#4 Summer 2015

Beyond help


Eskom’s State of the System address at Megawatt Park. 2015. CEO Tshediso Matona addresses the media.
The unprecedented crisis at Eskom could have been avoided if there was a culture of asking for help in South African business.

John F. Kennedy, one of America’s most charismatic and visionary presidents, once said that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. Being in charge does not always translate to knowing everything about the company or the business world. Leaders should therefore always strive to learn new things and be prepared to ask for help.

The current crisis at Eskom and other troubled parastatals would arguably not have happened if a culture of asking for help existed in South Africa.

Leaders can achieve more by asking for help. As the African proverb goes, “okuhlula amadoda kuyabikwa”, which, loosely translated, means that what is a challenge to the individual is declared to the community. And often, reaching out could spell the difference between success and failure.

Asking for help is something that is gaining traction in top businesses around the world. In order to be more effective, leaders and managers in many organisations commonly make the most of coaching, executive education and enrolling in postgraduate programmes in economics and management. According to a 2013 survey by Stanford Business School, almost one third of global CEOs are in a coaching process, while 100% of those surveyed said that they would be receptive to outside advice and assistance.

But this does not seem to be a generally accepted culture among South African leaders.

The problem is that asking for help in South Africa is generally perceived as a sign of weakness or ignorance, implying that someone can’t get the job done on their own. A further hurdle to asking for help could be the fear of incurring a social debt. After receiving help some would ask “What do I owe this person now?”

The reasons could be numerous and some possibilities could be that given the toxic and complex nature of who gets to lead some organisations in South Africa – especially the troubled state-owned enterprises – that this has bred this inward looking culture rather than outward looking and leading and thinking what is best for the organisation and the community.

Therefore seeking help could be perceived as a sign of not being good enough or weak or not properly qualified … after all, we have seen recently people claiming to have held certain qualifications only for it to have been found that this was not the case.

Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, writing in the Ivey Business Journal, says that one of the reasons that people in business struggle to ask for help is that in most cultures, once a person has grown to adulthood and is healthy, the norm is that she or he can manage on their own. “To ask for help puts the person ‘one down’ and makes that person temporarily vulnerable,” Schein says.

But, Schein adds that the leader of the future will have to both seek and give help because all the functions that make up the typical modern organisation have become technically complex. “The impact of this growing complexity is that a leader, whether the CEO or a project manager or the chair of a task force, will know less than most of his or her subordinates about how a specific task is to be accomplished.”

Eskom is the latest casualty in a long list of state-owned enterprises in South Africa that have been hard hit by crippling management problems and could have done well to heed this advice. Not only is the company’s leadership facing an uncertain future, the power utility is in the midst of an unprecedented power crisis that is hurting South Africa’s economy and, in many respects, that of the continent at large.

Rating agency Moody’s warned that the investigation into Eskom and the suspension of four top executive earlier this year were “credit negative” for the utility, as they dented investor sentiment. And Standard & Poor (S&P) downgraded Eskom’s long-term credit rating to junk following the suspensions, saying it had less confidence in the power utility’s corporate governance arrangements and its stand-alone credit profile. Nothing has shifted since then to change these perceptions.

Other state-owned companies that have in recent times struggled to execute their mandate and generate revenue, largely due to management troubles include South African Airways, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which has debatably not known stability in many years, and Telkom.

Undoubtedly, the intricate social and political milieu under which the management and leaders of these state-owned entities operate often complicates their work. But not asking for help is further exacerbating the situation.

Leaders need to be comfortable and not feel threatened by bringing in valuable skills from outside of the organisation. There is also no harm in bringing in the private sector to partner with them on some key projects, ensuring that they are finished on time and on budget.

Education institutions have a major part to play here, especially the business schools that teach and coach the managers and leaders of these institutions. We need to equip them with skills and moral character based on solid values, to ensure that when they assume leadership positions they have been exposed to what might happen as a result of poor decision-making and the pursuit of poor strategies – including not being able to ask for help.

Schein argues that offering, asking for and/or receiving help are disruptions of the normal flow of the social order and must therefore be handled with care if the help is to be helpful – especially in situations that are hierarchical. Could it be especially difficult for government to ask for help?

“The pitfalls of helping are inherent in any relationship, especially in a relationship governed by a hierarchy. The higher-ranking person ordinarily finds it difficult to ask for help from a subordinate, not for personality reasons but because the social order defines it as abnormal, that is for the higher-up to need help from the subordinate. It might be considered a loss of face for the boss to go to the employee for help, so it is unlikely to be done even when necessary”.

But Schein offers advice to leaders: “As the world becomes more complex, networked, interdependent, multi-cultural and ideologically diverse, you will increasingly find yourself in situations where you will need help from subordinates, and in which subordinates will ask for help in areas where you are not an expert. To manage either situation effectively, you will have to develop a degree of humility and the process skills. Whatever else you think about or do, do not oversimplify the helping process. Rather, recognise how complex the helping relationship is, especially across hierarchical boundaries.”

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