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How the collaboration and friendships amongst the CEOs of A3 have turned succession-planning theory on its head


“I’m amazed at the relationships you have with your predecessors, Joe.”

Joe Handley is President of A3 (until recently known as Asian Access). He was at a global missions conference when he heard these words from a fellow CEO.

Joe’s friend continued: “Succession planning is one of the hardest things for any organization to do. And it usually requires outgoing CEOs to distance themselves from their successors if the transition is to succeed. How have you been able to swim so successfully against the tide?”

But it was her final remark that got Joe thinking: “Joe, you ought to capture how A3 has managed to not only survive the overlap of relationships amongst you and your fellow CEOs but how these relationships have helped you to flourish. This could be a great case study that would inspire boards and CEOs to re-think models and theories of succession planning.”

Joe decided to take his friend up on her suggestion. I was given the opportunity to sit down with the people involved in A3’s senior leadership since its inception in 1967 and get their perspectives on the unique relationships shared by the former and current CEOs. Allow me to introduce you to these leaders:

w.ken c1967 300pxKEN WENDLING:

Founder of L.I.F.E. (Language Institute For Evangelism) / LIFE Ministries, now known as A3. Served as President and CEO from 1967 – 1986.

hoke.steve.pres c1988 300pxSTEVE HOKE: 

Succeeded Ken as President and CEO of LIFE Ministries in 1987. Served as President and CEO from 1987 – 1990.

birdsall doug hs bw 300pxDOUG BIRDSALL: 

Came to Japan in 1980 with his wife Jeannie to serve as missionaries. Served as President and CEO of LIFE Ministries from 1991 – 2007, guiding it to become a multi-national organization, Asian Access.

handley joseph 2022v1 cropped 500pxJOE HANDLEY: 

Has served as President and CEO of A3 from 2008 to the present, expanding it into a global leader network.

At one point in my conversation with Ken Wendling, he said, “One of the keys to the success of the CEO relationships has been the amazing maturity and stability amongst our two Senior Vice Presidents and the Chairs of the Board of Directors. You should talk to them as well.” So, I did. They are:

hardy jerry 1988 bw 300pxJERRY HARDY: 

Served as Executive Vice President of LIFE Ministries from 1973 – 1990.

snuggs elliiott bw 300pxELLIOTT SNUGGS: 

Came to Japan as a participant in the "Directions" short-term mission program then run by LIFE Ministries. Has served with A3 ever since, assuming the role of Senior Vice President in 1991, where he serves to the present.

mcmahon ron bwRON McMAHON: 

Succeeded the late Carlton Booth as Chair of the Board of Directors in 1992, serving as Chair through 2012, when he was debilitated by a major stroke. Continued to serve as an Emeritus Board member up until his passing in May 2022.

foxwell headshot bw 2022PHIL FOXWELL: 

Born and raised in Japan in a missionary family, Phil first met Ken Wendling when Phil was ten years old. Phil joined the A3 Board in 1994 and succeeded Ron McMahon as Board Chair in 2012, where he serves to the present.

With that, let’s see what these leaders have to say.

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The foundational question is, how did you all do it? How have you developed and maintained these relationships with one another in an environment where these kinds of relationships can be problematic at best, and toxic at worst?

Wendling: At the root, I believe a big factor is that God blessed our organization with families of peace. We have been blessed with marriages and families that have stayed together, loved one another, and often ministered together. It’s given us a foundation that I know has helped me in how I approach the other important relationships in my life.

McMahon: CEOs usually have strong egos that these CEOs exercise with vigor, often to the detriment of the organization. While Ken, Steve, Doug, and Joe all have strong personalities, they have all had the remarkable ability to leave ego out of the equation. There is a level of shared humility amongst these men that I rarely see in senior leaders.

Foxwell: There is a commitment to Jesus that is at the core of these men. This core commitment has generated a genuine love for one another that has superseded the competitions and tensions that are inevitable in senior-leadership successions.

Each of these leaders has lived a life that has displayed an integrity of witness—humility, a vision of servant leadership, and consistency of character—Christlike leadership, in my opinion.

Birdsall: Ken is a very secure man who doesn’t need his ego massaged. His goal is to gain eternal credit, not earthly credit. Ken set the tone that enabled the rest of us to lay down our competitive instincts and put our energies into how we could try to be the best for one another.

Hardy: Ken created an environment where others could create their own visions and plans, and that was OK. He was not threatened by others’ strengths. That environment was sustained and enhanced by his successors. These are men who are remarkably unthreatened by the strengths of others. Don’t presume that CEOs cannot be threatened by the strengths of others—many are.

Hoke: Ken had an apostolic passion that was both infectious and contagious—people wanted to join in with whatever Ken was doing. As a visionary who established a long-term and captivating vision for the organization, Ken drew eager, innovative, and infectious people.

Handley: One of the key features of this story is the friendships we have with one another. All of us are Jesus centered and that centering flows out in our love for one another. Each of my predecessors in their own unique way serves as a mentor to me.

Ken inspires me with his creativity and drive and sharing of people and resources like few others I’ve met. Doug is the consummate encourager, always making me feel like a million bucks, and platforming me wherever I go. He also asks insightful questions at key moments to help keep focus. And Steve is the kind of guy who you can spend hours with, who’ll dig deep into your life and point you to ideas and resources you hadn’t thought of before.

Each of them, in their own special way, is a mentor and friend. They have the mission and me in their best interests and the Lord’s favor has been on each of us over the years. It truly is a special story.

Snuggs: Three things stand out to me:

  • First, a lack of ego combined with an abundance of vision. Ken could walk away from his former role as CEO and allow Doug room to breathe and grow. At the same time, Doug highly respects Ken and honors him as Founder. And Joe wasn’t, and isn’t, threatened by Doug.
  • Second, mutual support and mutual lack of a sense of threat. These leaders support one another’s ministry and leadership—especially in public.
  • Third, A3 has been blessed with a great Board of Directors. It is easy for a Board to veer out of its lane and try to micromanage an organization. Our Board has focused on the “whats” and given staff room to develop the “hows”. And each successive CEO has made the Board their own.

Wendling: We have also been graced with a lack of scandals. We are of course a group of human beings, struggling with sin, weakness, and failings. But thanks to God, for more than 55 years, we have not ever suffered a major scandal. What a gift.

Snuggs: We have enjoyed remarkable organizational stability. Over more than 55 years, we have had just four CEOs, two Executive Vice Presidents, and three Chairpersons of the Board. That is an amazing amount of stability in the turbulent organizational world in which we live and operate.

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So how have you seen the values and principles you describe play out in practical terms? How did it apply in the life and work of the organization?

Hardy: Ken held things loosely. He was not a micromanager. As the CEO leadership transitioned, he was the first to sing the praises of his successors.

That said, Ken developed and changed as a person over the years. In his earlier days, he was a force.

Hoke: Shared leadership has always been a strong principle. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until it was too late that I genuinely learned it’s value working with Ken, Jerry, and Doug. I wish I had more fully embraced the power and joy of sharing leadership, rather than trying to do more than I was gifted to do.

Ken was a visionary that established a long-term and captivating vision for the org. Jerry was the glue that held the staff stateside in close linkage with the missionary staff in Japan. And Doug followed in that mold of drawing people to join the team with a vision for Japan--and beyond.

Birdsall: As a young first-term missionary, I found it exhilarating to work for Ken. He had vision and boundless energy like no one I had ever known. He had Kingdom ambitions, expansive vision, and he went after them at full speed. As a relatively inexperienced missionary, I must say that at times I also found it exasperating to work for Ken. He pushed people hard; he expected a lot.

However, the longer I worked with him, I began to realize that in setting high expectations, Ken was pushing me into a higher level of thinking, dreaming, and believing. His ambition was ambition for God. Ken has a zest for life and work, combined with a genuine humility amid all of that drive, that brings out the best in people. Ken modeled a way of life and service that inspired me and won my trust. He honored that trust through his faithfulness as a boss, mentor, and unwavering friend.

Handley: I didn’t meet Ken until 2008, when I was being interviewed for the CEO position. A lunch meeting was set up with Jerry and Elliott where I would meet Ken. My presumption was that dress for the lunch would be business casual—coat and slacks.

The three of us were seated at the restaurant, waiting, when in comes Ken—wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. A different kind of founder!

Wendling: In my early years, I was aggressive, selfish, with unbridled ambition. A major force for change in my life was our family. All of our children are adopted. Adoptive parents all know that with the blessings of their adopted children can come major challenges. Those challenges broke me.

God used that breaking process to establish His authority over me and Jan, rather than me trying to be my own authority. He then helped me to transfer the lessons learned to my ministry. I was able to gradually let go of my tight grip on the reins of what I thought was “my” ministry and become a total non-owner. I didn’t, and don’t, own anything—it is all God’s.

Foxwell: There is a remarkable combination of complementary skills that each of these leaders brings to the table.

Ken is a seer, a dreamer, full of new ideas. He focuses on the task at hand, then it’s “What’s Next?” His work, especially in closed countries, has been groundbreaking for the missionary world.

Doug crystallized a certain kind of vision, a primary example being the 2020 vision for God’s movement in Japan. He is always looking for the next thing, and is an amazing relationship-builder.

Joe epitomizes the effectiveness of “management by walking around”—or perhaps better said, “management by flying around”! He has an ability to be with people that disarms the anxiety that a subordinate can experience when engaging with the CEO.

Snuggs: While Steve Hoke’s tenure as CEO was brief, he had a significant role in helping Asian Access transition from the first generation “founder's” culture, which was very entrepreneurial, to a new phase of codifying process and developing organizational systems that positioned the mission for further growth.

Handley: Steve is a great trainer, teacher, and writer. He brought senior leadership and management experience in from his service at both Seattle Pacific University and World Vision and my understanding is that he applied that expertise well.

Birdsall: Succeeding a Founder CEO is a high-risk proposition. It is nearly impossible not to become the “sacrificial lamb”. I think Steve unfortunately experienced some of the ambiguity whereby a board and an organization moves from being launched by visionary moves to being guided by a clearly articulated vision.

Hardy: Another significant way that the values and principles shared by all of our CEOs has played out in practical terms has been the ability of A3 to adapt as the world changed.

Some organizations struggle to adapt their emphases as culture and opportunities change. Our summer Scrum Dendo was a powerful and hugely popular ministry in its day, but probably wouldn’t work today in a world where short-term mission programs are implemented in two weeks rather than a whole summer. A3 has adapted to changing times and opportunities--and each of our CEOs has been appropriately gifted for the next chapter of the ministry.

Handley: During my tenure with A3, each of these men have been there during the ups and the downs. They have encouraged, assisted, partnered and connected me with the right elements at the right times.

When I’ve faced the low moments, Doug has always been there with both an encouraging word and a story from his own journey that met me where I most needed it. Ken is the consummate dreamer and connector. When he hears of an opportunity, he’ll call or text me saying “Joe, have you met so and so? Let me connect you or find a way to get you with them.” He also calls me regularly asking for help. Imagine that--the founder asking for help of someone three decades his junior! Steve fosters my creative thinking, challenging me to make our ideas known to the world as well as suggesting books and articles to read to keep me on the cutting edge.

Ron and Phil have kept the ship steady, providing wise counsel at the right time and stepping in when most needed. Both of them have had my back. They also clearly are praying for the mission and for me and my family. That’s huge. The mission doesn’t fall off their radar between board meetings.

Jerry is a big encourager, and Elliott has been my confidant, partner and course corrector. He’s so insightful that I pass nearly all ideas by him and if he has reservations, I know I’d better listen.

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Every organization faces challenges—challenges like conflict, disagreement on vision and mission, funding shortfalls, and more. How have the relationships amongst your CEOs helped you to weather the challenges God has placed in your path over the years?

Birdsall: My experience of becoming the new leader of the mission was accompanied by a major challenge to my appointment that escalated into a crisis. A gifted missionary peer in our organization found it difficult to acknowledge the legitimacy of my appointment. Over the years, this led to increasing conflict and tension.

A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and prayers were involved in the attempt to resolve this issue. But in the midst of the turmoil, Ken’s support for me and for the Board’s decision was unequivocal. He didn’t excuse me from needing to do everything I could on my part to resolve the conflict, but he made it clear that I had his support. That was huge.

Wendling: To be honest, our CEO selection process in the past has been marked with errors. Most recently, we were on the verge of calling a fine individual who would have turned out to be the wrong choice for CEO when Joe’s name was brought to our attention—after the search process had been concluded.

We had to be willing to bend our protocol and, more than that, admit that our process had been faulty. The lack of egos and the high level of trust amongst our senior leadership and our Board enabled us to eat some humble pie, pivot, and make what turned out be a fantastic choice in calling Joe to become CEO in 2008.

Hoke: I have learned by long and sometimes painful experience that ministry relationships forged in the crucible of crosscultural ministry often endure the long haul over the topography of life’s journey. Life in the crucible seems to strip away the sun-tan lotion of appearance and performance and expose us to one another in unprotected vulnerability. We form “bands of battlers”! Growing deeper in dependence on the Lord alongside fellow brothers and sisters has forged the strongest and longest-lasting relational bonds I now cherish.

Ken, Jerry, Doug, Joe, and I are bonded because of our shared passion for task and our shared experience in serving in Asia. It wasn’t always easy, but in the heat and stretch of the crucible, the lasting linkages are easily the most rewarding and fulfilling in my life.

Joes installation 2008 12 cropped.jpg
Joe's Installation (2008): Ken, Ron, and Doug were there to support the new president

Handley: The relationship I have with Doug is particularly interesting. Many leaders would advise that a former CEO not sit on the board for the new leader. When I came on, however, Ron McMahon asked me if it would be OK to keep Doug on the board. Ron assured me that if I was not comfortable with that, he would ask Doug to step off. Ron then said, “Joe, if there ever becomes a problem between you and Doug, you need to know, we stand with you.” When Phil became chair, he repeated the same assurance several times over the years.

All that said, Doug has always been my greatest cheerleader. Even when I’ve chosen paths that he said he wouldn’t have, he has affirmed and supported the directions I felt the Lord leading us. Doug has demonstrated remarkable discretion and humility in his service as a board member.

This type of support is rare. In fact, I’ve never heard of it before.

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So how do these relationships work at present? What are they like? And how do they impact A3?

Handley: First and foremost, we all get along. I just like all of these guys. My relationship with each one is a little different, but I enjoy them all.

It’s like when Ken walked into that first meeting in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. After I got over my shock, my first thought was, “This guy is normal!” We’re normal guys whom God happened to call to serve in the same ministry. And God has given us the great gift of being able to continue our friendships, even as our respective roles change and our respective paths evolve.

Birdsall: The relationships have developed and grown stronger over the years. Ken has become a valuable mentor who has influenced my life more than anyone else, with the exception of my parents and my wife. He is my most valued advisor and trusted friend.

Ken’s spirit of mission has permeated A3. It impacts what we have done and how we have done it through the relationships God has nurtured, from the beginning right now to the present day.

Today, under Joe’s leadership, I have the privilege of serving as a non-voting member of the Board, so I am able to participate in and enjoy being a part of what God continues to do through the mission of A3.

I admire Joe’s bold vision, his joy, and his leadership skills. He has abilities and gifts that I do not have. He is able to take the mission further and higher – which is exactly what any leader should want their successor to do. At the same time, he is gracious and appreciative of the contributions of the three of us who have served before him. There is an awareness of God’s providence over the mission and its leaders.

Foxwell: A key way that leaders cling to power is through the withholding of information. In contrast, these men have been, and are, remarkably open in sharing what they have with one another—information, donors, ideas, you name it. There is an openness and spirit of sharing among them that is rare among successive CEOs.

Handley: There is genuine Christian community between us. We value one another. We appreciate one another’s gifts. There is no sense of threat among us. We have one another’s backs. And even though we are on different vocational paths at the moment, we still share a common sense of mission.

We believe in one another. In some ways, that is the bottom line.

Doug and Ken hold up Joe

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Finally: What advice would you give to other leaders who would like to nurture the same kind of relationships and community in their organizations?

Wendling: Are you willing to shift focus on who gets the glory? Are you willing to give God the glory, and not yourselves? In some ways, it’s that simple.

Hoke: Can you let go of your ambitions? Can you envision a CEO role that is apostolic, rather than being based on achievement? Can you blend the strengths of your gifted brothers and sisters and steward their contributions for greater Kingdom impact?

Birdsall: Are you willing to hold things loosely? Can you make room for others to excel? If you are the outgoing CEO, will you do everything in your power to empower your successor, and be his or her biggest cheerleader?

Many times I heard Ken say, “There is no limit to what you can do for the glory of God when you don’t care who gets the credit.” I also remember Ken telling me of a conversation he had with Ted Engstrom. When Ken had asked Ted, “How do you stay out of your successor’s way?”, Ted put his hands on Ken’s shoulders, looked him square in the eyes and said, “Ken, it’s really easy. Stay out of his way!”

Handley: Can you make the shift from competitors to colleagues? Can you affirm the strengths of your fellow senior leaders—whether they be CEOs, senior VPs, or whatever particular role—and celebrate how God is using them, and all of you, for the greater good of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to a hurting world? What could be better than that?


Noel Becchetti

Noel BecchettiNoel Becchetti has been serving as A3's VP for Leader Development since 2012. Noel and his wife Kyle currently reside in El Cajon, California.



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