Changing a country one initiative at a time – former FirstRand CEO Paul Harris

CAPE TOWN — Stop wasting energy whingeing about how South Africa is going to hell in a handbasket and instead invest your energy in something that makes a difference. That’s the message from Paul Harris, former CEO of FirstRand Limited and co-founder of Rand Consolidated Investments. He was talking on November 2nd at the inaugural Old Boys Captain’s Dinner held at the 153-year-old Maritzburg College where he matriculated as Head Boy in 1967. His speech was appropriately full of rugby analogies at a school where sport is revered, it being among the top 10 schools to have produced the most rugby Springboks. But it’s the engaging, probing, creative and humanistic approach that most intrigues Harris, who’s imbued many of the country’s top financial corporations with these qualities. While accepting that awareness of the nation’s evils is vital, adopting an attitude of ‘this place is stuffed,’ is a fatalistic, passive and ultimately destructive approach, Harris contends. He started an internal Volunteers program at FirstRand, encouraging staff to do things that made a difference, with FirstRand match-funding whatever financial contributions they made. When he retired the company had hundreds of such projects, from taking grannies to movies, to painting schools at weekends, to redistributing second-hand school shoes, to teaching children to read. So: Hou op moan julle! Yeka ukutetema! – Chris Bateman

Maritzburg College – Inaugural Captains’ Dinner
Speech by Paul Harris*
02 November 2017

We all have similar wonderful memories from our days at College and have made lifelong friends. As an aside we also got a decent education and learnt a value system that we could carry through life. When I was asked to talk tonight, Chris asked that I talk about the future of College in the face of the challenges College faces in the South Africa of today. The objectives must surely be to perpetuate, adapt and build on the legacy while being a positive force for good in the country. I think College can do it and continue to go from strength to strength. 

Paul Harris.
Former FirstRand CEO Paul Harris

After College I went to Stellenbosch University. I was in a residence, Wilgenhof, where Doctor Danie Craven was warden and many sportsmen stayed there. In my time there were 7 Springboks and several other international sportsmen. He was a wonderful man, a great leader and a philosopher who taught us a huge amount about life. He was passionate about Stellenbosch but especially about Wilgenhof that has a very similar culture to College. Even in those days “oumanne” lamented that the Res was not what it used to be and was going to pot. We used to say “die plek is in sy moer”. In this, the last outpost of the British Empire, it means “the place is stuffed”. But Doc encouraged this because he said that it demonstrated that people cared and this would ensure that that they would do something about it and that this would prevent it from being “stuffed”. I think the same applies at College. 

Worrying about its possible decline is exactly what is needed to arrest the decline. If we step back for a moment, College certainly has not declined. In fact, it has gone from strength to strength and continues to do so. It has a headmaster, staff, pupils and Old Boys who feel passionate about it and will over time adapt to the changing times, uphold all the good things and discard the bad things.  

Read also: Paul Harris: Accepting mediocre leadership sends all the wrong signals

I am often asked about the most important lessons I have learnt in business. My response is that all good businesses are built on a good corporate culture. The culture is the single most important asset of a company and I would submit, a school. It is an asset that needs to be managed in the same way as other assets. In the first 10 years after RMB merged with FNB and formed FirstRand, Sizwe Nxasana, our banking CEO, and I, as group CEO, spent a full day each month with staff and new recruits. We spoke about our culture and got buy-in to what we call the FirstRand business philosophy.

There are many characteristics of that culture that are common to what I have always believed is the College culture. It is based on four basic principles:

Firstly, its foundation is a set of values that everyone ascribes to. What are those values? They are the values your mother taught you and College boys know what those are. Honesty, caring, humility, etc.

Read also: Now depression has replaced hype, FirstRand ready to go hunting in Africa.

Secondly, there is a deep respect for the uniqueness of each individual. This is something that we in South Africa have not always had and lots of work needs to be done to change attitudes in this respect. Each individual is unique in respect of where they come from, their background, the people and influences that have shaped their lives, their financial status etc. Respecting this diversity is a strength because the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In business I say that we are a team, not a family, and I think there are some aspects of that, that are applicable to College. In a family everyone is more or less the same. They have grown up in the same circumstances and been shaped by the same environment. Whereas in a team one can tap into the diverse skills and influences that a diversity of team members offer. To use a rugby analogy, a team of 15 scrum-halves or locks will never beat a team with the appropriate players in each position that bring different skills to the game.   

Thirdly, we believe in empowerment of our business units. It flows from the respect for the individual. We believe that the more power you give away, the more you have. People that are trusted seldom let you down. What is important is that people collectively decide what they want to achieve, how to get there and how to measure milestones along the way. Once this has been decided, we leave them alone. You don’t need to babysit adults. You cannot fly a plane from the ground, only a pilot can.   

Read also: SA business employs 6.9 times the number of public sector employees – study

Fourthly, we believe in breaking a big business into lots of small businesses. Plant lots of little seeds and some will germinate to be big trees. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon are the biggest companies in the world and they were started in garages and university dormitories in the last 20 years. We started Rand Merchant Bank with R10,000 and Discovery and OUTsurance also as small companies with little amounts of capital. In the social space, my daughter started a small foundation teaching kids to read which now teaches 40,000 kids to read. All this possible by trusting and empowering people and planting lots of little seeds.  

From the limited exposure I have had to College my overwhelming impression is that all stakeholders of College value its culture and live by it. However, I could not emphasise more that it is an asset that needs to be managed. Most important, we need to talk about our culture and values and articulate what we believe in. We need to solicit the views of everybody, no matter how different they may be to conventional thinking. Be like a team rather than a family. I am sure that this will make it easier to deal with the type of issue that recently had so much airtime in the media.

Another question that always comes up is whether “South Africa is in its moer”. How much energy has been wasted discussing, complaining, worrying and generally whingeing about the state of the country? I know people who only ever talk about this subject. Generally, they have two things in common. First, they do nothing about it, and second, they are unhappy.

torn flag south africa

As with all periods in South Africa’s history, we currently have our problems that to some appear insurmountable. Look around you at College and see the future that other generations of College boys had to face when they were at College. Look at the war memorials commemorating the hundreds of old boys that perished in wars every few decades. Think of the horrific environment created by Apartheid and the uncertainty about what would replace it. There has not been a period where people have not predicted the country’s imminent demise and this one is no exception. Of course, we should be concerned about corruption, the undermining of the institutions designed to protect us from it and the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. But on the positive side, civil society and leaders across the political spectrum are stepping up to the plate and saying enough is enough.

We may not win this battle in the short term but this is a resilient country with wonderful people that have achieved and survived far worse. It is also a country where each individual, institution and school, like College, can make a difference.

At FirstRand I started what we called the Volunteers program. It encouraged small groups of people in the company to voluntarily do things that make a difference, however small. We match-funded whatever financial contribution they made personally. We pushed on an open door. Many people wanted to contribute but didn’t know how. When I retired we had hundreds of such projects, from taking grannies to movies, to painting schools at weekends, to redistributing second-hand school shoes, to teaching children to read, etc, etc. Many people told me that this had changed their lives and had given them a purpose. It was a great alternative to complaining and it made them happier.

So, my hope, my new year’s resolution, which I invite you to share, is:  

No more wasted energy in whingeing but rather spend the energy on doing something that makes a difference.  

South Africa has been described as a country where the sun is very bright but the shadows very dark. One moment you can feel insecure and despondent and the next exhilarated and inspired by a good deed and an amazing accomplishment against the odds. This is what makes it such an exciting country in which to live. Above all it is a country where we as individuals and this great school, Maritzburg College, can make a difference.  

I thank you.

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