Jim Ousley looked at Savvis Inc. and saw a company that wasn’t growing as fast as he felt it should be.
“We came out of a recession like everybody did, and so, growth was stymied,” says Ousley, who has been chairman at the 2,600-employee company since May 2006. “But we knew we had issues at the top level, because the company was not growing as fast as our peers. You take that for a starter and you say, ‘Why not?’”
Ousley believed one of the problems was the acquisitions that Savvis made in recent years. While it grew the IT company from a physical standpoint, it also created a confusing culture that was focused more on operations and less on taking advantage of its new components to grow the business.
“It was more of an operational culture than a sales and support culture,” Ousley says. “We just started at the top and said, ‘We want to refocus this to where we’re making the age-old statement that the customer comes first instead of operational things coming first.’”
With that as his starting point, Ousley agreed that he was the best person to fix the problem and get Savvis back on a growth trajectory. So in March 2010, he added the role of CEO to his responsibilities.
Open the discussion
His first step was to comprehensively analyze the company’s sales and marketing leadership to determine what was or was not happening that was keeping the company down.
“Any time new management comes in, they have their own thoughts on what roles should be in the leadership of the company,” Ousley says. “I’m a great believer in going out and talking to the organization.”
Ousley had plenty of people around him who could provide a good report or summation of what they thought the problem was in the sales and marketing department at Savvis. But that wasn’t going to help him get to the root of the problem.
“I’m a great believer in touching the flesh and listening,” Ousley says. “One of the biggest challenges a new executive has is listening to the pulse of the company. You don’t do it by having it filtered through multiple layers of management. You have to go talk to everybody and you have to talk their talk. If you go down and listen to people and then you take some action, you really start to get people to enlist and get the organization to enlist.”
Ousley worked with his HR department to put together small group sessions with anywhere from four to 10 people from each group representing different areas of the company.
His focus was clearly on the sales and marketing department, but he wouldn’t do himself much good if the sales and marketing personnel were the only ones he spoke to.
“Let’s face it, sales management is biased,” Ousley says. “They have been living it at all levels. So I solicit from the sales organization but also the other support organizations and HR, finance and operations. I try to assimilate a lot of viewpoints, not just sales management’s viewpoints. Where do we have strong leadership in the sales organization? Where do we have strong talent? Where do we have weak talent?”
Break the ice in these sessions by opening up about yourself and encouraging others to do the same if they seem reluctant to speak up.
“You have a small group session of support engineers and you have 10 people who you have never met before,” Ousley says. “They are all nervous. So you just say, ‘OK, let’s go around the room. Introduce yourself. What do you like about Savvis? What don’t you like about Savvis?’ By the time you get around the table, everybody has gotten issues on the table.”
But it’s not enough to just hold meetings and expect that you’ll get all the answers to your problem. You have to work harder than that to see and hear what people are thinking.
Savvis put together an “Undercover Boss” day, a takeoff of the hit CBS television series in which CEOs get down in the trenches and experience what their employees do every day.
“My day was with the help desk,” Ousley says. “They get hundreds of calls every day. But I always knew that they put people in front of me who were the best people.”
Ousley wanted to hear from those people, but he made it a point to stray from the prearranged encounters and talk to other people, as well.
“So I’d sit in little cubicles with four or five people, and I’d be talking to one individual who would be showing me what they do, and then I’d lean over and talk to the other four that were close by and ask a question,” Ousley says. “Do you see the same problems? So there are ways to make sure you’re not just filtered to the most talented people and the noncomplainers.”
Ousley made it a point to quickly respond to each group after he had met with them and explain to them what he had taken from their meetings and discussions about the state of sales and marketing at Savvis.
“I try to crystallize it down to a few key messages that I heard,” Ousley says. “So maybe one or two, three maximum. I go back and I will send a note back to that group saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve done about this. Here’s who I have talked to.’ They have to see some visible business results if it’s something that’s important to them.”
You can’t afford to talk to every last person and group in your company, and then figure out what to do about it.
“You have to have some impact in the first six to 12 months or the organization just doesn’t believe you are going to have any impact,” Ousley says. “They just don’t believe.”
As Ousley began to get a clearer picture of what was happening at Savvis, he decided that some personnel changes needed to be made.
“We had to make some changes in the sales management both at the top as well as down,” Ousley says. “The first-level sales management is really critical in any company. They are the ones touching customers and prospects at the very first level of sales support people. We really looked very hard at the talent at the very first level of sales management and made a fair amount of changes. We did some extensive training and put some new training programs in place to educate the ones we felt did have the potential to excel.”
Ousley did make a change at the top of the sales department. But for the most part, you as the CEO should not be deciding who stays and who goes, no matter how thorough you were in your information-gathering sessions.
“You’re not that close to it down in the organization,” Ousley says. “If I’m getting e-mails from people complaining about this or clients saying we have quality problems or a service problem or a sales problem, I’m going to look at the quantitative data. I’m going to talk to people and talk to different support organizations and then tell the leadership, ‘We have some issues that need to be fixed. You need to tell me how you’re going to fix them.’”
One thing you do need to be sure of, however, is that a person who is taking a new position is better and more qualified than the person he or she is replacing.
“They have to be replaced by somebody that is perceived by the organization as better,” Ousley says. “If you have to let a district sales manager go and you replace him or her with someone that is perceived as better, the fear goes away. If you put someone in there who is perceived as not as good as the one you just terminated, then you get lots of fear and concern and frustration.”
It’s not always easy when you’re making changes to say, “Here’s where it starts and here’s where it’s going to end.” But you do owe it to your people to make sure they aren’t caught off-guard and that they understand when and why changes are being made.
“If you can communicate effectively why change needs to take place, then in general, people will say, ‘OK, I understand. That’s obvious. We had to do that. That person wasn’t part of the mission here,’” Ousley says. “It’s all about communication. If you can communicate why you’re changing this, the ones who want to understand it will. There will always be naysayers, and you can’t ever dispel all the fears. If you can communicate why things are being done, people can buy in to it.”
You also need to continue to show that there are open lines of communication between you and your employees and that the feedback they provided to you wasn’t for naught. They need to know that you’re using that feedback as changes are enacted.
“One of the things that became obvious to me in all these small group discussions was everybody was disgruntled over the lack of any merit increases for several years driven by the recession,” Ousley says.
Ousley felt like merit increases would accomplish at least two good things: They would show that he had heard employee concerns and was responding. They would also be perceived as a sign to employees that, “Hey, you’re part of our future. And here’s a bump in pay to prove it.”
“They are going to be rewarded for their energies,” Ousley says. “Then people have to look at themselves in the mirror. If I didn’t get a merit increase, why is that? That doesn’t make them any happier, of course, but if they are honest with themselves, it does have some impact.”
Ousley wanted employees to know that he didn’t view the changes he had led and implemented as the cure for everything that had been a problem at Savvis. So when employee surveys were conducted and revealed that some people still felt like there wasn’t enough communication, he openly talked about it.
“We had an employee meeting that I led and we showed the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ousley says. “Then I basically said, ‘We’re going to work on these three or four areas.’ That message gets across that, ‘OK, they are listening and they are going to do something about it. I can give my input.’”
As Savvis moves into 2011, the company is showing signs it’s on the right track. After posting $874 million in fiscal 2009 revenue, the company is on pace to build on that figure in fiscal 2010.
“The management team we put in place is leading this organization very effectively now, or much more effectively than in the past,” Ousley says. “So the changes we made in some of the senior leadership are working, so I feel good about that.”
Ousley says professional leadership training is one of the most important changes and will help maintain a culture focused on growing the business.
“You have to go listen to people and then you have to go do something,” Ousley says. “You have to show something visibly, show that you’re changing something. Those are a couple of the front-end leadership things that are pretty tried-and-true and work pretty effectively.”
How to reach: Savvis Inc., (800) 728-8471 or www.savvis.net
The Ousley file
chairman and CEO
Born: Burbank, Calif.
Education: Bachelor of science degree, business administration, University of Nebraska
What was your very first job?
I picked up golf balls on a golf range.
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
My grandfather in Lincoln, Neb. He started as an elevator operator in a little department store and ended up owning it. He was such a prince of a guy, and I learned so much from him. He was in Lincoln, which is where the university is, and later in life, I worked in his store. He had such a great combination of both corporate charity and church and just a combination that blended them all together.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be patient. One of the best career things that ever happened was I got passed over for a very senior position in one of the companies when I was moving along rapidly in the high-technology industry.
I got very frustrated because I did not feel that the person who got put into the position was anywhere near my peer. I remember my boss sitting me down and telling me, not rationalizing why he made the decision, but saying, ‘Jim, be patient.’ I was going to quit but listened to him. I ended up being CEO of that company, Control Data Corp.
What one person would you most like to sit down and talk to?
The premier of (the State Council of the People’s Republic of China,) Wen Jiabao. I’d just like to understand how he is thinking about this explosive growth in China.