How to Transform Eskom…and ourselves

From time to time I am asked how I would transform an organisation,  be it Eskom at present, or the SABC. Often, in South Africa, this used to imply gender or race equity, primarily. Recent developments, however, have shown that while this “representative” focus is noble and necessary, it is not the lever for change we had hoped for.

There are, indeed, complex issues at play, requiring more than one solution. There is seldom, if ever, a “one-size-fits-all” solution that is instantly applicable.
At the heart of change,  though, is a change of heart.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in behaviour, care of a change in embedded beliefs. In short, we must be willing, able and allowed to make the change. Embedded beliefs refer to the patterns of thought we have come to accept as normal over time. These thoughts, often enhanced and empowered by strong emotion, cause neural pathways in the brain to be well-trodden roads, the lowest common denominator of effort in thought. We are often unaware of how frequently these beliefs drive our behaviour. If the chosen path is still the most effective way to proceed – such as it might be in music or sport, for instance, then all is well. If, however, the context changes, our thought selection may need to adapt.

If we reference politics, it is not uncommon in Africa, in particular, for a leader to go from freedom fighter to parliamentarian. This is a significant shift, and requires changing multiple behaviours that are no longer appropriate. Followers, likewise, need to reframe the future, creating a new context in the spirit of unity and forgiveness. Likewise, specialists who become managers battle, as do business executives who move to an NGO or NPO. This is where one-on-one coaching is most effective at helping a person track his or her growth, accountably.

The battlefield is the mind, not the context. The paradigm shifts required include embracing a view of people as basically supportive and creative – willing and able to contribute when given the opportunity to do so. This is Theory Y. The shift also needs a learning orientation – a Growth Mindset -   and the ability to “chunk” or break down a goal (transitioning from freedom fighter to parliamentarian) into measurable behaviours. Openness to feedback on how we then actually “show up” will be a key factor in effective growth. Reframing bias and prejudice is necessary, not by judgemental shaming behaviour, but rather moment-by-moment thought control, such as Albert Ellis’ ABCDE model of Behavioural Therapy (REBT).

A further consideration is the business model, with its systems, policies and procedures. A brief glance at Nideffer’s Attentional Control Theory reaffirms that changing “channels” from internal self-analysis to the broader view of what is truly important and, thus, what needs to be focused on and executed well, is pivotal. It is a focus on what is truly valuable first, before we glance at how we have always been, or have chosen to act.

The good news is that embedded beliefs can be changed. Neural plasticity is well documented. If we are willing, the mind is able. It requires a long obedience in the same direction, however. And some of us might have a head-start, thanks to our upbringing. Our businesses can adapt, too, if we ask the right questions. How does the market require us to respond? How are our customers really interacting with our products or services? Who are our real competitors, on a global scale? Where is there waste in our system that needs to be eliminated? And what is our USP, to be clear? Cricketers who arrive at the crease with plenty of time, a good wicket to bat on and skilled opposition are unwise if they select shots that are high-risk immediately. Drummers who have a broad repertoire of techniques that they can showcase are unwise to reveal them all in the first song. CEOs who demand market-related salaries, without understanding the context of their own business and public opinion, will not make a positive impact. A great example of an adaptable and visionary leader is Haruka Nishimatsu, the previous CEO of JAL, who determined to feel the pinch as much, if not more so, than his employees. Jim Collins mentions a similarly astute leader at Nucor Steel, in his seminal Good to Great.

All in all, it is a culture change that is necessary, if transformation is to be sustainable, and it will require the pooling of knowledge and experience from those who are already contributing it. These are the catalysts who need to remain engaged, and to be allowed to drive change in their respective areas. This requires hand-off, but involved leaders, and a firm commitment to not surrender to outside pressure for at least 18 months, if not 3 years.

There is no simple solution, but there is hope, if we are willing to engage and start our own “long walk to freedom”.