Bridging the gap Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006
When Tom Bickes became CEO of Career Blazers in 1997, everywhere he looked, he saw discontinuity.

All 26 of the businesses that comprised the staffing company operated as separate entities instead of as a unified whole. The chaos and fragmentation didn’t lend itself to growth or stability, and Bickes knew some fundamental changes needed to be made for the organization to succeed.

He created a common value set that each member company could embrace. Once each business embodied the same ideas, he hoped it would establish a more unified organization and propel financial stability and growth.

The move paid off. During the next couple of years, Bickes’ ideas grew the company’s revenue by nearly 67 percent, and he led a management buyout in 2000, forming EmployBridge Inc. out of a portion of Career Blazers.

As president and CEO of EmployBridge, he has led the company to an estimated $460 million in revenue for 2006, a 92 percent increase from 2001 and a 19 percent increase over the $385 million it posted in 2005.

Throughout the challenges of changing and growing both companies, Bickes has relied on core values and a culture that embraces them to create stability and growth.

“Recognize that there’s really no silver bullet in building a company, especially if you want to build a company that has sustainable and profitable growth,” Bickes says. “It really is a result of starting with a strong foundation of core values and company culture that will allow you to attract and retain good people. In the end, good people is what will drive your business. After that, it’s just consistently doing a lot of little things.”

Establishing a culture
When Bickes needed to create values to build a company on, instead of concocting a laundry list of 20, he kept it simple — no more than five.

At Career Blazers, he wanted values that employees would feel passionate about, so he included management in the process.

“Your management team has to believe in it and support it,” Bickes says. “Otherwise, it will never migrate down further in the organization.”

They collaboratively decided on honesty, integrity, maturity, family-first and passion for the business because they viewed those as characteristics employees would pass on to clients. But he couldn’t pass them on by himself — he needed buy-in. He decided to lead by influence rather than by authority to get that. “If you passionately believe in something and you have good, solid business reasons, and also what’s in it for the individuals supporting it, you can get people to be passionate about it rather than just doing it to keep their job,” he says. “It’s getting their heart in the game rather than just going through the motions with their hands.”

Capturing employees’ hearts makes it easier for them to think differently and to welcome new concepts.

“Most employees are creatures of habit,” Bickes says. “The challenge is getting people to look at something through a different lens. You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to do it.’ With my four kids, I’ve often said, ‘Because I said so,’ but you can’t do that in business. You have to make sure people understand the business case and make sure people understand the benefit to them.”

To do this, he clearly defined each value and explained how to uphold it. This helped employees understand how their actions promote or reject the values.

“There’s not a company in America that doesn’t want to embrace integrity as a part of their value system, but the reality is, every one of our employees decide every day whether they make a decision with the best integrity or not,” Bickes says.

The values also intertwine. Employees are charged with carrying out the values in their everyday responsibilities, and how they choose to act or react in situations gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the values and strengthen the culture.

For instance, EmployBridge values a balance between personal and professional life, because if employees are happy both at home and at work, it shows with clients and makes their experience with the company better. But a commitment to balance requires an element of trust that employees will demonstrate honesty. “We do not want to be the company that the dad says to the son or daughter, ‘Sorry I couldn’t be at the 3 o’clock play — my company wouldn’t let me off work,’” Bickes says. “We want them to be at that 3 o’clock play. Unfortunately, when you create that value, you may have 10 percent take advantage of it, but you can’t penalize the other 90 percent for that 10 percent. You just have to deal with the 10 percent.”

Applying values
It’s not enough to create values and then let them fall by the wayside.

“Once you have created those values, every action you take and every decision you make, you do it with the values as your backdrop,” Bickes says.

Doing that means making some hard decisions. EmployBridge has fired top performers because they didn’t embrace the values, even during difficult economic times when especially reliant on numbers. Bickes says it’s important to look beyond employees’ financial performances. “If you don’t do that, you’re basically telling everybody that if your numbers are good, then it’s OK not to have integrity,” he says. “If your numbers are good, it’s OK not to be honest. You can’t have it both ways.”

To help employees make strong, sound decisions that reflect the organization’s values, EmployBridge works with them to break down larger company goals and empowers them to do the things that they can personally accomplish to help the business meet its overall goals. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your kids, or whether it’s in business, people will do what you inspect, not what you expect,” Bickes says. “Metrics management drives a discipline in the organization to inspect frequently what’s important to the company, and it allows you to react to trends before they become major problems, and if you do it consistently, then people are used to doing it consistently.”

Branch offices establish 90-day goals, and every employee develops four to five individual goals to help achieve the mission. EmployBridge then reviews key metrics weekly so employees can make minor corrections along the way. “It drives down to each person saying, ‘This is my part in the game,’” Bickes says. “Every position in the organization has a revenue-producing opportunity, but you have to make sure they understand they do.”

Values drive results
When the values become ingrained in the culture and employees are aligned with them, it makes establishing and working toward a vision easier. Bickes says the key is understanding the industry from the point of view of both the company and the client. Then decide what the company can get excited about, and drive that throughout the organization. “Make those visions and goals very simple and realistic,” Bickes says. “We focused a lot on overcommunicating them. People need to understand them, but we also have to constantly communicate them to get the support. “The goal and vision had to resonate with our employees. It had to be something that they understood. We didn’t make it this big, global vision. It was some very simple things we knew we could get people to believe in and set out to accomplish.”

Bickes went on a road show to all of the company’s field locations to talk to people, ensuring employees genuinely understood what he talked about.

“Field all the questions,” Bickes says. “There aren’t any dumb questions when you’re trying to get people to embrace the strategy because if they have the question, it’s not only important to them, it’s probably important to another 20 percent of your employees who weren’t willing ask the question.”

He followed up visits with weekly communication via e-mail and quarterly companywide conference calls. The communication and education helped everyone focus on maintaining the values to work toward the vision. “As you’re growing, you have to make sure you have people that believe enough in your vision and your operating principles that they don’t sway from them, that they keep building what you want to build, and they don’t go out and chase the most recent fad or the most recent opportunity, that they’re staying true to the course,” Bickes says.

For example, during financially challenging times, Bickes says it was tempting to chase national accounts, which deviates from its middle market and emerging growth core. Despite the temptation, EmployBridge stuck to its plan, maintained its values and worked on creating a stronger future during those rough patches. “Get people believing the seeds they plant today will grow tomorrow,” Bickes says. “They may not be immediate, but you can’t stop doing what you know are the right things to do for business just because the economy is in rough times. You just keep selling, even though maybe people aren’t buying, but during that selling time period, you’re developing relationships that will pay you dividends for life.”

Maintaining values
Values create the foundation for a strong culture and vision, and they can’t be forgotten as the company grows. “We have to make sure that we constantly live the values that we’ve established in the organization as we go forward,” Bickes says. “We have to make sure that the disciplines that we’ve become very good at, that we don’t forget what got us there. ... We have to live up to that brand promise that we’ve given to our clients. We can’t let size allow us to start diluting that brand promise.”

Bickes focuses on attracting and retaining people who align with the company’s values. During interviews, he asks candidates to give him situations they have faced that specifically illustrate one of the values. “You need people making the right decisions,” Bickes says. “They can make bad business decisions, but they’ll always do it with the highest integrity, with the right honesty and maturity.”

Bickes doesn’t exempt himself and management from illustrating the values. Through annual surveys, employees submit concerns and ideas, and Bickes demonstrates honesty, integrity and maturity back to them.

For instance, while many employees want health care costs reduced, Bickes is honest with them in saying that while it’s not possible to lower them, he’s committed to maintaining them, despite the rapid cost increase.

On the other hand, a few years ago, employees said they wanted more feedback about their performance, so EmployBridge strengthened its performance-review so employees have a clearer understanding of how they’re doing and how to improve. “It allows the person to focus on what’s important for them to be successful, and if they’re successful, the company will be, but it also gives us a vehicle to give recognition to those that deserve it,” Bickes says.

Individual recognition, combined with weekly companywide recognition e-mails, has helped EmployBridge maintain a positive attitude and sustain itself even during difficult economic times.

“While monetary rewards are important, recognition is just as important,” Bickes says. “When money is tighter, you just make sure you don’t also stop recognizing good things. Even though the good may not be better than last year, it may have been better than last week. You try to find those small victories, and you celebrate them often, and you build an atmosphere where people feel like winners.”

When employees feel like winners, they embrace the company’s ideals and values, which permeates to clients and allows the organization to strengthen and grow.

“I don’t believe any vision can make a company great,” Bickes says. “I don’t think any silver bullet out there will make a company great. I believe people make a company great, and people want to work in an environment that has good sound values and a strong culture.”

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