No need to repeat that most successful businesses are built on teamwork. One of Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs, Mark Shuttleworth, may describe himself as SABDFL (Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life), but you don’t build a company like Canonical without a lot of consultation. He is the archetypal leader-from-the-front, but as he himself says, “to scale any operation takes the work of teams, and more often than not, teams of teams. Leaders inspire that flash of genius and also make those individuals want to work together. Great teamwork is a real skill”.
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.”