Jeff Joerres has identified a new era that will put unprecedented value on talent as the main driver of business success, forcing governments and business leaders to re-examine how they leverage human potential in an increasingly volatile world. 

At a time when the average tenure of a public company CEO is typically measured in months rather than decades, you have to wonder how it could be that the current CEO of ManpowerGroup was only the 3rd CEO in 65 years. Joerres has a playful, fun attitude about him, an unexpected characteristic in someone who deals in global workforce solutions and the accompanying frustration that must exist in the currently volatile labor markets.

He leads a $21 billion Fortune 500 company that has been around since 1948 and which uses words such as “unleashing human potential” and he eschews the way some competitors  refer to people in need of jobs as “inventory”. In 2012 ManpowerGroup connected 3.4 million people to opportunities and purpose, helping more than 400,000 companies meet their business objectives. They have grown from a single office in Milwaukee to 3,500 offices in 80 countries, and this global perspective has recently had Joerres declare a new era for humanity – The Human Age.

“Previous eras were defined first by the raw materials that transformed them: stone, iron and bronze,” says Joerres. “Then they were characterized by the domains people conquered with ever-improving technology: industry, space and information. Now, it will be human potential itself that will be the catalyst for change and the global driving force economically, politically and socially.”

This long-term, big picture view of business seems a good fit with ManpowerGroup, that can boast a grand total of three CEO’s in its history; in a time when the lifespan of a typical CEO is measured in months rather than decades. A clue to the current success of Joerres is that he’s big on optimizing human potential, and believes that it will be the single most important determinant of future business success and growth in the future. Yet, how does a company trade in human capital on such a large scale, and still nurture individual aspirations?

“Everybody brings their personal backgrounds into a job,” explains Joerres. This can be sanitized to a degree, based on what a company allows or what’s possible under different corporate circumstances.” A clue to the empathy and sense of service to others, that Joerres has instilled at ManpowerGroup, might be found in his own background.

Raised in a classic working class family, his father worked three jobs and his mother worked two. Yet his father still found time to paint the local convent on the weekends and take food to people who couldn’t get out, creating a clear role model for his son in later life. Back then you’d call this volunteer work, today people have created whole businesses around it. Joerres was the first in his family to ever enroll in a university.

It was pretty clear from the start that it was going to be tough going. Without any close relationship with his peers, Joerres felt lost and made some mistakes. This led to him groping his way through a series of institutions, continually seeking one in which he felt right. One morning, his dorm roommate at the time, suggested that he take on part-time work at IBM installing typewriters. Unknown to Joerres, this was to become the start of his career. The next few months were filled with instructing secretaries (as they were called then) on how to use one-line memory, the backspace key and correction tape when making an error.

This developed into coaching office workers on display writers, the original word processors, and by the time Joerres graduated, IBM had offered him a job. This break gave him the ability to get up to speed quickly in business, but most significantly, IBM gave him an account to manage in 1982: ManpowerGroup. As the display writer started fading and the PC emerged, that offered early document management such as WordPerfect and other revolutionary software, ManpowerGroup came up with a concept that Joerres helped refine. The company would train secretaries to use the new computer software, installed in each of their offices around the world, in weekly cycles, while filling their positions with temporary help for that week. Your job was covered and you learned new skills, a win-win situation that added to your value in the marketplace.

“It gave me a real sense of how important ongoing training is in a company, and how important learning is,” recalls Joerres.  “While I sold an awful lot of hardware, went to fun places to attend IBM award ceremonies, the real impact for me was how much this new approach meant to so many people. I saw first-hand how employees were shown how to survive the barrage of new technology of the time, as well as how a company has a duty of keeping people trained and employed.”

Joerres recognized the value of staying close to ManpowerGroup and when he left IBM for his own start-up a few years later, he asked the CEO of the time, Mitchell Fromstein, to sit on his board, to which Fromstein agreed. Two years later, in 1993, he approached Fromstein for a position at ManpowerGroup that saw him run sales and marketing and then become senior vice president of European Operations. Finally, in 1999, Joerres was named CEO of ManpowerGroup, the same company that had struck such a deep chord with him as a young, part-time worker at university. Almost 15 years later Joerres still marvels at company co-founder Elmer Winter, who remained at the ManpowerGroup head office up until his death at age 97.

Fromstein, too, passed away in early November this year, having been CEO from 1976 to 1999. “I recall discussing with Winter why he founded the company in 1948 and we’d talk about our long history of showing people that work is honorable, and about the big role we’ve played in bringing honor to people’s lives,” says Joerres. This honor has grown recently to include presentations on employment by Joerres at The World Economic Forum and the G20 Leaders’ Summit. “Our ability to train, place and put people in the right jobs, allowing them to take a paycheck home, put it on the table in front of their family and say, ‘We can eat today’ is still a big part of our business.”

The company also has $250 dollar an hour software developers who are certainly not concerned about having enough to eat for the day – more like “hey, we can buy a new vacation home today” – but the idea of finding people honorable work still applies. “We’re a New York Exchange stock company, and of course we need to make money,” says Joerres. “We make money to create flexibility for ourselves, but we don’t do that at the expense of our mission.”

The mission can sometimes create contention within the company, as demonstrated by some employees who will interview a candidate for two hours, knowing full well that there is no job for them. The sense of duty, responsibility and honor and that they must find someone a job runs deep, and many employees continually fight an internal battle between hope, and the reality of a situation.

“We don’t want to turn things into a conveyor belt,” notes Joerres. “We don’t’ have to engage people at the expense of who they are. We coach people, we train people, and we bring them into a better life. In a world where unemployment and youth unemployment are at the forefront of many economies, our mission has served us well. When Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) came into fashion, we didn’t know what it was, but we were already doing it. At the time, we just called it ‘that’s what we do.’ When we finally wrote our first CSR report, we were pretty proud of ourselves,” beams Joerres.

After the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, Joerres took an entirely different approach to aiding the affected countries. Rather than rush in as a first reliever, he looked at his company’s strengths, and beyond the disaster, to future needs.

“We weren’t going to try and be first on the scene, because that’s not what we do. We didn’t have much money to donate as we’re thin on margins, and that’s also not us. We weren’t simply going to give a million dollars to Southern India and say our obligation is done,” says Joerres. Joerres realized that after the tsunami there was going to be a great need for skills, and jobs. This was ManpowerGroup’s strength and the management team rolled up their sleeves and spent the next five months developing an action plan.

The result was the establishment of two schools in the Indian coastal state of Tamil Nadu, that is still the most productive school in the state. The first women masons have come from the school and the town has gone from a fishing community to a commercial one. “It’s more about brains than brawn.” Explains Joerres. “It’s about building muscle in communities. We’ve done this in the U.S. through our Techreach program, we have a disabled program, and we’ve taken women out of prostitution in Mexico and into secretarial work. Some of these initiatives come with hazards, but our staff want to do it.

I sometimes have to remind people that we’re not an NGO, but a mission-based company that can still make a lot of money.” 

As many executives know, many companies can talk a good story at a corporate level, but their compensation structure still leaves something to be desired. While company policy asks them to act in a certain way, their compensation is telling them to behave differently. Joerres has implemented the Power Award at ManpowerGroup, the highest award at the company, which cannot be won by just hitting the numbers.

A combination of sustainability, community and numbers will help you on your way to this award, which is clearly stated in writing in company policy documents. 10-20% of all bonus compensation is discretionary based on community building success. That’s putting your money where your mouth is! One of the most common challenges for a founder is not being able to let go to allow a successor to step in. Joerres has company co-founder Winter to thank for guidance on this.

“He never spoke about the business, about our margins or why we opened an office in Abu Dhabi, for instance. All he cared about was trying to find people jobs. While he never left the office until the day he died, he stayed out of the business. When he spoke at an event he would always talk about why he founded the business, never about our gross profit. When I took over from Mitchell Fromstein, who’d been here for over 20 years, all we ever talked was the health and soul of the company, not how I’m handling squeezed margins,” says Joerres.

Being only the third CEO of ManpowerGroup in 65 years has allowed Joerres a rare opportunity to make wise decisions based on the long term and to realize his career wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan. Figuring out how to jack up the stock valuation, make millions and cash out with an early exit is not in his game plan.

“I’m not an imperial leader and being a custodian of the brand and of the company DNA makes you think differently about the moves you’re going to make,” says Joerres. When the economic meltdown of 2008 hit, Joerres was moved when some staff offered to work for free, simply to keep the team intact.

“I read those emails and realized that I had a different responsibility, other than simply cutting costs. I had a trust that had been built up with people that you couldn’t just axe.

So I re-enforced their behavior, and they re-enforced my behavior. We’ve now developed a symbiotic relationship between our 3,000 offices in 80 countries.” A new term that Joerres has recently coined is “talent sustainability.” His participation in global conferences around the theme of youth unemployment has allowed him to see the interdependency of the talent pipeline between communities, businesses and governments.

“The way we look at talent sustainability is that if it’s good for both ourselves and the community, then it’s got to be really good, so we’ll step it up. We’ve become thought leaders and known for building and sustaining talent, which means, of course, that we can keep the conversation going around ourselves, and attract new business opportunities.” Providing free online training for around 10 million people a year also helps to keep the conversation going around ManpowerGroup.

A training and development portal on their website allows people to submit a resume and begin training. You might find yourself working with an NGO, such as the school in Tamil Nadu, or simply learning another language. Joerres’s view is that they’re building a workforce, with candidates now being able to charge $2 an hour more for the additional skills they’ve learned.

They might get $1.90 from it and ManpowerGroup might get 10c from this deal, but multiply that by 3.4 million new employees and the numbers start stacking up. “If you hold dear something that is important and needs to grow, mature and be cultivated, you automatically have a long term view,” says Joerres.

“If you have a vision or mission statement written by some Harvard Graduate, and the rest is all about the numbers, you have a problem.

I’ve never mentioned the stock price of ManpowerGroup in the 15 years of delivering an employee message. I talk about earnings, performance and good performance,” explains Joerres. All this is helping Joerres attract and retain the best talent. Displaying what they stand for gives potential employees a sense of security and expectancy of how well they’ll fit into company culture.

The current trend of young people seeking socially minded employers with a clear future vision has also played into ManpowerGroup’s favor. At no point are they confused about what to do with savvy Millennials, wanting to help save the planet.

“We don’t have to make up anything to appear that we have a social conscience, because the core of our business is already that,” says Joerres. “Even if you computerize everything, it’s still going to be about ‘humanly possible,’ which also happens to be our tag line. It’s still going to be about the Human Age, about putting people to work – just different kinds of work.”