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A call to arms for South Africa’s business leaders

2012 seemed to fly by in a blur of mud-slinging, finger-pointing, negative perceptions of our country, a flurry of media announcements, and strategic interventions in business, politics and broader society. The year was labelled one of the hardest ever and a collective sigh of relief was breathed when 2013 was welcomed in.

Albert Einstein said that the first sign of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. So if we choose to avoid insanity, then what do we need to do as leaders to ensure that the lessons of 2012 are learned and our behaviours, attitudes and strategies are adjusted towards a more positive, proactive and productive 2013?

We need to question our approach and our strategy for the year ahead if we are to take some control of our destiny. A symptom of an increasingly fast world is that our approach to business, and to life in general, is at best reactive.

Our first exposure to an environment conducive to productivity is school. School days have a limited number of hours as children need time to absorb and assimilate their learning. School breaks allow time for social interaction and a rest to enhance concentration. Homework then provides a platform to practice what they have learned and afternoons allow time for sports and recreation which provides balance and a different level of learning.

However, in our adult life, we fill every waking moment with learning, with technology, with concentration and 'pushing the boundaries'. We go the extra mile and the emphasis is no longer on the journey but on the instant gratification of being a winner on a winning team with a winning culture, surrounded by information, facts, targets and objectives. Many frequently feel overwhelmed by issues over which they have no control, and which are thrown at all of us through the media, legislation and cellular technology. We are quick to criticise without the facts or the benefit of the doubt, we move swiftly so as to avoid the abuse of limited time and we act decisively and agree to suffer the consequences.

If we take the time to slow things down and we agree that we will work hard at working at a more measured pace, perhaps we will find ourselves more effective, despite the apparent contradiction.

My team and I see people battle on a daily basis with the many changes facing businesses in South Africa. We advise them on the issues surrounding transformation - the political environment, BEE, human resources legislation, global competitiveness, anti-corruption, diversity and equality, integrated reporting, environmental issues, corporate governance and best practice. These are just some of the challenges that business leaders grapple with as they try to stay afloat and remain competitive in the open market.

This advisory role that we play gives us the luxury of observing business' response to the call for greater commitment to transformation. We witness some companies achieve it well, with purpose, commitment and passion. However, we see an equal number of businessmen who think that it is not their problem, that they are 'too busy for this stuff', and that it is an irritation and distraction from their real work.

If we were to take a 'slow' approach, we would find a way to achieve all of these things simultaneously. To act decisively and with the end goal of 'People, Planet and Prosperity' in mind, gives you greater control and allows you to decide what you want to do, how you want to do it and who you want to do it with. If we chase the short-term fix, then our strategy of compliance will require for us to continually compromise.

Poor strategies and reactive approaches to business result in long-term instability, increased costs and the risk of not retaining organisational integrity. A quick-win solution might achieve a BEE certificate in the shortest possible time but in the long-term, unless we take a considered approach to ensuring that our businesses are globally competitive and locally relevant, then BEE compliance isn't going to sustain the momentum we need in these competitive times.

In 2013, to slow that spinning wheel down, we need to critically analyse our businesses practices and ask ourselves the critical questions that are necessary to achieve a business of integrity, with sustainability at its core and inclusiveness as its ethos.

The suggestion that black business should not have to address all of the factors of BEE compliance makes the model itself hypocritical. If we are to achieve a transformed South Africa, then this needs to be our operating ethos in South Africa. We all need to understand the vision for a prosperous nation within which all of our children have a fighting chance of success. The business leaders of our generation will influence the opportunities of generations to come and to take this responsibility seriously, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.

Does my business operate with all of its stakeholders, suppliers, employees, communities and shareholders in mind? Are our business leaders contributing members of our organisation who have all of the stakeholders' best interests at heart? Does our ownership transaction make commercial sense? Do our employees represent all of South Africa's people and specifically South Africa's demographic? Do we not only have a policy on paper but actually create an environment that welcomes people who are differently-abled? Have we included women in our workforce but not addressed the issues of sexual harassment or gender equality? Do we develop our people? Do we contribute (one person at a time) to the skills pool in our industry? Have we removed the stereotypes that limit diversity and equal opportunity? Do we have supplier partnerships or vendors? Are we driving quality and sustainability in our supply base and lowering the barriers to entry for new entrants?

Most importantly, are we leaving a legacy as a business that our employee community and the next generation of South Africans can be proud of?

The leaders of South Africa in 2013 need to focus on what they are able to achieve. Let us not bemoan what is difficult or painful or try and apportion blame or allocate responsibility. Let us not participate in mud-slinging and finger-pointing, let us collaborate to achieve a strong economy based on solid business fundamentals coupled with an active commitment to being part of the solution.