Three Cheers to Mark Cutifani

I recently watched a YouTube video, posted about 10 years ago – practically a lifetime ago – given the rate at which digital transformation is accelerating!  In the video, Mark Cutifani, outgoing CEO of Anglo American, passionately opined: “people are not assets…I am more than an asset, I’m a person. People are the business, and if leaders don’t get that, they don’t get leadership”.

This really got me thinking about what COVID19 has taught us about leadership over the last two years. Has it taught us anything new, or does what Mark Cutifani says still hold true?  Is there some new set of skills leaders need to have to be able to lead effectively in the so-called “new normal”, especially given hybrid working arrangements, or is it simply a case of redefining and refreshing (or, shock, horror, actually practicing) well-known leadership competencies to reflect the current context?

In this article I attempt to reconcile the concept of ‘people-centric leadership’ with our context, that is, ‘hybrid working models’, to reveal a few important lessons that may help current leaders lead organisations, business units, teams, and themselves better.

I feel very privileged to have worked for some organisations that have taken people-centric leadership very seriously, or, in some cases, not-so-seriously to ill-effect, in my opinion. More on this later. In many organisations, there is a palpable disjuncture between espoused and lived values, especially when it comes to what leaders say, versus what they do (how they behave, conduct themselves, make decisions, etcetera). Luckily for me, my current employer has decided to forgo ‘unachievable’ values, and rather opt for some simple guiding principles to help model employee and leader behaviors. Chief among these principles is ‘putting people first’ in everything we do. Rather than just saying we put people first, we go out of our way to ensure the needs of employees are met. It is a classic case of ‘look after your employees and they will look after your customers’ that really rings true for me.

In my current role, I have been very lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective) to be able to work from home on a permanent basis. No hybrid working for me! We don’t have a physical office where we can convene on a regular basis, to collaborate on projects and build our collegial bonds. My colleagues live in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Harare and Lagos respectively, but this doesn’t mean at all that we haven’t yet had an opportunity to bond, to build friendships and professional working relationships. I feel like a part of the furniture at my current employer already, and I have only been working here for about 6 months. How on earth did this happen?!

To hazard an answer not couched in good research would be a bad idea. APAG’s New Ways of Working Pan-African Report 2021 (we call it the NWoW) provides some good insights into what leadership competencies can help us feel ‘at home’ while working from home, at your rent-an-office, at the office proper, or some hybrid blend of these. We found that “hybrid working models are here to say, enabled by new leadership skills and competencies”. But what are these competencies? Our research found five:

  • Development of People should be front and center for any leader worth his or her salt, and who wants their people to perform well, and stay at the company.
  • Clear communication is key, through MULTIPLE and MANY channels, including face-to-face meetings.
  • Leading Change and making people feel safe in the change journey is so very important to sustain hybrid working into the future.
  • Emotional Intelligence, tapping into what people are feeling by asking them and showing authentic empathy is a non-negotiable for the post-pandemic workplace. One should not demonstrate empathy because the employee wellness policy tells you to be empathetic, but rather, one does in fact bring one’s humanity with them to work – recognizing our own humanity and the humanity of others can and should flow naturally! Demonstrating that empathy in how you leave others feeling is important, as is being able to tap into the ‘mood’ and ‘climate’ of the organisation as a whole.
  • Digital Literacy and your ability to be good with tech, particularly communication and collaboration technologies are almost taken for granted. It is one thing to have access to great technology and tools, but it is entirely different, and arguably, better thing to actually use these tools to make people’s lives better.

The common idea that appears in all the above leadership competencies is the focus on people, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. Really though, there is nothing new here in terms of the identified leadership competencies that are currently working well. I believe the key thing is to not pay lip service to putting people first, but to actually put people first, i.e., to take people-centric action. An employee wellness programme at your organisation, and running the odd engagement survey, while arguably beneficial to employees, doesn’t go far enough to make your leaders people-centric, I’m afraid. Thus, below appear a few further initiatives and principles that we can deploy to get people-centric leadership front and center in your organisation, in thought, word and deed:

  1. Employee Experience is the real deal – If you don’t know what this is, find out right now – google it, or speak to me if you want to know, and we can have a discussion about it – I’ll have you convinced by the end of our chat. Suffice to say, paying attention to the end-to-end experience of each and every employee on their journey through the organisation is mission-critical for happy, fulfilled people who actually want to come to work, and won’t bail on you.
  2. Trust should be given from the outset, rather than earned – How am I supposed to earn your trust if you don’t trust me from the get-go? Surely, if you didn’t trust me, you wouldn’t have employed me in the first place? Trust your employees to look after clients and each other. They will be accountable, I promise you, but you have to trust first.
  3. Your people are far more important than your top line, heck, even your bottom line – Need I say more. If you have a decent strategy in place, help design meaningful work for your people. They will look after the execution of the strategy, clients, managing costs, etcetera and positive financial results will follow. If you try to do this the other way round, and focus solely on financial performance at all costs, your good people will leave…Let us not even get into a discussion around the cost-to-company of high turnover rates.
  4. Respect your people’s boundaries, please – If I have taken some time off, I am not available over email, WhatsApp or over the phone, and I am afraid you are just going to have to deal with it. I need time off to rest and rejuvenate so that I can perform for you. If I have taken care of my work responsibilities before I went on leave, then I’m in the clear, as far as I’m concerned. We also need to rethink what an emergency is. In business, there are urgent things that come up, but never emergencies. The only kind of real emergency is a medical emergency. Neither you nor I are a doctors or paramedics, and thus are woefully unqualified to deal with an emergency anyway (thanks to my therapist, Jocelyn for this key insight!).

I believe Mark Cutifani’s plea for us to understand the notion that people are the business is now more relevant than ever before. It appears we are slowly starting to emerge out of this pandemic, hybrid working models intact, but we are yet to see how hybrid working will evolve, and if we have the leadership grit to put our people first, and not just say we are putting them first. I have faith in business leaders across the continent to genuinely put people first. It begins with putting ourselves first, to look after our immediate needs, then the needs of our families. If we don’t look after our immediate needs first, we are unable to help anyone else meet their needs. We can then look out for the needs of our employees, communities and society at large. We love engaging with our stakeholders (Yes! You! Reading this right now!) on what is next for your organisation from a people perspective, so do reach out to us so that we can co-create something special for your people.