ISS CEO Jeff Gravenhorst: Our key success driver? Making people happy

Another great busy day has started at the ISS Top Management Conference 2016 (TMC) in Orlando. With a lucky card in our hand, we have been fortunate to get a few moments with the CEO of ISS Group, Jeff Gravenhorst, talking about the company’s recipe for success.

Q. How do you work with employee engagement and satisfaction to help make your employees shine and thrive?

The number one objective when you work with employees and want to have an engaged organisation is to share a purpose. The key driver for us, is to give every individual within our company a profound and in-depth understanding of, what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Whether it is me, the line manager, the front-line cleaner or caterer – the more everyone understands the purpose of what we are doing, the more engaged anybody will be.

Ensuring that everyone has a purpose is truly the first priority of our organisation and we have well-implemented tools and programmes in place to make this a reality.

One of these is our purpose-driven Apple programme. This programme is recognising and rewarding employees, who have found their purpose and actually act on it. Understanding the purpose of your own, and translating this to actions which support the customer purpose is what creates true customer value.

So what does this mean? In hospitals the purpose is to you heal patients. Can we heal patients through our cleaning or catering methods? Yes, we can. Because we can improve the quality of each patient’s experience, reduce the risk of communicative infections and thereby shorten the length of the say.

Looking beyond the purpose, communication plays an important role in employee engagement. The broader we communicate – the better. In this context, social media is becoming more and more important for us to communicate our purpose all the way through the organisation, independent of distance, time or place.

Those are the main things. If you want to succeed in working with employee engagement, you need to get involved in why you are doing what you are doing. Always allow the question “Why?”, expect the question “Why?” and answer it.

Q. You’re managing an organisation with 500.000 employees worldwide, how do you ensure the organisation stays a unified entity?

We're are a service organisation. This means that we do not have the privilege of manufacturing a physical product. A product that looks the same, feels the same and where the manufacturing process always results in the same outcome.

Being a service organization, our product and what we deliver is solely depending on the people working here. If our employees are not well-informed or engaged with their work, then of course the quality of the outcome can vary.

So the number one priority for us, in unifying a large organisation, is to have a clear and visionary strategy.

During the last 8 years, we have intensively been working on developing the core of our business and divesting the activities that did not represent what we are striving to be best at. Today, our core activities represent labor intensive, on-side portfolio business or with other words; every service you see inside of a building.

This also means that we have made a large organisation smaller and more focused, from the sense that every person in the organisation pretty much works within the same core and has the same mindset. This is independent of whether they clean, cater or manage technical installations.

Q. Your financial results are proving that all together you’re mastering delivering the service experiences your clients desire. What are your tools? What do you attribute to this success?

We have had a good run, there's no doubt about that. At the same time, we need to ensure that our strategic levers actually are moving in the right direction.

For the last many, many years both employee and customer satisfaction have gone up, every single year. At the same time our health & safety records are improving. These three parameters are key to us in delivering a purpose led mission.

The main driver for us is not being focused on the lagging indicators or what we didn’t sell last month. Our attention is on, how we can make our employees more engaged, our customers more satisfied and how we can see sales progress in the future. One thing is for sure, happy employees create happy customers and ultimately happy shareholders.

Q. How do you assess what’s next for ISS?

To figure out what’s next, a close relationship with your customers is important. Obviously, this comes down to spending time with our customers, understanding our customers and figuring out how we can support our customers in a better way.  That's where you find most of the truth.

But you need to also have a bigger picture and an open mind. Because one day there might be a new solution that nobody asked for but all of the sudden it is there and you need to be alert to it.

That is exactly why we have innovation sessions, where we put on the big hat and get inspiration from outside partners.

We are also forming a Corporate Garage (a virtual innovation lab) that will open up in August, placed outside our organisation. The target is to ensure that we stay creative and continue to get new innovative ideas.

Q. What value does an event such as the Top Management Conference (TMC) bring to the broader organization? Why is it important to you?

This takes me back to one of the first questions, talking about communication. One of the biggest levers of communication is education. TMC is the event where we get the most influential leaders across the world together.

During TMC, we lay out what we have achieved so far and where we are going. We are also focused on doing workshops around specific themes, be it employee engagement or leadership development.

Relationships are important to us and TMC as an event ties people together. Here we have a chance to spend quality time together, to be social together and recognize the true heroes of our organisation. It is a way of making a large, global organization smaller, more agile and ensure that our leaders are more relevant to each other.

Q. Why at Disney?

We have a vision of becoming the world’s greatest service organisation. Not just a facility organisation but a service organisation. This means that we need to be the best in understanding our customer needs and deliver excellent service value.

We want to be an organization which understands what service actually means. Disney is certainly, one of the companies that has reached this understanding.

Imagine a kid in one of the Disney theme parks, crying his heart out because the balloon string just slipped from his hand and flew up in the skies. The mom and pop can do nothing but buy another balloon. But what can the park cleaner do?

Well, they are trained to be on purpose of the task. Namely, make people happy. If kids cry in the park, they will do anything they can to make the kid happy. No matter if this is making a drawing of Mickey Mouse (which in fact they are trained to do) or something else. Of course they also need to clean, but that can wait. First, they will fulfill the purpose; making the client happy.

If clients are happy they will come back and years later they will bring their own kids, and the kids of their kids and so on.

In that sense, we can learn a lot from Disney, how they architect great service value and create experiences that are worth remembering. We are here to learn and get inspiration, that's why we are at Disney.

This week we are sharing top Leadership and Facility Management insights from ISS experts, live from the Top Management Conference (TMC) 2016 in Orlando, Florida. Stay on top of the key trends. Follow the conference on Twitter, LinkedIn and here on