A conversation with Steve Fortuin – Entrepreneur South Africa


My Leader   

Thank you so much for such deeply searching questions, I found them fascinating and thought provoking. I look forward to your feedback. 


Lincoln, appreciate the opportunity to sit down with you and put our thoughts down on paper, we began engaging at right at the   start of my working career and the thoughts and views that you shared with me have been absolutely invaluable as I lead myself     and those around me. Thrilled that we can share some of these views with others. 


Thank you so much Steve, I have certainly enjoyed our deep conversations, and I’m sure this one will be no different. 


In today’s terms many associate the effectiveness of a leader with how much responsibility they can manage, thus we’re all sussing out opportunities that take us forward, to get more responsibility to manage more people etc. as the more responsibility you are entrusted with, and manage effectively, the better of a leader you become. There was a time in your career where you didn’t go forward you actually went back – talk to me about your mindset at this point in time. How should we know, from your experiences, when it’s the time to not look ahead but to potentially look alongside, or even behind us in order to move forward? 


As a matter of principle, I have never defined myself or my sense of worth with titles, roles or positions – this has made it easier for me to embrace the tasks allocated to me and make a success of them. Each role I’ve played has been different and it has given me more broader experience and expertise across different segments, products, channels and geographies. My advice for young and aspirant leaders is to always have the following factors in mind as one thinks of roles, promotions, and progress within institutions: 

Firstly, it is important that you are not consumed by blind ambition where you take on roles for the money, prestige or power that comes with it. I have seen people being promoted either to unhappiness, or incompetent or ineffectiveness simply through blind ambition. 

Secondly, there may be times where the next layer of leaders above you may be either brilliant or doing a great job or may be in the role for the foreseeable future. In such instances, you may choose to leave the organization, or look for other opportunities within the organization, or sulk due to unhappiness or to look for alternative growth opportunities. I have faced this situations on a number of occasions, but because of my lack of blind ambition, I’ve worked with those leaders and over time, new opportunities came up and those leaders above me were the first to recommend me for the new roles. 

Thirdly, there may be opportunities where you choose to take on a role that may be seen as a demotion, or a side movement or a regressive step. In such situations, you have to block out external views and focus what makes sense to you and your career journey

Fourthly, you have to accept that the higher you go within organizations, the fewer roles there are. There is also heightened competition for such roles. This means that you may sometimes lose to a better candidate, or be overlooked for a role, or you may be beaten by a candidate by a small margin because they may have a slight edge on some aspect. 

Lastly, your skills may be required in a particular area, or you may be expected to stay a bit longer in a role for stability or there may be a view (which you may not necessarily agree with) that you are not ready for the next step. 

All these are experiences that require you to be sober and dispassionate about your skill set, your ambitions, your capabilities and your learning and development gaps. 

I can give you five examples of some of the decisions I took in my career: 

  • Early in my career, I quit the legal profession to go into the unknown, in search of a challenge. I took the decision with a sober mind that the legal profession was not the career I wanted to pursue. 
  • Later in my career I left the highest levels in public sector management to go and start a new journey in the private sector. I knew that I needed a new challenging environment. I joined the Banking Council as a General Manager. 
  • When I left The Banking Council to join Standard bank in 2001, I opted to join as a trainee, and not to take up an Executive role. A lot of people who heard about this were disappointed because of my relative seniority to move from the corner office of the Banking Council to a cubicle as a trainee Account Executive in Standard bank. 
  • The other example was when I was responsible for Standard bank’s low-income business and was a member of the Retail Bank Executive Team. I was offered a role to run a Province, I left Head Office and resigned from the Exco, and that was probably one of the best roles I enjoyed. 
  • A couple of years ago, I choose to leave a big role in South Africa to look after the Western Region of Africa. The business I left had a huge budget, thousands of people and broad responsibilities. I joined the Africa Regions team, I was asked to head up our teams in Angola, Namibia, Nigeria, Ghana and the DRC. This business was smaller by profit, by size, but was very complex, multidimensional and high risk yet very fulfilling. I grew so much from the experience. 


Today you’re running a huge arm of Standard Bank in the Card business, before then you ran an equally important and sizeable area being Customer Channels. These jobs put you at the forefront of the organisation and many people, both internally and externally, know your brand well because of what you’ve done in the roles that you’ve had. Today, the name Lincoln Mali carries a strong brand, but take us back to the point in your career before this brand was built and tell us about the person who took a chance on you and how you made this happen 


There have been a number of key people who gave me great opportunities and enabled to grow both in my life and in my career: 

  • The first person to give me my first break was Prof SME Bengu, who was the first Minister of Education under President Mandela. He hired me based on the recommendations of people who had known me as a student, youth and education activist. I took up a role as his speechwriter, communication director and spokesperson. It was fascinating to combine my previous experience of leadership of student and community-based organizations with leadership in the public sector. 
  • The second person who took a huge chance on me was Bob Tucker, who took me on as a General Manager: Public Policy and SME Development at the Banking Council. I had never worked or been involved with the banking industry or private sector. Bob Tucker guided me to understand the banking industry, the challenges it faced and how it should respond to  changing South Africa. Through Mr Tucker, I found resonance with the banking industry and saw the role it may play in a country’s development. 
  • The third person, is Sim Tshabalala, who recruited me to the Standard Bank Group of Companies from the Banking Council. He gave me the responsibility to run the Central Africa portfolio looking after Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. This was another steep learning curve, here I was asked to run three banks in different countries when I had never even run a Spaza shop in my life. 17 years later I have stayed the course and have enjoyed my journey. 

In each one of these instances, I was given an opportunity based purely on potential, I had to realize that potential, through sheer determination, hard work, and working with other colleagues to accomplish goals. This means focusing on the role one is given, deliver on its mandate without worrying about the next role or accolades. Over time, with each act, decision, interaction with others, you develop a reputation, either positive or negative – the nature of your reputation will be determined by:

  • Your success on the goals set; 
  • How you treat colleagues; 
  • How you treat the staff that work with you; 
  • Your interaction with your stakeholders and 
  • Your leadership behaviours 


Next I want to talk about your turn back moment – everybody has a turn back moment – think about your turn back moment as where you tell yourself that the goal you’ve been striving far is too hard to get, or you’ve got to go too far to get it, it’s the moment where you’ve lost all patience and all you want to do is go back to your comfort zone where things are safer and easier. Tell us about a turn back time in your life and what inspired you to continue going forward / turn around 


I think the closest time to that moment was in December 2012, I was quite disillusioned about the direction the Organisation was going. I was not happy with the performance of the Organisation in key business units; the leadership practices, the dominant culture within our Organisation and how we were losing some of our most talented executives. I was on the verge of quitting the Organisation and had very uncomfortable conversations with key senior leaders. I needed to make a decision, to stay and fight or to go looking for greener pastures. I spent the December holiday agonizing about my choices and the decisions I needed to make. I found it cathartic to write a memorandum of sorts to our leadership and gave it to senior executives. The memorandum outlined all the challenges and frustrations and proposed new approaches and changes. The final part was the most important part – it explained that I decided to stay and be part of the solution, to battle against all the things I did not approve of and to help implement those things I believed and had suggested. 

The reason why I stayed, and why I remained within the Organisation is that I had the privilege to travel the length and breadth of our country and visit every branch in towns and cities across the country – this gave me an opportunity to engage with the 15 000 people I was responsible for. Through these personal engagements I was able to fully appreciate the fears, anxieties, ambitions, challenges and hopes of our staff. I felt that I was in a unique position to articulate their views, represent their interests and advance their cause. No matter what my concerns were, no matter how deep my frustrations were and no matter how much I thought I could find more joy elsewhere- I had a responsibility to lead my team through the uncertainty and change towards the success we envisioned. 


I remember an old story that you used share about how whenever you were having a disagreement or a moment of frustration with somebody that was consuming you, you would send them a long text before bedtime detailing your frustration and put your phone off afterwards and sleep easier – great advice. I want to talk about those moments where that course of action wasn’t possible – granted it’s works 90% of the time, I’ve had first-hand experience at that – but there are those moments that come along that absolutely shake you. If you’re comfortable – tell us about the last moment you had that felt like this, where a bedtime text message wasn’t enough to stop you from becoming consumed in this matter, and how you subsequently handled it. 


One of the saddest periods in my career was when I was involved in a battle with a colleague about roles and responsibilities in an environment where our roles overlapped. None of the tactics of the past worked; no amount of cajoling by the bosses worked and no text messages were effective. We were involved in a titanic battle of wills, with each one of us trying their best to convince the Organisation as to why our position or approach was the right one. Each of us wanted the Organisation to eventually make a ruling in our favour. The Organisation did not make a decision on this matter, we were promoted into different roles, without this matter being resolved. 

I had an opportunity to examine this period when I had time alone at the Harvard Business School, and I came to a number of career defining decisions: 

  • The world of work of the future will be characterized by more spheres of influence rather than the spheres of control of the past era; 
  • The higher you go in corporate life, the more ambiguity you will face. In such circumstances to seek defined roles and responsibilities or the proverbial Black and White is not useful; 
  • Where there is an overlap of roles and responsibilities, it is the role of leaders to seek areas of collaboration and to establish rules of engagement and a working relationship built on common goals or objectives; 
  • In areas overlap where two colleagues share responsibilities, each must have the humility to accept that on some issues, they may be in the Lead; whilst on other issues they may be in Support; 
  • In an environment of possible overlap, it is vitally important for the effected leaders to spend quality time together, to fully appreciate each other’s priorities, constraints, fears, hopes and anxieties. 

Through reflecting on these matters, I came to the conclusion that I could have handled matters better and differently, and that my actions were a contributor to the conflict. Instead of investing time and energy in being proved right, I should have used that time and energy to build consensus and understanding. I learnt the valuable lessons outlined earlier and have used these in my career since. 


I want to move on to talking about the cost of leadership, as humans we can’t do it all. It is tough to be at home running a household and at the office running a business, it’s tough to be out there inspiring and motivating individuals – like the work you do with your leadership conversations blog, the engagements you speak at or the events you host – and taking time to sleep in or relax or exercise. Leadership comes at a cost – what is the cost for you?


At the height of my leadership journey, when I thought I had achieved so much personal and professional success, I realized that this had occurred at a great cost. In early 2013, I found out that my life was out of balance. I took stock of the true cost of my leadership journey and had to make some key decisions about my future: 

  • Work/life balance: I came to the painful conclusion that my words were not aligned to my actions. Although I always professed love for my family, at all material times, when I was called upon to make a decision between my work and my family, I chose work. During this time, I had the best answers to give to rationalize my choices. I needed to change, to listen to my family, their wishes and change my entire outlook and the way I worked. I still work as hard, still travel a lot, but through the changes I have had to make, I am more present, more responsive, and have a better balance than before. This was a huge cost, I was not prepared to pay the full price and allow my work success to destroy my family. 
  • Pursuing a healthy lifestyle: the other leadership cost was on my health. I realized that my health was out of balance. I was overweight, unfit, stressed, and could have been a victim to either a heart attack, diabetes, or depression. I realized that I was in grave danger and I had to change my lifestyle and habits. I now have a more stricter diet, a rigorous physical exercise regime, and have stopped drinking alcohol and take more regular holidays and have times where I completely switch off. 


Let’s talk family, it’s not possible to do what you do unless you’ve got a solid foundation at home. You are dad, you are a husband, you are a brother. Is there a link between how things are going at home and your performance at work, and if so – how do you structure your life at home to have maximum productivity at work? 


It takes a strong woman, and I would argue a stronger man to create a marriage or a relationship of equals. This voice is important to define and find consensus on some of the most divisive issues in any relationship or marriage. These issues on which a woman’s voice has to be heard are:

  • Family finances
  • Rules of the house
  • Infidelity and temptation
  • Children’s upbringing
  • Future plans
  • Career and family choices
  • Relationship with broader families; and
  • Household chores

These are not easy issues to address, Sva and I have been together for 29 years, and married for 20 years, and we have worked on these issues over these years. Ours is not a perfect marriage…it is daily work in progress….it is that work that makes our marriage to be enjoyable, exciting and worthwhile. 

We have benefitted a lot from being equal partners with the same level of “airtime” in our relationship. Most importantly, and often ignored, our wives or partners are not spectators in our game, they are not mere supporters to our success, nor just people to be loved and protected, although that’s important, they ARE and should always be, full and equal partners in our relationships and marriages.

They have dreams, careers, ambitions, fantasies, friends, interests, hobbies, passions, values, principles…these must be fully supported in words and deeds.

I am proud to say that my soul mate Sva is an independent, assertive, successful woman who is living her life to the fullest, in fulfilment of her own dreams and desires.

Those men who succeed and are happy in their relationships or marriages will confirm the critical role played by their wives and partners. Maintaining and improving a relationship or marriage is a joint responsibility –it is not only the responsibility of women. In my career, my family life, my marriage and my role in society, 

I have truly benefited from the wise counsel, swift reprimand, stern warning, words of support and new ideas from my wife, Sva. Whenever she is in the limelight, I’ve learnt to be in the background, when she speaks, I’ve learnt to be silent and to listen, whenever she is down and frustrated I’ve learnt to be supportive, and whenever she has dreams or ambitions I’ve learnt to share in those dreams, whenever she has felt wronged, I’ve learnt to apologise and makeup. Whenever she gets upset…I’ve learnt to disappear…..

Sva took a decision to leave her promising professional career to become a Home maker, she is the leader of our family, the is the glue that keeps our family together and also is the common thread running through our friends, broader families and ensures that I have a completely full and fulfilled life outside my work at Standard bank. We also play to our strengths and complement one another’s weaknesses. 


Let’s talk about leaders that fall from grace, these examples go far and wide – from Markus at Steinhoff, to the examples we see in government, to sports stars like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods – how does a leader ensure, that over a career that in some cases could exceed 50 years you are never making a decision that could bring down the entire empire. 


This is one of the areas I’m most passionate about, how to guide young and aspirant leaders to stay the course. The story below, best illustrates the challenges we face as leaders and will face young and aspirant leaders in the future: 

“Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, there was a brilliant inventor, Daedalus. He had angered King Minos, the ruler of the island of Crete, and was imprisoned on the island. Desperate to flee the island, Daedalus used wax to build some wings for himself and his son, Icarus. Daedalus warned his son to fly at mid-height as the seawater would dampen the wings and the sun would melt them. Icarus heeded his father’s advice for a while, but then, as he soared higher and higher, he felt free. He felt he could fly higher than the birds. He was feeling so free and so savouring having so much power, fun and freedom that he ignored his father’s warning and flew close to the sun. As his father had warned, his wings melted, and Icarus plummeted into the sea and drowned, to his father’s sorrow.”

In the words of Professor Christensen, “We are all vulnerable to the forces and decisions that have derailed many.”  So, it’s important that each of us focus on the following 5 things to ensure that we all don’t fall as Icarus did: 

  • It is important that each of us to know ourselves, to stay true to the values and principles that define us. As the temptations of high Office, the trappings of power, the enticements of material riches and the seduction of fame confront you, you must have your values and principles as your anchor. 
  • You must know why you want to lead – is it the perks, power, ambition, prestige, money or any other narrow personal objective or do you lead as part of a larger purpose, a more noble undertaking and to serve towards reaching a huge goal. Those who lead towards only narrow personal goals are More susceptible to losing their way than those who lead towards a much more broader objective, but all of us are vulnerable. 
  • You have to ensure that you have a trusted circle of close advisers who are not intimidated by your position, power or wealth. I have benefited from this circle of advisors, my wife Sva is at the head of this circle of advisors and she gives regular advice – solicited or not. 
  • Finally, you have to create an environment where your staff, your team, your colleagues and all your stakeholders can give you feedback. 

I hope we can help the next generation to avoid the potholes that have tripped others before them. I hope to play the role of Daedalus to many young people in the same manner my father played in my life. 


Finally, I want to move on to talking about money. There’s a saying out there that says money enhances everything in your life – both the good and the bad. Whatever you spend your money on today, you’re going to spend more of it on the same things going forward. Tell us about the best and worst money decision you’ve made. 


We live in one of the most unequal countries on earth. Those of us who are corporate leaders are in the top 10% of society and when we talk about money we have to be conscious of our life of privilege in the midst of abject poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment. 

Against this background I would like to answer this question in this way: 

  • Worst Money decision: When I was young, I had just started a job in the public sector and I had a cheque Account; a credit card and revolving credit product. I was young, brash, naive and I think very stupid. I spent all my credit and my salary on lots of fun, partying, cars and clothes. Eventually I had to receive letters from the bank about how I conducted my accounts. A friend of mine, Loyiso Magqaza referred me to a branch manager in Pretoria, Dipalo Molebedi, who gave me a stern lecture and lessons on how to conduct my financial matters. I paid off all my debts and I have never looked back, and I have stuck to those valuable lessons. 
  • The best money decision: The best money decision I took was to use a significant amount of money, every year, to contribute towards those less fortunate. This has enabled me to contribute towards worthy causes such as bursaries, school equipment support, school’s rugby tournament, rural cricket tournament, leadership development programmes and poverty alleviation programmes. This is driven by a searching question by Prof Clay Christen, “How will you measure your life?” This challenges me, and those, like me, who have the resources and privilege to give up some of their money, time, skills, resources and expertise to help those less fortunate. 


Lastly, please share some advice you have for people working in environments where their income potential will exponentially change. There’s so many negative influences out there – and once hard work starts paying off and you mature, the definition of fun and what people do to relax changes – How do we ensure that the rewards for our success will not detract from building our future?


Money, Wealth, positions must never define who we are, how we determine the value others and how we define success. I have had a strong view that holds that we must work hard to reach for the skies, but at the same time, we must always ensure that we remain grounded. This means that the more successful we are, the more we have to make sure that we are grounded, humble and very careful. Each one of us, must always be careful of the negative impact of money, power, prestige and rewards on people’s behaviour. People who make making money, getting rich or acquiring a lot of material wealth may fall into the following traps: 

  • living a false life of parties, drugs and alcohol; 
  • Pursing money at all costs, which means that ethical considerations take a back seat; 
  • Surround themselves with new friends who are largely hangers on, psychopaths and free loaders; and 
  • Engage in grotesque conspicuous consumption, shamelessly flaunting their wealth. 

We have seen so many young people, with great talent, and a great future failing badly. All people remember was their suicide, drug overdose, alcoholism, gambling addiction, murder charge, or their involvement in corruption or bribery scam. We all ask, how could this happen to Tom, Megan, Sipho, Kholeka, Imraan, Koos, Marietjie, Quinton, Doreen, or Ranjeni. We must help young people to avoid the fate that has befallen others before.