Africa's top ‘Corporate Teams'
The most intriguing question is not so much whether teams are important in business, as whether there is a distinctive African approach to collaboration from which other nations can learn. One person who thinks so is Hilton Mer, Executive Chairman of Stuttafords, the 150 year-old department store, which survived as a family concern until the present century.
Mer, who has many years’ experience at the helm of major retail and distribution businesses in South Africa, including Metcash and Super Group, was brought in last year to turn round the group. “My style is an inclusive one,” he says. “I think it is vital to get the input of the operational people though it is my job at the end of the day to translate that into strategy. Only one person can be in charge,” he says, echoing Shuttleworth, “but that person needs to be sensitive to how decisions affect the people who face the customers.”
Mer identifies three essentials for successful team building at a senior level. Firstly, the skills must be in place – “There’s no time to teach them to tie their shoelaces!” Secondly, empower them – “Nothing is more demoralising than constant second-guessing.” And finally, make them accountable – “They have to deliver on their undertakings or accept consequences.” By this last one, he doesn’t mean sacking people. However, team management should be subject to monitoring, assessment and mentoring if necessary.
While Stuttafords is a midsized business in African terms, SAP is huge. Ashley Boag returned to Africa as SAP’s COO, responsible for operations throughout sub-Saharan Africa. For him too, leadership is inseparable from collaborative working. “Leadership creates the environment for success: it is a behavioural thing though, not always something you can teach. For me it is very much that we set very clear goals.” Or as Mer puts it: “The job of senior CEOs is to make sure all the soldiers are fighting the same enemy!”
Given the complexity of African markets and corporations like SAP, their cultural diversity needs to be at the forefront of thinking, and this, Boag believes, is what makes team working different from the US for example, where standard methodology reigns, to put it crudely. “There is a distinct African ‘feel’,” he says. “Not only that, convergence has not come so far that we can afford to ignore cultural difference: we need to be very sensitive to it and adapt accordingly.”
Successful team management stimulates innovation, says Boag. “I have a current project and of course have included people with specialist knowledge. But I also try to involve people from completely different areas. You’d be surprised how often someone comes in from outside and asks questions that people with specialist interests miss!”
Bringing fresh talent into teams allows people to test themselves and try things they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to. His is a case in point. “Working on projects gave me a chance to step from a FD role into the operational side of the business. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to join those teams the leadership might never have realised that I would be effective in operations and pretty good at what I do now! I haven’t had a financial role for years.”
You can’t win a football match or achieve a business project without teamwork. This was proved when Konkola Deep Mine Project was sinking Africa’s deepest shafts at the world’s deepest copper mine in Zambia. “KDMP is an African company; the majority of the ownership is in the hands of an Indian company, which is nevertheless listed on the LSE; one of the major contractors is from South Africa and the other from China; most of the large equipment and machinery comes from Germany, France and other European countries. To get all these working together and get a product at the end was a challenge!” says General Manager, Raj Kulkarni.
Acute language and cultural differences had to be overcome, he says. However, that is typical of Africa, and Africans have had to develop a lot of flexibility. As Boag says: “Internationally we have been successful in leveraging diversity at SAP. You can bring a strong set of skills together and it needn’t slow you down.”
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.