Family-Like Teams Build Extraordinary Businesses
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For a business, striving to beat growth expectations and building a family-like company culture can seem to be mutually exclusive - in fact, a poll recently conducted by recruitment website Bayt.com, stating that nearly 100% of MENA-based respondents planned to look for a new job in 2017, reveals that maintaining a close-knit, loyalty-based workplace culture is a challenge for employers. However, this year’s list of Top Companies to Work For in the UAE by global consultancy Great Place to Work shows that 24 of the country’s enterprises have managed to strike a balance between implementing often aggressive growth strategies and nurturing human resources. The annual benchmarking study assesses the level of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie within an organization, and forms part of the world’s largest employee survey. Two-thirds of a company’s score is based on the confidential feedback of their employees, while the remaining score is attained from an audit of management and HR practices.
Topping this year’s list are two corporate giants DHL, the global logistics company praised for its close monitoring of the implementation of best employment experience policies, and Omnicom Media Group, commended for focusing on the continuous development and wellbeing of its staff. Among the top five are two homegrown UAE brands, namely Splash Fashion and THE One Total Home Experience- proving that entrepreneurs often find different ways to keep their staff eager to work. “SMEs have less financial means to develop great practices, but sometimes an initiative with zero cost can make the highest impact,” says Maha Zaatari, Managing Director of Great Place to Work in the UAE. “I usually advise my clients that having a fancy office is amazing, but it is just a cherry on top. It is all about the relationships that we develop at work. What they need to do is to make sure to spend time with their staff and to make sure that they are being very honest and transparent in their communication. It is also about starting right, making sure that they hire the right people with the right values. The reason is that all these companies have great values inscribed on their walls and published on their websites, but one of the biggest challenges is that they don’t live by the values they promote. So, small companies should make sure that they stand for and foster the values they set at the beginning.”
For Swedish entrepreneur Thomas Lundgren, founder of THE One Total Home Experience, which has grown from its first shop in Abu Dhabi, opened in 1996, into a chain of 31 stores in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE, it has always been about “building something bigger,” both internally and externally. With no college degrees adorning his walls, Lundgren has built THE One Total Home Experience and its sister brands FUSION by THE One, THE One Junior, and THE One Basics, to collectively employ over 650 people. His secret is in responding to his employees’ desire for meaning. “From day one, we have built a culture of fairness and empathy,” he says. “It’s about creating a better life for our people and the community around us. We don’t believe the world needs another retailer; we need a better world. I have always said, if we focus on humanity, the bottom line will follow, and the most effective way to change the world is through being in business.”
Indeed, Lundgren considers corporate social responsibility as something not related to values- it’s a matter of priorities, he says. This thus explains his company’s Challenged Employee Initiative, which currently employs 19 special needs individuals across the network, and aims for challenged employees to eventually make up 5% of its staff. In 2008, Lundgren launched THE Onederworld, a sustainable village community program, focusing on neglected regions in the world where their employees come from or their manufacturers are based. When asked about his company’s recruitment process, Lundgren replies, “We value cultural fit above skills and experience at THE One. I believe that organizations worth working for, attract people worth employing. We practice a recruitment method, which enables us to pick the best in the market through a chronological indepth structured interview process which covers a candidate’s history starting from high school days through to their present career status. It brings out behaviors, paints a picture of personality and attitude as well as skill competencies. We look for passion, empathy and commitment, candidates that believe in and will live by our core values– joining THE One is for team players who want to belong [to a team] rather than just do a job.”
Loosely defined as an ability to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors within an organization, the concept of cultural fit is also a number one recruitment criteria for Donna Benton, founder of The Entertainer, a “buy one get one free” voucher books provider launched in Dubai in 2001. In the span of 16 years, The Entertainer has grown to offer a range of 39 products across 18 destinations in 14 countries. More than 250 employees work in their headquarters in Dubai and 14 global offices, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Kuala Lumpur, London and Doha. This year, the company expects over 12 million of its offers to be redeemed by their customers globally. Yet, the rapid expansion, starting after Riyada Enterprise Development, an investment platform of Dubai-based investment firm Abraaj Capital, acquired a 50% stake in the company in 2012, brought growing pains potentially affecting company culture. Nevertheless, Benton insisted on her recruitment standards. “For me, the cultural fit is the number one critical thing that I would look for with somebody coming to work for me,” she says. “That comes from leading by example. I’m energetic, chatty, a people’s person, so you want people who will be like that too, especially on the sales team. If you don’t have the right cultural fit, it is not going to work. We have over 35 nationalities, but the nationality does not really matter, what is important is someone’s personality and perception of their role in the company. Above all, I look for someone with a will before the skill. You need somebody who is passionate, who wants to work for you, and who fits in. It is great for them to have a skill, but you can teach them that along the way, which is better of having a skill and no will.”
Benton adds that she is not a fan of argumentative attitudes at the workplace either. “If there is any of that, they are out straight away. So, it is also about attitude. I think I’m really fair, but I’m also firm because it is the human capital that makes or breaks your company. Another key thing that you need to look at is that a good football player is not necessarily a good coach. You really have to keep an eye out for people who are able to manage others and for those who prefer working independently and like to be managed. Also, as an owner or CEO, you have to be able to watch the people who manage upwards and not downwards. I am very aware of people who manage upwards to me, which would mean their coming, sitting in my office and talking about how everything is great, taking all the glory, and so on. At the same time, I see that they don’t treat their team well and don’t motivate them. Lastly, you need to look for your plan C to see who can come up in the ranks because they may have the will, they may learn the skill, and then you need to be able to know to promote them at the right time.”
Raza Beig, founder of Splash, part of Landmark Group and one of the region’s largest fast fashion retailers, has always believed that valuable employees can be found in scattered, sometimes unexpected, parts of his now big retail conglomerate. “I started the program Hello HR nine years ago when my business was small and I was very connected to the team,” Beig explains. “I knew people by their names and I knew what they were doing. As the company grew, their voices became fewer and my time was more focused on other things. There was a general feeling in me that I was not being able to hear what my people were saying. But, my belief is that all the good changes in business actually come from ground zero. So, when I started our Hello HR program, it was to hear my people’s grievances, which especially was something I took very seriously, and also their ideas and suggestions. Until this day, I ensure that all grievances are dealt with, even if it leads to the top management of the company. If suggestions and ideas turn into something that the company will use, I send a letter of appreciation and a cash reward to that employee. So, the process started with listening, but it has become a very important tool in our business. Today, our people believe that when you speak to Raza, he will listen. And this is managed by myself and my senior HR manager only, so it is very confidential.”
A note about Beig’s background here: after losing his father when he was six years old, Beig started running errands for neighbors to help his family –his mother and five sisters– to make ends meet. Since then, the Indian entrepreneur has never stopped looking for business opportunities, and his repertoire includes establishing a tutorial college, a shirt manufacturing business, a cable TV distribution business, all before founding Splash in 1993 as a single brand store in Sharjah. The company currently operates over 220 stores and 55 brand stores across 14 countries. The credit for its growth, he says, goes to his employees. “My values come from my mother in a lot of ways because she selflessly devoted herself and believed in forgiveness,” he explains. “All my employees now know that the DNA of my business is ‘be nice’. It is perfectly fine to lose your cool sometimes, but if you are a good person, you will also have the strength to go and say sorry… I believe that if your team is very happy and motivated, they will perform better. That is the reason why we have managed not only to survive, but to grow in double digits in a very competitive market with almost every brand in the world.”
In addition to the Hello HR program, Beig has implemented a number of other initiatives, such as Meet the CEO, Retail Employees Day, IIM Leadership Development Program, Goal 360, and Spotlight, investing a significant amount of time listening to his employees’ feedback. “Within our Meet The CEO initiative, if any of my employees submits a request to meet with me, wherever they are in the GCC, we would fly them down to Dubai to have lunch with me,” he says. “In general, this has helped a lot, because the management in all my stores now know very clearly that if they mess up, it will reach Raza and an investigation will follow. In the past, those were the issues that we had, such as different ill treatments, and today there is one simple treatment that everybody needs to follow. It did happen that some people had lost their jobs as a result of our investigation. So, we take this very seriously.”
In DHL’s case, close monitoring of the application of their HR practices and policies is what has earned it the number one position on the annual benchmarking list for the fourth consecutive year. of the application of their HR practices and policies is what has earned DHL the number one position on the annual benchmarking list for the fourth consecutive year. “The reason why DHL has stayed on the list for so long is because they have made sure that these great policies are being implemented, are being followed up on, and are being checked against the market changes,” Zaatari notes. “They have followed up on their practices and made sure to make changes and to customize them to the market changes, but they always put their employees first. At the beginning, organizations here in the UAE would get so excited acquiring the best practices and they would hire the best consultants to help them decide on those. After that, however, those practices are never implemented. That is why they fail to become great workplaces. They never train their line managers on how to cascade down all these practices to the front-liners. In DHL case, the front-liners are the people who deliver you a parcel, and they actually are the people who make the difference. They make DHL a great company.”
Maha Zaatari, Managing Director, Great Place to Work in the UAE, lists five struggles UAE employers face in their enterprises.
1. Employment security
“The UAE is a very unique market, and that is why managers have to be very careful when setting up their businesses here. There are quite a few restrictions here, and many of employees’ concerns relate to their employers, such as if they lose their visas tomorrow, they will have one month to leave the country. So, organizations have faced challenges trying to make people feel more secure and make them want to stay. By communicating to talent that no matter what happens, that you will take care of them, that builds that element of trust.”
2. Communication challenges
“Another key challenge is the lack of communication between line managers and employees. Line managers have so much to do, and they often underestimate the value of human interaction, spending time with their staff, and think that a good morning greeting will make everyone happy. We have heard from employees that they do not know what is expected from them, where they are heading to, and so on.”
3. Women in the workplace
“Also, this market has less female-friendly policies, so we have a very limited maternity leave here, and women feel they might lose their jobs if they go on a maternity leave. That affects their engagement and productivity. However, there are companies here that go above and beyond the law to address those challenges.”
4. Work-life balance
“One more challenge goes back to the concept of trust. We keep on hearing people wanting to work from home and have flexible working hours, because work-life balance is a key challenge here. That is also why the stress levels are high in many organizations and they do not have a great workplace culture. When we get a question about how to help employees have work-life balance, we always say to trust them, stop micromanaging them, and so on.”
5. Lack of career planning
“Organizations send people on many training courses, but we don’t see much value out of them without planning. We often hear that people here are in transit only for just a few years, but it is not the case anymore and employees now want to work for an organization that gives them a well-developed career plan. So, organizations should start offering careers rather than just jobs.”