This episode of Bottom Line Faith Features Wynn Smiley, CEO of Alpha Tau Omega.
“Above all else, run to the cross, even when you don’t feel like you deserve to … The power of worship, the power of His grace and mercy is really the transforming power of Christianity and being a Christ follower … He’s got His arms wide open.”
Adam: Today’s guest is Wynn Smiley, CEO of Alpha Tau Omega. Bottom Line Faith is on the air. I’m Adam Ritz. Thanks for joining us. Ray Hilbert is with me as co-host. I’m so happy to be here again with you, Ray, for this edition and episode of Bottom Line Faith.
Ray: Once again, Adam we’re excited about our guest today and really look forward to learning a lot.
Adam: Are you ready to go back to college?
Ray: I am ready to go back to school.
Adam: Well, our guest today has some college connections. I was a fraternity man myself back in the days and our guest is Mr. Wynn Smiley. He’s the CEO of Alpha Tau Omega national fraternity. Wynn thank you so much for making the time to be on Bottom Line Faith.
Wynn: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great to be here. Thanks, Adam.
Adam: And I’m always interested to talk to business leaders, leaders in the marketplace about their faith and spirituality. And today, it’s going to be even more fun for me from a collegiate perspective. I’m just such a big fan of college football and college fraternities in general; memories nostalgia from when I was in college. And it’s maybe not really the tip of people’s tongues when they think of fraternities to think of Christianity in the same breath. So I don’t know if that’s how we want to plant the seeds to start the conversation. But do you get that feedback when you meet people are like, Oh, you’re the CEO of a national fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega. Oh, you must drink a lot of beer.
Adam: You’re like actually no, we pray a lot.
Wynn: Yeah, right. So it’s always interesting to see how people respond. Oh is that a full-time job? Oh I bet you really know how to party. What’s the break-room like, right? How big is the kegerator? All those things.
Ray: Is that really your full-time job?
Wynn: Oh, is that a full-time job?
Adam: Like seriously Wynn what do you do?
Wynn: Yes, yes, it is.
Adam: Hey yeah. You know, Wynn I know you’re really involved with Christian retreats; leading your young men the undergraduates. So you’ve got a staff; how many on staff at Alpha Omega?
Wynn: About 30.
Adam: 30. And these are grown men.
Wynn: Grown men, college graduates. Yes. Right.
Adam: And then you I guess, you sort of lead the undergraduates? How many undergraduates in Alpha Tau Omega?
Wynn: 10,000 undergraduates. About 140 chapters across the nation. So we’d be considered a division one fraternity. Top 10 in any way you slice it, including our educational foundation. So yeah, we’re a major presence on college campuses.
Adam: Well, as Ray likes to put it, Bottom Line Faith checks under the hood, if you will. How do you say that, Ray?
Ray: Yes. So this is obviously the program where we like to meet and talk with high-capacity, high-accomplished Christian leaders in the marketplace. And kind of the old picture of lifting the hood and tinkering around the engine of Christian leadership. And that’s what I’m looking forward to on today’s show with Wynn.
Adam: Well, shall we start with maybe a little bit of when I mentioned off air before we started, Wynn has a history in radio and television; you were an anchorman on TV. So I’m a little intimidated that you probably have more on air experience than I do.
Wynn: I don’t think so.
Adam: So if you want to take over this interview at any point.
Adam: Just take over, and I’ll turn my microphone off.
Wynn: It’s been a long time ago, so no.
Adam: But I guess real quick, your faith journey from when you were a young man to now.
Wynn: Right. Raised in a home where both parents and all siblings went to the local, very small United Methodist Church. My parents got involved in the Methodist renewal movement when I was in junior high, which is called the Holder’s Gate. And that’s a full gospel movement of the Methodist Church. So my parents came home, I was in junior high at the time, and like, what’s wrong with you guys, right? I mean, they changed. And so that sparked interest in me into pushing more into sort of what the gospel is all about. In the Methodist Church, our church changed as well in terms of really exploring sort of more of the full gospel aspect. And so I guess I would, you know, my faith really sort of grew in high school. Went to college, joined a fraternity and pretty much put the faith thing on the back burner. It wasn’t a result of joining the fraternity; I think it was just a result of not feeling compelled to ﬁnd a church in a college town to really engage anybody.
And so did that, got my degree in journalism, immediately went to work in a newsroom, which can be sort of dicey, right, in terms of a lot of things swirling in a newsroom, and I would still claim my Christian faith, but to be a good reporter, you have to be cynical. And I was a really good reporter, right? And I also learned what I would consider sort of newsroom language, which is very colorful. And so a reporter came in from another market, we’d hired her from another market, and we became friends. And she was a Christ follower, and cornered me one time in an editing booth, actually, and told me that she’d never met a bigger hypocrite than me, right.
Adam: Sounds like investigative journalism.
Wynn: Right. And so she eventually convinced me to go to the church that she was attending where I recommitted my life and I was in my mid 20s then. By that time in my career, I knew that I didn’t want to be in broadcasting the rest of my life. I mean, it was a great experience, I loved it, but it generally is a young person’s experience, because it’s a grind. And I basically said, Okay, what’s next God? And within six months, Alpha Tau Omega called me out of the blue. And I did not know these people and they said, “Let’s have lunch.” And I thought it was for some story. And, you know, I get lots of calls, ‘let’s have lunch’ when you’re a reporter, and they offered me a job to be director of marketing. And I initially turned it down. But the more that I pressed in, and I had a list of like things that really I needed both ATO and the station that I was currently at, to sign off on.
And to my amazement, they did, including keeping a political talk show that I had, and in the state of Illinois, politics is sort of a blood sport, right. So that was a lot of fun. And so both parties agree that I can keep my political show. And so I joined ATO’s staff in about ’91, and I realized immediately why God had led me there. Because ATO is a very traditional social fraternity, just like you would see anywhere. While it is Christian base, in terms of its founding principles, it accepts men of any faith or no faith at all. And so it is a fraternity as is. It doesn’t have a Christian moniker but I quickly learned that the founder of ATO was deeply religious. And that’s why it’s called ATO the cross in the middle of the Alpha and the Omega on either side, right. And so I quickly became aware of why God led me to that place. Had no idea what he wanted me to do there. But that was sort of the start of my relationship with ATO.
Adam: Wynn Smiley is our guest, CEO of Alpha Tau Omega, national fraternity. And so present day, it’s college campuses, the safe spaces, it’s just changed so much. And I guess one of my first questions is how, as a man of faith with all of those undergraduates, is it a mineﬁeld that you have to dance around to be able to talk about Christian faith in a college setting? Or is it ‘Hey, this is ATO; we’re a private entity and we can talk whatever about whatever we want”?
Wynn: Yeah, pretty much the ladder. We are a private entity. And I think that sometimes some of our undergraduates are a little taken aback if they hear me talk about ATO but if we do it in a way that I don’t find, I don’t think that people find it offensive. I mean, we’re not a para-church organization, right. We’re not proselytizing students, but we are talking about our heritage. And so part of my standard stump speech, if you will, whether it’s in front of alumni, or parents or undergraduates is that look, these are our founding principles, they are what they are, they can’t change, we’re proud of them, we’re going to talk about them.
And at the same time, we accept men have any faith or no faith at all, with open arms. And we think that a fraternity chapter outside of a family is a great place to talk about important issues, including issues of faith. And so if you really have a strong brotherhood, you can have those conversations again, regardless of what faith background you’re coming from. And so that has produced within the organization, great support, right? I just, I initially thought that that might get some pushback. Not really. I think we handle it in a way that, you know, we’re not trying to really convert anybody. We’re just trying to present the gospel in a way that Glazebrook had in mind when he created the organization.
Adam: You know, you just made me think of something. Have you had a success story, I’ll call it a success story where a young man’s become a member of ATO, and he is not a young man of faith, and through his four year journey in college, he gets in touch with you and writes you a letter or contacts you, an email and says, “Hey, Wynn I just want to let you know, I’ve recommitted my life to Christ. And I think it was due to my experience here at ATO”?
Wynn: Yeah, we have. So just like any campus, you know, whether it’s Navigators or CRU or any other para-church organization. In many cases, they have students from fraternities and sororities that are part of those groups. And we have a 200 graduates who in some cases, go on after graduation, to join as part of the ministry team, and then specifically go back to their chapters. And so lots of folks are working with the Greek system and presenting the gospel and any number of ATOs have either recommitted to their faith or found faith through those efforts, which aren’t directly related to ATO, but I still hear about them, right. And so that’s always exciting. And then about, it’s been five years, six years, actually, we really did something that was way out of way out of the box, and started hosting, not hosting, but started sponsoring, bringing ATO 200 graduates to specifically a men’s retreat in Colorado, that was very Jesus. And we didn’t bait and switch anybody. We told, hey, this is this is what this retreat is: it’s a men’s retreat, and it’s all about Jesus, and everybody’s welcome.
And so we have seen as in we do two a summer and we’ve seen men who have no faith come in and say, I just want to check it out. And by the end of the retreat, they’ve made a decision even though that’s not part of the retreat, right? I mean, we never as part of the retreat, say, Okay, this is a time you can make a decision for Christ. It’s not part of the retreat, we baptized probably 25 men over the course. And that’s not part of the retreat. I mean, it’s totally spontaneous. There just happens to be a lake on the property that we use. So those I mean, those are the kinds of stories that you know, we’re not twisting arms, because I just don’t think that’s a good way to go. And we’re very upfront, right? It’s like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. You’re welcome to join us; don’t want to freak anybody out.” And we never had anyone, like, leave and say, “Oh, this is crazy.” And so those kinds of stories are very much to your point. Yeah, we’re impacting individuals.
Adam: That is great. I love it.
Ray: That’s very exciting stuff. And I hope and trust that some of our listeners right now, who kind of like what you were mentioning a few moments ago, Adam, you know, this whole mindset about what’s going on college campuses, and the whole PC movement. And, you know, you can can’t mention absolutes and faith. But this gives us great, great hope. This gives us great excitement to learn that an organization is doing such a thing as ATO, and what I’d love to do right now, if we could is let’s crawl inside Wynn as a leader, and let’s learn what’s sticking around up there as a leader. So Wynn thinking back over your career, you’ve been in this role for how long as CEO ATO?
Wynn: 20 years.
Ray: 20 years, and then broadcasting and other aspects of your career prior, too. What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given in your leadership, and how is it impacting you today? As a leader?
Wynn: Yeah, I think the best piece of advice probably was listen, right? Which is pretty standard advice. But I found that in terms of my leadership style is very much collaborative. And so I will typically ask more questions to find out answers, which probably doesn’t surprise anybody given I mean, I professionally cut my teeth on asking questions, right? So rarely will I make a unilateral decision, like as a leader, let’s go. I mean, sometimes you have to do that, right. But generally speaking, I’m going to try to pull the people in who have the insight and experience and are impacted in some cases by the decision and ask them other opinion, people support what they helped create, and then perhaps that’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, as a young leader. People support what they helped create. And that fits with my personality and my leadership style. And I just think that has produced a lot of fruit over the years.
Ray: That’s good stuff. So people support what they helped create. I think if you’re taking notes on the interview today, that would be a great nugget right there. And so in kind of in a similar vein as the best advice you ever received, what’s as you look back over the course of your career, what’s the biggest mistake that you can recall making and what you learn from it?
Wynn: Yeah, so I think that I’m probably still making it from time to time, right. I think that I can draw conclusions pretty quickly and come to my opinion of what I think is happening, and then act on that, and I’m better at it, right. So I don’t get burned probably as much as I used to, but I don’t know how many times it I draw the wrong conclusion and then act on wrong information. And then I have to go back and sort of clean up the mess and apologize. And so I think that that is probably the biggest mistake overtly more covertly. I think it is not being bold; when bold, would probably work accept it feels like that’s too big of a risk. Now, if you asked my staff members, they’re like, holy cow. I mean, that’s, I mean we are bold, all the time and you want to get bolder. But I just I think that probably there’s some opportunities that have passed because I wasn’t willing to take the risk.
Ray: I think I see a parallel there back to the collaboration, but also asking a lot of questions and listening and I think those two things go hand in hand. What are your thoughts on that Adam?
Adam: I also hear some humility in there, because I think a lot of leaders in business want to quickly use their experience and their knowledge and know how to assess the situation and act on their opinion, and just consequences be damned. I’m the decision maker, I’m making the decision, it takes some humility to say out loud that we need to work on that. You know, get more information. Not knee jerk react, so much form a better opinion on more information, and not just run sort of full face into a brick wall when you keep running into the brick wall and get the same conclusion. So I hear some humility in there too.
Ray: Yeah, Wynn, a big part of our audience here at Bottom Line Faith, these are business owners, presidents, CEOs, high-capacity executives, people who are hiring, you know, for their companies and their organizations, and those sorts of things. So you’ve been in your role about 20 years now, you said as CEO. What have you seen? This is kind of going to be a question it’s going to lead into another question, okay? What have you seen that’s changed in the character in the decision-making experiences, the mindset of today’s college students versus when you first started 20 years ago? What’s different?
Wynn: Yeah, a few things. I think that the biggest thing that I see most routinely is that college graduates coming out today. Now, this is a gross generalization, right? College students coming out today, versus coming out 20 years ago today, I can go to one of them and say, here’s a problem, figure it out and come back to me if you have any questions. Great. I’m here but you figure it out and they’re sort of like what’s my next step? I’m like, I don’t know what your next step is; that’s why you have a college degree, right? Go figure it out. And it’s hard for them. Because in my assessment is they’ve been programmed their whole life, right, in terms of much more than you and I probably were growing up and Adam growing up.
I mean, everything from the time they’ve been in, you know, club sport, I mean, everything, right? It’s just been sort of laid out for them. And I hear that from their parents, too. So today, versus 20 years ago, I’ll hear from parents more often on things that I would have never told my parents about in college, just because I can write I don’t need their advice on this. And yeah, and I think, and I think actually, honestly, I think that the cell phone has a lot to do with that, too. Because I remember once a week, every Sunday night, I’d call my parents. And long distance was expensive, right. And so that’s the only time I talked to them. And I think cell phone has really facilitated students and parents continuing to stay in touch daily and multiple times a day. And I think that that sort of facilitates that as well.
Ray: So I’ve heard it described that perhaps we’re seeing a downgrading a little bit of critical thinking and problem solving skills. I was talking recently to a researcher. I was talking about they’re seeing measurable differences, and he kind of laid it out this way. So think about how answers are found today to question is you type it into the bar on your search engine, and you get your answer. You know, used to, you’d get the encyclopedias out and you go to the library, and you have multiple sources, but now it’s hey, what’s the first two answers on your Google page? Right? And I think that’s what I’m hearing you kind of lay out is that some of that has been lost through technology, perhaps?
Wynn: Yeah, right. through no fault of their own, right?
Wynn: You and I would do the same thing if we weren’t, right. So we don’t use slide rules anymore; we use calculators. Why? Well, because we have a calculator to use, why use the slide rule? So I don’t fault them at all.
Ray: That’s right.
Wynn: I just think that it’s tough for them to move into a professional role where that’s expected. I mean, it’s a new concept, in many cases, again, gross over generalization, but it’s a new concept. And to help them work through that now say, they pick it up very quickly. These folks are not, you know, they’re not stupid.
Ray: That’s right.
Wynn: They’re bright, they’re bright people, and so they can pick it up. But that is definitely a change that I’ve seen.
Ray: Yeah, and that’s really a perfect setup. Because the next question I wanted to ask is, as I said, you know, big portion of our audience are executives, owners, they’re hiring people. And they’re always looking for that next generation of talent and succession planning and their leadership teams. So what advice what counsel would you have for, let’s say that the older folks kind of like, you know, even though we’re on an audio program here, we’re not 25 years old, any of the three of us, right?
Ray: So what would you say to those leaders who are needing to hire and develop next gen talent? How can they take today’s generation and develop into the leaders they need them to be?
Wynn: Yup, generally speaking, I think that students today, and new college graduates like autonomy. So they want to, they’re more entrepreneurial in their thinking, they don’t like to be micromanaged. Who does? But them especially; but yet they also want structure, right. And so to find the balance, and to basically in many cases are going to have to be coached and there’s summary remedial work as well. I mean, the ability, my observation is, the ability of college graduates today to write a business letter very difficult. And so there are some real, just some communication types of things, because they’re used to Twitter, they’re used to texting, all those kinds of things, all great stuff, great communication stuff, but in a business aspect, that can’t be the only kind of communication. And so they have to learn, then they have to be taught by their employer, first employer, typically how to do those kinds of things.
Ray: Well, I was in a conversation this morning in it with some business leaders, we were having a very similar topic. And it’s very easy for us to blame these young folks to fault them and say this and say that, but we have to look squarely in the mirror because we’re the ones that have parented. We’re the ones that have created this environment, but it really is on us as leaders to develop this next generation of leaders.
Wynn: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think that that’s really changed over the years. I just think that the kinds of things that we have to be teaching are different today. I think that given the technology and all of the labor saving devices that are presented, it would be virtually impossible not to anticipate that it would have come out differently, right. And so I just think it’s the way that we are operating in this world. And we have to take that into account. The Z generation just entered their freshman year in college, right back in August. So the Z generation has begun from my perspective, and we don’t know a whole lot about them. I’ve heard seminars that are the continuum of, well, they’re this, you know, and then I hear another seminar, well, they’re not this, they’re this. So I think it’s too early to really know what they are. But I do believe that they are even more independently minded 73%. And a recent survey said they wanted to create their own degree as an undergraduate, right. So that’s, I mean, that’s impossible for colleges to write. But that’s what they want to do. And so anyway, I just, I think that this trend is going to continue.
Ray: My reading indicates there’s 1.3 million more of Generation Z than there are millennials, so they’re right on the heels. And so it’s amazing.
Adam: I want to major in football and french fries. That’s my diploma, say, football and french fries. Why not? You mentioned it’s crazy. And you don’t think about these things until you hear somebody say it. But the cell phone and how much has changed, you know, how they talk to their parents and talking to their parents three or four times a day means that maybe they’re not as independent as is you and I would have been coming through college 20-30 years ago. My fraternity had a pay phone in the lobby, right? And my mom and dad had to call the pay phone to talk to me. Yeah, and it was somebody would yell down from the lobby. Hey, Adam, your mom’s on the phone. And I’d have to go down to the lobby to talk to my mom.
Ray: Yeah, phone duty.
Adam: Right. So the whole rest of the week, I had to figure out how to do things, right. Instead of being like, Google’s not working. I’m not finding the answer I need. I’ll just call mom. That’s amazing how that just that image jumped in my head. As soon as you said, yeah, we had phones. We had to catch our parents once a week back then. Now it’s three times a day.
Ray: You know, it’s scary. Adam. We’re all starting to sound like our grandparents. Right now.
Adam: I feel like I’m 100 years old.
Wynn: My father, when he went to college, was dropped off by his mother at the street in front of the house that he lived in. And he saw her again at Christmas, right? I mean, so they thought that we were what do you mean, you call once a week right.
Ray: That is great, hard to believe we’re, we’re nearing the end of our program already. This half hour just flies by and never ceases to amaze. And so when one of the really key foundational questions that we like to ask at Bottom Line Faith, is we call this the 4:23 questions based out of Proverbs 4:23, and where the Scripture says that above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows the wellspring of life. We know that Solomon penned those words, we talked about this on every one of our Bottom Line Faith interviews, there are some biblical scholars that believe those were some of the last words he wrote, perhaps on or near his deathbed. And so kind of picture, he’s gathering around his loved ones, his friends, his family, and he’s saying, Look, I’ve written all this wisdom that we find in Proverbs. But now above all else, I want you to listen to this big key point above all else. And his answer is, guard your heart because come out of that everything in life flows. So Wynn, let’s fast forward time to whatever and you’re at the end of your time, this side of eternity, and you’ve gathered your friends and loved ones around. What’s your above all else advice for our listeners today? Above all else,
Wynn: Right, above all else, run to the cross, even when you don’t feel like you deserve to, even when you might think I just really screwed up and I need to be myself a little while before Jesus will hear me. It’s like, no, don’t do that. Right? Run to his feet as quickly as you can. Why waste the time between the time that you really screwed up and the time that you’re at Jesus’s feet. So I think that the the men’s retreats that I described earlier, that we’re bringing ATOs to, I went to as part of just a men’s retreat. And one of the things that was so powerful was just the power of worship, the power of His grace and mercy and how that is really the transforming power of Christianity, of being a Christ follower. Certainly, we’re not perfect and I think that I used to very much feel like I needed to pay penance before I could allow, this it is the hundred and 20th time I’ve screwed up, right? And Jesus is just like, he’s got to have his arms crossed and rolling his eyes. And it’s like, nope, he’s got his arms wide open; run back into his embrace.
Ray: That’s really fantastic advice. You know, that running to the cross. And last thing is as we close up here, so I think that advice that you have shared is so powerful that it’s okay to be broken. In fact, we’re all broken. We need to embrace our brokenness because Jesus already is and you’re reminding us today, run to the cross. Don’t cower back in shame.
Wynn: Right. Why waste that time right?
Ray: Yeah, absolutely run to his feet. I love it. And earlier you said I should have wrote it down. I loved how when you were describing the retreat and you don’t you know you’re not misinforming. Anybody that’s going to go, this is not a trip to go mountain hike or mountain bike or ski. This is we’re going to pray; and it’s all about Jesus. How did you say that? You said it’s all Jesus.
Wynn: Yeah, it’s all Jesus. We’re going to talk about Jesus. It’s all Jesus, right? If you want to talk about that, great. And even if you don’t, if you want to come, great. Just know that that’s what we’re going to be talking about.
Adam: We’re going to go to a lake and hey, it’s all Jesus. I love that. Not religion. It’s all Jesus. And closing thoughts, Wynn Smiley has been our guest. And I know from looking at your website, and knowing your broadcast background, that Alpha Tau Omega is very forward thinking and how you reach out to members and undergraduates in your staff, through your own site, even really a website. It’s kind of like your own TV channel. Are there any sort of links that you’d like to share with our listeners right now through the Alpha Tau Omega digital properties?
Wynn: Sure. ATO.org is always available, and that’ll really take you everywhere you want to go. I think if you want to see college students who are really doing some incredible things, ATOroadshow.org really shows our undergraduates raised over $9 million for local charities last year. And, you know, hundreds of projects, and so I think that our members are doing incredible things on campus. Sometimes they do incredibly stupid things. But you know, that’s sort of college. But they are doing incredible things so I’m very proud of the men who are ATOs.
Adam: ATO.org and seriously though, what’s your real job? You’re really the CEO of ATO Fraternity.
Wynn: That’s it.
Adam: If you’d like to share this show with your friends, it’s on bottomlinefaith.org. You can subscribe to the show download it on iTunes, Stitcher. Google Play. Wynn Smiley, thank you so much. I’m with Ray Hilbert. I’m Adam Ritz. This has been Bottom Line Faith.