Balancing act that must succeed(The Star)


AIRBORNE: In this Grahamstown Festival production, pantsula dancers use the concept of their art to show transformation. The writer argues that employers have to nurture and locate talent to make equity happen. Picture: Neil Baynes

A transformation ritual played itself out again among employers and government just recently. That ritual is an affair that nowadays seems to happen less frequently, but is typically precipitated when the labour department publishes employment equity figures.

 In this ritual, key players say the right things without necessarily engaging with what is really happening with work force transformation, and why.
Briefly, government announces figures, acknowledges some positive change and sternly warns business that the pace is still too slow and that consequences will have to be contemplated.

Business, in turn, responds that by and large it is making progress and is committed to improvement. Business says, usually indirectly, that transformation in the make-up of employees is actually quite difficult, especially if one wants to maintain quality and performance.

Beyond that ritualistic exchange it’s becoming increasingly rare to find employment equity discussed in any detail. Perhaps it is because, in large organisations anyway, employment equity has been industrialised, organised, structured, planned and put into performance agreements of managers and supervisors.

As such, most executives would be justified in regarding this solid business process as a way of driving action and accountability. After all, no chief executive can do everything.

Ironically, this apparently sound practice can lead to employment equity becoming largely a numbers and routine compliance game. One of the problems, though, is that managers the world over are notoriously capable of making the numbers say what we want to hear. The labour department enters the picture only when the managers’ reports are formally reported, stripped of explanations and footnotes.

What’s missing is a mutually frank appraisal about what does and does not work in striving for employment equity. It’s true that many organisations have not moved especially swiftly. However, it is equally true that the tables of figures sometimes do not tell the stories of genuine and sustainable achievement in transforming the work place.

Indeed, there is a lot that the employment equity laggards can learn from companies that have been more successful.

Government, in turn, could facilitate this learning.

Businesses with valuable experience to share are those that employ large numbers of people in different parts of the country.

This includes some state-owned enterprises, mines, retail chains, cellphone network operators and the large banking groups. Banks, in particular, have from the early days of affirmative action grappled with many difficulties and apparent contradictions in getting workplace transformation to work properly.

Discussion about transformation, and affirmative action in particular, and what it entails often ends in labelling, threats, and hurt feelings. Creating a new culture where people are able to talk and debate these issues in a sober, frank and dispassionate way has been challenging.

So what should we as banks bring to transformation? And how well are we doing it?

The most important thing we have to bring is the rock-solid commitment to fulfilling our economic function: to help society to allocate capital efficiently.

That is, to allocate financial resources to the uses that maximise productivity, competitiveness, growth, job creation and human development. How well we perform this task is determined at root by whether we keep depositors’ money safe and how well we manage risk.

Even while performing those economically fundamental tasks, banks are under acute pressure to facilitate fundamental transformation in the broader economy as well as to transform themselves.

There is arguably no other sector under this immense pressure. We need to go faster, but safely. To do this, there is a decades-old tension that has to be confronted frankly. We can put fine words to describing the phenomenon, but white fears and black expectations remain at the core of making a success of employment equity.

All companies face the dual challenge of addressing fears of white employees whose right to employment and fair treatment is protected by the constitution, while dealing with the aspirations and frustrations of black employees who are guaranteed redress by the very same constitution.

Rather like our society, there is stress and tension built into the system. But we have to just get on with managing that tension with the tools at hand.

One of the instruments we use is the Employment Equity Act. It would be worth the time of any business leader to get a bit deeper into this act, beyond the stuff about numbers and ratios. The act is actually an attempt to help us embrace the skills of all South Africans to become a more competitive economy.

In the end, competent, skilled, empowered black and white employees will compete for jobs in the context of the act and the constitution.

Getting to that end takes you on a road that is not exactly less travelled, but certainly without as much traffic going in the same direction as one might hope.

For 10 years I have been privileged to be closely involved in my own organisation’s transformation journey. My responsibility for Standard Bank’s customer channels means that I have been involved in leading a 13 000-strong multi-cultural, multi-racial team. I’ve learnt at first-hand how people want to work together but still compete for opportunities. The intense personal challenge for any leader is to be honest with people and keep them motivated even when you cannot tell them what they want to hear.

Sometimes you have to tell someone that they are competing for a smaller amount of opportunities; other times, you have to tell someone that their expectations of rapid advancement are not supported by their level of performance.

The one thing that is vital for people to believe is that no one will get an opportunity only because they are black, just as no one will be denied an opportunity only because they are white. This is no easy feat
This is the nub of all unhappiness about employment equity.

We say the “right” things, but it’s only when people see the top leadership behaving consistently that they start to accept that your approach is just what you say it is. Standard Bank’s Empowerdex ranking as the top empowerment company and our overall black economic empowerment rating of 92.83% is something to be proud of, but we are acutely aware that we are still nowhere near being representative of the demographics of the economically active population.

We know we have to keep improving the pace and quality of transformation. We are doing this according to two central principles. First, ensure that all the people are involved. We have to be genuinely inclusive, participatory and transparent about what we are doing and still need to do.

It turns out that this is hard work and involves lots of listening and reframing of problems.

Second, we have to address white fears and black expectations. This means that the leadership has to commit to being frank and honest about precisely why a person did or did not get the opportunity they hoped for. It should not come as a surprise that the employer’s reasoning and the employee’s perceptions are often some distance apart. Closing that communication gap can produce amazing results.

It is my responsibility and challenge as a leader in this business to ensure that each decision, each appointment, each promotion, each training opportunity and each mentoring opportunity is fully harnessed to ensure that we maintain the balance between promoting deserving and capable black employees (African, coloured and Indian), while retaining and motivating deserving and capable white employees. This is an extremely difficult and complex balancing act, but there is simply no alternative.

In addition, the host of recruitment tools, talent management initiatives, training and mentoring programmes all have to be continuously adapted and improved.
These programmes need significant investment over a long period because that is how quality and excellence are built into the system.

we should all be honest in accepting that there’s one target: achieving a staff composition that reflects the country’s demographics. We should stop fretting about how hard it is to go both faster and better with transformation of the work place. We should stand unashamedly for equity and excellence as one inclusive concept. We must retain the correct balance for all our stakeholders and for future generations. This cannot be achieved unless leaders in the bank, both black and white, transcend their own backgrounds, prejudices, opinions and experiences.

We have to lead by example if we want employees to support these initiatives.

 Mali is a director at Standard Bank