South Africa requires a new breed of business leader

For many years I have advocated the business approach of ‘people before profit’. I’ve always believed that if you focus on people and service, profit will follow, but if you focus on profit instead, people become a cost burden. The resulting culture is not conducive to great customer service because people end up feeling like things, and without the commitment and support of people, profit becomes an elusive objective.


In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the notion of ‘people before profit’ has taken on a whole new meaning. The impact of the pandemic has been a strong reminder of the gross inequalities across our society. The insatiable quest for more and more profit has shown the darker side of capitalism at the expense of the workforce and the unemployed. I firmly believe that capitalism is the best economic system for mankind, but rugged individualism, greed and corruption have badly distorted the capitalist world as we know it today.


Obviously, businesses need to make profits to sustain themselves and to grow. Business owners also have the right to be well rewarded for creating wealth. But there comes a point where excess profits could be more purposefully used to build the economy through paying as many people as possible a fair and living wage.


The pandemic has caused many businesses to either cut their staff numbers or stop paying them temporarily. For small and under-capitalised businesses this is sadly unavoidable and understandable. For larger corporations, however, with the reserves to sustain their businesses through the crisis, this practice should be questioned. In a country where unemployment is the single largest threat to peace and prosperity, enlarging the ranks of the poor and the desperate, is a short-sighted strategy. Now more than ever, customers will be ostracizing brands that care only for profit and growing affinity for those that create positive societal impact.


A question for the captains of industry


I believe that there are two key questions all captains of industry should be asking themselves:


  • How much is enough?
  • When does the drive for shareholder profit reach a tipping point where the gap between the rich and the poor is so wide that a revolution is the unavoidable consequence?


Time and again history has taught us the same lesson: Unabated hunger and unequitable wealth distribution lead to popular uprisings. And if we are running a business or managing a team in South Africa, we need to hold ourselves accountable.


Let’s consider it from a business perspective as well as a human one: how will the economy grow if half the country is unemployed and financially unable to buy goods and services? Employing people, not retrenching them, is the way to revive the economy and avoid a catastrophe, even if this means lower returns for shareholders. The end result will be far more beneficial for us all.


The time for change is now


South Africa is in urgent need of a new breed of business leader. I call them ‘Culture-Driven Leaders’. These leaders require specific talents and expertise over and above the traditional leadership competences that have been practiced for so long.


Over 40 years’ of running businesses and supporting business leaders has shown me that the ‘tried and tested’ leadership styles that we rely on have fallen way short of meeting the complex demands of our highly volatile socio-political landscape in South Africa.


They are simply inadequate in our ever-changing and troubled country.

Today, leaders can no longer rely on their position of power or status in the hierarchy to earn the support and loyalty of their people.


Instead, South Africa requires leaders who understand that the quality of their customer experience will never be greater than the quality of their employee experience. Culture-Driven Leaders are therefore individuals who have earned the moral authority to lead.


This moral authority is granted by their employees only when their leaders have successfully achieved the following:


  • They pay a fair remuneration: they understand the living requirements of their people and prioritize remunerating them fairly, ensuring sustainable livelihoods
  • They have earned the trust and respect of their employees: they have behaved in a manner that always puts people first. They alleviate fear and uncertainty by communicating frequently, with transparency, empathy and care and demonstrate their commitment to ‘serving the people who are serving the customers’
  • The company’s Reason for Being, core values and purpose of work are embraced in the minds and actions of all employees: they have created a rallying cry for the entire workforce that is sharply focused on meeting and exceeding the needs of their customers
  • They display a genuine concern for the well-being of their people: they have taken a personal interest in their employees’ financial, physical, and psychological health and have considered their micro-context, adjusting the focus on how work gets done to outcomes
  • They have created a place of safety: they have shown their own vulnerability and have created channels of frequent communication in which people feel free to share their thoughts and emotions without fear of victimisation or retaliation.
  • They have built an inclusive workplace community: they have addressed the complex socio-political and economic South African landscape, and have fostered a sense of common purpose and belonging, regardless of race, culture, religion and so on.
  • They have shown a strong commitment to the development and growth of their employees: they empower their people to rise, tackle challenges and co-create the future. Now is the time to make space for raising future leaders and uplifting people in South Africa.


In today’s Covid-19 world, these critical leadership attributes and specialised skills are under scrutiny and there is absolutely no place to hide. How we behave today will be remembered and judged for some time to come.


Great leaders understand that if you uplift and care for your people and give them a sense of purpose, they will follow you to places they would never have gone by themselves. They will come to learn that work is so much more than a salaried job. Serving people and impacting positively on the lives of others is in fact a privilege and gives meaning to life and work.


The Role of Cultureneering in this new world order


I would like to introduce a fresh approach to business leadership. It’s called CULTURENEERING. Cultureneering is both a philosophy and a framework that can be followed by all business leaders and teams.


It is the art of building a culture that is driven by a business’s Reason for Being, its core values and its total commitment to creating a working environment that inspires people to serve others.


Within the Cultureneering philosophy, culture is no longer just “the way we do things around here.”


Instead, Cultureneering is built upon a deep conviction that a sense of belonging and a common purpose of obsessive customer service can only ever be achieved when a group of diverse people have risen above their historical conflicts of interest and have come to understand, accept and tolerate their differences.


Today’s challenge in the world of Covid-19 is to:


  • Re-establish your company culture
  • Repair staff relations where they have possibly been damaged as a consequence of the lockdown
  • Build a stronger business that can uplift your employees and South Africa’s economy moving forward.

In troubled times we must go back to basics


We are living in a time of extreme uncertainty and fear. We can either hide and hope everything returns to normal (which it won’t, and I would argue that normal was deeply flawed to begin with), or we can go back to the basic understanding of our reason for being.


Here’s how this works:


  • You need to be crystal clear as to why your company exists in the first place.
  • This can never be about profit. Profit is always the reward – it is never the purpose.
  • Your reason for being can only ever be about your customers; knowing who they are, what they want and how you can positively impact on their lives.
  • It is also vital that you have established a set of core values that drive your behaviour and decision-making processes.
  • The way leaders live their company’s core values and align themselves in support of its reason for being, will ultimately determine the credibility and trust of their employees.
  • If a leader’s stated value is ‘people first’, but her actions clearly show that money comes first, she will not only destroy her credibility as a leader, but she will sew mistrust and discontent into the culture.
  • Here’s a tip to keep top of mind as well: the first people to suffer when a culture is undermined are the customers.


Sharing the business’s Reason for Being, Purpose and Core Values with employees


Employees should be fully aware that they come to work to serve, not to make money. If they serve well, they will be rewarded. The fundamental message should always be ‘service first, reward second.’

If reward is the stated objective, service will be compromised and the customers will be disillusioned.


The workplace is made up of two kinds of people: Contributors who believe that they have come to serve others and ‘I specialists’ who believe they have come for their own benefit.

As soon as employees take more from the company than they put in, the culture of service will take a dive and the business will suffer. The time of the ‘I Specialist’ has come and gone. Rugged individualism and greed are the curse of company culture and set a business on a race to the bottom. Placing service before self-interest must become the new norm in both life and business.


Culture-Driven Leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic


During the Covid-19 crisis, humanitarian leadership must rise to the fore. Supporting the financial wellbeing, physical and psychological health and safety of employees should be priority number 1, 2 and 3.


Once you have reached out to your employees and confirmed that they are okay, ensure that they are fully committed to the company’s Reason for Being (its true purpose) and its Core Values. Furthermore, remind them that we Work to Serve and that money is the reward for great service. If there is no alignment between leadership and employees on these critical issues, a culture of service will be an elusive target, regardless of where they are working.


As human beings, we’re hardwired for connection. As a result, working remotely can be challenging for many people. They need the comfort of social contact and the world of virtual connection may take some time to get used to. Build a simple and functional network for online group communication between employees and their leaders. Everyone needs to stay in contact on a daily basis.


During these times of remote working, dealing with the stresses and fears around the virus, work and challenging family responsibilities will mean that people will undoubtedly shift the focus towards self. Furthermore, some employees may be disgruntled about the way they have been treated during the lockdown and are feeling resentful towards the company. It is, therefore, not surprising that the customer might become less of a focus. ‘I specialist” tendencies might creep in and serving customers may become less of a priority.


This is where Culture-Driven Leaders have an important role to play. They need to help individuals to feel more settled and at peace with the world around them and enable them to refocus their attention onto service and contribution.


10 Characteristics of Culture-Driven Leaders


  • They promote the company’s Reason for Being
  • They seek understanding and buy-in to their vision of the future
  • They share information openly
  • They listen deeply and respectfully
  • They nurture and grow people
  • They build communities based on respect, trust, and tolerance
  • They can relate to every kind of person regardless of race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation and age
  • They create a sense of belonging and purpose for every member of the community
  • They make themselves vulnerable by sharing their emotions, admitting their mistakes and acknowledging their weaknesses
  • They build a place of safety in which people are free to speak their minds without fear


Business leaders have a moral obligation to support and uplift our people and to contribute to the rebuilding of the South African economy. The time for Cultureneering and Culture-Driven leadership has come.


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