Unsung Business Heroes: Series Two
Identifying a starting point in understanding Aldo Grech’s success is a challenge, because it isn’t immediately obvious with one specific turning point.
It could have been the time when, as a young boy living in Malta, he was given a broken radio by a family friend who knew he could fix it. “I was 12 years old and I was able to fix things and it took me just half an hour to make that radio work again.”
Or, two years later when he paid seven pounds for a car a mechanic couldn’t repair. “I was 14 and I spent two months working on it, got it running and was driving it, illegally.”
Or, when he was 20 and migrated to Australia just as the personal computer industry was about to explode. “It was pure coincidence that I landed a job with a PC organisation as their main technical guy, and because I wanted to make more money I quickly transitioned into sales, then into marketing.”
Or, when he moved to New Zealand to be the country manager for Acer. “I decided to do something different in a bid to grow that business and the people who worked in it.
Instead of having business cards which said Sales Manager or whatever their title was, I gave them titles that respected what they did; for example the receptionist became the director of customer satisfaction.”
Or, when he got cancer which led to a 10 year spiral in which he lost everything. “That was 20 years ago – I had colon cancer. While I recovered from it, in the work environment I went straight back into everything I did before I had cancer. I got to a stage where everything I had built was gone, everything.”
Or, finally, the time just six years ago when he was offered the role of CEO of the company that would become AirData. “They initially brought me in to turn around a problematic sales team in New South Wales. But they had big cash issues and were taken over, and then that company went bankrupt. The administrators asked me to be CEO and I said I would do it if the staff wanted me.”
Put all those experiences into a melting pot, add a dash of parental guidance and you begin to understand the success of Aldo Grech.
In essence, Aldo admits, “my only qualification is that I am an inventor. I look at any problem, whether it is building an electric car or turning around a loss-making business, from a point of view of creativity. I don’t have set rules; like an inventor I seek what I need in the moment.
“I have an innate, inquisitive mind that wants to find solutions to problems, so I am more adept to assisting others solve problems in a normal business environment. Actually more adept at that than actually running a business long term.”
One of Aldo’s friends calls him the Social CEO. “There’s a part of me which is very business-like but also a part which is very humanistic, and you don’t see that very often in people doing what I do because they tend to be too focused on the bottom line.”
Aldo believes “a sustainable business starts with people who are doing things they can sustain for the long term. I call it Essential Leadership because that comes from the essence and it’s essential.”
That was a lesson Aldo learnt when he tried something different when based in New Zealand. The ‘receptionist’ who became ‘director of customer satisfaction’ is a classic example of Essential Leadership at work, he believes.
Proudly recounting the moment, Aldo notes “from the moment she received her new business card, her attitude changed. She would turn up to work dressed immaculately, she redesigned the entire reception area and would fight with the internal team if they didn’t return their phone calls on time. She was operating from her essence and she was happy. She became the best of who she was.”
As a CEO “rather than saying I need people to deliver KPI’s, I need people who can develop to do the things they love which makes them sustainable, so that my business is sustainable.”
It would be easy to pigeonhole Aldo as a mentor, but that would be a mistake. “I don’t consider myself a mentor, in fact I actually don’t believe in the concept of mentorship.”
That’s a surprising statement coming from a man whose main objective in life is to inspire others to be the best of themselves.
Aldo clearly remembers reading the quote ‘be yourself because everyone else is taken’. “I cannot be Bill Gates, but I can be Aldo Grech and I have to find out what that means and deliver it to the world. And that’s what I tell everyone I work with.
“I talk to them at length about their lives so I understand what that kernel is inside that makes them who they are and that gives them happiness.”
Once this essence is found, “I use that as a mirror into their future where I get their permission to hold them accountable to who they are.
“Yeah, some might call it mentoring, but as an inventor and a designer I give life to things.
I get out of the design what the design wants to deliver and it’s the same with people.”
It might be splitting hairs; where’s the line between mentoring and helping people design their lives? His decision to take on the CEO role with the company that would become AirData, probably goes a long way to explaining how he sees the difference.
Today Aldo is Chairman of the business and somebody now runs the business on a day-to-day basis, but six years ago it was a different story.
“The business was having all sorts of problems and I had some success turning it around. When they asked me to be CEO I was semi-retired and I wasn’t interested. I was being paid as a contractor and was happy with my role.
“I eventually said I would do it on the basis that the staff wanted me. I wanted to be beholden to the staff, not the Board and I also convinced the Board to give 40 percent of the business to us, the staff, which we shared equally.“
Now that “we’ve turned the business around over the last six years, I decided sailing was more fun.”
A mentor guides, advises, encourages; Aldo, the inventor and designer, helped create an environment where people succeeded by helping them to find their essence.
He wasn’t always like that though, the inventor in Aldo Grech only emerged after that period in his life where he lost everything.
Looking back, Aldo reflects, “I had cancer but I saw it as an inconvenience. I had better things to do than worry about cancer. I was trained to stay focused on the goal, just keep walking through walls.
“You know what happens when you walk through enough walls? You end up with a bloody nose.”
Aldo dealt with the cancer, and went back to doing exactly the same thing work-wise as he’d done previously, and within 10 years he’d lost everything.
Freely admitting the situation, Aldo comments “my health was the first to go, then the rest; my wife left, everything was gone.
Call it a mid-life crisis, burnout, depression, whatever. It was never diagnosed and I never took any medication, I just spiralled.”
Fortunately, “eventually some friends took me down a path that was more about self-exploration rather than medication and I slowly started rebuilding my life. In retrospect, I realised I had everything – a nice home, nice cars – but I wasn’t really happy.”
During that phase Aldo tapped into his spiritual side, which wasn’t easy given he’d grown up in a strict Catholic family and had disowned the religious side of his life many years earlier. Ironically remembering something his father said helped him surface from that sea of despair.
“At some stage I realised that any physical manifestation comes from spiritual issues going on inside us and I remember my father would say life is a search for happiness. He was a devout Catholic, but I think he was a Zen Buddhist at heart.”
Aldo says his father wouldn’t accept that, but “he found happiness and he really didn’t need much in life. We lived a comfortable life, but he always gravitated towards those things that made him happy.”
Eventually this philosophy “morphed into the way I started to do things. It wasn’t a conscious process, but I feel I am at my best when I’m happy. I realised I wasn’t operating from that place that comes from inside and it was creating conflict.”
These days, Aldo feels that “in our society we tend to deal with bandaid solutions; we open them up, operate on them, give them some drugs and send them on their way instead of trying to understand what is at the core of the problem. Normally you find a lack of happiness is at the core. So I’ve believe to find that happiness you have to work towards your passion. It’s a simple solution but the hardest to do.”
Through his various experiences and contact with people, Aldo feels most people don’t really know what they’re passionate about. “We are born with a gift we are meant to deliver to this world, but in the process of growing up and being educated, we lose track of who we are and end up becoming machines designed to deliver profitability to businesses.
Aldo accepts using a word like ‘spiritual’ in a business context can result in weird looks and even doubts about your sanity; “it’s not cool” he says, but it has been an integral part of his success.
“It’s taken me fifty years to realise it, but by spiritual, I mean the wellbeing of my being. Part of the focus on spirituality is the focus on self, because life distracts us from self. We think about the family, the kids, the company or even charities, but not enough about ourselves.
“In an aeroplane they advise fitting your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency, but we forget about applying that same principle in life. Spirituality is about making sure I am okay, and if I am okay I can then work towards making sure you’re okay.”
In a business sense Aldo believes “it’s the only sustainable way forward”.
In summary “if you look at businesses – even the big ones – they’re not sustainable. They come to an end because the people within those businesses are not living a sustainable life.”
There are no surprises about the type of advice you’d receive from Aldo Grech when going into business; make sure it makes you happy. “It has to make your heart sing.”
On a pure business level though, his advice is simple and straightforward; “write a one page business plan.
“Not two pages, not a thesis, just one page plan outlining what it is you want to do with your business.
“Whenever I’ve given a business plan to someone they’ve only ever read the executive summary. They never go to the details, so keep it to one page.
“It needs to capture the kernel of what it is you want to contribute. What inspired you to actually start the business. Keep it succinct, outlining what you’re doing, why and what you’re expecting out of it. You need to capture it in words that inspire you, that relate to your passion.”
On an ongoing basis, Aldo advises business owners “to then review [that plan] every six months and be prepared to make changes if you feel the need; but still keep it to one page.
“During those regular reviews be conscious of where your business is headed and if that’s the way you really want to go; is it making you happy? It’s when we’re not coming from the heart that we fight it and ask; why am I here?”
Whereas if the business owner is coming from the heart, Aldo believes that person can reflect and say “I can find peace and happiness from the direction my business is going. It gives me flexibility.”
He believes there would be many more people chasing their dreams of success if, as a society, we weren’t so focused on stifling those who expressed themselves differently. He’s particularly critical of our education system.
“At school we’re not trained to understand who we are, we are trained to memorise. It’s another thing that works on the intellect rather than the heart.
“We need to encourage kids to open their hearts, when kids open their hearts they are dancers, and creators but then we put them on medication because their behaviour is inconvenient, they are not following the given path. We are all different and we need to explore and develop that difference.”
In response to the question ‘how can you run a business if everyone is creative, if everyone is a leader?’ Aldo replies, “being creative and being a leader doesn’t mean you don’t do the job you’re meant to be doing. It means that in that job you’re engaging your heart. You’re doing it because you feel you can contribute because it aligns with your value system.”
Aldo closes by noting, “I have friends in business who contribute by being totally administrative because that’s what is in their core; they are organisers. I’m not like that – I need more creativity around me. That doesn’t make one right and the other wrong, but in our education system one is wrong and one is right and people are damaged by doing that.”
Aldo believes giving back to society is a fundamental strategy of any business or individual.
“But giving from a place where it’s expected and ‘I’ve got more than enough so I can do it’ is not really giving. It’s nice and it helps, but it’s not helping me.”
Again, it was only in retrospect that Aldo realised the importance of giving from the heart when he understood the before and after cancer versions of himself.
Recalling, “when I was a CEO with money I was involved in helping charities and I was giving, but really it was all mechanical. I wasn’t really giving of me. I was giving materialistic things I could afford to give.”
During the recovery period after he lost everything, Aldo realised he was receiving from others that didn’t really need to give him anything, and it helped change his perspective on giving. “They were sharing their life story with me and I resonated with that, I realised I wasn’t alone and I could start giving back.”
At first within the groups Aldo attended, “I was sharing my story, and that’s hard to do. It’s easy to talk about the weather, your job and your family, but to actually tell you what’s going on inside me is extremely difficult. I’m in a vulnerable state and articulating my strengths and weaknesses, I’m removing all my defences. But if I wasn’t open to that, I wouldn’t benefit for the interaction.”
So the focus on giving back then changed dramatically for Aldo.
For him, “I am only giving when I’m sharing my plate with you and that’s what I utilise all day, every day, because it makes me happy.
“If I’m happy, you feel that happiness, then you’ll get closer to who you are and then contribute from a place that makes you happy.”
- “I don’t have set rules; like an inventor I seek what I need in the moment.”
- “A sustainable business starts with people who are doing things they can sustain for the long term. I call it Essential Leadership because that comes from the essence and it’s essential.”
- “Rather than saying I need people to deliver KPI’s, I need people who can develop to do the things they love which makes them sustainable, and so my business is sustainable.”
- “In retrospect, I realised I had everything – a nice home, nice cars – but I wasn’t really happy.”
- “At some stage I realised that any physical manifestation comes from spiritual issues going on inside us and I remember my father would say life is a search for happiness.”
- “It’s when we’re not coming from the heart that we fight it and ask; why am I here?”
- “Being creative and being a leader doesn’t mean you don’t do the job you’re meant to be doing. It means that in that job you’re engaging your heart.”
- “When people want to work with us, I accept they’re technically qualified, but when I ask them what will make them happy, most can’t answer it.”
Listen to Aldo’s Podcast on the UBH Podcast Channel:
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