A conversation with Zama Titi – CEO and Founder BiD-Me, Managing Partner, Muluma Process Engineering


ZT: I would like to start by thanking you for choosing me to be one of the young leaders get to pick your brain in matters that face our people, nation and families.

LM: The future is now, it is people like you who are shaping that future, pushing the boundaries and opening up new avenues for growth and development. I am honored to have a deep discussion with you on a range of issues of mutual interest. I hope that it will enrich your personal and professional journey. 

ZT: The industrial complex under the current 3rd industrial dispensation frowns on competition and goes as far as stifling it under the banner of “market consolidation”, seeing how technology, or to be more direct, cheap and widely accessible technology can undo this consolidation, how are corporates to deal with this? Do you feel they are ready?

LM: I think that the environment is very fluid, there are no one dimensional solutions. In my view, there is scope for large global players to consolidate their power, buy out other players and create these global behemoths who have economies of scale and scope to dominate in their chosen market segments. These players such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Alipay, Samsung, Huawei, etc have used their specific advantages to shape the market and will continue to do more even in emerging markets such as South Africa. They have some significant advantages such as, intimate customer data, enormous geographic reach, advanced technologies, a war chest of capital to grow further, and billions of customers who are using their products and services. The challenges they are facing and will face some more are – the new robust compliance and regulatory regimes, cyber crime at a massive scale, push back by clients on data usage and the current trade wars. They cannot be underestimated.

On the other side of the scale, you have many small local players, who are nimble, agile, and have no legacy systems or corporate bureaucracy. These niche tech companies, particularly in financial services, the Fintechs, are challenging the current players, offering products and services in a cost efficient manner through the use of digital technologies. Their key advantages are new digital technologies, passionate knowledge workers, an agile working culture, an innovation mindset and speed to market. Their challenges are sometimes lack of capital, access to markets, limited distribution channels and sometimes the lack commerciality. These are players to watch.

There are also local corporates who have invested a lot in digital technologies, have huge customer bases, have deep market knowledge, who are changing their foundational platforms, and have huge customer data. Some of these corporates have broadened their business to new markets in their regions and have adapted their culture and management practices to embrace agile ways of work. Their vulnerability is stringent regulations, access to top talent, cadence of delivery, legacy systems and intense competition from the large global players and the nimble local players. These players should not be underestimated.

So Zama, if I look at all these players, they will use their critical and distinct advantages to compete and fight for competitive advantage in the market. The battle fir the soul of the customer and for the overall business of corporate and commercial clients rages on. 

Smart corporates will soon realize that there is ample scope to partner with the large global players to benefit from their scale and large R&D capabilities whilst also partnering with small tech players (eg Fintechs) to take advantage of their new technologies and agile ways of work. In my own experience, I have worked with large global players as partners whilst also partnering with smaller and nimble players. The ability to collaborate where necessary, partner when the occasion demands it and competing on the core issues is a huge skill to master. It requires corporate leaders to learn to be ambidextrous yet be very clear on the non negotiables in strategy.

As for the fairness or not of the competition, it is the customer who will decide, sometimes large global players use their scale and market dominance to bring quality at a better price for clients, in other instances, a small player uses the latest technologies to disrupt a market and the large players are left with huge capital investments and infrastructure with no new clients, whilst in other cases, local corporates use their market knowledge, superior management and customer relationship to defend their turf. There is a battle out there Zama, and players should be allowed to use their market advantages, in case there is abuse or unfairness, the competition authorities will step in.

So game on, let the best players compete and win!

ZT: Young people between the age of 25 -29 were born in 1990 to 1994, do not have brand affinity, because the world they were born into has an attention span of 2/3 months at best, and your brand is as relevant as a BMW model that gets a face lift in 6 months after release. Knowing this truth, and understanding it because you have 2 teenagers under your roof, how do you see Companies surviving this? Specifically because the leaders of such companies are even older than I am at 39 and have lost touch with the 2 generational gap? Will the bi-annual off sight strategy session suffice? 

LM: The world is changing very fast, the millennials are already dominating the thinking about the future for many companies. My strong view is that you are likely to have an inter generational mix in both your customers and your staff base – the key is not about the domination of one generation by another, but how one taps into the insights and lived experiences of all the generations in your base of customers and among your teams. The smart utilization of inter generational knowledge, insights and perspectives will give companies a massive advantage and a broader inter generational customer reach. This will also help develop the best solutions for all clients and all generations.

In my own environment I work with some of the brightest young people, they have challenged the status quo, created new products and services; they have done this in partnership with other colleagues, who are older and more mature, who in their day, were also young. My role as a leader is to create an enabling environment for all these generations to thrive and succeed, to compete for roles and projects, to grow and develop in an ever changing world.

A young and brash leader, with no regard for existing customers, or who disrespects institutional memory or who ignores mature or old clients will not succeed in a multi generational customers and staff orientated organisation. Equally, an older, mature and stubborn leader, who is set in his or her ways, who is not in favor of change will not succeed. Such a Leader, who silences the young, ignores their advice, suppress dissent and marginalizes young people will have a dying organisation. In addition to this, an organisation that does not take note of and develop products and services for the emerging youth will find itself becoming irrelevant.

In my own career, I was appointed into leadership roles at a very young age. I had to work with and lead people who were more knowledgeable and experienced than I was. It required a lot of humility to lead and learn at the same time; it required a lot of emotional maturity to embrace and respect the traditions and practices of the organisation while I was driving change and lastly, it required a lot of discernment to retain the majority of people I found whilst making a few key appointments to help accelerate the change.

Now in my more mature years, I have the majority of people I work with and lead being younger than me. It requires an open mind to enable young people to take the lead, to build relationships with older colleagues and to challenge them with exiting projects.

In the end, regardless of age, the key people who succeed as entrepreneurs, as colleagues and as leaders have some key qualities:

⁃ Treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of race, age, color, status, religion or station in life;
⁃ Are open to new ideas regardless of where they come from; 
⁃ Are willing to influence and to be influenced ; 
⁃ Are always willing to see value from a diversity of views

Organisations need diversity, it’s not a nice to have, it’s an absolute business imperative.

ZT: In your personal view, do you feel and think corporate SA is doing enough to stock pile young talent, and accessing it enough to test how relevant they still are in 2019 to 2023? Are we serious enough as corporate SA in Re-Engineering our current business models to see our ROI’s into 2030? 

LM: I think most businesses grapple with this. Corporate Sourh Africa is not homogeneous, there are companies that have embraced young people, where young talent have made huge inroads and have substantially changed the direction and course of those businesses. Across the African continent young leaders are emerging who are taking on larger and larger responsibilities. We need to do much more and create more opportunities for young people either as entrepreneurs to run their own businesses or to lead large corporates in key roles. 

In my own organisation, when people such as myself and Sim Tshabalala took on huge executive roles, were were “ the first or the youngest” in what we did, but these days, there are more young executives responsible for large portfolios. I am always so proud to see these young colleagues growing and many more are coming up through the ranks. In my own team, I have exciting talent, many layers down, who are going to be household names in South African corporates or they are people who will run very successful businesses. Across the African continent, I have worked with amazing young leaders, who are already taking up key roles.

Those companies that have not made these moves, who have not embraced a vibrant and diverse future will be left behind, they will suffer the fate of those companies that ran out of road, such as Kodak, Nokia, Xerox, Bockbuster,Yahoo, IBM, Blackberry, Motorola, Hitashi, Macy’s, Radio shack etc

Rahul Gupta describes the last moments of Nokia: 

“ During the press conference to announce NOKIA being acquired by Microsoft, Nokia CEO ended his speech saying this “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”. Upon saying that, all his management team, himself included, teared sadly.”

Nokia, like all these companies were great, admired and trailblazers of their time, the world changed too fast around them, their competitors were too powerful, but most importantly, they missed out on the opportunity to learn and change.

Gupta concludes, “ They missed out on changing, and thus they lost the opportunity at hand to make it big. Not only did they miss the opportunity to earn big money, they lost their chance of survival.”

ZT: Lincoln you have been blessed with an above average education and as a former speaker of the national education department, and knowing this truth, do you think education is playing hard & bold enough to see to the needs of SA in 10/20 years to come?

LM: I think there are four key stories of our education journey over the last 20 years, which have a bearing on our future for the next 20 years:

⁃ we have millions of young people who have very little education, have no jobs or job prospects, may be involved in crime or gangsterism or may be idle at home. This is one of our society’s biggest failures. We are well endowed with a young population, this could have given us a huge advantage, but when a significant portion of our young people are not employed, are not involved in any meaningful work, have no dreams or ambitions – this becomes a huge source of risk for the country. We all have to double our efforts to create either working opportunities or educational experiences for many of these young people so that they can improve themselves whilst contributing to the economy and South Africa’s socio economic development.

⁃ The second story is about how long it has taken for disadvantaged schools to produce consistently good results. The challenges have ranged from poor school management, teacher commitment, community apathy, student absenteeism, lack resources, lack of political will and administrative incompetence. What is wonderful now is that an increasing number of pupils, teachers, former students, sponsors and administrators are starting to make a difference in these schools. An example was my old High school, which ironically expelled me when I was 18, they have managed to turn around their performance from horrible results in 2017 to a great turnaround in 2018. It has been a joy for me to put back into this school and other schools where I studied. This improvement came from Herculean efforts by students, teachers, parents and the governing body. The challenge, we all face is that the bulk of our students are in these schools, in townships, villages and farms – if the bulk of these students are not prepared for university life, or working life or an entrepreneurial life, we would have missed a great opportunity. As a product of these schools, I know that it is possible, with a lot of tenacity and resilience, to come from these schools to be at the top of the private or public sector. We need to motivate many of these kids and role model to them what is possible. This is so vital for South Africa’s future.

⁃ the third story is that the bulk of private schools, former Model C schools and top government schools still produce students who are of the highest calibre. These schools have made sure that South Africa continues to be at the highest level of development in the world with a fast changing student demographic over the last 20 years. The four challenges they face are : access to quality education for more academically deserving pupils from poor communities; the demographics of the teaching and administrative staff are not in line with the country’s demographics or changes in the student, the culture and ethos largely remains a dominant Anglo Saxon culture with assimilation being the norm for other cultures and lastly, the ability to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution is a huge challenge. 

⁃ The last story has an impact on the whole schooling system, this is about how we can all be creative and innovative in the delivery of education using new technologies, how we can create better access to quality education to more young people, how we can find technologies to disrupt the current education systems and how we can compete in a digital world with new skills and competencies.

These are intractable problems, they require the collective wisdom of all players, creative solutions beyond the traditional dogmas and an open mind to different methods of access and funding of education. South Africa will be best placed if it invests ( not only in monetary terms) in our education system, as such an investment will give us a more better and sustainable return than our mineral riches. Our private schools, are still doing exceptionally well, but they remain inaccessible to so many because of the prohibitive costs. 

For South Africa to do well, all these four stories must converge into a much more happy ending. Our children are our future, we dare not fail them.

ZT: Lincoln you have been an executive for the better part of the last decade in Banking in particular, and have travelled the length and breadth of this globe, and chaired numerus executive committees of people of different ethnicity, gender and creed. Do you think corporate SA is doing enough to welcome dissent of thought and creativity? If yes, please substantiate, if not, please do so as well.

LM: I have always seen myself as a charge agent, I’ve always championed various causes throughout my career. These ideas were mostly at odds with the dominant thinking or the prevailing view. This resulted in clashes, debates, fights and conflicts. What I did not have a lot of, at the time, were older people who could guide and advice me. Fortunately those few who were there saw the potential in me, they guided, coached, cajoled, nudged and persuaded me to have a broader lens with which to see the world. I learnt some key things that have helped me on my journey and made me to win more battles, and be involved in less conflict. Some of those key lessons are :

⁃ always make sure that your ideas have been tested and scrutinized by people beyond those who agree with you or are close to you;
⁃ It is always advisable to seek a coalition or broad support for ideas or the change you seek;
⁃ The change or idea or project must always be more important than the proponent or advocate – sometimes we are too married to our own ideas that we lose all objectivity;
⁃ Understand the interests of other parties, what the points of converge or conflicts are; and how far you can push the envelope;
⁃ Always choose the forum for a battle very carefully, come prepared with different scenarios and possible outcomes;
⁃ Be firm on principle but flexible on strategy and tactics. 

Many corporates are steeped in tradition, many of the people in the management ranks have come through the system, it helps to know their mindset and work through the changes. The most important thing I have carried with me through my professional journey is that leadership is about influence – what is your ability to influence others to follow your course. As I travel the length and breath of our continent, you meet people who have their own views, culture, practices, traditions etc, your ability to influence them to change, to adopt to a new way, to change course or to embrace a new strategy depends on winning the hearts and minds of people from the boardroom to the frontline.

Over the years I’ve learnt to be more harder on myself, to challenge myself more on how I can become an even better influencer, it’s always easy to blame others, it’s more tough to introspect, see what you could have done differently or better.

So indeed Corporate South Africa or Corporate Africa or public sector South Africa or public sector Africa are hard nuts to crack. The question you have to ask is how did those who succeeded crack this, how were they able to get their ideas embraced, strategy accepted or change adopted? What can you learn from their experiences? 

Lastly, Zama, my view of leadership, is sometimes the same as a being a music DJ. The DJ compiles what they see as the best songs, the latest songs, or the most popular songs. If he or she plays the music, and the crowd does not dance for the first 15 minutes; he or she has to change the music; if after another 15 minutes, they still do not dance, he or she has to change the music some more; but if they still do not dance for the next set of songs; the crowd is likely to change the DJ. The DJ can protest that the crowd is ignorant, or they needed to give him or her more time- that will not help; the only two things that can help is for the DJ to learn from the next DJ why they could get the crowd on their feet or the DJ can go to another party and prove him or herself there. In the end, leadership is about influence, can your ideas win in the arena; can your product win in the market; can your service be accepted by clients; and can you persuade others to journey with you. So the question you have to ask yourself, can you make the people dance? 

Those inside corporates will have to use their influence to change things in their sphere of influence whilst those with ideas to pitch to corporates have to influence such corporates to adopt their ideas. Hostility is a factor, cultural divide might be an aspect, but the passion of entrepreneurs should enable them to push through the resistance. As corporates change, these boundaries become less and less and even in an environment of an equal playing field; influence will be key to win.

One of the examples I like to mention is that of Jazz with Standard Bank. There is now a partnership between Peter Tladi and the Standardbank Group. This is a relationship that has been growing for the last 22 years. Imagine what it took for Peter Tladi, as an entrepreneur to pitch the ideas to Standardbank, how long it took for the decision to be made, what the final product looked like. Then think about the changes over the last two decades. What ideas did Peter Tladi pitch over the years, what discussions have taken place within Standard bank? Are there lessons to be learnt from this and other examples of such partnerships within Corporate South Africa.

ZT: Discipline is often the character trait we as young leaders lack in modern Africa and battle with the most. We are bombarded with the world of NOW, we dislike building anything over a sustained period of time and treacherously take short cuts to attain instant riches and stardom, we face overly connected world our parents never experience before us. How would you help us as young leaders harness and see the benefits of this difficult characteristic in a world that demonises it at every turn?

LM: I think the most important thing is for us to accept that we come from different generations, we therefore have different expectations and experiences as we have lived through different time periods. There are certain disciplines that are universal and that are timeless – these include 

⁃ diligence 
⁃ Commitment 
⁃ Professionalism 
⁃ Integrity 
⁃ Teamwork 
⁃ Honesty 

These are foundational values I try and instill in my own children, young people in my family and young people I influence in my life. What I try not to do is to reorientate them towards my perspectives shaped by my times; the key is to use these principles and foundational values to deal with today’s challenges. Let me illustrate this through an example I often use with young people at my place of work:

I normally ask them to give me an indication of how many are on social media. Almost 99,99% will indeed confirm that they are on social media. I would ask them about the importance of their profile picture and they normally score it either as a 9/10 in a score of 10 in terms of importance. I then point out that people spend a considerable amount of time and effort on their profile picture, because it is what they want the world to see, they highlight their most important attributes, and hide the least endearing things about themselves. I always ask them to think of these introspective questions :

⁃ how much difference is there between the “ real you” and the “ profile picture you “. The bigger that gap, the most challenging it is for you to stay real or grounded as you may be expected to move more and more towards the social media persona rather than the real you. 

⁃ what is the profile picture that you have at work, or in your business or among colleagues? Do you spend as much time working on how you are perceived by your colleagues, your staff, your peers or bosses or stakeholders- if you spend less, what picture do people have about you? 

⁃ Lastly, do you know what can tempt you, what can destroy you that destroyed other talented people before you? As we hear more people being affected by scandals, corporates being caught in corporate malfeasance and public officials and government ministers implicated in corruption – what could affect you, what do you have to worry about, can you stay ethical and incorruptible?

My sense is that young people face challenges we never faced, they have opportunities we never had, they communicate in methods we never did and they relate to others in different ways than we did.

We need to use the timeless values and principles to help them to make their own decisions- ours is to guide, counsel, and illuminate the way, what we must avoid is to lecture, to be sanctimonious or to be condescending in our approach. We have an opportunity to influence by treating them with respect and to engage them. 

ZT: I often see and watch how Americans, Cubans, Indians, Chinese and Russians revel and work with an unparallel self of national pride in everything they do, and wonder at how can we start to rebuild this lost national attribute as a people? In your perspective, how did we lose it and how can we instil it? Because I think and believe it a cornerstone for national cohesion.

LM: Nation building is a delicate, deliberate and long term process. The foundations of our nascent nation were laid by our founding fathers who boldly declared in the Freedom Charter in 1955 that “ South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. This was the basis for the non racialism and non sexism espoused by the liberation movement- Nelson Mandela and many of our leaders worked tirelessly to build a national identity based on
our diversity. This is not an easy journey but us further complicated by the following factors :

⁃ huge inequalities that largely follow a racial pattern ;
⁃ Apartheid spatial development that has constrained interactions between people of different races long after democracy;
⁃ Lack of leadership across all groups to continue the legacy of our founding fathers;

Close to 25 years into our democracy, we have not forged the common identity nor the national unity we crave. The growing inequality, the advent of social media, increasing racist comments and attacks create fertile ground for mistrust and anxiety.

For the sake of our children, and because we have seen civil
strife in polarized societies- we have to acknowledge –

⁃ the justifiable high evils of expectations from Black people; 
⁃ understandable high levels of anxiety from White people; 
⁃ A worry trend of growing tribalism and provincialism; 
⁃ A sense of exclusion by Indian and Coloured communities; and 
⁃ Growing tribalism and ethnic conflicts 

We need leaders, in different spheres, to work hard towards the realization of the South African national identity. There is no Mandela anymore to serve as that glue to keep us together- each one of us have to play our part, instill pride in our country, help to shape our common identity, promote tolerance and embrace diversity. 

ZT: In your more than half a century of life Lincoln, you have been blessed with an above average education, 21 years of a treasured marriage with Sva, extra-ordinary professional carrier and those beautiful 3 kids. What is next for Lincoln? Dare I say, how do you top this? or in the words of the proverbial “HR Manager”, where do you see yourself in 5 years?

LM: I am at a very beautiful stage of my personal and professional life, I am grateful for all the blessings and the road I’ve travelled. I have no particular career ambitions or any designs on specific roles or jobs, the things I wish for for the next few years of my life: 

• better quality time with Sva and the children; 
• Watching my children grow, develop and prosper in their personal journeys; 
• To make a huge impact on leadership development across the African continent with specific emphasis on young leaders and entrepreneurs and lastly
• To continue to contribute to community uplift where I come from in the areas of education, sports, youth development and poverty alleviation.

I am content with life, I hope to continue to make a difference, and leave the world a better place than how I found it.

ZT: Thank you Sandlalanga for availing yourself, and affording me this great opportunity.

LM: It is my pleasure Mthembu, I have really enjoyed our deep and engaging conversation, I hope many young people and entrepreneurs will benefit from it. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.