Ketso’s position was never cemented

2014-12-07 15:00

The ballroom at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton was set to be the scene of one of the most unusual and possibly explosive special meetings on the corporate calendar.

In the one corner was Ketso Gordhan, the charismatic and publicity-hungry former chief executive of PPC with an entourage of three investment companies and a bunch of people nominated to start a new board. Although not explicitly stated on the agenda, these nominees were set to reinstate him as CEO.

In the other corner was the current PPC board and its executive chair, Bheki Sibiya, who were, according to the Gordhan camp, not capable of implementing or supporting Gordhan’s vision of a Pan-African cement company.

At the 11th hour, less than a week before what was to be tomorrow’s scheduled special meeting, the fight between Gordhan and PPC was declared over, with Gordhan pretty much lying face down on the canvas.

It was a masterstroke by Sibiya, who, despite the public spat, had clearly worked furiously behind the scenes to win over the three investment companies that supported Gordhan and forced a special meeting, placing the ousting of the board on the agenda, among other things.

In terms of the truce reached this week, some of the changes these investors had asked for will be entertained. But Gordhan’s reinstatement will not.

Sibiya prevailed because he was willing to talk, listen and compromise. He will lose some board members and allow others nominated by the investment companies to be voted in.

He will take on all the criticism and commit to taking forward the company’s Africa growth plan, something Gordhan indicated only he was capable of implementing.

Sibiya himself will willingly step down once the transition is complete.

Gordhan, on the other hand, did not prevail, partly because of his unwillingness to compromise.

After his resignation, it became evident he believed the fortunes of the company rested in his hands alone.

He got rid of a number of executives and appeared to be able to act unilaterally.

But he met his match in the form of finance director Tryphosa Ramano, who wouldn’t budge.

Then he hit a brick wall with the board, which decided that Ramano’s ousting was one demand too far.

Whether the battle between Gordhan and Ramano was over parking and office space or more substantive issues, it was evident the board was not on his side this time.

Gordhan should have sought better ways to handle their inability to work together instead of handing in his resignation if he did not get his way. It was a rash move that backfired when the board decided not to accept his retraction a few days later.

Gordhan claimed funders would provide money for projects only if he was involved, a claim that will be proved or disproved in time, but seems unlikely.

In resigning and then expecting PPC to give him his job back, Gordhan might have assumed that because he had made some very good and well-publicised decisions (like taking a pay cut and encouraging other executives around him to follow suit) the board would find him indispensable. It didn’t.

But this doesn’t mean Gordhan was not an agent of positive change.

His legacy in terms of wanting to do the right thing – the pay cut, for example – will hopefully prompt other CEOs to assess their own roles in the world more empathetically.

Ultimately, Gordhan misunderstood his role as chief executive. CEOs do not choose their boards of directors, it’s actually the other way around – CEOs act on instructions from their boards.

CEOs can and must make changes in the interests of their companies and wider communities, but they are not the sole determinant of what these changes should be. They need to win support from boards and other executives, and listen to them if they disagree.

Often the best leaders are those who set up the structures and culture to thrive with or without them.

Gordhan’s legacy would have been so much more memorable and meaningful had he done that.

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