Restating the goals

 When Mark Perlberg became president of Oasis Outsourcing in 2003, there wasn’t a need to change much of anything.

The company was one of the largest professional employment organizations (PEOs) in the country, and although revenue had flattened, Oasis was profitable and paying the bills. But Perlberg thought it had only scratched the surface of its opportunity.

“This was not a turnaround,” says Perlberg, who is now also CEO. “Oasis had grown; it was already one of the larger PEOs in the country. It was profitable.”

But Perlberg did not think the company, which provides administrative services for small and medium-sized companies, was anywhere near its potential.

“The challenge was a growth challenge,” Perlberg says. “The business had plateaued a bit. If you look at that approximate period of time, the business was not growing much in its recent history. So the challenge was, how do you come in and develop a sound set of growth strategies to take Oasis to the next level?”

While Perlberg had some ideas about how to do that, he knew that before he could rework the system, he needed to gather the support of the employees. The only way to do that was to show them he knew what he was talking about, so Perlberg spent three months studying the company and the industry.

“You have to do the homework first,” Perlberg says. “You’re way more open to valid criticism of, ‘You may have done this or that in other places, but you don’t really know the PEO business’ if you haven’t really taken the time to do the homework.”

Perlberg’s homework included talking with employees at every level of the organization. He went on calls with salespeople and talked to customers.

“It really was an education process for me that I wanted to go through as quickly as possible but as completely as possible,” he says. “I will sit down with them in small groups, sometimes one-on-one, usually both, and have a very open-ended discussion covering things like what they do but also getting them to talk about issues and opportunities — things that they struggle with in their day-to-day jobs, things that they see as great opportunities for the company.

“I use that opportunity to do my own due diligence so that I can develop a view of where we are and where we need to go.”

While that approach was particularly intense during his first three months at Oasis, Perlberg says it is an ongoing part of his management style.

“I want to maximize the likelihood that the course that I help set is going to be the right course,” Perlberg says. “It’s also important from an internal and external credibility standpoint. If you come in and say, ‘I’ve been in a lot of different businesses, here’s what we need to do,’ and it’s very clear to everybody that you haven’t done your homework, you’re not going to get the same level of buy-in that you will get if it’s clear that you’re trying to do your homework first before you come up with any strategy and implementation plan.”

Mission and values
Armed with company and industry knowledge, Perlberg then developed mission and value statements.

“Fundamentally, if an organization has a mission and values, you’ve got to decide whether this is going to be a poster on a wall or something that the organization lives and breathes,” Perlberg says. “Some CEOs don’t believe in them at all. For me, they’re extremely important. The mission is a strategic compass, and the values are a moral compass.

“They ground an organization in important ways. They help people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. I can always use that as a reference point.”

No matter what the company is doing, whether it is developing a new service or offering a new product, Perlberg can explain how that relates back to the mission or values.

“One of the first things you have to do is keep bringing the organization back to it,” he says. “You have to explain the things you’re doing in the context of your mission and your values. You have to tie it back.”

That wasn’t always the case before Perlberg arrived.

“If you looked around the organization, you could find some articulations in various places of something that looked like a mission,” he says. “I didn’t see anything that looked like a value statement. You could find something in a book that would probably serve as a mission-type statement, but what we didn’t have was a real rallying point.

“It’s not so difficult to develop a mission statement or even a value statement. The hard thing is bringing it to life and keeping it alive. I didn’t see any evidence of that when I joined the company.”

Perlberg does it by using real-life examples of the mission and values in action.

“You share things like client success stories,” he says. “You tie that back to the mission because in our mission, we talk about contributing substantially to our clients’ success. You engage in the discussion of those things.”

It is important for employees to be able to connect the dots all the way back to the mission and values.

“I always want people to feel they’re working in a company that stands for something, outside of the need to drive revenue, outside of the need to drive profits,” Perlberg says. “It’s important that people have a clear understanding of that and that senior managers are accountable for that, for behaving that way, for ensuring the environment is one that respects the values.”

Too often, executives provide the right words but fail in their actions.

“You have to be not defensive on it when employees call you on it,” Perlberg says. “If somebody says, ‘We’re supposed to get the tools and opportunity to make a difference, but I don’t have this software that I need,’ or ‘I don’t have this training that I need,’ you have to be willing to say, ‘That’s not consistent with our values, so we’re going to have to step up and address that.’”

Early on, Oasis employees called out the management on its commitment to the cause and got results.

“One of the first things that happened after the articulation of our values — when we talked about giving employees the tools and opportunity to make a difference, is we ended up enacting a tuition reimbursement program,” Perlberg says. “If you’re going to say that, you’re going to have to put some teeth behind it.

“You have to show that it is something that you are willing to live. If you say integrity is very important, you have to demonstrate that you’re not going to tolerate behavior that is inconsistent with that.”

Driving sales
With the mission and value statements in place and his homework done, Perlberg was ready to soup up the sales engine.

“This will sound a bit obvious, but it’s interesting sometimes how some organizations don’t always see this,” he says. “It starts with sales. That’s what it’s about. It’s about growing. And growing, first and foremost, is about sales.”

To begin with, Perlberg put a new emphasis on sales. He has tweaked the compensation plans and restructured the management infrastructure, relieving district managers of some of their selling responsibilities to focus on mentoring and reinforcing effective selling practices.

“There is no single answer, but the most important aspect of creating a true sales culture is to make sales results one of the top priorities in the company,” Perlberg says. “Some ways that we accomplish this are reviewing sales results each month with the entire organization at our monthly town meeting; inviting not only the entire sales organization but many key partners (including operations, underwriting, benefits and human resources and client services) to the annual sales meeting and spending a large percentage of my time out visiting and working with the sales organization.”

If top executives want to show the rest of their organization how strongly they feel about an issue, Perlberg says they need to do more than send out a few e-mails and memos.

“If the CEO devotes meaningful time to these activities, it gives a clear message to the organization that it is important,” he says.

Perlberg and his senior management team spend a lot of time ascertaining what hinders sales and what could be done to better facilitate sales.

“As these conclusions are reached, we work very quickly to take appropriate action, making sure that we have the right people and the right tools and strategies to optimize sales success,” says Perlberg.

One of those strategies is to focus on activity management.

“In this kind of a business, where the bulk of the clients coming in are going to be small- and medium-sized business, these short-term activity numbers become very, very important in order to optimize the performance of the organization,” Perlberg says. “That one is very, very high on the list for me in terms of a working sales engine.”

New technology allows the company to look across the sales organization and dig down to the individual salesperson to see how many meetings were arranged, the number of proposals made and the deals signed.

“That puts us in a position where we can see, on a real-time basis, what’s happening,” Perlberg says. “That’s very important because if you see things are going well, you can look to take that to yet another level. If you see holes or you see gaps, you’re seeing it in a real-time way; you’re seeing it very, very clearly, and the managers can take appropriate action quickly.”

The actions that Perlberg has taken have had a direct impact on the company’s performance. In 2003, the company had about 1,350 client relationships. Today, that number is nearing 2,000. The company’s revenue is now $1.53 billion, up from $1.12 billion in 2003.

“We’ve grown significantly,” Perlberg says. “We’ve grown our client count. We’ve grown our revenue. And we’ve grown our earnings more quickly than we’ve grown our revenues. We’ve been able to gain operating leverage as we’ve grown our business.”

Despite the success and the opportunity for growth, Perlberg understands that change takes time.

“Do not rush into it,” he says. “Do your homework. … Once you start the organization down a path, it isn’t easy to turn on a dime. Remember that execution is usually even more important than the strategy itself. It’s often easier to decide what to do than it is to actually do it.”

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