A window into best practice

2011-11-05 12:24

Talk of Microsoft and the image most likely to come to mind is that of founder and larger-than-life chairperson Bill Gates.

Mteto Nyati, the chief executive for Microsoft SA, is an unassuming and softly-spoken man whom you would easily pass over as just one of the 400-odd employees at the organisation’s headquarters in northern Joburg.

Just as Gates was in the early days of personal computers, Nyati is a pioneering business and leadership thinker in the age of economic empowerment.

It has been a good year for Microsoft SA under Nyati. The company has grown its market share by 22% in the last year, while the industry averaged 15%. The year before, it grew at 15%, bettering the 8% market average.

But at Microsoft they don’t only talk rands and cents.

It was through a pioneering and innovative black economic empowerment deal that Nyati stamped his mark on local business thinking.

In April, Nyati led Microsoft SA to go against the grain and produced a form of economic empowerment that is radically different from what had been seen here before.

Unlike the path many multinationals and historically white-owned local companies have taken, the name or political party membership of the beneficiary was irrelevant.

All they had to show was vision and preparedness to work hard enough to trade and employ up to 150 people in seven years.

Nyati says: “Instead of giving Mteto and a few other blacks shares in the company and making them millionaires, we decided we would invest in small companies that have the potential [to grow big] and had something unique to offer.”

In terms of the empowerment programme, Microsoft has committed R472 million to seven small, black-owned IT companies, thus giving them financial, managerial and technical support, and exposing them to its vast networks of associated organisations.

The BEE initiative has seen Microsoft SA move its empowerment rating from a level four to a level two – an even more impressive feat when considering that the Department of Trade and Industry, which awards the ratings, was initially sceptical of Microsoft’s plan and viewed it as an attempt to bypass ownership requirements.

“When I came in, we didn’t even know what level we were on. We found we were at six. We committed to being at four in a year and at two by the following year.

“I don’t know how many multinationals can say the same for their ratings. Not even many black-owned companies have this rating,” says Nyati.

Microsoft SA’s empowerment drive does not end there. In association with the ICT sector training forum MICTseta, they have trained 5?000 young people “from the streets” over a six-to-12-month period.

“There is a huge skills shortage in the IT industry. Investing in unemployed graduates delivers value if only you are prepared to give them a break,” he says.

While the numbers don’t lie, probably the most convincing endorsement of Nyati’s leader-ship is from the organisation’s employees.

In its yearly Best Employers Certification Index, the CRF Institute rated the company Best Employer in South Africa out of 69 organisations.

Last year, it won the Deloitte Best Company to Work For Survey for being the most desirable employer among IT workers in South Africa.

How did this happen?

Nyati says: “I am not a talking man. I am action orientated. We kept our priorities consistent. We gave employees feedback on how we were doing and are very transparent.

“We treat our employees as the adults that they are. The more we share, the more they come up with ideas. We sit with smart people, some of them with more degrees than I have.

“We have regular round tables with employees from various divisions in the company (who are randomly selected) and I always ask them: ‘What is the one thing you would change if you were in my position?’”

In this way, employees not only get a “deeper understanding”, but Nyati also gets an opportunity to coach and unpack some of the decisions the company takes. Employees who otherwise might not have met in the course of doing their various jobs toget know each other through these spaces.

“Today’s employees want to make a difference in society. They look at the issues in their society like education and unemployment and ask what their company is doing. That’s what drives them,” says Nyati.

It is for this reason that each Microsoft SA employee has three paid days a year in which they can volunteer their skills either at initiatives the company is involved in or one the employee chooses.

All these things happen without balancing the most important score card. “I know my first responsibility is to deliver the numbers. We cannot do any of these things we are talking about unless we deliver.”

The market has spoken. The employees have too. That means that in the early evening of every weekday (if he is not travelling), Nyati can head home with a clear conscience.

“I am fairly disciplined. I start my day early and leave by 6pm no matter what. I always have dinner with my family,” he says.

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