Celebrate, Communicate and Meditate: Radek Sali, CEO at Swisse
Radek Sali is CEO at Swisse Wellness. Over Radek’s nine years at the company, the company has grown from 30 people to 170. And they’re poised for major global growth, recently signing one of the largest Australian consumer licensing deals (ever) with global healthcare giants Procter & Gamble and Teva.
In this interview we talk about:
- Bringing culture to the forefront of the decision making process
- Why Swisse has a meeting coach (to help everyone get more out of meetings )
- Scaling up the business to partner with Procter & Gamble
- Why the entire leadership team at Swisse takes 20 minutes out of their day to meditate
- The “Celebrate Life Every Day” philosophy
- The importance of unstructured meeting time
- How the company is guided by People, Principles, Passion and Profit
- The importance of LGIs (learn, grow, and improve moments)
- Why the vision for Swisse has simplified as the business has grown
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments on this interview.
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Steve Pell: I’m here with Radek Sali, who’s CEO of Swisse Wellness to talk about your journey leading this business. Could you tell us a little about your story? How you came to lead the business?
Radek Sali: Sure. I’ve been in the company for now nine and a half years, so it’s been a fair run. I’m a pretty loyal person and I like to give things a proper go.
Before that, I had 11 years of Village Roadshow. Village Roadshow was an exceptional apprenticeship. I started there shovelling popcorn out at Doncaster Twin Cinemas, and worked my way up to General Manager of Gold Class Cinemas, Europa Cinemas, as well as national operations management, as well as opening circuits in the Czech Republic, working on circuits in Switzerland, as well as Germany and the UK, and a little bit of work in the US, too. It was extraordinary.
It was a big company, and I learned a lot of really great fundamentals about how a large organisation operates. I quickly realised that I was a cog in a very large machine, and started to look sideways, and felt that it was time to, I suppose, show that I could transcend to another industry, and show my wares.
I put the network out and Dad, being a professor of surgery, had many contacts in health. And I’d always taken a great shining to the Managing Director’s style in running Swisse. So I reconnected with Michael Saba at the time and told him of my dilemma of wanting to change industries and find something right.
I also told him about what was really important to me — culture — and how I really wanted to make sure that the next step was really something that fitted with who I am, as a person. Dad being a professor of surgery, Mum being a medical scientist, health is something that just was such a nice natural synergy — and it’s in natural health too. Hence, why I’m here today!
Steve: Great. So it’s been nine years of smooth sailing?
Radek: I think that I’ve been truly blessed to be in the fortunate position we’ve been in, and had the fortunate experience that we’ve had over the last nine and a half years.
We’ve grown extremely rapidly. A lot of people tell you along the way that there’s a cost that will go with that growth, and you go, “Well, where is it?” and then you find out a few months later, or a few years later, “Well, hang on. That was the cost.”
It comes up in many different ways, but I must say is that it’s been a great journey. And really the destination is the journey. We’ve had a great lot of fun as we’ve gone along. Yes, it’s been challenging, but hey — that’s the beauty of life. If you aren’t challenged, you’re not really enjoying it or living it.
Steve: Yes. Let’s jump into that journey a little bit. When you were making that transition you noted that what was really important to you was culture. Could we talk about that a little bit, in terms of why that was, and what that’s translated to, in terms of your leadership?
Radek: Yes, sure.
Culture, for me, is the reason why we go to work in a workplace. It’s what gears us to succeed. I think that a good culture is something that you’ve got to focus on, and work hard at.
The fundamentals of Swisse and Managing Director Michael Saba were already in place. He had this wonderful vision of an organisation being focussed on its four Ps — People, Principles, and Passion, coming before Profit — and that goal of making people healthier and happier.
For me, I’ve worked in organisations like Village and Warners as well –because they worked very closely together in their different businesses. I saw a lot of different cultures through the different countries I worked in and different areas of the workplace. Some were good and some had their challenges.
But the overriding culture, for a lot of big organisations, is just words on a wall. It wasn’t what is breathed and lived. I felt there was a really big opportunity to really take an existing culture, and bring it to life. And you bring it to life through the activity of bringing it to the forefront of people’s decision-making process.
That takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of reinforcement and takes a lot of living and breathing by those values. But those values need to be dynamic, and to grow with the organisation. So our interpretation of what the four Ps were, nine and a half years ago, is very different to what they are now and today.
That’s because they’re a living organism. And that’s what culture should be; it should grow with the individual/business. Culture is so important because, fundamentally, we spend the most amount of time in the workplace, out of anything we do.
Think of relationships in life — and we’ve all been in a bad relationship, Bad girlfriend, boyfriend, marriage, whatever — and it hasn’t been productive. It’s been stressful.
That’s something, for me, that we need to take responsibility for in the workplace. We have to understand that the people that are coming to this workplace are going to spend the majority of their lifespan, during the time that they’re working with you, with you. It’s a responsibility to actually have a great culture, and something that is rewarding and helps people grow.
Steve: You’re married to your employees?
Radek: I’m loyal to my employees … married to my wife!
Steve: I’ll get you in trouble! When you talk about the culture coming into the decision-making process, can you give me an example of how that actually translates?
Radek: Sure. People, Principles, and Passion coming before Profit — and look, that doesn’t mean that profit’s out of balance with those other three Ps, but they need to be equal for them to actually work.
Now from our point of view, we sit as a premium in the marketplace. A premium means a little bit of a price premium, but it also means you choose the ingredients that are shown to work better and get a better outcome. So our methodology, when we’re choosing a raw material we’ll always go for the better quality raw material over the one that’s cheaper and might be more profitable for us.
But as a result of that, we have the highest retention of consumer in the marketplace, so a person that chooses our brand will stick with our brand. They’ll remain loyal to it, because it works. It makes a difference.
I think that those sorts of values have always underpinned the way we go about doing business.
Steve: How big is the organisation today? How many people have you got?
Radek: We’re at 170, and then we’ve got a number of manufacturing plants that we work with directly, around the world. They’re in the US, we’re in Switzerland, Germany, and we’re also here in Australia, with the majority of our work still happening in Australia.
We’ve had to do that, because we had to globally diversify our supply chain, as we’ve done a deal with Procter & Gamble and Teva, who we’ve partnered up with.
Those two organisations — P&G are the largest consumer company in the world, so we’re very humbled to have been chosen by them to work with. Then the largest Israeli company in the world, which is the biggest generic drug manufacturer in the world; with 50 billion turnover — have partnered up for healthcare.
They see that this area of healthcare, our area, requires some specialty. Hence why they’ve partnered up with us. It’s created one of the largest licensing deals ever, for a consumer brand out of Australia.
Steve: Fantastic, so a lot of global growth coming up.
Radek: It is coming up. The investment period is now, and we start to launch into countries as of next year.
Radek: There’s a big team working on that project. We’ve got 30 people that are committed to making that happen, and that will continue to grow. We’re looking forward to making Australia the hub of that growth, and jobs growth, and making sure that we keep as much manufacturing here in Australia, but also keep the scientific research that we’re doing and make this a global centre for integrated medicine research.
Steve: So the business has been through a lot of growth in the time you’ve been here. How many people did you step in to start managing, when you walked into the business?
Radek: It looked a bit different, the business, back then. We had about 30 people in total. I think we’ve got one team member that’s run the whole nine and a half years, so I’m now the second-longest serving team member at Swisse. There’s been a lot of change, and change is really, really key in a dynamic where you’re growing.
Change is something we don’t naturally do, as humans. I always liken it to going to the gym for the first time — it hurts! But the more times you do it, and if you’re encouraged to do it, you do it better. We need to be encouraged to change, and we need to remind people in the workplace that change is a good thing.
That’s how we continue to innovate, and continue to grow like we have.
Steve: Let’s talk about managing for change. If there’s someone else going through that journey, where you’re taking a quite static business and starting to introduce more change over time, what would be your key recommendations?
Radek: I think choice of language; positive language is so, so important.
I’ll go back to that gym analogy. If you can imagine the personal trainer saying to you — you’re halfway through a set of 10 push-ups and they go, “Good luck. You’re not going to get through the next 5. It’s going to really hurt.” It doesn’t work! But they encourage you, don’t they?
I think that we need to understand that people are learning, growing, improving in the workplace. We call it “LGI” at our workplace; it’s a bit dorky, and it puts a smile on people’s faces. But it’s a whole lot better than when the negativity comes, with the fact that, “Hey, we should have done that a whole lot better, and who actually got it wrong?”
When you say, “LGI — this is a learn, grow, and improve moment,” it sticks with people’s mind. It’s a bit of a positive reinforcement of the fact that actually, what you’ve done might need to improve a little bit, but hey, it’s okay to learn on the job.
You’ve got to understand that you’ve got an environment, and you need to really harness the fact that change is something that is challenging. It is going to come with some things going right — a lot of things hopefully going right — and some going a little wrong. But when that stuff goes wrong, you need to have permission to talk about it, and people feel free to learn from it to improve so we continue to get better as a result.
Steve: Very much a culture of non-persecution, when things go wrong?
Radek: I think that’s really key. It’s difficult, because human nature is to persecute, and point the finger sideways when something happens. But I think you need to act responsibly, and understand that we are all human, and stuff does go wrong, and the best place to learn is on the job.
It’s important to learn outside of the workplace, and that should take up about 5 per cent of your total learning space, but 90-odd per cent should happen on the job. Maybe 5 per cent in meetings and so forth, where you’re talking about some things, but you need to learn on the job, and you need to have permission to do that.
There should be an ongoing training dynamic in a workplace. Stuff goes wrong. If you watch sport, and people playing football, the coaches have permission to say, “Hey, you could have done that a lot better,” and the player doesn’t really get down. They want to learn. They go, actually, “Can you show me how I can do that better?”
I don’t know if that always happens in the workplace. Why shouldn’t it be that way? Why shouldn’t we have a high-performance culture that helps people aspire to actually want to learn, and accept that, “Okay, maybe we can learn a bit from each other, and help each other get a better outcome.”
Steve: Yes. It sounds like quite a different approach to learning and development to what you’d see in other organisations.
Radek: Yes. Look, I think that it is.
We’ve got a performance manager here who sits in on meetings and basically acts like a coach, and says, “Hey, that could have gone better if we structured this way or that way” — and isn’t involved in the actual decision-making in the meeting
Then linking that back to our strategy of making sure that it’s aligned with our strategic goals that we go away and set every six months, as a key leadership team. We try to keep that leadership team quite broad so there’s a good amount of ownership right across the business, in understanding what are the key strategic goals for delivery as a business.
That’s just one of the many things that we do a little bit differently, where we really focus on performance and coaching people on the job.
Steve: Any other areas where you’ve brought in the sporting analogies that help you get better performance in the business?
Radek: I think that one simple one is actually having a gym in the workplace.
Radek: Encouraging people to work out. We have a yoga classes as well, and we also have what we call an “H&H” day, so Health & Happiness day. For those people that are performing, they get a day off in a month, where there isn’t a public holiday. Why shouldn’t you have a long week-end every month, right?
What it does, it encourages people to perform well, and they’re given an incentive to do so by getting that day off.
Also, it’s reduced a lot of sick leave, as a result of all this health activity we do — also our wonderful products, too! But it’s part of a whole balanced lifestyle. Part of that balance is also taking time out and having a bit of a break.
We encourage meditation as well.
All of our exec team do meditation once a day, for 20 minutes, which is a great switch-off.
It becomes like brushing your teeth; it’s something you do. Looking after the mind is such an important thing. It keeps us on our game, and it’s our most important tool in the workplace.
How often do we take some time to stop and say, “What are we actually doing to help the mind flourish, and nurture it a little bit?” Meditation definitely does that.
Steve: Wow. I’ve yet to come across a company who has forced meditation, so you might be the first.
Radek: Forced meditation. It’s not forced. It’s people’s choice, if they would like to do it. We get 80–90 per cent of people sticking to it. It’s not for everyone. It’s definitely not forced.
It’s just another service that we offer, just like the yoga or the gym activity that we offer — that’s more physical, this is on the mental side — and it’s choice; it’s whether people want to engage in it or not.
Steve: Mindfulness is one of those things at the moment that’s very trendy in management circles.
Steve: It sounds like there’s a real divergence, where you’re either on-board or completely off.
Steve: If you were going to sell someone on the benefits of it for their business, how would you pitch that?
Radek: I think that you need an expert to come in and train on it. You can’t just say, “We’re going to meditate, and off we go.” It just doesn’t work that way. It takes some focus, and it takes the right type of person to come into your business and give the right sort of introduction on the benefits of what meditation means, and so forth.
For me, meditation is about making sure you are present. You’re engaged in the conversation that you’re in now, rather than thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner later on, and trying to communicate with the person next to you.
As a result of that, you’re creating a quality of space, quality of mind, and a focus. The workplace just gets so caught up in not only what’s happening in people’s personal lives, what’s happening now, but five minutes later, and “Gee, how am I going to make this target, or that target?”
Meditation brings this quality and focus on the now, and being truly engaged, so you get in touch with what is actually the most important thing going on — which is our conversation now — rather than something else that’s absolutely irrelevant to the here and now, and as a result of that you’re not as engaged as you should be and you’re not going to be performing at your best, are you?
Steve: Great insight. Has it made you a better leader?
Radek: I think it’s made me a more balanced leader. I think I’m calmer. I’m more aware of when I am feeling perhaps a little bit out of sorts, and as a result of that I might not be in the best space to deal with certain things.
Just when you switch off for that moment, you can just feel the body is in this state of fight or fear — and that’s something that we’ve had for tens of thousands of years, as humans, that we’ve had to do. We’ve either had to deal with something as a result of fear of a situation, or we’ve run off.
We might fight there and then, and that’s an aggressive nature, and all this adrenaline takes over; we’re not thinking too clearly. Or we have fear of the situation and we run away.
I think we’re actively in those modes in the workplace, and that’s not a state we can be in to be at our most productive. I’ve definitely noticed when that’s about to happen, I’ll now notice, “Okay, that’s happening. Now, how do I rebalance and recalibrate so I’m in the best possible headspace to deal with the now?”
Steve: Is another benefit of meditation that it connects you back to the longer-term vision of the company, where you want to go?
Radek: I think that you always need to be thinking about the vision, and where you’re going, and the goals need to be very, very clear. That’s something I’ve learnt; that as we’ve got larger, you cannot take for granted that everyone understands exactly what you’re going on about.
Yes, you get this great circle of people that you develop a great relationship over time, that work with you closely for a long period of time. But as you get larger, the vision is harder to get out, and that consistency of what you need and want out of a situation gets more and more challenging.
You really need structure in how you spend your quality time on planning, and making sure that that planning is done in a space where everyone is actively engaged, and then you’ve got key take-outs that are really simple, that can not only share with that group, but also translate very easily to the broader team in an effective message.
Then it’s the follow-up, and ensuring that that message is heard with clarity through mechanisms such as surveys, or personalities that work in the business making sure that each area has clarity on what’s expected — through to performance plans and review of performance plans that are consistent, right throughout the business.
Steve: If I’m translating, is what you’re saying that, as the business has got bigger, the vision has had to get simpler?
Radek: Look, I think so. I think you need to be a little more crisp in what is expected, because there’s only a capacity to interpret so much. Keeping that vision clear, keeping those values nice and simple, that people can then engage with them — we’ve actually simplified our culture position as well.
We used to have the four Ps, and then we’d have seven areas that were the focus of bringing the life to the four Ps. It just got all too much. They were great at the time, but we had to simplify them.
It’s the same with the messaging to the business. There’s four key pillars that we need to deliver on, as a business, and that’s what we’re focussed on doing. It’s one sheet, our business plan, and we really challenge ourselves to make sure that it is something we can pick up and actively engage with, and near-memorise. Not because of the fact that you’re sitting there reading it to memorise, but it’s that easy to know exactly what our priorities are.
Steve: Do you mind sharing what the vision is for Swisse?
Radek: Sure. Look, I think that for us, it’s really about making people healthier and happier, and it’s really making sure that we give every person the ability to celebrate life every day.
We sign off every email with CLED down at the bottom: “Celebrate Life Every Day”. It puts a smile on your face. A little bit dorky but it’s all about making sure we enhance people’s lives with the benefit of taking proactive control of your health.
We think about our cars, and we go and service those, don’t we, every 6–12 months. If we don’t, we’re worried about the brakes wearing out or it breaking down. Do we do that with our bodies? That’s actually our most important asset — our health.
We want to encourage people to take control of health, do the right thing, eat the right foods, take a supplement to fill in the gaps that they’re missing out on, or to make sure that their body’s getting the nutrition it needs to deal with everyday life.
That’s one part of it, from meditation through to keeping sound of mind, making sure we manage stress as much as possible, because stress is the number one form of diseases — of all chronic diseases. Whether it’s gene stress, whether it’s nutritional stress, whether it’s day-to-day stress from situations and the mind working overtime, that will wear us out.
We all know we get a flu or a cold when we’re run down, don’t we? When we’re not getting enough sleep. We need to manage stress in every way, so for us, our objective is to make the world a healthier and happier place.
Steve: Great. [Laughs] That simple.
Something you’ve mentioned a couple of times when you talk about the culture is that it’s “a bit dorky.”?
Radek: Well, I think dorky is in, isn’t it?
Radek: It’s being comfortable in your skin, and it’s having permission to be who we really are. So what we try and do is set up a situation where it’s okay to be you.
I think, too often, we’re regimented in the workplace into being a certain way, that we’re not really coded to be — and we’re a very different person at work than what we are at home, and I don’t know if that’s naturally healthy
Steve: How do you do that?
Radek: I think by constantly reinforcing that we enjoy different cultures. We enjoy having people with different viewpoints, and as a result of that, you’ve really got to think different to make a difference.
We need to keep encouraging different thinking, because hence, that’s how we’re going to always break the mould and do a whole lot better as an organisation. I think that companies go wrong when they just focus on their market share and the existing market, rather than growing the whole marketplace.
Yes, you need to have times in a business’ journey where it does just focus on market share, but I think overridingly, now, over this large journey, our most success has come when we’ve tried to grow the whole marketplace, and enhance the total natural wellness industry.
Steve: I can see how it’s quite easy to get that to happen with your direct-reports. But what about pushing those unique cultural traits down into a bigger and bigger business? Surely that gets harder and harder?
Radek: It absolutely does. It takes a whole lot more effort than what it used to, so I’ve had to change as a CEO.
I’ve had to put a lot of effort into communicating — communicating regularly to our team, whether it’s through group town hall-type conversations that we do regularly, or whether it’s through a monthly newsletter, which I put a lot of effort into writing a good 1,000 words on where we’re at as a business, and where we’re heading, through to investing more time into communicating directly with my exec team, and making sure that it’s quality communication.
I try to go maybe 50 per cent of the time agenda-less, so we can just talk about what’s actually up, and what’s top of mind. Then we go back to structure as well.
I think it’s being flexible and understanding that there are many modalities of great communication, and doing a bit of each will help transcend and translate into the wider group. Then also making sure that your key people are practising what you’re doing as well, so your message is getting right through.
Yes, that’s a great challenge and will continue to be a bigger challenge as we grow as a business.
Steve: Yes. It’s interesting you talk about “agenda-less” meetings, because there’s a lot of press out there — there’s a lot of thinkers — who are so “anti-meeting” at the moment.
Steve: Do you get a lot of benefit out of just going without structure, without agenda? I’m interested in it because it’s quite different to what a lot of business is doing in just trying to eliminate meetings.
Radek: Yes. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve eliminated a lot of meetings that we saw as inconsequential. You’re definitely right, there is a big trend. I spoke to many other business leaders where they proudly say, “I’ve only got three hours of meetings a week, and that’s it.”
I go, “Wow.” [Laughs] “What’s counted as a meeting? Is it someone coming to your office and bringing up something that you need a decision on, or is it an email? Is that a meeting? Is that just another communication tool?”
I think that we need to not forget that face-to-face time is actually the most productive way of connecting. It’s great with using LinkedIn or your FaceTime, or whatever modality you’re choosing to talk with people overseas and so forth. Yes, there’s great benefit in talking on the phone. You can’t replace that — it’s effective — and email’s a wonderful tool.
But we can’t forget that we’re humans that crave connection and conversation, and we do go a whole lot better in our social lives; yes, they’re becoming more digitally driven, but it still hasn’t replaced the good old-fashioned going to a pub on a Friday night, or going out to dinner with some friends or having them around for dinner. That’s always a whole lot more special, and a whole lot more rewarding.
It’s the same in the workplace. You need to make sure that you’re doing a mix of everything, and you’re engaging in all these important levels of communication.
Yes, the agenda-less meeting is like having that group around for dinner, that you want to have around. You don’t send an agenda around, do you? That turns into, sometimes, the best of nights, doesn’t it — without an agenda, without a plan. That’s when you really can sometimes get to the core of what’s going on, because a lot of these meetings turn into works in progress, and what’s happening, but they don’t go into actually how people are feeling, and what’s actually helping them do really well in their day-to-day business, or areas that are perhaps grating.
I think it’s up to that person who’s chairing and driving that meeting to throw the occasional — I don’t like to use the analogy of a grenade — but throw in the occasional curly question, and a really searingly honest question, to open up great conversation.
If you see tension between team members, awesome. Say, “Hey. I’m seeing tension between you guys. We need to talk about this in a larger group,” and get to the chase rather than it living in the shadows and permeating a negative culture.
Steve: That has to be underpinned by a lot of trust.
Radek: It does. There has to be a lot of trust. Trust is key, and not breaking that trust. It goes back to that permission to learn in the workplace, and understanding that people are human, and that it’s okay to be a little bit dorky!
Steve: Do you do a lot of thinking about how to build a high-trust workplace? If you were to go into another business today that had a low-trust culture, would you have a good view on how you’d actually build that up?
Radek: Yes, I think so. I think reporting mechanisms that are independent, and that are anonymous. Every 12 months, we do a culture measure. We have a group come in. LSI is the name of the test, and Human Synergistics do a whole heap of work for us on culture each year.
They actively engage our workforce to fill out a survey. The survey’s a 20-minute survey, so it’s quite a deep survey that is done right across the business, and then collated into a format that helps us understand how we’re going across 12 different measures.
They’re measures like motivation and engagement, and people’s understanding about their plans, and so forth, and whether people are feeling rewarded, recognised, and so forth.
What happens is they benchmark that survey against — I think now they’re up to 20,000 organisations around the world — and then there’s a group of benchmark companies that assume the top 200.
We sit as a benchmark across all 12 areas, against the benchmark companies, so we’re very, very proud of how we perform. But it’s one thing saying, “We’ve achieved the benchmark,” but what it does also, it actually highlights a whole lot of areas where we can improve, as a team.
It also does some individual stuff on all the execs and individual 360-degree feedback that we take on-board, and making sure again, that that’s not used as a performance management tool. It’s actually used as a tool to help that individual in a confidential way — whether they want to share it with you or not — help that individual know where they stand with their peers, and the potential areas where they could improve. We find that really, really useful in helping us create a really engaged culture.
Steve: Great. That’s something you’ve been doing since Day 1?
Radek: In probably the last four years, as we’ve grown as a business — once we got to a sort of tipping-point. I feel like up to about 70–80 people, you can kind of keep connected with them; know all their names and know intimately what’s going on in their lives.
But once it starts getting beyond that, it becomes a little more challenging. Probably about that stage is when we brought it in, which would have been about four years ago.
Steve: Okay. What else is keeping you up at night, at this scale? At that nearly 200-person level?
Radek: I think for me, what’s keeping us up at night is the investment in the future, and then balancing it with the now and responsibilities of the now.
As a business, we’re probably focussing on our profit P, and making sure that we’re bringing as much profit back to our business as we get ready for the international push-on. That’s going to be at least another year away, so what’s keeping me up at night is making sure we optimise our current business as greatly as possible, to give us a great foundation to deliver us on that international goal of being a global wellness brand.
Steve: Fantastic. If you were going to go back to Day 1 now, when you walked into Swisse, what do you wish you knew — whether about yourself, or about management in general?
Radek: I think I would have got myself involved in external forums, like Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. I’m part of the Young Presidents’ Organisation, and that’s been a wonderful benefit over the last couple years. I would have started in EO and progressed through to the YPO later on. I think personal development is something that becomes more and more difficult, when you’re leading an organisation.
Then I also, being a private company, I would have really pushed home the benefit of having a structured board, which we have now and we have had operating for probably the last 18 months. But I feel like if we’d had that for five years prior, we would be perhaps in better shape.
Steve: Fantastic, great insights. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Radek: Absolute pleasure, thank you.
– Slight edits have been made to this transcript for the sake of readability –