The inaugural Australian Financial Review Business Summit taking place yesterday and today appears, on the face of it, to be geared towards the interests of large corporates. However, the theme “Risk Takers and Growth Makers” is set squarely in the territory of SME land, and with everyone’s eyes on the government’s innovation agenda, discussions yesterday revolved heavily around ‘the I word’ and what it means.
Innovation, as a word, has been rendered largely meaningless, particularly from its use in the speeches of politicians and other individuals who, one suspects, have little intention of doing anything innovative at all.
Yet it is a word that has at its heart some noble and evocative sentiments that are hard to fake: transformation, revolution, change. Delegates at the summit agreed: if we are truly to become an innovative nation that makes the most of its capabilities in the wake of a resource-dependent economy, we need to develop, attract and maximise talent.
Speaking on the subjects of fast growth, floating a business on NASDAQ and what it’s like to run a tech startup from Australia, Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes gave the audience a simple plan. If Australia contributes 1% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product then it should contribute 1% of the world’s technology – and that means talent.
Cannon-Brookes told the summit a quarter of Atlassian’s staff in Sydney have been ‘imported’ from overseas and are working here on 457 visas. They love their jobs, they love Australia and they’re incredibly talented. Yet Australia’s cost of living – which is inflated when you’re on a 457 visa with rising costs such as healthcare and public education (for your children) – is hurting our ability to attract talent.
When asked how Australia’s two major political parties should respond to this, Cannon-Brookes suggested politics should be asking itself: how do we have a talented workforce in 20 years? And then the major political parties should both work to present the best possible means of getting there.
The Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott also sees the issue of innovation and Australia’s economy as a play for talent, noting it’s important we don’t define innovation as purely technological; it’s the ecosystem of collaboration we need to manifest.
A talent economy protects the skills we need, not just the jobs, she explained, and converts creativity at the workplace level and delivers social progress.
“It’s vital that we don’t assume that innovation is solely in the domain of startup companies,” Westacott told the audience.
General Electric chief executive John Rice emphasised the need to make sure business leaders have the hearts and minds of all of their employees at the fore when it comes to tackling change. “Make sure all the groups are on your side,” he said.
“This is a world where you’re going to make changes – you have to make sure that everybody’s head is in the game.”
Key takeaways for SMEs striving to drive innovation
Bruce Buchanan, chief executive, Rokt
- Always consider, how do I best support my team, so they can support down the line?
- How can I turn my focus outward and not always be bogged down with internal systems?
- Look for leaders (when recruiting) who don’t have a lot of ego
- Get rid of bureaucracy – it’s the enemy of the entrepreneurial spirit
- Celebrate along the way – facilitate camaraderie and instill a sense of achievement
- Nail your communications – especially when you’re operating in a geographically disperse workforce
Paul Bassat, co-founder, Square Peg Capital
- On recruiting: If there are 10 candidates for a role and the best of that 10 isn’t good enough, don’t hire them
- Hire based on a values set, rather than skills. It’s achievable for someone to learn the skills, but you can’t learn integrity, initiative and teamwork
- Exercise a culture of honesty and transparency
- Support an environment where staff think of moving their career along from within the company, rather than beyond it.
- Align your values with your sense of purpose and be consistent around what the organisation says and what the organisation does, then monitor those efforts and changes every six months.
John Rice, chief executive, General Electric
- “We can’t have an environment where people are afraid to fail. Try something quickly and if it doesn’t look like it’s working then stop doing it and try something else.”
Dr Larry Marshall, chief executive, CSIRO
- “Managing innovation and disruption is a process of managing ambiguity”. This means you need a chief executive who can listen and be attentive and not be a chest-beating hero.
Michael Cannon-Brookes, co-founder, Atlassian
- “We’d love to be the second biggest tech company in Australia, because that would mean someone else is rolling past.”