its Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies program is a major component of that journey. Don openly and candidly shared the story just steps away from campus over a cappuccino. Prior to coming to the School, Don was accomplished and successful in his career as a lawyer and corporate litigator. A native of Atlanta, Don studied English and Economics at Georgetown University before attending University of Georgia for law school. While at Georgetown, Don found himself taking theology courses as almost all of his electives—almost enough to have minored in Theology. Looking back, he shares that something within him was drawn to look deeper into truths about life, humanity and what drives us as people. Throughout his time at Georgetown and in law school, Don worked with a local youth group—engaging the themes and values that he had studied in his theology courses in a very practical way with those he was in relationship with.Don chuckled when he told us that he “likes breaking stereotypes” particularly when it comes to people’s perceptions of what a lawyer is and what corporate leaders are. Being a warm person and having a good sense of humor, that’s easy to see immediately when you meet Don. After working in a firm in Atlanta for several years, he and his family relocated to Seattle where he dove deeper and deeper into the lifestyle that large complex litigation and malpractice cases demand. For almost three years, he found himself becoming increasingly absorbed in his work.
Looking back in retrospect, Don recalls working with a local Seattle youth group during that time and having a deep sense internally that he was lacking a grounding that he wish he had. Without even realizing it, he began to ask questions about the rest of his life. Don’s goal at the time was to make partner at the firm. As the Partner Evaluation Process (PEC) continued to progress over two full years, a shift unexpectedly occurred. With the economic downturn, he was deferred for partnership. That shift, in Don’s words, “woke him up”.At 34 years old, Don had what he calls “an early mid-life crisis”. A crisis defined by the gripping thought “this can’t be all there is”. Supporting his wife and two children, having been trained as a lawyer, how was he to respond to this moment? Don decided to hire a professional life coach. His life coach encouraged him to network with others in and surrounding his circle of relationships—to see what else was out there and to explore new ideas and potential career opportunities. He began to ask himself sincerely, “What do I care about?”
Don had been attending Seattle’s St. Joseph Parish with his family, and at that time decided to sign up for some of their Adult Education courses. Looking back, Don reflects on how everything inside of him was reaching out spirituality, while simultaneously thinking practically about what life could actually look like, moving forward. Don recalls taking a class with Wes Howard-Brook on the Gospels of John and Mark, and having a moment of realization that the role of partner at a law firm wasn’t for him. At that point, Don began interviewing for roles in other companies and corporations, and was hired as an in-house attorney for AT&T wireless. He had been offered a higher position, but chose to follow where his path had been leading him—more in the direction of working with people on the operations side of things. Don found himself remembering what he liked about being a lawyer and recognizing the professional skills he had developed. It was in that point of transition that he began to observe from his supervisor what it looked like to manage people well.Don transitioned to Nextel Partners, a start-up telecommunications company, as its General Counsel.. Over the next eight years, Don had the opportunity to watch Nextel Partners emerge and flourish out of nothing, and then take a beating when the .com stock market bust sent the company’s shares into a tailspin. He recalls that those eight years felt like an entire career. The company survived and, in fact, was sold a few years later for a total enterprise value just shy of $10 billion.Suddenly, Don found himself out of a job and, for the first time in his life, financially secure enough to really ponder what it would look like to be a “contemplative in action.” As he was about to finish the interview process for yet another General Counsel he withdrew from the process and took a leap of faith. He pursued a long-time desire and enrolled in the Masters of Pastoral Studies program at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry. Don also became a stay at home dad while he wife went back to work, dove head first into his studies, and asked Fr. Paul Fitterer to be his spiritual director during this pivotal transition and new beginning. Father Paul encouraged Don to find a new daily rhythm in which to discover what was next—engaging responsibilities in the routine of his family life and his degree program reflectively.
From the first day he walked onto campus at Seattle University, Don noticed the marked difference between attending college as an undergraduate to obtain credentials to enter the work force and attending graduate school to pursue a life plan. Studying as an adult professional allowed him to bring the wealth of his years of experience to the classroom and provided a context for exploring personal growth and development all of which produced marked changes in his skills as a manager and business professional. He said that he had expected his degree would train him to take on greater leadership roles within his parish, but he was stunned by the profound effects the program had on his skills as a business and legal professional. This discovery made him write and journal, even outside of his required reflection assignments.Don recently shared in an Executive Board Meeting, in a discussion about what sets the School apart: “I would hire any professional coming out of a Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry program. I know from experience that individuals who have completed this educational process emerge as self-aware and intentional leaders that have a great capacity for responsiveness to the needs of any team, group or organization and leading in the direction of health and growth.” Over a cappuccino while telling his story, Don reflected that in the process of his Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies program, he was forced to learn a new way of being in the world. A contentment in “not knowing”, not having all the answers. A humility and openness. A way of practically expressing values. An intuition and responsiveness in the context of relationships. When Don graduated from the School with a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies in 2009, he was ready (in his words) to “structure his life with connection to purpose”. Don had recently intersected with the organization Agros International in a variety of ways, including as a board member and interim CEO. He was asked to assume the position of President and CEO of the company in January 2012. Don recalls that coming out of his graduate studies, his new role felt like a “test-run” for how these themes / values played out in the real world, the corporate world. He noticed his impulse to return to some of the ways of being he was so used to before—the impulse to “watch your back” and make calculated moves. Don remembers having to make a conscious choice to engage this new way of being—to not compulsively try and “fix” problems but to take on the role of facilitating change. He noticed that he felt a lot more comfortable in tension, was able to let go of ego and the impulse to defend himself and his actions at all costs. Don was able to live out the learning he had engaged in his graduate work. “I don’t think you can get to the other side, as a leader, until you confront some of these realities,” he shares. “What would happen if you were able to help your company find a place of work-life balance? Instead of internal disputes and interpersonal problems occupying 45% of your organization’s emotional climate and work culture, what if that percentage went down to 10% or less? It’s important to re-address what our fulfillment is as humans, what the role of the workplace is in people’s lives, and reflect on what is life-giving and enriching in order to solve management problems and lead teams, groups and corporations to a place of health.What I like the most about Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry—and its Search for Meaning Book Festival has a lot to do with it—is that it is able to actively engage individuals and groups that are asking the question of what’s relevant in religion and spirituality in our world today—in our communities, places of work and lives as leaders. I really feel like this voice, the voice of the School, needs to be out there and a part of professionals’ lives.”
Many thanks to Don for his openness in sharing his personal and professional journey with us. We are honored to celebrate his work as one of our alumni, living out the mission and vision of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry “for a more just and humane world”.For more information on the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies and other degree programs, visit http://www.seattleu.edu/stm/graduatedegrees/, and for more information on Agros International, visit http://www.agros.org.
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