South Africa was a stunning place with wonderful people and a real challenge. I was Operations Head across sub-Sahara Africa based in Johannesburg with additional responsibilities in Cape Town, a couple of small rural branches, Zimbabwe and Namibia. I had 140 people, 11 different tribes and 13 different languages to contend with in an environment that was in its second decade of a post-apartheid era! What could possibly go wrong?
The operation was performing poorly, consistently featuring in the bottom three of industry wide KPIs in the weekly financial news. Costs were high and the client base was average. A lot of time was spent on low-end clients paying little or no fees who demanded a lot of time, and a poor effort was being made to introduce good regulation and standards.
Culturally it was broken, with people struggling to cope with the freedom that the end of apartheid provided, and some senior management individuals struggling with the concept that everyone was equal and should be respected accordingly.
I had messengers moonlighting as Coca Cola delivery van drivers and debt collectors turning up at the down town office, where I based myself, demanding money with menaces from an employee. Together with an investigation bureau made up of ex-police officers, we broke up an established crime syndicate across banks, brokers, transfer agents and the stock exchange. All paths led to an 82-year-old man living on a farm in the Transvaal for the last 50 years who was a former Sicilian Mafioso.
I wasn’t very popular in certain circles, so I received personal security training for the duration. Once, I was trapped in the middle of the street with military armoured vehicles and barbed wire behind me and advancing Zulu tribesmen in traditional regalia charging towards me, but that’s another story!
My starting point was to give our people a sense of pride and purpose. I demonstrated how their day-to-day role was linked to our strategy and brand thus adding value. We introduced succession planning so they had a line of sight to career progression based on meritocracy, and I made it very clear through my actions that discrimination of any kind was not tolerated irrespective of your rank or who you were.
The work place became a place of safety, equality and mutual respect where hard work was rewarded. I introduced ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule where I dismissed anyone who failed to respect these values. Many of our people had very little wealth and lived in townships in small homes with a corrugated iron roof. But destructive behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated so exiting someone and cutting off their only source of income against this backdrop was hard but necessary.
Our people received a sense of pride from seeing their hard work translated into success as they climbed the KPIs performance table. After six months of driving change we appeared consistently in the top three best service providers month after month, and I am told we stayed there for years after I left.
Again, lowering the cost base through process excellence and reducing waste, stopping non-core activity, addressing the culture so employees understand and feel part of the strategy and creating respect and collaboration in the work place were key parts of the transformation.
Effective performance measures, transparent meritocracy career progression, regular purposeful communication and a daily 15-minute huddle to map the day and discuss issues were all steps in the process.
Regular KPIs to track progress, and a culture of mutual respect from the Board right through to the post room completed the transformation to a company with one tribe, one language, and one focus! Each company is different as are its employees. But fixing the issues often requires the same steps to be followed but in differing degrees depending on the individual situation.