A conversation with Daniel Lekwene


Manager Voice Branch Service Risk Services , Biz Direct & Transactional

DL:    What has been your biggest failure or disappointment to date? How did you deal with it?

LM:   I think the biggest disappointment for me is how slow we have been to change our society. It has been more than 23 years since the advent of democracy in South Africa.

I reflect a lot on our past as a country. It was characterised by violence, polarisation, conflict, isolation and the denial of work and other opportunities to the majority of our people. It took a special breed of leaders, who came from across the political, business, trade union, religious and traditional leadership spectrum, as well as the general population of this country, all under the visible leadership of Nelson Mandela, to bring about democracy by peaceful means.

In 1994, we created a platform for ourselves, as individuals, as institutions, as organisations and as other societal stakeholders, to use to create a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and prosperous society.

Although we have made remarkable strides in many areas, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of South Africans, largely black and mainly women, still spend each day in abject poverty, bearing the brunt of chronic underdevelopment. Another group, mainly black and mainly young, suffer the humiliation of unemployment. 

I am not being alarmist when I say that this is a ticking time bomb, a huge invisible iceberg that may sink the fortunes of our country. I feel strongly that I and other leaders across the spectrum have failed as individuals and as a collective to make a serious dent in poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. 

Some of the reasons for our failure are: 

  • A lack of visionary leadership willing and able to see beyond today to a brighter tomorrow for South Africa. This has been absent in both the public and private sectors;
  • Our collective failure to implement the National Development Plan to address the plight of those less fortunate;
  • Rampant corruption and wasteful expenditure in all spheres of government, including the state-owned enterprises (SOEs);
  • Resistance to transforming themselves and playing a bigger role in the broader transformation of society on the part of the vast majority of private sector companies; and
  • A lack of collaboration on the part of various stakeholders, although this would have maximised their impact on these societal challenges. Instead, the blame game dominates the current discourse.

The harsh reality is that these are our challenges. No individual, public or private sector organisation, political party or formation of any kind can solve these problems alone. It will take the collective efforts of millions of South Africans to turn this around in the fastest possible time. We will have to mobilise skills, energy, resources, and people to address these matters with the required urgency.

The most important role of leadership is to influence. Over the past 10 years, I, working with colleagues, friends and people with a common purpose, have tried to focus on five key themes:

  • Driving investment into South Africa so that we may create the jobs we need. President Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of the appointment of investment envoys to attract local and foreign investors is a great step in the right direction. It will be a long road, but there are many, in South Africa and abroad, who are willing to give South Africa and South Africans a chance.A growing and vibrant economy has a much better chance of creating jobs than a weak and stagnant one. I will continue to advocate greater investment into the South African economy, in my personal and professional capacities.I know full well that investors may invest their money anywhere in the world. Despite that – no, because of that – we must continue to do all we can to make ourselves a very attractive investment destination.Standard Bank has played a critical role in this regard and our CEO, Sim Tshabalala, has participated efforts to bring more investment to South Africa and to avert crippling downgrades.
  • Corruption in both the public and private sectors contributes to poverty and underdevelopment because of the drain on the fiscus, misallocation of resources and the lack of delivery of basic services.Working with others, we have stood firm against corruption, in all its forms, against heavy odds. It has been a lonely and painful journey for many of the people who have stood with us on this journey. Some lost their jobs, others were victimised and harrassed. The fight against corruption demands the same immense courage and strong convictions that it took to defeat apartheid.Many people have played and are playing their part, either by speaking out, or by resisting corruption, or by taking concrete steps against corruption.I have taken a very strong position on ethical leadership: in the bank, in my interactions with young leaders and in my interactions with private and public sector leaders across the continent.Standard Bank has also played a huge role in publicly condemning corruption, raising the awareness of its staff and in making concrete proposals on SOE reform and steps that can be taken to deal with corruption.The recent setting up of the judicial commission of inquiry; the sanctioning and jailing of corporate and public sector officials; the signing of the FICA Amendment Bill into law, the closure of bank accounts and the freezing of the assets of those suspected of involvement in corruption all augur well for the future.
  • Business leaders are showing a greater realisation that the long-term success of their businesses, and therefore the long-term interests of their shareholders, are intrinsically linked to the prosperity of South Africa and its people. It has been a difficult journey, but leaders in Standard Bank and in Business Leadership SA have declared themselves ready to accelerate transformation.What is required is to take concrete steps to move from grand announcements to passionate execution to bring about accelerated transformation, not only within these organisations but, more importantly, for such transformation to help change our socio-economic reality.
  • Lastly, I believe it’s vital to develop the next layer of leaders. I have therefore dedicated a lot of my time to working with young leaders. It is so important in tackling our current challenges. I really believe in young leaders and I am determined to work through them to build a better society. 

The recent leadership changes in South Africa give me so much hope; hope that we can overcome the stagnation of the past few years to take South Africa back to building its future glory.

DL:    Currently, all recruitment at school-leaving level in the bank is frozen. What other options can we, as an organisation, use to make a difference in young people’s lives?

LM:   I think the freeze in recruitment is necessary because the rate of cost growth is higher than the rate of income growth. The freeze protects current jobs and improves the health and profitability of the organisation. In addition to that, the economic prospects of the country were quite bad when we took the decision. Since then, three things have happened that create more potential for young people:

  • Firstly, the learnership programme that we started 10 years ago has (see speech !!!!??/?):)
  • Secondly, the public-private partnership for youth employment that the President recently announced creates huge opportunities for young people. Standard Bank has been at the forefront of youth development and will also play its part.

This partnership will serve both Standard Bank and society’s long-term interests. There is great hope for the youth and we must work even harder to grow the economy so they can be absorbed by companies beyond their initial time on the programme.

  • Thirdly, although there is a staff freeze, a number of programmes, such as our graduate programme and the Card Crew, continue and are taking on young people. These programmes will help young people to start their careers.

DL:    Where do you see the bank going, based on your international business and travel knowledge, especially with new financial players coming on stream?
LM:   The financial services world is going through major disruption. We are seeing: 

  • disruptive payment technologies;  
  • the advent of segment-of-one marketing; 
  • the aggressive entrance of fintechs, telcos and other competitors into our industry;
  • more and stricter regulations across many countries; and 
  • a war for talent driven by the scarcity of skills. 

Our response has been first to define our purpose as an organisation. This purpose is our lodestar, our guiding light. It defines our inner core as an organisation.

Our purpose is “Africa is our home; We drive her growth.” This has enabled us to galvanise our efforts to drive the growth and prosperity of the countries and markets in which we operate. This, in turn, will drive our growth and prosperity as an organisation.

We have identified three major strategic themes on which to focus: Customer centricity; digitisation; and a universal financial services organisation.

To give effect to these, we are going through massive changes to take us to 2020 and beyond:

  • Ensuring that our culture promotes incisiveness; diversity, collaboration and teamwork;
  • Working on customer journeys to give true meaning to what really matters to customers;
  • Guiding and developing all our leaders, from the most senior to the most junior, to be more engaging, empowering, sensitive, responsive, developmental, visible and approachable to our staff members;
  • Encouraging new ways of work that promote decision-making to bring us closer to the customer; 
  • Investing in our people, particularly the young, to create better career prospects in a digitised world;
  • Creating new multi-disciplinary self-managed teams, built around customer needs and not internal organisational considerations;
  • Building nimble and responsive digital platforms with enhanced data and artificial intelligence to meet and even anticipate customer needs; and
  • Building the capabilities to compete and sometimes collaborate with various players in an era of open banking.

DL:    How do you cope with the positions that you hold in the organisation, your community and your family?

LM:   I have learnt over the years to make it my goal always to be bigger than the role. My ultimate goal is to make a positive difference in all spheres of my life, be it in my family, in my community, in my country, on our beloved continent or in the world at large. It is my responsibility to use any role I have to make that positive difference, and the judgment of whether or not I am making that difference can only come from those whom I have touched.

Over a long period of time, people may say to you, or to others, that your presence, actions, decisions or words made a positive change in their lives. Then you know you are on the right path. Such feedback shouldn’t make you gloat; it should spur you on to do much more.

I have chosen three focus areas in my life and use whatever resources, time, skills, energy, and knowledge I have to make a positive difference in each of them:

  1. Leadership: I am focused on using my personal and professional leadership roles to influence the next generation of leaders.
  2. Education: I have a deep passion for education, to promote this, I have targeted programmes aimed at all the schools and universities where I have studied. I hope that, through these interventions, other young people who are from similar background to mine may have better opportunities in life. 
  3. Sport: Sport helped to mould me as a young person. It taught me key life lessons and through it I have made lifelong friendships. I am heavily invested in rugby for township schools and cricket for rural clubs. These are both aimed at young people from less affluent areas and link sport with education and discipline. 

I am able to play all my roles because: 

  • I have a lot of support from my wife, Sva; my kids, Lihle, Amara, and Liam; and my broader family;
  • I follow in the footsteps of my father, Mzwandile Mali, uncle Ray Mali and other family elders who were always there to serve the community; and
  • my values and those of my organisation are aligned. This allows me to infuse my passions into my day-to-day work.

DL:    How has leadership transformed over the years and what is the best leadership approach for leading today’s workforce?

LM:   There are a number of developments that have had a huge impact on leadership, including:

  • Greater diversity of teams in terms of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. This means that today’s and tomorrow’s leaders have to ensure that they can manage diversity and that they are aware of their unconscious bias. They have to create an environment of inclusiveness and be seen to be the leader of all and not only the leader of those who look or sound like the leader.
  • The demands of customers and clients and the advent of digital technologies require much more nuanced decision-making by those closest to the clients. This requires leaders to change from the “command and control” style of leadership to a more engaging and empowering approach. 
  • The demographics of our workplace are changing and millenials will dominate our institutions in the next few years. This requires more boundaryless structures, more transparency, greater equity, more social and environmental sensitivity and a more communicative style of leadership.
  • Innovations and new technologies in data management, artificial intelligence, robotic technologies and virtual reality require a different approach to leadership. There is a blurring of the lines between business and technology. There are more customer-demanded products and services. We have to adopt more agile and nimble ways of work and re-examine the very concept of a team and a team leader.
  • The requirement to work across different geographies, different segments and different product lines changes the way people work and lead. The higher you go, the more you are required to lead such teams, the greater the requirement for a higher EQ rather than a higher IQ, for more developed interpersonal skills rather than technical skills, for the ability to integrate and collaborate, and for the ability to be part of different teams and structures at the same time.

We are starting to help all of our leaders to go through this journey. We, ourselves, are being tested every day by these changes in our landscape.

DL:    What are the key successes in your leadership journey and who made a major impact in these successes?

LM:   As I indicated before, success for me must always relates to the goal and not the role, society at large rather than me, as an individual. 

I fully align myself with the words of Kouzes and Posner, who argue persuasively that the true joy of leadership does not come from how exalted we may be, how much power we have, how many possessions we have, how much wealth we may amass, but from a deep and special place, where others benefit, prosper and develop because of our actions.

My moments of true success have therefore been spent watching people I have worked with grow and develop to take on major roles, both within and beyond Standard Bank. I look on in awe and admiration as they go on and make an even bigger difference in their organisations and countries. 

Over and above their professional successes, I am excited by their personal growth and the way they have developed as wives, husbands, mothers and fathers, imparting great values to their families.

DL:    How do you reflect and know when to take action? 

LM:   When I was much younger, I was more impatient. I relied a lot on my instincts and had a propensity for fast decision-making. As I have matured, I have become more circumspect and more careful in decision-making. Although I now make fewer day-to-day decisions, the decisions I make are more consequential for our customers, our organisation and for individuals and teams. In my reflections before a decision is made, during decision-making and even after a decision is made, I always have to factor in the following:

  • What does the data say? 
  • What are the consequences of this decision, for customers and clients, for the organisation, for individuals and for teams;
  • Have I truly examined the alternatives? 
  • Have I heard the other views from colleagues I needed to consult? 
  • What is my possible unconscious bias? 

It is strange that years after I left the legal profession, it is possibly my most instinctive decision-making framework.

Its foundations are hearing evidence, evaluating evidence, listening to witnesses and experts, hearing final arguments and then reserving judgment while looking at case law, the law of the land and international law, then applying the law to the facts at hand to come to a judgment. After this, the judgment painstakingly and logically explains the rationale of the decision.

Finally, judges know that a person may not like and may not agree with their judgments and that there is an inbuilt appeal mechanism that may challenge the judgment. I try to apply this thinking in my decision-making process: I aim to have people understand my reasoning, my decisions and my actions, so that even if they don’t agree, or may have preferred a different outcome, they can still understand my reasons. So I tend to explain my decisions, actions or views in great detail to those I work with.

DL:    What can be done around creative thinking and to encourage this in the bank?

LM:   We have made great strides in hearing more from the people closest to the customers and listening to the teams doing the work to give meaning to the work. However, all of us need to do much, much more.

Leaders need to create a conducive environment and atmosphere for creative thoughts and ideas from all staff.

In my own part of the business, we have unleashed creative thoughts from our teams working in the labs; from our teams working on customer solutions in an agile way; from young graduates coming up with new ideas; from multidisciplinary teams working on Launchpad to come up with creative solutions; from our product teams, who are coming up with new revenue generation activities; and from our leaders, who are part of various learning and development programmes.

This is only the beginning. Our teams have tasted this creative and fun-filled environment. They certainly want more of it, not less!