Conversations in leadership: Q&A with Brand Pretorius

In conversation with Brand Pretorius: Owen Skae, Director, Rhodes Business School and Lynette Louw, Deputy Dean, Faculty of Commerce at Rhodes University interviewed the recently retired CEO of McCarthy Limited about his leadership principles.

OS: How do you define a good leader?

BP: A person who can influence his or her team and mobilise the collective towards the attainment of common objectives. Vital ingredients are his or her ability to earn trust, respect, confidence and for the leader to have the ability to energise the people by inspiring them.

The acid test is that the leader must deliver results. Not about charisma. Delivering results through the eyes of team members and stakeholders. Leaders sometimes just focus on a narrow constituency, like for example the shareholders. In the world we live in, the ideal is to meet the expectations of all the stakeholders.

OS: What techniques did you use to get your team members to mobilise the way you did?

BP: I don’t like to refer to techniques. It sounds contrived. I am a great believer in authentic leadership. There is nothing more powerful than an authentic example. I have never used as a mechanism, positional power or authority. If one should succeed in presenting a unified vision that if achieved will deliver benefits to all, inculcate common values, instil a common purpose so as to fly in  formation then a leader is off to a good start.

Once achieved, rewards must be given. I am a disciple of servant leadership, because if you are looking for commitment on a sustainable basis, then you must really serve your people, nurture them. The challenge is to engage the mind and engage the heart.

The mind can be engaged by a compelling vision giving benefits – but to engage the heart, you have to respect, nurture, show interest, be humble and care. It is not fashionable for a senior executive to say you must love your people. Now this is not to say unconditional love.

Engaging the heart is a never ending challenge. Pull the hard levers, the tough levers of performance management and also push the soft levers of the heart. To know when to do what. Getting a right balance between pushing, pulling and coaching. This is something that I have grappled with all my life.

The problem is that some executives use them as a technique and people can see right through them. They just see this as a new technique or fad. Maybe the executive has just read a new book. Whatever you do it must come from the heart and there is no substitute for doing it by example. When your people look at you, they must sense passion, enthusiasm and sincerity. It is not being fabricated. Now this is just my view.

I have been exposed to leaders who have done much better than I and they do things differently. But for me, it is alignment between who you are, your heart and soul and how you behave as a leader. It must be genuine. People at all levels of the organization they observe, they pick up non-verbal communication, the tone of your voice and nuances. All about how you exercise your influence and this has to be earned.

OS: Those leaders you referred to earlier. Any comments on them?

BP: I didn’t create a big business empire. I am not an industrialist. I can’t say that through my entrepreneurial flair, I have created thousands of jobs. I have come across tough minded, very focused leaders who have achieved that.

Some other leaders that I have come across, get them into a room to talk about servant leadership and they will be amused. This is not part of their frame of reference. To them business is all about numbers. My approach is different. I have always believed that we must have a bigger purpose that goes beyond the numbers and therefore have spread my energy.

I have worked with people who did not dilute their focus in any way. Others might say that what I do dilutes focus. But in South Africa, can we afford to have selfish capitalists? Some of the leaders I have referred to believe that the essence of the focus is to give wealth to shareholders and through this we will get job creation. I believe one must be true to one’s self. I have a sense of responsibility, much broader than just shareholder value.

OS: When you were turning McCarthy around, you had to make some tough decisions though?

BP: When you face a crisis and get to the point where you accept this is so, then you must also accept responsibility. Leadership is a responsibility, it is not a right and leadership is not always glamorous. I reformulated my sense of purpose and I said to myself we have to turn this company around and we have to save the jobs. So what inspired me were the thousands of people that we employed.

The problems were all on the non-motor side. I had in my mind, a picture of the thousands of innocent staff who had not contributed to the problems in any way. So I forced myself to be single-minded to turn the company around and restore the pride of the 90 year old business.

In the process, we had to close, scale down and sell businesses. Although it was extremely difficult for me at times to think about this, what I saw were we doing in the medium term was for the greater good. From a moral perspective, this made it a little more palatable, but not easy. I went through enormous emotional turmoil.

I don’t want to dramatise, but on one day we had to retrench Head Office staff and amongst them were two of my friends who had followed me from Toyota to McCarthy and to be frank, I cried my eyes out. But what helped was that I was surrounded by incredible people, people with empathy.

We also followed an orderly process, nothing was done impulsively. Whatever we did, we honoured the principle of fairness and we did it with compassion. We were acutely aware of the importance of communication and so we followed an open and transparent approach. Ongoing communication, the bad news and the good news.

I have seen Senior Executives go into hiding and then get lieutenants to do the work on their behalf. This was not our way. We were out there talking to the people. The cuts were made across the organization. Principles of fairness prevailed. I mentioned my two friends earlier. It was very hard for me personally, but from the company perspective it had to be done.

LL: Earlier you made reference to the importance of reward. In the private sector, many would argue that is much easier to achieve. In the public sector, NGOs, schools and universities, much less scope to do this. What advice would you give?

BP: I would sit with the members of the team and ask how can we find meaning in what we are doing and let’s get clarity on what our key performance areas are? We want to find fulfilment at work. How are we doing it and how are we going to do it even better, even though there may not be too many financial rewards? Get agreement about what we are striving towards.

We will make a difference and so a special bond will develop between us. Where is the sense of achievement and we will discover it is not about others, but ourselves. In other words, each team member can see and say that “my contribution is important”.

Let’s go back to McCarthy. The share price went from R21 to 18c. We were written off. Could I put a bonus on the table? Could I make unrealistic promises? No. How did we do it? Presented the bigger picture in a way that people could relate to it. Kept their hope alive. We became dealers in hope. McCarthy share options were at R18. Share went to 18c. I and my fellow executives just tore them up.

We lost only one exec, the rest stayed. The key was to identify a direction and then pull people together. The financial side of the equation, it helps, but it is not vital. I often said to my colleagues, see your people as volunteers and you will then change the way you interact with them because they are volunteering. I am trying not to over-simplify things, I know it is difficult, but it can be done.

LL: There has been an evolution in management theory and over the decades we have gone through different so-called paradigms. In 2000, we have what I refer to as Value Principle Led Leadership. Today we talk about the knowledge economy. Where are we now? What do you see as the core values?

BP: Frankly, I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but I will try to answer your question by distinguishing between fads and fundamentals. Perhaps I am using too strong a word, but different fads, different eras – the balanced scorecard, sustainability, enormous emphasis on governance.

Leaders of today can spend anything between 10% and 20% of their time on governance issues alone. Nuances today are definitely different, but I believe that the fundamentals remain and those are principle based values. This is the only way organizations can optimise commitment and for leaders to see that they are there to serve.

Now in the context of the knowledge economy, talented people are extremely mobile. Talent is not a dam. It is a river. To motivate and retain them is becoming increasingly more difficult. Still I don’t believe that this changes my fundamental premise.

Engage the head and engage the heart. People need to be stimulated, work together for a vision of the future, engage and energise. Nine out of ten executives complain that they do everything to address equity, but will lose the candidate after six to ten months when the person leaves.

Yes there is job hopping. But the bottom line is that the organization hasn’t engaged the mind and heart. Yes nuances might be different, but the fundamentals are the same, integrity, humility. I can’t come up with an overriding theme, but we know that the world has never been more competitive, staff have never had higher expectations, so retaining quality, motivated people is more critical than ever. So we deploy more information technology, we can do lots of fancy stuff, but if the quality of the people is not there, then you are gone.

OS: What are the key challenges of being a CEO in SA?

BP: Any South African organization has the challenge to mobilise every ounce of energy and intelligence across all levels of the organization. Let’s pick a company close by to you, say Volkswagen. Why I choose them is that they are part of a global supply network, so they will only survive as long as they deliver a quality product, consistently over and over, at competitive prices.

Their MD has to get the 8,000 people there mobilised towards a common purpose, from the assembly worker to the HR Director. How? An inspirational vision that every person in that organization must be able to relate to. Now I don’t know what that is, but let’s say that it is to be the Number 1 exporter of motor vehicles from South Africa.

Then everybody needs to be engaged with about what this means. This will not happen by itself. Every person must say wow! We will all benefit! That vision has to be integrated into the DNA of the organization. Leaders at all levels must convey those messages in a consistent way and live the values.

A fully integrated effort is required. Summarise by syndicated leadership. Accept co-responsibility for vision and mission. It is an ongoing commitment. It will engage their attention all the time. All the people must be able to relate to it.

LL: You have spent some time talking about your McCarthy experiences. What about your time at Toyota? What did you learn there?

BP: There were a few key values. Firstly, respect for all people. It is easy to say, but it is extremely powerful. I will never forget walking through the Toyota plant in Japan with the President of Toyota and every person he came into contact with, he bowed to. Secondly, the value of involvement.

We had small group meetings, facilitated by the supervisors. First five minutes, personal stuff, second five minutes, yesterday’s stuff, third five minutes, today’s stuff and finally any problems or issues to be resolved. Thirdly, the value of cultural interaction.

Toyota SA successfully implemented many of the principles that worked in Japan and it must be noted that there are cultural similarities between Japan and South Africa. Getting it right first time.

We introduced the concept of saamstaan (stand together). This meant cooperating across departments. Another principle of ‘my own’. Treat this factory as our own. ‘Never ending improvement’. This took place at all levels, to get involvement and to the make the vision of Leadership in Africa through satisfaction of all, a reality.

LL: What advice can you give to Universities about preparing graduates for a career in business?

BP: It is critical that graduates are able to connect, think about what they are being connected to and interpret. For example, just walking into the local KFC and try to apply the theoretical knowledge.

Develop the ability to look, ask and consider, what is the business model of this enterprise, how does it look to the outside world, the customers and the employees? Is it working, what needs to be done differently?

I do a lot of mentoring. My key message always is be alert to what is going on around you. Learn to connect. Then connect what you are observing and learning to the business.  Universities have a key role to play in developing these sort of critical thinkers who can connect to what is going on around them. Knowledge applied is knowledge gained.


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