A conversation with Aysa Styodana


Head: Diners Club Customer Card

AS:      My Leader, I look forward to this conversation to discuss issues of leadership close to my heart and there is no better individual to address these issues than yourself as someone who is no stranger to being a leader in so many aspects and has displayed impeccable leadership qualities.

LM:     Thank you My Leader, I hope the conversation will illuminate leadership issues that will be discussed by you and other leaders as they continue in their leadership journey.

AS:      Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb once said “The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.” What steps need to be taken by leadership in order to change the culture of their business? I.e. change into a positive, high morale, respectful, driven etc type of culture especially when it is evident the current culture is not working.

LM:     Firstly, One of the most important leadership traits that we as leaders have to learn, develop and cultivate is awareness, presence and responsiveness. This means that a leader develops the sensing capability to always have the mood, tone and atmosphere that obtains in their environment. This you do by watching people, observing body language, talking to staff and connecting the dots in different conversations. There is no leadership manual for this, it grows from experience, sometimes that experience is from previous failures where you either missed those signs or you took long to see the signs. The higher you go up the corporate or public sector leadership ladder, the more developed these senses should become as you are further removed from people, this is so because either, they are in a different country or province; operate from different buildings and you have other leaders who are much more closer to the teams than you may be. All those may be contributory but not exculpatory factors – this is so because each leader is always accountable for the well-being of all staff in their environment.

Secondly, when it becomes clear that the morale is down, that staff are working in an environment of fear, or that staff are under huge pressure or that the culture is not conducive for success. In those circumstances, the other most important leadership trait that should kick in is deep humility to accept that in a leadership role it’s always about the clients we serve, the Organisation we work for, the teams we lead and not our personal needs and interests. Painful as feedback may be, as few as the people may be, it is important to start a process of deep listening to the issues raised by staff in order to address the concerns. To embark on this journey requires humility of putting the interests of the organisation, of the staff and clients’ way above one’s personal sense of being disappointed or hurt.

Lastly, when the issues have been tabled, concerns raised, and feedback given, the next trait of leadership is needed, and that is the ability to reflect on your role as a leader in the culture that obtains in your environment. Reflection means having the ability to look in a cold, sober and dispassionate manner at your own conduct, behaviour and tone you set. In such circumstances it is easier to justify, deflect and deny, but it is important to confront the brutal realities of feedback and learn and grow from it. It is also seductive to try and either question the motives of the feedback or to justify your actions on the basis of your noble intentions – but ultimately it is how people experience our leadership and the culture we generate that must be the focus of our reflection.

In my experience, following these steps starts an amazing journey of healing and renewal which propels an Organisation forward.

AS:      You always mention that ” Leadership is not about titles, positions, leadership is about influence “, what are the skills or tools one requires in order to be an influential leader like yourself?

LM:     Most of our universities and corporate leadership programmes are not good at preparing leaders for the transition between being a high performer, where everything is about you, to leadership where everything is about others. It is through experience, mistakes made and most importantly learning from others that you realize that the most effective way of achieving sustainable results is through influencing others to do what is right and necessary for the clients, for the Organisation and for themselves. Through influence, it’s the ideas and principles that triumph and endure versus the limitations of instructions in a command and control culture. The beauty of influence is that when people have grasped the key concepts, buy into the vision, and embrace the principles, they take this to levels that you as a leader could never have contemplated. On this way you create a vibrant, innovative, high energy and empowering culture. To achieve this, you require:

  • credibility- the people have to believe you and trust you on this journey;
  • Selflessness- it’s so important that you put the principles, the clients, the staff and the organisation above personal goals or ego- in that way you can trust the people and the process;
  • Empowering nature – in a command and control environment everything revolves around the leader, they make the decisions, they determine the pace and tempo and everybody looks at him or her for all decisions

Most leaders know and appreciate the importance of influencing, yet they step back from taking that giant leap from the comfort of a command and control culture to an influencing role because:

  • their ego gets in the way;
  • their inner fears of losing control kicks in;
  • they lack the confidence to let go; and lastly
  • the pride and power of positions is what drives them.

As I have learnt from those that led me, I am focused on making leaders in my sphere of influence to learn to lead better and become influencers.

AS:      Additionally on of the powerful statements you always make is that “Leadership is about perception and not what you did/didn’t do”, and most leaders seem to not grasp this and caught on trying to defend themselves so how can leaders be empowered with this aspect so they know how to pick up these perceptions and how does one even address perceptions?

LM:     One of the most powerful lessons I learnt in my leadership journey is the power of eliciting feedback. Feedback may come from different sources, different mediums and at different times. This requires leaders to always have their “sensing antennae” on, to always have the ability to feel the pulse of the team and to understand how your team feels. This is only possible if you get to connect with your teams from the heart, at an emotional level even before connecting with them at a mental or intellectual level.

In addition to this, I have used other methods of feedback to help me understand the teams I work with:

  • time with individual teams – I always create time to have lunches or breakfasts with different teams. In these sessions I allow the teams to direct any question to get to know them and for them to get to know me. I watch team dynamics, I get a sense of talent and hear what the concerns may be.
  • I always also create opportunities for one and one conversations with people three or four layers down, either initiated by staff or those I initiate.
  • As I visit different departments, business units, Provinces or countries, this is another opportunity to interact with teams, engage people formally and informally. It is sometimes during or after these visits that people can write to you or tell you about issues;
  • I also regularly have a formal feedback mechanism that is administered by a third part. It focuses on what I should Start; Stop and Continue. I then would receive the feedback and publicly play back to the team the results, and I would then work on the feedback and lastly
  • I encourage staff to write to me and raise issues that concern them either to be tackled individually in a meeting or corresponds or addressed in staff meetings.

Most leaders will either say they do this or do some of this – the harsh reality is this the 80% of what leaders should be doing. Currently, for most leaders, this is the 20%, and is done inconsistently. Our ultimate responsibility is to be spending quality time with our staff and customers, listen and hear their concerns and work tirelessly to address them.

AS:      If one had been paying attention to what is happening nationally and in our organisation, it is  clear that we have a leadership crisis in general whether as a country or organisation, what do you thinks need to be done to ensure the leaders coming through the ranks now are well equipped and trained to be leaders that possess  the leadership qualities required to succeed as a nation and organisations i.e. leaders that can influence rather than power trip, placing self-importance and displaying superiority as leaders?

LM:     We indeed have a huge leadership deficit across the public, private and civil society sectors. People are losing trust in organizations, leaders and institutions as we daily read of scandals involving sexual harassment, bribery, corruption, nepotism, fraud, bullying and abuse of power. We ask ourselves how could these people, with great promise fail themselves, their followers, organisation and the broader society? The wise words of Prof Bill George, gently caution us, “Leaders who lose their way are not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths. Very few people go into leadership roles to cheat, to do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded.”

In other words, none of the people we produce at universities, or we celebrate and groom at our corporates or appoint as public servants or elect as political leaders are necessarily born evil; but they unfortunately, like you and me, have in themselves the capacity for actions that they may later regret.

As we daily read the headlines trumpeting the fall of the mighty, the promising, the achievers, what is our response? Beyond the initial disbelief, followed by denial, later followed by blaming the media or the intentions of others, what are we doing to prepare our rising stars and our Awesome Talent for the challenges of leadership.

As the saying goes, you cannot lead others until you lead yourself. However, it is near impossible to lead yourself if you do not know yourself. The great motto emblazoned on Greece’s Oracle of Delphi says, “Know thyself”. It means you should know your own weaknesses, mortality, frailties, limitations, errors, flaws and shortcomings.

In the sphere of leadership, this means being wary of hubris, or pride. Our greatest mistakes and flaws are often exposed at our moments of greatest triumph. It is at this point of high altitude, in the true “death zone” of leadership, that we lose our knowledge of ourselves and become arrogant and self-serving, committing acts that may bring about our downfall from the highest peaks of adulation and admiration.

My advice to leaders, is that as we progress, as glory, fame and fortune beckon, it is increasingly difficult, but absolutely, critically important, to remain grounded in “knowing thyself”. That is the oxygen of leadership survival in the dreaded “death zone”. This will enable leaders to suppress their egos and to remain humble, grounded and authentic. I am eternal optimist, I believe we will turn this around and produce awesome people who are worthy to be called Leaders.

AS:      Most leaders struggle to accept criticism, what are the tools/behaviour one needs to possess in order to be able to accept criticism without feeling they are attacked especially for those at leadership level?

Why I ask this is because most leaders think they know it all and when feel criticized, they take it personal.

LM:     There are still leaders in many organisations who abuse their positions. Sometimes, they are able to do this because staff are fearful to report such behaviour. Also, sometimes when such behaviours are reported, the next person up the line does not takes no action or there is a poor response from Human Resources. These abusive behaviours include favouritism, victimisation, discrimination, sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying and the use of threatening language and so on. These behaviours are bad, they are horrible and we must never accept them. We must act against such leaders because they destroy so many people’s careers and sometimes affect the health and marriage of a staff member. I have found that the best way to avoid becoming guilty of such behaviours, or to prevent myself from developing a blind spot, is to have regular and anonymous feedback sessions during which my team can express itself about me, my style of leadership and the leadership behaviours I exhibit. In order for leaders to grow and become more effective, they must develop.

AS:      I have had the pleasure of working with you whether directly or indirectly, as a leader who gives his team so much autonomy and never micro manage your people, what has given you so much comfort/trust in your people that has led you to be able to do this with so much ease?

LM:     Empowerment is such a vital part of a successful team philosophy. It has been part of my leadership philosophy from my youngest days up to now and I have seen amazing results through this in my career. My father brought me up as an adult from a very early age, entrusted me with responsibilities way ahead of time, debates issues and principles with me as if I was his equal and always wanted me to arrive at my own decisions. In my life I was also surrounded by older people who always supported me in my dreams and guided me towards more responsibility and success. And lastly, in my career, I have never been micromanaged by any of my line managers, I always felt that I was trusted and empowered. Given all these experiences, empowerment and trust in others became an integral part of my core being and my own personal management philosophy over the last 25 years. I am therefore quite passionate about helping up and coming young leaders to embrace the true essence of empowerment beyond words but in real day to day deeds.

If I were to persuade a sceptical leader on the virtues of empowerment, I would highlight the following factors:

  • Firstly, we attract some of the brightest minds and skilled personnel, in order to get the very best from them, you have to give them the space and trust to do the work you hired them to do.
  • Secondly, there is a cohort of millennials joining the workforce, they can only thrive in an empowering, energizing and creative environment.
  • Thirdly, the speed and pace of change requires more self-managed multidisciplinary teams that are able to make decisions closer to the customer, any attempt to micromanage such teams will fail.
  • Fourthly, as a person’s responsibilities grow, more teams, scattered across a country, region or the world, become part of your responsibility. In such circumstances, empowerment will enable such teams to work better towards commonly agreed goals.
  • Lastly, and for me so fundamentally, each person has to find meaning, joy, fulfilment and our purpose in their work. This work and their role must be a positive part of their own personal and professional growth with personal victories and milestones. In addition to this, each person should also see how their work and contribution adds value to the overall Organisation. This is only possible in an environment of empowerment and creativity.

In the end, empowerment is not something pronounced upon by a leader, it is a deep feeling and reality of the team and individual’s daily experience.

AS:      As a nice person that you are, in your journey I am sure you have encountered underperforming or bad attitude employees, how did you deal with these situations? Especially when they are senior individuals?

LM:     In my experience and own personal philosophy each person needs clarity about what is expected of them on financial and non-financial measures. A leader’s role is to set those goals, communicate them to the staff member, provide them with the tools and resources to achieve the goals and have regular reviews to evaluate progress. Non-performance against the set goals becomes clearer much earlier through this regular review process. It may be that the person is not suited for the role, lacks some skills, has an attitude problem, does not have support from his or her team, is affected by external economic of performance factors. All these matters may be seen by observers within the team or the broader Organisation and they may have opinions on them and how this person’s non-performance should be dealt with. The reality, however, is that a leader has to deal fairly and equitably with any staff member, regardless of their position or status. The measures available to a leader may range from coaching and guidance all the way to a termination of the person’s employment. All of this should be done within the spirit of the law and our constitution based on fairness and justice. I have gone through many of these in my career with very senior people, the vast majority of the people I dealt with were able to turn non-performance to great performance and have grown to have great careers. In some cases, we were able to change the role people played as they were not suited for the roles they had. Unfortunately, there are people I have worked with who we had to dismiss for non-performance. Each one of those cases were difficult, emotive, painful and draining on all involved. Throughout all such proceedings, I had a duty to deal with such matters with sensitivity and respect and never demean or humiliate them by talking about such matters. This is sometimes perceived by observers as either taking too long, or that no action is being taken or that a person is given preferential treatment, the reality is that the rights of a staff member, regardless of their position always trumps the quest for early resolution by observers.

In addition to this, non-performance may include more than financial and non-financial goals, in some organisations, like mine, it includes behaviour. This means that a leader has to meet financial, non-financial and behavioural goals. In cases of behaviour problems, a leader would go through the same process of setting the behavioural standard expected, provide the person with guidance and tools, have regular reviews. Should there be non-performance in terms of behaviour, the same remedies, that range from coaching and guiding all the way to termination of empowerment. When the matter is grave as to warrant sanction, these may range from warnings, written warning, final written warning and normally a disciplinary hearing. Each of these steps requires evidence in order to substantiate any charges and this mostly requires evidence also from staff members who may be subordinates. It is sometimes harder with senior leaders to get people willing to give such evidence to the people in Human Capital or worse still to have the courage to testify in a disciplinary hearing. Other remedies include climate surveys and leadership interventions to deal with leadership behaviours.

In the end, all staff, regardless of their status in an Organisation, must perform in line with the targets set and the behaviours expected. When this is not done, their leaders should use the tools and techniques outlined above to address such non-performance. This should always balance the interests of the individual with that of the Organisation within the framework of our labour laws and our constitution.

AS:      How do we ensure that as a business we do not fall into the trap of doing things to cater for personalities but focus on customers and the business as a whole?

LM:     I hope all businesses have learnt some harsh lessons from building themselves around the presence, image and power of an omnipotent leader or personality. The history books are littered with stories of companies that collapsed because of the excesses of leaders. Organisation should always build adequate checks and balances to ensure that an Organisation is built around its customers and its people and not around a personality of a leader. I have also argued personally, that I always want people to always be loyal to the Organisation I belong to rather than to me as a person. In fact, as leaders we must always be vigilant of personality cults as these are counterproductive. Organisations build various mechanisms to ensure that no Organisation or part of an Organisation becomes a leader’s personal fiefdom. Leaders and organisations observe some key signals to avoid the trap of personalities:

  • They ensure that each leader has to subscribe to the values of the Organisation
  • They have leadership charters that leaders have to adhere to
  • They have performance management processes that include behavioural expectations
  • They have lines of communication open for staff to raise concerns and
  • Build accountability with governance and management systems for all leaders

It’s up to each leader to ensure that these are adhered to and not just broad meaningless statements.

AS:.     In your leadership journey, you have empowered so many people and probably mentored so many people – what gives you so much passion when it comes to people?

As most leaders are so bottom line driven not people driven.

LM:     The bottom-line is an outcome of all the efforts, sacrifices, commitment, diligence and support of a huge number of people working towards a common goal. I have enjoyed that journey and see my role in helping individuals and teams achieve their personal and professional goals. I therefore believe in leading from the front with a flag rather than behind with a whip. This has meant that I work and lead towards achieving goals by enjoying and growing in the journey towards that goal. It also means that if we do not reach those goals, are batting to reach those goals, I do not lose my humanity. I see my role as being that of a mascot, a cheerleader or the conductor of the orchestra, it is my teams and the individuals in them who achieve the goal. In a leadership role, it’s about the goal, the team that has to achieve those goals, the individuals in that team and the journey towards those goals – if you focus on those things, and less on yourself, you will always enjoy the leadership calling with all its challenges and opportunities. So my passion is to try and do that every day and my joy is when it all comes together, the people as individuals and teams achieve the team and their personal goals.

AS:      Thank you My Leader for the conversation, it has been ironed out so many of the leadership issues that one has been wondering bout and certainly will play a big role in so many of us leadership journey.

LM:     Thank you Asya for such deep and through provoking questions, I hope you find them useful on your leadership journey.