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The Big Small Business Show

Tracey talks about leadership on Business Day TV

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Episode 1 (9:48 min)

In this episode we discuss how, as a leader, you can effectivley engage with your staff.

 

Episode 2 (9:49 min)

In this episode we discuss the effect of the "over managed, under-led" phenomenon, its detrimental effect on engagement and the discrepancy between what science knows/shows and what business does.

Bernard Swanepoel

Bernard Swanepoel

My Story:

I was out at a social function a couple of years ago when a banking type guy came up to me and said: ‘You look familiar…didn’t you run Goldfields?” I laughed and replied, “Well I tried my damdest to…but no!”

I guess the hostile Harmony/Goldfields bid that I initiated during my tenure as Harmony’s CEO will stick in most people’s minds. But there’s a lot more to my story than that!

I grew up in the mining town of Rustenburg. My dad was an artisan and we too as a family fell victim to the retrenchments that came with the boom or bust commodity cycle.

At age 17 I applied for a bursary to study further. Mining Engineering was the only discipline that would have me – my fate was sealed. As a young graduate on a Gencor bursary I had to work my way up the ranks. I still remember nightshift at Grootvlei where the rats and cockroaches kept me company.  Good training for the corporate world!

I was a shift boss and Mine Overseer “for about 5 minutes” according to some of my died–in-the-wool mining colleagues. Then it was Underground Manager, Mining Manager and General Manager at Beatrix and shortly after that Managing Director of Harmony.

The assets I seemed to land up on were never “pretty” (except for my short stint at Beatrix which was a “prettier” asset than most). No, I was destined for the “dogs “ of the industry – financially struggling, marginal gold mines. Can you imagine being appointed to run a mine which had as its strategy “Closure with dignity” (Harmony at the time I was appointed).

This made life interesting. Low grades and tight margins tended to ripen the issues to boiling points. There was no money to throw at the problem…so we had to figure out ways to survive by struggling together.

Life got more interesting in the 80’s with the advent of the unions in the shape of the NUM.  For us “snot koppies “ (the media more politely called us “young Turks”) this was simply our new reality – but the older managers left in droves creating a huge vacuum, which we seized as an opportunity.

We were young, idealistic and desperate enough to do whatever it took to make mines profitable. Necessity forced us to find ways to dismantle the 100-year-old mining hierarchy; lead people rather than command them, and convince them that nothing is impossible. We had to make everyone at Harmony, from underground worker to general manager feel like they had a vital role to play in the Harmony story, that we couldn’t do it without them…and what’s more “are we having fun yet?”

It wasn’t always an easy sell – our strategy regularly required tough decisions (due to the restructuring needed to save the assets and at least some jobs). We worked hard as an executive team to convert our strategic rationale into a compelling and authentic story. A story that rang as true in high-rises of New York as it did in the change houses of Welkom.

In those days a miner in Welkom and a Fund Manager in New York could probably quote the so-called “Harmony Way” with equal degrees of eloquence.  What worked? We kept it simple; and we created specific innovative communication/internal marketing channels, which reached every employee.
I truly believe that the fact that the top team owned the story, and relentlessly communicated it and lived it was the key ingredient which enabled us to transform Harmony from a single-lease, loss making operation into the worlds’ fifth largest gold producer.
Being Harmony’s CEO for 12 years was whirlwind of adrenaline (25 acquisitions in 7 years). Mining is not for sissies! I left at 45 (still young by some standards!) keen to move beyond corporate life, and spend my time on things that really matter (and because I was gatvol of wearing shoes!).  In 2008, I formed To The Point, and subsequently THINKspiration with likeminded “corporate revolutionaries”.

Am I having fun yet? No doubt! Now, more than ever, as corporates face legitimacy crises they need to “think differently” about leadership, communication but especially about strategy:  it’s an exercise in futility if no one knows about it…even worse if chaos reigns because no one understands it. Distilling the corporate strategy into a compelling story that’s authentic, simple and that all stakeholders (especially employees) can latch their personal dreams onto is not a nice-to-have anymore. It’s what every business needs to survive.  It’s what I am passionate about. I’ve been there, done it, learned a lot (and got the t-shirt!).

The official stuff:

  • BSc (Min Eng) and BCom (Hons) degrees
  • Started my career with Gengold in 1982 which culminated in my appointment as general manager of Beatrix Mines in 1993
  • After joining Randgold in 1995 as MD of the Harmony mine, I was appointed as CEO of Harmony until 2007
  • I am a non-executive board member of Sanlam and ARM and Founding Partner of To The Point Growth Specialists
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