MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN 2014/15
CASE IN POINT | Business Connexion
by Andrew Ngozo
The Courage To Make Decisions
Business Connexion Deputy CEO, Vanessa Olver is an undeniably courageous woman, it is a trait that is easily picked up when she walks into a room. She brings into it, an air of fearlessness, coupled with a subtle yet stern ‘can do’ attitude. So when she talks, her effortless sense of courage comes as no surprise.
I have the courage to make decisions. Some people tend to vacillate and do not want to make some of the tough decisions, I on the other hand am exceptionally decisive. I must admit I may not be popular as a consequence,” says Olver.
Olver has learnt that she will never be able to please everyone and believes people would much rather have one make a decision, than not make a decision or vacillate for too long. “The manner in which we react to situations is different across different populations and the pace at
which we do things will never be universal. Nevertheless, I would rather move two steps forward, than stand still,” Olver explains.
She adds to that, the importance of acknowledging when one is wrong: “Some of my decisions may have not been the right decisions. In these situations one needs to recognise that they have made a mistake, apologise and do whatever has to be done to rectify the situation. This is a skill that I have learnt over time.”
Leadership through trying times
Olver was appointed Acting CEO, following the sudden death of BCX CEO, Benjamin Mophatlane: “The last few weeks have taught me to slow down and to better explore different angles. When you are an A-type personality, you ‘just want to go’ and get things done, without wasting time and efforts. She reflects.
Dealing with a grieving workforce requires empathy: “You have to recognise that everyone’s coping mechanisms are different. Some people just carry on, others take time to mourn, and some people may even require assistance. You have to have a listening ear. These are important lessons that the past few weeks have taught me.”
The Team Player
Olver has held various roles since joining BCX; she started off as the Group CFO and later took over the Shared Services business unit, a move that would steer her towards becoming the Group Executive for the Services Division, the largest divisions in the company. This required managing IT people, as opposed to accountants and commercial people, a new territory that would teach her a lot about being a leader.
The ability to keep an open and learning mind has been critical throughout her career: “Despite the fact that I might have to lead, I can still learn from others. I do not necessarily need to lead from the front, but I need the right team.”
Team work is a key driver: “Because I do not have all the skills required to run an ICT company, I must surround myself with people who will compliment my skills. I select people with diverse thinking and different backgrounds. I prefer a cosmopolitan team. A team with young and dynamic people, the older and experienced, as this adds diversity and brings together the beauty of different mindsets. In turn, I will develop myself and learn different leadership traits from the team.”
Once the right team is in place, it is important to understand the dynamics, to elicit everyone’s input, and to bring out the best in every team member.
Olver has learnt to allow collaboration for more extended periods of time before making a decision: “In the past, I would have said we have debated this enough, let us move on, quickly. It is important to value people’s input in order to get them on board. Once everyone is on board, and headed in the right direction, your decision has been made, technically-speaking.”
She concedes that today there is a different school of thinking when it comes to people: “It is about values-based organisations and leading with heart. It is about creating trust with employees and it is also about passion and purpose.”
Passion is one of BCX’s values and something Olver lives by: “You have to do something with absolute passion and energy otherwise you are never going to get the desired result.”
Embracing authentic leadership requires organisations to provide their people with the space and the opportunity to be creative; they must also be allowed to make mistakes: “In our environment this is typically the way we work, but now it is about marrying this with the softer elements.”
Africa – the bank of possibilities
In her previous role as Finance Director for Standard Bank Africa, Olver was responsible for 16 African countries. This experience has taught her some important lessons about operating in Africa: “You cannot paint everyone with the same brush. A person from Nigeria is completely different to a person from Zimbabwe, Malawi or Angola. Africa is culturally different. It is about showing and winning respect. Dictating seldom bears results. There is still a lot of awareness we need to create about the softer side when going into Africa as business people.”
To her mind, the art of negotiation and collaboration are important skills that people in Africa need to learn to do a lot better: “Otherwise, I fear people will extract value and we will not get anything in return. The opportunities in Africa are huge. I hope Africans can capitalise on these opportunities before other international players.”
BCX recently purchased a 30% stake in Appzone. Established by three young Nigerians, the company, among its offerings, has developed an end-to-end banking solution for micro-finance institutions, which also enables agency-banking for the larger commercial banks in Nigeria. This solution has potential across the African continent. “Here is a really small establishment that has created a very unique working agile solution. We need to find such pockets of excellence, because there are a lot of those in Africa,” Olver remarks.
Operating in Africa has taught BCX the value of strong partnerships - Majority interests and a very prescriptive approach could be detrimental in certain instances: “We want the people who have created the solution to continue with energy and passion. We want them to see the monetary benefits or accolades that come later because of their product. Our approach is about encouraging entrepreneurship.”
Olver says the opportunities in Africa are enormous: globally, Africa is seen as ‘a sweet spot.’ However, she has serious concerns, . “Africa must not sell itself short. One example is of the Chinese who are coming into Africa. They are constructing, significant buildings in Botswana, as well as sizeable infrastructure projects in the DRC and elsewhere. These are huge investments made into Africa for something in return. The only caution I have for the rest of Africa, and that includes South Africa, is do not give it away for free,” Olver concludes.
Vanessa’s bank of knowledge and expertise make her a formidable force in the South African business landscape, a great example for women across all sectors and ages as well as a commendable leader. They type of leader whose passion for people and making a difference will be remembered for generations.
Leadership Starts With The Self
As to what makes a true or authentic leader is often a topic of discussion in many business conversations. While many people have varying perspectives on the topic, regardless of how small or big a team one leads, Jane Canny, Group Chief Operating Officer, Business Connexion, believes that authentic leadership in any form starts with the self. “You don’t have to be the leader to be a leader,” she emphasises. “Success is all about being a self-leader first – striving to be the best you can be at whatever you are capable of doing. If one consistently applies the principles of self-leadership, then success will surely follow!”
In trying to define leadership in general and authentic leadership in particular, Jane says one need not look for complex definitions that may leave the next person even more confused than at the start of a conversation. “Leadership is leadership regardless of the organisation or the number of people you lead. It is about sound, consistent values that are in turn applied consistently. In short, a true leader is trustworthy, true to themselves and others, and delivers on promises. The person people see you to be is ultimately who you are,” she says. Jane adds that, when leaders conduct themselves in such a way, they are able to build followership, which is based solely on the impact that one has on others.
A Sound Set of Values Applied Consistently
Jane is a seasoned professional who has held a number of executive posts within industry. She has extensive business and information and communications technology (ICT) management experience. With a career which commenced in financial management, Jane has excelled in various information technology (IT) management and consulting roles, with a specific focus on the retail sector. Prior to joining Business Connexion, Jane held various executive positions within the UCS organisation, which gave her wide exposure to the organisation’s operations and strategy. Over the years, she successfully delivered many complex internal and client projects, while also taking ownership of end-to-end outsourcing contracts, thereby ensuring a common understanding and measurability between service provider and client. How has she managed to build such an impressive track record generally and as a leader? “I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses and I am unafraid to reflect on them. I am a mission-driven individual who always focuses on the facts and results rather than on emotional and political plays. As a leader, I make decisions that I believe will be in the best interest of the long-term sustainability of the business as opposed to short-term financial gain.”
Leaders would do well to have a set of sound values that they consistently live by. Jane stresses that it is vitally important that these fundamental values remain the same, because, essentially, consistency is what followers look for in a leader. If a leader is constantly changeable and people never know what to expect, it poses problems, for, then, it becomes difficult for them to follow the leader. “Never shoot down anyone, but treat each team and situation with respect and always be open to listening to their perspectives,” she advises.
It is important to highlight that what one faces on a day-to-day basis is people with different perspectives who come from different cultures. Leaders, in particular, may have different styles, Jane points out. Thus it is important to acknowledge that there is no one way that is better or worse than another. “The other way is just different, and it is in its difference that you get that diversity of thought that you need to harness in order to arrive at the third alternative, which I refer to as ‘the best solution’,” she explains. The best option is just that: the best, because it has not been dreamt up by any one individual, but is a result of the leader harnessing available diversity to come up with better solutions.
True Leadership Comes from the Heart
The Business Connexion Group has a solid presence on the African continent, which is the fastest-growing economic region in the world. Africa, by its very nature, is a unique continent with rich and diverse cultures. Does this place the continent at a disadvantage given its history and leadership? “No,” says Jane. “What we need to do is to respect and acknowledge our cultural differences and concede that no one way is better or worse than the other. There is significant strength in being able to harness the power of diversity on our continent. Fundamentally, though, good values are at the core of various religions and cultures. Hence, in my opinion, there is no difference in earning respect through authentic leadership, whether you are in Africa or elsewhere.”
As for the age-old debate as to who make better leaders, men or women, Jane says that, for her, the debate fails to recognise that it’s not so much a battle of the genders/sexes but more about different perspectives and cultures. Men and women, as with cultures, are different. “As such, it also all comes down to harnessing the diversity that men and women bring to leadership. It is vital for all leaders to know that true leadership comes from the heart and is for the genuine good of all. It is not for selfish power, ego or money,” she proclaims.
She concludes thus: “I would like leaders across Africa to take note of the following: remember that, as a leader, you must consistently open your mind so as to see things as they are without being coloured by prejudices and assumptions. Always keep in mind that our respective perspectives are internal mirrors and have little to do with the true nature of the other person or situation.”
Leading From The Heart
At the heart of every organisation is its most important asset – the human resources. As a result, it is vital that the right calibre of individuals is employed by the company in order to achieve the desired business goals and objectives. Business Connexion, a continental information and communications technology (ICT) systems services provider has the best of all breeds in all facets of the business. Driven by a passion for success, Business Connexion’s human resources unit is one that ensures that only the best will do for the organisation.
Grace Dipale, Group Executive: Human Resources at Business Connexion, leads not only from the top, but also from the heart. She says that she is passionate about the Business Connexion brand, because Business Connexion is both a great employer and has become part of her being. She admits that her passion for the brand makes it easier for her to ‘sell’ the Group’s unique value proposition to talented individuals and thus attract great talent. “In order to assess whether an individual fits in to the Business Connexion culture, we first have to understand what success looks like so that we can recognise their culture and role fit. We hire with the intention of grooming future leaders, and it is vital for us to engage with them a lot prior to bringing them on board,” she reveals. This often includes a rigorous exercise that entails psychometric tests among others.
A Leader Growing as Individuals Grow
To thrive and succeed, leaders should not confine themselves to simply making decisions, for Grace believes that leadership is an art that entails more than this. “I believe that we recruit highly talented individuals and, as such, should give them scope to manage whatever projects we are working on while fostering a learning culture in which my team can learn and grow in order to reach their potential. Consequently, their growth and development mean that I also grow as a leader.” She adds that other ideals that she holds dear are teamwork as well as an open and honest culture. “This enables my team to go beyond the impossible to create unique and strategic business solutions. Therefore, I endeavour to be approachable and I encourage participation and the sharing of innovative ideas in order to push the boundaries.” According to Grace, trust and her ability to relate to each and every one of her team members is what “allows us to be inspired and motivates us to achieve our objectives”.
While it is ‘different strokes for different folks’ when it comes to the aspect of authentic leadership, Grace is on a set path. She is a firm believer in managing and leading by fostering meaningful relationships, but without clouding her own vision and judgement in the process. She explains: “Our business is truly all about our people, and, consequently, I enjoy spending time with my people so as to understand and inspire them. My leadership style at any one point is adapted and based on my understanding of individuals, teams and previous experiences in handling similar situations. What makes me highly successful is that feminine touch – amplified perceptiveness and intuition – which I have often seen to be lacking in many leaders.”
For fellow leaders, Grace takes time to share some of the ways in which she handles situations successfully. Firstly, as a leader, one has to understand the audience and the end goal in each interaction, as well as understand the sensitivity of the situation in addition to the implications of potential actions. Secondly, “by being resourceful and keeping an ear to the ground, I am able to relate to all levels. This is important, as I also have to wear multiple hats, where necessary, by applying emotional intelligence,” she elaborates. According to her, such an instance is one where she is able to be sympathetic, and therefore relatable, but yet assertive where necessary. Lastly, in all decisions that leaders make, they have to ensure that they always keep the organisation and its people’s best interests at heart at all times.
A Continent of Remarkable Leaders
Business Connexion’s operations extend across the continent and, as the fastest-growing region in the world, Africa, Grace says, can do everything but fail. “Africa’s track record speaks for itself, for it’s a continent that has always had remarkable leaders. These include Shaka Zulu, Mahatma Ghandi, Steve Biko, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and our beloved Nelson Mandela, whose legacy will continue to live on. Even the world’s most powerful man, United States President Barack Obama, has his roots in Africa! Africa’s leadership style is often unique and collaborative and defines leadership paradigms,” she points out. However, there is still plenty of room for growth and improvement she indicates. “African leaders should actively demonstrate and promote courage and a commitment to make the world a better place for all. This includes the courage to stand up as leaders to what is wrong and unjust. And this transcends all spheres from politics to government and business. There must be authenticity in all that we do,” she highlights. Increased collaboration among leaders is key at this point, as it will, among other things, enable growth and skills transfer. “And, of course, I would love to see a rise in more female leaders in Africa!” she exclaims.
It is an exciting time for Africa and its people, and Grace believes that the continent is on the verge of taking its rightful place in the world arena as far as leadership is concerned. In conclusion, she urges all African leaders to put their heads together to bring about innovative solutions to common challenges in a collaborative manner. “The people of Africa have tremendous untapped potential and talent; and, together, we have a bright future. As a collective leadership, we need to stand for the eradication of corruption and poor service delivery within our own backyard, Africa,” she concludes.