Great leaders show the way

2014-10-10 00:00

ONE of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that it allows me to interact with some of South Africa’s leading companies and institutions, share ideas and findings on best practices, optimal business models and key business success factors.

After two particularly meaningful events recently, I’d like to share with you how two remarkable, yet different organisations, are achieving greatness through their people and action-oriented leadership.

They are Unilever (a fast-moving consumer goods company) and the Mango­suthu University of Technology (Higher Education). Unilever is not only a large FMCG company, but it’s a company steered by great leaders. It recently won four awards from the Top Employer Institute, including the prestigious number-one spot as the top employer in Africa and South Africa. What is its X factor?

I have had the privilege of engaging with its key leadership team, including chairperson Peter Cowan and vice president: human resources, Unilever SA, Antoinette Irvine, and most recently global head of leadership, Leena Nair.

What struck me was their focus not only on ensuring that they have great brands but on ensuring “people” are at the heart of their business strategy and that they build a culturally inclusive, diverse and competent organisation that enables their people to grow, develop and succeed. How do they do it?

Based on my observations, they actively listen and sincerely care about the personal goals of their people and align this to their business goals.

As the business grows, so too does the company’s focus on sustainable development and giving back to the communities in which it operates. In a complex world, its executives are accessible, take the time to understand the socioeconomic context of the countries they are doing business in, and its contribution to education, health care and business development is impressive.

Nair, in a recent discussion of the 21st-century leader, stated that there are five qualities essential for leaders of today.

• Today’s leaders should be authentic and genuine. They should not lie or manipulate their staff.

• They should be understanding of the staff and the company’s purpose.

• They must be resilient. In today’s globalised economy you need to demonstrate the ability to deal with failure and success. All leaders will fail at some point; it’s more about learning from it.

• Leaders need to be systematic in their thinking. The ability to understand how connections can help you, and how linking seemingly unrelated “dots” can be important for business, is essential.

• They must be results orientated. The ability to create and sustain high-performing teams that deliver is essential.

I also spent a morning with some of the executive management team at the Mangosuthu University of Technology, including the vice-chancellor, Professor Mashupye Ratale Kgaphola.

What stood out for me as unique at this institution was the deep respect staff, students and business have for the vice-chancellor, a highly intelligent and humble man with a passion for transforming the higher education sector.

Also outstanding is the progress it has made over a four-year period from both an infrastructure development perspective and in programmes that focus on both the EQ and IQ of the students.

The MUT has built natural science laboratories that are the “greenest” in the southern hemisphere, with roof-top gardens and solar panels. It is now completing new student residences and focusing on the lifestyle of its students, understanding the cost implications of student travel and the impact of not having safe premises in which to study.

I was impressed with its commitment to ensuring that not only can it provide good quality education, but that its students leave with good values. As the vice chancellor said in a recent speech: “The day my students feel that they need to riot and break windows instead of speaking to me in a boardroom, is the day I have failed as a vice-chancellor.”

As a society, we should want to give all people greater opportunities for education, to find work, save and spend money, to pursue happiness and ultimately to reach their potential. Both these organisations have created environments that nurture these aspirations.

• Farzanah Mall is a director — KPMG (advisory: risk consulting) and a national board director and regional chairperson: Businesswomen’s Association.

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