A Conversation with Lebo Refilwe Mokgabudi – Director: Fintech & Financial Inclusion Advisory Services


LRM: I look forward to this conversation on Leadership in africa, Navigating the changing dynamics of technology and Investing in people who will create a different future. 

LM: Thank you My Leader, I hope our conversation will create hope for many young leaders across the African continent. 

LRM: We have been raised in a culture of Ubuntu where we do not only look after our own interests but also the interests of others; where your neighbor would not go hungry if you have bread in the house, however we seem to forget these principles in the corridors of business and board rooms. Do you think there is room for Ubuntu in business and how can that be restored? 

LM: Ubuntu is about selflessness, about the greater good. I fully agree with you Lebo, the current corporate and public sector scandals show us that we are moving further away from Ubuntu to embrace greed, corruption, unethical behavior and amazing wealth at all costs. This was pointed out decades ago by Martin Luther king jr, 

“ When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…” 

If you ask yourself, Lebo, why would people veer so far away from their foundational values, their upbringing and what they know is right. In the 
wise words of Prof Bill George, “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.”

Fortunately, for all of us, and for future generations, there is a now a huge backlash against corporate greed, malfeasance, public sector corruption, unethical conduct and bad competitive practices. Society is impatient with this, and you have seen the backlash against foreign corporate giants such as KPMG, Mackinsey, SAP, Bell Pottinger, Gartner, and other major players for their role in many of the scandals that have emerged. Locally, a number of very important local companies have been damaged by their involvement in corruption scandals, this has involved companies such as VBS, Steinhoff, Eskom, Bossasa, Trillion, Prasa, SAA, PIC, SABC, Transnet and other companies. The competition commission has also brought to the spotlight unscrupulous competition practices by different industries ranging from construction, banking, insurance, medical aids and bread. The current Zondo commissions has also revealed undue influence from corporates and prominent families on public sector bodies. 

This is the best time and context to restore Ubuntu in the Boardroom, in the public sector and in society in general. We can achieve this by: 

⁃ Enduring that leaders stay grounded and authentic, face new challenges with humility,
⁃ setting the tone for ethical behavior at the top in all our public, private and civil society sector institutions; 
⁃ aligning incentives to the values of the organisation; 
⁃ acting against any corrupt practices without fear nor favor
⁃ by ensuring that leaders regularly introspect on their behaviors and actions that may contribute to ethical violations; and 
⁃ ensure that there are clear learning and development programmes aimed at instilling the values of Ubuntu from induction of new employees up to the executives and board members. 

LRM: The Changing world of technology that’s creating the sharing economy, open markets and open banking requires cultures of collaboration instead of ownership. How do you think leaders should respond to this change? Do you think people and structures within large organizations are geared to respond to this evolving business environment?

LM: Many organisations suffer from five near fatal flaws that may adversely affect their future in a digital world. These legacies are : 

⁃ organizational structures that are hierarchical with a command and control culture; 
⁃ Organizational frameworks that are deeply siloed, with hard borders within the organizational silos; 
⁃ A resistance to change, with a huge block on new ideas and creative approaches ; 
⁃ A competitive mindset against all players and very little culture of collaboration with other players; and 
⁃ A yawning gap between the so called business arm and the IT arm of a corporate means that there is lack of synergy for the digital journey forward. 

As corporates journey into the digital world, compete with nimble Fintechs and large global players, a number of key changes are necessary 

self managed autonomous teams can achieve so much more, 
⁃ organisational frameworks built around customers and clients will be more responsive to changing clients/customer needs; 
⁃ enabling, empowering and inspiring leadership will create a conducive environment for innovation and change; 
⁃ Partnerships and collaborations will enable companies to grow faster and better through combining their core advantages with the advantages of other players; and lastly 
⁃ The new world demands for agile ways of work with data analysts, business type guys, developers, risk people, marketers etc working on client journeys towards new solutions. 

I have seen organisations move towards this new direction, those that move fast, in an
Organized and deliberate manner will reap the rewards. On the other hand, those companies who are stuck in the past, they face a bleak future and may not survive. These times require leaders who will do the following ; 

⁃ paint a clear picture of the opportunities presented by the digital world to their organisations; 
⁃ Restructure their teams to align with client or customer journeys rather than internal considerations; 
⁃ Create a culture of innovation and collaboration within the organisation and lastly 
⁃ Build mutually beneficial partnership with other organisations to deliver superior solutions. 

LRM: The youth or millennials as they are referred to tend to be self-starters, execution orientated and are driven to see the impact of their work on their communities, the country and the world at large, they also tend to be impatient and adverse to the hierarchical structures inherent in corporates. How have you as a leader motivated people who are driven by passion, purpose and productivity? 

LM: I am always reminded by how all these descriptions fitted me about 30 years ago. At the time we were angry and impatient young people, we wanted to bring the apartheid system down and render the country ungovernable. We were called various names such as angry mob, lost generation, or the marginalized youth. Fortunately for us people like Mzwandile Mali ( my father), Seymour Mjo, Rev Haya, Rev Soga, Govan Mbeki, Khaya Majola, Wilfred Khovu, Thandeka Mbopha and many other parents, relatives, teachers, sports coaches etc who understood us, engaged us and moulded us into who we later became. 

They had the foresight, patience and selflessness to devote so much of their time, energy, resources, knowledge and skills to guide us. It was never easy, we were rebellious, argumentative, impatient and thought we knew better. They persevered and eventually prevailed and influenced us towards a better future. 

I can see myself in many of the young people of today. When people see me today, they can’t tell that by the time I was 18, I had been expelled from school, was in and out of jail and was being hunted down by the police. I am a product of other people patience, generosity and teachings, I firmly believe we need to do that with today’s young people. 

Let me use one example, during the height of the political unrest in the 1980’s, our sports coach was Wilfred Khovu. He was a renowned administrator, he has played rugby and cricket at the highest levels that a black persons could play in those days. He was so focused and dedicated to our development, not only in sport but in our personal lives. Without fail, everyday, he would be there giving us either rugby or cricket lessons, and every weekend we would be playing sports. We still did the normal truant tactics, but he always caught us out. When I started being an student activist, and I was being detained, or expelled from school and running away from the police, I thought he would understand and allow us to drop sporting activities. He would have none of it, in his mind, if we were bold enough to take on the might of the state, we should be bold enough to be good student academically, perform well on the sports front and we can continue with our activism. Those lessons have proved invaluable in my life, he expected excellence, dedication and passion regardless of the challenges we faced. 

When I was much younger, I was a rebel in the workplace, I was impatient with the status quo, I always challenged the dominant thinking and was always confronting established norms. There were people who saw something in me, who listened to my ideas, entertained my perspectives and guided me towards different outcomes. I give huge credit to people like Sibusiso Bengu, Chabani Manganyi, Bob Tucker, Ben Kruger, Jaco Maree, Darrel Orsmond, Peter Schlebusch, Zweli Manyathi, Sim Tshabalala and many others – they were able to have an influence on me. 

I think of another story, this one involved Sim Tshabalala. He was the MD for Standardbank’s Africa Division. I was appointed to lead the bank’s subsidiaries in Zambia and Malawi. Then one day Sim asked me to accompany him to Zimbabwe to look at challenges facing that business. When we got there we found out that the board of directors had resigned; the management team was unhappy, and the authorities were not happy – this all stemmed from how a new MD had been appointed. We were in all the newspapers about the troubles in our bank. We saw the Governor of the Central Bank and the Head of Bank Supervision – they were both not happy with our bank and expected us to sort out the matter. After all our meetings, Sim then told me that he wants me to address these challenges and that i must stabilize the bank. 

There I was, with very little knowledge and experience of banking, knowing no one in Zimbabwe, being given such a task. A few months later, through intense consultations and conversations, the Board was reconstituted, the regulatory authorities were satisfied, an MD had been appointed by the Board, the management team was stabilized and we were no longer in the media. This was a huge lesson in trusting a young person with huge responsibilities. 

In the same way as I’ve had friends and colleagues who were much older than me, in the same way as I was given huge responsibilities at a very young age, and also in the same way as I was trusted with large and complex transactions, I have always had a very different outlook towards young people. I have given many young people opportunities when others felt they were not ready, this requires a different lens through which to look at talent. Across the African continent, I have worked with some of the most talented young people with amazing results and outcomes. It’s always heartening to visit a place, after many years, to hear someone tell you about their growth, to receive feedback about how you impacted their lives or to see people you have worked with now playing big roles. 

The young generation now are younger than my oldest daughter, but I use the same approach that was used to me to interact with them. If I were to summarize the critical success factors to work with young people, these would be: 

⁃ you have to believe in the value of new ideas and creative approaches from young people; 
⁃ You must resist the temptation to lecture or to defend the status quo; 
⁃ You must be prepared to listen to different perspectives; 
⁃ You must create a conducive atmosphere for dialogue, persuasion, and conversations with young people; 
⁃ Resist the temptation to use your age, your experience and your status to win an argument; and 
⁃ Avoid the worst kind of stereotyping about young people and most importantly 
⁃ Do not be condescending in your engagement with young people. 

I see young people as a great opportunity for growth and development in our businesses, they need guidance, support and understanding. I benefited from this, I know other young people can benefit from the same experience. 

LRM: What leadership advice would you give those who are in the business of wealth creation, business creation and job creation. How does one navigate the growth curve of being a small business and ultimately offering a product or service to large multinationals? How should african entrepreneurs position themselves for purpose within multinationals?

LM: All the entrepreneurs I’ve known, spoken to and have observed point out to five fundamental issues that face most entrepreneurs. These are : 

⁃ entrepreneurship requires deep passion driven by a higher ideal, a dream or a joy to make a difference; 
⁃ The first phase of entrepreneurship is a huge challenge as the entrepreneurs battle with funding, cash flow issues, employing the right people, marketing their products, getting premises, signing contracts with suppliers etc
⁃ The first contracts, customers and business is usually exciting but also brings challenges of delivery and managing expectations. 
⁃ Most business fail at this early stage, so to make it through the first 3 years is a great achievement. Some business continue to play in the market where they get their early success, but others companies start to thing about working with large corporates and multinationals. 

The partnership between large multinationals and entrepreneurs is a very difficult one because these entities are sometimes very different, their objectives are not sometimes aligned and they have different management structures and cultures. 

I would like to highlight the key success factors for those entrepreneurs who have had longstanding relationships with multinationals: 

⁃ They have a unique value proposition, product or service that is vital for the multinational’s own success; 
⁃ They keep improving their products and services and continuously aligns to the priorities of the multinational; 
⁃ They find the right balance between investing in the multinational and having the right resources assigned to this important work whilst diversifying to have other clients in order to address the concentration risk, 
⁃ They reduce over reliance on a few executives within the multinationals, this helps them survive changes in the landscape within the multinational; 
⁃ They have highly skilled people to be relationship managers that work very closely with the multinational, to understand their strategy, competitive pressures, priorities, new risks and overall feedback on the product or service; and lastly 
⁃ They see themselves as an important part of the value chain of multinationals. 

In certain instances, multinationals will take a stake in a Fintech, or completely buy out a business run by an entrepreneur. This sometimes results in huge cultural clashes and frustrations on both sides. The entrepreneurs feel suffocated by the kind lead times, governance processes; risk management frameworks; decision making processes and the way multinationals work. On the side of multinationals there is frustration about the lack of formality; the management style, risk tolerance culture and the entrepreneurial culture of these types of business. 

The best outcome is for the two organisations is to embrace the best aspects of their different approaches and to discard the worst parts to create something unique. The new entity becomes more competitive and does not become locked in its past. Let’s remember Lebo, this involves people, people have to part of the solution and for them to feel that they own the journey and the new identity. 

LRM: Corruption seems to be becoming the social fabric of wealth creation in africa, where greasing palms is becoming the normal course of business. Do you think entrepreneurs who seek to be ethical in business have any hope of success?

LM: This is one of the most painful thing for me – it hurts so deeply to know that there are amazingly talented people, who give their all to provide solutions, products and services to their customers in an honest way, but are daily frustrated by corrupt and greedy rent seekers. This corruption and bribery is a cancer that is eating into the very fibre of our society. The impact of corruption is being felt daily by millions who cannot get the best products at the right price; who cannot get services due to them at the right time and who see the costs of doing business become prohibitively expensive. 

It may be tempting to join this feeding frenzy, to help grease the palms, to facilitate business success or to ensure business survival; the question is if you go down this path; 

⁃ what will you teach your children? 
⁃ how will you ever recover your moral compass ? 
⁃ Is this worth your reputation? 
⁃ Is this a price you are prepared to pay, for how long and for how much more business ? 

I have taken a view, at a very early stage of my career, that the way I was brought up, my own value system, and my abhorrence of corruption and greed, regardless of who is involved, I would always urge all entrepreneurs, public servants, corporates and politicians to adopt ethical ways. If we are to be the midwives of Africa’s rebirth, we need to take concrete steps against corruption in all its forms. In the long term, those entrepreneurs who do business in an ethical way, who are incorruptible and are men and women of honor, will reap the true benefits of their honorable stance. 

I have travelled the length breadth of this wonderful continent, going to places you would not find on the weather report, I have been inspired by thousands of entrepreneurs, who do their business ethically regardless of the consequences. They are the example to be emulated. 

LRM: Have you been faced with situations which challenged your moral or ethical values and how did you navigate these situations? 

LM: There have been many situations where I have had to take unpopular decisions in my life to stand up for time honored principles. My late father used to say, “ Principles don’t bend, they break”. In many of these situations, friends, family members, colleagues and people I have known for a long time expected me to do what was easy, convenient or what served their interests. Unfortunately for them, the values of integrity, probity, honesty and transparency are not negotiable, I have had to take these unpopular steps, regardless of the consequences. I have lost some friends, disappointed family members and parted ways with long standing comrades and acquaintances. This is a very small price to pay for such an important principle. In addition to this, I have had to speak out against unethical behaviors regardless of who is involved, this has not gone down well with those in powerful positions, but the path of righteousness is a narrow and difficult one. I think all of us must prize fidelity to principle more than popularity and acceptance. 

If I had chosen a different path, I may have been promoted faster, amassed a lot of wealth, had business interests outside my work and maybe had a lot material possessions- but I have chosen to follow my North Star and stay on the path of righteousness and probity. 

LRM: Leadership requires the courage to make unfavorable decisions. How have you navigated situations of economic or social injustice in your journey as a leader in South Africa. 

LM: South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. No one can be immune from the impact of this phenomenon. We are faced by poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment on our very doorstep, and it takes dangerous race, gender and age dimensions. 

The current image of unemployment is black urban youth, the face of poverty is black rural women and the epitome of underdevelopment is rural young women. This is a dangerous picture, close to 25 years post our democracy. It cannot be business as usual for any of us, these are our common problems, and each of us have to play our part to address these challenges. 

I have tried to respond to these issues at a number of levels. I have taken on positions that are aligned with my values, they may not always align with everybody, but these are strongly held views : 

⁃ I am of the firm belief that the private sector needs to view shared value in a manner broader than narrow returns to shareholders. This means that we have to define success for the private sector to include long term societal stability and sustainability. I have long argued that the current South African set up is unsustainable, and we need to get the private sector to play a larger role in socio economic development regardless of the challenges associated with that. 
⁃ I also strongly believe that financial services can be the best lubricant towards economic development and societal prosperity. The Financial sector charter was a great platform to drive change and transformation in areas such as access to financial services, Black agriculture; infrastructure financing; procurement; enterprise development; SME financing; affordable housing; employment equity; consumer education and management and ownership. I have strongly argue that we should accelerate the implementation of the financial sector and ensure that transformation is commercially viable yet has societal impact. 
⁃ In my own organisation, I have championed an accelerated transformation project on employment equity, I believe that society demands it and we do not have time for window dressing or tick box exercises. 
⁃ In my own personal space, I have been investing in education, youth development, women development, sports development and leadership development. I have also urged others who are in more privileged positions to do much more to close our income inequality. 

We have so much to do, there are huge legacy challenges to overcome, but as daunting as this may sound, we have no option but to persevere and struggle against these difficult odds. We need more advocates for change and transformation, to convince more people that our current status quo is totally unsustainable. 

LRM: I have had the pleasure of experiencing your authentic and transformational leadership. Please may you share lessons of diplomacy whilst upholding the ability to be true to yourself 

LM: Leadership is not a title held, it’s an influence felt. This means that to be more effective, each one of us have to learn and master the skills and techniques to influence others. You may call it diplomacy, but for me, whether you are selling an idea, or a product, or managing a complex project- you have to win over colleagues, customers, suppliers or stakeholders. This skill or mastering these techniques can be the difference between failure or success. The following are some key lessons I have learnt that helped me on my journey : 

⁃ Fully understand your critical stakeholders- who are your primary, secondary or tertiary stakeholders? Does your diary really reflect this hierarchy? Are you fully engaged with your stakeholders, do they truly understand what you need, what your priorities are and what success looks like? 

⁃ Do you really understand the concerns, needs, priorities and constraints of your stakeholders ? 

⁃ Do you know your stakeholders as people, do you take an active interest in who they are, what makes them “ tick”, what are their anxieties, fears, dreams or ambitions?

⁃ when other parts of the business go into trouble, when your stakeholders are in need, do you go the extra mile, do you show responsiveness and care or are you more selfish ? 

The key then is how you go about influencing others: 

Firstly, I bring myself to work – my values, my beliefs and my identity, I use who I am and what I am to influence others towards a larger purpose. I sometimes jokingly call it “ polishing shoes”. This means actively building relationships, selling ideas, listening to other people’s perspectives as we build the business. My interactions and influence cover different business units, geographies and ranks- in this way you can be accessible and responsive over a wider patch than your formal role. 

Secondly, It’s important to remember Lebo, it’s not enough for you, as a leader, to influence others, you must also be willing to be influenced. This requires an open mind, a humble spirit, a willingness to change, and a commitment to lifelong learning. 

Lastly, and most importantly, in order for you to lead, you have to influence and have the humility to be influenced. 

LRM: There are multiple initiatives towards women leadership however the numbers of women executives and women in management positions are still embarrassingly low. Are these discussions being had in the “boys clubs” Are men in leadership concerned about this imbalance? 

LM: I have strongly argued before that a focus on women in the workplace has to go beyond the month of August- it has to be a daily focus on the real challenges facing women in our organisations. Our duty as leaders , particularly, male leaders, is to create an environment where women will not only succeed but thrive because :
• Their voice is heard, loud and clear
• The work environment takes into account their family commitments
• We are brutal in taking action when there are incidents of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, corporate bullying and abuse of positions by those in leadership positions
• There are clear career opportunities with visible progress and promotions into senior roles
• Women are paid in a fair, transparent and equitable manner and are not prejudiced because of their gender
• We are supportive when women are going through a divorce, are in an abusive relationship, can’t have children, have a child with disabilities and are balancing their work, home and studies
• Young women can see many role models in key positions in organisations

I have consistently argued that this is only part of the barometer by which we should judge our progress or lack thereof. Such a barometer must evaluate all of us from the highest levels of organisations, through to business units, to individual teams and to the lower levels of organisations. This can only be done if this becomes a daily and regular focus and not something we focus on only in August. 

The question we have to ask ourselves is, why are we not making enough progress, why are all these initiatives not bearing fruit, and why are the majority of women still feeling like second class citizens in our organisations. The answers are painfully obvious: 

⁃ the majority of male leaders pay lip service to women empowerment and leadership; 
⁃ the majority of men executives, Black and White do not feel that they are beneficiaries of patriarchy; 
⁃ we as male leaders are not conscious of our biases, bigotry and prejudices we have on women; 
⁃ Our stated commitments to women empowerment and leadership disappear into thin air when key projects are assigned, promotions are made; succession planning is contemplated, and salary reviews take place; 
⁃ Lastly, we do not use our executive positions to clearly adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination against women. 

We need to address this issue as a matter of extreme urgency. There is a moral, social and business case for women leadership and empowerment – my frustration is that those who oppose it do so under the cover of committees and boardroom talk, they do not openly debate us, persuade us or contradict us publicly. They just keep maintaining the status quo. 

LRM: How would you advise your daughters to navigate the business world in Africa? Would you encourage them to be leaders in corporate or pursue wealth creation through starting their own business?

LM: I have brought up my daughters, Lihle (28) and Amara ( 18) to be fiercely independent, assertive, driven, passionate, kind, loving and committed to higher ideals. My approach with them is one of engagement, persuasion and deep conversations. Lihle is already in the corporate sector, we have regular conversations about her dreams and aspirations. Amara is in her final year of Matric, she is making choices as we speak. 

There are 5 principles that capture my advice to them: 

⁃ Always strive to give more to society than you take; make a positive difference, 
⁃ Do not define yourself on the basis of status, position, material wealth or titles; 
⁃ Treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of their race, class, gender, religion or status in life; 
⁃ Whatever choice you take –be committed, honest, diligent, professional and seek always to excell and be a team player; lastly and probably most importantly 
⁃ Always show up as your authentic self and a corporate or social replica of what is expected.

Whatever their choices, I will support them, I will cheer them on and I will be with them through the tough times and the times of success. This will be one of the most important measures of success in my life, have I brought up young women who can help change the world to make a positive difference or not. 

LRM: Thank you so much for this conversation, you have left me with a lot to think about. I hope others will benefit from this rich and deep conversation. 

LM: My Leader, it’s my absolute pleasure, I hope that this will be beneficial to other young leaders across our beloved continent.