3 Disruptive Questions Every Leader Must Ask with Dean Niewolny
Dean Niewolny talks with Ray about the vision of Halftime Institute and how every leader can grow in self-knowledge to be more effective in fulfilling their God-given mission.
Dean Niewolny spent 23 years in executive roles with three of Wall Street’s largest financial firms, finishing his career in the financial sector as a market manager for Wells Fargo Advisors in Chicago.
In 2010, Dean left his marketplace career to help people who wanted to expand their own first-half success and skills into passion and purpose for meeting human needs and making a significant difference. Dean joined the Halftime Institute as Managing Director and in 2011 became Chief Executive Officer.
Dean speaks at events around the world, encouraging business leaders to channel first-half achievement into a second half-defined by joy, impact, and balance. Dean is the author of Trade Up: How to Go From Just Making Money to Making A Difference.
“The reality is we’re too busy. And we don’t take enough time to really focus on ourselves.”
“We all need someone to keep us accountable.”
“Pray and trust that God truly has your best interest in mind.”
1. Start with a low cost probe
2. Ask yourself the three disruptive questions
3. Put your spouse’s dreams ahead of your own
4. Stay close to the Lord and He will guide you
Dean Niewolny book on Amazon
Ray: Hello everyone, this is Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith. If this is your first time joining us and checking out the program, hey, thanks for joining. You’re going to have a great time today. If you’re a regular listener, welcome back. This is the program where we get a chance to talk to some of the most amazing Christ followers across the country who are living out their faith every day in business and in the marketplace. And in these conversations we kind of get a behind the scenes look at what makes them tick and how they make decisions, lessons in life, advice they’ve learned along the way, and so forth.
It’s all about eternal business in real life and how do we balance that kingdom calling in the marketplace, and yet with real deadlines and real objectives and needing to get things done. I am so excited, today. We have Dean Niewolny who is the president and CEO at the Halftime Institute. Dean, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Dean: Ray, thank you. Thank you. I look forward to it.
Ray: And Dean, we’re on the phone today as we’re recording the conversation, and where is it that you are located? Where is the Halftime Institute? We’re going to learn about Halftime in just a moment, but where are you calling from today?
Dean: Calling from beautiful Dallas, Texas.
Ray: Take just a moment, Dean, and give us a snapshot, a framework. What is the Halftime Institute?
Dean: Well, the Halftime Institute is an organization that helps men and women identify and engage in what we call their Ephesians 2:10 calling. And we help folks really understand better their gifts and their talents and their passions. And Halftime was started in 1995 really with a book that Bob Buford wrote. The organization began a few years after that because Bob was encouraged by Peter Drucker, his mentor, to write a book about his life. And Bob said, “Well Peter, what should I call it?” He said, “Why don’t you call it Halftime because you like football.” And Bob had no intention of this organization starting the way it has and the way it’s developed over the years. So Bob wrote a book and the tag line was going from success to significance and that started it back in 1995. And by 1998 his phone was ringing off the hook and the organization began, and we help men and women now all over the world figure out God’s calling on their lives.
Ray: Well, Dean, I want to learn more about your personal journey in just a moment, but that is such an intriguing answer you just shared about helping men and women really discover God’s calling on their life. But there’s also significance about this concept of moving from success to significance. Talk about that.
Dean: Yeah, that’s really, I think the moving from success to significance idea is really thinking through, what is God’s plan for my life? A lot of folks come out of college like myself and maybe you, Ray, and we went after it in the marketplace and in the business world to become as successful as we possibly could to provide for our families and all of that. But at some point you get to this season like I did in 2005 and 2006 and many others probably listening, I call it the season of smoldering discontent. I got to that point in 2005 where I said there has to be more to life than this.
And that’s when really I took a step back and started thinking, what does God want to do through Dean Niewolny for his kingdom? And that can be, many folks stay right where they’re at in the marketplace, which is fantastic. We have 60% of the folks that go through Halftime stay right where they’re at, and probably another 30 or 40% that make a decision through hearing from God that they’re going to leave the marketplace and maybe go into the ministry or a nonprofit. But the idea really of going from success to significance is really what can I do or how can God use me so I can make a difference for his kingdom? So I can leave a legacy? So I can have an impact and I can make a difference?
Ray: Well, those really are the most important questions in life. So, how is it that you and your team at Halftime Institute go about helping men and women discover this calling? What’s that look like?
Dean: Yeah, a lot of people Ray don’t take the time to really take a step back and understand themselves. We are so focused on others and helping others, mostly in the business world. We’re always trying to help others and help our team, but rarely does someone take a step back and really look, how has God wired me? What has God provided me as far as my gifts and my talents and my abilities? So the Halftime Institute is really a journey that typically is a year. Most of our programs are one year, where we really have a person come and take time to understand better, what are my strengths? We use strength finders. What are my spiritual gifts? What am I passionate about? And when they get an idea what that looks like or who they are at the core, then we begin to build a plan and start to understand a little bit more of what they’re passionate about.
And then what we do is help them identify what we call low cost probes. Now, during this whole journey, there’s a coach that has gone through the exact same experience that guides and helps the individual on that journey. But we help them identify some low cost probes so they can put their toe in the water, and actually try serving in their areas of passion. So Halftime is really an organization that provides a process, provides structure, and provides coaching to guide one on this journey. So ultimately they can say, “Okay, I’m now clear on my Ephesians 2:20 calling,” but also as important, “How can I engage in that Ephesians 2:10 calling?” What are the opportunities for me to go and serve? Is the opportunity right here in front of me? Or is it outside of my workplace where I should join another organization or even in some case cases start an organization?
Ray: Okay. So along those lines, maybe you could take just a moment, share with us a story or an example where you were able to help somebody walk through that process. Who came in, “Dean, I really don’t know.” And they walked out the back end of maybe this year long journey with you that they really had clarity. Does a story or an example come to mind?
Dean: Sure, I can use two. One is of a gentleman named Graham Power. He lived in Cape Town, South Africa and came through our program. Read the book in 1998. Came through our program and got really clear that he felt his calling was to gather folks to pray in the city of Cape Town. So what he ended up doing is he rented out a building that ultimately started with about 45 folks that got together to pray about the city. He was all about the city movement, and that ultimately turned into the Global Day of Prayer where now 214 million people pray around the globe. That is one extreme example of someone who has read the book, has gone through our program, and really got clear on their Ephesians 2:10 calling, and used it in a way that just it exploded. And God used that opportunity through Graham Power to go out and serve a number of different folks through prayer.
The other story that I’ll share with you is a lady down in Houston, Texas. Her name is Sandy Griffith. Sandy came through the program and at the end of the program she felt this calling to serve drug addicted mothers, but didn’t know how to do that. And ultimately through some low cost probes, she went to Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Texas of mothers who have a drug problem. Their babies, she rocks those babies every day. That’s her area of serving. That is her calling to rock these babies and love on these babies as their moms hopefully get healthier through the program that they’re going through. So I’m using two extreme examples, of course. The Graham Power is of course a grandiose big idea. And of course, it’s serving many. And Sandy, again, equally as important, serving through the hospital there in Houston.
Ray: Oh, I love it. And thank you for actually giving us examples on something very high profile, global in nature, and something as you said, equally as important but also just very, very intimate and very specific to that person and their ministry. Because I think sometimes we can fall into the trap that, to discover God’s calling it’s got to be something that is grandiose. It is something that, wow, is going to change the whole world and that’s going to be my mark. But it really is often not the case. Right?
Dean: That’s exactly right. And I was going to say that, that a lot of folks who’ve come to the Halftime Institute feel like, “Wow, I’m failing if I don’t have this big, big dream or this big opportunity, or if I don’t go out and do something huge.” And that’s just not the case. I mean, God uses all of us in different ways. So, you’re absolutely right, Ray.
Ray: Well, and I think that we live in a day and age where everything’s 2.0, 3.0, bigger and better, new and improved. That just isn’t the way the kingdom works. God’s concerned about each of us. I love what you said, I wrote it down. Finding your individual Ephesians 2:10 calling and so it is equally important. Well Dean, before we go too much further, if I’m listening to this conversation, and I want to learn more about the Halftime Institute, what would be the best way for me to plug in and learn how you all might be able to help me find this Ephesians 2:10 calling?
Dean: Sure. You can go to the website. That’s really the easiest way, Ray. It’s halftime.org and you can see a variety of different stories on our website, including a number of different programs that we have. So, feel free to go there and if we can help you, we’d love to do that.
Ray: Fantastic. So Dean, give us a little bit of your own story. How was it that you came to discover this as your Ephesians 2:10 calling that God would put you into this role and have this kind of platform?
Dean: Well, I grew up in Wisconsin, and I spent my childhood years listening to my mom and dad. I had a great childhood, but listening to my parents share about what others always had and the comments were, “Look at what those folks have and look at those folks on the other side of the tracks. And we don’t have much.” And what happened to me as a young boy was that I wanted to be those other folks. And what that meant is, that those other folks were wealthy and they had things that we didn’t have. So I thought the way to be happy was to have a lot of money and a lot of material possessions. So as I was growing up, one of the main things that I wanted to do was figure out how could I be some of those other folks on the other side of the tracks and make a lot of money and accumulate things.
So, I got into the financial services industry back in 1987, and I started with Merrill Lynch and stayed in that industry for about 22 years. In 1995, I went through a difficult period in my life where I got divorced, and I met a gentleman who introduced me to a church in Chicago called Willow Creek Community Church. And I started attending there, and I’ll never forget that very first week I was thinking about leaving the marketplace and going into the ministry, and Bill Hybels at the time, shared if everyone left the marketplace and went into the ministry, who would be a light in this dark world? So I thought to myself, “Well, my ministry is really right in front of me. It is the marketplace. It’s the folks that I meet every single day.” But for me it was still this idea of, how can I do that? But also I know I need to make a lot of money and accumulate material possessions because that will ultimately make me happy.
And you and I, and the rest of the listeners know that ultimately that doesn’t make you happy. So in 1999, I attended church one evening and this guy was getting interviewed, his name was Bob Buford. And I sat in the audience and I thought to myself, well first of all, I thought, “How cool would it be to get mentored by that guy?” And the second thing was he was talking about this idea of going from success to significance. Now at that point I was pretty successful in making a good living and had a number of the material possessions that I thought would bring me happiness. But I just felt, as I said earlier, this smoldering discontent, which smoldered in me for really four to five years. Then ultimately in 2006, I was on the 40th floor of the Mercantile Exchange building, looking out the window, and just said, “God, there has to be more to life than this.”
There has to be more to life than this. And that really started me on this halftime journey at that point where I attended the Halftime Institute and through a very interesting series of events, ultimately was asked to be the CEO of the Halftime Institute in February of 2010. So for me, I just came to this point in 2006, really understanding that materials and wealth, that those two things were not going to bring me happiness. It’s okay to do those things or have those things, of course, but I was putting way too much focus into those two things. So, that was really a very interesting season of life for me in 2006.
Ray: Well, that’s really powerful and I’m sure that as many of our audience is listening to this conversation right now, somebody is resonating with what you just described. And you’ve used this phrase two or three times in our conversation, a season of smoldering discontent. And that’s around that, “God, there’s just got to be more to life than this.” You talked about that, you’ve talked about low cost probes. I don’t know what you mean by that yet. Maybe you’ll tell me more, but what advice would you give me if I’m resonating right now with just feeling like there’s got to be more to life than this? What’s my first step? What is a low cost probe?
Dean: Well, first of all, I think the first step before you even get to the low cost probe is to read the book Halftime, Bob Buford’s book. It’s a powerful book and really it will ask you a number of questions to see really if you’re in this season of halftime. But if you’re in that season of halftime, this does take work. You do need to take time out and work on yourself, spend time in solitude, get a little bit clearer in what God wants you to do. But it’s really challenging to go through a season like this, the halftime season without a process or a coach coming alongside you, helping you, and guiding you. So my suggestion, Ray, to the question would be first read the Halftime book. If you read the Halftime book and you still feel this sense of smoldering discontent and that you’re in this halftime season, I’d call the Halftime Institute, and we absolutely can help you with that.
As we look at different folks who are going through this season, there’s a variety of different opportunities or ways that we can help you really get clear on your Ephesians 2:10 calling, which ultimately will lead to these low cost probes as you mentioned. I’ll just clarify that the low cost probe is really after you get clear on what your strengths and your spiritual gifts and what you’re passionate about, we help identify low cost probes or opportunities to take what you’ve learned and what you’re passionate about, and put your toe in the water and test it. We always encourage folks who are in this season of halftime who are really feeling this push to make a change, don’t make a drastic change. Make a small change. Put your toe in the water, do a low cost probe, and just test it to make sure it’s really where God wants you to be. So in many cases, a big change or a dramatic change can have very painful results if not handled the right way.
Ray: Well, and I’m speculating, you might end up in a place where God’s really not calling you and you’re just kind of forcing it instead of letting it be revealed to you. Is that correct?
Dean: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And what typically happens when you go into something that you’re not called to… For instance, when I went through the Halftime Institute and they were exploring this opportunity about having me as their CEO, I had to be asked, Ray, probably 10 times, “If I was called here, if I was called here.” And I kept being asked and finally I got so frustrated, I said, “Well, there’s not a sign in my front yard where God put a sign saying go to the Halftime Institute. But I feel that God is calling me to come to the Halftime Institute.” And I realized quickly why I was asked that question so often. And that is making a transition into the nonprofit or the ministry world can be challenging. There’s a lot of ups and downs, so it’s very important that you’re truly called to what you’re moving into, because typically if you’re not, it won’t last.
Ray: Yeah. Yeah. So Dean, what I didn’t share when I introduced you a few moments ago at the top of the program was about two years ago, you authored your first book. It’s called Trade Up: How to go from just making money to making a difference. And you pose what you call three disruptive questions in the book. Would you walk us through what you mean? What are these questions and why are they disruptive?
Dean: Sure, sure. And these questions were quite profound when they were presented to me, and this is when I was going through my halftime season or my smoldering discontent season. But my coach asked me, my Halftime coach asked me three questions. The first question had to do with cost accounting. And he asked me, “What is all your winning costing you?” What is all your winning costing you? Because winning is costing something. It’s either costing you your relationship with your wife, relationship with your kids, your faith, your health. For me personally, I was putting so much time and effort and focus into being successful and thinking I would find happiness that way, that my relationship with my wife and my kids wasn’t where it should have been. So, what it was costing me was my relationship with my wife and my kids.
The second has to do with asset protection. What do you have that’s priceless and what are you doing to protect it? So for me, when I took a step back, what’s priceless was my faith, my relationship with my wife, and with my kids. So what I’m doing to protect it was to put their programs, their dance recitals, their football games, and date night on my calendar first and make them a priority.
The third had to do with metrics and that question is, if you were living a perfect life two years from now, what would that look like? And it wasn’t a question of what, Dean, would you be doing in two years? It’s if you were living a perfect life two years from now, what would that look like? Well, my hope at that time was that our kids would be strong believers in Christ. That they would have high self-esteem, that my wife and I would have the best marriage we possibly could. So, there was a variety of things there that I looked at that I would say our life two years from now would be ideal if these things were happening. So cost accounting, asset protection, and metrics were the three questions.
Ray: Cost accounting, asset protection, and metrics. Fantastic questions. And so those are disruptive because they should cause us to change the course of our life. What we’re investing in, what we’re doing, what’s getting our time, talent and treasure.
Dean: Can I just add something there, Ray?
Ray: Please. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Dean: I would say the majority of folks who come through the Halftime program are really struggling with this balance. We hear balance all the time, but one of the things that we realize for folks to finish well, is that they put their spouses dreams ahead of their own. So what is this all costing you and what are you doing to protect it? One of the key things for those that are married is asking your spouse, “Honey, what are your dreams? What can I do to help you fulfill those dreams?” It’s really critically important because folks coming through the program really struggle in a lot of cases with their relationships because they’re spending so much time in their work, not only with their spouse, but also with their kids. The other thing that’s really important that I’ve seen is a lot of highly successful men and women don’t have a lot of close friends. A lot of acquaintances, not a lot of friends. So those three questions will help.
Ray: That’s fantastic. If you and I hadn’t had this conversation, and let’s just say I hadn’t read your book yet, I wouldn’t know those questions. Right? And so you’re helping me to grow in my journey. So, that really leads me to another question that I’m quite sure you’re going to want to help us understand is, why is it so difficult, maybe even impossible, for any of us to find our calling completely on our own? Why can we not just read the book, pray to God, and poof, there it is? What do you say about that?
Dean: Well, I think in some cases, in very rare cases, you can. Right? In very rare cases, but the reality is we’re too busy and we don’t take enough time to really focus on ourselves. Like I said earlier, it’s critically important to really take time away from what keeps you busy every day, to really focus on yourself and spend time in solitude with the Lord. So for instance, when someone goes down this halftime path or on the halftime journey, there’s really the head journey and there’s the heart journey. The head journey has everything to do with decisions that we make and things that we think we should do. The heart journey has much more to do with pausing and getting into solitude time and really listening to the Holy Spirit. And what is the Holy Spirit telling us to do? What does God want us to do?
So when someone tries to go about this on their own, they will get started, but in most cases they can’t or don’t follow through on it, and they don’t get deep enough and really get a clear understanding of who they are. How are they wired? And they don’t make take time to make eye contact with God to get their assignment. The other thing, just like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, it’s difficult to be really successful unless you have a coach who’s guiding you and holding you accountable. Someone as we say, who has paid the dumb tacks already, and has gone on this journey and holds you accountable as you go on this journey. So a lot of people with right intentions, good intentions, want to figure out what God’s calling is on your life, but it’s very challenging unless you have someone helping you on that path. As long as there’s a process there, that also helps quite a bit. Also, the cohort, we have cohorts here where the men and women in the cohort help keep each other accountable as they go on this journey.
Ray: Yeah. Recently I had a chance to interview Jeremy Kubitschek, who’s the CEO of Giant Worldwide and he and Steve Cochran. In their book, they talk about the concept of the Sherpa, that even the most experienced and excellent mountain climbers need somebody to show them the path. Somebody who knows the mountain just a little bit better, who’s been on it a few more times. That’s what I’m reflecting on as I’m listening to you. That’s why it’s so important, right?
Dean: Yeah, it really is. It really is. We all need a coach. We all need someone to keep us accountable and this halftime journey is not something where you can go to a seminar over a weekend and really get clear on God’s calling. It would be highly unusual for that to happen. It takes time and it builds on itself. So it does take time.
Ray: Well, this is really great stuff. But when you talk about halftime and this whole concept, is it a certain age in life? Is it, “Okay, I’m 45, it’s time to go buy my red sports car and reevaluate.” Is that just what we’re talking about here or could anyone be addressing this issue of halftime?
Dean: That’s such a great question. Ray, when Halftime started in 1998, the sweet spot really was the person who was in midlife, the 45 to 60 year old individual. And quite honestly back then, it was mainly men going through our program. Well, wow, has that changed. Because we just had someone 27 go through, someone 83. Halftime is a season of life. And if you look at the millennials, for instance right now, this idea of going from success to significance, they don’t want to do that. They want to be significant now. They don’t want to wait until they’re successful and then do the significance thing. And really as folks are getting older and living longer, they’re trying to have an impact as they get older. And the 83 year old gentleman who came to the program said, “I’m in overtime. I’m not in halftime, I’m in overtime. What could I do?” So the answer to your question is it’s not just mid-life, it’s really a season of life.
Ray: And we all, really, every one of us at some point in our life ask these questions. What’s my purpose? Why did God put me here? So, that’s really what we’re talking about is that season of life. So, thank you for that. That’s good clarifier And it’s also good directive. Well, Dean, we’re kind of moving in kind of the final stage of our conversation here. And for those of our regular listeners, they know I love to get advice and insights and input from each guest. And so, as you look back over the course of your own life and career, what would you say is maybe the greatest mistake you made? How did your faith play a role in that? And what advice would you have for someone else who might be going through something similar?
Dean: Yeah, I think one of the biggest mistakes I made was to move into a role in the marketplace that wasn’t a fit, and was not a thought through by me or prayed through. For instance, when I moved from the marketplace to the ministry, it was a huge decision for me to make that change. It was a huge decision for our family, but what I tried to do prior to that, the mistake I made prior to that, what I was focused on the wrong things. I wasn’t really focused on where God was calling me to go. I was focused on where Dean was calling himself to go. And what I ended up doing after trying to make that change, which failed miserably, is I took a step back and said, “I’ll never do that again without bathing it in prayer and getting counsel from what I call my personal board of directors.”
Which is men and women that I trust, that I talk to about certain decisions that I’m making in my life. But what turned out to be a bad situation ended up being very positive a few years later, when I made the transition from the marketplace over here to Halftime, because I base it in prayer and it was so crystal clear that this was the path for me to go down. So instead of me taking control, I handed it over to the Lord and it made all the difference and I’ve been here 10 years now.
Ray: Okay. So, that was excellent. So this next question is somewhat related. If you could go back and sit down across the table from the 21 year old version of you, what would that conversation sound like? What advice would you give to the 21 year old Dean saying, “Hey, you need to do this, or you might want to not do that.” What would that conversation sound like?
Dean: Wow. I don’t want to meet myself at 21 quite honestly, but if I had to, if I had to, the few things I probably would say to myself is one, “Dean, understand that you really are not in control even though you may think you’re in control.” That would be the first thing. The second thing is I would say, “Pray and trust that God truly has your best interest in mind and don’t try to force things that don’t quite feel right.” The third thing I’d probably say really quickly is, “Other people matter. It’s not all about yourself. It’s not all about you. Relationships matter and transparency matters and how you take care of others really matters. And just if you stay close to the Lord, the Lord will guide you down this path.” And when I was 21 it was all about me and how to make as much money as I possibly could. And I made so many mistakes by not waiting on Lord, but my faith wasn’t where it should have been at that point.
Ray: Well, thank the Lord for his grace that we get a chance to correct some of those mistakes and learn our lessons before the consequences are fatal and lethal. And sounds like God now has you right where He wanted you all along.
Dean: Yeah, I surely think so, and I feel very content here. I believe God called me here and I just love what we do here at Halftime, helping others get clear on God’s calling on their life.
Ray: Absolutely. Well, Dean, I’d like to ask you one more question. Can you do that for us?
Dean: Sure, of course. Of course.
Ray: Many of our regular listeners, they know I have one question that I ask every guest, and it’s always my last question, and I call it our 423 question, and it’s rooted out of Proverbs chapter four verse 23, where Solomon writes these words, he says, “Above all else, guard your heart for it determines the course of your life.” So Solomon uses these words above all else, which means, hey, this is the most important thing that I can challenge you with or to invite you to consider. So Dean, I’d like you to fill in the blank for our audience today. Above all else, what would you say?
Dean: Wow. You love putting people on the spot, don’t you, Ray?
Ray: Yes, I love it.
Dean: I would say my answer to that question is don’t let work be your identity. And for me to guard my heart really is to focus on the Lord, and my identity is in Christ. That’s where I get my identity. It’s not in my work. My work is something Christ has blessed me with, but my identity should not come from work. That would be my answer.
Ray: Don’t let work be your identity. Fantastic. Well, Dean, one more time. If you’d be kind enough, just give us that website that our listeners can check out if they want to learn more about what you’re doing there at Halftime Institute.
Dean: Yeah, it’s the halftimeinstitute.org, halftimeinstitute.org and feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to help you.
Ray: That is fantastic. I want to tell you thank you so much. This has been for me, very meaningful, very helpful. I just want to say thank you for investing this time with us here at Bottom Line Faith.
Dean: Ray, thanks for having me. I loved it.
Ray: Well folks, there you have another incredibly powerful episode. As we promised you on the front end of the program today, we were going to bring you a conversation that was going to be meaningful and significant to you. So if you have been inspired or challenged or maybe even convicted as you’ve listened to our conversation here today, if you have been working through and wrestling with, gosh, there just got to be more to life than this. Is this all there is? I thought once I got here I was going to be content or feel like I had found God’s call on my life.
If that is you today and you’re wrestling with that, please, I invite you. I implore you to check out the Halftime Institute. Please visit Dean and his team at halftimeinstitute.org. They can help you find, discover, and ultimately live out that Ephesians 2:10 calling in your life. That’s what we’re trying to do here at Bottom Line Faith. As we say, it’s about eternal business in real life, about finding that calling for yourself as a Christ follower in business, in the marketplace, living out your faith, and yet dealing with real issues, real challenges, real deadlines as you lead your company, your organization, your family and such in the marketplace. So until next time, I am your host, Ray Hilbert, here at Bottom Line Faith. Encouraging you to live out your faith each day in the marketplace. See you next time.
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