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In First Person: John Heiser

Developing a Dialogue Across Conflict

As CEO of LabVantage and former President/COO of Magnetrol, John Heiser, Ph.D., speaks to People + Strategy guest editor Mary Gentile about how Giving Voice to Values has helped him foster employee engagement and open communication in his companies.  

P+S: How did you become exposed to Giving Voice to Values and why did you think it would be valuable in the companies you are and have led?

John: I got engaged with Giving Voice to Values (GVV) as part of the Ph.D. program in Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University. I remember sitting in class, listening to you talk about how you’d had a crisis of faith that led you to understand that we needed to change how we approached ethical discussions within the workplace. As somebody who was a lawyer in private practice and then an in-house lawyer in my early career, I had been responsible for compliance. For me, this was an epiphany. I thought, “This makes perfect sense regarding how we can better engage our organization and our employees around ethical conflict.” When I was the in-house attorney, I had been the person who gave the ethics talk to our sales people and nobody ever heard the substance of the discussion. It never resonated why it was important for people to be willing and able to voice issues. We wanted them to bring issues up in their infancy when they are starting to question whether this is the right thing to do because then we can handle it appropriately. But you had to have that sense of empowerment and a sense that it will be okay to raise these issues. 

Also, as I moved into more senior roles, I found that although values conflicts arise every day in the workplace, employees get very discouraged when they raise questions and issues but receive no response or feel shut down or ignored. Giving Voice to Values provides an opportunity to build trust within the organization that ultimately will lead to more engagement, which then ultimately leads to better performance. For me Giving Voice to Values actually addresses two issues: compliance and engagement.

P+S: Can you share an example of how this works in an organization? 

John: The thing I love about the GVV framework is that it builds that “moral muscle memory” and you gave an example that I use across my organization about preparation and utilizing the framework to minimize retaliation risk. You said, “If you’re going to come in and present a new strategic change or program, you’re going to be extremely prepared for that discussion. You have talked to other people, you have engaged stakeholders, you have done research, you understand the risk to the organization, and you anticipate the questions I’m going to ask. Why wouldn’t you give that same attention to values conflicts?”

I’ll give you a great example of what we did at Magnetrol to expose the entire organization to this. We started with our senior leadership team and exposed them to GVV with an online program in a cohort format where they could talk about ethics and Giving Voice to Values in general, without talking about specific conflicts within the organization. Then we did a live session applied to Magnetrol scenarios. Once we had the senior leadership team engaged, we then made a decision to roll this out to the entire organization and we used the same format. We started with the online cohort-based learning platform to expose them to GVV and then we did live sessions where we took the general framework and brought it down to the organization. 

P+S: How does this work across cultures?

John: That is one of the questions that we always get—does GVV translate across the globe? Let me share an example of our roll-out to our China organization. We had a Chinese facilitator who understood Giving Voice to Values and who had translated the book. The first question we heard was: “Is this another example of Western propaganda being thrown at us?”

Our facilitator replied that, number one, we do have universal values like trust. Conflicts do arise, and we want to be heard. These values matter to all of us and we saw that in the online program. The second thing he said that I think helped the most was that this program was consistent with the strategies that President Xi was implementing within China in terms of ethics. And then, third, he was very transparent and said “We work for a Western company and it’s important you understand this.” At that point, that issue went away. We had one of the most engaged sessions that I was a part of with the company. 

P+S: Can you tell me about the key challenges of this work?

John: What I found at Magnetrol is starting with an understanding that this is about bringing forward values or ethical conflicts in a productive manner that is not confrontational, that it is not threatening, that it allows for a dialogue to occur. At the end of the day, we need two components: First, senior leadership has to understand and practice this visibly in the organization. Second, even more importantly, middle management has to be engaged. Because the first person an employee is going to go to is their immediate supervisor and if there’s a disconnect at that level, this is going to fall apart. Either employees become disengaged or untrusting because they feel management has not been responsive or does not listen or does not give them feedback. Where I’ve seen success is the complete opposite, where management is engaged and they say, “I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s look into it.”

P+S: This makes me think of Unilever’s use of GVV where we worked with senior management as you did, but we also included a group of middle managers—called Change Champions—who took the lead to work this down into the organization. It can be powerful to integrate this skillset into your existing leadership and management development, as opposed to it being a separate program. Can you share an example of the value-add of GVV at Magnetrol or what you hope it will be at LabVantage?

John: One is true engagement. If you don’t have a framework that allows for trust, for employees to feel that they can voice values, you get a workforce who view the work as purely transactional or who become discouraged. Two things are going to happen: Either they’re just going to come to work every day and go through the motions and not be as engaged as we would like or they’re going to leave the organization. Both of those are significant costs to the organization in terms of effectiveness and performance. That’s the value-add and we saw improvements in engagement scores as we rolled out Giving Voice to Values. 

When I first became President of Magnetrol, I went on a listening tour. I met in small groups with employees and I said this is just a conversation between us and I’m not going to talk to your managers about it. I heard a consistent message: “We have good ideas that could help this process or that process but we raise those up, and they go nowhere. We’ve seen problems and we’ve raised these with our supervisors, it doesn’t go anywhere, and we’re just not bringing it up anymore.” That’s what prompted me to implement Giving Voice to Values quite frankly and that’s where we did see an uptick in attitude. 

I can share another more individual example of the impact of this work. Our sales employees wanted to change part of our agreement and they gave the changes to the group’s administrator. Her role was to make the changes and send it out. However, she didn’t think the change was correct so she went back to her contact and asked whether they were sure this was what they wanted to do. The response came back, yes, just do it. This employee, who had just gone through Giving Voice to Values, decided to take this up with that person’s boss, who also told her to just make the changes. Again, she decided to take this a level above and she came to me as President. She explained that she thought we needed to look at this a little bit more and I told her to send me the contract and I’d take a look at it. She came back in a week, but I hadn’t looked at it yet. She came back to me in another week, and again I hadn’t looked at it. This is where Giving Voice to Values came in. She thought, “John’s busy and he’s not having time to read this whole thing,” so she highlighted the language they were looking to change for me. I looked and said, “Oh my gosh, we can’t do that!” I said, “Rose, thank you so much for bringing this up” and her response to me was, “Just Giving Voice to Values, John.”

But here’s the thing: Nobody got in trouble as a result of the issue being raised. I was able to go back to them and explain to them why we couldn’t change the language and it fostered a positive dialogue. It reinforced the idea that we can raise these questions and nobody gets sanctioned or in trouble for doing that. 

P+S: It seems we’re living in a time when, on the one hand, there seems to be this increasing expectation that individuals should be able to should speak and act on their values and bring their whole selves to work. At the same time, we seem to be living in a time where there seems to be such divisiveness that there’s a declining acceptance of the fact that there may be differences in those positions. Have you’ve encountered this kind of tension in your organizations, and do you have suggestions that can be helpful?

John: One of my core values in the organizations I lead is: “Everybody deserves special treatment.” What we mean by that is you come to work with who you are and we have to understand that you’re coming in with your values and everything else that makes you human, and we can’t expect you to just leave that at the door. Rather, we have to find a way to work with that in a proactive, productive manner. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that values conflicts don’t come up. But I think what I saw at Magnetrol and, where Giving Voice to Values helped, was that the framework allowed us to “lean in” to the conflict, so that we didn’t ignore it, but it allowed us to reframe the discussion. Instead of making the conflict a personal thing, we could focus on how to align our position with the organizational values, purpose, and mission. We are not taking the “personal” out of the discussion, but we are trying to allow for a more engaged discourse rather than a polarized one. Instead of you vs. me, or us vs. them, it becomes more about us as an organization. 

What GVV does is it gives us a framework to take that personal “me against you” out of the equation to some extent. It may not go away completely but at least it allows us to shift or reframe that dialogue away from that to find the commonality and alignment within the organization. 

P+S: I’m curious with you still being relatively new as CEO at LabVantage if there are objectives that you’re starting to add to your list as priorities in terms of the ways you want to encourage effective voicing of values? 

John: I plan to follow a very similar playbook to what I utilized at Magnetrol because it was effective. One of the initiatives is about alignment across the organization and communication being a big part of that. There’s a sense that we’re siloed here at LabVantage. When you’re transitioning from a siloed organization to more of a globally aligned organization, conflict is going to be a piece of that transformation. Giving Voice to Values is going to give us that framework to deal with those value conflicts because the alignment piece is critical for our growth going forward. 

The other thing that I think about a lot is that I’m in a battle for talent. When you look at the talent pool that’s coming into the workforce right now, they expect us to talk about values and purpose, they expect us to be able to deal effectively with those things. If we’re going to attract and retain talent, we need a framework that allows us to deal with values conflicts. 

P+S: What do you think are the most impactful things that an individual leader can do to support voicing and enacting values? 

John: For me, as a leader, people look to you and say, is he just talking these things or does he act in terms of what he’s talking about? As a leader, if you’re going to do Giving Voice to Values or however you want to approach values conflict, your actions have to be consistent with your words. I think that’s very important for me as a CEO in particular because I realized early that people micro-examine everything I say and do. They’re looking to see whether they experience consistency or inconsistency from the top leader. 

The second thing is that at this leadership level, you have to be self-reflective. You have to reflect on your own behaviors, and you have to be receptive to feedback about how you’re coming across. 

The third thing that I think is important as a leader, particularly when it comes to Giving Voice to Values and conflict, is humility. We’ve got to start training leaders more around this and give them opportunities to experience humility because when you think about values conflicts, to get those resolved, you have to understand the other person’s perspective and understand where they’re coming from. Humility and compassion helps with that. 

P+S: Is there anything you want to add?

John: We underestimate how often values conflicts are occurring or we want to downplay them, but we do need to talk about them so we need a framework to do that. GVV provides that framework.

There is one other thing that I think people may sometimes get concerned about with Giving Voice to Values. I think HR people, compliance people, and ethics people certainly understand this, but sometimes leadership doesn’t. They may wonder if we are opening the floodgates to getting a ton of complaints and ethical issues that we’re going to have to deal with. My experience has been that it’s quite the opposite. The reason I say that is because if you’re willing to bring up questions early and in constructive ways, we can resolve them in a way that moves the organization forward in a positive way.