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How to create a socially conscious business model that puts people first for a more sustainable future.

Chobani Founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, once said: “There are a lot of important things in business, but the people portion comes first.” Since his founding of the company in 2005, not only has Chobani’s value soared, but through its people-first approach, it has made a real difference to people’s lives.

Along the way, the company has committed to pay a decent starting wage, offered paid parental leave, ensured pay equity and offered employees a shareholding in the company when it eventually goes public or is sold.

“Just about anyone can make a good product, but it’s the people that count,” he explains. “In the end, it’s the employees who will take it from a kitchen table idea to the next level.”

Ulukaya has also made great efforts to integrate refugees into society by providing them with employment at Chobani – a mission that is now the subject of a documentary entitled Moving Humanity Forward.

“We must put social issues, our community, our people, in the center,” he says in the film. “And let profit come after. And it will come.”

“We must put social issues, our community, our people, in the center. And let profit come after. And it will come.”
– Hamdi Ulukaya

It’s a belief that is discussed in depth by entrepreneur Dale Partridge in his 2015 book People over Profit. “Generosity is less like an arrow and more like a boomerang; it comes back to you,” he advises.

His seven core beliefs aim to revolutionize companies by harnessing concepts such as truth, authenticity, transparency and generosity – a departure from the more traditional greed-based model.

Hospitality entrepreneur Michel Falcon doubled down on the message in 2018, sharing lessons he had learned building his own successful restaurant portfolio in his book People-First Culture, which centered around core values of celebration, ownership, foresight, integrity and humility.

“The economics of my business are very important, but building relationships with my employees, my customers and the community matters more to me,” he asserts.

What started out as something of a novelty has gradually gathered momentum. Both books quickly became bestsellers. And while companies like Intrepid Travel and Marriott International have been prioritizing their people since the get-go, others have since climbed on board.

The number of companies with B Corp Certification – a marker of corporate responsibility among companies – also rose. At the start of 2022, there were more than 4,500 B Corp Certified companies and organizations across 79 countries and over 150 industries.

The wild uncertainty of the pandemic further fueled the shift. “The challenges of the pandemic, as well as the growing push for more diverse, inclusive and mentally healthy workplaces, have underscored the importance of connection, empathy, trust and psychological safety at work,” Stuart Taylor, the Co-Founder and CEO of workplace resilience and wellbeing consultancy firm Springfox, tells The CEO Magazine.

“Leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the critical need for resilience and wellbeing initiatives, and the ROI that these initiatives deliver when it comes to performance, reputation and long-term sustainability. It’s not about profit – it’s about sustainable profit, by linking people and purpose.”

“In a tight labor market where talent is harder than ever to attract and retain, organizations are realizing they must either listen and respond to the needs of employees, or risk losing out.”
– Stuart Taylor

Prior to the pandemic, burnout was already a spiraling problem in the professional world. But mental illness became yet more prevalent as people were contained within their homes in efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

“These experiences highlighted our shared humanity and vulnerability, and made clear to organizations that in order to survive the challenges of the pandemic, adopting a people-first approach was imperative,” Taylor says.

Then, as the world started to return to normal working conditions, the Great Resignation threw in yet another curveball. The balance of power shifted – suddenly employees were in control and able to make more demands.

“Employees are expecting more from their employers in terms of flexibility, work–life balance and support and compassion,” Taylor points out. “In a tight labor market where talent is harder than ever to attract and retain, organizations are realizing they must either listen and respond to the needs of employees, or risk losing out.”

However, as Intrepid Travel Managing Director ANZ Sarah Clark is quick to point out, it’s a matter of balance. “Profit is not a dirty word,” she stresses. “We need to make a profit to reinvest into purpose activities and our people, so it’s really about striking a balance.

“We firmly believe that profit doesn’t have to come at the expense of supporting our people, helping local communities or protecting the planet.”

Put Your People First

Convinced that a people-over-profit approach is for you and your company? Then here are the key points you need to consider.

Share Your ‘Why’

Make sure your team understands your vision and help them to grasp their role in working towards it. The shared sense of purpose will inspire and motivate them, make them feel valued, helping to drive your business forward.

“As a certified B Corp, we have a duty to make decisions that support people, planet and partners – including our staff,” Clark says. “The upshot of this is that our people know they’re part of a purpose-driven team who come to work every day to have a positive impact on the world, while also having enriching and exciting career opportunities in a global business.”

Be an Inspiring Leader

It’s easier said than done, but taking the time to get to know your team and engaging with them will help to draw out their strengths. They’ll want to come on the journey with you, rather than feel like it’s their duty.

“Leaders who adopt a people-first approach – that is, leading with compassion and trust – will form the bedrock upon which a resilient, productive and sustainable organization can be built,” Taylor reveals. “When leaders lead without a people-first approach, they risk cultivating a fear-based culture – and while this type of environment may seem profitable at first, it’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term.”

Transparency First

Just as transparency with customers yields great benefits, so too does total honesty with your employees. They’ll see you as trustworthy and reliable, which has a huge impact on company culture.

Not only does it helps improve morale, but it also helps to lower job-related stress, a major concern during the pandemic, while also boosting performance.

A Positive Environment

Create an environment where people feel supported, valued and heard to bring out the best in them. For example, through a series of conversations and surveys, Intrepid discovered autonomy and flexibility were key. It then introduced flexible working arrangements, including the option of a four-day work week and a work-from-anywhere policy.

“Create strong psychological safety, where staff feel empowered to take risks, ask questions and innovate without fear of failure,” Taylor advises. “In this environment, organizations are likely to see enhanced morale, motivation, discretionary effort and job satisfaction among staff, as well as greater overall wellbeing.”

Community Focus

Give both your business and your team a sense of purpose by positively impacting the communities in which you operate.

According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 63 per cent of millennials believe the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit”. Meanwhile, 94 per cent of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause and 57 per cent wish that there were more company-wide service days.

Be Consistent

Ensure that your people-first approach is reflected in everything you do – from policies and initiatives to communications and partnerships, Taylor suggests.

“In particular, anonymous employee surveys that measure leadership style and resilience levels can help to identify issues or areas for improvement, and these can be complemented by regular check-ins between managers and team members,” he says. “Regular one-on-one meetings are valuable not only to discuss work-related matters but also, importantly, to build connections and establish trust.”

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