Building a successful business isn’t just about profit- the Guardian 2019

Originally published on the Guardian in February 2019.

Businesses that embrace the value of their people will thrive in increasingly unpredictable times.

More than thirty percent of Australian start-ups fail in their first three years, while established businesses are challenged to adapt, according to the Department of Industry. Staying relevant is hard not only because it requires flexibility, but because the nature of relevancy is also constantly changing. MAI Group CEO Michael Mai says the most successful businesses will be those that put their people first, not their profits.

Australian workplaces have embraced positive change. According to the latest figures from Deloitte, Australian executives are better at collaborating than their foreign counterparts, while 39 percent of respondents said they offer ‘comprehensive wellbeing programs including mindfulness, life balance and financial fitness.’

This is what modern businesses look like. They reach beyond limited financial management and recognise all the moving parts of success. Entrepreneurial mindsets that embrace new models are reaping the rewards. Prioritising employee wellbeing, encouraging long-term loyalty in customers, staff, suppliers and investors, growing with the business instead of growing out of it and using technology for flexible workplaces all contribute to long-term viability.

Nurture a workforce that cares about your success

Michael Mai understands the impact employees can make when they feel valued. He uses the example of HWKR, a new restaurant incubator from ICD Property, a MAI Group company. Born from the imaginations of internal staff, it has been developed to align with businesses needs and boost the ICD brand, whilst championing the employees behind it.

US study found that 79 percent of employees who quit their jobs cite a ‘lack of appreciation’ as the key reason, and companies that reward and recognise employees have lower turnover.

Sustainability in modern business comes from working towards a shared goal. Employees who feel personal ownership of their employer’s performance are the driving force behind its success.

Gallup reports companies with engaged employees outperform others by 202 percent. Creating that culture of engagement means ensuring – through policy and action – employees:

  • Clearly understand what is expected of them and how their performance impacts the success of the business;

  • Feel valued as individuals through regular feedback and appropriate remuneration;

  • Are supported through personal growth and advancement;

  • Feel encouraged to contribute to a healthy team environment; and

  • Have access to networks for advice and assistance.

Michael Mai knows how to nurture an empowered workforce. As CEO of the MAI Group, he implements many programs and policies to encourage staff wellbeing and reward loyalty.

“In my businesses we build job descriptions based on personal passions and skill sets,” says Michael Mai Photograph: MAI Group

“In my businesses we build job descriptions based on personal passions and skill sets,” says Michael Mai Photograph: MAI Group

Flexibility is key to future success

Michael Mai attributes his success to a flexible mindset.

“My personal strategy is to create an agile business and embrace a willingness to test new business models,” he says.

A sustainable business looks outside of itself. It keeps a close eye on the market, constantly watching, listening and analysing. Rather than rejecting disruption out of hand, a future-proof business looks for ways to leverage or even cause disruption.

These flexible systems extend to all areas of people management. From global digital workplaces to on-site childcare, modern businesses are adapting to new ways of supporting their staff to be the best they can be.

This is a new era of disruption where traditional systems and processes are no longer very sustainable.
— Michael Mai

Your people’s needs are your business needs

The world’s largest and most successful companies have made employee satisfaction an official priority. Google supports professional and personal development, providing subsidies for anything from degree programs to guitar lessons. PwC has created employee-led diversity networks and offers 18 weeks of parental leave. Global consulting firm Accenture has committed to creating an equal workplace by 2025.

Australian workers want to feel necessary and encouraged. A Converge study found 29 percent feel a high amount of stress most of the time and 72 percent say they are searching for purpose and meaning through their work.

Prioritising the needs of your employees isn’t as simple as adding better options to the staff kitchen. Businesses should have a clear plan to support and nurture their employees – and be willing to revise it.

This passion to support and grow staff exists throughout the MAI Group’s policies and workplaces.

“In my businesses we build job descriptions based on personal passions and skill sets,” says Michael Mai.

To further encourage employee wellbeing, he has implemented stress-free days, late starts, earlier finishes and yoga classes. He has also taken proactive steps to empower women working in his companies, with women in management programs.

“Our HR team is called “The People Project”. Their focus is to make our staff’s dreams and goals come true.”

Mai says they achieve this by creating a trust system to build up confidence, redesigning job descriptions and assigning projects to align with employee passion and career mapping.

“My core business philosophy is that people are the most important asset for a company. We don’t want them to miss important milestones in life so we create a flexible and trusting system to support staff under stressful events.”

The opportunities to invigorate staff are practically limitless: better performance management, tailored rewards, opportunities for education and promotion, clear communication, constructive feedback, clarity around expectations, chances to expand or try new roles, and more.

Michael Mai with 2018 Masterchef Winner Sashi Cheliah at Melbourne’s HWKR Pop-Up. Photograph: MAI Group

Michael Mai with 2018 Masterchef Winner Sashi Cheliah at Melbourne’s HWKR Pop-Up. Photograph: MAI Group

Don’t let yourself get too comfortable

Future-proofing means knowing you must be able to bend and shift with the market and broader society. As staff satisfaction and positive culture evolves, companies must be willing to adapt.

For Mai, one tactic to ensure his staff’s future success is succession planning. “We are always focused on cultivating new leaders, especially for Managing Directors and CEOs,” he says.

For example, Michael Mai recently promoted Matthew Khoo as the new ICD Managing Director, while he will be stepping back from the day-to-day operation of that business.

But it doesn’t end there.

“I have asked Matt to focus on grooming the next generation of Managing Directors,” he says. “We are always looking to the future.”

For him, building a successful business means never believing you have finished scoping out what comes next. What happens after this? How can you thrive when it happens?

Successful businesses are agile. They are empowered by change. They are fearless.

Michael Mai’s tips for business success

1. Keep a close eye on the market
2. Write down what’s important
3. Embrace new models
4. Put people first
5. Find a good cultural fit
6. Look for aligned perspectives and skillset fit
7. Build family environment
8. Be ready for change