Heartland Family Service

An Interview with Mr. John H. Jeanetta, President and CEO of Heartland Family Service
By Lucas D. Novotny, Timothy W. Puls and Steven M. Schlage, Creighton University MBA students

History of Greatness

Heartland Family Service (HFS) is a non-profit, non-sectarian social work agency. HFS, founded in Omaha in 1875 by volunteers from a group of churches, provided visitation to the sick and poor, relief to the destitute, and conducted nonsectarian meetings in impoverished areas. Throughout their history, HFS has been a part of such programs as “Project HALO”, the Safe Haven concealed shelter, the Steve & Cheryl Wild Children’s Emergency Shelter, the Homeless Link program, and the list goes on.

In 2010, HFS programs served 38,904 individuals of all ages and all socioeconomic groups. Services are provided from sixteen different locations in the Omaha metro area and southwest Iowa. Through generous donors, HFS is able to provide many services on a sliding fee scale. Because of this generosity, HFS is able to provide services to various types of individuals—many who would not have had access to other services. In fact, about 80% of HFS clients have annual incomes under $20,000.

On their website, HFS proudly proclaims that they help parents who struggle. This includes couples who want to save their relationship; children removed from unsafe homes; teens who made the wrong decisions about alcohol, drugs, or crime; survivors of family violence; low-income families—mostly women and children—who fall into homelessness; and many, many more who need a helpful hand to get back on track. Today, the mission of HFS is to strengthen individuals and families in the community through education, counseling and support.

New Leader at the Helm

HFS has had a long and ever changing history. However, their organization first started to find growth and sustainable success when they hired long time President and CEO Peter Tulipana. He is widely thought of as the first true leader of the organization; the one who finally put HFS on the path to sustainable success. Nevertheless, like any organization, change is always around the corner and in 2009, Tulipana resigned to pursue other interests after 22 years of dedicated service.Now enters Mr. John Jeanetta as the new President and CEO of HFS in June 2009. Frankly, the shoes for him were size Green Giant. History shows that the new CEOs who follow previous successful CEOs typically have very short runs as chief. Nevertheless, Jeanetta carries with him over 25 years of experience in the non-profit sector. Throughout his career, Jeanetta has focused primarily on helping individuals of all ages to maximize strengths and overcome barriers. Jeanetta joined HFS after he left his most recent position as the Vice President of Organizational Development at the AIM Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. His educational credentials are extensive and include a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln/Gallup University, a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in New York and a master’s specialization certification in gerontology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.We sat down with Mr. Jeanetta to discuss his transition and his goals for HFS. Upon receipt of the 2011 BBB Integrity Award, we felt that it might be a great time to reflect on where the business has been and where the business is planning on going.

A New Approach

Upon taking the helm at HFS, Jeanetta had a very dynamic agency that had been the beneficiary of four capital campaigns and strong leadership for two decades. HFS was a well-controlled and oiledmachine.Not wanting to rock the boat, Jeanetta explained a tweaked approach for HFS; an approach focused on transparency and continued ethical decision making. Upon taking over as President and CEO, “half of the battle was completed,” Jeanettasaid. In the community, HFS is well established. Jeanetta said, “people get it” referring to the services that HFS offer to the community. He took time to learn and understand his new company before implementing any structural or programmatic changes. Jeanetta decided to turn the focus inward. “I want to empower people to do their jobs.” He asked all employees and stakeholders a series of seven questions including likes and dislikes, and concluding with a visionary question: “I wanted to ask everyone where THEY saw Heartland Family Services in 20 years.”

Through this work, Jeanetta and the HFS Board of Directors have cast a vision that is ambitious and encouraging. This vision hinges on principles of democracy and open communication; it focuses on collaboration and social responsibility; and is keen to the wellness of employees and clients alike. Such a bold vision is not accomplished easily. Jeanetta spoke highly of the staff recruited at HFS. Specifically, Jeanetta focused on recruiting, retaining, and motivating employees. Simply put, Jeanetta wants employees “who are here for the right reasons.” Furthermore, he explains, “In social work, the money will never be there.” So he makes sure to reach out to the employees to show them their value.


Another way thatJeanetta has maintainedhis mission of open communication and ethical leadership is to expose thefinancials. Jeanettastated he wanted to be transparent and honestwith employees aboutthe financial vitality of their programs and services. He believes this will not only keep the business viable and ethical but will also increase his employee’s sense of ownership within the agency.

“The right help at the right time for the right problems”

What is Ethics?

Throughout the initial segment of our interview with Mr. Jeanetta, he mentioned ethics on multiple occurrences. Therefore, we posed the question of what he believed ethics to be. “Simply put, I believe ethics is doing what you say you are going to do,” Jeanetta replied. He went on to further his point

by stating that for him and his company, ethics is about providing the “right help at the right time for the right problems.”Jeanetta talked about wanting HFS to be a sanctuary for its customers and employees. “In our business we deal with trauma, and if we have policies or systems that create more traumas we are not helping in the right way.” Furthermore, Jeanetta has focused on an emotionally healthy employee plan. HFS works to establish a culture that is intolerant of bullying and gossiping or any type of

violence in the workplace. This relational approach to business creates many “grey” areas. We probed Jeanetta about how he and HFS navigates those grey areas in terms of ethics. Jeanetta explained ethical decisions that he and HFS have faced during his tenure. Tough ethical decisions truly give you a sense of one’s ethics. Jeanetta told a story of a troubled family who had been frequent users of their services. The circumstances for this group were messy, involving imprisonment, poverty, and mental health.

Jeanetta explained the great lengths HFS took to care for the family in their troubling times However, and unfortunately for Jeanetta, the family’s story did not end as a success story for HFS. HFS and the family had to part ways after a long history together, due to the family not meeting the enrollment requirements of the programs. The family’s story landed on Jeanetta’s desk for appeal. Jeanetta described the tough decisions that he had to make. Jeanetta explained it was hard. He could see that HFS could help this family; however, by their failure of not meeting the requirements of the program, the family was not only precluding the disbursement of resources given to other families in need, but furthermore putting the program as a whole in danger. Ultimately, it was that perspective for the greater good, that helped Jeanetta come to peace with his decision.Jeanetta went on to explain that not all decisions he makes are as emotionally draining as the previous situation. There are some ethical decisions that are “no-brainers.” Employee drug and alcohol abuse is a no-brainer for Jeanetta.

HFS provides services for those battling addiction and abuse. HFS will not and cannot have employees on the payroll who are currently battling addiction. Jeanetta explained they have had to part ways with employees due to the issues, but stated they can take advantage of HFS’ services in hopes of bettering themselves and for the possibility of returning to work for HFS.

In concluding the interview, we wanted to ask a little more about Jeanetta and his motivations. We collectively wondered as a group, “What gets you up in the morning?” Jeanetta explained that the variety of the job is a huge reward. HFS offers a variety of services, to help a variety of people. No day is ever the same and that variety is not only what keeps many employees at HFS motivated and happy, but also the CEO Jeanetta.

Contrasting the “What motivates Jeanetta to wake up in the morning?” question, we also asked him, “What keeps you up at night?” Simply put, Jeanetta replied, “Funding.” Jeanetta explained the intricacies funding creates. It can literally be everything from employee salaries to the overall sustainability of programs. This funding issue creates manybarriers to the goals that HFS has. Jeanetta spoke candidly about wanting to provide larger salaries for employees and improved services for customers. However, the delicate balance of funding is something that makes the CEO of HFS lose sleep.


Recently, as mentioned above, HFS received the 2011 BBB IntegrityAward. Firms, who receive this prestigious honor, are those whose business practices and related activities exemplify the BBB’s mission and principles, which include honesty, commitment and accountability. The award recognizes organizations that truly go above and beyond in servicing not only their customers, but their communities as well.

When asked what that award meant to their company, Jeanetta repliedsimply stating, “validating.”Jeanetta humbly stated that it meant they were doing the job they were supposed to do. As their website states, the mission of HFS is to strengthen individuals and families in thecommunity through education, counseling and support. It is our belief that HFS embodies the true meaning of the BBB Integrity Award. Therefore, congratulations Heartland Family Service. You truly deserve it!


© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance