Olivier Duha: “Webhelp – a large company with a start-up mentality”


Translation based on an article by Yann Le Galès in Le Figaro
Published on 15/01/2018 at 06AM

Olivier Duha, co-founder and chairman of Webhelp’s board, explains how he instils a culture of risk taking and innovation among his teams.

You co-founded Webhelp with Frédéric Jousset in 2000. With more than 35,000 people in 28 countries and a 950-million euros turnover, your company has become the European leader in Customer Relationship Management The investment firm KKR owns 50% of the company shares.
Do the start-up founder and the leader of a 35,000-people group have the same job?

My job is no longer the job I did when I created the company.

Have you made progress in specific areas?
I constantly challenge myself and I am always trying to learn new things. However, one cannot be an expert in everything. I concentrate my energy on the areas that I am the most efficient at. I devote a lot of time to acquisitions and large transformational projects, while remaining very close to the operational side of the business.

Have you become a manager?

From a character and personality point of view, I am and I remain a ”starter-upper” at heart. I like action, taking risks, making decisions. I like innovation, boldness and agility. I avoid bureaucracy and slowness of any kind at all costs. I hate inaction or the status quo. I want Webhelp to continue to act like a start-up, even though it is one of the largest companies in Europe.

What kind of leader are you?

My number one priority is to know how to surround myself with and to recruit ”heroes” in all areas. I think the value of the men and women who make up a business is a business’ most valuable asset.

Why do you want to recruit ”heroes”?

Heroes are people who are able to develop organisations under any circumstances. They stay above the fray and  are virtuosi in their field. We must attract as many heroes as possible.


”A leader also uses his intuition to choose a candidate or take a strategic decision.”


Does the “messiah leader” exist?

I do not believe in the concept of the omnipotent leader. It may work for a while, but this is not how you build a company that succeeds for decades, a company that is ”built to last” as Jim Collins defined it. This is because our environments are so unpredictable. How can one man be able to cope with every situation?

Has your way of assessing people evolved? The way I analyse men and women has evolved. But one thing remains constant: I prioritise personality over expertise in my hiring process. It is very important that those who join Webhelp are in harmony with Webhelp’s culture.

What are the required skills to work at Webhelp?

We want our employees to be self-motivated, to behave like entrepreneurs, to be able to make decisions and take risks.

Do you believe in teamwork?

It is essential that our employees are willing to work as a team. In this respect, I am surprised to notice how rare the notion of “team” is in the world of politics.

Is a business leader only a rational human being?

A leader also uses his intuition to choose a candidate or take a strategic decision. But he must be fit and focused to use his intuition wisely. He must also be aware of his own preferences and prejudices and know how to use them.

Can you improve your intuition?

The more experience you have, the more refined it becomes.

Do you foster diversity?

Diversity is essential and beneficial. If you are not open to a diversity of profiles, you run the risk of missing out on wonderful opportunities. However, we must balance the need for diversity with the ability to foster a corporate culture to avoid unproductive conflicts.

Is it useful to listen to young managers?

Young managers must be listened to: they should also be able to make decisions. Our environments and technologies are evolving at an unprecedented rate. If you do not listen to young people, you run the risk of stagnating. To make the right decisions, one must have a fair and comprehensive assessment of the world around you.


”The liberated company is not a new concept. Only its marketing is.  By their very nature, start-ups work as liberated companies.”


What is your method to develop and transform your company?

You do so by keeping the agility and speed of a start-up, focused on a limited number of topics to avoid spreading resources too thinly, while remaining close to your customers and employees. A company’s corporate culture

is an incredible weapon. Webhelp has a culture of intelligent, motivated entrepreneurs who are firmly action-oriented. We must avoid bureaucracy and fight against the complexity that that often accompanies growth. Keeping our entrepreneurial spirit is crucial. We are always seeking to create the conditions to allow Webhelp to operated as the largest European start-up.

Do you believe in the liberated company?

The ”liberated company” is not a new concept. Only its marketing is.  By their very nature, start-ups work as liberated companies. At Webhelp, we are very much in favour of this way of doing things.

We brought in Isaac Getz, the author of “Freedom Inc.” and we have initiated a program we call ”Founder’s Mentality”. This program aims to spread a founder’s mentality throughout our business so that our teams dare to innovate and behave as an ”intrapreneur”. Webhelp’s strength is our state of mind and our “day 1” culture. We want to harness the creative abilities of our 35,000 Webhelp employees.

How to maintain a founder’s mentality?

A few months ago, we organised a seminar of 80 senior managers based on  the theme of the founder’s mentality. We have launched training programs that teach these managers how to spread these start-up-style managerial behaviours. We avoid meetings with 20 people or meetings that last three hours. We fight the absence of decision. We immediately resolve conflicts when they arise. We want to keep the spirit of pioneers and innovators.

How many layers in the organisation from bottom to top?


Should organisations be flattened? Should responsibilities be decentralized?

In the business of customer relationship management, it is essential. We have many customers. The markets are different. Expectations are diverse. You have to stick to clients’ and customers’ needs very closely. To achieve this, we must give autonomy of action and decision. The ”one size fits all” approach does not work. It is quite the opposite. You find balance in the concept of ”Glocal, beglobal, local act”.


”Middle management is key. It is a two-way transmission belt.”


Is middle-management useful?

These managers are key. They act as a two-way transmission belt. On the one hand, they are the link between top management and all employees. On the other hand, they make sure that the grass roots information is brought to the attention of the senior management. This double responsibility is huge.

Should innovation be decided at the headquarters level?

Innovation organised centrally and supervised by a headquarters-based Innovation Director does not work. Innovation must be local. A culture of innovation should be created across the entire business.

Do you have examples of large companies that remain start-ups?

Amazon has managed to remain that way. It is the biggest start-up in the world. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, sent a letter to his employees and shareholders in which he explains why their practices must remain those of day 1.

Can you define a strategy for the next 5 years?

After WWII, companies have been building strategies on very long periods of time. Today, the environment is changing so quickly that it is difficult to define a strategy for 5 to 10 years. At Webhelp, we are talking about a very long-term vision punctuated by short strategic initiatives.

Is time  running faster since you created Webhelp in 2000?

Yes indeed. Companies from the sharing economy, like Uber and Airbnb, have transformed their industries over a very short period of time. Innovations in artificial intelligence are going to entirely change our industry in the coming years.

 What is the best asset against disruptive innovations?

The only way to guard against disruptive innovation is to build teams of talented men and women. They are the best assets to cope with these situations and reinvent our business.

Do you use the same management methods in all countries?

Succeeding in Europe is a challenge because every new region you develop into is a new ”business case”. You do not run a British team like a Greek or a Dutch one. You have to adapt your management style to cultural specificities.


”It is better to own 10% of a company that is worth money than to own the majority of shares of a company that cannot develop.”


How do you work with the investment fund KKR, your shareholder which owns 50% of Webhelp’s capital?

Our shareholders are extremely responsive when we solicit them. They are deeply involved in all the topics on which we need them. In the absence of a request from the management, they let us do our job. We involve them to the maximum in our strategic decisions. And we ensure maximum transparency with them. Our shareholders are both financial and operational partners.

How have your relations evolved with Frédéric Jousset, with whom you co-founded the company?

There are essential elements in our relationship that remain the same: trust, attentiveness, willingness to serve the company, respect, freedom. From time to time we have differences of perspective but it is often temporary and it is never on fundamental topics. We are fortunate enough to share the same ”business sense”. This association is a blessing and an additional source of motivation. We have never experienced the “the entrepreneur’s loneliness”.

Today, some start-ups raise very large amounts of money. Is easy money a danger?

In the 2000s, the founder of a French start-up who had just achieved a brilliant IPO, explained to his employees that the company had become too rich to succeed.

I understand his remark because too much comfort kills the pioneering spirit, the innovative mentality and the resourcefulness that are the strengths of a young company. Knowing that the company can disappear motivates the teams.

Frédéric Jousset and you have never been the majority shareholders of Webhelp. Is it a choice?

We have been minority shareholders since the beginning when we raised 5 million euros. We were further diluted in a second capital increase. But this money has allowed us to realise our ambitions. It is better to own 10% of a company that is worth money than to own the majority of shares of a company that cannot develop. I am saddened that many young entrepreneurs do not make significant increases in capital for fear of being diluted and becoming minority shareholders.

Why do young entrepreneurs sell their business quickly?

They have a short-term vision. They also have a sort of fear of growing their company internationally. This is a shame.

Are investors primarily responsible for this situation?

No, because it is hard to force the founder of a service company to sell if he does not do not want to do so.

Do all employees adapt to change?

The answer is positive for a very large majority of them. But it is a responsibility shared between the company and the employees. The management must create the conditions for support and professional training. Employees must challenge themselves and leave their comfort zone to develop; the company must give them the means to do so.


”A leader must do everything he did before but faster. The 2018 leader is also overwhelmed with information.”

How to maintain employee’s trust?

You do so by mapping out a direction, by communicating a clear vision, and by giving meaning to your actions. You must also be transparent, honest and you must invest heavily in internal communication.

Achieving the goals you set is also essential to establish a relationship of trust in the long run. This is true not only for gaining employees’ trust, but also that of shareholders, customers and banks. We must achieve the promised results; we must say what we do and do what we say.

What is the job of a leader?

A leader must demonstrate great versatility. He must be a visionary, he must inspire and move through his leadership. He must adapt and move with the times. He must dedicate most of his time to listening to his customers and his employees. He must overflow with energy; he must work a lot and stay focused on the execution. Leading is planning, inspiring and engaging into action.

What does it mean to be a leader in 2018?

What has changed is the sense of time. Everything is going much faster. The life cycle of products and services has shortened. A leader must do everything he did before but faster. The leader in 2018 is also overwhelmed with information. He must be able to analyse large amounts of data. In the 20th century, knowledge in the broad sense was an asset for a leader. Today and since the 2000s, knowledge is available and accessible to all, but you need to know how to analyse it. What matters now is our computing speed, our processor, not the size of our hard disk and the number of megabytes saved.

Is it more difficult to lead in 2018 than in 2005?

The speed of execution is key. In the old days, the big ones “ate” the little ones. Now, the fast ones are “eating” the slow ones. It is undeniably an additional factor of complexity. And it is certainly not a phenomenon that will fade away. Quite the opposite.

Does technology facilitate decision-making?

New technologies and connectivity make some tasks easier. The drawback is that a leader never unplugs. Spending a day without being in contact with his company is almost impossible. It is also a new phenomenon and a very destabilising one. I perceive it more as an element of complexity in trying to maintain one’s work life balance. The millennials’ rejection of a 100% career-focused life and the strive for balance and harmony also comes from this difficulty to disconnect from one’s professional environment.

How do you work with your executive committee?

Our executive committee is involved in the vision, the long-term strategy and all cross-company topics. Local topics are the domain of the local management. The executive committee is a brainstorming, sharing and decision-making body. We have a monthly call and a face-to-face meeting every quarter.


”We want Webhelp to still exist in 2050 and to have the ability to show resilience in times of crisis. ”


What is your ambition?

Frédéric Jousset and I want to create a company that will last for a very long period of time. We want Webhelp to still exist in 2050 and to have the ability to show resilience in times of crisis. It is the best way to make the right decisions.

Why do you want Webhelp to last?

It’s a question of consideration and responsibility. It is very selfish to set the duration of the life of a business on the entrepreneur’s time horizon. Webhelp is what it is thanks to the work of tens of thousands of people.

Do you admire family-owned capitalism?

I find that the type of family-owned capitalism championed by the Michelin and Mulliez families is admirable as it stands the test of time.

But you have developed Webhelp through investment funds.

It is not incompatible. Our investors adapt to our industrial project. We can build a very long-term industrial project while changing shareholders several times.

Do companies have a societal role?

Companies have only one role and it is societal. The rest is secondary. Companies are places for social enrichment; places for intellectual challenge and human relationships. A company is meant to create a better world. Progress and creation are born within companies. Making money and creating jobs are just consequences of a successful entrepreneurial adventure. These things are not the aim. If a company innovates, ensures its growth, its solidity and its durability, the employees will make money and jobs will be created.

Have entrepreneurs and politicians broken up? 

I do not believe so. Quite the opposite actually. States get rich and develop thanks to the competitiveness of their national companies. States do not create wealth. Through taxes, they dispose of some of the wealth created by the companies, just like citizens get purchasing power thanks to the jobs created by companies. There are no employees without employers. There are exceptional situations of self-sufficient countries thanks to the richness of their land, but this is not the standard and it does not last forever.

What is the main difference between an entrepreneur and a politician?

A business executive does not always understand the drive for power, the greediness and the lack of loyalty of the politician. An entrepreneur needs to launch concrete actions and see quick and tangible results.


”One cannot make up values