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Top of the game: Best Places to work

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3 July 2010

Fran Metcalf

A casual ‘tribal’ approach at training group Sentis has put it at the top of its field, writes Fran Metcalf.

Kirstin Ferguson is a top boss. Literally. For the 39-year-old is chief executive officer of Brisbane training firm Sentis which has just been ranked number 5 in BRW’s 2010 list of Australia’s top 50 best places to work.

“As a pretty small business, we are thrilled to be in the top five and we’re right behind Google,” Ferguson says.

Sentis is a team of psychologists and safety professionals who travel the world, training mining, resources and utility companies in safety and leadership performance.

But theirs is not a typical training program.

“We don’t do safety audiets or provide training in specific safety behaviours,” Ferguson says.

“Instead, we focus on teaching people how to use their brains effectively to keep themselves safe.

“We are the only people in the world that focus on attitudes to safety.”

Just as its training approach is unusual, so is Sentis’s culture.

“We don’t have fixed working hours or offices and we wear casual clothes every day – jeans and things are perfectly acceptable,” Ferguson says.

“The average age at Sentis is 31 and our guys travel all over the world so we can have people in Mozambique, Norway and Canada all in the same week.

“Because we are a virtual business and we don’t get to see each other a lot, we take two days every six or eight weeks to bring all the staff off the road. On the first day, we go wine tasting or rock climbing or go-karting and then the second day we spend as much time on the personal development of our staff as we do on the professional development.

“We need to make sure everyone is passionate about what they do because, if they are passionate, everything else will follow.

“We don’t lead by revenue targets or the bottom line.”

And it’s this philosophy that earned Sentis its number 5 ranking.

More than 16,000 employees from 160 companies were surveyed by the Great Place to Work Institute Australia which compiles BRW’s 2010 Top 50 Best Places to Work List.

Surveyed employees listed stock options, regular Friday massages, in-office bars and chill-out time to play Xbox or Nintendo Wii as top workplace perks. Others reported rostered days off, early summer knock-off times and gym memberships.

IT company NetApp Australia was he nation’s best company to work for with its 146 employees enjoying generous bonuses as well as a wide range of staff benefits and flexible management.

In Queensland, Morayfield-based training provider MRWED took 15th place, recognised for its in-house social networking function as well as its staff rewards program where points accrued can be redeemed for time off, gifts and experiences.

And Queensland legal firm Trilby Misso Lawyers came in at 32nd position for its family friendly working hours and the introduction of a staff values and development policy.

Companies on the list nominated themselves and range from having 27 employees to 4500 with professional services ranked as the best sector to work in, followed by IT. Ferguson says Sentis’s tribal culture is what employees value most.

“We are a tribe,” she says.

“It’s not about spending a fortune on pool tables. We really respect out tribe members and care for them and nurture their professional and personal development.”

Ferguson arrives at Sentis five years ago after working in more structures, traditional sectors. “I grew up in Sydney and went through the Australian Defence Force Academy and did a degree in history,” she says.

“Then I got posted to an F-111 squadron at Amberley as an administration officer.”

While there, Ferguson was awarded a Churchill Fellowship for research on providing support to widows of those killed in the defence forces.

Eventually, she completed a law degree at Queensland University of Technology and went on to work for Norton Rose lawyers (formerly Deacons) as a solicitor.

“I think law teaches a really unique way of thinking, a logical approach to business issues,” she says.

While in that job, Ferguson was awarded the Australian Institute of Management Brisbane Young Manager of the Year award.

She discovered Sentis through a careers website and was drawn to its unusual business philosophies and approach.

Starting as business development manager for the Australian offices of the privately owned, Brisbane based company, Ferguson quickly climbed the ranks to CEO.

She is now responsible for 60 staff across the globe.

Ferguson is also a board director for SunWater, the largest regional utility company in Queensland.

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