Stephen van Coller on creating businesses today the youngsters want to manage later

This special Podcast is brought to you by Barclays Africa.

Stephen van Coller is with us to talk about an incredible couple of days. You brought Silicon Valley to South Africa. You said that people were going to be amazed. They certainly have been, from the business leaders that I’ve been talking to here, but just take us back a little bit. Do you think you’ve achieved the objective that you had, because this must have been a massive investment?

It is but from just the reaction from the clients, first of all, has been amazing, and really the best value-add we can give, is to assist them with strategy. Some of the things coming back from them was, “I never knew about that. I never thought about that. Oh, that’s going to make a difference. I’m going to have to change some stuff,” so definitely from that perspective, a raging success.

To sit two days with some of the top CEO’s in South Africa and have chats to them about their strategy and how it’s affecting. I mean that’s just fantastic because it affects even how we think about things. I think next time we’ll probably need to make it a little bit bigger. We definitely tried to keep the numbers quite compact because we wanted it to be a little bit more interactive but you can just see the reactions, so maybe…

So there is a next time?

Definitely, we’re going to do it as an annual thing. Obviously, we’re not going to have this one-on-one full Monty but there will be almost an update. What the new technology is? What’s the new thinking? How they’ve changed stuff? Are there some new business models that have popped and why are they’re working, because that’s really what everyone is asking about?

Not everything they’ve heard is going to disrupt them today, or matters to them today, but how do they keep abreast of the stuff, so that when it starts, new stuff starts coming, they can start thinking about it, so I think it has to be an annual event.

It’s extraordinary though the way that their eyes have been opened. When you talk about disruption, in South Africa, we’re a little bit off the beaten track. We need some kick in the butt sometimes, to realise what is happening in the rest of the world, and I guess if you’ve only achieved that much. If you only just opened some eyes to that, then it would have been a huge investment in this country’s future.

Correct, what we really want to do as well, is try, and create this community but link them to the global communities. So one of the things we’re definitely going to do is link in our accelerator or our enterprise development innovation hub, if you want to call it, into theirs, and try and get as many of the companies that are here, to get involved in that, so it’s not just about South Africa innovators. It is actually bringing innovators or entrepreneurs from around the world, to come and solve some of our problems, and put some of that capital into Africa and I think we’ve gone a long way to do that because I think even the SU guys, were totally surprised at what they saw. They were really expecting, I think, some sort of backstreet thing and I think, from their view as well. They’ve been blown away by the thoughts of what some of the CEO’s are doing. What the opportunities are, so they’re very keen to continue it, which is also a success, I suppose.

No, there’s no doubt that some of these CEO’s who were here have tipped or put their toes in the water, 3-D printing as an example. Crowd sourcing is something that is just starting to capture the imagination here, in South Africa, but the big question to you has to be, within your group, within your massive organisation. To change mindsets, to change the direction of a super tanker, where do you start with that?

There’s a few places you can start and if you remember, John Hagel was just talking about some of the basics. One of the key things that you have to start with is this idea of zoom in and zoom out on your strategy. If you do a three-year strategy plan you’re always going to be linear, you’re going to be ten percent, or 15 percent or five percent on last year.

If you have this view on doing a strategy of “What does my industry look like in ten years’ time?” Then you go back and say, “Can I see that future in my current strategy, for the next year?” For me, that for me, was a big change because then we went and did that and we realised that we were just barking up the wrong tree, and that’s what created the change, so we’re busy doing that at the moment. I’ve actually just come back from a board presentation and it was very interesting to see their reaction to a year later, and…

Because you’ve integrated, and into your ten year plan, rather than maybe a three-year plan.

That’s right but you’re almost saying to them this is what I have to do in ten years’ time, and this is what I’m doing now, to make sure I get there, and that clicks very easy. That you don’t have to read an exponential organisational book. I’ve spoken to them about some of the staff interventions I’ve had, and the result is I’ve halved my recruitment costs in one year.

I’ve brought my middle management turnover down from 18.6 percent to just over ten percent. I didn’t know that was going to happen but it was about, as I told you earlier, it was about creating this business that the youngsters today want to manage later. It’s almost borrowing from the future rather than ‘okay it’s mine because I’ve taken over from someone and I’ll get as much out of it and then I’m leaving and someone else must sort it out after me’.

That’s also a very different mindset, so then you start driving your business differently because you’re building something that they’re going to recognise. As opposed to something that’s for me. I don’t know if that makes sense but…

Yes, it makes a lot of sense because that is the way that the Millennials look at life anyway and it is very different from the robber baron grabbing executive remuneration strategies that we see elsewhere.


What about the immune system? What about this antibodies, within a corporation?

That is the biggest thing you have to face and the biggest issue or the biggest thing one has to deal with is you’ve got to, really believe that you are going to make a difference because if you’re not passionate about it, the antibodies will kill you. There’s no doubt in my mind. That’s been an amazing learning experience about peoples’ behaviour that I’ve had to go through. To understand the reaction you get and then deal with it, and not take it personally or react to it, or something.

It was interesting when John Hagel finished and he said, “The art of war – if you ever have to engage your enemies, you’ve already lost.” That is one thing you have to learn. It’s about patience; it’s about believing that what you’re doing is right, and pushing through. Not engaging with the antibodies. Let them come and throw stones at you but carry on because eventually the result that comes out. Then everyone goes, “Okay, I can understand that.” It’s the vision that people struggle with and I think that is some of the issues.

When I talk about the WEF top three, one of them is leadership, globally. It’s because we’re all thinking linearly. We actually don’t know where we want to get to but if we do that zoom in and zoom out, you know where you want to get to and that makes the road so much clearer, and then you can be so much more passionate about getting there.

The whole linear thinking issue came up numerous times here, we’re hotwired to do that, but you did mention a book. The book ‘Exponential Organisation’. Salim Ismail, who’s here was facilitating the whole session. It’s one of the bestselling books ever on Is it something that you can apply to your organisation?

Definitely. Not everything is going to be applicable but they talk about doing change on the edge and letting that gravitate to the centre. You can’t just walk into a big bank, and blow everything up and change it, but you can change parts of it. That then gravitate together to change the whole, if that makes sense, so that’s what we started doing.

Picking the things that are just obvious changes. Like how you build your strategy? How you think about what you want to achieve today? Can you see the future, in today’s strategy? Are your employment practices and your HR practices compatible with 70 percent of your organisation, which tends to be much younger? Are you getting 100 percent of energy out of all your staff? If not, how do you do it?

In the past, those used to be big problems and you used to think of how to solve them, by trying to change a few things and the big one was always ‘just pay more money’, and as we know, that doesn’t work. It just becomes a mess eventually. Actually, you need to create a much better experience for people, and then they enjoy working. Some of my youngsters are working Saturdays and Sundays on tasks, just because they love it. I’m not paying them anymore, but they’re really enjoying doing it.

Yes, Salim was one of the two big names that you got here. Peter Diamandis another huge name in Silicon Valley all around the world. Another bestselling author. The insights that he had must have also resonated with the guests that you had here, the CEO’s.

Yes, his big thing is that if you have a look at the stats. The stats tell us we’re in a much better place than we’ve ever been and life is actually improving, and not getting worse. That, once again, changes your mindset to be positive and not negative. Then you have a look at the technology that they’re talking about, in exponential organisations, and you realise all the problems we think we’ve got are actually massive opportunities. The beauty of it is suddenly the business world and the social problems are actually gravitating together, so you can go back to having a profitable business, solving social issues.

That’s a pretty cool place to be and if you can bring those two together, you then get, I mean there’s another book called ‘Firms of Endearment’. I don’t know if you’ve read that but that’s about exactly that, but everyone needs to make profits, so it isn’t about ‘oh, we’re just nice guys and we want to do something philanthropic’. It’s actually about how do I grow the economies within which I live, so that my business can get bigger with it, but at the same time, being relevant to everyone?

Another thing that Peter Diamandis did was start the X Prize, based on, in years gone by, where big prizes were put up and massive innovations followed. You are involved in, perhaps, bringing something like that to Africa.

Yes, so we’ve decided to do an African X Prize. We’ve actually just voted on it. We had four themes and energy and agriculture came out top, energy first, because basically with energy you can do just about anything.

Well we do live in South Africa.

Great, and so we’re going to now work on what do we think is going to be a game changer in the energy space that affects agriculture? There’s was a lot of research to get to where we got too. We’ve now got to take it to the next level. We’ve sponsored the first R5m of the prize. We will see how that balances out, based on how big the task is, so the task is going to cost an entrepreneur R10m, clearly R5m is not enough, so we’re going to have to balance that out, and we’ll see whether those prizes. There are some other companies who have already offered to get involved as well, so hopefully, the community we’ve created will come up with a big enough prize that people spend lots of money solving one of Africa’s biggest problems.

Stephen van Coller is with Barclays Africa and this special Podcast was brought to you by Barclays Africa.


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