Achievers, formerly known as I Love Rewards Inc., has built its business out of selling employee engagement, rewards and recognition software.
So it was an ironic turn when, four years after chairman Razor Suleman founded the Toronto-based company in 2002, he lost 40 per cent of his own staff over a six-month period, and was down to a dozen employees.
Mr. Suleman had spent those first years primarily focused on meeting customer needs to fuel the company's rapid growth. In so doing, he neglected to pay attention to his own employees and how departments were working together.
He knew that things had to change. But what could he do to improve the situation?
Achievers was born out of a consulting project that Mr. Suleman did for a large corporate client. "They came to me because they weren't having a lot of success motivating their employees and thought I could help. Almost immediately, I could see that the interests of the employees and the interests of the company weren't aligned, and so I promised that I could build software to create this alignment."
The employee-recognition software that he created, which reinforced desired behaviours and drove employee recognition, was the core product around which Achievers was built.
"I understood alignment between employee interests and company interests at an early age," Mr. Suleman says. "When I was 11 years old, I wanted a bike, and my parents couldn't afford one. But I was a paperboy at the time and there was a deal where, if you sold 50 subscriptions, the paper would buy you a bike. So I got my bike – and that lesson of finding a win-win situation stayed with me."
However, even though Achievers was providing such win-win situations for other companies, it wasn't living its own best practices.
In its first four years, the company was on the upswing, growing from half a dozen employees to 20, and seeing revenues increase fivefold. In driving this growth, Mr. Suleman says he paid attention to his market at the expense of what was happening internally.
Department interests were not aligned and weren't working together effectively. Communication throughout the company was poor, and employees didn't feel recognized or valued for their work.
Like the proverbial shoemaker's son who goes without shoes, the company wasn't even using its own software internally.
Losing 40 per cent of staff in 2006 was a wake-up call for Mr. Suleman that things had to change.
The first thing that Mr. Suleman did was to sit down and write up a "master plan" – a five-page handwritten document articulating the kind of company he wanted Achievers to be.
This plan, framed and on display, is still the core blueprint for how Achievers operates.
A key element in the plan was communication. Mr. Suleman realized that it was difficult to empower employees if they knew little about the company's goals and achievements. Soo communication has been a priority since the plan was implemented in 2006.
Every day, the company holds an "all hands on deck" meeting called "To The Point." In the nine minutes before noon, employees, now numbering 200, gather to share daily successes, from new employees hired to new customers acquired to key financial metrics.
Another element in the plan, facilitated by Achievers software, is empowering employees through democratic recognition that emanates from the top down, the bottom up and peer to peer.
The company has articulated eight values. Each week, every employee votes on who among them should be recognized for living one of those values. That person receives company-wide recognition.
Additionally, employees have the option to award recognition-based points that can be redeemed for rewards such as travel, merchandise and gift cards.
"The point is that the software creates a culture of recognition, where employees feel valued and appreciated for their work every day," Mr. Suleman says.
"I can't be everywhere. I can't see everything. But 200 people have a vote every week."
At first, he worried that voting could turn recognition into a popularity contest, but he explains that it doesn't make sense to game the system.
"When you empower people by giving them a vote, they take it seriously. For example, if you're in sales and it's the last day of the month and someone in accounting stays late to process your order so you get credit for it this month, you want to recognize them for it. You want to say 'I like what you did and I'd love you to do it again.'"
Employees at Achievers talk about "drinking our own champagne," Mr. Suleman says, which means that they live the practices they preach to customers.
The recognition that these practices were important for his own company, too, was a major turning point.
Since 2006, Achievers has grown from 12 employees to 200, and added offices in Boston and San Francisco, where it is now headquartered.
Its customer base consists of global companies with more than 1,000 employees. Company revenue has doubled each year, and products are sold in 86 countries. The company has attracted $38-million in investment, and Mr. Suleman was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011.
Even more satisfying to Mr. Suleman, however, is how employees' relationship with the company changed.
In 2007, just one year after all those employees left, his company was recognized as one of Canada's Top 100 Employers. With just 26 employees at the time, it was the smallest company ever to be included on the list.
In the past five years, it has received this recognition multiple times, as well as international recognition for employee engagement.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Small Business website.
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