A conversation with Shanice Mfeka: A Digital Transformation Expert
My brother and leader Lincoln, thank you for the opportunity to engage with you. Some of the questions and thoughts I’d like to get your perspective on
My dear sister, I am very grateful for this conversation, hopefully it will illuminate certain issues, but most importantly spark different debates and thoughts from other leaders.
In our rapidly changing world of business we have to adapt quickly. Change is often difficult for all of us. Could you share your experiences in connecting the head, heart and feet to adapt to change (i.e. more than understanding the intellectual reasons for change)?
I would like to tackle this issue very differently from the normal conversation about the rapid speed of change and the need to adapt to focus a bit on the why people or leaders, or organizations sometimes do not adapt quickly to change.
The case for change
One of the saddest things I have observed is how leaders fail to articulate the case for change in a manner that their teams can fully appreciate, understand, embrace and buy in to. This is one of the major reasons why there is inertia among the teams and the change effort never gets off the ground for many institutions and organizations. There are different reasons why this case for change sometimes fails to have an impact on people, these include :
- Those driving change usually spend months discussing the change, with all the information required at their disposal, but would give very little time for their teams to fully understand the case for change, it’s impact on them, the changes required, the benefits they may get and the timeframe for the change. This results in a rapid, poorly thought through attempt to communicate and this results in resentment, resistance and lack of action.
- In certain instances, the people who are driving the change do not spend enough time understanding how the change will impact people, what their fears and anxieties are about the change and most importantly how much the people are benefiting from the current status quo. Due to this massive disconnect, the real fears of the people are either misunderstood, or easily discarded or completely downplayed by those expected to drive the change. The real or perceived benefits are then sold to the team aggressively, any concerns raised are ignored, objections overruled, and the current status quo ( which may be seen to be positive by some members of the team) simply rubbished.
- There are also instances where the change effort is sold to the members of the team through half-truths, deception, misinformation and sometimes downright dishonesty. The barrage of questions, or concerns raised reach a crescendo, but these are met with more lies and untruths.
In those cases where change has succeeded, and I can look back in my own career and the lessons I have learnt:
Learn about the current environment
It is very important to understand an environment before you initiate any change:
- It is so important to understand the status quo, fully appreciate what works and what does not work, and why ;
- That understand must be informed by a broad range of views that you have to test and examine, and also examine your own assumptions, biases and preconceived ideas;
- Fully understand and appreciate who benefits from the status quo, who will be impacted by the change and who will be hurt or prejudiced by the change.
- This participative review normally gives you a fair sense of the champions of change, those neutral about the contemplated change and those who may be hostile to the change.
Building a case for change with key message
From process I’ve always tried to work with a core team on building a case for change taking everything into consideration that I have heard from the consultation process. It’s even better when you weave in the words used by participants. Then we build a solid case for change, this will have key messages and is usually a core message I drive with a leadership team to all our teams.
After the case for change has been determined, a leader has to become a key advocate for change. The reason for this is simple, no policy, strategy, or change agenda, no matter how ingenious, has any hope to succeed, if it’s born in the minds of a few, but leaves in the hearts of none ???
In the words of Niccolò Machiavelli, “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones”
Jim Collins has written about Level 5 Leadership in his book Good to Great. The two aspects that he has found as determining Level 5 leaders are those who demonstrate a “powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will”. My Leader can you share how you transitioned into being a Level 5 Leader?
I think that labels are important for illustrative purposes and to educate people about concepts, but as a leadership student, and as a practitioner, I tend to shy away from the labels. I also think it would be presumptuous of me to think I can personally determine which leadership category people place me or I place myself. I would rather tell the story of my personal transition.
My career probably had 5 distinct phases and each of them required new skills and made grow as a leader:
In the early years of my career (1993-1997) either as a candidate attorney or a ministerial advisor or media spokesperson, I largely worked alone. The measure of success was about my own skills, abilities, performance, and overall impact.
The second phase of my career ( 19997 -2003) I was managing skills teams of highly qualified and experienced people at the Banking Association and later in Standard bank managing the Central Africa region (Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe ). Looking back now, almost all the people I led were older, wiser, more knowledgeable and skilled than I was.
- I leant very early an important leadership skill – how to lead and learn at the same time. I learnt so much from all those colleagues and I am proud to note that we have remained friends after all these years.
- During this time I learnt about the role of influencing people who are outside of your organization, who are more senior than you are and are also more wiser and more knowledgeable than you are. In the Banking Council, I found myself working with senior leaders from different banks to agree on policy positions for the banking industry. These people came from different banks and my role and mandate was to work with them to think beyond their individual bank interests, but to think of the interests of the whole industry. We were able to develop policy positions and initiatives such as The Code of Banking Practice; Market conduct regulations and SME policies and initiatives;
- During this period I learnt how to extend my influence and leadership beyond to key stakeholders; these included Development Bank of South Africa, members of parliament, Cosatu and Sanco. Some of the outputs were key provisions we lobbied for in the Municipal Finajcial act; Municipsl structures Bill, and PMFA; and lastly;
- I learnt the value of corporate governance at a very early stage of my career in sitting on the Boards of Stanbic Zambia, Stanbic Zimbabwe, Stanbic Malawi, Institute of Bankers; Eduloan and Technikon South Africa. This gave me valuable leadership experiences in representing a majority shareholder in a board; changing board members to get a more effective board; defining the relationship between management and the board; and influencing the board without the use of the vote, appointing executive management and dealing with regulators ( central banks ) and key stakeholders ( ministry of finance )
- Lastly, I learnt a lot about leading across borders, across different markets and across different cultures and management styles.
All these happened within a very short space of time, I could not have succeeded if I did not have the support of amazing leaders who gave me opportunities to grow, who believed in me and trusted me. In addition to this, I learnt a lot about watching, listening and asking a lot of questions of these leaders. They already had a track record, and has already achieved success, but they were there to guide, coach, and nurture my nascent leadership skills. This is another lesson on my journey, to learn as much as possible from others and then develop your own style and approach that suits your values and personality.
The third phase of my career was the period between 2003-2012. This is probably the most critical period of my leadership journey. I had an opportunity to truly express my leadership style and approach across a wide area of responsibility. I started with me leading a focused team in a customer segment area, to leading South Africa’s biggest Province ( Gauteng); to leading all provinces in South Africa and finally to running all Standard bank’s customer channels in South Africa ( branches, provinces, private bank centres, sales teams, call centres, business banking centre). This enabled me to lead teams 5000 to eventually about 14 000 spread across the country in more than 600 branches. There are some key lessons I learnt and practices I adopted and advocated for during these critical years of my leadership journey. These may be too many to expand on, but will mention some of the most critical;
- I accepted early on that leadership is not about the title you carry, but the influence felt. It became my mission to positively influence everyone I touched in the same manner others had influenced me in my life and career;
- It was important for me that each and every one of our staff had to be their most authentic and true self. It started with me, I had to be vulnerable, to make people to know me, and know my strengths and weaknesses. It also meant that I had to go out of my way for people to be able to relate to me as a normal human being with weakness, frailties, biases and prejudices. The more normal and natural I became, the more normal and natural my engagement became. I argued very strongly that each person should “ bring themselves to work” that started with me and couple spread to others;
- I’ve always believed that a desk is a very dangerous place from which to lead a team. I was inspired by the war stories about President Abraham Lincoln and his visibility in the frontline during the war. I decided early on that I would be as visible as I possibly could to all of our staff. In the time I spent with the teams, I could put hand on heart and say I was able to visit every branch, call centre, business unit or private and business banking centre. Sometimes the most impactful visits were to the most remote branches, who do not normally get a visit. I treasure every picture I took on those trips, and I have a proud collection at home that reminds of those times;
- One of the most sacred duties of a leader is to choose the people he or she will work with. I have always believed in working with people I find in an environment rather than parachuting people I would have worked with before. Through that principle, over the length of my career, I found that 80% are people I find in that business unit and the other 10% are people who we move into the area from other parts of the bank ( it might be from different provinces, countries or business units) and only 10% from outside the organization. This gave me such an opportunity to see the depth of the talent we had, many layers down in the organization. I look back with fondness over time, about the number of people we promoted, enabled to take on new challenges, afforded learning and development opportunities, hired from school or university or gave second opportunities and most importantly added value in their personal and professional life. I know that some leaders look back at their careers and think back to the accolades they received, awards won, wealth amassed, status in life, but for me the greatest joy has been the influence people have had on me and the role I’ve been able to have in their lives.
- It is not enough to hire the best people, assign them to the most complex task if they will be subjected to mind numbing micromanagement. From a very early age, I believed in and advocated for empowerment. This created an amazing environment of performance and success as people had more scope to achieve more. Those who embraced this empowerment achieved so much success and they in turn inspired their staff through empowerment.
- South Africa belongs to all who live in it, this is the preamble to my life motto and philosophy. This creates the best platform or basis to promote, advocate for and to advance diversity at work. Given that our business, Customer channels, was the “face” of the bank in its primary interaction with clients, it was important to ensure that our staff profile largely reflected the customer profile and the demographics of the country. Given our history as a country, and as a back, our staff profile was largely black at the bottom, and predominantly white at the top. We went through a deliberate, focused, and metrics based process of transformation, yet emphasized sensitivity, proportionality and rational thought as we went through the process. Over a number of years, in our hiring, promotions, learning and development opportunities, filling of vacancies etc., we started to change the demographics of our staff base. At all times, we kept on having the sensitive discussions, with all staff about what we were doing, why we were doing it, how we would do it, what principles and values we applied and what success would look like. I wanted us to transform our business, but still wanted us to still be the home for all groups, I wanted us to take on, challenge and promote youngsters whilst retaining and engaging older staff members; and I wanted skills and experience to be key in employment decisions, whilst promoting diversity and inclusion. By the time I left in 2012, we had a very diverse, experienced, skilled and multi-talented team across the country. It is a leader’s role and responsibility to ensure, through both words and deeds, they every staff member feels deeply that their language, culture, religion, traditions and background is understood, respected, appreciated and valued. That each of our identities contribute to the overall team identity. This requires leaders to embody non racialism and non-sexism and that we as leaders, become the leaders of all and not for only some. In addition to this, and even more specifically, I placed a special emphasis on women, and we were able to have women leaders coming through, in greater numbers, across all leadership levels, from tea leaders; branch management; regional management; private and business banking management; provincial management, business unit management and through to my Exco team that had powerful women leaders such as Angel Mhlanga, Ethel Nyembe, Indira Bhagaloo, Itumeleng Monale, Mita Koebe, Khanyi Chaba, Amanda Sebolai, Hannah Sadiki, Mercia Bloem etc. it is not enough to appoint quality women leaders, it’s important to be inspired, led, advices, counselled by them. They have to have a powerful voice within the team and the overall organization and ensure that they inspire growth and development in women and empowerment across all layers of the team and the organization. One of my proudest memories were the number of women leaders we worked with from team leader, branch manager, regional manager, business unit, provincial head up to ExCom level. We insisted that we support women leaders and women through the difficulties of life such as a divorce, miscarriage, abusive marriage etc. I personally learnt a lot from these experiences and a new world became more opened to me to understand how to work with and lead women in my teams.
- Performance management is one of the key things that I have always advocated. Such a process must be fair, objective, transparent, predictable and developmental in nature. It was always heartening to work with, coach, guide, cajole and inspire teams, individuals, branches, regions and the whole area towards success and above average performance. Sometimes it is about taking a team, an individual, a business unit or branch from a horrible underperforming environment to great and consistent performance across all indicators. Leader’s matters, and leaders play a huge role in guiding and inspiring a team towards success.
- When one assumes a leadership role, they inherit a group of individuals and teams, who may have nothing in common. Members of teams may come from different backgrounds, have different life experiences, skills and expertise, value systems, languages, cultures, work styles, learning styles etc., but our role as leaders is to mound them into a team. I learnt a lot about team dynamics, egos, competition, rivalries, petty jealousies and dysfunctional behaviours. In these times I learnt a lot about the value of situational leadership- sometimes I would lead the team to uncharted territory; while sometimes I would just be part of the team and allow different members to lead, and sometimes I would adopt Mandela’s famous “ lead from behind “ approach – all these approaches dependent on what was required at the time. Teams were also instrumental in giving me regular feedback and challenge me about my decisions, sets of behaviours, appointments made, and choices taken or not taken. We developed a very robust engagement model where we would trash and exhaust issues. Lastly, I also developed a keen interest in the whole life of all my teams, their backgrounds, values, beliefs, fears, ambitions, anxieties, priorities, concerns, and family dynamics. This enables me to lead whole teams and not the image portrayed to serve a corporate purpose. I am what I am today because of the learnings from these teams and these amazingly talented people that God put in my path.
- Reward and Remuneration has always been a very difficult and sensitive subject in a corporate setting. It is dominated by two diametrically opposed views – some leaders openly argue that most staff just want to be paid more and will never be satisfied; on the other hand some employees openly argue that corporates pay very little, mostly to favoured employees, and bosses and money is wasted on frivolous things. I think there is a lot of merit in these arguments and I have seen both these in practice throughout my career. I however have a different philosophy based on a few key principles: Firstly, all employees, regardless of rank or status must understand and accept the reason for the existence of the business, the expectations of the clients of the business and the shareholders of the business. Failure to understand this will inevitably create an environment where the interests of the employees, their demands and wishes are divorced from the purpose of the business, and the demands and expectations of clients and shareholders. The expectations of staff members are then better shaped within the context of the purpose of the business and the demands of the clients, shareholders and the broader society. Secondly, an organization, it’s leaders and employees must set themselves goals that will satisfy clients, staff, shareholders and the broader society. Thirdly, such goals must be a stretch yet reachable; they must be easy to quantify and achieve with clear milestones. Fourthly, these overall goals have to be cascaded into clear roles, responsibilities and targets for all teams and individuals; and lastly there must be clear guidelines for remuneration and rewards aligned to the achievement of the overall organizational goals and individual goals.
In this context, it’s important to drive a philosophy of performance based pay for individuals and teams across all layers of the organization. When a performance management system is objective, transparent, participatory and fair – the very best people, from the lowest to the most senior can be fairly rewarded. I have found the reward she remuneration process itself should be transparent as much as possible, there should be a culture of openly talking about remuneration and rewarding people with both financial and non-financial methods.
- Leadership requires constant, transparent, engaging, and creative communication between leaders and those they lead. I have always believed that communication should be at the centre of leadership and not an add on or an afterthought. I learnt very early to use every opportunity and mechanism or platform to communicate, clearly, consistently, regularly, and interactively a message that is plain, simple and easy to understand. I used different methods such as written communication ( Conversations with Lincoln); visual communication ( tv broadcasts); engagement with leaders ( roadshows and Imbizo) and direct communication with staff in visits to their area of work. I also strongly believe in creating an environment where staff members can reach out via email, comments during visits, suggestions, and even when meeting you by chance to give their views on how they see things. Lastly, the most underestimated skill for leaders is to listen, listening without judging, listening without defence, listening without bias, listening without barriers of titles but listening with real, deep, genuine and sincere interest. I have learnt that skill and worked very hard to improve it more than the messages I deliver, I found that this has given me deeper insights and understanding and most importantly empathy.
- Last, but certainly not least, I have always sought to have a fun filled, high energy, uplifting, high morale, caring, family orientated, high performance, and a results and rewards orientated culture in all the areas where I’ve worked. It’s that buzz, that feeling and that atmosphere that shows you how people feel. I call it the “ Gees”, of a place or a team. I can walk into any floor, branch, and business unit eyc and feel that “Gees” or the absence thereof. It’s on the faces of the people, the spring in their step, how they treat one another, how they treat clients, how they celebrate results, how they are led. When people feel appreciated, understood, respected and loved, nothing stands in their way. I always saw myself as the CGO, Chief Gees Officer, or the CCO, Chief Cultural Officer, by setting the tone, oozing positive energy, inspiring the teams through words, deeds and gestures and by always making everyone really feel part of something special. That meant being a mascot, a cheerleader, and a huge fan of our people. Anytime people saw this being done genuinely, sincerely and consistently, the trust levels grew.
This last stage from 2013 to now is really about primarily focused on building leadership capabilities across the continent. This involves working with young leaders, within Standard bank and outside to achieve their goals, but to also become better leaders. I have become part of the professional and personal journeys of many young leaders. I play the role of advisor, counsellor, coach, mentor, supporter, sponsor or sometimes father figure. I use different methods to influence these young leaders to lead with a sense of humanity and care; with integrity and probity and with humility and sensitivity. This is the role I see for myself now. My work across 20 countries has given me a platform to influence should the power of sheer example and allow young leaders to learn from my journey.
I may never reach Level 5 leadership in terms of the Jim Collin model, but I hope to stay the course and develop young leaders who can reach that level.
As South Africans, what is the legacy that we should be building now for the generations that will come in the future? What commitments should we be making now?
There are many things we can leave as our legacy, but the one that come to mind is social cohesion. This is a very important issue for economic growth, stability, nation building and building a future for our children.
You see Shanice, as we face economic difficulties, as we confront the harsh realities of change and as we grapple to balance competing needs and interests, our national unity is starting to fracture, our identity is starting to fade and our society is starting to polarise. These fractures manifest themselves in different ways; sometimes black versus white, or local versus foreign; rich versus poor or rural versus urban; ruling party versus the opposition or Christian versus Muslim. As we shout at one another, as we hurl insults, denigrate, humiliate and inflict maximum pain, the cracks grow wider, the differences become more glaring and the bonds that have held us together weaken.
This climate means that those with hopes and aspirations are being drowned out by those feeling anger, fear, despondency and frustration. The voices of doom and gloom are starting to take centre stage and the dream of a successful rainbow nation looks more like a mirage every day. Old and new commentators, critics and sceptics alike are starting to fall over themselves to pronounce our beautiful country a “failed state” or a “banana republic” or to apply some other derogatory label.
In such an environment, it may seem safer to remain quiet; it may seem prudent to stay below the proverbial parapet. But this is not the right thing to do.
The harsh reality Shanice is that these are our challenges, our common problems. This is our country, and each of us has to play a role in building this society. I have a role to play, as a citizen, as a father, as a leader, and as a member of my community. Silence, indifference or lack of interest would be a betrayal of my upbringing, my beliefs and my aspirations for this great land.
To answer your question more directly, we as South Africans, of all race groups need to work even harder to do the following basic yet fundamental things:
- Firstly we need to understand each other’s aspirations, fears, anxieties and hopes. It is not enough to merely understand and appreciate your own, denying others theirs. This understanding would create a better and firmer platform for dialogue.
- Secondly, it is important for us to listen closely to one another, without prejudice, malice or judgment.
- Thirdly, we have to be more careful and sensitive with words, symbols, acts, cartoons, tweets, posts and comments that could humiliate, denigrate or belittle people, groups, or cultures.
- Fourthly, we need to educate our children about the richness of our diversity, the potential of our society and the responsibility we have to our country, our environment and our community. This does not mean that we do not share with them our challenges and problems. However, we should at least give them an opportunity to develop and understand their fellow men and women, the society they will inherit, with as few as possible of our own past prejudices.
- Lastly, we must find ways of expressing our anger and frustrations that are consistent with our constitution, are respectful of the law and are exemplary to young people. Too many South Africans resort to the torching public buildings to express social delivery impatience; or too tweets and posts that seek to humiliate, denigrate and belittle other racial or ethnic groups as a means of expression; or to racist road rage in protest of a sense of exclusion; or to destruction of private property as a means of registering political dissent; or to random attacks on foreign nationals and the confiscation of their goods; or to speeches that incite violence, polarisation and hatred of one group or the other; or to attacks on the independence and integrity of institutions tasked with the defence of democracy, put in place as a check on the abuse of power.
You see Shanice, the challenges we face are enormous; the path ahead is long and arduous, but as seductive as they may seem, shortcuts are not the answer. Violence and destruction will not yield the desired results; and as assuaging to anger or frustration as racist remarks, posts, tweets or cartoons may be, they will not wipe any race group from our land.
No South African, no matter how influential; no political party, no matter how powerful; no group, no matter how strong; can build our society on its own. To build this society, we will have to draw on the energy, passion, commitment, capabilities and promise of all our people.
Our people may have vastly different experiences, interests, hopes, fears, aspirations and views. Our sacred duty, as leaders, is to build on what they have in common: a deep desire for a better life, a powerful yearning to live in peace and harmony, a fervent hope for a brighter future for their children. Let this be our vision and our rallying cry: We hope for a common future in which more people prosper, rather than fewer.
Our responsibility as leaders is to create a bright future for all South Africans while driving the necessary change towards equity and transformation. Our ability to take all constituencies with us, our skill in building a guiding coalition of change, our capacity to create understanding and consensus among our people will be the true measure of our leadership ability.
The world over we have seen a crisis in ethical leadership. What advice or thoughts do you have about this? And should we be reimagining the things we value as individuals, leaders and as society?
This is a matter that concerns me a great deal, we have seen prominent companies in South Africa being caught up in huge scandals, ranging from KPMG, VBS, ESKOM, SAA, ESKOM, Debel, Mackinsey, SAP, Fidentia, Steinhoff, Bain, Bosasa etc,. We have seen high profile leaders being associated with unethical conduct such as Brian Molefe, lucky Montana, Hlaudi Motswaneng, Anoj Singh, Tom Moyane, Arthur Brown, Kirkiniss, Marcus Jooste, Siyabonga Gama, Danisa Baloyi, Robert Madzongs, and many others. We have witnessed some of our political leaders being implicated in unethical conduct such as Jacob Zuma, Tina Joemst Pieterse, Mosebenzi ZWANE, MALUSI Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini, Dina Pule, John Block. We have had industry bodies being implicated in serous unethical scandals such as bread fixing, price fixing in the construction in industry, banks accused of manipulating the current, lenders accused of reckless lending, price fixing in the retail sector, lawyers abusing client trust accounts and auditors being implicated in fraud. Scandals have affected heroes ( Oscar Pistorius), our churches ( ???) our sports bodies ( Nascoc), our health sector ( Life esifimeni); our local government ( unauthorized expenditure); our areas of work ( sex for jobs in the Eastern Cape and Sexual harradmeht culture at the SABC). Banks that collapsed in South Africa because of the conduct of their leaders include Regal Bank, Saambou, Africa Durolink, African Bank and now VBS.
Companies and institutions that have been involved in huge unethical scandals abroad include VW, Enron, Worldcom, Wells Fargo, Barclays – bodies like the Roman Catholic Church; FIFA; the accounting profession and the athletics doping scandal in Russia. Prominent names associated with unethical conduct will range from sports ( Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong); Business ( Jeff Skilling, Bennie Madoff; Kenneth Lay); political leaders ( President Lula, serving 12 years for corruption in Brazil, President park geun Hye in South Korea, serving 25 years for corruption and Prime minister Nawaz Shariff sentenced to 10 years in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Najjib standing trial in Malaysia for corruption.
It is important that we fully appreciate the difference between ethics and law. Ethics are a higher order of behavior and consciousness and are based on deeper values and principles held. They require integrity, probity, self awareness and self consciousness and self discipline.
As you can see Shanice, the unethical conduct runs deep in our society both here and abroad; during the times of the apartheid government and now in the post democratic period; it involves the public sector and the private sector; it knows no color, religion, gender or geographical boundaries. The reason is that we all have the capacity to do good and to do bad, and there are always influenced in our life, both good and bad. In order for any of us, particularly young leaders, not to get involved in unethical conduct, we have to:
- Make young people more aware of the fate of those that came before them, that failed to leave an ethical life;
- Ensure that our schools, universities and other learning institutions inculcate ethics in our curriculum;
- We have to guard a societal culture where the quality of a person is evaluated on their status, the car they drive, wealth they have, power they will and possessions they have ;
- Young leaders have to have a circle of advisors that guide them through the times of temptation;
- Young leaders need to know themselves better, so that they know the things that may derail them; and lastly
- Young leaders need to know why they want to be in leadership roles, if it’s just for narrow reasons, like power, prestige, perks, status etc, they must know that these will be the things that influence their decisions, outlook and behaviors. There should be a higher goal or objective to leadership, not just narrow material gain or benefit.
Diversity and inclusion is an often spoken about as an organizational imperative. What could good look like and are we doing enough?
Diversity and inclusion are absolutely important in an organization. The benefits are well researched and give diverse organizations a huge advantage. I am sometimes surprised that we are still arguing about the merits of diversity more than 20 years after democracy. Diversity is enshrined in our constitution, enabled by our laws and reinforced by the highest court in our land.
What good looks like to me is where a diverse group of people, from different linguistic, religious, cultural, gender, and even ethnic backgrounds are mounded into a cohesive team towards a huge goal. Such a team deeply respects each other’s language, culture, religion, and ethnic background. Members of the team learn from one another and develop a keen interest in building a diverse environment. Behaviors are defined and unacceptable behavior is called out and the team honest and transparent in its feedback. The leader of the team leads all the staff and is not aligned to one group or the other. Members of the team inculcate the same values among their friends and family members. This team achieves the organizational goal, members of the team achieve their goals and they also become stronger members of their community and spread diversity and inclusion in their families through sheer force of example in their behavior and that of their children.
In my own case, I learnt about non racialism and non sexism at an early stage through my parents, and the story of my grand parents and my great great parents. I learnt very early to have friends and family members from different race, religious, cultural, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. I have inculcated this into my children whose friends have cut across all boundaries and to my family and friends.
Are we doing enough ?
The answer is a definite no, we are becoming more polarized. In an environment of scarce resources and the scramble for wealth and positions, people are starting to refine themselves on more exclusive identities in order to protect their interests or to gain some advantage. Let me illustrate some of the things I see, I will obviously generalize broader sentiments to illustrate the point about what true diversity entails, its challenges and opportunities:
- There are high levels of anxiety and uncertainty among white colleagues in the workplace, especially white men about their future and the future of their children as the impact of Employment Equity starts to be felt. They also feel that all jobs must be based on merit only and that employment equity is reverse discrimination and it gives them little options than to leave the country. They also feel that the employment equity targets are unfair on their children who are being punished for something they were not responsible for, lastly they feel that this also affects their children in their schools, in sports and at universities as transformation is largely bringing standards down and excluded those with skills and potential;
- There is huge frustration and expectations on the side of black colleagues who feel that the pace of transformation is too slow, 24 years after democracy, they feel that they are in perpetual development mode, and are not given the opportunities at a fast enough pace; they feel that corporates are still largely Anglo Saxon or Afrikaner in their culture and ethos and have not embraced African cultures and traditions; they also feel that even when a Black leader is appointed, there is a dominant group of powerful white people who still pull the strings from behind. Lastly they sometimes feel that some Black leaders are only satisfied to be in their roles and do not drive change and transformation to bring more Black people into the organization and to promote them. They point to the informal networks of influence within organizations and that there is still a lot of nepotism and favoritism in many organizations.
- There is a sense of exclusion from Indian and Coloured colleagues in the workplace as they feel that there is a preference for Africans. They feel they were not white enough under apartheid and now they are not Black enough. They argue that it’s harder to envision a future growth path when you cannot see someone like you in the top structures of organizations. They also feel that there is a battle of supremacy and domination between the white and black groups while they remain just spectators. Indian colleagues also feel that they have been unfairly accused of always hiring other Indians in their teams and do not feel that the same accusation is made when white people or black people hire people from their own groups.
- Women feel that diversity and inclusion is largely lip service when it comes to women leadership and empowerment. They strongly feel that they have to work much harder to get ahead. Women feel that they are being made to make a false choice between their profession and their families. The pay gap between males and females, for the same role is indicative how they feel organizations do not appreciate talent in women. Even when chosen, they feel that there very little support to do well whilst dealing with issues such as a child with disability, a messy divorce, a miscarriage, a complicated pregnancy, being in an abusive relationship or being a single parent. There is also a huge outcry, among women for respect, for being heard, for being allowed to be their true authentic self – they feel that there is a binary choice, either they are labeled as bossy and cheeky when they speak out or as weak and emotional when they don’t exhibit the A type personality in a leadership role. In meetings they feel that their ideas are not heard, their input not valued and the body language is increasingly negative. Through all of this, they have also have to contend with sexual harassment, sexual innuendo, unwelcome advances, inappropriate comments, disrespectful conduct and sexually loaded jokes. What pains many women is that when these matters are reported leaders or managers and HR turn a blind eye and sweep these under the carpet, what is more disheartening is that some of those who turn a blind eye are women in positions of power and responsibility. They also argue that they are not part of the normal cliques, are not part of the male networks. Black women, in particular feel they bear the fullest brunt of this gender onslaught. Lastly, they talk painfully about friends and colleagues whose miscarriages are the results of what they call heartless managers or leaders, male and female. They are forced to choose between having a child and having a job because the working environment cannot allow them to have both.
- Employees living with disability argue that the constitution and our laws give them a platform to advance in their personal and professional lives, yet their daily experience is one of exclusion, discrimination and stereotype. Our laws are built on the need to disclose your disability, to enable employers to create a conducive environment for workers with disabilities- unfortunately given the negative stereotypes, most workers battle to disclose for fear of jeopardizing their opportunities of employment or advancement. Many suffer silently in our organizations without recourse to either help or guidance, let alone empathy. To those with a mental disability, it usually the workplace that is a horrible trigger, the constant bullying, harassment, pressure for results and unrelenting pace and expectations have an adverse impact. We have seen more suicides in organizations as people battle to cope with the workplace induced stress.
- Young people are finding our workplaces frustrating, they complain about the beaurocacy of decision making, the mind numbing micro management, the lack of meaning and purpose in their work, the stereotype of young people as “ lazy too ambitious and too impatient “. They also argue that their views and ideas are dismissed and the hierarchy of most organizations means that those ideas can never reach the top. They feel that the current career pathing is archaic and feel that organizations should be more digitized and the way of work and the place of work and hours of work should reflect a digitized world and not the analogue past. They feel more energized when they are part of self managed, multidisciplinary teams working across boundaries to solve key problems.
- Older and more mature employees above the age of 50 years believe that organizations do not value their knowledge, experience, expertise and loyalty. They feel that the years they have put in, the sacrifices they have made, the contribution they have made does not amount to anything. They look back, with much pain and regret, to the years without their families, they wish they could retire and spend time with their families, but cannot afford to do so. They look at the promotion prospects, especially as a white male, and feel that there is no clear career path ahead. They feel aggrieved that young guys that they trained and developed are moving faster than them abs sometimes will become their leaders or managers.
- Employees from other countries, particularly from the rest of the African continent, feel particularly vulnerable. They left their countries to seek a better life, they work hard here in our corporates and State owned enterprise to make enough money to live and to also send home. They remain patriotic about their home countries, have an affinity and gratitude towards South Africa, but remain outsiders. They are sometimes forced to build friendships with other colleagues and friends from outside South Africa as South Africans close them out in the social and spaces. The feel the resentment as they move up the corporate ladder, their business succeed and their children thrive and do well in schools and universities. They battle to keep their languages, religion, cultures for their children who become assimilated to a South African way of life. The children increasingly resent the trip back home to see relatives and the grandparents, they see themselves more as South Africans and have little in common with Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana, etc.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, these sentiment are a microcosm of our deeply troubled past, but most importantly, our ability to shape a common future. In each of our spheres of influence, our areas of responsibility and the teams we lead, these sentiments are there. Every step you take, every decision made, appointment made, learning opportunity provided, or leadership behavior is see through these lenses. True and genuine diversity and inclusion requires you to walk in the shoes of all your diverse people, ensure that you fully understand and appreciate their ambitions, frustrations, anxieties, biases and prejudices. There is no magic formula, it requires daily work to do the following, consistently and honestly with integrity and humility :
- Understand the South Africa context for change and transformation deeply;
- The choices, values and sentiments embodies in our constitution by our founding mothers and fathers;
- Understand the laws guiding employment equity and diversity and
Finally my leader can you share with us a significant moment of unlearning and re-learning? How did it change your perspective on internal truths you held?
I grew up in a home, in a church, a community and an organization that wanted change, change to create equity, fairness, justice and peace. I was one of those who became a leader, at a young age, who advocated these values and principles. I thought that I had no prejudice, biases or bigotry as I was a self confessed advocate of human rights, non racialism and non sexism. My resolve was tested during the formation of the South African Student Congress ( SASCO). There were ideological debates about the nature and character of the organization that would be formed from Azasco and Nusas, and both sides were suspicious of one another.
The position of gay and lesbian rights arose as one of the principles to be to be championed by the new organization. I dismissed it as an attempt to blunt the new organization. A former student leader, Rod Amner challenged my position and defeated me with a very simple yet powerful position based on rights. Over time, I did not only understand this position intellectually, I ended up embracing it intellectually and emotionally. Rod’s philosophy, which showed a gap in mine was, a fight for human rights, a fight against bias, prejudice and bigotry should embrace all people who are discriminated against. My shame, when I had fully grasped this and embraced this principle was how could I have been blind to my own prejudices. I have to accept the prejudices I had, confront them, and unlearn them and relearn afresh the beauty of our liberation struggle that embraced all. I am highly indebted to Rod Amner for making me conscious of my biases and for challenging my own thinking.
Thank you so much my Leader, I truly appreciate your insights.
It’s my pleasure, I found the questions to be deep and challenging, I hope they will illuminate a path for many young leaders.