Interview with Dean Witherspoon: Self-proclaimed Rabble Rouser, CEO & Founder of Health Enhancement Systems

Dean W pic
Dean getting ready for one of his favorite things.

One of my goals with Redesigning Wellness is to challenge the ways we create, deliver and implement modern day worksite wellness programs. In order to do this effectively, I need to rely on others both inside and outside of the wellness industry to give their perspectives and experience. That’s why I’m starting a series of interviews that will give an opinion other than my own.

The first person I thought to reach out to was Dean Witherspoon, CEO & Founder of Health Enhancement Systems. Dean is an active blogger and tweeter who expresses what needs to be changed in our industry to drive better health and enjoyment from wellness programming.

I hope you enjoy learning about Dean as much as I did.

How did you find your way into the field of worksite wellness?

My undergrad degree was in Health Education, but I could only get a job teaching HS biology. So after a couple of years I went back to grad school for cardiac rehab. About half way through the program I’d heard so many patients say if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently. It became clear helping people recover from a cardiac event is important, but I could have more impact preventing chronic conditions in the first place. Worksite wellness seemed like the best way to do that.

What did you learn as Health Promotion Manager at Dow that has stayed with you?

Dow was a great learning ground for what I ultimately decided to do with my career. I was able to test ideas and develop skills around social support for health behavior change that we still use every day.

Do you think worksite wellness has changed much since your time at Dow?

No… and yes.

Why or why not?

Risk-based programming dominated the field in the ‘90s: “Here’s what’s wrong with you and here’s how to fix it.” Then the 2000s saw the escalation of the do-this, get-that incentive program model. Now in 2016 we’re not only still too focused on risk, but the reward and punishment model is actually making health behavior change more difficult for individuals because it switches the focus from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic rewards. The good news is there’s a shift in thinking going on today toward well-being, what some say is a broader view than wellness. In many ways it’s recycled “holistic” health. But I also think it repudiates the risk-based and reward/punishment models that haven’t fully panned out… and that’s a good thing.

What inspired you to create your company, Health Enhancement Systems?

I wanted to have more fun, have a greater impact, and be responsible for my own destiny. It’s a pretty short ride on this planet so I think it’s important for all of us to do what we love.

Did you have any low moments (or oh crap moments) as you were building HES?

Yesterday (kidding). Yeah, I think every entrepreneur does — like at the end of the first year when we had burned through our savings and I had to take out a loan on the 6-year-old family van just to keep going. Fortunately, when you’re young — with 4 kids — you don’t fully appreciate the implications of leaving a good job at a Fortune 100 company. Ignorance is bliss.

How and when did you know you were on your way to building a successful company?

I read Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove, former CEO at Intel, in the late ‘90s that essentially gave me permission to be paranoid about success. I don’t ever allow myself to think we’ve “made it.” But I’m reminded in a dozen different ways each week, by our amazingly talented and committed employees as well as participant testimonials, that we have something special.

As I was checking out your website, I was impressed with your non-traditional approach to hiring (send an email instead of throwing your resume into a blackhole). Tell me about the culture you’ve created at HES.

Ahhhh… I could talk for hours about this, but here’s the short version. We work very hard to find really talented, genuinely nice people. We give them the tools to do their job well and a great degree of autonomy after setting very high expectations for serving our clients and supporting each other. The right people, working under the right conditions, create a great culture — it’s not something we really have to work at. As for hiring, we have a robust process for assessing talent and temperament for each role in the company to determine if the candidate is a good fit. I can’t remember the last time I looked at an applicant’s resume.

What’s wrong with the wellness industry today? What’s right with it?

At Health Enhancement Systems our focus is very specific — wellness campaigns. We’re working to be the best in the world at it, so naturally I’m biased when I say our approach is what’s right about wellness. But many more good things are taking place with voluntary participation in smart health coaching models, online education, wellness champion networks, peer-led support, and the whole shift toward well-being, not just the physical self and associated risks and costs.

What’s wrong? A couple of years ago I thought we had turned the corner and the financial reward/punishment movement was fading. But not so.

We did an industry scan of vendors late last year and found 2/3 use carrot or stick as a primary focus of their offering. I think this is the biggest threat to our industry, and the reason is very simple: When it doesn’t work, organizations have pumped so much money into it that they conclude wellness programs don’t work. We desperately want it to work, but in reality it becomes just another form of compensation. And that’s okay too — organizations have the right to compensate their employees in any way they choose. But when risks don’t level off and costs keep escalating, don’t say wellness doesn’t work. External reward/punishment actually makes long-term behavior change harder.

What do we (as wellness professionals) need to do differently to redesign the way worksite wellness is done?

In a nutshell, we need to stop trying to “fix” people — whether through scaring them with health risks or bribing/punishing them monetarily. Worksite wellness isn’t something you do to people, it’s an atmosphere you create. To that end, our own Beth Shepard wrote a very good article on this topic recently: 4 Things Wellness Managers Must Get Right in 2016.

What do you see as the future of worksite wellness?

I’m both highly optimistic and slightly apprehensive. My optimism is fueled by the recognition that there are more important considerations (well-being) than health risks and costs, but it’s a nascent movement with significant headwind. Until we get to the point where individual and organizational needs are aligned, influencing population health will be a struggle.

Health or well-being, in the context of an employee/employer relationship, is a shared responsibility. I believe there will always be a need for the kinds of tools we’ve been using for some time — appraisals, coaching, education, challenges, etc. But the most successful organizations will come to understand that the work culture and environment must be conducive to health/well-being. Only then will the various wellness interventions achieve full potential.

How do you develop yourself professionally?

I read — a lot. Most of my energy today goes into how to help our various Health Enhancement Systems teams become the best at what they do. So I’m reading and talking with others about leading teams, building an environment where innovation happens, what it means to provide exceptional service. Interestingly, there are so many parallels between leading a company and leading a wellness program… often our best ideas for wellness practitioners come from outside our field.

Do you have any habits you feel contribute to your success?

Not so much habits, but traits — adapting ideas from other disciplines, tinkering, being persistent. And more than anything, hiring great people — giving them the tools and space to do their job well.

What do you do for fun (when you’re not working)?

FaceTime with my granddaughter, teaching my dog silly tricks, swimming, bicycling, eating spaghetti.

Parting thoughts/words of wisdom?

This is a great way to make a career. Some 30 years into it, it’s still a total kick in the pants to read a participant comment like this one from last week: Now my toddler is addicted to fruit and most veggies… The fact that I have my almost 3-year-old asking for vegetables instead of Goldfish® crackers is the true success story! If that doesn’t get your juices going and if you’re not having fun, make a switch.