President of Magnetrol International discusses values-driven company culture
Alexandra Muck | Thursday, September 14, 2017
John Heiser, president and chief operating officer of Magnetrol International, Inc., discussed his leadership journey and creating a values-driven organizational culture during his lecture Wednesday night in the Mendoza College of Business’ Jordan Auditorium. The talk was the second lecture of the 2017 Berges Lecture Series in Business Ethics.
Heiser began his career as a maritime litigator after graduating from Tulane University’s law school. His decided that law was not the right career choice during one case where he listened to a four-hour debate on the definition of “perishable” when he was waiting to obtain a motion for his client’s case.
“At that point, I had this intervention that said I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this,” he said.
Upon the realization, Heiser decided to move to the chemical production company DuPont. His career move led him to his first lesson in leadership, which was being open-minded about taking new paths.
“You’ve got to be open to exploring new opportunities,” he said. “You’ve got to be open to saying, ‘You know what, this isn’t want I expected. Maybe I should try this; maybe I should try that.’”
Here, Heiser realized his second lesson of leadership, which was the power of stakeholder engagement.
At DuPont, Heiser was responsible for launching a product to help people affected by HIV and AIDS. Heiser described how the activist community at the time spoke against pharmaceutical companies producing the HIV and AIDS drug products due to pricing and other concerns, so he wanted to take steps to embrace this community, including by hiring several activists.
“We were not only going to understand the patient community that we were dealing with, but we were going to work with the activist community and engage them in how we were going to price this product and go to market,” he said. “… This is when I first realized and learned the concept of shared value where we could do things that would maximize profit for the organization. … But we also recognized that we could actually make a different for society.”
Other lessons Heiser learned during his leadership journey included the powers of perseverance, resilience and internal and external feedback.
“As a leader, I would tell you there’s nothing more important than your ability to receive feedback from others and process it, and more importantly, for me, to do self-reflection,” he said.
Heiser also talked about his time at Magnetrol, which is a company that manufactures radar and radar equipment to measure levels of fluid. Though the company had grown considerably from its roots in a garage, Heiser said it had lost its way by 2015 when he took over as president. He attributed this deterioration to the fact that the company rewarded employees based on years of service and attendance as opposed to merit.
Heiser said he sought to fix the problem with a more values-driven approach.
“We had to change the culture, and we had to start at the senior level,” he said.
Today, Heiser said Magnetrol has several core values including the idea of “performance [and] no excuses,” which Heiser said means the company needs to be action-oriented, especially with the commitments it made to its stakeholders.
Heiser said another core value is “everybody deserves special treatment.”
“What that means is we don’t leave the human condition at the door,” he said.
The final Magnetrol value, according to Heiser, is that business is a social institution, which means Magnetrol has an obligation to multiple stakeholders and that it will deliver on those obligations.
Magnetrol’s culture change has not been without its struggles, Heiser explained. Under Heiser, Magnetrol implemented a “Giving Voice to Values” program, which had the lowest participation rate company-wide with the U.S. management team.
“How am I going to get a culture change in the U.S. if I’ve got a management team that [has the lowest participation numbers]?” he said. “… That’s actually been one of our biggest problems is getting managers out of this command and control situation.”