By Andre de Waal
Excerpted from the book What Makes a High Performance Organization (Global Professional Publishing)
You might not expect to find an HPO in an unassuming office building in the Back Bay area of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. But then you would be pleasantly surprised because on the tenth floor of an office on Huntington Avenue you can find Longfellow Benefits, a highly successful company and the winner of the annual Boston’s Best Employer Award for six years in a row.
Longfellow was founded in 1999 by four individuals who shared a common desire to create a service organization built upon the ideals of teamwork, accountability, and understanding. The company has been providing employee benefits consulting and advisory services to employers and individuals since its start. Longfellow is a broker that advises companies in choosing the best health insurance policy, retirement plan or executive benefit systems for that company.
Currently Longfellow has over 200 corporate clients of whom the majority are 100 to 1,000 employees in size, and its client retention rate is at least 95 percent. The company employs 30 people and has been growing from revenue of $1.5 million in 1999 to more than $9 million in 2010. Longfellow’s mission is to listen to and advocate for clients; deliver superior, needs-based, service; be a caring and objective business partner; be recognized industry thoughtleaders; and constantly grow, improve, and innovate.
Longfellow gives meaning to its mission by actively developing thought leadership in the industry – its associates have been published, recognized, or quoted more than 90 times since 2007 – and by partnering with its clients. The latter is achieved by providing to the client a team of dedicated professionals focused on service, strategy, prudent process, compliance, education, and communication. Longfellow has shown since its inception consistent growth and low employee turnover. The majority of their people have been with the company for more than ten years.
The HPO Diagnosis at Longfellow
In the true spirit of an HPO, Longfellow agreed to partake in an HPO diagnosis. The HPO questionnaire was distributed among the principals and employees of the company and after processing the data, interviews were held with seven people during a week spent by the HPO Center at the premises of Longfellow in Boston. This week was concluded by a presentation of the HPO diagnosis results to representatives of Longfellow’s management. The average HPO score for Longfellow was 8.7, which was higher than the cut-off score of 8.5 and considerably higher than the average HPO score of the twenty US companies, meaning that Longfellow qualified as an HPO.
What has made Longfellow so great can be found in several areas. The first was Longfellow’s service model. For every client Longfellow assembled a team of highly skilled people that was focused on, dedicated to and empowered to deal with the client in such a way that the client would always be satisfied. The team had different skills so the people in the team were complementary, and there was always a principal in the team. The reason for the latter was elucidated by Joe Gray, managing principal of Longfellow: “Big companies get a partner in to sell but after that the client never sees the partner again, except for status meetings. At Longfellow this is not the case, the principal will always work side by side with our people and the client. This is good for the client and also for our people, who get mentoring on the job.”
The second thing that made Longfellow great was its business model. The company employed dedicated people for sales who didn’t have to worry about running the business. At the same time, the client teams did not have to sell and could therefore fully concentrate on delivering quality service to the client without having to worry about achieving more turnover at the client and billing for every activity performed at the client. In this way, Longfellow had experts in both areas: people who were very good at selling and who brought in new clients which always created new energy and new learning opportunities; and technicians who were always up-to-date with regulatory and functional developments and who were creative in their solutions for a particular situation of a specific client.
Thirdly, Longfellow had a strong culture of empathy, honor, dignity and respect for each other, the client, and the carriers from whom the company obtained insurances. Kevin Ryan, VP Employee Benefits and newly appointed principal, put this succinctly: “At Longfellow you don’t work for somebody but with somebody.” Empathy was seen at Longfellow as putting oneself in the other’s shoes so that the reaction on one’s own actions could be anticipated upon and be dealt with in the right way. Empathy also made it possible to gauge beforehand who should be informed about what issues as they could have an interest in it. This culture had specific effects on leaders at Longfellow, as Craig Cerretani explained: “A great leader gives tough love and at the same time puts his arms around his people. He gets his hands dirty by being part of the teams that do the daily work and therefore has no distance to his people. In this way, he can be passionate about clients and employees because he knows both intimately.”
Fourthly, Longfellow explicitly practiced an open book and open door policy. This created much openness in the company because achieved revenue was known to everybody in the organization, principals could easily be approached, there was an ability to discuss small mistakes before they got big, and during the weekly meetings anyone with a good idea could speak up and in fact was encouraged to do so, as an interviewee expressed: “If there is a better way to do it, we want to know about it.” Another thing the company did was that directly after each client meeting the team sat down to evaluate the meeting, gave direct feedback to team members, and discussed opportunities for improvement. On the matter of mistakes, Kevin Gazda, senior VP Employee Benefits Operations, said: “If you make a mistake at Longfellow, you’ll not lose your job. You don’t have to look over your shoulder all the time here, you can learn from your mistakes, you will not be punished. It has to be this way anyway because a lot here is learning on the job because it is a creative job. We have to be like this if we want to offer tailor-made solutions to our clients.”
About the Author: André de Waal, PhD. is author of the book What Makes a High Performance Organization: Five Validated Factors of Competitive Advantage that Apply Worldwide, published by Global Professional Publishing. André is Academic Director of the HPO (High Performance Organization) Center in the Netherlands, and Associate Professor HPO of the Maastricht School of Management, the Netherlands. Find out more and contact André at www.whatmakesahighperformanceorganization.com