‘Working towards a new Olympia’
Jean-Paul van Londen and Marian de Joode interview Dimitri Yocarini, CEO of Olympia. Since starting his career as a recruitment consultant, this young and driven businessman has quickly risen to become the owner and CEO of one of the largest employment agencies in the Netherlands. Purpose and profit are central to his thinking, as reflected by the organization’s new brand proposition: ‘Olympia gives work meaning.’
Olympia is one of the largest non-listed employment agencies in the Netherlands. Founded almost fifty years ago, it now has some 130 branches nationwide and provides work for over ten thousand people every day. At its head is CEO Dimitri Yocarini, still in his thirties and the child of a business family. Eighteen years ago, he began his career as a recruitment consultant at an Olympia office in Apeldoorn. Before long, he was running his own franchises in Amersfoort, Utrecht and Amsterdam. Less than 3 years ago, he took control of the entire organization with the full backing of his fellow franchisees, when he became joint owner alongside Avedon Capital Partners.
“Olympia had experienced tremendous growth for many years with an ever larger market share. However, the shareholders were markedly passive, doing little to develop the business. As a franchisee, I was certain that there was much untapped potential. My fellow franchisees agreed. I faced a choice: sell up and try something different, or start work on a plan that would open up all that potential.”
By potential, you mean financial growth?
“No, not just in financial terms. It’s also – and primarily – about our relevance, our impact, our role within the wider economy and on today’s labour market. That market is changing very quickly and as a major player in the temporary employment sector, Olympia has a certain responsibility. This is why our vision of the market and of the value of people is so important. Our vision of the future will help to shape that future.
So, how can we be ‘meaningful’ and make our contribution? How do we justify our existence? These questions raise a number of practical challenges. I realized that we had to be more agile. Our systems, processes, people and interactions all had to be raised onto a higher plane. I also realized that we could not succeed alone, so I went in search of an active investor – someone who could help us to unlock the hidden ‘wealth’ of the organization and allow us to establish ourselves as the market leader within a few years.”
Your new slogan is ‘Olympia gives work meaning’. What have you done to imprint this within your own DNA?
“There has been no major transformation since that wasn’t necessary. The problem was that we had never actively expressed what we stand for and what we believe in. Olympia was rather nondescript, not in the sense that it lacked significance but because it had never presented a clear identity to the outside world. How does one go about doing so?
We were a group of franchisees who presented ourselves as independent entrepreneurs. That in itself was attractive, since an entrepreneur can be expected to support clients as an equal partner, rise to their challenges and keep his promises. He works harder, stays in the job longer and, in most cases, possesses more knowledge of both the sector and the region. An entrepreneur makes deliberate, well-reasoned choices, actually does what he considers important, and devotes all his time and capacity to the job in hand. This profile was the key to the steady growth we enjoyed for several consecutive years.
And yet, it was clear that more was possible. There was already a sense of purpose but we had yet to put it into words so that others would appreciate what we stand for. That said, I had made some progress in doing so when I was a franchisee in Amsterdam. I’m certain that this is what helped me achieve such growth in that role. We now had to ask ourselves what we really believe in. There are of course differences between individual franchisees but there is always an underlying common purpose, albeit at a very fundamental level and not necessarily visible at the functional level.
You can define that fundamental level in terms of values, mission, conviction, identification. Nike, for example, tailors its message to appeal to athletes, while Apple seems to reach out to people who are daft enough to believe that they can change the world!”
“So, we asked ourselves who we should align ourselves with. Who were we trying to reach? What ideals should we pursue? What are our key values, the archetypal energies that define us? We set out on a quest to answer these questions.”
Was it a difficult quest? Discovering your own identity can be a very long process.
“In our case, it was a reasonably short one. As directors and entrepreneurs, we were all on the same course and we soon formed a very tight-knit team. The acquisition was completed in June 2016 and by early 2017 we had formulated our basic tenet: we believe that everyone has a unique intrinsic value which is expressed through work.
And so, we concluded that our focus, the group to whom we would reach out, would be people who give their lives, or the lives of others, meaning through their work. We are striving to build a society in which everyone can achieve maximum personal development through work that gives them satisfaction and fulfilment. This gives rise to a set of key values: meaningful growth, collaborative enterprise, impassioned professionalism and the uncomplicated pursuit of results. The sum of these parts forms a brand proposition in which we all truly believe, since it is one that we ourselves built from the bottom up. Only then did we start to think about the employment market, our role within it, and how we would establish a relevant position.”
“You can’t just look at the world and think, ‘there’s a commercial opportunity, that’s going to be my purpose!’ That just won’t work. It is not credible and it will not find acceptance in the longer term.”
Purpose can indeed attract scepticism. It can be dismissed as idealistic, or just clever marketing intended to increase the organization’s credibility. What is your vision, how do you prevent it becoming an empty promise?
“As a word, purpose is certainly part of the management-speak lexicon. As a concept, however, it has to be manifest. People need not be aware that you have been wrestling with the ‘why?’ question. We can muse endlessly about purpose, but if you’re not careful, it will remain abstract. Moving from purpose to performance can be a very big step. And if that step is not taken in an authentic manner, based on some firmly held conviction or belief, it will get you nowhere at all.
The manifestation of our common purpose required a significant process of change. As directors and entrepreneurs, we had to formulate a ‘purpose compass’ to support every choice we made. Every investment decision taken alongside Avedon was based on that compass. The recruitment consultants who have personal contact with jobseekers base their day-to-day work on it. This is actually its true value: it translates the concept into our service.
Why do we want people to choose Olympia? How do we assess their interests and capabilities when they first walk into the office? How do we help them achieve further development? In essence, this entails precisely the same process that we ourselves have undertaken, but at the individual level. The ultimate aim is a ‘statement of meaning’. We introduced various tools such as question cards. They are not used for job interviews as such, but support a conversation about meaning between the recruitment consultant and the jobseeker. Why does work matter to you? What do you want to achieve through working? That can be anything from paying the bills to personal development and even spiritual fulfilment.
“Work justifies one’s existence. It is a form of social participation which promotes cohesion and gives a sense of well-being. You can put your all into your work. Once you realize that your work really matters – that you really matter, it becomes truly relevant. If you notice some aspect that can be improved, it is only logical that you will continue to develop.”
When we say that we translate ‘purpose’ into everything we do, we are including even the less obvious aspects of our operations. We are currently building a new head office in Hoofddorp, for example. Its design principles are firmly based on our key values, brand proposition and organizational identity. All have been incorporated into the flow within the building, the way in which we work, help each other to develop and focus first and foremost on people. Having embedded these concepts in the head office design, we will then roll them out to all the branch offices. Our purpose is part of our very being… and our architecture.
The joint owner of Olympia is Avedon Capital Partners. An investment company is by definition profit-driven. How can you continue to focus on purpose?
“I really don’t believe that profit can come before purpose, or indeed vice versa. I see no conflict between them. In fact, there is a symbiosis. If you commit your organization to certain intrinsic values and strong beliefs, you create an energy and dynamism which is extremely distinctive, setting you apart from the crowd. And if those values are also endorsed by people who know why they do what they do, the immediate result is higher productivity.
Our profile is so clear and so much part of our practices and operations that it becomes a simple matter to share our convictions. Avedon is an ideal partner in this respect.”
“Once people realize why they do what they do, their added value increases. They experience greater personal well-being, become more creative and more interested in development. They are less likely to take sick leave. They will work longer and be more productive. This is the answer to the changes on the labour market.”
What about your customers? Do they see any conflict between purpose and profit? Are there any who do not share your beliefs?
“Once you decide to focus on people, good employment practices become essential. The vast majority of our clients appreciate the social and societal implications, but of course they also want to know the financial implications. They may acknowledge their responsibility, but there is still some way to go in terms of intrinsic motivation.
I can cite a recent example. One of our franchisees had an in-house planner who was suffering from work-related stress. He had a client who treated people like numbers. The workload was extremely high. The franchisee himself took over the planner’s work. He could then see for himself why things were going wrong. He spoke to the client and made it his personal mission to persuade the client to improve working conditions. This demonstrates that you don’t have to put up with a bad situation. You can insist on good employment practices.
There was also a time when we decided not to bid for a contract. It was for a very large organization with many locations, so it represented a significant amount in turnover and profit. Nevertheless, we did not respond to the call for tenders. The organization concerned asked why not, and we told them. Their style of operational management was very far removed from our key values, and not even in keeping with their own. They made changes and eventually came back to us, whereupon we won the contract. We were able to reconcile our respective objectives. That is what I mean by impact, both at a personal level and elsewhere.”
Talking about the personal level… you were just 33 when you took the helm at Olympia. Would you describe yourself as an administrator, an executive, or a self-made entrepreneur?
“I am both an administrator and an entrepreneur. But whatever word you choose, I have a responsibility towards Olympia, to the people who work for and through us, to our clients, and our role within the employment market. I must act accordingly. Everything that I do, every interaction, is therefore part of my own development, that of the organization and that of the setting in which we operate. This, combined with ambition and the firm belief that we can only succeed if we all work towards goals that enjoy unanimous support, sums up my management style. I don’t know if there’s a word for that… in any event, I am myself.
That’s what it’s all about: being yourself, making your own choices and being able to explain them. You must show complete engagement and always set the bar very high. I believe that my vision, the underlying beliefs and the mission we have formulated as a team speak for themselves. I certainly think that they enable me to reach people, motivate them and mobilize them. This is part and parcel of the executive’s role. He or she must be able to plan ahead based on a clear vision. There must be a realistic picture of the future and one’s own role in that future.”
You have remarkable drive. That provides energy but of course there are also pitfalls. Do you ever feel that you’re pushing yourself and others too hard?
“There can indeed be something of a gulf between vision and ambition on the one hand, and reality and the speed of change on the other. Sometimes, drive can spark cynicism.
“I see cynicism as a perfectly valid form of critical reflection, provided it is not in the darker form that produces nothing at all.”
If I were to avoid cynical people altogether, I would miss out. Experience and reflection have given me a much better impression of the organization’s adaptive ability and what constitutes a realistic rate of change than I had just a few years ago. I know that there is always a next step, a next level, even more significant impact. Because I know that, I can indeed sometimes get ahead of myself. I have therefore learned to take time to celebrate the successes as they come. They are essential elements in the process of refining purpose. I now understand that taking more time is quite acceptable.
However, change must never take too long. It is a question of maintaining the tempo while also ensuring that vision and practice remain closely aligned. Daily practice is already extremely dynamic, calling for many transactions at all levels. Establishing a balance between frantic activity and the reflection needed to achieve one’s vision is essential, but it is far from easy. On the one hand, we provide work for thousands of people every day. At the same time, we must plan for the future. We must balance those two aspects.”
How do you know when you are on the right path?
“All managers find it useful to be able to look at a dashboard and see the KPIs moving. Those KPIs relate to the main objectives of the organization, the achievement of which coincides with the achievement of our ambitions. We intend to refine our KPIs in the months ahead, so that we can measure our growth in both economic and societal terms. We aspire to be the go-to employment agency not only for jobseekers, but also for HR directors and training organizations. This is a very important ambition. We also wish to adopt data-driven methods which will increase our human impact. And of course, there will remain a strong focus on the development of a resilient performance organization. The overall result we must measure is value creation, for both shareholders and society at large. As with purpose and profit, you can’t have one without the other.
“I constantly reflect on everything that I do or think. I also believe that it is important to have a good coach. I do, and I talk to him on a very regular basis.”
We also have a very strong Supervisory Board, with whom I consult regularly as both executive director and shareholder. It is also useful to have the very best people in the various key positions, and to join them in reflection on a regular basis.
Was there a ‘defining moment’ for you – a certain event which persuaded you of the importance of purpose and profit?
“Yes, and I can pinpoint it exactly. I was 14. My stepfather explained to me the difference between being successful, as in making a career, and being meaningful. The latter, he told me, is all about what drives you, what you consider important, and what determines your direction. It is all about the footprints you leave behind. For him, being meaningful was simply a question of investing in everyone who was close to him, helping them to make the impact of which they were capable. My choices, I have come to realize, have always been made in this light. Entrepreneurship involves taking the initiative, making certain decisions, and being both successful and meaningful. This is the setting in which I grew up.”
Our next interview will be with Abbe Luersmann, CHRO of Ahold Delhaize. Her organization has been extremely active for many years, consistently showing clear purpose. What would you like to know about Abbe? Is there a question you would like us to ask her?
“What particularly interests me is the scale at which she is active. Ahold is a huge and very complex multinational. There must sometimes be conflicting interests within the organization. How does she ensure that purpose remains firmly embedded throughout? I think her answer will be fascinating!”