Despite holding a PhD in computer science, Dr Thulani Phakathi found himself going back to school – only this time it was to business school – as...
Authentic African leadership requires ‘more than a programme’
Global Focus Magazine Standard Bank / Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) / Henley Business School – GOLD WINNER OF THE 2020 EXCELLENCE IN PRACTICE AWARDS – The brief was as brave as it was wide: take 328 bankers of varying seniority from 20 African countries and help them unlock their untapped potential – as…
Global Focus Magazine
Standard Bank / Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) / Henley Business School
– GOLD WINNER OF THE 2020 EXCELLENCE IN PRACTICE AWARDS –
The brief was as brave as it was wide: take 328 bankers of varying seniority from 20 African countries and help them unlock their untapped potential – as individuals not financiers – through a programme co-designed by two ostensibly rival business schools.
As Standard Bank head of leadership effectiveness Shayne Weideman explains: “We were undergoing tremendous change as an organisation throughout Africa at the time we conceptualised the project in 2017. Our solution was to put the individual first so that they could be a better version of themselves and in turn for their families, for their communities and indeed for the bank itself.”
It was a challenging brief, says Gill Cross, the head of learning innovation at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg, not least because of the highly qualified executives who would be coming to the project.
“We started by trying to capture the spirit of the time, designing an opt-in programme specifically to empower their agency and choice. The original intention, which guided us throughout, was how do we do something that prepares high-potential leaders for a future that doesn’t look like what we’ve learned from before.”
The strategic leadership programme, dubbed #UnTAP as a homage to that original vision, was an agile and iterative programme that evolved as the different cohorts went through the seminars and the attendees were pushed to their limits in ways they had never experienced, including a novel “army to ashram” component that literally began under the gaze of former special forces instructors.
Linda Buckley, the director of executive education at Henley Africa, which co-designed and co-presented the strategic leadership programme with GIBS, agrees. “The classes were deliberately diverse, a melting pot of culture, creed, race and gender. A lot of the learning shifts actually came from within the groups themselves, we were the alchemy in the process.”
But both business schools learned a lot about themselves too.
Buckley thinks Standard Bank’s challenge was an experiment to see if two competing business schools could rise to the challenge and collaborate and in the process give the bank the very best of what each had to offer. Weideman says that’s precisely what the bank intended.
“We wanted the entrepreneurial and innovative ‘zaniness’ of Henley and the academic rigour and strong geographical footprint of GIBS to create something that explored areas where none of us had gone before to create something that had never existed.”
Cross played a major role in leading the programme design. It was premised on extremely tight and honest collaboration, initially brutally so, led by graphic harvester Lita Currie.
“We would all get together with the client in the room in a number of design sprints and then break away for kitchen sessions to further process what we were hearing, then we would get together as the business schools, bringing the faculty in, before looping it all back.”
The whole process was then graphically harvested and rendered by Currie on a giant sheet of paper which provided both the literal map and the lodestar for the entire project in the bank’s Global Leadership Centre in Johannesburg. This rendering was further festooned, literally, with Post-It notes as discussions ensued and flowed.
“We went through the whole stormin’, normin’, and performin’, phases,” explains Buckley. “The beginning was quite robust, but very quickly we realised that this project was bigger than all three organisations and we segued from being competitive to co-operative and collaborative.
“Each time we felt ourselves wandering off track we would remember why we were there and what the bigger purpose was by looking at the wall.”
Each school ran its own 30-strong cohort of bankers but to ensure uniformity and cohesion the faculty for both streams was exactly the same, with each school taking responsibility for a different backroom function throughout the three-year set of programmes. All the sessions were run at Standard Bank’s Global Leadership Centre, where the delegates were accommodated, when they weren’t doing immersion days in Johannesburg’s inner-city, at a stable and at the special forces’ base in the countryside.
“We were quite intentional about giving each other feedback. There was a constant sharing of ideas and implementation of best practice and in the end, there was an absolute feeling of abundance,” says Buckley.
One of the key lessons of the programme for Weideman was the actualisation of the African expression of Ubuntu or interconnectedness.
“We are definitely better together; the power of partnership was amplified hugely and the richness of thinking was exponential,” he says.
He was particularly impressed by the calibre of the people on the course.
“Every time we had a cohort come through, I was worried that it wouldn’t be as good as the last time, but every time it was better. That resilience and hunger to do something different and really contribute through the passion projects that each one had to do; we saw every time. We really are a human bank.
“We thought it would take time for the hierarchies and rivalries to break down and for connections to be forged but literally on the first day they formed bonds that would last them for life. We had junior executives, new executives and senior executives all coming in on this programme together – and we made them sleep in an army dormitory. The next morning there was no moaning when the hot water ran out in the showers.”
For Cross, one of the biggest lessons personally came from the collaboration of two rival business schools.
“A project like this holds up a mirror for you to realise you can’t do everything yourself, but it also distilled each institution’s DNA,” and in the process, she says, each was able to complement the other in eradicating the urge for competition.
“When you strip away the ego and the posturing,” says Buckley, “that’s when you see the magic emerge.”
And there was magic.
“This was the most asked for programme in the bank’s history, just showing how word of mouth from an authentic and honest initiative like this [can help] the internal marketing,” says Cross.
“This was a process driven initiative,” says Weideman, “the bank has access to incredible content, drawn from some of the [best] business schools in the world. The only way we could get the delegates to shift behaviour and learn was to provide them with experiences they simply could not get anywhere else.”
He, Cross and Buckley believe that the “passion projects”, where delegates devised projects close to their hearts, that were not necessarily banking related but very much grounded in who they were and the societies they came from, were a key part of the success.
“The passion project brought the whole person into the room,” says Buckley, “it brought absolute shared value to the table and a real understanding of what this was all about.”
More than the unique aspect of rival business schools overcoming traditional rivalries, the project’s African roots and its focus on the individual are the reasons why the trio believe it won the EFMD Excellence in Practice Gold Award for Executive Development focus.
“We wanted to make people the best version of themselves,” explains Weideman, “and that personal transformation has impacted business.”
The statistics speak for themselves: 99% of attendees say the programme had been applicable to their work, 98% to their personal lives and 69% to their role in the community. 82% of all the attendees have subsequently been recognised as high performers with the bank, with a significant percentage being promoted afterwards.
None of this would have happened without the buy-in of the business schools and the bank to each other.
“Shayne was an incredible advocate for this process,” says Cross, “he trusted us, he allowed us to take risks.”
Buckley agrees: “there was a lot of courage involved”.