By Collin Govender

Before everything, we are people. We are parents, children, siblings, and friends. We love, we learn, we laugh, we cry and we grow. My son turned 18 this January and this milestone in his beautiful young life turned into a moment of reflection for my own life, not least as a leader of an organisation as important as ours.

My son’s milestone birthday was poignant, as looking at me were the eyes of a young man about to embark on the first leg of his own journey, a leg that would for the first time rely more and more on his own decisions, his own lessons and his own discipline. And looking back over my own life and my formative years, I realised that I had not had the opportunity for a formal initiation to mark my transition into the real world, so to speak. Rather, I went through various life stages and milestones with my family, school and church and needed to piece together learnings through trial and error.

And so, looking at my young, energetic and excited son who had grown into a young man in the blink of an eye, I saw an opportunity to make a lasting impact in his life. It just so turned out to have a similarly profound effect on mine.

We decided that we would create an initiation retreat. He would choose six people he admired, people he looked up to. I said: “Son, I’m your dad, but I don’t know everything. There are other people who are far better than me at certain things, and others still who couldn’t be more different in every way possible. Choose any six people you admire.”

He did.

And so, we went away for two nights. On the first night of this formal orientation exercise, each person my son had chosen took time to tell their own stories to him, and share what they believed were important life lessons and pieces of wisdom that they’d encountered on their different journeys. On the second day, my son reflected with each mentor and distilled what he had learnt and what he would be taking with him into his future.

This retreat started as an intervention for my son but it became something far bigger; it became a source of healing for everyone involved. It was an orientation exercise. It drew out emotions in each of us. Ever proud dad, and fallible human, I wept. I wept tears of joy, awe, relief and release. One common theme in each mentor’s nuggets of wisdom was that life is hard and you must develop mental, physical and emotional preparedness for when things go wrong, which they inevitably will. The good times will be great, but no matter how difficult life’s challenges become, you must remain grounded, with solid values and coping mechanisms to identify hope and find solutions.

Golden gift

One of the mentors took the exercise a step further and committed to share a new learning with my son every week for a year, and then they’d build it into a book and bind it, a tangible resource. A golden gift of leadership.

And so, as I reflected on my son’s initiation into this world of beauty and hardship alike, I reflected on my role as his father, as well as my role as a leader at Altron Karabina. I looked at the management principles I have formed over the years, and like the six mentors, I reflected on core pillars that define a process of maintaining momentum in the face of challenges. When the going is good, it’s easy to excel without extra effort – “plain sailing” is a phrase that comes to mind. When teams encounter challenges, as they surely will, a very different set of actions and approach is required; sailing into the wind one has to constantly tack and adapt to the adverse conditions (to continue the sailing analogy).

Here are five core principles I have learnt and continually subscribe to in order to maintain a team’s, an organisation’s and even a country’s momentum despite the weather. These five core principles have played a large role in the impressive turnaround at Altron Karabina, to high double-digit growth and taking 30% market share from our competitors.

Seek counsel 

As we taught my son, there are always people who are better than you in different fields. Lean on them. Have people around you that you trust, that you look up to, and gain from their wisdom. Listen, learn, distil and commit to apply these lessons into the future – for both your life and work. There are treasure troves of experience all around us, not just among the super-elite crop of leaders, but also in many people who aren’t in the spotlight.

Build a structure and commit to it

When the wheels start wobbling and threaten to fall off entirely, accept what is happening. There is no place for denial in failure. Make a principled decision there and then, accept the failure, and face the consequences. This includes how you deal with these consequences and who you involve, but the key focus is on how you craft a way out of the challenging situation. This starts with structure: acknowledge the failure, analyse the lessons learnt and make changes in how things are done to ensure the same failure does not happen again. This requires discipline, which speaks to the next principle.

Execute and track

Sometimes people fall off the wagon when the going gets tough. Every now and then, people need to be reminded of their responsibilities to execute against a structure and system, and that this performance is tracked. A tactic I use is to identify an area that is proving to be a challenge and embed myself in that area for weeks — a deep dive so involved it irritates me and everyone else in the team. Once we’ve reached a rhythm, I exit. When I return a quarter or two later, there has been a shift in discipline that avoids further a deep dive and relieves the pressure encountered before.

This is not about developing a fear-based approach. On the contrary, it is a reminder that a system can come under pressure from anywhere, at any time, and the team must be in a position to respond to this pressure. Discipline is built by tracking execution, and then it becomes muscle memory. If the challenge reoccurs, the muscle memory ensures a team fires properly and the same mistakes aren’t repeated.

Cultivate hope

This may sound trite, but it is crucial. When challenges stretch the goodwill of everyone involved, it takes courage to find and nourish hope. We can become clinical and caught up in the actions of execution, but it is vital to celebrate the good, find the people performing exceptionally despite the circumstances, and celebrate them. The alternative is a team that becomes a pariah to the organisation, and this situation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humans respond to hope. I respond to hope. We all respond to hope. And so, when times are tough, make an effort to celebrate people and quality work.

Keep the vision alive

Continue to talk about your vision. In our case, it’s delivering innovation that matters, making a meaningful impact for customers, having a societal impact and creating opportunities for people to grow in the business; making a difference in the country by building up skills and creating opportunities for people to participate in the economy. Make sure everyone around you buys into the vision, believes the vision. It must become a compass for the organisation, a North Star if you will.

As I watch my son move forward and grow and build his life, I realise that sometimes we all need a reminder of the fundamentals that underpin growth. An 18-year-old boy’s initiation taught me that failure is certain, but if approached in a constructive manner, the potential for growth and success is high. The key to overcoming failure and growing lies in maintaining momentum when the walls cave in. This isn’t easy; it requires preparedness — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This preparedness arrives as a result of counsel, structure, discipline, hope and clear vision.

Altron Karabina is back. To get here, we needed a governance overhaul, from how we ran projects, to how we dealt with challenges, to how we engaged underperforming teams. Today we enjoy a new culture of hyper-transparency and agility, and this culture has made a very tangible difference in the business’s performance.

This is how we went from a loss-making position to where we are today. Yes, the stellar turnaround will be reflected in the high double-digit growth numbers that will be published. But in many ways, financials are a lagging indicator. We look at NPS scores with our customers, our employee engagement scores — in fact any indicator that addresses the real, lived experience of day-to-day operations, and they’re also up in double digits, an indicator of a healthy ecosystem that produced great financial results which come from taking 30% market share from competitors.

Collin Govender is the Managing Director of Altron Karabina

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