A conversation with Joy Ratala, Senior Change Manager – Diversified Consulting

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JR:

Thank you for your patience and even more, your continuous zeal and desire for conversations on leadership. They build us and give us hope. 

LM:

Thank you so much My Leader, I learnt a lot from these engagements, thank you for all your efforts to keep flying the leadership flag. 

JR:

On Leadership…

LM:

When I saw this open-ended question, I thought to myself, only Joy can ask this type of question, I thought long and hard until I was inspired by these words from Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders eat Last; 

“Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown;

They rush towards danger.

They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future.

Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. 

And they would never sacrifice what us ours to save what is theirs. 

This is what is meant to be a leader. 

It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst towards the unknown.

And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, 

we will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.” 

I grew up loving and admiring liberation movement leaders such as Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Frances Baard, Florence Matomela, Ruth First, Dulcie September, Lillian Ngoyi and many other unsung heroines of our liberation struggle. I was also brought up by 5 amazing women, my mother Glady Mali; my maternal Grandmother, Lydia Summerton, My paternal grandmother No white Mali, my great Aunt, Ida Summerton and my great grandmother, Harriet Xhewu Summerton. 

I think all these powerful women epitomized the very best traits of leadership qualities, they showed with both words and deeds that they were ;

  • Selfless 
  • Principles 
  • Values driven 
  • Driven by a higher goal 
  • Put the interests of others first 
  • Were very disciplined 
  • Were inspirational 
  • Set clear direction and most importantly,
  • the act of following them was voluntary and exciting because you believed in them. 

In contrast with the current selfish, egocentric, power hungry and sometimes corrupt so called leaders, these wonderful leaders sacrificed themselves for goals and ideals far greater than themselves. 

So, for me, leadership is not a title held, but a profound influence felt. These wonderful people have not had titles behind their names, but they have influenced me a lot in my life. So, I think that the world needs more leaders without titles, who are there for others and less for themselves and who we can rely on trust unconditionally. 

JR:

With a lot already being done, what more do you think women can still do in order to be recognized for leadership roles?

LM:

I actually have a very radical view on this. I have watched women and men come through the ranks in my organisation and other organisations over 20 years, across more than 20 countries on the African continent and in the private, public and not for profit sectors. I have also managed huge teams with lots of leaders from the team leader level to the executive director and board of director’s level. I therefore firmly believe that the women I have met as clients, stakeholders, team members, colleagues etc have more than what is required to take on leadership roles. Each one of the women I have worked with are doing great jobs as entrepreneurs, executives, managers and have set very high standards. These people include people like Indira Bhagaloo; Khanyi Chaba, Hannah Sadiki; Carolina Reddy; Wendy Pienaar, Mita Koebe; Joyce Uredi, Sakeenat Bakare; Aishah Ahmad; Gwen Mwaba; Pindi Nyandoro; Portia Nondo; Itumeleng Monale; Mercia Bloem; and many others. The problem really does not lie with women and what they have to do more of, it squarely lies with organisations, whether they are willing to truly promote and champion women leadership and development beyond mere lip service. There are 5 practical ways in which this can be done: 

  • Firstly, identify the women with the greatest potential across the organisation from the team leader level, to manager, to middle manager, to senior manager, to executive director level and to Bossed of director level. Chart a career path for each of these women and identify two or three possible career paths for them inclusive of maternity leave and other changes in their lives; 
  • identify roles that are earmarked for these identified colleagues and make sure that your vacancies, promotions, transfers etc are used for this purpose with about 80-90% of opportunities earmarked to be filled by the identified colleagues; 
  • When an appointment is made along these plans, publicize it, make sure that the organisation can see the direction you are going as you do the promotions, fill the vacancies and manage possible exits; 
  • Visibly support women as you appoint them into these roles and ensure their success. It is the leader’s responsibility to support women against a male backlash, or against chauvinist behaviour, or against all forms of isolation that happens in corporates. In addition to this, support women in times of difficulty as they may be more harder on themselves when there are problems with business performance. Be vigilant on the following things: Firstly, there is a tendency for women to be less demanding on remuneration, you as s leader have to make sure that you are always carefully managing any gender pay gap; Secondly, ensure that the working environment is conducive for women to succeed both at home and at work; thirdly; watch and be vigilant on sexual harassment in the workplace; Fourthly, make sure that you support women as they battle life challenges such as a messy divorce, an abusive relationship, a miscarriage, a sick child, a child with learning disabilities, a child with a disability 
  • identify and create learning and development opportunities for the identified women that deal with both the technical and non-technical skills required for the roles they are earmarked for. 

I have had the joy of doing this successfully for over 20 years across different markets, and I’ve not been disappointed by the quality, determination and excellence of women at all the leadership levels. 

So, my view Joy, is that there is more required of us as leaders to attract, retain, and chalk women talent beyond lip service, rhetoric and empty promises. I am excited about the amazing quality of young leaders coming through the ranks, they require more exposure and leadership opportunities in my team, and we have clear plans about how to grow them. 

JR:

Millennials representation on boards – what is your view?

LM:

I think the world is changing, changing very fast and some of the people who will understand this world are younger than those currently in leadership positions. In my career, I have appointed very young people to very responsible leadership roles with great results. I myself was given amazing opportunities at a very young age and learnt so much from the more older colleagues but was also able to influence their thinking on a lot of things. The best teams are diverse, vibrant and are buzzing with ideas from young people. As I’ve grown older and more senior, I’ve never lost that dynamic relationship with young people. Some of the finest of these young guys will achieve bigger and greater things than I have in my life and career. Finally, young people already own and sit on the boards of some amazing innovative organisations, it’s just a matter of time before they lead across the corporate world, these amazing young people include Achumile Majija, Lynette Ntuli, and we have seen organisations such Deloitte establish a Millenial Board of young talent across 

JR:

How do you survive seeing history repeating itself, when you know you did a lot or rather not enough to see change?

LM:

In the words of a famous Italian philosopher, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” 

Over my entire life I have faced obstacles on the path to change, I’ve had setbacks and disappointments, but I’ve always been strengthened by the ever green words of Robert Kennedy in his visit to South Africa, “ Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” My task is always to continue to strike against injustice in my family, my community, my own organisation and in my society. Sometimes the set back is so painful, in other times you are betrayed by those you trusted and believed in, it may be easy to just give in to cynicism – but the reality is that we are called upon to lead, to strike against injustice, and send forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Change is inevitable, and injustice will fall. 

JR:

It’s literally a “Game of Thrones” at the top, however you have managed to be one of the most dependable servant leaders I know … What keeps you sane and helps you to wake up every morning and still want to do it CONSISTENTLY, AGAIN & AGAIN?

LM:

Thanks Joy for such a feedback, it is highly appreciated. I think that sometimes leaders take themselves too seriously or take corporate life too personally. The Standard Bank Group of companies have been a key part of my life for 17 years, but it is not my life, I do not make the corporate life, it’s intrigue, contests, politics and status affect how I see myself. I have been brought up with strong values that define who I am, those who influenced me instilled a set of principles by which leave my life. Lastly, I bring my whole self to work, I do not have a corporate persona and a personal persona, so therefore, regardless what happens in our corporate hierarchy the following things cannot and should not change: 

  • I was brought up to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their status within the organization; 
  • As much as organizational tensions and disputes can be frustrating, as a leader, I’ve learnt to control my emotions and body language so as not to convey such frustrations to staff members or my family; 
  • I’ve never been defined by positions or status, I’ve always understood leadership to be about service, selflessness and integrity; and lastly 
  • we as leaders are judged more not on our words but more on our actions every day. 

I guess what keeps me sane are the following key things in my life:

  • I know who I am, where I come from and my responsibility in Standard bank and in society; 
  • I take leadership as a very serious calling and responsibility; 
  • I have a responsibility to remain grounded and humble no matter how senior I become in Standard bank, the titles and honours do not define me; 
  • I spend almost 80% of my time and career with staff and customers in the real world, I’m therefore removed sometimes from the “Game of Thrones” corporate battles; and lastly 
  • I take being a steward very seriously, the Standard bank has been successful for more than 150 years because of great people that came before us, our responsibility is to leave it, for future generations, better than we found it. 

I would like to stay the same person, throughout my career at Standard bank and help young people to grow and develop to be better bankers and human beings. 

JR:

There is something that comes with power that tends throw off leaders as they climb up the corporate ladders – What would be your caution to someone experiencing accelerated leadership growth?

LM:

One of the greatest cautions to young leaders is to know why they want to lead, what us the primary motivation – is it power, prestige, status, or money and wealth? Whatever the motivation is, it has a huge bearing in terms of your decisions, your demeanour, and has a huge impact on your decisions. 

I am saddened by what I see these days, a lot of dynamic, talented and highly skilled young leaders are causing huge pain and suffering to their staff members in both the corporate and public sectors. These young leaders are highly regarded, well positioned and are destined for greater things in their organisations. They point out to great results, projects completed and new victories, but no one wants to reveal the ugly side of their “victories”. That ugly side includes suicides, miscarriages, depressions, stress levels, divorces and the overall misery of their staff members as they try and cope under the constant bullying, intimidation and appalling leadership behaviours. The human capital area which is meant to be independent and objective is completely silent on the side-lines; corporate leaders conveniently look the other way and unions have become weakened because of the loss in numbers. Meanwhile all these organisations have glossy mission statements and fancy value statements that belie the brutality that takes place daily within those hallowed chambers. 

It usually takes one brave staff member to lift the corporate veil to reveal the dirty secrets of some of the most celebrated managers. Everybody then feigns ignorance as the true extent of the brutality is laid bare for everyone to see. 

No one should escape culpability in these circumstances – other leaders who see these leadership behaviours and say nothing are as guilty as the main perpetrators; the human capital that is deaf and blind fails in its duty, and the corporate of public service senior leaders who look the other way are also guilty of dereliction of duty. 

JR:

A team that wins makes the leader – How do you ensure the team is constantly committed and believed what needs to be delivered?

LM:

I think more than anything people are no fools, they know if a leader is a fake, or a con artist. If they believe and know that a leader is genuine, committed, hard work, and selfless, then they know that such a leader puts them first. If they know that the leader communicates the vision and goal to all his team in a coherent, plain and inspirational manner. Lastly, when people see a leader completely engaged with them on a common journey, willing to sacrifice everything towards the ultimate goal, then you develop a coherent team effort. 

Leaders who exhibit these attributes get a discretionary effort from their people and the people own the goal and vision and drive it as their own. Such teams, together with their leader, create an electronic atmosphere and energy of competing and winning together towards the greater goal. When you join these teams, when you are part of these teams, you can feel the “Gees” in the team. In such teams, there are regular celebrations, there is ongoing rewards and recognition and there is an amazing camaraderie among team members. 

I have worked all my life to build these types of teams, it is no mean feat to achieve this level of team work and culture, such teams mould you as a leader, they challenge you and grow you to be a better person. The feeling of winning together with such teams is one that I cannot describe, but it’s a feeling worth more than gold, it’s the reason why we lead. 

JR:

Retaining talent vs. Driving revenues

What is your view on how these two interlink?

LM:

I think there is a very definite link. One of the most important roles of a leader is to attract and retain good talent towards a higher common goal. I’ve enjoyed doing things differently, I do not go into a new area with talented people from my previous role, I enjoy unearthing talent in the people I find in the new role. The unearthing of talent comes from thousands of conversations with people sometimes three to five levels down. Keeping that talent requires a culture of engagement, inspiration and motivation. When the very best talent feel appreciated, understood, challenged, inspired and well remunerated – they stay and contribute to the larger goal of driving revenues. 

In addition to this, the best talent become more engaged as there is more rewards and recognition as the revenue goal becomes attainable. The people feel energized to contribute and make the goal theirs and not that of the leader alone. 

Lastly, one of the key mistakes leaders make is to drive revenues instead of leading and managing the people who will drive the revenues. I have found leading the people towards the attainment of the goal to be a better approach than me as a leader driving to get the revenues. In this way, I am able to coach, guide, cajole and inspire the team of talented people towards achieving the goal of revenue growth. When the goal has been attained, the glory goes to the talented men and women who were part of this journey, this also helps them to see how they should lead when they have their own teams. 

JR:

How do we envelop African culture in corporate culture and drive change the African way?

LM:

I am proudly African, I was brought up to truly appreciate my culture, my language and traditions. In addition to this, I was brought up to respect and appreciate the languages, religions and cultures of other people in South Africa and the rest of the Continent. Being African is about bring tolerant and appreciative of other languages, cultures and traditions of others. 

Our corporates have a dominant Anglo-Saxon culture, it’s been the dominant culture for decades, I have found that such a culture, although it has some very positive aspects, it is very limited. I have used my own upbringing and my outlook to create environments where all languages, cultures, religions thrive and prosper. I’ve sought to ensure that each person feels that their language, culture, religion is understood, appreciated and respected. As I started to work outside South Africa, on the broader African continent, I did not come there carrying an Anglo-Saxon culture, I came to each country embodying my own culture, but willing to be influenced by the cultures of those countries. My leadership journey across Africa has enabled me to have a broader and African perspective and I am proud of that heritage and influence others to see the world more broader than their narrow cultural background. 

Finally, I have also sought to lead the African way, and to drive change the African way. When one looks back to my own culture, my own upbringing and in researching leadership and cultural dynamics of our early age, I found that 

  • our leaders, chiefs and kings, ruled as part of a collective with the tribal council; 
  • discussions and conversations took place involving fierce debates before consensus was reached in an imbizo or lekgotla. 
  • tradition, culture and language was passed on from generation to generation through stories 

I have used the same values and principles in my leadership style and approach and I’ve tried to instil a deeper meaning of purpose and life in what we do as a team and as people. In addition to this, I’ve sought to bring the powerful concept of Ubuntu in everything we do to build a community for a common purpose. Lastly, I’ve also sought to make our work to be about building lives, ensuring that people succeed in both their personal and professional lives. 

African culture has a lot to offer, I have found it fulfilling and enriching to my personal and professional journey and have changed the corporate culture in my areas of influence.

JR:

Do you lead from the front or the back?

LM:

I think it all depends on the situation- my primary leadership stance is influenced by the need to lead from the front with a flag, rather than behind with a whip. This means that I see my role as laying out a vision, ensure buy in to the vision, and then lead the team through all the challenges towards the attainment of our common goal. 

As we pursue the goal, my role changes, I empower the team to pursue the goal, make key decisions and register key victories. Throughout the journey the team and its members are the primary drivers, and I’m assigned tasks as part of the team. If you wish, i lead from the back, most of the time as Mandela described the role of a shepherd. 

When danger appears, I then appear at the front, deal with the danger, give the team confidence and become part of the broader team again. This change in stance is also evident when things go wrong, my job is to step up to the front and take accountability- but when things go well, when credit has to be given, my job is to step back and give credit to members of my team. 

JR:

Bhuti, thank you so much for sharing, I’m sure more people will benefit from your ideas and insights. 

LM:

Thank you Sisi, I found the conversation to be inspiring and enjoyed it a lot. 

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