James Heynen: 'The truth is our friend'

Paper is torn back to reveal the word "TRUTH"

iStock / Michail_Petrov-96

Leading change in organizations requires discovering the truth and avoiding blame, says a longtime consultant.

For nearly 50 years, James Heynen has been helping organizations change.

He has worked with more than 1,000 organizations from a variety of fields, including the World Council of Churches and General Motors. Heynen founded The Greystone Group Inc. in 1984 and later the consulting group RTM, where he now is a senior team leader.

The core of his work is discovering the truth about what an organization is and needs, through interviews and other research, then making recommendations -- all while avoiding blame.

James Heynen“When I’m working in organizations where change is made, those changes are impacting people, often unseen people, people that I didn’t interview, people I can’t name,” he said. “But it’s there, and if I lose sight of that consequence, I’ve lost sight of who we are as human beings.”

Heynen also works as a ghostwriter, a profession that branched out from working with CEOs, and has published dozens of papers and articles.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his decades of working with a variety of institutions and how they, along with the environments in which they exist, have changed. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have two degrees from Calvin College (now Calvin University), including, if I remember correctly, an M.Div. How does that figure into your career?

James Heynen: I use it in a number of ways. One is that the M.Div. was pursued largely in ethics, and that’s a big issue for us in organizational change.

The other is the question of, “Who are we?” Right? Who is Jim?

The opportunity to go through a classical seminary, with all the language in it, also gave me an opportunity to consider, “Who am I?” -- not in a psychological or group sense so much as in a sense of ontology. What does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be broken and fail?

So it isn’t only faith -- albeit it was also faith -- so much as a mindset and an understanding of who we are as people, especially in our brokenness, our uncertainty.

F&L: I can definitely see the overlap. What tradition do you come from?

JH: Calvinist, deeply Calvinist. Christian Reformed Church, and then through various forms of Presbyterianism. I went to Scotland; I gave up on Geneva.

F&L: What is your definition of an organization? How has that understanding changed over the years?

JH: A simple definition of an organization is “a structured group pursuing a common mission using common strategies.” General Motors is an organization. Duke Divinity School is an organization. You get organizations inside organizations and so forth, but generally speaking, it’s a structured group, a recognized common identity, a common mission, common strategies.

I don’t know if my understanding has fundamentally changed, but it certainly has deepened. I’ve worked with a thousand organizations maybe, probably a few hundred in depth. The rest I might have been on a team.

Organizations are living organisms in a living environment. That’s what they are. The living organism part means that just as Sally and Jim do, so does Duke change all the time. It ages. It gets new energy.

And it’s in a living environment, which is to say the world is not static. You and I were not in a pandemic 13 months ago. The environment is alive, and so is the organization -- a living organism and a living environment.

There’s structure, but there’s vastly more than that. The structures have grown much more flexible, pliable, unpredictable than they were when my career began in the dark ages.

That’s pretty much held for me for four or five decades. That is the work.

F&L: How does one lead change in that kind of unpredictable environment?

JH: Oh, there are so many ways to answer that. One does it by being truthful, by discovering what the organization is and needs as nearly as we can, and offering those, seeing if that wins agreement. And then by -- again, truthfully -- articulating ways to make the necessary change that we’ve discovered.

In a typical process, I and/or a team will interview, let’s say, 40% or 50% of a staff. That will give us findings. They’ll tell us things they believe, facts. They’ll show us reports. They’ll give us numbers. They’re all findings.

We then will need to apply to those findings our own judgment. What is our judgment with regard to those facts; how do we move from finding to conclusion?

Out of conclusions you build recommendations and see if those are worthy or not. If so, most of the time but not always, we will stay with the organization through the change, through the implementation.

F&L: I noticed you mentioned truthfulness.

JH: One of my axioms is “The truth is our friend.” That’s really all I mean by that.

It’s a gift to us when we’re told the truth. That’s true interpersonally, but it’s also true organizationally. If there’s a flaw, it’s our friend, when we discover the flaw; it’s not our enemy. The same is true in our relationships.

So the truth is our friend, and in this field I don’t have much to work with other than the truth. If I’m misled or if I’m missing the signs and I’m mistaken, I won’t help.

F&L: I understand that one of your other axioms is “Nonprofits move slowly.” How does one lead change in that environment?

JH: Most of what you and I have been talking about with for-profits is exactly the same [with a nonprofit]. It’s still a living organism and a living environment. It’s going to need to deal with identity and mission and purpose and strategies and people. It’s all there.

What is unique about it is that the mission serves the public enough for the public to say, “Well, then we won’t charge you taxes.” That’s the exchange. The public says, “You don’t have to pay any tax, because of your mission.”

Therefore, you need to stay on the mission. That’s the character of the beast.

If the question is pace of change, we are usually asking questions about the culture rather than, say, the identity of the brand, the structure. You’re into culture.

If a congregation is going through a painful difference in leadership, what’s most painful is what’s happening to the culture. Not all issues of change in the church or a nonprofit are cultural, but many are. And a reason for that is many of the decisions in those settings are made through the culture rather than through the structure.

F&L: So how do you ease the pain of change in that culture as you’ve described?

JH: I suppose there are a few things we try to pull out and a few things we try to put in.

We try to pull out things like blame. It’s an extraordinarily hurtful and unhelpful strategy.

If you and I are sharing a description of an organization that is failing and we engage in blame, we’re going to leave it right where it is. We hold someone accountable for it, truthfully or untruthfully, but it doesn’t change a thing. It doesn’t help at all.

So we pull out things like pain and put in truth. Put in what we see as nearly as we can and as decently, nicely, respectfully as we can. But truth has got to go in.

We try to be realistic. We try to be realistic about the truth. We try to be sensitive. Have they heard the truth before?

But deal with the truth. Don’t deal with a myth or the image.

Some years ago -- 30, 20 -- we were asked to reorganize a megachurch. The pastor was extraordinarily famous and came from fame and was in fame, and all kinds of problems were circling the pastor.

But when the pastor told me the truth that he had told no one yet, including his family -- that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease -- then I could begin to be helpful. Until I knew the truth, I wasn’t really worth my pay.

So we try to pull out things like blame and guilt and the things that don’t help an organization, whether it’s your family or your business.

We try to put in the truth, put in options, offer alternatives if we can see them.

Finally, if we can’t do any of that, we’re present. We stand next to. We are with.

F&L: Many organizations can’t afford a consultant or would have to think hard before hiring one. Is it also possible for folks to lead from within, or do they need an outside person?

JH: Oh, I think most do not need an outside person. Most changes can be led from within.

It’s a bit like, can someone without a seminary education produce a good sermon? Yeah. They certainly can. That’s certainly possible. Can they do it week after week? Well, that becomes a little more difficult. The education is useful at that point.

I would say my education and theory and the colleges that I went to other than seminary are all useful. They’re all helpful. Not mandatory.

And in many cases, leadership has to come from inside, because no one from the outside will (a) know enough or (b) be trusted enough to do much.

Max De Pree, who was the president and CEO of Herman Miller and a mentor for me for many years, would say, “Every organization’s leader is changing the organization every day.” And I believe that.

F&L: Could you share two or three pieces of advice that every organizational leader should be thinking about now in this time when everything feels like a crisis?

JH: I don’t know who said, “Never waste a good crisis,” but they understood change. Times of rapid change, which the pandemic is, call on us to be genuine about who we are.

That means that if you’re a leader, you are as vulnerable to that virus as anyone else. So we need to be faithful to who we are as leaders.

Second, I think there is almost always reason for a leader to demonstrate hope.

It’s OK for followers to become thoroughly depressed and kind of limp along behind. But a leader has got to have a genuine -- not created -- a genuine sense of hope.

That comes for some people from their faith, for some from psychology, for some from natural optimism. But a leader without hope is not going to have followers. Not for long.

F&L: Do you feel hopeful when you look at the way organizations are functioning now?

JH: I am. Part of why I’m hopeful is that I don’t think government sets all the modeling. I think that’s a dysfunctional set of systems right at the moment for a variety of reasons.

But if you look around at movements that are not yet institutions but are already organized, I’m hopeful.

I’m looking up at my bookshelf -- Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” is up there; that’s got a set of insights we didn’t have before. Black Lives Matters is reminding us of our history but also calling us to change the future and offering us an opportunity to do that together. It’s not one race or ethnic tradition.

So if I look around, I see plenty of reasons for hope.

F&L: Is there anything you would want to add that I didn’t ask you about?

JH: It’s a pretty humbling career. Every time I go into a new client, I know less than anyone else there. They all know what I don’t know.

Working with CEOs when they’re founders of an organization -- they know every minute of the history of that organization, and I don’t know one minute of it. So it’s still a learning occupation. I’m still learning.

All I really do is learn and hand it back, learn and hand it back.