How to embed a leader’s vision in the company

11th October 2023

How could a company with as strong a heritage as Pick n Pay fall behind the pack it used to lead?

Under founder Raymond Ackerman and Sean Summers, Pick n Pay dominated the grocery sector and enjoyed a reputation for low prices and excellent customer service. In recent years it has surrendered this lead in growth rates and public reputation to Shoprite.

Now the Pick n Pay board has brought Sean Summers back as CEO 16 years after he left the job, hoping he will restore the company’s magic.

Is it inevitable that charismatic leaders’ passion will dissipate after they leave? It’s difficult to think of an exception. Apple comes to mind, but Steve Jobs had to return to revive Apple after he was forced out in 1985. A much-described exception that perhaps proves the rule is Disney. Its operating practices and Disney University have deeply entrenched and helped retain its magic for several decades after Walt Disney died in 1966.

Founders can’t really be faulted for the antics of their successors – even Jesus left behind a movement that took the shape of the hierarchical Roman empire rather than retaining his teaching about servant leadership. Now it resembles more the religious structures he wanted to replace than the organic and inclusive community he described.

So was my previous column about leaving a legacy misguided? I don’t think so. The leader should focus primarily on embedding purpose and values for current performance. That lays a foundation for successors who must determine the future.

Here are my thoughts on the matter. I would be really interested to hear your examples of leaders who have embedded their magic sauce into organisations.

Most important is that standards of exemplary service, collaboration, efficiency and innovation should be written into operating practices. These written practices should include why they are important, so they can be interpreted and updated as times change. The purpose should determine the practice, not vice versa.

Then the company should have a charter or slogans describing its purpose and key values. Do written documents help? Writing them clarifies ideas that otherwise are lost. And like scriptures, they provide the basis for later generations to recover a lost mission.

Professor John Cumpsty at UCT used to explain the role of priests, prophets and kings in history: Priests are conservatives who retain the tradition in the scriptures. Prophets are radicals who renew the tradition. Kings are pragmatists who put bread on the table for both. Without priests the prophets have no tradition to renew; without prophets the priests’ tradition dies; without kings they both starve.

Applied to business, a wise board will put a pragmatist in the top job. Then wise pragmatists will find space in their teams for both irritating conservatives and scary radicals so that the company’s governing principles and traditions are both maintained and challenged.

New members should be hired for commitment to mission and values – but not for conformity. Practical ways of testing for this should be written into the recruitment and hiring process so they are not forgotten. The company’s orientation programme should include creative ways to help new members resonate with the company’s purpose and values.

Even the most committed members can lose touch with the company’s purpose, so repeat it regularly in creative ways. The reward system should acknowledge contributions consistent with the purpose. Regular check-ins between managers and team members should include a question each on the mission and the values.

Claire Hughes Johnson, drawing on experience in Google and Stripe, has written a very practical and helpful book explaining just how to do all this – Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building.

Maybe the most challenging task is also the most effective: the leader should be the living embodiment of all this.

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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