A conversation with Joseph Ajal


Chief Executive – Precision HR Proprietary Ltd


JA: How do I know that the person I am mentoring or coaching is ready for the next level of responsibility on their leadership journey? 

LM: Leadership and people management are sometimes complex, because we have to a call on people’s suitability to take on leadership roles. In certain instances, you may feel that the person is ready for a leadership role, but they may be reluctant or feel inadequate or not suitably qualified for the job.

In these circumstances, your role as a leader is to support the person in their decision-making about the role. Most of us have been in situations where we choose somebody in spite of their reluctance and the person took on the role and relinquished it because they really enjoyed a specialist role or a limited leadership role and did not want to grow and develop into a more senior role.

In contrast, sometimes we are confronted with someone who wants to assume a leadership role, maybe because they see it as a position that brings power, perks and prestige. Someone may also desire a role because they are highly ambitious. We may also face a situation where someone would like to lead, but lacks the required temperament, interpersonal skills and selflessness to lead.

In all of these cases, it is our duty to discuss these matters with the person we are mentoring or coaching, show them what is required, help them to discover their strengths, help them to understand how they are perceived and lead them to fully appreciate what drives them.

The ability to know whether a person is ready to lead or not depends a lot on the following:

  • Your knowledge and experience in dealing with people as a coach, mentor and leader;
  • Your knowledge of the type of organisation the mentee is involved in and the requirements of the job;
  • Your knowledge of the mentee and their strengths and areas of development; 
  • The quality of the time you have spent with people to aid your decision-making on their readiness for the next leadership role.

In the end, these are judgment calls. In my career, I have made some good choices in this regard, but I’ve also made some bad choices Each one of those decisions was a valuable learning experience for me and for the people I chose.

JA: Why is talk of succession management frowned upon in Africa? The corporates are just as guilty as the politicians.

LM: It is very sad when we, as leaders, ignore one of the most important parts of our role – preparing organisations and societies for the next set of leaders. In my humble opinion, succession planning, at all levels, is the responsibility of leadership or management. It should not be abdicated to our colleagues in Human Capital. In my experience, an investment in time spent with various members of our teams allows us to do proper succession management three or four levels down. That succession planning is not a static, document-based process. It is a dynamic process and this is what it should involve:

  • Identifying critical roles in the organisation; 
  • Identifying individuals with the experience, skills, or potential to take up these roles;
  • Creating development paths for these individuals; 
  • Reviewing the performance of these individuals throughout the journey; 
  • Assigning these individuals challenging tasks and getting them to take on various roles; and
  • Engaging in regular feedback with the identified individuals 

Then, when then a vacancy arises in one of these critical roles, you have to make three key decisions:

Firstly, is any of the identified individuals ready to take up the critical role? If only one is ready, then it is easier to make the appointment. However, if more than one is ready, then a selection process should commence, with only the identified staff members participating. The advantage of this is that the identified staff can see the value and benefit of talent management and succession planning. The disadvantage is that those not considered as talent, as part of the succession planning or as part of the selection process may attack the process. It is the duty of leaders to be open and transparent about these matters.

Secondly, you may not be satisfied with the level of development of the identified individuals. In that case, you may open the net wider, to include people inside and outside the organisation. This may unearth new talent, challenge the current succession planning and may bring in new energy from the outside. These advantages show that succession planning is not static. It may be heavily influenced by changes in the environment, different organisational needs, the pace of development of the identified people and the performance of the identified individuals. The disadvantage is that, unless there is careful management, the identified individuals will usually view their state of readiness differently than the leadership does. Sometimes, their view of their performance may also be a bit different from the leadership’s. 

These are all amazing leadership challenges. All organisations should treat succession planning as a priority, broaden the resource pool, and prepare for the future. This debunks the notion that only one person is capable of doing a certain job.

JA: How can someone grow a leader to their full potential without that person becoming a threat to their own bosses and peers, thus risking their own career advancement.

LM: Each one of us has a personal journey and has been blessed by God with unique talents and attributes. It is vital to use the skills you have and your God-given talents to the very best of your abilities. That is why we encourage our staff and leaders to have a personal development plan, which may include a career plan.

Some people will execute diligently on their personal development plan. This approach, combined with support from coaches, leaders and mentors, may really advance someone’s leadership and career prospects. This may not be well received by peers and some line managers, who may start to feel jealous. This may create tensions, causing peers to shun the person or making line managers feel threatened.

It is important to realise that you can’t control other people’s feelings about you or your success. However, if you are a leader or a talented person, the following things are always important:

  • Remain humble and do not become big headed or ego driven because of your success;
  • Continue to build meaningful relationships with your peers and always ensure that you are a team player and a great collaborator;
  • Think deeply about whether your words, actions and behaviours alienate others in any way as you achieve greater success;
  • Ensure that you do not achieve your success and development through any ulterior motives or unfair and unethical advantages; and, lastly
  • Treat everyone – peers, subordinates and line managers – with dignity and respect, regardless of any successes you are achieving.

If you are doing all the above, but you continue to sense, experience or suffer from prejudice and animosity, you may need to evaluate whether your value system is still aligned with that of your peers, your line managers or the organisation you serve. You may have to make hard choices, but they will have to be made if you want to live a fulfilled life, achieve job satisfaction and make a positive contribution to your organisation and your community.

JA: What obstacles have you overcome on your own leadership journey? 

LM: I have faced many obstacles on my leadership journey. The one I would like to highlight is the huge resistance I faced when I first started practising visible and engaging leadership. The things that are so normal and quite appropriate for leaders to do today were considered taboo in those times. In the early 2000s, some of the managers and leaders I dealt with were very resistant to change. They felt that an engaging, empowering and motivational culture would:

  • create chaos, as staff would run amok; 
  • undermine the stature and authority of leaders; 
  • negatively affect deeply held beliefs and cultures on issues such as age, gender and religion; and
  • require changes in corporate rules, organograms, organisational hierarchies and power dynamics.

These leaders placed a lot of obstacles in my path, made various attempts to undermine the journey and used institutional power to frustrate the changes we were trying to bring about.

I am inspired by how most leaders and the vast majority of staff responded to these changes. In the process, I learnt a lot,. I grew both as a person and as a leader. Some of the initiatives we started then are part of my leadership journey nearly 18 years later. I’m eternally grateful for those lessons and experiences. 

JA: What’s the best way to handle a case of a lapse in good judgement or virtuous leadership in one’s leaders or their leadership journey? 

LM: This is one of the most difficult things to deal with, as some actions, behaviour or words could result in huge reputational damage, loss of earnings, being ostracised by the community and loss of jobs. In thinking about these issues, I always have to think of how I think about people. I am always guided by the immortal words of Nelson Mandela, in a letter to Winnie Mandela in 1977, while he was on Robben Island:

“In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides. On which aspect one concentrates in judging others will depend on the character of the particular judge. As we judge others so we are judged by others. The suspicious will always be tormented by suspicion; the credulous will ever be ready to lap up everything from oo-thobela sikutyele [one who takes advantage of you if you are vulnerable or gullible], while the vindictive will use the sharp axe instead of the soft feather duster. But the realist, however shocked and disappointed by the frailties of those he adores, will look at human behaviour from all sides and objectively and will concentrate on those qualities in a person which are edifying, which lift your spirit [and] kindle one’s enthusiasm to live.”

I have tried to be a realist in how I look at people. I tend to look for the very best in people, and yes, I’ve really battled when disappointed by those I love or admire. As I have grown older, I’ve had to accept that I can’t live the lives of others; that I should continue to love and support them, even though they have done things I disapprove of or things I would not do. The path to becoming a realist and forgiving is a difficult one, but as a leader, a father, a husband, a brother, or an uncle, one has to be more and more of a realist. 

This is so because most of us probably have good and bad in us and there is a continuous fight between what makes us good and what makes us bad. In that titanic conflict between good and evil, those who we may have considered to be our idols or role models sometimes will allow the evil in them to prevail. Such conduct could scar their victims for life and could change the lives of these former idols and role models.

In these circumstances, one has to draw a very important line between personal views of being a realist versus professional demands, which require that action be taken when there is wrongdoing.

On a personal level, I may be disappointed with a lapse in judgment by someone I love or admire and may understand and forgive, but on a professional level, I have to deal with wrongdoing without fear, favour or prejudice.

Many times in my career, I have had to discipline people I really liked or admired. Even after acting to discipline a person, on both a personal and a professional level, I still have a responsibility to help people overcome their mistake or lapse in judgment. I have seen many people bounce back in their personal and professional lives after accepting responsibility and working hard to make amends.