Step Out from Behind the Curtain: An Interview with Mark and Nancy Duarte

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The High Calling; it has been edited here for length and reprinted with permission. Nancy Duarte joins us as a speaker for Resilient: Women, Work, & Calling 2020 on Saturday, Oct. 24.

Nancy Duarte has driven the vision and growth of Duarte for 20 years, building an internationally respected design firm, which has created over a quarter of a million presentations. She has helped shape the perceptions of many of the world’s leading brands and thought leaders. Nancy is the author of the best-selling and award winning book Slide:ology The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, where her experience was distilled into best practices for business communicators. She continues to advance new forms of presentation through partnerships with innovative forums like TED and PopTech. Nancy serves as a TED Fellows committee member, is a 2009 Woman of Influence and 2008 Communicator of the Year. Nancy’s next book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences will be published by Wiley and in bookstores October 2010.

Mark Duarte started Duarte two decades ago out of a passion for design and technology that burns stronger than ever today. He simply loved doing the work. In addition to keeping an experienced eye on the company’s top and bottom lines – and what’s in between – Mark navigates the leading edges of IT to ensure that Duarte’s teams have the computing power, platform availability, security and communications tools that distinguish Duarte from the rest of the industry. He built and continues to refine Duarte’s acclaimed resource planning and reporting system. And, to keep his versatile design chops current, Mark regularly lends his skills to personally support major client events. A quiet and perceptive man of great faith, Mark is the company’s spiritual leader who helps ensure personal balance and wise decisions across the organization. 

Recently, Mark and Nancy Duarte talked with The High Calling about what it looks like to integrate faith and work when you live in Silicon Valley.

How can Duarte be successful during challenging economic times? 

Being a good steward in the good times, gives you cushion in the bad times. We are fiscally conservative and hole most of our income away during feast years so we’re prepared for lean times. In the downturn, we have cash in the bank. That said, the most important thing we do during the good times is innovate. We did just that. In 2007, before a downturn was on anyone’s radar, Nancy could see the downturn coming. She knew she needed to write a book. It was like a fire inside of her. In fact, she only went with a publisher who promised they would have it on shelves by September 2008 because she just knew it had to be out by then.  Her first book Slide:ology , catapulted us onto a global stage. That year instead of dipping in sales, we stayed flat. (Flat was the new grow back then, remember?) Since 2008 the firm has doubled in size. Much due to the success of Nancy’s 2nd book, Resonate which opened up doors higher up in the executive suite. The books spawned a training organization, so instead of just being a creative agency, we also have an academy arm now as well. Diversifying also helps weather tough economic times.

How do you define a "successful" year in terms of business?

We manage our business through four lenses: Creative output, Team development, Client satisfaction and Financial health. Financial health is last for a reason. We can have a rocking financial year but if relationships are strained, there’s turnover or employees aren’t happy, we consider that an unsuccessful year. There are plenty of scriptures about not oppressing your workers and treating them fairly…even generously. It’s tempting in a service business to treat employees like units of production. Instead, we invest in the employees so they’re growing and creating work they’re proud of—which makes the business more successful and clients happier. Win win.

How has your faith influenced you as executives?

Our faith is pervasive.

It’s the filter through which all of life is looked through. It has shaped our generous nature, insightful innovation and our kind, fun culture.

We also aren’t in business for the money. Whaaaaat? Instead, our focus is caring for the people. When we drive through the parking lot, we don’t gloat about the size of our building or how many people we employ. Instead we have an awesome sense of responsibility to be good stewards so that each employee makes enough money to make their car payments in good times and in bad. You can’t love God and money or you make the wrong decisions. It’s all a test.

During the dot com bust, a client in San Francisco was shutting their doors and taking $220,000 of our dollars with them.  Companies here rise and fall but not all have to go into bankruptcy. We held all the cards to throw the company into bankruptcy because we assembled five vendors that had enough debt owed. A bankruptcy for a start-up CEO is a big scar on their record. We asked several Christian business people, and they all basically advised us to “push them into bankruptcy because the CEO isn’t a Christian and scripture only says not to sue a brother and besides…that’s how the game of business is played.”

We assembled the other vendors and started calls with a lawyer but it just didn’t feel right. Then, our corporate chaplain called and said: “Haven’t you been freed from hell and death? How can you hold this tiny debt against them after all you’ve been forgiven?” That was all we needed to hear. We made the decision to forgive the debt. We were so happy with this answer and our decision that we walked to the park up the street from our office and danced. Literally, sang and danced. Nancy called the CEO and told him we were dropping the case.  He was dumbfounded. Nancy told him “We believe in the teachings of Jesus. We’ve been forgiven of so much and we want to forgive you of this debt. Our only request is that you pay it forward some day.” He started a stunned, muffled reply, “My father-in-law, who is a great venture capitalist in the valley, just led me to the Lord six months ago. I never knew people actually lived this way at work. Thank you, thank you. I will pay it forward.”  We exchange emails with him every few years and he tells us each time that this was a defining moment he’ll never forget in his life.

We had no idea there would be something in all this for us too. We had passed a test about the love of money. Once we released this debt, our business started to pull out of the dot com decline. We really feel that if we had handled this differently, our company may have failed. Instead, each day we heard His voice, did what He said and we were rescued. 

How do you manage the tensions between your personal faith as an executive and of those in the company of different faiths or of no faith at all?

We live in an area where only a tiny amount of people share our beliefs. Our perspective has been that if you treat the employees fairly and generously, your faith won’t be challenged. And it’s not. Jesus was loved and pursued by the non-religious and that’s what we’ve always wanted. We wanted to surround ourselves with people who have never seen a loving generous version of Jesus modeled—love that doesn’t condemn, but instead loves.

If we meet the financial and social needs of the employees and are fair, transparent and clear, it minimizes any tension. If you follow the teachings of Jesus accurately, there won’t be pushback from people who don’t believe like you because you’ll be SO appealing to them. Hypocritical Christians will have higher tension.
So far, Mark is still able to pray a blessing on Monday morning before staff meetings even though most of our employees don’t believe the way we do. We get notes and comments, especially when an employee is going through a rough patch, that the prayer brings them peace. We try to model faith that loves, ushers in peace and gives generously—like giving all our employees iPads for Christmas. Don’t you wish you worked here?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The High Calling; it has been edited here for length and reprinted with permission.