Do the Right Thing

Not Every Negative Action is Worth a Negative Reaction

It was another typical winter morning in Johannesburg. The sun was beaming overhead despite the slight chill in the air. The extremely vocal brown Hadada Ibis were gathering on the lawn, making their presence felt. The shrill call of these large birds has become a feature of my time here. They have gone from always annoying me by gathering outside far too early in the morning, to nowadays my looking forward to them waking me up. No matter how harsh and unpleasant someone may first appear, it’s always worth trying to find an upside in what they stand for or in what they are trying to achieve. The ability to find that common ground in confrontational situations is a trait of the best leaders, especially when emotions are high and tempers start to fray. I was waiting for Izak Smit to join me for a coffee at my hotel. Apart from bumping into each other at a couple of corporate events in Johannesburg, we hadn’t spoken properly for nearly 2 and a half years now. At the time, he was the successful chief executive (CEO) of Absa Life. He had transformed the life insurance business and it was enjoying strong growth. With the appointment of a new CEO for Absa’s Wealth Management and Insurance Unit (WIMI), which Absa Life reported into – things were going to change.

Moving on is Not Failure

Izak had been part of an executive team that had been together for some years, and they all knew the ‘drill’ that they all had to perform to. They were, in the main, left alone to deliver with significant autonomy. The previous CEO of WIMI was ‘hands-on’ but a good delegator. The new CEO wanted to build a far more collaborative environment and rightly wanted to capitalise upon the potential synergies across all of the WIMI businesses. Izak was very happy with the new approach, but in reality, it was proving to be more problematic than he had at first realised. I was the executive team coach for WIMI at the time, and knew that if we could make this work, they could potentially become quite a formidable team. Izak and the CEO respected each other, and got on well, but it wasn’t working, and for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t going to work. Something was going to have to give. The more they tried to make it work, the more fractious it became. They had different philosophies when it came to the optimal methods of working for Izak and his team. It wasn’t about wrong or right, they just had different approaches. The earlier warmth was beginning to disappear, and they both noticed it – as did his team. Izak’s a fighter but he was inadvertently starting to withdraw. We were meeting more frequently, and his primary focus and increasing concern was his team. We had enjoyed an honest and open relationship.  It was time for a difficult conversation, and a maybe a tough call. It proved not to be a tough conversation at all, but it was an emotional one. Izak cared deeply about his team and wanted to ensure they would be ‘looked after’, and continued to be developed. He was loyal to both his team and to Absa, but he felt increasingly awkward and out of kilter with both the prevailing mood and direction. He was wrongly but understandably starting to feel like a bit of a failure, despite his team’s solid financial performance. He needed to shake off this feeling and realise that he was very good at what he was doing and would thrive in a different environment. After an hour or so, we both knew his future lay elsewhere. The initial hurt and natural disappointment was painfully clear to see, but he was now moving carefully but confidently to talking about a new beginning and a different adventure. He remained stoical and positive despite having to face up to the fact that the team he had built and carefully nurtured would face a future without him at the helm. I now knew he would rise above the obvious pain and hurt. He was naturally sad and disappointed, but kept his emotions under control. My admiration for Izak grew every time we met. He needed to speak to his family, he needed their love and support. He desperately needed to share how he was feeling, and he knew he would have their affection and strength to bolster him in his hour of need. Izak was a committed long-distance runner, and he now hit the road very hard indeed. He could think clearly and work things out best when he was running. He was running far more than usual now, fuelled by his new purpose. A focus on the future fosters a more positive outlook, but the temptation is to dwell negatively on the recent past. It always helps to have some sort of ‘release valve’ when things are getting personal and not going your way. However, it is just as important to have someone close to the situation to share your personal thoughts and concerns with. Our conversations had become a little more intense and brutally honest. Letting go of something you so believe in can be extremely challenging, especially when you can’t see any viable alternative. Our conversations were now focused on Izak’s next steps, and perhaps a different direction for his career – he was now deeply engaged in crafting a new and positive future. He couldn’t escape the fact that it had all appeared to happen so quickly. Now that he had made up his mind to move on, his relationship with the CEO was as positive as it had ever been and they quickly agreed a mutually agreeable plan. They managed his departure with professionalism and humility. We met a couple more times and by now his mind was becoming clearer and he was getting interested and excited about what was potentially available to him. He had a strong track record of delivery and he was experienced at building strong and cohesive teams. When you are the leader, moving on is not failure, but it is never easy.

A New Beginning

I was looking forward to seeing him and catching up on how he was doing. The couple of times we had bumped into each other were instructive as he had a spring in his step and an aura of goodwill and gratitude towards me. Little did he know just how much I wanted to hear his story. As Izak arrived, he looked leaner, fitter and so comfortable in ‘his own skin’.  We hugged each other without speaking. I just knew he would look great. He was a young 50-year-old and had run the London Marathon last year. We spoke as though we had seen each other a week ago. He was instantly open and thanked me for having helped him move on and start another exciting chapter of his career and his life. He was the same Izak, but the sparkle had clearly returned and he was energised and optimistic. The change had worked marvellously for him. Its not always the case that the good guys end up winning, but we should all salute those brave enough to branch out again, especially when they have as much to give as Izak has. He had now been the CEO of PPS for 2 years now. His predecessor had spent nearly 13 good and effective years as CEO. Following a successful predecessor who has been in place for some time and shaped the culture to deliver in the manner they deem best, is never easy. This would not be a straightforward or easy transition but it was just the sort of challenge that he needed to get ‘his teeth into’. PPS is a ‘mutual’ with some 200,000 ‘members’, all professionals with university degrees. It is over 70 years old and has built a rock-solid reputation with its members, who are the ‘owners’ of the business with the annual profits being shared out amongst them. This is a market of only 1.6% of the population, but it has proved to be a lucrative and valuable niche. Izak had inherited a solid team that had delivered well for his predecessor. He had wisely taken 4 months off after leaving Absa Life to recharge his batteries and better reflect on his purpose, what he stood for and how he wanted to lead this new opportunity. He has grown and matured, and he is building something very special at PPS. He has kindly invited me to give a talk on Contemporary Leadership to his top 60 leaders later this year. I’m excited at the opportunity of working with him again. Izak has that huge gift of being a selfless leader. This is a vital (and all too rare) contemporary leadership trait. There was a time of certainty, when the people served the leader and the leader was capable of setting the strategy, solving all problems and knowing when to turn left or sharp right. They kick-started all initiatives and consequently, nothing much happened without them being both in charge and in control. Those days should rightfully be consigned to history where they belong. Our world of business, politics, society and even sport, are all way too complex, fast moving and constantly transforming for any one person to have any chance of remaining completely on top of and in control of their company’s total agenda today. The old and archaic approach of constantly ‘challenging down and supporting up’ is a busted flush, and just doesn’t cut it anymore. Its time for the traditional hierarchy and all it stands for to be challenged and modified. Despite its clear absurdity and anachronistic effect, we are still seeing the autocratic, top-down approach employed to terrible effect far too often.

On the World Stage Today

The deepening current crisis between Turkey and its NATO ally, the USA, has left the Turkish lira in free fall. It has lost more than 35% of its value this year alone. The further the lira falls, the greater the possibility of a serious balance of payments crisis, corporate defaults on foreign debt and a likely disastrous meltdown for the Turkish banking sector. The recently appointed Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had it well within his grasp and control to have alleviated the pressure on the lira. He now revels in the absolute power and authority that the recent bitterly fought election had bestowed on the elected office of the executive presidency that he had battled ‘tooth and nail’ to narrowly win. But that has not happened. He has installed that traditional hierarchy with the hard driving style of challenging all around on their unfailing loyalty and obedience to his increasingly authoritarian rule. He instantly removed the more moderate and strong, technocrat minister of finance, who had carefully and cautiously balanced the desired high spending populist rhetoric of the government and replaced him with his son-in-law, Berat Albagrak. What has spooked investor concerns in Turkey has been his arbitrary decision-making and the massive personalisation of power. The catalyst for this conflagration of interrelated events has been the ongoing detention in Turkey of a North Caroline pastor who is accused of involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt. President Trump’s large evangelical Christian base in the USA have been screaming for his release. The jingoistic President Trump needed little encouragement to ‘stick the boot’ into the Turkish economy. President Trump also sits at the top of a similar hierarchy where he has surrounded himself with those that are not just loyal, but have seen the cost of those trying to disagree with him or challenge him. At a time when cool heads are needed, two old authoritarian presidents have decided not to back down, and there will be no winners. In a vital speech, that could have halted the lira’s steep plunge, Albayrak instead of perhaps looking to draw support from the IMF, or at least show willingness to adopt some austerity measures, stuck two fingers up to the Americans and paid a senselessly huge price. President Trump, instead of seeking to take the higher leadership ground by shifting US policy to heal and help solve Turkey’s mainly self-inflicted crisis, he threw petrol on the blazing inferno. He unilaterally placed two Turkish ministers under harsh sanctions and raised tariffs on Turkish steel by 50% and on aluminium by 20% The stage is set for a showdown that Turkey cannot afford to lose. The price that Turkey and others will pay will be huge, and all because the old strongmen leaders can’t back down. Its not always wise to want to appear strong when you are weak, and just as important not to be threatening when you are strong.

From Best Practice to Next Practice

  • You are going to be in high profile situations – do not get needlessly competitive
  • You will have too much information about your rivals – use it carefully and wisely
  • You will feel isolated at times – seek out positive alliances and partnerships
  • Never lose sight of your overall vision and purpose
  • Show restraint with confidence when others can’t
  • Highlight your strengths and everyone else’s
  • Remain vocal and optimistic about the potential outcome
  • Always lead by example
  • Your team are everything, always act with them foremost in your mind
  • Healthy conflict can make relationships both stronger and deeper – never be afraid to challenge what is clearly wrong but do it positively
Donald Trump could not have put it better just before he got into government, “One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government”. Izak has learned as much from his departure from a job that he loved, as I had from our loud Hadada’s, every experience can be a learning experience and can enable you to grow and look forward to how you might do things differently in the future. It has also taught him to build on what he has, whilst searching for an environment that is looking for what he has. Most of all, we all win when we learn to look for the good in others and not just focus on what irritates us.  

Interested in Diversity and Inclusion?

If Diversity and Inclusion are a challenge for your organisation then you may be interested in our next Inspired Leaders Network event, Are Your Employees Invisible. We will have a panel of unique diversity and inclusion experts to share best practice and what’s working. Tap the button for more information