As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing John Halloran.
John Halloran is CEO and founder at Mobile Health, the digital health and wellbeing solution that makes it simple to create healthy cultures. Prior to starting Mobile Health, Halloran was the CEO and founder of Worldwide Compensation, Inc. (WWC), which was twice lauded by industry researchers at Gartner as the Best-in-Class Provider of a Global Compensation Planning solution.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Sure. In the early 2000s, I was running the western region for a software company focused on employee benefits and talent management. The talent management market was growing while the employee benefits market had matured. The company where I was working decided to focus on Employee Benefits and de-emphasize Talent Management. It was a pivotal time in both my life and career. I had just had my first child and the safe thing to do was to stay where I was with a steady paycheck and healthcare coverage that was paid for. I remember talking to my mother-in-law at Thanksgiving and trying to calm her nerves that her grandson would have a roof over his head given I was quitting my job to start a company. I took the risk and founded Worldwide Compensation, a Performance-based Employee Compensation software company focused on multinational employers. That was my first job as CEO. Fortunately, it went well. The company was rated “Best-in-Class” by Gartner in 2009, and was eventually acquired by Taleo, which was subsequently acquired by Oracle.
Mobile Health was born seven years later when I was talking to a client — “If only you could create a solution that could do for the health and wellbeing market what you have done for talent management, you’d really have something.” Based on that, we started Mobile Health Inc.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Because we’re a digital health and wellbeing solution, the most valuable outcome is one of people improving their health. In many cases, we’ll get news that a user got an evidence-based health screening (due to an in-app notification and incentive), was found to have cancer, and caught it early enough to get her treatment and ultimately she was fully recovered. We get feedback from folks who said they felt perfectly fine, with no symptoms, but the prompt from Mobile Health convinced them to get checked out. When an underlying issue is discovered, it helps people understand that “Wow, this could happen to me.” The technology uses data and science to recommend when someone should get a screening or get a service based on a condition that they have. The biggest obstacle is people taking action. Our goal with the platform is to use data to provoke people to take better care of themselves and make taking those actions easier.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Hurricane Harvey had just hit Houston, Texas, and half the city was underwater. One of our clients had several thousand employees in Houston and wanted us to send a targeted communication to the employees in that region with how they could get their prescriptions refilled, how to contact the EAP, and what other services that employer was offering to help the employees through the natural disaster. Even though they were communicating a very serious topic at a very serious time, they took a very clever approach that led to the funny mistake.
They started with: “We are Texans, we go to football games on Friday nights, and in a barbeque contest with Kansas City we will win every day of the week, and we will rebuild.” In sharing with us who to send this communication to, people from their Kansas City office were inadvertently included, which resulted in the hosting of a real BBQ contest once they heard how the Texans claimed to be superior.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Jason Bibelheimer, a longtime customer and partner of mine. He is a big reason as to why I started Mobile Health in the first place.
My previous company had partnered with Jason — who worked for Western Digital at the time — to help him solve for global compensation by putting all of their employees on a single performance-based compensation platform for all employees worldwide. It was a very successful implementation. Jason’s next big challenge was to help reduce rising company healthcare costs. His big question was one of, “What if there were a way to better incentivize people with health risks to get treatment sooner, and help others prevent larger risks from occurring by taking better care of their health now?” That question set us on a course to implement a Total Population Health & Wellbeing solution to keep the healthy people healthy and better help those with chronic illnesses stay compliant with their care plans. It was a win-win, resulting in a healthier employee culture and massive savings for the company — ~$40 million over three years. Jason’s business problem became the business model for Mobile Health.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Growing up, my father was on the board of a local bank. I remember him coming home frustrated and ready to quit the board because of its lack of diversity. The way he told it, he threatened to leave, saying, “I’m tired of looking at all you old farts. If you don’t bring on the next director as a female, I’m going to resign.” He understood there were inherent limitations to an all-male — especially all white male — group. That mindset was part of who he is and part of who I am.
When it comes down to it, it’s very simple. Diverse teams perform better and make better decisions. There isn’t and shouldn’t be any question about this anymore. When you have folks from different backgrounds approaching problems from different perspectives, you have the ability to see market needs through a broader lens — and with fewer blind spots. In effect, you improve your ability to develop software products that are an exceptional market fit. Today at Mobile Health, just over 50% of the company is female, with over 20% of the company’s employees being foreign-born — with employees from India, Europe, and China, among other regions. I couldn’t imagine wanting it any other way.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe in meritocracies. Something I appreciated early on in my career — in the talent management industry — is the idea of better serving customers by putting the best people in the roles they are best suited for. It’s something that should come naturally to any good leader. For any sizable business (especially in the U.S.), your customers will be a diverse group of people. To not have that diversity reflected in your workforce is a missed opportunity. Your organization should do its best to reflect the customers it serves, in all areas. If you approach hiring by always looking for the person best equipped for the role, the decision is favored on their merit as opposed to their background.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
At Mobile Health, we subscribe to an inverted pyramid leadership style, which is about hiring great people and enabling them to do their best work to create the best customer experience. My main job is to remove obstacles and support people to maximize their skill sets. For example, I don’t know how to code, but I do know how to ensure my engineers have adequate resources to perform their best. If I can help everyone around me be successful in their roles, I’m doing my job.
As a CEO, I encourage my leadership team to do the same. Hire the best people, then empower them to do their best work. And I believe that’s the type of organization people want to work for. Where leadership is looking out for them — available to help them solve for individual frustrations or challenges. That said, organizations like ours are the kind where people can find themselves over-extended very quickly. When people are supported to achieve excellence, they can forget to set proper boundaries. So, I try to force my team to increase bandwidth by making hires before they get overtaxed. You’ve got to stay ahead of recruiting; otherwise, people will wake up one day and realize they are way over their head. That’s where things break down and employees start having a bad experience. I’m proactive about building out the organization with the talent we need. It comes down to understanding what needs to be delivered, the overall workload of your people, and looking for choke points where the operation can shut down and staying ahead of it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Having all the right answers, all the time. That’s certainly not true and not something a CEO should even aim for. As a CEO, you’re spending most of your time collaborating with your leadership team to understand what problems the business faces and how to overcome them. It’s a matter of communication and listening to other people. A good CEO should be a facilitator for discussions that lead the team to a solution — and be effective at that even in heated environments.
There will always be tension. For example, your sales team might sell something in a way that really challenges the delivery team. When challenges like that occur, you’ve got to keep people communicating and understanding that we’re in this together — that nobody had ill intent.
Lastly, working primarily from home over the last year has provided some transparency for how not glamorous being CEO really is. At home, I get treated like everyone else. My kids couldn’t care less if I’m “CEO.” To them, I’m just “Dad.”
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The day-to-day activities of a CEO are much more democratic than a lot of people realize. Making decisions isn’t “all on me.” If you’re CEO of a software company, your job isn’t to be an expert programmer and build the product. You have to rely on your engineers to do that. Instead, you have to be good at problem-solving, and you have to provide a vision for where the organization needs to go. My job is to be able to say, “This is where we’re all trying to go, and this is how we’re going to do it together.” What’s most important is being clear in how you describe it and the roles people need to play, but it should be a collaborative endeavor. That’s what I’ve seen work best, at least.
When I first started as a CEO I didn’t understand the inverted pyramid philosophy. What I’ve come to learn is that my job isn’t to be an expert in payroll, finance, developing product, marketing, etc.; it’s about hiring people who are better — way better — than me at those things.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
A successful executive is someone who can set a vision, think of solutions to problems that haven’t yet been created, and can organize people and get them excited about being the company that solves those problems. “Solving” is a very powerful word. To be a good executive, you must dig in to work collaboratively with your team and customers to understand why a problem exists, and figure out what solution can fit the need. You’ve got to be always searching for those solutions.
You should avoid aspiring to be an executive if you’re a lone wolf. If you like to work alone and you’re not collaborative, it’s going to be a difficult road.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
We say every week in our all-hands meeting that, “We don’t just want to be a great place to work. We want to be a career highlight.” So that when people look back on their career, their time at Mobile Health stands out as a special part of that journey. Part of accomplishing that is about making real differences in people’s lives. To see that in action, we encourage our team to tell stories. Because we are a digital health and wellbeing platform, we have the ability to help people in ways that a lot of companies can’t — it’s pretty cool. Whether it’s a mom who was able to catch breast cancer early and see her kids graduate college, or an employee getting treatment for their mental health, the platform plays a big role in those positive moments in people’s lives.
At the end of the day, Mobile Health is about helping people engage in healthier behaviors. My parents passed away when I was young due to health complications. They never had the opportunity to meet their grandkids. Things might have been different if they had a better way to keep their health in check. So much of it has to do with catching health risks early on. If we can help people take the right actions to do just that, then it’s all been worth it to me. With most people’s healthcare access coming from their employers, I want to help make the entire benefits experience easier and simpler for people by better connecting them to care.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As I mentioned before, both of my parents passed away from preventable diseases. So, any success we’ve had in keeping families together longer is huge to me. Our goal at Mobile Health is to help open people’s eyes up to the fact that they don’t have to live a lifestyle that leads to the common health risks we see in the U.S. When we hear of a user getting care, I know we’re really helping.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s OK not to have all of the answers. Instead of pretending to have the answers, work collaboratively with people to really expose the problem space and the challenges you’re facing.
- Be exhaustive. What I mean by that is don’t rush to conclusions too quickly. Look at all the angles before making decisions. It will prevent you from being short-sighted.
- Understand the problem. Don’t just execute on a problem without having a full understanding of what you’re solving for. The better you can identify the problem, the better solution you will have for solving it.
- Consider all perspectives. Be deliberate about getting other people’s perspectives to better see the full picture of any situation.
- Get a diverse opinion. Don’t operate on just one opinion (especially if it’s just your own). Diversity improves your understanding of the market and your ability to develop a product that is the best market fit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Health. 20 years ago no one wore seatbelts, and a lot of people smoked. Now, everyone wears seatbelts and very few people smoke. We are seeing the same cultural changes in how people take care of their health through being conscious about their nutrition, physical activity, how they manage stress, finances, etc.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Always be prepared because you never know when a great opportunity will come along.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Elon Musk. I love how he points out the fact that banks are lining up to give out loans for kids to go to school, but not to start a business. He also talks a lot about the importance of learning, and how learning just about anything is possible with the internet. So, every kid in the world should really take that to heart — to take advantage of the information available to them and learn what they can.