President Zuma and what politics can teach business

Firstly, this is not a political article, it just refers to some hotly debated politics in South Africa currently, and tries to garner what we as business can actually learn from this, lets call it corporate wisdom searching 🙂

For some background:

The President of South Africa last week had a reshuffling of parliament in South Africa, and in the process effectively sacked the Minister of Finance and his Deputy, in what some say is a move to secure more power and control over treasury, as well as further promoting the state capture by private individuals in the country.

Since the announcement several corners of support and opposition expressed a range of views in terms of the different moves by the President, and these corners have extended from high powered board rooms to families sitting around the table having a meal, everybody seems to have a view and opinion of some kind, it is the current talk of town no matter where you go.

It is important to note that in terms of the structure of the constitution in south Africa the President have full power in selecting his/her Ministers, and therefore this movements are in general completely legitimate, it is the timing of the move, the people removed, the reasons sighted for this move, the apparent lack of consulting within the party (ANC) that is questioned by most, as well as the negative economic impact this move would have on the country overall.

Our Corporate World

We (Corporate Institutions) also have from time-to-time choices of leaders/managers in our respective operations and industries, and the first question that comes to mind when I see everybody seemingly having an opinion on the selection of Ministers, I wonder if we in the corporate space are applying our minds fully when selecting leaders, and what the criteria is when selecting these leaders.

I have seen many organisations having different leaders at different cycles in the lifecycle of different companies, and I can definitely attest that different leadership styles and specialities tend to be required at different points within the companies lifetime, and therefore it could be good to have different leaders at different times.

I have also seen great leaders adjust their styles according to the company requirements at different times, and therefore the company enjoying longer periods of stability from a leadership perspective, so the questions I have here… what is the ideal lifetime of a CXO within an organisation, when is it time to move on and let someone else take over the reigns within the organisation, what are the tell tale signs, and what is the criteria for selecting a good leader at the different times within the organisation.

I have seen many a positive change brought through leadership change/s, I can however also confirm that I have witnessed poor leaders that have done a lot of damage to companies, and seem to have lasted a long time (years) within these companies, before finally being replaced with new more appropriate leaders, and my questions I have here… why does it take so long and so much damage before a poor leader is removed, and more importantly what is a poor leader tell tale sign, I recall Jack Welch wisdom that basically stated that even the best performer that does not tie in with the company values, should be terminated immediately, so I believe it goes well beyond just the results of the company/organisation at times.

Then, as in the case of President Zuma, must a CEO have an absolute say in his/her leadership team selection, should it be ratified by the board/shareholders, what if the CEO does not get along with any of the leaders he/she have chosen, what if such relationships are ultimately polarising the organisation, what if such relationships is in fact playing a destroying role in pushing the company to greater heights, what if positive growth is hiding poor leadership, what if leader selection is being influenced by politics rather than the best person for the job at hand, these are all realities that can be seen in many organisations, who then yields the power and indeed the knowledge that change is required.

The selection of leaders have a greater impact than just what is evident on the surface, especially since in our modern world the stakeholders changed dramatically, and the age old objective statement of unlocking shareholder value, now more commonly refers to stakeholders, these stakeholders ranging from shareholders, investors, customers, staff, unions, environmental organisations, regulatory institutions, social organisations, society at large, and a range of others, it is no longer an isolated decision, it is a critical one, and one that can garner significant support and/or opposition across a wide spectrum, that will impact the organisation way beyond the board room.

Oh and then there is the issue of making the tough decisions… tough decisions normally appears to be decisions that everybody knows should be made, but they cannot be made as there are bound to be some pain involved, thus it is not the actual decision required that is missing, its just making the decision/s and moving on.

In South Africa’s it is a fact that we still have people living in makeshift shacks, this right next to some of the richest areas in the country, how can we uplift our people out of poverty, how do we bridge the gap between rich and poor, how do we create jobs in an environment where a large portion of the youth at current trends will never in their life have a full time paying job, definitely not by making no or easy decisions, the question is I suppose what is the balanced approach, and what is balanced.

On the above point I recall travelling from the airport once in 1998 with a good friend of mine from Rwanda, and we passed by a relatively large township, with hundreds of shacks lined next to the road, and he turned to me and asked me where all the refugees came from, I hanged my head in shame as I answered him that these were not refugees, but in fact South African’s living in dire poverty, it broke my heart and I realised we all need to try and make our difference, everyday, everywhere, even if it is a little bit, but I will cover this in another blog at some time, one thing is for sure however, South Africa cannot win if it continues on its current path, we need change in every way.

Change, such an overused word, just look at election campaigns across the world, they are bound to have the word change in there somewhere, and once again I take a management lesson from politics, change is an easy thing to speak about, but a much more difficult thing to actually implement, and involves so many dynamics.

I have seen many mergers and acquisitions, focussing on the financial and other synergies when transactions are done, but I have seen the weakness when due diligence’s and synergies are presented and the softer issues of cultures, employee dynamics, values, missions and visions, integration paths, and many more is just quickly gone over, we often do not really understand the word change management in the corporate world, and every so often the path to change is not clearly defined, it seems that governments are grappling with the same problem, especially when it gets to getting things done.

Getting things done is a very big challenge in many organisations, the strategy may be great, but actually implementing the tactical elements is equally important, and having specific milestones, within specific timelines, with the required resources, and accountability and responsibility for each block in this plan is extremely important.

I refer here to the example of National Development Plan of South Africa, it seems to be a great plan, but we just seem not able to get all the elements in this plan executed, I am sure that is the same for many companies. If I look at two great examples of good plans, that are actually implemented, I note the Ethiopia and Rwanda development plans, very detailed in terms of how it will, and is being implemented, and supported by a population that is hard at work in implementing that plan (I am sure there are more examples of such plans, and once again I am sure there are critics of such plans as well, so my view here is limited to measuring the plan vs the execution of such plan, not if the plan is a good or bad plan for that matter)

To me it all starts as well with having a clear vision, and articulating this vision across the country/company, and ensuring that the country/company is united behind such vision, and that all communications and interactions with all stakeholders by all leadership, preach the requirement to be behind this plan, it needs to be a vision that a country/company feels united in, and leaders cannot and should not divide the population/employees within this vision, else it is bound to fail, so the questions I have… when last did we review our visions for our companies, what is our development plans, how are we uniting/dividing our people/stakeholders in our actions and words in terms of achieving this vision, or are we just quickly showing the slide when presenting to stakeholders.

Then there is the element of communication, such an important part of ensuring the right message gets through, but also one that is fraught with challenges if not done right.

I noted that big guns of spin doctors were called in when some high level court cases and events unfolded in South Africa, relating to what is now known as “State Capture”, with the task to fight the negative news that were created around this unfolding area of politics in South Africa. I was astonished to see what a terrible job they did at this, I personally would have asked my money back from these PR companies, it was a dismal failure up to now that is for sure. (I must stress yet again that I am not looking at the politics of the cases itself, but only what the end result was of the services offered by these companies)

I know for a fact that the government of South Africa, and indeed many other institutions, have done a lot of work since 1994 to better the lives of everyday people, and indeed a lot of people have been lifted out of poverty, although too many still remain, the fact is however there are many positive stories to tell, and I for one believe that those stories are not reaching the population at large, as most tend to only focus on the negatives that associated running the country.

This is the same in many companies who may be doing great stuff, and still negative publicity tends to haunt them, my view on the lesson we can learn here is never to trust your own PR companies to provide you feedback from the market, and do tell stories that people can relate to, in a way that your target market can understand.

Further to that if you do employ PR companies don’t employ one that is many miles away from the environment, and indeed the heart of the world you operate in, most of the time they do not understand the dynamics you are dealing with, especially on this great continent of ours, where warm hearted people live in hope of a better life everyday, you need someone that understands, have empathy, emotional intelligence, and you need to have an honest story to tell, customers and society at large will not be fooled for too long by someone not telling the truth.

Now it can be said that a fish should not receive accolades for swimming, but we need to provide positive dues, where positive dues are applicable, the same goes for internal and external positives.

One interesting article that I saw over the past few months was the reference to a “war room” that was set up to run a political campaign in South Africa, a lot was written about this, mostly negative, I however believe that every company should have a room for management to strategise, look at the competitive environment, engage on what is happening in the market, it needs to be a room that is alive and bustling with ideas, concepts and plans, I in fact always insist and ensure having a “operational room” in every company that I have led, to me it is a must have for any company, it seems in this case politics believe that too.

We will see how things evolve over the next few weeks and possibly months, it is definitely going to be a rocky road, the currency is under pressure, we have just been downgraded to junk status by Standards & Poor, and the population is talking about the events everywhere, fact is that a lot of opinion in the street would be based on a very small understanding of all of the dynamics, popular words however will stick in the average conversation, it is thus critically important to educate and engage with our people, exactly like we should constantly engage with our customers in telling our stories in a responsible and mature manner, not in a propaganda/promotional fashion all the time, sometimes its needed to have a conversation with our customers, and it should be a continued process.

Similarly every company, similar to government, will be faced with PR disasters that they would have to deal with, and it is important to have a very clear plan, lines of communication and crystal clear message flow in such situations, I am not sure we always apply our mind to being ready for such events, and thus when it happens we tend to take too long to respond and the situation spirals out of control, to the extend that we are reacting on news from the market instead of facing the situation head on with constant face time and feedback to our stakeholders at all levels.

So these are my few views of the current news that I see, I hope I can learn from this, and I hope we can all think about what we can in fact learn from politics in our world, and while we are learning to try and make the world a better place, for all our stakeholders.

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