Michel Landel has seen Sodexo grow to one of the world’s largest employers since he became CEO in 2005, with 425,000 employees. Under his watch, the French giant expanded from its catering origins into a whole range of food and facilities services, including its popular childcare vouchers and other benefits. The mission, he says, is providing ‘quality of life’.
MT caught up with Landel ahead of Sodexo’s major Quality of Life conference, which takes place in London on October 16-17, as he prepares to step down from the business after more than 30 years.
MT: Why is quality of life becoming more important on the boardroom agenda?
Landel: Employees are seeking engaged and responsible companies that respect work life balance. We’re working with many companies seeking to develop quality of life for their employees, such as Santander and Zurich Insurance. Many businesses have recognised that in order attract and retain talent they must do more for their employees; this is where quality of life plays a part.
At our second Quality of Life conference in London we want to gather people from media, business, science and the educational world, to see how we can join forces to really work at this, because the world is seeking it. We all want a more balanced world with more equity, where people can have a better life.
MT: How do you define quality of life, in a workplace sense?
Landel: Within this notion of quality of life, we’ve defined six dimensions where our services can really have an impact: physical environment, health and wellbeing, social interactions, recognition, ease and efficiency, and personal growth.
Health and wellbeing is a really big trend today, because when you have people in good health it costs employers much less and people are happier.
MT: Doesn’t employee quality of life occasionally clash with customer expectations? For instance, when a customer sends an employee an out-of-hours email, should they reply?
Landel: Today, everyone wants information at anytime, anywhere. But work-life balance is one of employees’ priorities, and companies need to find solutions to make sure we walk the talk. We have service centres in different parts of the world, so we can support anyone from anywhere in the world. It’s really when you engage in dialogue with your people that you find the best solutions.
MT: Do you test your programmes on your own workforce first?
Landel: We believe that if our objective is to improve quality of life for clients and customers, we have to do it first of all for our own people. We cannot do what we want if we haven’t got engaged people, so of course we’re trying to test some of our programmes on our employees. In our business, the main things that contribute to their quality of life are career opportunities, job security, training and development, the relationship with their peers and boss, and programmes that support them and their families in their daily life. We are a social elevator - we create jobs, we train our people and we provide them with careers within the organisation. It’s one of our management principles to promote from within.
MT: What’s the role of organisational culture in quality of life?
Landel: I don’t think you can build a successful, sustainable company without a very strong culture. If you look at all the big companies that have survived for many decades, they have a purpose which goes beyond the products or services they provide. You have to give people a sense of purpose to what they do.
At Sodexo, our purpose is to provide moments of quality of life in our everyday services – for mothers in hospitals giving birth to their babies, to someone at the end of their life in a nursing home. The other dimension is to have an impact socially, economically and environmentally in the areas where we do business.
For example, whenever we make an acquisition, the first thing we look at is if the company shares the same values we do – integrity, sense of progress, teamwork, respecting others, respecting differences. Will we be able to work together beyond the fact that we have to perform for shareholders?
MT: Can you impose the culture you want from the top down, in an organisation so large? For instance, can you force change on gender equality?
Landel: People are people, and when you hire someone, the tendency is to hire someone like you so if you do not ‘force’ things, progress will be very slow. When I say force, I mean set objectives. What gets measured gets done.
We live in a man’s world – the world today has been fashioned by men, but the reality is that there are more women, 60% of college graduates are women, women make 70% of the purchasing decisions, so women represent an amazing reservoir of talent that we can’t ignore – it’s simply a business case.
MT: You’re stepping down after 12 years as Sodexo’s CEO, but not before sharing the top job with your successor Denis Machuel as co-CEO for a few months. What was behind that decision?
Landel:. Denis has been with the company for ten years and so knows the business very well, but it’s important that we work together for a while so he can take his job step-by-step. For me, it’s the opportunity to reflect and say goodbye. During my career I did good things but I also made mistakes, and progress comes from learning from them.
Michel Landel will open Sodexo’s Quality of Life conference in London on October 16. The event will feature keynotes, panels and exhibitions exploring how changes in technology, society and the way we work will affect quality of life. For more information visit www.qualityoflifeconference.com.