John Whelan: HR Thought Leaders Series

John Whelan

Meet John Whelan – qualified mediator, lawyer, government adviser and speechwriter

Conflict is one of those things we don’t often think about – until we’re busy resolving it. Perhaps a rebrand of the conflict resolution industry would help? That’s just one of the topics we discuss in this, our second instalment of the Thought Leaders Series.

This week I’m joined by John Whelan. John is the founder of JJ Whelan a successful mediation and conflict resolution company in Sydney. He formed JJ Whelan (which is a registered provider to the NSW Government) after a high-profile career in politics. Not such a big career change some may say!

John has been a Senior Adviser to two Prime Ministers and two Premiers. He’s also been Chief of Staff to the Commonwealth Attorney General and the Commonwealth Minister for Justice. No stranger to the media, John writes political opinion pieces for the Telegraph (here’s a great one for all you Game of Thrones fans) and is a regular guest on current affairs program, The Nation.

Putting John firmly in the HR thought leadership camp is the book he recently co-authored with Nina Harding and Simone Farrar. The Workplace Conflict Guide, currently available on iTunes, is a highly practical handbook for managers or employees experiencing conflict at work.

The interview

Elizabeth: Thanks for joining me John. To kick off, can you tell me a little about what JJ Whelan does? Give me your elevator pitch.

John: Sure. So JJ Whelan helps organisations resolve and prevent conflict in order to improve performance – that of individuals and the business as a whole.

We provide mediation to resolve existing disputes – and coaching to prevent conflict occurring. We also offer a program called High Performance Communication Training – a four-hour workshop that help teams author their own high-performance standards.

(For a list of specific disputes you might recognise, check out ‘Is this your dispute’ on John’s website)

Elizabeth: What kind of companies do you work with?

John: I have mainly worked with the public sector, so State Government bureaucracies and Commonwealth bureaucracies. I do have private sector clients too and some in the not-for-profit space.

Elizabeth: Which roles in those organisations do you normally work with?

John: The CEO is normally the first contact, especially if it’s a dispute that’s escalated. The actual training, coaching and mediations are conducted at a number of levels through the organisation though. Project managers often need conflict resolution for their teams for example. When you have fast-moving projects, even small disputes can have a big impact.

Elizabeth: What’s that ‘head in hands’ moment that makes people call you?

John: That’s a great term ‘head in hands’, that’s exactly what it is! I’d say it’s one of two things. One: as a dispute escalates and lawyers are about to get involved, the CEO (or whoever it is) looks over the edge and realises how much time and money is about to be spent. So they call me to get the dispute resolved. Two: there may be a break down of a relationship, which is affecting performance and stopping progress being made.

Elizabeth: A relationship between who?

John: It could be two leaders, it could be a manager and their team, it could even be between two different companies that are working on a project together. Or in a mediation between warring parties seeking a non litigated outcome.

Elizabeth: Can you tell me about a specific job you’ve done recently?

John: Yes – it was a group that was working across different branches in one organisation – four people participating in a project all with different needs and with poor communication. As a result the performance was suffering and the project faltering.

Elizabeth: Were they receptive to help?

John: Yes – but you have to remember that with any conflict, coming into the situation, there has already been a lot of investment into the dispute – emotional investment. So the intervention was necessary.

That’s a problem with humans. We’re highly competitive – so often pre-disposed for conflict. But most don’t like conflict and we’re not very good at dealing with it. That’s because of the emotions involved. We’re very complicated beings!

Elizabeth: What was the outcome for this group in particular?

John: I ran workshops that broke the conflict down into specific things that needed solving. The key was to get them authoring their own standards and methods of communications. For example, one standard stipulated that ‘Written communications need to be augmented with frank, factual, verbal communications.’ It is very simple but under pressure sometimes the breakthrough is hard for the participants to author. They are a good show and are on track.

Elizabeth: I bet they’d wish they’d called you a few months previously!

John: They always do!

Elizabeth: So what about prevention then?

John: I’m sometimes asked to come in and run coaching and training sessions on prevention – but really, people don’t tend to think about conflict until it happens. This is one of the things about the conflict resolution profession that needs to change. We need to get better at marketing the benefits of investing in prevention.

Elizabeth: Companies are increasingly publishing these ‘culture docs’ that outline the company’s standards. The standards you help groups create during coaching sessions could form part of these culture docs… what do you think?

John: Yes, the standards my groups write go on to be ‘norms’ that form the basis of how employees should behave – so that’s exactly what you’re talking about.

Culture is also about the language of a company, how people talk to each other, give feedback and respond to situations. And the standards tend to stick when they are authored by the team itself. The work being done by David Rock around this is particularly interesting.

Elizabeth: How has conflict resolution changed since you first started in the industry?

John: It hasn’t changed enough. I don’t think businesses are very clear on what conflict resolution is and what the impact of it is. If you can resolve or avoid conflict then performance increases. Not only that but people take fewer sick days and retention increases – of course all of this directly impacts your bottom line.

In your Thought Leaders interview with Gareth Bennett you spoke about the importance of data – I mean, which piece of data is more important than a company’s bottom line?

Elizabeth: What particularly excites you about the future of conflict resolution?

John: Neuroscience and neurolinguistics. There’s a lot we can learn from these disciplines. Like I mentioned before, the language of a company – how people express themselves and react to situations – can make a huge difference in your tendency towards or away from conflict as a company.

In one organisation I worked with recently the way most people would start a conversation was with their role – so their status. So instantly you have an atmosphere of competition, hierarchy and one-up-man-ship. Whereas if you put your needs first, you foster a feeling of collaboration. I’ll call this linguistic trade craft.

Elizabeth: As a thought leader, your thinking will contribute to the future of conflict resolution, so who have you been inspired by recently?

John: In terms of geo politics you have to admire Obama. You look at how conflict-prone the American political system is – and yet he’s taken America out of two wars , introduced a new healthcare system and brought them through a recession – that’s pretty impressive!

In terms of my industry: Nina Harding. Nina is Australia’s leading mind in mediation. She is high IQ – high EQ and has over 20 years of experience. I recently wrote a book with Nina that’s on iTunes: Workplace Conflict Guide. We’re planning to collaborate on some more publications in the near future.

I would also have to say that any business leaders who admit there’s a problem are inspiring. Recognising that there’s something wrong, speaking up about it and choosing to deal with it is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Those are the leaders that succeed. And they’re the ones with the most longevity.

Elizabeth: How do you currently get your expertise out there?

John: Face-to-face and word of mouth. Most of my business comes from referrals at the moment – and it’s enough to keep me busy! I don’t do social media or blogging but I can definitely see the potential there – it’s something I’ll be looking at this year for sure.

Elizabeth: Well, when you do, you know where to come! Thanks so much for chatting with me today John.