Published in Authority Magazine by Jerome Knyszewski, May 19, 2021
What separates a great company from a good company is a purpose or mission beyond the desire to increase their bottom line.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Hammell.
Rick Hammell is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Elements Global Services. He has extensive experience in HR having served as a Director of Human Resources and Chief Operating Officer before launching his own business. Under his leadership, Elements Global Services has pioneered a new business model for the global employment industry and has become one of the fastest growing, risk diverse and high profit Employer of Record in the sector. Rick is shepherding Elements Global Services through its transition from start up to scale up by further diversifying the company into innovative and custom-built HR technology platforms and e-commerce products. Rick has a degree in Business Administration with a focus on HR and holds the highly regarded SPHR certification. He is an active participant in several HR organizations including the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), Certification Institute & NAPEO.
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I decided to pursue HR early on in my career, when I experienced a situation where my employer treated me unfairly and I realized I wanted to help people avoid my experience. A few years later, I decided I wanted to start my own business. My moment of realization happened while I was working at a firm, as the Head of HR under a billion-dollar government contract in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Japan. At the time we didn’t have our own entities and used what was then called a Global PEO provider to support our employees in country. Unfortunately, that provider had an issue with payroll that almost lost us our contracts. After that incident we ended the contract with the provider and set up our own entities. Soon after, a number of other contractors came to us and asked if they could use our entities as the employer of record, because they were still having payroll problems with that same provider. That’s when the light bulb turned on and I realized that this could be a business of its own.
I had knowledge of the industry from the perspectives of both the service provider and the client. I wanted to leverage that experience to develop a concept that would provide clients with the best HR services and support possible, while simplifying their ability to expand globally. So, in 2015 I took the plunge and founded Elements Global Services.
Elements Global Services was built, from day one, on the Direct Employer of Record (EOR) model — a term I coined that defines our service. We empower companies to expand and hire internationally, by serving as their legal employer. Our clients’ needs have been our priority since day one; which meant forgoing a reliance on inefficient third parties to provide services, as well as becoming the first to offer global benefits on a technology platform. At the time, this was a novel concept. Many people and competitors discounted the EOR model, as well as my business. Fast forward six years, we are seeing a lot of other providers implementing the Direct EOR I developed.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The hardest point in my career was becoming comfortable publicly acknowledging my position as CEO and leader of my company. As a young black gay man, I didn’t fit the mold of a “typical” CEO; at one point, I even felt that being the face of the company would be detrimental to business. One day, however, I asked myself if I would really want to work with someone who didn’t want to do business with the company solely based on these reasons. The answer was a resounding “No.” I came to realize that I was letting my insecurities get the better of me. That moment marked the beginning of my journey in learning how to respect myself, express confidence and not fear rejection.
Learning to become a leader at such a young age was challenging. In some of my previous positions, I didn’t understand the choices my managers made, but now, as a CEO, I have a different perspective. I’ve grown to understand and respect some of the decisions they made. The more experience I gain in running an organization, the more I value myself and the more I feel others respect me. The drive to continually learn and develop as the leader of Elements Global Services is what motivates me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Although this might seem obvious, I can’t emphasize it enough: don’t hire family members or friends. No matter how amazing an individual might be, business and personal are best kept separate.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
True to my profession as an HR leader, I have to say my people are what makes my company stand out. The right team will elevate a business to the next level.
That said, organizations are constantly growing and changing, and their staff should reflect that. While someone might be a perfect fit for the company one day, they might not be the next.
I like to look at an organization like a tree. The leaves are the employees that come and go with the seasons. The branches are the people who stick through it, but once you put a bit of pressure on them, they may break off. The roots are the people you don’t always see but are providing the tree — or business, in this case — with what it needs to grow and prosper and will be there until the very end. These three types of people are essential in every functional, healthy and developing organization.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
Follow your gut. Some of the best decisions I’ve ever made were done when I let my instincts guide me. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that many of those decisions were successful because I had the right leadership team beside me; it’s equally important to listen to your team and be open to their perspectives.
When you lead a company, it is easy to get pulled in different directions and get burned out. Part of learning to respect myself throughout my career was to limit people pulling me in too many directions. Setting limits helps me focus my energy on the bigger picture and ultimately benefits both my company and my wellbeing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My family has been an invaluable support system and a strong foundation for me throughout my life and career. In addition to my aunt and cousin, I feel particularly grateful for my grandmother’s guidance. She grew up in Georgia during the Jim Crow era and witnessed so many instances of horrific racism throughout her lifetime, from the KKK killing family members to watching her father’s business being burned down. Whenever I feel defeated, I always remember what she told me: “If you are ever wondering if you are good enough, you have to remember where you came from. Not every slave made it across the ocean: only the best of the best and the strongest of the strongest. Not every person survived slavery: only the best of the best and the strongest of the strongest. Not every person made it through the Jim Crow south: only the best of the best and the strongest of the strong. So, if you ever doubt yourself, remember where you came from: the best of the best and the strongest of the strongest, and you can achieve anything because you are the best of the best and the strongest of the strongest.”
My grandmother’s advice helped me get to where I am now and continues to propel me through many challenging times.
More recently, my CFO has been an incredible ally; many of the incredible things that happened in the past year would not have been possible without him.
How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Good companies are successful, agile and have the ability to easily transform. Great companies are those that don’t limit their definition of success to making money; rather, they strive to give back to the community by improving local economies and creating jobs. What separates a great company from a good company is a purpose or mission beyond the desire to increase their bottom line.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
To take a company from good to great, a leader must:
- Be prepared for pain; the road to greatness is paved with mistakes, sleepless nights and endless self-doubt.
- Listen to their team; if you’ve surrounded yourself with the right people, they’ll tell you what you need to hear — even if, sometimes, you don’t want to hear it.
- Have a plan; if there’s one thing I’ve learned on my journey, it’s that luck truly favors the prepared.
- Be agile; the world and the marketplace are constantly changing, and so must your company.
- Be humble; it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to lead a company and a team of people, so make the best of it.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Businesses do not operate in vacuums — they are ultimately the product of the communities in which they operate and where their employees live. By investing in communities and neighborhoods, you are investing in a better talent pool and quality of life for your current employees and their families. For example, I hope to start a non-profit that supports young people of color whose education has been affected by racial disparity. I want to invest in underserved communities so younger generations won’t grow up feeling how I did — unfit for positions of leadership. I believe purpose-driven businesses exert a positive social impact on younger generations to learn and achieve, and we will see these positive results in our organizations and communities.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
If your organizational growth has plateaued, reinvent yourself. The easiest way to do that is to go to your customers. What do they want? What are they asking for? I like to use Uber as an example. Less than 10 years ago, we were stuck with a subpar taxi experience: dirty cars, rude drivers, long waits. It was overall a horrible service, but the industry wasn’t interested in upholding themselves to higher standards. Then Uber arrived and reinvented the transportation industry by focusing on the customer’s needs and simplifying the experience.
I’ve taken that example to heart at Elements Global Services, and it’s helped us introduce some incredible innovations in the past 18 months. For instance, we realized that some of our potential customers wanted to expand into new markets but didn’t want to commit to an EOR or PEO service and didn’t know how to compliantly set up shop in new countries because of the various legal, tax and labor laws. With that information from our customers, we developed and launched Expandopedia, a tech platform that collects the HR, tax and regulatory compliance information needed to hire globally, all in one place. Customers get access to ready-to-use employment contracts and HR templates, as well as one-on-one sessions with experts who can help guide them through the process. It’s been incredibly well-received and is a great example of growing by listening to your customers’ needs.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
My strategy for success during economic turmoil is to plan for the worst-case scenario. I am a naturally proactive person and always have a plan ready to go. In addition to planning, it is important to have continuity and a deep understanding of your business structure, which includes diversifying your portfolio and not relying on one large client.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
A commonly underestimated aspect of running a business is the cost. There are always hidden costs. For example, when new technology is released at a particular price, companies should consider the additional cost it will take to implement it and train people to use it. This is not to say companies shouldn’t buy new technology or try innovative ways to transform their business, but it pays to be more thoughtful about the long-term impact a decision can have on productivity, which in turn will affect your budget.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
The best strategy to increase conversion rates is to partner with your client to solve a problem and deliver on the solution. Many organizations go with the ‘sales-y’ marketing route, which results in the overselling of their services and the inability to then meet client expectations. At Elements Global Services, we find one of the best ways to increase conversion rates is to be realistic about our product and provide a quality solution to our client’s needs. That’s what we’ve done with ApprovPay, a proprietary digital platform that we built from scratch. It was originally conceived and promoted as an easy-to-use global HCM & payroll delivery system focused on transparency and ensuring compliance. Our customers loved it, but upon listening to their feedback, we’ve learned that they want more. Therefore, we’re building the platform out to be a full-fledged human capital management where companies can manage payroll processing, benefits administration, expense reporting, and employee onboarding and offboarding, all through one portal.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
The best method for creating a trusted brand can be boiled down to two words: service and delivery. Provide the service that was promised to the highest standard — that’s the ethos upon which I started Elements Global Services and it’s a mantra that guides every employee at the company.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Listen to customers, build rapport and build a solution that fits your customer’s needs. Of course, it’s important to build a good relationship with your client, but if your organization follows through on what was promised, the customer will undoubtedly have a good experience. Quality and meeting the expected service standards go a long way to creating a Wow! experience.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
While some companies may feel that the social media world poses a reputational risk to their organization, I am firm believer in how crucial social media is for my company’s business model in terms of global connection.
In addition to breaking down the barriers between business and clients or consumers, social media is a place for interconnectivity. When our clients or potential clients visit our digital channels, they automatically understand what it would be like to work with us. Our social channels not only break down our services and highlight the benefits we provide for companies that are expanding globally, but they also convey our “personality” and core organizational beliefs. We want the Elements Global Services social media channels to foster conversation and serve as a place of connection for individuals across the globe.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake an organization can make is growing too fast, without a vision. I have seen this happen when companies oversell, gain too many clients and then are unable to service those clients because they do not have a goal or a vision, and are only thinking about the bottom line
I’ve constantly had to remind myself of the value in slowly working through growing pains. If, three years ago, Elements Global Services were growing at the rate we are now, we would have undoubtedly failed. It’s important to recognize and adjust the speed of growth to the capacity of your company. To avoid growing too quickly, you must understand the foundational process of your business — its abilities and service capacity.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would start a movement to remove the labels that are forced on us. We are all human beings. Religious, race, and sexual orientation labels create division. There would be more harmony in the world if we collaborated with the common goal of forming a union. The constitution of the United States declares unequivocally that we are all “created equal;” I believe that removing labels would truly help bring that statement to life!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
—Published in Authority Magazine by Jerome Knyszewski, May 19, 2021