Interview with the leading expert on change leadership, Jeff Gravenhorst
Tell us a bit about yourself and ISS?
ISS is a leading workplace experience and facility management company globally. I have been with ISS for almost 17 years and been a part of many milestones over the years – developing ISS from an international cleaning company into a global Integrated Facility Services provider, our listing on the NASDAQ and being voted as the Best Outsourcing Provider seven years in a row, to mention a few.
Today, we are a large international organisation offering services in catering, technical services, cleaning, front-office services and workplace experience, providing opportunities to thousands of people across the globe. We play a vital role in providing the first job for immigrants in many countries. We make a positive impact directly or indirectly to millions of people and their families. That makes me humble and gives me great pride.
Personally, I joined ISS in 2002 and I have had a fantastic journey going back to my role as the CFO in UK and then COO of ISS Group to be the CEO of ISS Group since April 2010. Currently, I also hold the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rambøll Group and Chairman of the Confederation of Danish Industry’s (DI) Permanent Committee on Business Policies. I have had a diverse and international background living and working in three different countries in my previous roles with Arthur Andersen, Wittenborg UK and ALTO US Inc.
I am 57, married to Helene and together, we have two beautiful daughters Emma (21) and Laura (23).
What traits define you as a leader?
‘Purpose’ has always been very important for me. I am a firm believer that if everybody can understand why each one does their job, then we can truly unleash the power of the human touch. It is important for me that everyone understands our purpose as ISS and the positive impact we make to the society and our customers.
We are all born equal and I strongly believe that we all possess passion and purpose in life. Our job as leaders is to ignite that passion and purpose in a way that resonates with our colleagues. In ISS, we have a strong customer focus. Our primary focus is to understand what the customer wants to achieve and help them achieve that goal. We encourage this behaviour and have a robust reward and recognition programme around it and I am proud of the number of stories that we receive each year.
With more than 400,000 colleagues across the world and operations in more than 40 countries, we work with various cultures, languages and customers. So, it is important for us to have this common purpose that drives and motivates everybody to perform at their best.
Where does your biggest inspiration from dealing with and handle change come from?
We are a company, whose foundation is built on our people and driven by the power of the human touch. People are our assets. We respect each other for who we are and believe in treating everybody equally and fairly. So, when I think of inspiration, some of the biggest events that come to my mind are the changes that influenced people. They are leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. They both fought for the rights of their people and brought about massive change. They changed societies with their own approach.
I also look up to some of the business leaders like Jack Welch who led GE through many changes or Larry Page and Sergey Brin who started Google while they were PhD students. Today Google is considered as one of the Big Four Technology companies. Nokia moved from the rubbers and cables business to telecommunications. These are a few businesses that underwent massive transformations. Personally, there is a lot to learn from each of these cases.
But I also find inspiration from our own people at ISS. We have close to half a million colleagues across the globe. The way our people engage and make a difference for our customers through their passion and purpose, every single day is an inspiration for me. In fact, we are not only making a difference for our customers’ lives, but also a difference to our more than 400,000 colleagues and their families around the world.
How do you deal with the challenge of implementing change across an organization as large as ISS?
Real change happens when we focus and make choices. Choose your battles. At ISS, we made some tough choices over the years. We chose to focus on certain customer types and segments. We offered them a clear differentiator and chose the geographies where we would like to target. As much as we would like, we have to understand that we cannot be everything for everybody.
To make this work, leadership is absolutely key. We have to lead by trust and empower people to make decisions. That is the cornerstone for driving change. Of course, there are change interventions, for example, our annual Global Leadership Conference for the top 400 leaders that sets the strategic direction, or our Leadership Mastery programme for the Top 100 leaders or our Leadership Competency Framework, that defines the competencies of a good leader at ISS.
From an operational perspective, we have a programme called ‘Service with A Human Touch’ that talks about the ‘human’ side of service that we need to be aware of when serving customers; we also have a programme called ‘Leading with a Human Touch’, which is about leading by example.
Communication plays an important role as well. We believe in face-to-face communication, but when that is not possible, we use digital tools like podcasts, videos, webinars etc. Our aim is to always ensure that communication flows both ways, listen to our colleagues and have a constructive and engaging discussion.
What recommendations would you give to companies that are facing the challenge of implementing change across their organization?
Keep it simple. It is important to understand why we are doing what we are doing, what it takes to achieve it and then, of course, how to achieve it. We must always provide the freedom on how to achieve it, but cannot compromise on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’.
For us in ISS, it is about keeping the customer at the centre of the universe and focusing on why we took certain strategic choices. The dynamics surrounding us is constantly changing, faster than ever before. It presents us with information and options we never had before. It’s overwhelming sometimes, and as leaders it’s upon us to navigate through this labyrinth of data and information and share the vision and the big WHY for change. It is extremely important to communicate the reason for change in a language that everyone understands. Make everybody a part of the journey. Communicate. Train. Empower. Believe and trust in your people. That is when you will see true change taking place