The Employees First Approach Of a Billionaire Yogurt Maker

“If you’re right with your people, if you’re right with your community, if you’re right with your product, you’ll be more profitable, more innovative, and you will have more passionate people working for you and a community that supports you.”

The new CEO

I must say I am a huge fan of Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya. I first came across his profile in reading an article as he was company was going public. He decided to give his employees who were mostly factory workers, stock as his company was going public. He was criticized widely for this give away. It totaled a reported 10% of his shares, which turned some of his long-time employees into millionaires.

“Some people said it’s PR. Some said it’s a gift. I said, ‘It’s not a gift’… They earned it with their talent and their hard work.”

He has made a point of hiring immigrants and refugees, who make up 30% of his staff.

Another holy business canon he has challenged is that organizations exist to maximize profit for the shareholders. Ulukaya says that is the dumbest idea he has ever heard. His maxim is that business should take care of the employees first.

The former president of Starbucks, Howard Behar, states in a speech that to grow the business, you have to grow the people. Helping the people understand the values and mission that the organization is about. Getting their commitment, helping them when they are suffering so that they contribute inside as well as outside.

Leadership culture is changing

This “new” philosophy is a 180 turn from the CEO mindset of years past. In my estimation, this new dynamic is a winning formula. A CEO that gets this will undoubtedly build a cohesive workforce in the “we are all in this together” sense. Like the sport of crew, everyone is paddling in unison, all focused in the same direction.

This alignment allows for connecting the people to the organization as the winning formula. In the end, it will all cascade down to your workforce. In regression modelling, you place all the independent variables (possible causes) in a formula to try to come up with a strong model to find the cause (dependent variable). When this process is completed you see the strength of the relationships.

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Trying to create a high performing organization cannot be done if you do not include all your variables, especially your people and all their concerns and issues, whether it be engagement, career development, better bosses, etc. Are you taking care of your most important asset?

People make the difference

There is so much change going on today from the challenges of the business environment to the shifting demographics of the workforce. The only winning formula is going to be the talent side of the equation. Make it right first, then the business will grow. However, so many organizations put the cart before the horse.

I once read an article about a company that puts as much focus on the people and talent as they do the P&L. Not surprisingly they were very successful.

So C-suite buckle up, because unless your formula changes, you are in for a bumpy ride.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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