ISS is a Danish company based in Copenhagen which specialises in logistics services, such as cleaning, catering, and building management.
With 518,000 employees, ISS is the fourth-largest employer in the world, and looks after landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
In Britain, it cleans the trains on the London Underground London and the Carlsberg brewery in Northampton, among the others.
One year after going public on the stock market in Copenhagen, the company is in good shape: share prices are up some 30% from the IPO, and revenues for 2014 came to DKK 74.1 billion (£7 billion).
ISS CEO Jeff Gravenhorst was in London last week and Business Insider sat down with him to ask him how he manages such a vast workforce. Here are his top three tips:
1. Empower your staff
The best way to manage a big workforce is to let them understand they are part of the company as much as the top manager. There is a gap between management and front line that can’t be filled if one of the sides is not engaged. Rather than instructing the staff as if they were children, let them take pride in what they do by asking them to play a more active role.
“You have to run a company so that everybody has a dream, so not just my dream but their dream and the better you become at that, the more fun it is to come to work and the easier it becomes to run a lot of people,” said Jeff.
2. Hire local
ISS operates directly in 50 countries and in 27 more through third-parties. “We don’t have 50 Danes in the management,” jokes Jeff. It is always better to hire local people because they know what is the reality on the ground, and they will be the face of your company.
In some countries this policy is not always possible, and ISS needs to manage a workforce from different parts of the world: Its British employees, for example, speak 187 languages combined.
2. Be afraid of complacency
“Complacency is the worst in anything in life,” says Jeff. Complacency gives you a false sense of assurance that, eventually, will drag your company down.
Complacency creates a gap between leadership and employees and it prevents communication: “When you have 500,000 people working for you, you want them to know why they are doing what they are doing,” says Jeff.
That is the toughest part of leadership, is to get the message all the way out.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation we had with Jeff.
Business Insider: ISS has 520,000 employees, that is like managing a city as big as Belfast, how does it feel?
Jeff Gravenhorst: From the way I look at it is even bigger than that, because there are the families of our workers: It is more of a society. It is a great privilege to have that kind of an impact.
The way that the company is run is by understanding the importance of the individual: You clearly can run a business just focusing on delivering a task or you can run a business while you focus on delivering a purpose, and the purpose being a little bit bigger than the task. In a hospital are you cleaning the floor or are you healing patients?
You have to run a company so that everybody has a dream, so not just my dream but their dream and the better you become at that, the more fun it is to come to work and the easier it becomes to run a lot of people. Leading 500,000 employees via micro management is not doable, the way you can do it is via dream building, purpose-led, and then it becomes easier.
BI: Would you say ISS is decentralised?
JG: What we do is described in three lines: First, we do service performance, which looks at the result. It is not what goes into it, but what comes out of it.
Secondly, we are here to facilitate the customer’s goals, so we are not there just to sweep the floor, we are here to create stories, and do it through people empowerment, and let me go back to it in a little bit.
And finally the way we run a building is that we do it through self-delivery, so it has to be our own employees.
We have an employee survey which we run once a year, with more than 207,000 employees every year. And we do it because the key driver in a successful company is the happiness or the wellbeing of our employees That is the best way to understand if the company is healthy or not.
BI: How do you manage operations in 50 different countries and be successful in such different environments?
JG: We do it by not having 50 Danes to run 50 operations: If the work is in China, it has to be by Chinese country managers, in Indonesia they have to be Indonesian. But most important, for me, is through behaviour. The behaviour and the values need to be the same, and then the staff need to be local. If your behaviour is instructing your employees with a whip, then you don’t belong at ISS. But that is where this industry comes from, we’re talking cleaning, it is a very hierarchical environment.
We are different, we want to be working with the “why,” we want to work through motivation, engagement, empowerment, and the values need to be the same. You need to sell your workers your dream: You might just sweep the dust on the floor, but if you do it at Airbus then you are building aeroplanes and you are actually sending people up in the air.
BI: What is the thing you fear the most?
JG: Complacency. I know it sounds … well, but from a business perspective, I do not fear too many things. The worst thing you can have in anything is life is complacency. And then complacency can lead to the fact that you don’t understand if they know what you are doing. So when you have 500,000 people working for you, you want them to know why they are doing what they are doing.
That is the toughest part of leadership, is to get the message all the way out. It is a big dream but it is the right approach, and that will also fight complacency.
BI: Today the Treasury announced it would raise the minimum wage here in the UK. What do you think of that?
JG: I think it is a good thing, I think is good. It is our job to give the right salary to employees and we are clearly big supporters of the fact that employees can live off their wages. That is always a good thing. And then it is good that the entry jobs are getting a better payment.
BI: On the other hand, ahead of the General Elections we hear demands for zero-hour contracts (in which employees have few rights and no guaranteed work hours) to be reformed or even abolished. I presume you use zero-hour contracts among your staff. What do you think of this issue?
JG: Predominantly we prefer to use full time contracts. But again, you have to look at what is the service that is needed, what is required as part-timers, and also there are a lot of people who want to have a part-time contract, so the flexibility is good to have.
Employee turn over is not a good for ISS: You have to recruit, train, develop, that is very costly to do, and for us is better to keep our staff. There is a better relationship and it works a longer time. So, of course the more we can do full-time the better. For example: One big trend in this industry in the last few years is to turn nighttime cleaning into daytime cleaning. By converting this you have a lot of benefits, you give employees an opportunity to get a normal job, so they can stay home with their families at nights. And they stay with ISS.
BI: How many of your employees are foreign and how many are Britons?
JG: We are quite proud that we are the entry job for many people: We can actually give many people an opportunity to start, to receive an education. So if you never had an opportunity to study and you come in as an immigrant, you can start working for us, in many countries we actually give language training. In Denmark we have 147 languages spoken out of 8,000 employees. In the UK it is 187 languages. We will of course, take pride of giving you that opportunity and then if you want you can stay with us and move with us.
You don’t have to have a good degree to make a career with ISS: If you start as a cleaner you can end up with my job, of course you have to take some education and work hard, but if you are willing to do so, there is a path all the way through. Opportunities are there to be taken.
BI: How does it feel to manage such a big company from Denmark? Do you envy other CEOs who are based in London?
JG: No, not really: I used to live here. No, but jokes apart, I think the most important thing about the country is the culture, and there is an element of Nordic culture in what we do.
It is the culture of believing in the individual, that everybody has their rights, and that everybody has respect for each other. And I guarantee you, in Denmark whether I am a CEO or I am a cleaner the difference between us is really not that big, and that is the same in our company: We have a saying that is “mind the gap:” You always have to think that whatever you come up as a dream, as an idea, it can’t be delivered it if they don’t deliver it on the front line. So mind the gap means give the power to the individual, it is important and that culture is really strong in Denmark.
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