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Rolland Simpi Motaung is a founder and facilitator at Trymph Education, an education company that offers private tutorials to tertiary students and business consultancy. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, education, creative arts, media and gender studies particularly from an African context.

Take Charge- Life Lessons on the Road to CEO

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Author:                Nyimpini Mabunda
Title:                     Take Charge- Life Lessons on the Road to CEO
Publishers:          Jonathan Ball (2022)

Adulting – that illusive place our parents didn’t whisper enough tips about – forces a reflection on past regrets. ‘Should haves’ and ‘could haves’ rang loud at thoughts of my previous employer’s offer to be part of the marketing team. Caught in-between career expectations and entrepreneurial ambitions along with a lack of follow-through all held back a career-accelerating opportunity. Mr Motaung: Country Marketing Manager would have been embossed on the corner office door by now at this multinational organisation. Lack of experience was not a concern for my then-astute employers, but potential for growth within the company was their intention. They saw a young, curious and idea-generating sales agent aiming for top-floor positions.

It is this belief in someone’s potential despite their experience that Nyimpini Mabunda speaks of in his new book Take Charge – Life Lessons of the Road to CEO. Currently, the CEO at General Electric in Southern Africa, Mabunda’s premise is on the importance of leveraging one’s skills and experiences in climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Take Charge is not only targeted at working professionals growing their careers, but to those aiming for executive managerial positions. Mabunda’s practical advice highlights how employees and aspirational executives need to always spot career-building opportunities; learn from setbacks; mentor talent and how corporate leaders; for self and others – can deal with mental wellness in the workplace.

Taking charge of your career development.

Madunda’s words are kryptonite to employees doubting their abilities or suffering from ‘imposter syndrome.’ He offers a brutal reminder that no one will save us from drowning in stale career waters but ourselves. Taking charge of your career development for instance; involves an employee proactively asking solution-oriented questions, while also thinking a level or two ahead/above, in order for top management to realize you have outgrown your present role, argues the author. Believing that his first degree in Business Management was not enough to allow flexibility, the author’s self-growth was also supplemented by on-the-job-training programs early in his career. He further pursued an MBA and leveraged on the relationships with managers from different departments to further develop skills around finance, supply chain and public sector engagements thereby creating a diverse skill set.

Generalist vs. Specialist skill set.

Mabunda promotes a student mindset, something certainly relatable. As a facilitator and entrepreneur, acquiring new knowledge about my surroundings is crucial for business growth and success. One looks at things through a young student’s eye to stay on the path of new discovery. “Naivete can lead to breakthroughs”. Asking basic questions assists with finding simplicity in complex situations. Once one is able to break down the complexity, re-engineering and innovation may take place to generate better solutions.  At the peak of his career, Mabunda was a generalist of note having worked as a strategist, marketer and general manager. He has experiences in consumer goods, financial services, real estate along with transcontinental involvement in Africa and Europe. He believes that those with multiple skill sets applied across several industries – locally and internationally – will be best suited to sustain their careers in the face of change. In other words, having personal dynamic capabilities ensures agility and adaptability in various situations.

Western and African corporate leadership styles

Western leadership style has been described as promoting individual achievement while African leadership style is associated with values of Ubuntu and promotes collectivism – something also found in Asian corporate leadership. In a country still locked in the jaws of a Westernized education system, driven by American and European business textbooks, or potential corporate leaders usually sent on executive trainings overseas, how can we define a pure African corporate leadership style? Or can there be a combination of the two approaches? Based on examination of 42 senior leaders and executives working in multinational companies in four Sub-Saharan African countries, a study found that Western and African leadership styles can be blended to form new paradigm relevant to the current environment. Conducted by Nelson Mandela University Business School in 2017, the study essentially argues that Western pragmatism and African humanism recognizes that factual and logical approach can co-exist with human-focused forms of leadership without compromising the bottom line. Having worked in global corporations such as Procter & Gamble, Vodacom and Diageo, Mabunda’s leadership show elements of both leadership styles.

In the pursuit of the company’s strategic goals, how then do leaders find a balance between maximizing profitability and overall corporate sustainability that caters for various stakeholder needs entrenched in an Africanist approach? Strategic decisions for instance during a turnaround strategy, can be difficult to carry out due to the tricky balance of company’s bottom line and employees’ livelihoods. As seen in companies such as South African Airways, MTN, ABSA and now recently with Twitter, such strategic pursuit can bring distress to stakeholders particularly employees. Some leaders may even be labeled “sell outs” or “capitalist puppets” by unions and former employees as criticism of them forgetting their ‘African values.’  A rural boy at heart, the author argues that a corporate leader must consult vigorously (shout out to Cyril Ramaphosa) and be a good listener with the aim of always empowering people. “Despite my inclination to be a maverick leader, I strongly recommend consultation as a means of improving decision-making.”

Embrace all experiences

The structuring of key points in some chapters tends to jump quickly to the next thought without full exploration. Sub-heading for instance would have served as a breather to organize the author’s thoughts better.  For instance on one chapter: A Giant Leap Uganda on page 72, the author opens the discussion on stakeholder management, however deliberates on product innovation at then employer Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL). This could lead to confusion for some reader and furthermore misplacing of the author’s point. Despite these minor shortfalls, Take Charge makes a tremendous contribution to the African corporate leadership literature as also seen in similar texts such as Mteto Nyathi’s Betting on a Darkie: Lifting the Corporate Game (2019), Lincoln Mali’s Blazing a Trail- Lessons for African leadership (2022) and Patrice Motsepe: An Appetite for Disruption (2022) by Janet Smith.

The book teaches us that career advancement is not always linear – but in some ways, it is in our hands. It is essential for one to embrace all experiences and lessons no matter how mundane; including selling swimming pool equipment or door-to-door, direct sales of selling SIMs cards or chasing commissions as was in my case.

Although I did not achieve my marketing managerial title, I was able to leverage on the skills learned from my previous employers including a pursuit of my entrepreneurial goals. Mabunda undoubtedly exhibits most of key traits such as emotional intelligence, strategic thinking and absorptive capacity to be expected in a corporate leader. He was patient in his eventual journey and process of becoming a CEO. A valuable takeaway on how we need to “slow down to move fast” in pursuit of our career ambitions. Ultimately, to avoid redundancy, self-improvement and self-disruption are needed for career prosperity and adaptability, especially in a post-pandemic context.

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