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Use strategic conflict to drive success

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


You never know how Philip Vierling, UNW’s assistant dean of the School of Business, will shake things up. Vierling wears an easy grin, his trademark boots, and Jerry Garcia ties ”“ each tie chosen by its name to suit the challenge of the coming day (a recent hectic day called for “Snakes in Juggling Show”) His students have learned to ask the name of the tie and to expect interesting days ahead.

Along with his personal style, Vierling brings a rare blend of business leadership experience and a theological education (an MBA in business and a BA in Theology). He joined Northwestern after a successful career as CEO of multiple medical device companies.

Constructive Contrarian

In his many leadership roles, he describes himself as a “constructive contrarian” that challenges the status quo in a way that inspires creativity and success. A willingness to upset the apple cart, ask tough questions and employ what Vierling refers to as “strategic conflict” can drive better decision making.

Research by Stanford Business School backs up this leadership style with findings showing that teams with at least one person who is “willing to play devil’s advocate” can help improve creativity, decisions, and outcomes.

Courage for Conflict

Challenging the status quo is risky and requires action that may be seen as brash. As CEO of a medical device company, Vierling made a bold move when he found that sales were behind at year-end so that senior management would receive bonuses but other employees would not. In a surprising move, he spent the entire managers’ bonus to buy more inventory, so that the company could potentially sell more and secure bonuses for everyone. He communicated his move in a dramatic fashion. Dressed in full pirate costume, he crashed the regional training meeting and informed the vice presidents and product managers that he’d “spent all the gold and burned the ships.” Suddenly, the officers weren’t worried about only their own bonuses, and they realized they all had to pull together. By rallying the whole company, they exceeded their target and sold beyond what they had thought was possible, earning bonuses for everyone.

Innovative Conflict

Vierling’s tenacity has empowered him to persevere in the face of daunting odds. His latest challenge is to discover a viable, cost-effective solution to liver disease, which kills more than 40,000 people a year. Only 6,000 receive liver transplants annually, costing more than $500,000 per patient. He is working with doctors from Mayo Clinic to launch a new business, Liver Cell Technologies, to create a bio-artificial liver from pig stem cells. Other companies have attempted this in the past and failed after substantial investments of time and dollars, but Vierling is excited by the opportunity to push the envelope and save lives. 

Wait…Is Conflict “Christian”?

As followers of Christ, we value unity and often avoid conflict at all costs. However, if we avoid conflict altogether, we can miss valuable opportunities or allow poor decisions to go unchecked. 

As a long-time board member with Josiah Venture, a missions group that trains young leaders across Central and Eastern Europe, Vierling works to integrate business practices into ministry models. It is challenging to persuade some that those two approaches can complement each other. In one example, he pushed to get more dollars to test the viability and sustainability of a prospective new ministry. Though the group was hesitant to forgo other ministries, the insights gained led to a stronger launch for the new program.

Preparing Students for Strategic Conflict

Vierling says his work at Northwestern focuses on students’ business practices, but also incorporates broad transferable skills and healthy relationships. This is apparent in the development of new programs such as the data analytics major and the embracing of the humanities.

At a Christian university, students can pay closer attention to how their faith influences decision making, integrity, and communication. Vierling believes this next generation of business leaders must seamlessly integrate their faith into business practice and demonstrate it in the way they approach challenges and conduct themselves. This philosophy is a break from convention, but ultimately leads to work that is successful and meaningful for the Kingdom.