Steve McLeod, Owner of Fire and Safety Australia
Former firefighter Steve McLeod turned his passion for helping people into a nationwide business, scaling his Fire and Safety Australia company to eight figures in 10 years. In addition to running a profitable company, McLeod also empowers entrepreneurs by teaching them how to become more courageous and run goal-focused businesses that never give up.
According to McLeod, it takes courage to protect and serve, especially when danger could be present at every turn. But it takes another kind of courage to withstand the pressures of entrepreneurship to build and scale a $20 million dollar company.
In this inspiring interview, McLeod discusses his latest book, Courage for Profit, and reveals some of the gold he has learned from his own struggles, successes, and failures. He outlines the key principles entrepreneurs need to embody if they want to scale their businesses. We salute McLeod for his passion for serving and helping people. Way to go!
- The 4-part formula that fueled McLeod’s massive success
- The red-green-yellow matrix system for smashing goals (you’ve probably never heard this before)
- The key to being super-focused, even if you struggle with constant distractions
- The two most important things you need to know to scale your company
- How to hire and keep the employees who will drive your business forward
Full Transcript of Podcast Episode with Steve McLeod
Nathan: All right. Okay, Steve, so the first question I ask for everyone that comes on is: How did you get your job?Steve: My original job. I was a firefighter for many years. So, I was a firefighter in Sydney, and then in Melbourne, and it was something that I wanted to do at the time, which was to help save lives and change the world. And so, during my days off in the fire brigade, I started doing training, emergency response and safety training, and helping people with medical emergencies and fire emergencies. And then, after doing that for a little while, I thought that there was an opportunity, so I decided to start my own business in that field.Nathan: So, how did you see that opportunity?
Steve: Well, when I was working for other businesses doing this training, I mean, they did a reasonable job, but they didn’t do a great job. So, for example, they used old equipment, they didn’t tailor training directly to what their customers required, their training packages were very boring, and there was no real dominant player in the Australian market, so a lot of small, segmented businesses. So, I looked at that and I thought…I said to my wife at the time, you know, “I think this is the time for us to go for it.” So, we decided to sort of risk it all and to start our own business, which is called Fire and Safety Australia.
Nathan: And when you said that you were delivering fire and safety training, it was that as a firefighter?
Steve: Yes. As a firefighter, obviously, I was responding to emergencies, be it fires, or medical emergencies, or rescues, but when I was generally delivering training, it was around things like how to operate fire extinguishers, or how to perform CPR, or how to rescue someone from a confined space. So, it was more of an industrial and workplace type of setting than it was in my role as a firefighter.
Nathan: Gotcha. But as a firefighter, that is part of your role, training.
Steve: Look, it is, but generally that training is very community-focused. So, you’re going to a school and you teach kids around how to dial emergency services, or how to get out of smoke, or you would help different members of the community. It wasn’t really tailored to sort of high-risk industries like mining, oil and gas. It was very sort of generic type of safety training. So, I really saw an opportunity to take what I felt was a real passion for training that I had in trying to help people work more safely, and, you know, ensure that people go home each night after work rather than being injured or killed at work, and take that to sort of more of the industrial industry, you know, mining, oil and gas, petrochemical, and those real high-risk industries.
Nathan: So, can you tell us, when did you start Fire and Safety Australia, and how far have you taken the business? You’re able to give us some insights? You guys are a market leader, right?
Steve: Yeah. So, look, we started the business just over 10 years ago in 2007. So, I started the business when I was 23 years old, and I did it in my days off from the fire brigade. So, I would work two days, then two nights, and had four days off, and I would build the business during my days off.
And so, I started the business in 2007, literally from cold-calling every company book, and starting out really on my own to just…with that determination of wanting to grow. Then, over the first year, which was really the hardest…you know, that first year for us, we turned over $160,000 whilst I was still in the fire brigade, incredibly hard just doing something from zero. But then, things started to gain momentum, and I decided that I wanted to build a national business rather than just being in one location. And then, second year we had $660,000, and the third year we did $1.4 million. And, all of a sudden, I was still in the fire brigade working 60 hour a week in the business, plus 40 hours a week in the fire brigade. There was just hardly any time left, at all. And we had our first son, and I decided at that point that, like, “Wow! This business is getting serious now.” Like, “I’m full-time in the fire brigade, I’ve got 12 full-time staff. We’re turning over more than a million dollars a year. Things need to get serious.”
So, that’s when I left the fire brigade, and we’ve basically doubled every year since, to the point where now we turn over about $13 million, and this year we should do about $20 million, and we employ about 150 staff now nationally, across all states and territories of Australia. We’d be one of the top three biggest in our field, and we provide that total national emergency response and safety training solution to clients, and we also provide full-time emergency response and paramedic personnel. So, even whilst I talk to you now, there’s probably 20, 25 people at different mining and oil and gas sites throughout Australia who are Fire and Safety Australia employees, who are making sure that they keep those workplace safe. So, I’d say I’ve built something pretty cool over the last 10 years.
Nathan: Yeah, wow! What I find interesting is, man, how come it took you so long to leave firefighting full-time? It feels like you left much earlier.
Steve: Well, it’s interesting because at the time, when I first started my business in the first year, all I wanted to do was to build…because, really, I had a real passion for safety and emergency response. You know, I went through a lot of horrible accidents, and fires, and disasters when I was in the fire brigade, and all I really wanna do is to help people. And so, helping people is my idea of doing training, and doing training in the workplace to help people so that this wouldn’t happen.
And I just started this as a business thinking, “I’ll do one or two days-a-week training.” But then, by the time I got through the first year, I realized that I actually love so much, and my passion for building the business enabled me to help more people than being in the fire brigade, sort of took over. So, arguably, I should have left much earlier. And, for me, as someone who really loved what I did, who didn’t really want to leave the fire brigade, because I actually loved helping people and loved responding to emergencies, it wasn’t until I had something that I felt was giving me more energy and enthusiasm that it was actually time to leave.
So, I mean, part of me still misses what I used to do, but now I’ve got a business that actually does that across hundreds of employees. So, I could have well left earlier, but I think the timing was right because I loved what I did, and I still love what I do. So, until my business was sort of taking over with my passion and complete energy and enthusiasm, I wasn’t ready to leave.
Nathan: That’s fair enough. When it comes to finding something that you’re passionate about, and pursuing a business idea, what’s your advice or thoughts?
Steve: Well, I mean, if I look back over my last 10 years, there were some really difficult times where things got really tough. If I wouldn’t have truly loved what I did, being completely passionate about what I did and why I do it, I would have given up. So, if I look back a couple of years ago, to 2015, I had the worst year in my business life. Coming off a year, in 2014, you know, we had revenue above $10 million for the second year in row. We made over $2 million in net profit. We had a fantastic year, and I got hit with the hardest year I’d ever had.
So, in that year, I had four really tough things that happened to me. So, one, I had an employee who left the business and became a stalker of my family and I, and it basically led to my family and I living in fear for a few months. I then had an employee…at this point, we’d employed about a hundred people…an employee who attempted suicide, and his family wouldn’t look after him, so I tried to look after him and got him…you know, he was an alcoholic, and got him into the right care and the right help. And, unfortunately, by the time he came back to work, he then…all this happened because of a marriage breakup that he had. He then blamed me for what had happened in his life, and he then sued us, which wasn’t very nice. On the same year, I had a major financial issue happen in the business, which lost us over half a million dollars, which is half a million dollars that we didn’t really had because we’d just bought another business. And, finally, I dealt with really the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in all of my business history.
So, I’ve had a lot of difficult things happen over 10 years, but in 2015, I had a senior manager, who is someone who was an ex-army Special Forces soldier. He’d done 5000 parachute jumps. He was incredibly skilled. He’d done five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d worked for my business for two years, and he was an emergency response team leader, and I was in New Zealand at the time, and I got a call saying that he died tragically in a skydiving accident.
Steve: And so, I got this call, and it was horrible, you know. I had to call up, you know, 15 employees that he managed and tell each of them that he passed away.
And so, that year was unlike anything I’d ever had to deal with before. You know, I’ve dealt with tough customers, I’ve dealt with employees, I’ve dealt with legal issues, but nothing like those four things at once. And so, to me, when I say…when people ask about running a business, I say you’ve got to be incredibly passionate about what you do, and the reason I called my book…called “Courage for Profit,” was because “courage” is not really a word which is repeated. We just talked about in business.
You know, when I was in the fire brigade, people talk about courage, or if you’re in the military, people talk about courage, but, you know, for me to get through that year, which was the worst year of my business life, the only way that I could get through it was have that really clear and compelling vision, and the courage to know that no matter what happens, I’ve got a hundred people to look after, I’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to have the courage to keep going, and I’ve got to bring them along the journey towards our vision. So, that year forever changed me. It was the worst year of my life, worst year of my business journey, was also a year that really shaped me and the business into where we are today.
Nathan: Thanks for sharing that, man. So, let’s talk about your latest book, “Courage for Profits: Using Courageous Decisions to Drive Business Success.” So, what’s the basic premise of the book?
Steve: So, look, really, I wanted to create something, which was everything that’s worked for me in the last 10 years. And so, think of this book as a bit of my manual of how to, you know, build an eight-figure business with 100 plus employees. But it was something that I wanted to be able to pass on, you know, to my kids, to my friends, to my family members, to people who say, “I wish I would have done this,” or, “I wish I would have done that.” So, it’s my manual of how I actually went about doing it, interlaced with the actual stories like my horror 2015 year that I talked about, into how it actually happens.
So, over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of training for different entrepreneurs and business owners, you know, trained hundreds of people in business growth, and in my experience, everyone has a different understanding of what success is. So, to everyone’s business, they have a different understanding of, “Well, what does success mean?” And so, for me, whether that success is, they want a business that does a million dollars a year, or a billion dollars a year, or a business that changes the world, or a business that makes them a hell of a lot of money, what is that vision of success? What does success look like for them?
So, I created my formula. My formula is something different to what I’ve seen out there in all of my readings of business books and journals, which is: Success equals vision, plus courage, plus relentless discipline, plus thirst for improvement. So, vision: What’s your strong and compelling vision for the future? What’s that vision that, five years from now, if you had your year like my 2015 year that vision is gonna propel you through. It’s gonna keep you going on the other side, even if things are getting tough. You know, going to be able to get through the time that will come. I’m yet to meet anyone in business who has had a sustainable, rapidly-growing business that’s been around for several years, that has not gone through tough times.
So, “courage” is that word that I wanna reintroduce into the business landscape. It’s not just for emergency services works and military personnel, it’s for business leaders. It’s the courage to make the decision that you know needs to be made. It’s to do what you know needs to be done. I meet so many business leaders who make decisions based on what they think, on what others might think, or what their employees might think, but they need to do it based on what success looks like.
And, relentless discipline. I mean, that word, “relentless” is there for a reason. Day after day, week after week, year after year, have you got the relentless discipline to do what needs to be done, or are you just going out there and doing other things because that’s what’s easy? You know, it’s easy to go out and have a few drinks, or it’s easy to go out and have some extra time. Do you really have that relentless discipline to make those 10 phone calls a day, to go and see those extra customers, to chase that money that’s due?
And the last one, thirst for improvement. You know, I think the best businesses that I’ve ever seen, those ones are continually innovating and growing. They’re really the ones that have that real thirst for learning, that thirst for improvement. You know, what can they do better? What can they do to improve? And that’s both themselves and the business.
So, to me, that formula, which is: Success equals vision, plus courage, plus relentless discipline, plus thirst for improvement, is really what I’ve written the whole book about, the manual on how to go from zero, as 23-year-old kid, to $20 million this year, 150 staff, and what are the lessons to learn on the way? And that’s a story that I would really want to share with everybody.
Nathan: Yeah, amazing, ma. So, one thing that really strikes me about yourself is…for everyone listening, so, I’m a part of a group called EO, and I think I mentioned before, Entrepreneurs Organization, really, really incredible group of people. They’ve got chapters all around the world, and I’m in the Melbourne chapter. And I first met Steve through EO, and he’d come to our training day, and I was just, like, “Wow!” Like, “Wait..” You’d come to facilitate kind of, like, I guess, setting the scene for people’s goals for the year. And after, like, doing that workshop, I was, like, “Wow! This guy…” Like, the kind of stuff that you were talking about, I’ve never read or heard anywhere before, and it was really, really life-changing, earth-shaking for me. And one thing that I found really, really powerful was the way that you track everything to the letter. Are you able to share a bit of an insight on that, around your traffic light reporting? That’s something I’ve never seen anyone really talk about. I know it’s…you know, in EO circles it’s quite strong, but I’ve never really read people talk about that, write about that, or content around that, and then, also, around scaling. Let’s talk about scaling and growing for people.
Steve: Yeah, sure. So, look, think, a lot of people talk about goals, and they say, you know, “I want to be X,” or, “In a few years, I want us to do Y.” So, what I found, though, in teaching…so, in teaching the Entrepreneurs Organization sessions, you know, I would teach those across Australia and New Zealand, and have 300 to 400 different people come to those sessions, and it used to frustrate me because so many people would come to those sessions, and I’d say, you know, “Hey, Matt. I saw you three months ago, and you had this strategy in place, and you were gonna go out and get this business, you were gonna double this year. Where are you up to?” And then they’d say, “You know, what? I just didn’t get there.” I’d say, “Why not? You were only a few months in. What happened?” “Oh, something didn’t work out.”
Now, I’ve always had the view in my business, and maybe it’s just my personal circumstances, but failure was never an option. That doesn’t mean that things don’t work out, or that I haven’t failed, because, of course, I have the different things that I’ve done…I’ve had enormous amount of failures in the business, but business failure was never an option to me, because if we did, we would have lost everything. So, to me, it’s about this relentless discipline. So, I’m not interested in having, you know, 150 employees, whose future is at stake because I’m guessing on something. You know, I have a responsibility to them, and even with just me. I’m a responsibility to make sure that what we invest in is going to work out.
So, to me, it’s not just having a goal and saying, “In a year’s time, I want to go from $300,000 in sales to a million dollars.” That, in itself, is okay. That’s a goal, but it doesn’t actually tell me whether or not I’m on track. It just says, “Here’s my goal.” So, relentless discipline, to me, which is that grind, day after day, week after week, month after month, is, “What do we need to do each week to guarantee that we’re on track?” So, in my business, most of our clients will result to face-to-face communication. So, for example, if we want to grow our business by a million dollars, and the average person is buying $10,000 of products and services, we’ve really got to go and sell basically a hundred extra clients. So, a hundred extra clients, if we convert 50% of the time, means I need to do 200 extra meetings, with 200 extra…meet with 200 prospects.
So, if that’s on a weekly basis, to me, well, that means I’ve to meet four a week. So, it means if I get here, week after week, after week, and I hit my four face-to-face prospective meetings every week, week after week, after week, then I’m gonna hit my goal. So, I can look at my activities today, and I can look out a year from now into the future, and say, “Now, I know that I’ll hit my mark of success. I know I’ll hit that goal,” whereas a lot of people just go, “I just want to hit the goal,” and they don’t think about what they have to do in the daily grind, how many meetings, how many phone calls, what they have to do week-after-week.
So, I’ve developed a KPI dashboard, and so, for me, I use this in all the businesses that I consult with, which is where you have a red, yellow, and green matrix, and every week, for those key goals, you go, “What does success look like for a week?” So, if you want to grow that business a million dollars a year, that’s extra $20 grand a week in sales you have to bring in. So, it will be: Green is $20 grand in sales. And then, red is normally set at either the business breakeven, or red means that we’re really off-track, which might be, say, $15 grand a week in sales. And so, whether it’s red, yellow, or green, every week, relentlessly, we’re going to look at that number and see if we’re on-track or off-track.
So, think about, relentless discipline is, “What are the activities that I need to do today to ensure that I hit my goals 6 months, 9 months, 12 months from now?” So, when I was thinking about words to this chapter in the book, and I looked back over my time, now, I was the person that would honestly, when I was building my business, I would go and meet clients all day. I would talk to staff all day, and I would do all of my proposals, my tenders, and all of my emails at night, because I didn’t want to take up valuable hours during the day doing emails or on the phone. I wanted to get out there and see people to grow the business. So, that relentless discipline, which is doing what you know needs to be done…if you need to do those four meetings a week…not doing one, not doing two, not doing three, but doing four, and making sure that, you know, no time for holidays. If I’m holiday, then I’m gonna do eight the next week, and making sure, no matter what, that I’m always getting there, so I’m always gonna be on-track. What I found for me is by doing them, always a higher likelihood of success, because I’m looking at the activities, not just the outcome.
Nathan: Yeah, no. I think it’s genius, really, really smart. We’ve implemented in Foundr, we won’t hit our goal this year, but it’s definitely made a massive impact around our business, and, also, accountability. That’s one thing that I found really powerful, that accountability, you can move it not just from yourself as the founder, or the entrepreneur, or the owner, but you can start bringing some accountabilities to members of your team, as well.
Steve: Well, one of the things that I’ve done with businesses that I’ve worked with, and that I recommend, is that this isn’t all necessarily just the founder or the business owner, but, over time, you start to go, “Well, who are the right people to be accountable for that performance?” Say, for example, that if we have something…like, now in the Fire and Safety Australia business, the national sales manager is the person who is accountable for those weekly face-to-face meetings. So, I think now we’ve got nine in the sales team. So, they have a combined KPI of well over a hundred sales meetings a week, or prospective meetings a week. So, whoever that right person is that should be accountable for it, their name goes next to it so that they’re the person who, week after week, reports back on whether on-track or off-track.
You know, I’ve done a lot of strategic planning sessions with businesses, businesses for a million-dollar to businesses for a hundred-million-dollar revenue, you know, employees from 5 to employees of 600, and what I generally find is that they’re not looking at data regularly enough. At the end of the month, they’ll say, “Our sales are on-track, or we’re off-track,” and that’s it. But, my question is, “Why? Why were they off-track? What were we not doing?”
So, in my business, I could always correlate the face-to-face meetings or calls done by our team to what our revenue, and sales, and profit was. So, I’m not interested in waiting ’till the end of the month to go…to determine whether my sales team made enough calls. I’m just not willing to risk everything we’ve built and risk our success on waiting ’till the end of the month and revenue figure. It’s not good enough for me. So, instead, week after week, I look at how many calls, how many meetings, because then I’d be able to look into the future and say, “Now I know we’ll hit our budget, because I’ve done the calls and I’ve done the meetings.” So, I wanted to be on the front foot, you know. Like I said, failure was an option for the business. I want to be in front of it all the time, and I want them to understand that I want to help my team, I want to help our sales team, help our managers to achieve their goals. And it’s much easier to do that early, and work on it together than to try and fix it ines at the end.
Nathan: You mentioned about this relentless discipline, and I think that’s super-super-key within…you know, like, with the success that you’ve had in your business, your first business, as well. So, not everyone will have that inherent nature, Steve, to be super-focused. Do you have any advice, or tips, or best practice to maintain that focus, man?
Steve: So, I think, for me, it comes down to: What is your clear and compelling vision? So, to me, you know, I started my business with the view of working a day or two a week, earning some extra money, and stay in the fire brigade, but once I really started, like, a year, two years into the business, you know, this is what I loved doing. You know, it was my passion. Our purpose is to forever change safety in the world, one experience at a time. So, I truly love what we do. You know, it’s not something that I have to do. It’s something that I want to do, and something that makes a real difference in the world, that if we don’t have it, then businesses are at risk, people are at risk, and there’ll be more people who, unfortunately, die at work from accidents. So, I wanted to have a higher power. I wanted our business to be something that’s truly meaningful, that truly stands out, but really, I wanted people to be able to come to me one day and say, “Wow! As a result to doing this training, this is what it’s meant for us.” “Wow! As a result of having your people on-site, you know, this person is still alive,” which, we’ve had those two happened… I’ve had those two happen to me before.
So, to me, having that vision right in front of me, all of the time, was that way that just kept me focused, kept me going. If your vision is only money-focused…you know, “I want this,” or, “I want this amount of money,” I don’t know that you’ll ever make it. For me, it was something more than that. It wasn’t just about money. It was about making a difference in the world, and doing something that would be meaningful, whereas if it was just money, and you have a year like my 2015, most business owners would quit. They would say, “You know, what? Too hard. Things are really bad, I’m leaving it.” But if you had something you were truly passionate about, where you honestly love what you do, and you know what you do makes a significant difference in the world, that’s when you’re gonna be able to push through.
And I think I’ve always been a big believer in visualization. So, when things have been tough for me, I’ve always gone, “You know, what? Things might be crap today, but what does my success look like three months from now, a year from now?” I would picture myself at a great restaurant, at a house, drinking champagne with my wife, thinking, “Wow!” You know, I remember back thinking of my future self, I remember back then when things were tough, but, wow! We pushed through, we kept going, and things have worked out. So, I would also encourage people to think about their future self, and look into the future, and go, “You know, what?” One day in the future, what you’re going through now is not going to be that bad. So think about it, get through it, and then go and celebrate your success three or six months from now.
Nathan: I love that, man. Talk to us about scaling, man. From all the businesses that you’ve worked with, what do you think the biggest difficulties that people face is around looking to scale a business?
Steve: Can you just repeat that? Sorry, I lost you for a second there.
Nathan: Yeah, sure thing. So, can you talk to us about scaling businesses from all the businesses that you’ve looked at and helped grow when you were in consulting and advisory stuff? What are the biggest things that hold people back from being able to scale a business?
Steve: Yeah, sure. So, look, I think…you know, if I cut right to the chase, I think the number-one reason why people don’t…or why people aren’t able to scale a business…probably a couple of things, but number one is that people don’t love selling. There are a whole lot of entrepreneurs who I meet, and I’ll have a room, I’ll be facilitating a training session of 50, and I’ll say, “Who, here, love sales?” And I’ll get, like, three hands up. I go, “Who, here, hates sales?” Like, 40 hands up. And I’m, like, “Wow! You’re looking at this the wrong way,” because they think selling is…it’s ugly, it’s sleazy.
And I said, “Look, who, here, loves their product? Who, here, honestly created their product or service because it’s something that you wanted to see in the world?” Most hands will go up. And I’d go, “Well, why aren’t you looking at sales the same way? Why aren’t you looking at sales, which is, ‘You know, what? I want to connect more people with my product that makes a big difference to their lives and to the world?'” And most people go, “Well, I’ve never really thought of it that way.” So I think sometimes an owner’s lack of motivation in sales, or their thinking that sales is not the right thing for them would be one.
The other reason is that most business owners who have a team of employees aren’t really looking at their employees enough to determine whether or not they’re the right people. So, my saying is, most employers, most businesses don’t fail because they fail to find the right employees. They fail to fire the wrong employees.
So, I have taught people leadership that was asking say to you, in excess of 500 people, and my question to everybody here would be…and this is not my question. This is the question I was asked about eight years ago by a CEO who built a hundred-million-dollar-plus business, and his question to me was, “Steve, knowing what you know now, would you enthusiastically rehire all of your employees?” I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You know, enthusiastically rehire, and I said, “No.” And he goes, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got this person, and this person is just not…they’re not doing what they promised. They’re not leaving…you know, they’re in late, they’re leaving early. They’re just not doing good enough.” And he goes, “Why are they still there?” And I said, “My words were they’re not that bad.” And I’m like, “Shit. ‘They’re not that bad’ is probably not the reason for me to employ an employee. You know, I need people who are good, who are great, who are fantastic, as opposed to ‘not that bad.'”
So, I took the courage, and went and removed that person. And I talk to business owners now, and business leaders, and I say, “If you were like me at the time…” This was about eight years ago. “And your response is, ‘No. I wouldn’t enthusiastically rehire everybody, but they’re not that bad,” I go, “Well, let’s try and build a team of great people rather than ‘not bad’ people.” So, I think having the right team of people who are engaged in your vision, who understand your values, who are the best talent that you can afford, that’s something that I’ve learned, year after year, is that, “What’s the best talent that I could possibly afford? That, if I’m not in the business, if I’m on holidays, or if I’m out there trying to grow the business, who are the best people to really take the business to the next level?” So, that would be one of the things that I would suggest, as well.
Nathan: Yeah. No, I love that. And do you have advice on finding the best people?
Steve: So, one of the things that’s always worked for us is to have a really distinct set of core values. So, many years ago, I went to a great business workshop by someone called Verne Harnish, and he had a book called “The Rockefeller Habits,” and he talked about core values: “What is the guidelines or behaviors in your organization? How do you encourage people to follow the set behaviors of the business?” And so, we’ve been a very values-based organization for a long time. And we had four core values, which are: Passion for safety, thirst for improvement, being memorable, and commitment to our team and clients. So, everyone who we hire…that’s actually what we screen people on. Our job ads have those four values, our email signatures have them. They’re up all around our office. You ask people in our team how we reward and recognize people? You know, that’s how we give people rewards. That’s how we give people movie tickets. We go and say, “You know, what? Steve, this month you’ve lived our ‘thirst for improvement’ core value. You know, we had this issue. You were able to improve it. You were able to improve the business. Wow! It was fantastic. Congratulations.” So, really we try and reward and recognize our team members around it.
The second part is that I’m a believer in that you need to start as you finish. So, there’s nothing wrong with having high standards. When I joined the fire brigade, there were 4,000 applicants for 40 positions, so well less than 1 in 100 people actually got all the way through, from the initial application all the way through to a job, and you went through physical tests, psychological tests, all sorts of things. So, I think you actually need to actually make it hard for people to join your business. So, when we’re hiring paramedics or emergency response personnel, we put them through physical tests, we put them through psychological tests, we put them through aptitude tests to actually look at: Can they actually do all the things they’re saying to do?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes early on where I hired people because CV in a pulse, because they look good on paper, you know, and it was terrible. But it’s only now that we actually go, “You know, what? Let’s actually test to see if you tell me that you have all these rescue skills, let me give you equipment and you show me. You know, if you tell me that you can operate these computer systems, you actually come and show me.” And so, I think that’s also helped us to really, at a really early stage, screen out some people who are just not the right people, who are really just, you know, not telling the truth on their CV, and who, otherwise, we could have hired, and had some bad consequences as a result.
Nathan: Can you tell me about rewarding, like, movie tickets, and stuff? How often do you do that kind of stuff, man?
Steve: Well, look, I mean, we’ve always had…probably in the last seven or eight years now, what we call that “superstar of the month.” So, a superstar of the month is always linked to a core value. So, we ask our team members to go and vote and say, “Who is the superstar of the month? Who, in the business, stood out to you, who went above and beyond for living one of our core values?” And so, a team will actually nominate different people who they think did it. So, the idea is: Always link to a core value, and those core values are the behaviors that we want to encourage.
And so, we’ll do that every month, but saying that, we’ve actually expanded it, in the last sort of year, to be every senior leader in the organization, like, seven or eight senior leaders. They can all give one out each month, because, really, we want to reward and recognize people. You know, we might not be the highest-paying business, and we might not have the best perks, like bean bags, and PlayStations, and ping pong tables like some other tech companies, but if we can be the business that honestly values people for the behaviors they’re showing, and we can really extend a hand to them and say, “Look, what you did for this customer, or for this staff member was fantastic. We appreciate it, and we recognize it. So, here’s a couple of movie tickets,” or maybe on occasion, you know, “Here’s a hotel voucher for you to go out with your wife, or partner, or husband, and go away for the night.” To me, that’s had a whole lot more uptake in acceptance from people.
And then, sometimes we’ll actually have a shared goal. I remember about six years ago, we were about a $2.7-million business, had about 30 staff, and I said to everybody, “You know, if this year, if we can double, if we can get to that $5.5 million, I’ll take everybody on holiday, and we’ll go away for three days.” And so, week after week, with relentless discipline, I charted our review. And now, at the end of the year, if we weren’t above that $5.5 million, that we weren’t twice our revenue in the year before, plus, we wouldn’t go. But if we were, I’d take everyone away for three days, we went to Fraser Island off the Australian coast in Queensland, and every week, I would show people where we were…were we above the line with budget? Are we below? And then, when we were below, they’d say, “Oh, where can I squeeze that extra revenue from?” You know, you never saw more action on a Friday afternoon at the end of the month where we were just, you know, $2000 behind. So, I gamified it, and we used it, and it worked, and by the end of the year, we achieve some great stuff.
So, look, I’m interested in generally rewarding people based on their values, based on behaviors, which are what the company wants to see, based on making sure that we recognize people, and we say, “Thank you,” to people, and sometimes that gamification, “How can we have a competition, or how can we try and have a shared reward that the whole business can contribute to, or the specific team can have a competition for?”
Nathan: Yeah. I love that, mate. Look, we have to work towards wrapping up. Couple last questions: In your book, you mentioned…there’s something mentioned there that I found quite interesting: Asking the hard questions and overcoming ego. What does that mean?
Steve: So, I think sometimes business owners and teams believe that they are better than what they really are. So, I work a lot of businesses, private businesses, entrepreneur who’s generally running the business, and those ones who are able to go…those people who think that their business is perfect and everything is great are generally the ones heading for disaster. You know, I want the people who are healthily paranoid, who were there going, “You know, what? I don’t know everything. What other options do we have? What have you heard? What have you read? What can I see? What are some options for us to improve?” Whereas the people that think that they know it all are the ones who are a founder that’s heading towards ruin.
So, those business owners that go there and go, “Hey, I’m interested in new ideas,” or who are asking questions like, “Hey, what have you done in your business to improve culture? Or, what have you done to, you know, improve your conversion rate on your website? Or, what have you done to get better social media cut-through?” I mean, I’ve just found the best business owners that really are growing their businesses, they check their ego at the door, they know that no matter whether you’ve been in business a year, 5 years, or 10 years, there is always something to learn. So, to me, that thirst for improvement, that core value which is that last part of my equation for success, if leaders really aren’t there and don’t have a real thirst, a real desire to learn more, to get better, to improve, then it’s just not going to happen. So, the more that they’re able to ask those tough questions of themself and the business, to get other ideas and brainstorming from successful entrepreneurs and business owners, that’s how, I think, these companies continue to grow.
There’s not one…you know, I’ve taught probably 400 or 500 different business owners, consulted with 80 or so companies, and, you know, built a pretty sizable business, but, you know, every month I’ll be reading a couple of new books that come out on Amazon, I’ll be going to different entrepreneurial speakers, or be doing as many online courses as I can, and I’ll be listening to people…there’s always something new to learn. And so, the more that I can learn, the more that I can grow. And if you can keep investing in yourself…whether it’s a $10 book or whether it’s a couple of thousand dollars’ workshop, you’ve got that knowledge forever.
So, even if you…and I really think that, you know, a business is just a really long education. You know, I was schooled by the School of Hard Knocks. You know, I don’t have an MBA, I didn’t go to university, but I built a business from a young age, and continued building it, year after year, and I know what works, and I know what doesn’t work. But the more I can keep reaching out and meeting people who have made it work…and it may only be one small thing that I’ve been able to bring back to my business, but the more you learn, the more you earn. And those types of sayings, I think, are amazing, because people who built world-class businesses that scale year-after-year, they keep learning. And they’re not interested in saying that they’re the best or they know everything. They just…they probably just know a little bit more than everyone else who’s around them.
Nathan: Yeah. I agree 100%. Awesome, man. Well, look, last question, or…no, two last questions and we’ll wrap there. First question is: You talk about leadership a lot, which, I think, is quite interesting, to be honest. You know, it’s taken me a while to understand the importance of leadership, especially when I didn’t have any employees at Foundr, but now I realize leadership is absolutely everything. So, I’d just like to hear your thoughts on that around what kind of leader you are, and then, how can people find out more about your work and grab a copy of “Courage for Profit?”
Steve: Yeah, cool. So, look, I think, regarding leadership, it’s interesting. So, if I look back, you know, I was 23 years old. I was almost 24. I had nearly 10 staff, and, you know, I remember I was 29 years old, we’re approaching 100 staff, and there are only three people in the company younger than me. And so, I always looked at it…like I said, I wasn’t university-educated, I don’t have an MBA, but, you know, the fire brigade always teaches that leadership is about having a clear plan and executing that with specific roles and responsibilities to everyone who’s there, because, you know, when you’re in the fire brigade and you’re going to a fire, you’re going to a rescue, you know, failure is not an option. You can’t just say, “It’s a bit too hard, so I’m gonna go. I’m gonna go and run away.” So, I think, for me, the way that I’ve led my business, and businesses, is that I’m always tried to distill our vision about where we wanna go. So, I’ve always made it really clear and said, “Look, this is what we’re aiming for. You know, in 2010, in 2015, in 2020, this is what the business looks like.” I’ve always tried to paint the future of what the business looks like to our team, so they could see the future, so that I could bring them along in the journey.
And then, I looked at my role as having high standards: What are the standards that the business has? How can I help to grow them towards more? The reason that “thirst for improvement” is a value in our business is, if people don’t want to improve, we move them on. We want people who realize that they want to continue to improve, and learn, and grow, because those people, to us, have been our best employees. They’ll be with us for life. Those people that don’t want to learn and grow aren’t the right people to us.
So, as a leader, you can’t talk about your vision enough. The more you talk about your vision about where you want to go, the more that your employees and team will understand where they’re going to fit, and they’re gonna align with you and really want to move forward. So, I encourage you to set a strong and compelling vision, to have the courage to be able to follow through, to have the relentless discipline that, week after week, month after month, having those clear KPIs, holding your team accountable, and that thirst for improvement, knowing that everything you do can always be better, both personally, professionally as the business. Look for that 1% everywhere you go.
You know, I’m lucky I’ve dealt with hundreds of different types of businesses, and you get to see every different business that’s out there, and you get to learn something from everyone. And so, the more you can invest in your own learning, and you can invest in your own development, that’s just not a tool for your business now…10 years from now. So, I highly encourage the more that you can do to improve yourself.
In terms of “Courage for Profit,” so I have a website called courageforprofit.com. Like I said, that word, “courage,” means a lot to me, which is, I think business owners really need to do what they know needs to be done, and really, sometimes, you know, stare down in the face of adversity, in the face of things that aren’t going well, when it would be easier to quit and give up, and, instead, to have that courage to keep going, the courage to persist, the courage to achieve their vision, and the courage for profit.
So, I’ve just released my book called “Courage for Profit,” that explains these types of experiences that I’ve talked about with you this evening, and it’s really my way of which I’m hoping that when people read it, they’re gonna be able to get great value, whether it’s around the financial numbers that matter, or whether it’s around how to go and get that right team or how to build a great culture, or whether it’s how to set their vision: “What’s the systemic process that I go through every year? Look at our vision 5 or 10 years out, or whether it’s that relentless discipline, and that courage based on dealing with adversity?”
So, I hope that people are able to read it, pick something of value from it, and, you know, I’d love nothing more…and the reason that I’ve done this is, you know, my goal is to help 10,000 business owners to discover their courage so that they can build a great business, which really helps better their business and better their life.
Nathan: Awesome, man. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Steve. I really enjoyed our conversation, man, and cannot thank you enough.
Steve: No. Thanks, Nathan. Appreciate it, mate.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, we’ll wrap it there.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Steve McLeod
- Check out Steve McLeod’s latest book
- Learn more about Fire and Safety Australia
- Connect with Steve McLeod on Linkedin
- Like Fire and Safety Australia on Facebook
- Follow Fire and Safety Australia on Twitter