Choose the future of your company and country

17th January 2022

Fresh from the beach or the mountain, what sort of company do you want to help create this year? Leaders have the responsibility and privilege of creating the organisation of their choice. What values do you want to see flourish?

Every organisation is unique, so for illustration let’s draw on a case everyone observes – a country – and draw parallels to leading our businesses. I am writing in South Africa, but I expect readers from other countries can draw similar insights.

President Ramaphosa has been controversially slow in implementing a vision for South Africa, but I understand his approach to be to build the institutions that will act way beyond the constraints of his own power. This means not acting by fiat himself to fix wrongs arbitrarily as he notices them, but rebuilding the mechanisms of a healthy society so that every responsible person will fix wrongs when they see them. It’s slower, but far wider reaching and longer lasting.

These institutions include the law and its implementers, the mechanisms of democracy, the things that influence society such as education, and that intangible shared set of assumptions and practices about honesty and respect for each other that we call culture.

Does your company maintain a thriving culture beyond your influence? What structures, procedures and habits maintain things as they should be? Do your people understand what makes for sustainable success and are they committed to this?

For institution-building to work in a country or company requires a critical mass of us, ordinary citizens, to want to follow the rules. Our daily contribution to justice, for example, is to obey laws and encourage those around us to do so too, both in the letter and the spirit. Even traffic laws. We need the majority to care about building for the future.

Far too many powerful people believe the nation will continue to be productive if they ignore the greater good in their pursuit of personal power and wealth. It won’t. They want their turn to eat without realising that the pie that feeds them needs continually to be baked. The country’s infrastructure and economy are collapsing because people have helped themselves without building capacity for the future. They have taken the golden eggs without protecting and feeding the goose that lays them.

The same applies to our companies. We thrive when every member is committed to expressing its best character. No amount of regulating, auditing and performance management (essential though these are) can match willing, voluntary adherence to the values that make the company great. That’s not complicated, but it does require consistent insistence from the top.

Owners/managers first need to live the values. Then they need to talk about them a lot, explaining in practical terms what they mean in daily work. Then they need to follow up personally, noticing and commending those who exemplify the values, and coaching those who don’t. At its best, this will not always require punishments. If possible, the better route is to be thoroughly surprised and alarmed when anyone ignores the values, and hurry to help them correct it.

Of course, this takes time. And if a different spirit has infected the company, it becomes that more difficult to change.

What do you want the spirit of your company to be this year? If you own it, let this be the year when you both live the values and require them of your people. If you are not the owner, you can be your own ideal for the company you work for. This kind of commitment is noticed.

And if we all live and talk as if our country were what we want it to be, that too will be noticed. There is a future if we create it.

Jonathan Cook is chairman of the African Management Institute


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