John Allen leads G&A Partners toward its purpose Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2010

In the early days of G&A Partners, John W. Allen worked really, really hard. But he wasn’t always necessarily working smart.

“I would advise people to look at how they spend their time,” says Allen, the president and chief operating officer who co-founded the firm with Chairman and CEO Tony Grijalva. “Don’t just spend a lot of time, but instead spend time very, very wisely on the things that mean and matter the most.”

With the professional employer organization in its 15th year, Allen has learned how to align passion and purpose so the firm can focus on its sweet spots to achieve its goals. G&A Partners hones the services that contribute to its mission instead of getting distracted by demands outside its realm.

Based on his observation that his passions sprouted successes, Allen realized that it’s more fruitful to pursue the things your company stands for than to reach beyond your core.

“Of our five operating companies, the biggest is the one that I have the most passion for,” he says. “So there’s a correlation between passion and then the amount of time and energy and creativity you put into a particular business, and I think it ends up manifesting itself in your financial results. If I try to do something that I just don’t feel strongly about, then I’m just faking it and it becomes apparent pretty quickly.”

By keeping G&A Partners focused on the services that will fulfill its purpose, Allen rallies the organization around its passion. The company grew through the recession, reporting 2009 revenue of $362.4 million. With 145 employees of his own and another 10,000 co-employees through outsourcing, it’s all the more important that Allen keeps everyone focused on the path to success.

Here’s how he does it.

Express your mission

Before Allen and Grijalva founded G&A Partners, they had an accounting and consulting firm with the tagline, “Making a difference.” Then they came across a business model that would help small business owners be successful with their support. So they joined forces to outsource human resources and administrative issues, freeing leaders to focus on growing their companies.

By building a focus around his passion and setting a goal to strive toward, Allen helps his own company grow, as well.

“In terms of how we’ve gotten to where we are today, I think it starts with having a vision of what you want your company to be and what purpose that company has to fulfill,” he says. “If you don’t have a purpose, it’s hard to have passion for what you do.”

When defining your focus, look at your goals from a couple of perspectives. That will give you both a purpose statement and a mission statement.

“One has to do with what we’re trying to accomplish as a firm, and the other one has to do with what we’re trying to do for the people that we serve,” Allen says. “So our purpose statement, for example, is to help small business owners find time to grow their businesses, take better care of their employees and enjoy a higher quality of life.”

Your purpose statement defines what you do for customers, but you still have to narrow that down. Allen did that by asking what his company could do to achieve its purpose for clients. By working backward from your goal to address what steps will achieve it, you set your strategy.

“What kinds of things can we do to free up a business owner’s time to focus on the most important things that ensure the success of his business?” Allen asked. “What can we do to help a business owner take better care of his or her employees? What can we do to not only provide them more time to grow their business but also more time to enjoy the wealth that hopefully they accumulate? So it’s the purpose that then drives the strategy.”

When you’re setting the strategy to achieve your purpose, you’re also on track to accomplish your mission.

“Our mission statement is what we as an organization are trying to accomplish — and that’s to be the pre-eminent privately held professional employer organization,” Allen says.

These two ways of expressing different goals for different parties are actually closely intertwined.

“If we believe in our purpose statement and we develop sound strategy and we implement that strategy effectively, then we ought to become one of the pre-eminent PEOs in the country,” Allen says. “If we don’t have a deep purpose statement and a strategic plan that dovetails with that and the ability to effectively implement the plan, then the mission statement never gets accomplished.

“One drives the other. The mission statement then becomes how we measure the success of implementing our purpose statement.”

Get customer feedback

Implementing your purpose statement can be the hardest part. Even if you know where you’re trying to go, the biggest challenge is knowing how to get there.

You can get strategic hints by reading the latest trade publications to see what your competitors are doing. But your customers know best when it comes to what they need, so they’re your best source for determining what you should deliver.

Allen and his team meet regularly with clients through focus groups, conferences and advisory boards.

Customers will come if it’s convenient and there’s something in it for them. G&A’s annual client conference, for example, offers a weekend mix of educational classes and feedback sessions. G&A covers the cost of hotel rooms, registration fees and meals at destination resorts in Texas. All their clients have to do is arrive.

While setups differ, the feedback you want from customers is the same.

“We’ve assembled a group of clients and prospects together and we talk about what’s important to them, which of our services do they value, which of our services don’t they value, what else they’d like to see us do for them, what other needs they have,” Allen says. “That’s probably been the most valuable way of really getting a feel for what we ought to be doing to address the needs of our small business clients.”

To get clients to open up, all G&A employees are excused from the room before the questioning begins. An outside facilitator, like the company’s external public relations representative, takes over.

Creating an open environment is also about setting clear explanations of what input you’re seeking and why.

“People are willing to open up if you give them permission to be brutally honest and if they think that their candor will make a difference,” Allen says. “We let our clients know that we are always trying to improve and that we need their help in that effort.”

G&A invites all clients to certain events, but inclusiveness has implications. When you involve more people, you lose the intimate environment that makes them open up. That’s why some companies focus on feedback from their largest customers. But G&A compensates with semiannual online surveys where clients can be frank.

“We try to limit the number of questions so it’s fairly straightforward and simple for them to respond, not too time-consuming,” Allen says.

You shouldn’t just get customer feedback one or two times a year, though. Make those interactions routine. Share the responsibility by letting the employees who contact customers also collect their input. Because the manager of the customer care center has already built trusting relationships with a lot of clients, for example, Allen often calls on her to solicit feedback. Because salespeople initially set expectations with clients, he counts on them to revisit each account and gauge satisfaction.

It seems simple, but feedback from clients can help situate you to meet their needs. Those interactions can keep you on track to achieve your purpose — which is why you serve customers in the first place.

“As they share things with us that fall in line with the purpose statement, then we can develop strategies to provide products and services that address those needs,” Allen says.

Analyze ideas

So now you have a goal and a bunch of ideas about how to get there. Your job is to align the two so you can set a strategy that will fulfill your purpose and your mission.

After a client conference or focus group, Allen’s biweekly operations meeting turns from its normal tactical agenda to a strategic one.

“We talk about, ‘Here’s what our clients are telling us. What does it mean, and what should we do about it?’” he says.

Usually, clients first respond to their personal experience with your company, so you have to first address the specific instances that stick in their mind.

When you look at examples that closely, you can determine where you’re not meeting their needs — and whether people, processes or products are causing the gap.

“If the client has been critical of our performance, we identify the players involved to see if there is a pattern that needs to be addressed,” Allen says. “We quickly provide training that, hopefully, will correct the problem going forward. We report back to the client to let them know that we have addressed the problem.

“If the client has made a suggestion or complained about something with broader implications, we get the operations team together to focus on the issues rather than the people. We lay out the problem, give everyone a chance to weigh in [and] try to narrow the discussion down to specific action items.”

Addressing issues individually is pretty basic customer service. It becomes strategy, though, when you weigh all of those individual encounters together to make bigger moves that affect more customers.

Look at how many clients are saying the same things and how one person’s suggestion may benefit someone else. But remember, high demand alone doesn’t dictate what you should do.

“Some of the feedback we get is isolated,” Allen says. “It’s really particular to a certain client. We may address it at that client level but don’t necessarily adopt it for everything we do for all of our clients. … We look at the soundness and practicality of an idea and client profitability when determining what to roll out widely or on a case-by-case basis.”

First, ideas should pass through the filter of your purpose. Because it sets the framework of what your company does best and what you consider success, your purpose also defines which ideas you should pursue.

“If we’re asked by a client or even lots of clients to do something and it makes sense, it’s a legitimate business need, but we determine that we’re not good at it, then we won’t do it,” Allen says. “Or if there’s things that we may be good at, but there’s other things that we like to emphasize because they’re really more core to our product offering, then we’ll put those things on the back burner and focus initially on doing what we currently do better. We don’t want to start providing additional services that stretch our resources and our talent until we’re doing a phenomenal job with what we’re already tasked to do.”

For example, G&A is striving for a consistent customer service score of 9 or 10 to prove it has mastered its core area before tackling more. The company is at an 8.9 — and still focusing on its core services.

But client ideas also have to pass the test of your mission statement.

“People have made suggestions that perhaps we ought to help businesses borrow money so that they can grow their business,” Allen says. “That fits into the purpose statement, because one of the things we’re trying to do is help small businesses grow their business, and of course, it takes capital to do that.

“But helping people borrow money is a little different than our core HR focus. While it’s consistent with our purpose, it’s not consistent with our core product offering. Anything that we do to fulfill our purpose also has to fit within our mission statement, and our mission statement says that we’re going to be a professional employer organization, not a lending institution.”

Running ideas through that wringer helps Allen match his clients’ needs with his company’s capacity, making both sides successful.

“We know what we’re good at. We know what we’re not good at,” he says. “If there’s a suggestion made that doesn’t fit within that three-pronged purpose statement, we just won’t embrace it.”

How to reach: G&A Partners, (713) 784-1181 or