A conversation with Steven Valoi – Manager Product and VAS Card Products

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SV: Opening comments

LM: ( Opening comment in response to your comments )

SV: Coming from a political tides background in being in an environment that preaches black consciousness how do you overcome the barriers of colour in your leadership?

LM: Thank you Steven I have been fortunate to be brought up by parents who stilled very strong values of non-racialism and non-sexism in me from a very young age. This is in spite of my family being forcibly removed from their land ( on my father’s side) and being forced to sell a farms for cheap because of the color of their skin ( on

my mother’s side), simply because my great grandparents fell in love across the color bar in the early 1900. There was never bitterness and hatred instilled in us, the foundational principles were about love, care for others and treat people with respect and dignity regardless of their skin color.

In addition to this, I joined the liberation movement at the age of 16 and was inspired by that seminal document called the freedom charter which was adopted in 1955. The preamble to the freedom charter says, “ We, the people of South Africa, declare for all of our country and the world to know: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”. This was fundamental to my political and social orientation.

I was also inspired by the immortal words of Nelson Mandela when he faced the death-penalty in the high treason trial when he spoke from the dock in 1964, he said, “I have fought against white domination, and I fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. “

Mandela lived for this ideal and served 27 years in prison, I joined thousands of young people in fighting for this ideal until we attained our freedom in 1994. Neither the brutality of the apartheid system, nor the pain and suffering caused by apartheid police and army could change Mandela’s and our resolve to fight for non-racialism.

When South Africa eventually attained democracy in 1994, and later adopted our constitution, both our preamble, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution itself, reinforce the non-racialism principles we fought for.

My spiritual upbringing was also based on strong teachings by very powerful men of God who preached a gospel and lived a life of fairness, justice, equality and non racialism. These were people like James Haya , Mcebisi Xundu, Mthetheleli Soga and many others who guided and moulded us from being an angry mob of young people to become responsible adults and members of the community.

All these influences have shaped me, given me a world outlook that is non racial to the core whist being unashamedly African. This is who I am all spheres of my life, and is also how I have brought up my children.  

SV: What does this all mean for my role as a leader?

LM: I think it raises three fundamentally important issues, which I hope many young leaders can fully understand and embrace:

  • Firstly, each one of us as leaders have to treat everybody who is a staff member, a supplier, a client, or member of a community we serve – with respect and dignity regardless of their race, colour, religion, language or gender. This means that we must become the leader of all our staff and not only those staff members who come from our own race, linguist, cultural, or religious background. We must be the role model of diversity and inclusion that our Constitution enjoins us to be.
  • Secondly, given our past, the Constitution direct us to implement a number of redress initiatives to address the legacy of our past. In the workplace, this requires us as leaders to lead the process of the transformation of our workforce to reflect our demographics. This is an important leadership endeavour that must be implemented with honesty, objectivity, transparency, sensitivity and integrity.
  • Thrdly, as a leader, I am very proud of my own identity and heritage, yet my values and principles enable me to create an environment where others can also enjoy their constitutionally protected and promoted cultural, linguistic and religious rights. It also means that I have an obligation to teach and role model non-racialism and non-sexism through just the sheer force of example in how I treat people, how I relate to them and how I promote and protect their identity.
  •  Lastly, as a leader, it’s also important that I forge unity in diversity and build a cohesive team to take our business to the next level.

SV:How important is your belief system to your leadership, by belief system I mean a belief in God or a God?

LM: I think it’s very important for a leader to have certain fundamental beliefs or values or spirituality that anchor his or her approach to life. These values and principles help shape the quality of decisions and the manner in which a leader would conduct themselves and both their personal and professional spaces .

In my case my fundamental values are based on a Christian Faith and spirituality. But if you take into account the discussion and we just had above about the Constitution, it is important that leader’s faith or beliefs or religion does not infringe on the rights of others to believe in their own God or to have their own unique belief systems. This means that a leader is theee to promote tolerance in all its forms, not only words, but in daily deeds.

I have found that My own values, principles and faith have been strengthened by knowing and appreciating other religions faith and cultures. Such faith can be an anchor to your life, but you need to have an antenna that can sense and learn from other religions and faiths.

SV: When presented with different approaches to get the same different methods given by different people you are leading how do you select the method without discouraging the others you’re leading?

LM:  I have always believed in the diversity of opinions and giving teams the ability, space or environment to find their own approaches towards solving intractable problems. I believe that it is the height of arrogance to assume that there is always only one approach to solving problems, or  to approach a problem or there is only one methodology that beat all methodologies towards solving problems in running a business.

The diversity of views, experiences and perspectives enable us to benefit from different approaches and different lenses through which people see the world. Those leaders who take advantage of that diversity have found a growth in both their personal and professional capacity.

In addition to this, I strongly believe in an empowerment style of leadership where we allow individuals, teams and business units to run their businesses or take on their roles in the manner they see fit, as long as it’s in line with the overall objective or strategy. We as leaders must have the humility to a accept that nobody wakes up in the morning to work for a leader or a line manager – people wake up every morning to work for themselves,  their families or to fulfil their own goals and ambitions. Our job as leaders is to create the necessary environment for them to succeed, to provide the tools necessary for them to do their work and to provide support for the work that’s being done.

In such environments, Steve, new ideas are generated, creativity is encouraged, and innovation thrives. This is how I have tried to lead in all the roles I have had in my career. To lead is to influence, yetits also about being influenced by others, by different perspectives, methodologies and perspectives. This makes you stronger and wiser.

SV: In your leadership learnings what would you say are the three most critical or crucial conversations you need to have with yourself before being a leader?

LM: I think that there are three critical conversations you have to have with yourself. These are:

  • The first and most important question that you have had to ask yourself is why do you want to lead? This has to be a frank and honest conversation with yourself about the real reasons why you want to lead. It may not be what you tell others, it may not be even what you have told yourself- it has to come from deep inside – the real truth about why you want to lead.

It may well be that you want to lead towards a higher purpose, or a bigger objective or even a selfless endeavour. In this case this is largely driven by values, ideals and objectives that are beyond you, but are for the benefit of many others. And on the other hand, it may well be that you want to lead for much more narrower objectives that almost exclusively aligned to your own personal objectives. It may be the power, wealth, status and positions that drives you to take up a leadership role.

There are huge implications for whatever your reasons are to lead, know them well, appreciate their impact on your decisions, outlook and your ability to lead.

  • At the The Oracle of Delphi are etched these special and evergreen words, “ Know thyself”. Knowing thyself is a very powerful platform for you to begin your leadership journey. This means that you have to be crystal clear about what your strength are and what are your weaknesses or areas of development. This comes from your own deep introspection, high standards you set for yourself and the feedback you receive from others.

This means you have to be prepared to receive feedback, on the regular basis, from your team and those who are stakeholders about your performance, conduct, behavior, values, and quality of decisions. This requires a lot of maturity and for somebody to really receive and take on feedback so that you can grow from it.

A leader who does not tolerate feedback, or leader who does not take feedback seriously, or a leader who does not change when he has been given that feedback is bound to fail to eventually fail one day.

  • The last personal conversation on leadership is about whether you have the ability or the attitude to continuously learn from your environment. Leadership is lifelong learning and the ability to embrace change, feedback on your ideas and you approaches will make you a much more better leader. On the other hand, those leaders who insulate themselves from any learning always remain stagnant and stuck in the past.

Your ability to learn, to adapt to new environments, to embrace a plurality of ideas and to be a change agent requires an open mind and a humble spirit,

SV: Are leaders born or can they be trained?

LM: Leadership comes to us in many ways, some leaders may be elected to these positions, some may be selected to these roles, whilst others may inherit their leadership roles. Regardless of how one becomes a leader it is important to always improve and develop yourself so that you can become a better leader.

I have benefited greatly from interacting with senior leaders that we ahead of me to hear their views to understand the way they thought about things and to learn from their stories. Furthermore, reading about leaders in different settings has also enabled me to learn how others have tackled similar situations as the ones I am likely to face.

There may be people who have some natural leadership attributes, but they can only be better if they continually improve themselves, are willing to grow and develop.

The final and probably the most important thing for me is to strive to be a better person. I found that by trying to be a better person every day, gives me a better opportunitiy to become a better leader.

So Steven, these are the conversations I will have with myself as to whether I have the humility to learn to be a better person and a better leader and keep growing in those areas where I need to develop and strengthen those that have already been identified as my leadership strengths.

SV: Leadership requires so much sacrifice and sometimes leaders walk with no clear destination but due to an inner belief. How do you do this without negatively affecting your family? Have you ever been in a situation where your decisions had hard consequences on your family and how did you deal with it?

LM: Dear Steven , if I knew If I knew what I know now, more than five years ago, I would’ve done things very differently. At the end of 2012 my life was heavily unbalanced – my finances, health, and family life were all out of balance. All of this had taken huge toll on me, my family and those around me.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Advanced Management Programme ( AMP ) at the Harvard business School. The time away from all the hectic day to day corporate life gave me time to reflect and introspect about my life.  I knew that I needed to change and change my life radically in order to find some semblance of balance back into my life in terms of my family, finances and health. A lecture by Professor Clay Christensen told the story of how those in his MBA class, people who were very successful and were very wealth had failed in their overall lives.

Many of his colleagues, he met at a class reunion were either divorced, estranged from their children, on substance abuse, had no personal lives and lived only for work. Worse still, others could not even attend the reunion either because they were disgraced by scandal, serving time in jail for corporate greed or they were awaiting trial or were fired for unethical violations. These people had all the material riches in the world, but were poorer in terms of their health and their relationships with their families and society. In the words of Prof Christensen, all these people did not plan for these things to happen, he warned that we were all vulnerable to the setbacks that befell others.

I knew that this is not the life I wanted. I thought back to my father, his influence on me and how he helped me to change my own life. I then took a decision there and then to make some radical changes to my life. I took decisions about my health, my finances, relationship with my wife, Sva, and how I wanted to play a greater part in the lives of my children and how I wanted to give back to my community and to society at large.

When voted by my classmates to be class speaker at our graduation ceremony, I chose the theme, “ Towards a more balanced scorecard”. I called for and I have tried to live a life where my scorecard was more balanced in

terms of my my family, marriage, children, work, community, society etc. This doesn’t mean that I have achieved  everything I wanted to achieve, all it means is that I am on the journey and suceeed will be defined by living a life of purpose that is balanced and meaningful.

SV: What is your approach inconsistent mentorship of other upcoming leaders and how do you benchmark the productiveness of your mentoring strategy?

LM: I think that there is a huge need for young leaders to have people they can talk to, people who can listen to their ideas and people to whom they can unburden themselves. Over the years I have had so many young leaders talk to me about their personal and professional journeys .

In such conversations my duty is not to give the answers, nor to suggest certain approaches, but to test their thinking, to sometimes ask the difficult questions. Over the years these young leaders have taken on great roles and have needed me less, this has given space to other people to converse with.

The only way I can see if this strategy works is by the growth of these leaders in their personal and professional lives. Over the years I’ve been pleasantly by warm and kind messages from people from all over the world who benefited from these conversations.

Our job as leaders is to be available for these conversations, not always in a rigid and formal way, but by engaging young leaders and by playing a part in their growth and development.

SV: What did you struggle with in your leadership journey and is this still a struggle?

LM: I think my biggest struggle is to find time to be able to reach so many people who I know needs help as young people and as young leaders. I sometimes feel frustrated, and constrained, that I cannot reach out to more people, engaged more young leaders and to help them as I was helped at a very young age. I have tried various mechanisms to overcome this but I’m not happy that I am reaching as many people as I possibly can.

I am currently exploring other ways in which I can follow my life purpose and to be able to do more and give up so much more time and resources to help young people to reach their true potential. If I had an opportunity I will be able to do this completely full time and devote my time to the development of young leaders across South Africa and on the African continent.

SV: ( Concluding comments )

LM: ( Concluding comments )

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