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Profile: John Heaton Leading an Organization to Prevent Disruptions in Your Team

Profile: John Heaton Leading an Organization to Prevent Disruptions in Your Team

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Published by Richard Cummins
from the Journal for Quality and Participation, Spring 2005.
from the Journal for Quality and Participation, Spring 2005.

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Published by: Richard Cummins on Jun 25, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Maintaining a team of loyal employeeswho are dedicated to the company andcan turn conflicts into creative solutionsis a key strategy for business success. Thisarticle profiles a successful manager whounderstands how to prevent problemsfrom becoming disasters.
Profile: John Heaton
Leading an Organization to PreventDisruptions in Your Team
Richard Cummins
n her book,
and the
New Science,
Margaret Wheatleyquotes a friend as saying, "Powerin organizations is the capacitygenerated by relationships." Clearly,leaders who build relationshipsbuild the power needed to keeptheir organizations out of troubleand on the road to sustainablesuccess.Such is the case with JohnHeaton, president of Pay PlusBenefits in Kennewick, WA, whowas named one of America's 15"Best Bosses" by
Fortune Small
Business Magazine.
Out of 210
nominees, Heaton's award was theonly one for a Washington statebusiness.P.G. Northhouse definestransformational leaders as "changeagents who are good role models,who can create and articulate aclear vision for an organization,who empower followers to achieveat higher standards, who act inways that make others want totrust them, and who give meaningto organizational life." Heatonclearly fits this definition. He is amaster at adapting the company'sculture to achieve its strategic aims.
The Company
Founded in 1991, Pay PlusBenefits is a professional employerorganization that provides compen-sation and benefits services to itsclients, including administrationof payroll, benefits management,and retirement and workers'compensation administration.
the company's success is the operation ofits 24/7 online client resource center that providesaccess to accurate, valuable employee data.As a human resources outsourcing business, thecompany's success depends on a combination ofreliable service and innovative technolog)'. The companyhas received a wide variety of awards, including beingrecognized as an
500 fastest-growing company, receiving/«c./Cisco's "Growing WithTechnology Award," and attaining
first place in
annual competition for "BestCompanies in Washington toWork For."At last count, this company of18 employees provided outsourcedHR services to organizationsranging in size from smallcompanies operating in one location to huge businesseswith 50,000 employees all across the country. "We nowhave in our data farm 300,000 employees and 9,000individual companies," Heaton commented. "We werenearly invisible at national meetings in the early days,but now we command a substantial amount of respect."Strategically, the firm also leverages its employmentpractices to demonstrate how clients' employees will betreated. The F*ay Plus Benefits Web site notes, "One ofthe best measures of how the company will treat youremployees is the track record of its own employees'performance and satisfaction with their jobs."
Self-Discipline, and the Right to Fail
Heaton believes in empowering and augmentingthe lives of employees; engaging them in work; andencouraging freedom, self-discipline, and the rightto fail. He also enhances productivity by harnessingconflict to attain creative insights. His compellinghumility and sense of humor empower others in waysthat positively influence both the company's bottomline and employees' lives.Heaton observes many people do not understand theconcept of freedom in the workplace. "Not everyonecan work in a culture that embraces freedom," he says."Some people have left Pay Plus Benefits not becausethey didn't like freedom; they actually didn't like otherpeople's freedom."For example, employees at Pay Plus Benefits arefree to set their own hours because Heaton knows
employees; engaging them
freedom,self-discipline,andthe right to
that a great variety of work styles exist. His ultimateaim is to create a work environment where employees'performance can be outstanding; that's moreimportant than establishing rigid operational rules."At a normal workplace, if an employee walks in ateight or nine in the morning, he/she would be asked,"How come you're just getting here? The way we haveit set up at Pay Plus Benefits,you probably would beembarrassed if you asked thatquestion. You could expect tofind out that there had beena major problem the nightbefore, and those employeeshad been at work untilmidnight. Here, you canassume that employees have ajob that they have to get doneand that they will get it done."Heaton shares the case of two brothers who workfor the company. "They've been through many projectswith me. One of the brothers
just finishing a projectthat has been under way about three years. His workisn't high-speed, but he never quits. In contrast, hisbrother wanders around all through the day, chattingwith other people, and then works at night. Their stylesare quite different, but they both get the job done tothe benefit of the company."Breakthroughs in the company's services dependon a staff of computer "geeks" who reprogram thebusiness' systems on a regular basis, using intelligenceand creativity. They participate fully in developingthe means that realize the company's required ends,so the freedom they are afforded must be concomitantwith self-discipline. It is Heaton's job to ensure thatworkers are held accountable in this largely unrestrictedenvironment.Heaton admits that he learned the power of failureat a visceral level through his business experiences priorto starting Pay Plus Benefits. He sums up his perspectiveon the value of learning through mistakes by saying,"R&D is nothing more than the process of eliminationof what does not work; when you start a project, youfirst eliminate what does not work. Most people see thatas a failure. Many cultures don't like failure. Because noone wants to be known as a failure, people are afraidto step out and take chances. You've got to keep tryingnew approaches or you'll never know when you haveeliminated that last thing that does not work.
"I've had new employees come to me with their headdown and say, 'I've really screwed up.' My commentback to them is, 'Why should you be so lucky? I'venever done anything right the first time in my life."'
Knowing When to Get Out of the Way
As a role model, Heaton is understated, saying thathe starts his day typically between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m."If I'm going to do any bragging about
hecomments, "it's that IVe learned how to keep just one-step ahead of our employees." He views his primaryjob to be mapping out the business' strategy and thengetting out of the way of
Heaton tells the story of one employee whom hedescribes as "one of the more brilliant minds west ofthe Mississippi." At one major turning point in PayPlus Benefits' history,several competitors (thatwere more than 100 timeslarger) failed to meetthe industry's needs forimproved informationtechnology. Heatonchallenged the technologydirector, "The big boyswanted this and couldn'tdo it. Now you getyour shot." The
challenged, respected,empowered, rewarded —responded with a series ofprograms and processesthat have made this smallcompany the leader in software development for itsentire sector of the national economy.An important aspect of the company's culture ishow Heaton builds community through ethical andempowering treatment of its employees. His ability tokeep his own ego in check helps employees to feelvalued and results in incredible loyalty to the companyand Heaton himself He recognizes that his personaldrive for achievement can overpower other people; withseasoned self-awareness,he has learned how to mentoryoung people in productive ways.Here's an example of how he garners satisfactionwithout having to be the center of attention or a know-it-all. "Three of the company's young staff leaders willbe fiying to Texas shortly, and one will be staying hereto maintain the home front. These 'kids' are going to
Heaton says that he spends a good partof his CEO time working to get eachgroup feeling respected and empowered.His organization's
skillsand talents
are intellectual capital,pure and simple. The intelligence andcreativity that
bring to workeach day are the keys to the business'
not its computer equipmentand lifeless database.
stand up in front of all the techies at the meeting, makea presentation, and impress everyone else in attendance.I won't be the one standing up there, but because I'mnot, they will be so pumped when they get home! It'sa small sacrifice."In fact, Heaton remarks that his real reward comesout of "the respect I get from others because theseemployees work for me. They get job offers all thetime. I get credit for having put the team together."Heaton tells many stories that illustrate his remarkablehumility in working with these talented employees. One16-year-old college student was hired as an intern. Hewas brilliant, but he possessed all of the downsides thatan adolescent boy brings to work."We had recently purchased our first laser printer,and it jammed. I walked over to it, acting like
knewhow to fix it. The internelbowed me back, andtook over. I was totallyelated becau.se
didn't haveto show iny ignorance. Hetook the printer apart, gotit unjammed, and put itback together. Then, theyoung man says to no onein particular, 'I'm beginningto understand all the jokesI've been told about uppermanagement.'"When I tell this storyat conferences, the crowdalways perks up," continuesHeaton, "Because it is sucha beautiful story. People always laugh. Then I tell themto flash forward four years. Thar intern is still workingwith us, and now he's our chief software engineer. He'sgrown up ^\'ith us."
Life Isn't Always Rosy
This is not to say that everything is always perfectat Pay Plus Benefits. Heaton spends much of his timekeeping the team together. There is a constant tensionbetween the programmers who continually remakethe company's services and systems and the staff thatis charged with docimienting all of these changes.This tension sometimes causes gaps between theorganization's core values and how people behave.Heaton illustrates the strain with this story. "Aprogrammer will race up to my office with news about

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