Back to the future Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

Yoh Services was a 65-year-old start-up. At least that’s how president and CEO Bill Yoh liked to think of his company.

Up until two years ago, Yoh Services LLC, one of the oldest outsourcing services companies in the country, was growing stagnant. The company was reliant on markets that were falling apart economically, and it was in danger of falling far behind the curve with regard to customer demand.

Yoh, the grandson of company founder Harold Yoh Sr., came to the realization that his company needed to get back into shape, and in order to do that, he needed to know what his potential customers wanted in a talent and outsourcing services company.

“We needed to know what the clients we are trying to do business with, what are their real pain points, what is keeping them up at night?” Yoh says. “Then we had to make sure the various components of our business were properly aligned to meet those needs.”

Yoh and his senior leadership began to formulate a plan to carry Yoh Services — a $380 million subsidiary of the Day & Zimmermann Group — into the 21st century.

The plan was centered on increased responsiveness to customer needs, forming a culture that perpetuated a customer-first mentality and attracting people that wanted to work in that type of environment.

The shift was so dramatic, Yoh says, it was almost like starting the company anew.

“I kind of characterize our business as we’re a 67-year-old start-up, so two years ago we were a 65-year-old start-up,” he says. “The market was really calling for a new approach. If we didn’t take things in a very dramatically different direction, we would continue to suffer and lose market share.”

But it wasn’t as simple as showing up one day and making a declaration. It took a systematic approach of forming a new vision, gaining input from employees and then trying to achieve buy-in from everyone in the company — or parting ways with those who didn’t want to move in a new direction.

A case for change

To blaze a new trail, you need trailblazers.

That’s why, as he formulated Yoh Services’ go-forward plan, Yoh wanted to get the best and brightest in the company involved from the outset.

Over the span of months, Yoh gathered between 80 and 90 of his company’s top performers together for a series of workshops aimed at identifying new potential paths for the company.

“We wanted to ask them, when you think of the most-admired companies, who do you think about?” he says. “What are some of the best practices you have encountered in your career that could be beneficial here at Yoh?”

The information gathered in those meeting was then distilled down to help form the company’s new operating model and go-to-market strategy.

Yoh says getting employees involved in forming your company’s new strategy is an essential first step in achieving long-term buyin.

“The beauty of that was it was kind of developed by the people, for the people,” Yoh says. “It facilitated the buy-in for the new way we were going. The people who participated, you could see their fingerprints on a lot of the outcomes.

“What also happened was we were able to define a succinct way of doing things, enabling people to jump to one side of the fence or the other, to come along with the new strategy or to part ways because they didn’t agree with the direction we were going in.”

Once the leadership turned mounds of employee suggestions and feedback into a new vision and strategy, Yoh says the key was to focus on communication.

The new vision had to be communicated early and often to every part of the company, starting with upper management then on to middle management and cascading downward from there.

“It started with re-enrolling everyone in the case for change and getting a lot of the high performers to participate in where we are going,” Yoh says. “But the biggest thing around that is leading by example and communication. Setting a high bar from a values perspective and a work ethic perspective, being visible in the field, face to face, visiting clients and even just walking around the corporate office, talking to people and being engaged. It’s just communicating through a number of different vehicles.”

Yoh says middle management’s role in communicating the message was critical. It was middle management’s job to take the wide-ranging vision and objectives of upper management and turn them into something that people on the lower rungs of the company could relate to.

Middle management’s job was, in essence, to be translators. “It’s not Spanish to French, but it’s translating strategy to operations,” Yoh says. “Middle management has to take the strategy and vision of senior management and translate that into an operational goal so that everyone in the company on a daily basis knows they are contributing to the company’s operations.”

Achieving buy-in

As persistently as Yoh and his management communicated the new vision and strategy, not everyone was going to buy in.

He says it’s a harsh lesson anyone needs to remember if he or she is leading major change. Some people — even some of your best and brightest — aren’t going to agree with what you are doing or might not be able to make the adjustments. Eventually, you might have to cut your losses and part ways with them.

Yoh laid down the ground rules to all of his employees and identified the items on which he was not willing to compromise. Then he gave them ample time and opportunities to get on the bandwagon.

There is no single right way to deal with stragglers. Some need to be gently coaxed, some need more aggressive persuading. However, Yoh says, in the end, all you can do is lay out the company’s new direction and the reasons they should consider jumping on board, and allow each individual to make his or her own decision.

“Since you’re dealing with people, it’s an art as well as a science,” he says. “The real key is to make the strategy and vision as intuitive as possible, to give every person the opportunity to personalize the strategy and vision, and really challenge them and ask if they could see themselves being successful here. You lay out for them, not just the direction, but their individual role in the direction and what is required of them to be successful in that model.”

Yoh says personalizing the vision for each employee is extremely important. It allows each person to see how what he or she does fits in to the larger picture of the company, and it also creates a culture of accountability in which the onus is placed on the individual to either accept or reject the company’s new direction.

“By being very explicit with people and really putting the onus on the individual, what it does is help weed people out and make people commit sooner, but the second thing is it helps build a culture of accountability,” he says. “It forces people to take the onus on themselves to be responsible for their careers and their success.”

Yoh’s theory is that you’ll be able to separate those who have bought in from those who haven’t bought in within 30 to 90 days of a major organizational shift. If people have been placed in new jobs or new people have been hired on, he says you usually will see the best work ethic within those first one to three months.

“If you’re not seeing the behavior or the work ethic or the appetite to get better, you know you’re going to have trouble,” he says.

Yoh Services coached employees through the transition with a periodic goal-setting process. Every person in the company worked with his or her managers and the human resources department to set quarterly and monthly, or, in some cases, daily and weekly goals. The bar was set higher for those who pushed ahead and exceeded expectations. Those who struggled meeting goals were more closely monitored.

“If we have someone where we want to take their performance to the next level, we’ll set weekly goals and our managers will have conversations with them about whether this is going to work out,” Yoh says. “We’ll tell them ‘This is what I need to have happen this week.’ We’ll make it very clear to the individual what is expected of them.

“We’ll allow them to participate, they can tell us what they think needs to happen for us to perform better. The other thing is that when it becomes time to separate ways, they, (individually), will probably recognize that they just aren’t cutting it. It doesn’t come as a surprise to the individual.”

Finding the right people

Achieving buy-in doesn’t end with the people who already occupy your offices. After you’ve refocused your company, Yoh says you must see to it that any new person you hire is on the same page with your new company vision and strategy, or it will be a wasted hire.

Yoh seeks candidates from three different groups: Those in the talent and outsourcing industry, those outside the talent and outsourcing industry who bring adaptable skill sets, and those new to the industry, such as college graduates. Each category poses a number of specific questions that need to be answered during the interview process, but Yoh says there are some universal questions his human resources staff asks of all candidates: “Do you have a sense of integrity? Do you have strong values and a strong work ethic?”

They might seem like broad, obvious questions to ask, but Yoh says it’s about digging beneath the surface, finding examples of behavior in a candidate’s past that indicate that person will mesh well with the culture at Yoh Services.

“It can be difficult to interview around values, but there are different things you can do to try and get there,” he says. “You can see how they conduct themselves in the interview process and try to see examples of situations, whether it’s in their working career, school, family or whatever, where they have dealt with a values-related issue.

“With regard to work ethic, we want to know your track record. I’m less concerned about where you worked, I want to know the results you achieved. With high performers, you definitely see patterns. They like to set aggressive goals for themselves.”

Aggressive goal-setting has become a priority for Yoh Services since its new vision was launched two years ago. Today, the company has grown to 35 offices, 400 full-time employees and 4,500 consultants spread throughout the U.S.

Yoh says that you must have a company and work force that constantly pushes the boundaries of where the company has been before and constantly looks for ways to improve, or the business world will leave you behind.

“If you are internally focused in your business, or you’re kind of fat, dumb and happy dealing with clients that have given you business for a long time, the world is going to pass you by,” Yoh says.

“In our business, there are almost 10,000 firms in the United States that do what we do. We have to constantly update our business model, so that as the needs of the market change, we’re changing with them. That’s why we seek out the high performers who want to work at a cutting-edge company. They want to take on new assignments and push the envelope. If you’re out there doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to have trouble attracting and hanging onto the people who want to be where the action is.”

HOW TO REACH: Yoh Services LLC, www.yoh.com