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Tom Willis in conversation with Mike Mantel

Mike Mantel

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Listen to Mike Mantel, President & CEO of Living Water International on the Culture Eats Everything Podcast in conversation with Thomas Willis.

Read more about Mike Mantel:

Dr. Michael J. Mantel has dedicated much of his life to mobilizing churches to bring water to the world’s thirsty while sharing the love of Jesus Christ. As the president and CEO of Living Water International, a faith-based global humanitarian organization, Mike is a firm believer in the miracle of safe water, and in the biblical vision of the unity of the Body of Christ.

Since 2008, Mike has led Living Water International through years of unprecedented growth by helping church communities around the world become more effective agents of gospel-driven change. Thirsting for Living Water is a response to the desire of many American churches to help their people find adventure and purpose in God’s redemption story. Mike’s 30 years of experience working with churches in the US and around the world offers a unique perspective on the global Church, as does his passion for helping church communities come alive through world-changing action.

After earning a business degree from Calvin College in 1983 and a decade in business, Mike witnessed firsthand the impact of water when he visited impoverished rural communities in Senegal, West Africa, where his then-employer was sponsoring the drilling of wells. It was during this trip where Mike felt a divine invitation to help thirsty people access clean water—a catalyst for physical and spiritual change.

Prior to joining Living Water International, Mike led various teams at World Vision, earned a PhD in Organizational Development from Benedictine University, enjoyed many years in business, and received the Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater Calvin College.

Recently honored by the Houston Business Journal as a Most Admired CEO, Mike has authored, contributed to, or been featured in, articles in the Houston Business Journal, Houston Chronicle, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Christianity Today, as well as other publications and a number of books.

Mike serves as an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church. He, his wife Natalie, and their four daughters have traveled the world in service with others, and he cherishes the opportunity to invite others to make a difference at home, among near neighbors, and even to the ends of the earth.

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YouTube Transcript

Hey Mike thanks for joining us on the podcast today. It's great to meet you because we have not really met before but I think we've shared many similar Journeys through life from challenges to trips to Africa that really changed our world view. I thought that'd be kind of a fun place to start you're you're a CEO of a really impressive organization who's transforming millions of people's lives around the world um and in many ways.

It started with a with a trip to Senegal so tell us about that trip hey Tom Delight to be with you I'm back in 87 Some time ago I was a young business person I was working for uh the owner Domino's Pizza and it was just a lark you know I uh I had somehow convinced him to make a donation um to fund a water uh project a windmill just a friend of mine who had bought a windmill from for for his farm out there at Domino's farms.

I was afraid that that money might not get well spent and since I was on the cook for it. I just thought it'd be a grand Lark to fly to West Africa and and put up this windmill with uh this guy named Max Keller and uh so I got the zip off pants and the Serengeti sunglasses. I jumped on the airplane back then there was an airline called air F freak and I thought I was and I headed out there um was absolutely Blown Away by moving so far outside of my culture.

The people look different you know they had these old blue ancient Mercedes-Benz taxis and we went for hours into the into the bush into the desert and we spent a few weeks drilling water well putting up a windmill trying to get to understand this culture of Nomads that uh you know they were suffering they had no idea that there was an aquifer of water a couple hundred feet under their desert floor and when uh when we hit water um it changed our lives you can almost see it in your in your eyes for those of us listening to the podcast.

You could see Mike's eyes sort of go go to the heavens like he could we could revision and see that scene again what was that like well you know this wolof tribe was a group of maybe 60 people uh there was this old religious leader called the maribu who uh I befriended he befriended me I still remember you know watching him uh yeah he was giving me some peanuts and he dropped a few in the sand and he just bent over and he picked him up he dusted them off put him back in the pile.

I just thought things are so precious here in this place called care City bang in the middle of Senegal but at the same time you know he invited me into his home he cut up a little watermelon it was just a tiny little watermelon it was still green he cut it up it was the only one on the vine and he was sharing it with me you know people had so little and they were so generous and it's it impacted me that I was able to befriend this this man on the other side of the world with a different world perspective in minutes and we really just kind of hung out together for the couple of weeks while we were Drilling and installing this water point and uh it it meant a lot to me to um that little Adventure and with so little giving it away um you know it's a interesting leadership lesson in there how did that shape you think as you look back on that a few decades later um you don't look any any older for the age though Mike um how has it shaped your leadership journey into what you're doing now and uh and and then tell us a little bit about what you guys are doing well the biggest thing for me was um what I was experiencing Senegal was impossible there's no way that strategically the Pizza King over at Domino's could participate in a well drilling operation that had some Roughnecks from England a uh a program director from Vietnam the resources to access this water nobody could have figured that out and said here I got a strategy let's get these people together and let's produce life change in the desert and so that was my confounding uh situation and uh I thought there has got to be a higher power at work here because what I'm experiencing is impossible and could it be that uh our challenge as Leaders is to discover a bigger plan than we could come up with could could we experience even a divine plan and live into that divine plan and so that question this idea that you know perhaps there's a master strategy in the world that we could discover and live into that's what really rocked my world because you know I've been in business I studied business I learned to put together you know projects and proposals and companies but this idea that we might be part of something bigger that put me on a little bit of a journey because I wanted to let's just put it this way I wanted to work for God I wanted to discover what God is doing and join him in that work from a business perspective and so uh I made a deal with my boss over at TSM Inc that I would go pursue that Adventure I would discover if if I could determine what God was doing and participate in that that led me to a big old organization called World Vision in Chicago it's a two billion dollar Global Ministry that does all kinds of stuff and I work for them for about 17 years it was supposed to be a three-year deal a three-year tithe you know for those that you know maybe from the Christian or Jewish faith understand tithe 10 of of money but this case 10 percent of my time was gonna go to you know to dedicate to working for God so that's three years three not 17 but I ended up kind of re-upping every three years working in Chicago and then about 15 years later I said okay enough of this um what is the most important thing for me to do with my life and over those 17 years I discovered water is the fundamental intervention in human development water is at the root of all human flourishing if people have water they become healthy healthy kids can go to school if kids could stay in school long enough to get educated they have a chance at improving their environment if if women and children spend less time hauling often polluted water where it's frequently dangerous they could dedicate their time to their families to agricultural production to micro businesses water has a multiplier impact so I thought if I'm going to spend some more years doing the most important thing it will be water and I discovered this organization down in Texas called Living Water international and uh I felt uh compelled to move from Chicago to Houston become a Texan buy some boots and uh in the last 13 years I've been leading uh the work for Living Water international out of Houston Texas but we're really a global organization we have 300 staff in 18 countries the staff in each country are from that country our leadership is very diverse and uh we do about 800 or a thousand water projects a year so far we've completed twenty one thousand uh impacting about seven million people so seven million people have water today because uh normal people individuals businesses churches have invested in this great big plan that very few of them ever experience personally or physically but they're changing the World by uh helping people access clean water uh that's that's phenomenal seven million people impacted by that and every single time I'm sure there's that same look of just absolute astonishment and Joy on their face when when that water comes out of the ground every time you know um when people don't have clean water they understand the value of it it's hard for me even having traveled a lot over 40 years I go to the fridge and I push my little glass in the door I don't even have to open the door and that cold clean water comes out but when I'm in West Africa or Southern Africa or South Asia just for a few days and I see these kids that literally spend up to 15 hours a week hauling water and it's unsafe water and they're sick not able to go to school when women are put in vulnerable positions and when they get that water they party they dance they're screaming and yelling because they know their their world has changed and I wish everybody could experience that and you're right I do light up because I immediately transported to those happy joyous faces these these kids that know their life is forever changed

that's awesome that's fantastic um we'll get into how people can help you in a little bit um but how do you think about you know culture in that context you know 18 different countries hundreds of employees all over the place how do you as a CEO think about how do I how do I lead and manage and Coach this International body of of people that that is my team well we've been on a journey um so when I came to Living Water it was a you know typical first generation startup yeah anybody who starts a business starts a non-profit you got a lot of passion you hire your friends and family because they're the only people that will back your vision they're the only ones that you can afford because you don't have any money to pay anybody and and that founder or Founders are just making calls every day you know who gets a computer you know who gets a water well you know do we you know try to develop some benefits and I remember walking into the office when when they were uh you know recruiting me there was a big old long line of individuals outside of the Founder's office waiting for that individual person to make a call and we were mostly Americans and uh mostly older people and so uh when I uh was given the opportunity to join I joined with a belief that knowledge is decentralized that there is a tremendous experience at all levels of the organization in all geographical representation of the organization and the best people to make the critical calls are those closest to the action so where are we putting drilling water wells where are we teaching sanitation and hygiene and nobody knows the politics the religious Dynamics the logistics the governmental issues better than someone who grew up in that environment nobody knows it better than them nobody has more tenacity wisdom positive Wily spirit I mean no nobody is better than those closest to the action so we decided that we really wanted to make that country office the primary business unit and we would support that country office within a regional context we would support those regions at a global Service Center and we went about looking for the best not only Drillers but the best accountants the best teachers the best public health folks that we could afford and we began to uh create culture that was across geographical areas that was across language that was across across knowledge bases and that created a lot of challenge because you know in the in the first 10 years you got people coming from all over the place with all kinds of perspective and language so then what we had to do was collectively come up with uh quality standards we had to negotiate um priorities we had to begin to train one another into kind of like a living Water Way like uh what did we want to be and how would we train ourselves to develop into that image of what we wanted to be and we use this really cool social Innovation called appreciative inquiry and that is it's just that an approach that says we you can never fix something by identifying what's broken what you do is you describe um who it is you want to be and you begin to talk about the ideal of who you want to be what you want to do how you're going to get there and then as a human system you move towards that shared vision of the future you still got to work really hard you got to build systems and processes and budgets and Communications tools and Technology but when you have people talking about what they want what is ideal The Innovation uh erupts people move into that shared vision and then what you try to do is then accommodate that Vision you you try to catch up to it and and underpin it with business principles structure strategy budget systems processes and um and that's what helped us really shift from kind of a startup to a second generation from kind of a western sending organization to a global empowering organization and I credit a lot to the approach that generative approach we call appreciative inquiry it's uh it's you know it's it's a skill set I think that's not often out there because most of the times leaders all they see is the next problem right right like just I gotta tackle today's challenges I got to put out today's fires I don't have time for that appreciative inquiry stuff I don't have time to to work on the big picture stuff you know I don't have time to think about where we're going um but we always tell clients that is your job you know if you're if you are a leader or a manager or coach whatever your title is it doesn't matter you can use those tools to help Advance the organization by getting people focused on that future as as you said and I love that you've got both a focus on the future but also this idea of um would you say knowledge is decentralized you know that we we need to put the power we need to empower the folks closest to the action to to make sure that they've got what they need to to be successful which is you know again easier said than done especially when you're talking about 18 different countries and I'm sure in those 18 countries have different cultures and then there's subcultures within those countries based on where they are geographically um you're laughing what's the laugh well you got it you're just you've obviously lived in these environments and studied these environments and you consult in these environments because that's what it is it's it's one of my colleagues in Haiti says it's like mountains Beyond mountains Beyond mountains you know you climb one and you only see the next mountain range but if you can put in place uh if you solidify the foundation each time you take a step up and you solidify it again um it it takes a while but culture begins to get formed people begin to co-create a way in which communication Works how does how do problems get solved how do people reconcile when they have differences of opinion how do we codify what it is that we believe and then how do we communicate that out and so you're living into a socially constructed future but you're building the blocks as you're moving almost in faith you're stretching out into uh the unknown but you're building as you go and I think that goes back to my this early question back in Senegal that how how do you live into the unknown but for a belief that it's bigger than yourself that there is a a order and a hopeful plan for the universe because if if that didn't exist I don't think we could stretch into the unknown and give ourselves the time to build the blocks under our feet as we're going yeah it takes that great great leap of faith you commit to the Future and then you're like oh boy how do we get there

yeah we had lots of and we still do lots of fly the plane while building it uh kind of analogies the the other one that I like is you know if you're walking across a stream and you're on these little uh stepping stones but let's just say you can't see the next stepping stone and you won't see it until you've already shifted your weight forward where you really can't go back but you have to believe that that stepping stone is going to make itself visible after you've shifted your weight now of course you gotta balance and mitigate risk and you know make sure you've got you know some cash flow and that you're you know you're your Good Will and your media presence is strong you know you got to do all the business stuff but I think it the power of faith into the unknown yet constructed vision is what allows us to move forward and these are crazy times I mean I I know I study history I know we've had crazy times in the past but just think about these last two years how crazy has it been

yeah what I love about that that visual too of the Stepping Stones is it's not necessarily a religious uh faith that that that people could apply this their own lives there may be listeners out there who who find themselves you know indifferent or maybe don't believe at all um but that idea of putting a future out there for yourself and for your team and for your organization is a powerful one because the the further out you put it the bigger it is the more likely it is to happen you know it's it's with great intentionality that you're going about this but it is an Act of Faith because you don't know what the future holds none of us do you know uh that's exactly it and you know outside of my religious Faith perspective much of my training was not in business was not from uh people of a shared religious faith the idea of envisioning the future through conversation with uh your whole system your your business colleagues people throughout your dispersed knowledge base having that conversation talking about what an individual and a collective group feel compelled to do based on their experiences you know you look at the best of our past and based on who we know ourselves to be and you look at the environment your Marketplace the world the challenge the the business problem you're trying to solve you can create a vision that compels the organization forward it's like light pulling the flowers to it and now as a as a as a faith-filled person I get to have one additional benefit because I believe I can socially construct reality with the Divine now that that beats out your business leaders that only have human beings in which to socially construct with so but still most of the literature most of the business practices are built on the human capacity to create and live into a shared future that has benefit and how do you how do you tap into that Mike you know for for those of you who are believers who maybe don't hear God or for those of you who don't believe you know how do you tap into that that bigger future that bigger sense of of purpose in the uh This Book for a buddy of mine wrote Jim ludama Dr ludama he's the dean of business over at Calvin College now in Grand Rapids but years ago 20 30 years ago he wrote a book called The appreciative inquiry Summit and it just kind of lays out this really cool process where you start out just with one-on-one interviews you know who are you Why'd You Come here what do you love about your organization and you know you build a little conversational Rapport between you know two two individuals then you get those pairs you know unlikely pairs we try to pair people up that don't know each other you know different levels of the organization different cultures then you get these pairs to sit around a table two four six you got a small group and then that in that small group uh you introduce your partner and then you begin to build a little bigger shared understanding around the table and then you start you know you get back to the plenary session and then each table talks about the talents that are sitting around their table and begin to describe who this organization is through the eyes and experiences the hopes and dreams of the participants and you begin to identify you know what are those positive core of what makes the organization everything it is what makes it great you know you go back to your interviews and you talk about now imagine you know ABC company five years from now is everything that you have hoped for everything you could dream of it's killing it in the marketplace it's solving you know Global problems it's you know helping kids develop into their potential and you're King for the day you're Queen for the day describe it something that is worth living into and then you know people describe it and then you know the whole group talks about it and over the course of a couple of days and it's not years it's just a few days you can begin to articulate a shared vision for your system for your whole your your board your staff your senior team you know everyone in this and then it's a business question what do we need to do to live into that power to live into that vision and you know the accountants and everything about numbers and The Architects and business process people know everything about architecture and business process and the HR people know about people and then the whole team begins to lay it out now what happens is if it's a it's a if it's a Visionary stretch and now you've unleashed that shared vision and passion As Leaders we have got to be committed to live into that and typically we always underestimate what that's going to take and so we get busy for like three to five years but that process I've done that over and over and over small groups large groups you know it really comes out of a Case Western Reserve University with a guy named Dave Cooper Rider it's been around for 40 years but I've adapted it and I utilize it in in my work and that's what I would suggest something similar to discover that bigger plan now as a as a Christian I also tie that process to just personal reflection meditation conversation with like-minded individuals because um I'm also curious about for me what God has to say and so that's why I say I gotta I got a little leg up on on my friends who uh don't have faith in the Divine that that there is a God that interacts with us but still those buddies of mine in business and Academia they could they could get close [Laughter] yeah I remember someone said to me would you miss a meeting with somebody who had all the answers and everyone's like no of course not he's like well then how can you keep forgetting to pray

you don't treat that meeting like it's the most important meeting of your day or multiple meetings of the day and this room of mostly Believers was like you know it kind of took them back in there oh yeah I would I would never miss a meeting with a client or with a really important employee but I'll skip that you know Skip that prayer time just because I got other stuff to do um very very challenging notion I love that idea too of of uh shared Vision I think so many organizations missed that point you know it becomes a a vision statement that is announced from on high and then they expect people to live it even though they didn't really get a chance to tie their own personal Vision to it you know there's no sense of you know seeing myself in it and so you get compliance you know not commitment um which is a critical critical step that takes a little extra time but I think is critical for all those leaders out there and all those young leaders you've got to take the time to to build that Rapport build relationships with people you know take the time to explore the vision allow people to see themselves in it because that's where the real power comes from you are absolutely right you know the uh the intervention you know the change process begins with inquiry the moment you and I start talking you're asking me questions I'm asking you questions we are already changing our perspectives our hopes our dreams and if we can organize ourselves in such a way that allows our whole organization to do that the time we spend up front produces so much faster return later that it's it's worth the time it's more than worth the time the the what I found in back before I got really really busy at Living Water I do some Consulting on the side and uh we would have to convince you know CEOs that it's worth your time you know so we'd have to tell stories from you know Shell Oil in the Bank of America and the U.S Navy about you know these processes and if we we sold them that they needed to commit their time their senior leaders needed to commit their time and that they would back what comes out of this then their change process would be supercharged and they wouldn't have to try to convince people to implement their plan because everybody saw their signature they saw their fingerprints on the plan and it's now it's my plan you know and I'm gonna get there so I didn't intend to talk about you know change processes but I do love that one yeah well it's it's the ultimate secret ingredient to change is and it skipped most of the times we spend millions of dollars on strategies and tactics and these beautiful Powerpoints and we forget to we're human beings you know we need to be we need to be touched at some deeper level of of why um you you met my daughter before he started Mike my son just brought me apples and peanut butter um I am I am living the life here so we're running out of time I've got one book recommendation it's yours um thirsting for living water that I think you just released this year um but what book recommendation do you have for the listeners out there well that book thirsting for Living Waters are about um discovering our stories in our own lives and living into a bigger story I love stories and a buddy of mine is he printed this one a couple of years ago it's called the Genius of one and it's a he's his name is Greg holder now he's a pastor there are a lot of business guys that listen to Greg um but it's just it's a fantastic set of adventure stories that he personally enjoyed uh throughout a few decades I would encourage those of us that are trying to look to see is is there like a bigger story out there to read The Genius of one by uh Greg holder he's a passer out at something called The Crossing in St Louis uh it is the most fun I've ever experienced going to church so uh read the book it's full of great stories excellent excellent my my business partner and I were just talking about an hour ago because we're writing a book that'll come out next year and we're talking about how do we how do we do this in a way that's pragmatic that's highly useful for CEOs so they can go and they can take the work we've been doing for 30 years across the country around the world and use it and you can read the book and and make it like a guidebook you know for creating a high performing culture but then we're also thinking about how do we insert stories in such a way that the Rev you know they're relevant and they resonate for people and it's uh it's no easy combination I'll tell you you know Tom it ain't you know the when I was writing this book you know you start out writing a book you don't know exactly what you want to say you know you I had a lot of ideas then I started uh you know I try to find you know kind of a chassis to tell the story I wanted to to help me get through and so I you know picked stories and I framed up the book and and then I realized about three quarters of the way through that you know these stories may be interesting but people don't really care about my stories what people care about are their stories if we can help them tell simply their stories that becomes a powerful change agent not only in their lives but in the lives of those that they're surrounded by and so um I think that's the answer is let's tell our stories in compelling ways that underpin some really important uh Frameworks and and culture but then let's get people to think about their own stories within that context and just tell one person they trust or a half a dozen or maybe write their own book you know then we'll have a an explosion of of possibilities yes people will will come out and share with the world what they've been keeping inside for too long well thanks Mike this has been great and and thank you for the work that you do and more importantly I'm excited for the next seven million lives you touch uh so thank you Tom thanks so much it was a real Joy I look forward to chatting again

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