A decade ago, Ohlthaver & List was simply a Namibian holding company with a wide range of disparate businesses ranging from retail to IT to farming to a brewery. Today, it's the three-time winner of Deloitte's "Best Company to Work For" in its region. It has also reduced its carbon footprint and exceeded its wildest profit goals — in the case of the brewery, by seven times its stated goal. And while O&L still owns a similar collection of businesses, "disparate" is the last way this now-coordinated, focused group of companies could be described.
It all began with a new executive, and the desire to be better.
"The companies were basically running their own show," says Sven Thieme, executive chairman of O&L. "They had their own systems, own cultures, everything. It was a very unfocused business. When I took over, the goal was to create one culture and get everything in line."
Exactly how to achieve this across such different companies seemed a near-impossible task. But as Gap International Vice President Betsy Johnson explains, when a company wants to make big things happen, but doesn't know how, a brand new corporate strategy is needed -- one that will unify the enterprise with extraordinary vision and goals to match it. O&L worked with business performance consulting firm Gap International to take a hard look at its company and corporate structure, and create a new roadmap for success.
Leading by example
After taking Gap International's team-based Performance Diagnostic survey, a unique tool for measuring a company’s leaders and culture, O&L leaders knew exactly where to begin to make changes: with themselves.
"I think we never understood what leadership was all about," explains Thieme.
To remedy this, O&L introduced a leadership model that emphasized humility, connectedness, focus on employees, and openness to new ideas. The model included the leaders of the holding company, as well as the leaders of each business it owned. From company to company, the leadership culture began to align, creating a “Breakthrough Performance Environment.” In practice, this meant O&L's companies gradually began to operate with the same mindset, all directed from the top, and ultimately owned by the various layers of leadership as they become more aligned over time.
"Basically, everything starts and ends with me," Thieme says. "It's completely leading by example. I'm staying humble; I want them to see me as a normal, approachable person."
Focusing on its people
That, in turn, has encouraged leadership throughout the O&L companies to be humble and approachable too, something employees tend to like. But this was only the first step toward reshaping the business in ways that connected with workers. In fact, making them happy is a key part of O&L's new strategy.
"If we look after our people, they will look after our customers," says Thieme. "That has made us very focused on people as an organization."
For example, previously, to evaluate performance, O&L might have asked their retail operation employees, "What is the customer feedback?"
Now, they start with the employees, Thieme says, by asking, "Has everybody got the tools they need?"
If employees don't have the tools they need to do their jobs well, or if their work environment is challenging, it can negatively impact their performance. When those needs are addressed, employees are more satisfied and more effective—and this translates into results for the business.
In one instance, the retail operation decreased profit loss due to perishable goods going bad before they could be sold. According to Thieme, this success was a direct result of workers who cared more about their work and had the resources they needed to do it well.
In addition to creating happy workers, O&L sought to improve the connection and alignment between employees and leaders. Through relationship-building exercises and open lines of communication, employees now feel freer to share new ideas and alert leaders to problems.
"That has to do with the speed of execution," says Gap's Johnson. "The more connected people are, the faster things get done."
Alignment means connecting employees to the purpose of the entire company, not just their jobs. Employers are motivated to contribute to the success of O&L and free to communicate ideas to achieve that success.
This paid off in a big way. When O&L needed a $20 million software-upgrade, its IT staff came forward with an idea. Rather than outsource the project to consultants, the IT department could do the job internally for $800,000. It knew the system, and was uniquely qualified to identify this opportunity to save the company from a huge expense.
"That's the depth and the quality of connection that exists between the leaders and the teammates and the teammates and each other," says Johnson. "A true quality of people knowing each other is that they begin to be able to talk about things."
Setting big goals
O&L's core purpose in developing a new corporate strategy was to achieve big things. Now, setting seemingly impossible goals — increasing their profits seven-fold, or becoming the best place to work in its region year after year — is something the company does at regular intervals. And because everyone in O&L's businesses is aligned and willing to follow the leadership's example to achieve those goals, they simply get done.
"Our whole philosophy has changed to nurture and allow everything possible for breakthroughs to happen," Thieme says.
As originally published in Forbes, by Natalie Burg.