AS FAR as Darien Mah, chief executive officer of Forefront Studio, is concerned, your people are your most important resource, thus you must nurture your talents.
They certainly are doing that at the creative agency, using many creative ways to develop and engage its people.
But it wasn’t always like that.
“When we first started out some 12 years ago, it was all about finding a niche for ourselves and finding a market we could grow,” recalled Mah, adding that their green patch of grass turned out to be in property development, which became their initial core market.
A high turnover rate and lacklustre business in the agency’s early days, however, threatened the existence of Forefront Studio.
“The first three or four years were rocky, and we kept swinging between growth and closing down,” he said.
According to Mah, they had no focus on training or people at that point.
“We had never really seen people as our most valuable resource when we should have because we are in the creative industry, and people are the ones who generate ideas. We don’t have a factory or formula – we have people,” he said.
In 2009, they decided to address the problem by re-strategising and focusing on people with the goal of creating an ownership mindset in their employees.
“We no longer just think about making money,” Mah declared.
“Instead we focus on helping everyone grow. Everybody has opportunities to take charge of their careers here.
“When they are in the ownership mindset, their performance is much better compared to when they feel that they are just working for me,” Mah said, adding that offering growth opportunities and career progression was a key component in making this approach work.
He said the majority of the staff in the creative industry were designers, and there was only so much space a designer had to grow.
“After that, to grow would mean they need to develop other skills such as servicing clients, learning how to do pricing and such,” Mah said.
“At Forefront, we help our employees develop these skills so that they will be more valuable to themselves and, therefore, to the company,” he said.
Forefront also practises a system whereby employees determine their own salaries.
“We have a general budget which is given to the department heads who then decide the salaries and bonuses for both themselves and their department members.
“Their decision will then go through a review process that is well documented. Of course, we also have a scoring process because we want to prevent abuse of the system,” Mah said.
The system also makes provision for a group of high achievers, identified separately, who are given the chance for a career fast-track through mentorship and career progression talks with Mah.
“The salary progression for these people are much faster than what they can find working elsewhere. They will outgrow their counterparts in other companies,” he said.
Anyone could be picked up for progression opportunities as long as they show the potential and passion for it. Even interns.
The company also organises team-building sessions, leadership training and overseas retreat for its leaders.
Another aspect in Forefront’s effort to groom leaders is the “CEO of the Week” programme, which first kicked off when Mah wanted fresh ideas and ways to bring the team closer and added-value to work.
“One person who has displayed passion, potential and good communication will be selected to be CEO for one week. During this time, they can plan and start initiatives they believe will be beneficial to the company,” he said, adding that the “CEOs” also got to use his car, though mostly they would just take it for a symbolic drive to have lunch somewhere with him.
Among the initiatives started through this programme is waste segregation into proper compartments, and this would be collected by a special truck.
Forefront Studio’s office also has a play-room which features a ping-pong table among other games. Mah said this room was for light exercise and games.
“It has become less popular though since we started the green room. It’s a small glass-walled space filled with potted plants, and we keep board games there. Our all-time favourite is the Settlers of Catan which we got into after a training we attended that had an activity based on this game,” he said.
At Forefront, the motto “work hard, play hard” is always applied and nothing but creative solutions will work.
“Even with a simple event like Secret Santa, we strive to do it differently and give it a fun twist.
“Last year, we hung stockings, one for each employee, on the staircase railings. Everyone is someone’s Secret Santa and there was a lot of sneaking around as the Santas tried to deliver their gifts discreetly without being seen,” he said.
According to Mah, many also used the opportunity to deliver well wishes and gifts to each other and even reveal hidden feelings they were too shy to say in person.
Mah said the receptiveness of the staff, consisting mostly those from Gen Y, was definitely a factor contributing to the success of their methods.
“There is a family spirit in the office whereby everyone takes care of each other and helps one another grow,” he added.
Forefront also recently introduced a new programme that encourages its staff to live their dreams.
“We are always encouraging our staff to travel. Which is why we started a new initiative which lets our staff to take time out to fulfil their travel dreams,” Mah said.
Called the Travel Vlog programme, interested employees sends in a video blog detailing their planned itinerary, budget as well as what they want to do and one person will get selected every quarter to live out their dream.
“We just approved one employee’s submission to go away for 21 days to America. We gave him some allowance, extra annual leave and also a GoPro camera to capture his experience, which we will post on our company’s Facebook page when he returns which is also good branding for us,” Mah said.
The programme only started late last year, and so far, only one round of selection has taken place.
Mah said his latest CEO briefing, done at the start of every year, found that the company had a 90% retention rate for its key people and most of the 75 employees they had joined during Forefront’s restrategising period.
“We will continue to stick to what we consider ourselves best in, and that is taking care of our own people.
“When we take care of our own, they in turn will take care of the clients, so at the end of the day, it works out for everyone,” he said.
Forefront Studio recently took home the Gold award for Best Employer at the Star Outstanding Business Award 2015 as well as the Silver Award for Best in Marketing.