An Interview with Phil La Duke

Invest in time and resources to attract talent — Gone are the days where merely posting a job opportunity will net many potential candidates. Now employers need to invest more time and resources to attract and retain talent. For instance, BioForward is running digital ads to help change public perceptions of the biohealth industry and has developed an industry career center for prospective employees to use to easily locate opportunities.

The pandemic has allowed people to reevaluate what they want from work. This “Great Reevaluation” has led to the “Great Resignation” which has left the US with a great big labor shortage and a supply chain crisis. What can we do to reverse this trend? What can be done to attract great talent to companies looking to hire? What must companies do to retain their great talent? If not just a paycheck, what else are employees looking for? In this interview series called “The Labor Shortage & The 5 Things We Must Do To Attract & Retain Great Talent” we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and ideas from their experiences that can address these questions.

As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Lisa Johnson.

Lisa Johnson is CEO of BioForward Wisconsin and admits that managing a nonprofit has an entirely new set of challenges versus private industry. A finance major out of UW-Madison who was fortunate to work with brilliant scientists in starting the life science reagents company Novagen back in 1989 and travel the world working for Merck KGaA/EMD, she has a passion for building Wisconsin’s biohealth ecosystem and will support those that are action-oriented and exhibit positive energy in driving the state’s economy. Her expertise lies in general management, operations, business development, and leading results-oriented teams. She likes to dance to her own beat, demonstrate results, and applaud those that put the community before themselves.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I’m Lisa Johnson, and I serve as CEO of BioForward Wisconsin, the only Wisconsin organization to represent more than 200 member companies across a variety of biotech & healthcare industries and research institutions providing legislative and marketing advocacy to support the major growth of our Wisconsin biohealth industry. My background includes being born and raised in a rural NW Illinois town where I learned a sense of community, independence, and appreciation for our great outdoors. I earned my finance degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in 1989, I was fortunate to work with brilliant scientists in starting the life science reagents company, Novagen, which was purchased in 1998 by Merck KGaA/EMD. I held a variety of executive roles with Merck: first as general manager for the life science division at that time, to VP of Corporate Development. After leaving Merck in 2008, I worked for another early-stage company raising equity and leading business development, then transitioned to state government as VP of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. I have been CEO of BioForward since 2015.

Let’s jump right in. Some experts have warned of the “Great Resignation” as early as the 1980s and yet so many companies seem to have been completely unprepared when it finally happened. What do you think caused this disconnect? Why do you think the business world was caught by surprise?

The seeds for the “Great Resignation” were planted a few years ago when the economy was booming and workers finally felt freer to begin exploring other opportunities after the Great Recession, but the pandemic pushed the movement along more quickly than anticipated, which in turn caught many employers off guard. Workers are dealing with unprecedented life and work situations coupled with significant stress resulting from the pandemic, causing them to reexamine their lives and purpose and leading many of them to pursue other opportunities that may be better aligned with their career and/or personal goals as they realized that life is too short.

To be frank, the Great Resignation hasn’t had much impact on our companies in the Wisconsin biohealth industry outside of an aging workforce that is starting to go into retirement. Though this was obviously expected, we are finding that we are still unprepared. On the opposite end, our struggle is more focused on finding new talent. Our industry is growing so rapidly, and our members, many of whom have their corporate offices outside of Wisconsin, are expanding in WI rather than on the coasts. Thus, our member companies need more employees to facilitate their explosive growth.

What do you think employers have to do to adapt to this new reality?

Overall employers need to be more cognizant of their company’s culture and how it impacts employees and their hiring efforts. True focus on bringing their mission into every part of their culture will keep employees engaged with the company and its purpose. The past couple of years have brought a lot of change that has greatly impacted employees and job seekers which needs to be taken into account.

Further, companies also need to reevaluate their current hiring efforts to determine ways to better stand out and attract candidates for the many open positions currently available in the marketplace. In a typical Midwest fashion, BioForward member companies don’t like to brag about themselves which makes it hard for them to get the attention and talent they deserve.

Based on your opinion and experience, what do you think were the main pain points that caused the great resignation? Why is so much of the workforce unhappy?

It’s a complicated situation that has many potential causes, from overall pandemic fatigue to employees needing to tend to childcare and other family needs (for women especially) and the desire to make a change after the past couple of years of enormous change and upheaval. It’s a mix of external and internal factors at play, and employers need to be cognizant of both to help provide their employees and talent prospects with the support they need. In our industry we find a focus on mission helps drive employees as post-pandemic, many want to make life better for others.

Many employers extoll the advantages of the entrepreneurial spirit and the possibilities of an expanded “gig economy”. But this does come with the cost of a lack of loyalty of gig workers. Is there a way to balance this? Can an employer look for single use sources of services and expect long-term loyalty? Is there a way to hire a freelancer and expect dependability and loyalty? Can you please explain what you mean?

Any worker, whether fully employed or a contract one, wants to be treated with respect. Contract workers, by nature, are free to move on to another assignment after a contract is complete, so it’s best to not anticipate long-term loyalty from many of these types of employees. However, while they’re under contract, to help make the relationship a profitable and fruitful one, treat them with respect, be responsive to their requests and questions, and pay them on time. Doing these things may help extend the relationship and foster longer-term loyalty than otherwise.

In the biohealth industry, entrepreneurial spirit is coveted. We need these kinds of innovators to shake things up, cause collisions, enable collaborations, and drive our companies to do more to change lives. Recognizing the need for these types of people and embracing them in the same way we would full-time employees will only make our industry stronger.

It has been said that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses”. How do you think this has been true during the Great Resignation? Can you explain what you mean?

Many factors go into employees deciding to leave their existing jobs to pursue new opportunities, from wanting to achieve personal and professional goals to requiring a more flexible schedule — and, yes, many do quit due to differences with their boss. Although many are leaving their current jobs and exploring new job opportunities during the Great Resignation, disagreements with bosses are only one reason among many that the movement is continuing its forward momentum (other reasons include: burnout, realizing that life is “too short” and wanting to pursue long-held goals, personal/family obligations, and more). “Bad” or incompatible bosses have and will always exist, but now with the many opportunities open to employees, they are feeling more emboldened to move on to a new job or career than ever before.

In BioForward’s member companies, we do see some upheaval due to “bosses” but often the company culture and mission is strong enough to either keep most employees and the companies are big enough that employees can move to other departments to find a more appropriate match. Although a company does not want to lose an employee over whatever reason has motivated them to leave, our member companies do want to see their former employees at least have so many opportunities for personal growth through the vast biohealth industry network available in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I am fond of saying, “If it’s fun they charge admission. But you get a paycheck for working here.” Obviously, I am being facetious, but not entirely. Every job has its frustrations and there will be times when every job will aggravate employees. How important is it that employees enjoy their jobs?

Enjoying your job is important but knowing that the work you do has an impact is huge. Wisconsin’s biohealth industry, for instance, has done amazing work to develop new technology to solve some of medicine’s most complex challenges– including COVID-19 vaccine development and research, and so much more. That kind of purpose to help find solutions that positively impact patients and the healthcare industry (and beyond), I believe, is instrumental for employees looking for true job satisfaction.

BioForward has been focused on talent attraction and retention at our member companies for several years now and has talked to both employers and employees surrounding this topic. Of course, having fun is important but in the biohealth industry, it seems even more important for employees to be engaged in the community and a company mission that is focused on helping others, which is the central focus of all of our biohealth industry members.

How do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Absolutely — an unhappy workforce will impact all three, if left to its own devices for long enough. Unhappy employees often are not as focused on the job and can let negativity about their jobs and/or personal lives affect their work, which can impact productivity and ultimately employee health and wellbeing.

What are a few things that employers, managers and executives can do to ensure that workers enjoy their jobs?

Remind them of why their job is important, and why their work matters. Show employees the bigger picture and the important part they play in making those results happen and how they are ultimately helping people in the long run.

Engagement in the community is key. Volunteering in STEM-related programs, and environmental groups, and improving the health & wellness of community members provide employees a sense of purpose beyond their jobs. Being a part of a larger association for a specific industry sector is helpful in our case. BioForward member companies make sure that their employees participate in networking sessions (an industry favorite to be sure), as well as community events that are both educational and often fun, like the Wisconsin Biohealth Summit, Annual Member Meeting, Women in Biohealth events, and End of Year Celebration. This engagement rewards their employees provides an opportunity to introduce them to the greater community and provides professional development.

Can you share a few things that employers, managers, and executives should be doing to improve their companies’ work cultures?

  • Provide educational and networking events, as well as resource investments for employees — Help employees connect with each other and invest in their education and resources to further their career at your company. BioForward, for instance, offers its members collaborative assistance, educational and networking events, legislative advocacy, and resource investments in key industries.
  • Put an emphasis on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives — This is becoming increasingly important to employees, and companies must take it seriously to improve company work culture. As important as the physical health of individuals is the fervent need for social justice and equality of all people in our world today, and sharing power among a diverse range of voices, it will help create a stronger, more impactful, and resilient work culture.
  • Inspired by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s BIOEquality Agenda, Bioforward is working with member companies to leverage, improve, and add to their existing efforts, to make the Wisconsin biohealth industry inclusive for all. BioForward had made a concerted effort to acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of the companies who are leading the way on this effort like SHINE Technologies, Exact Sciences, Eurofins, and Bristol Myers Squibb.
  • Conduct a company-wide employee survey — This will allow employees to share their thoughts on how to improve the company culture, providing valuable honest feedback to inform future efforts.
  • Embrace group community-focused goals– Within the Wisconsin biohealth community, many companies bring employees together by doing community service. As a group we recognize that to have a strong biohealth industry, we need strong communities, strong families, and educational opportunities for everyone. BioForward member company MilliporeSigma, for instance, offers a Spark volunteer program as a way to engage employees with the community.
  • Recognize that there are benefits that can be offered besides pay– Assistance with moving and being introduced to the greater local community like MilliporeSigma is one way. Consider offering remote or hybrid work options like BioForward member, Illumina. Organizations that require staff onsite can provide opportunities for self-care like gym facilities and healthcare workers like member Promega.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things employers should do to attract and retain top talent during the labor shortage?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Invest in time and resources to attract talent — Gone are the days where merely posting a job opportunity will net many potential candidates. Now employers need to invest more time and resources to attract and retain talent. For instance, BioForward is running digital ads to help change public perceptions of the biohealth industry and has developed an industry career center for prospective employees to use to easily locate opportunities.
  2. Make it easier for candidates to access and apply for job opportunities — Don’t make it difficult for job candidates to seek your company’s opportunities out — make it easy for them to locate your company and opportunities. For instance, in addition to posting job openings on a company webpage, also post it on the company’s social media pages, and with member organizations that the company is a part of to get access to the largest pool of talent to make it easy for them to access and apply for openings.
  3. Review and implement Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Initiatives — Strive for a culture where people of every race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, size, and ability are welcomed, empowered, and celebrated. By investing in an organizational culture that reflects the values and needs of our community, you can infuse diversity within the workforce and ensure those most affected have a voice in crafting decisions.
  4. Coordinate and align talent efforts with your company’s HR department — Sometimes there is a disconnect between what a team leader is looking for in a candidate versus what the HR department is tasked with. By working together, it can help align efforts to not only attract the right talent but also to gather valuable feedback from current employees to make it more attractive for them to stay. For instance, BioForward formed a BioHR group with HR managers from member companies to discuss issues and get valuable feedback, as well as holistically address concerns to the industry to help companies attract and retain talent.
  5. Partner with an industry organization — Partnering with an industry organization can help connect your company with industry-wide resources and talent. For example, BioForward Wisconsin has a Talent Initiative where our organization works with member companies to provide services and resources to promote the growth and influence of the state’s bioindustry throughout the U.S. and the world. We also offer members collaborative assistance, educational and networking events, legislative advocacy, and resource investment in key industry initiatives.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There is not one person I would like to have breakfast or lunch with, rather, I am interested in the personal stories of not famous people but those whose paths have taken them to where they are today. I learned so much at Merck and was able to travel the world. I was fascinated to learn about that person’s country’s culture, families, beliefs, or for some escaping from communist or dictatorship regimes. I have learned so much from individuals from India, Israel, Russia, Cuba, Japan, Iran, Germany, and the list goes on and on. They have changed me as a person to be more accepting and appreciate others’ journeys beyond myself.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

You can visit BioForward Wisconsin’s website,, to learn more about our efforts to continue to help move the state’s robust biohealth industry forward. From a more personal career standpoint, you can visit my LinkedIn profile at

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

About The Interviewer: Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 2,500 works in print. He has contributed to Authority, Buzzfeed, Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global, and many more magazines and is published on all inhabited continents. He is the author of three books and a contributor to one more. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His second book Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention which deals with workplace violence, particularly directed at women, is listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands was recently released and will be followed by Stop. Don’t Shoot! the third edition of Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention both are due out in August, and Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic is due to be released in December. La Duke also contributed a chapter to 1% Safer, a not-for-profit book, written by the “top game-changers and global thought leaders.”

Expertfile lists Phil La Duke as a top 25 thought leader in multiple areas. In addition to his writing, Phil sits on eight Biomedical Research Oversight Boards and is a highly sought-after speaker. La Duke is currently employed as a COVID Compliance and Production Safety Consultant for the film and television industry.