Brian Dames – CEO of Eskom, Part 2

As mentioned last week, the current reality around energy is precarious to say the least. Safety margins between electricity supply and demand are going to be tight between now and 2013.  Perceptions around this reality could deter investors and curb economic expansion and growth, which impacts directly on government’s ambitious job creation aspirations.

Brian Dames the CEO of Eskom is of course very aware of these macro challenges. He believes though that our nation, as individuals and organisations has to catch the vision of proactively owning the problem, or these negative possibilities may well be the outcome.

Eskom’s is working tirelessly to do things differently, to be a lot more alert in terms of how they manage things. They are committed to giving an accurate status report on a quarterly basis, while investing to ensure energy security in the long term.

Dames explained that South Africa is woefully energy inefficient. He said: “We have had very cheap electricity prices that led to inefficient use, in terms of how businesses are run and set up, the types of investment that are made in equipment, and so on.”

He recently returned from the US where he walked into a building and saw an energy star, indicating that that building invested in energy efficiency. This is too much of a rarity in South Africa.

Eskom’s plea is that they alone cannot keep the lights on. There are solutions and ways for savings to be made, by individuals, factories, companies and others. Some companies have made significant inroads by investing in more energy efficient pumps, production processes and other methods.

The vision is that if we all manage to save only 10 % energy within our circle of influence we could maintain our way of life and use this saving to support necessary investments.

According to Dames a mandatory scheme should be legislated, but as a safety net. If we don’t achieve our energy saving goal the voluntary way, we fall back on the safety net. In other words, government then steps forward and tells users what they must do. This way we don’t revert back to 2008 where Eskom told customers what to do. Personally he hopes we never get to this stage and surely all South Africans hope the same? But this means behaviour change, and oh how difficult this is for any human being.

Ultimately, in South Africa and inside Eskom so much hinges on the need for a culture shift, where citizens of South Africa or employees of Eskom collectively change our behavior – from leaving it all up to someone else, to taking personal responsibility (LeadSA is a great example).

For most leaders changing culture is the most difficult thing to do, often because they don’t really grasp the following truth about it: Culture stems from consistent, shared behaviours, which in turn stem from deep rooted values and beliefs. So many leaders fall into the trap of trying to change culture by trying to change behaviours. They often discover too late that they are wasting a lot of resources and valuable time on the wrong approach.

Broadly speaking behaviours are the tip of the iceberg. The right approach is to understand and address that larger part of the culture iceberg that is below the surface, i.e. values and beliefs. As leaders, connecting with our people at this level is more meaningful and more likely to influence long term behaviour change. If not done this way that iceberg called culture could sink your ship – be it the Eskom or South Africa ship.

Finding a way of answering the following questions will help:

  1. Collectively, what are the deep rooted personal values and beliefs of my workforce?
  2. Collectively, what positive and negative values and beliefs are currently being portrayed in the behaviours of leaders and employees of our organisation?
  3. Collectively, what values and beliefs do all of us desire to inculcate into this organisation?

Involving all levels of one’s organisation in answering the above three questions brings the guessing game to an end, because leaders need not make assumptions about why their people continue acting in a certain way. Then the real work and courageous leadership starts by using this insight to actively drive the internalization of the desired values (point 3), while eliminating from the culture those values, beliefs and behaviours that limit the organisations potential for growth.

An example of needed behavior change mentioned by Dames was the sensitive issue of safety, which most mines and construction companies also struggle with. Dames seem to realise that changing negative safety behaviours is part and parcel of needing to change the underlying culture and context within Eskom. Changing culture takes incredible courage and conscious effort, because the desired outcome is a deep lasting change rather than a superficial, short lived change.

Dames adopted a video lecture by Professor Sumantra Ghoshal that he has shown across Eskom. In the lecture, the Professor explained that every year, in July, he would go to Kolkata, India, for almost a month to visit his parents. But, in downtown Kolkata in July the temperature is over 100°F with humidity of 98 percent. He would spend most of his time indoors resting and conserving energy.

In contrast, he explained that he used to live in Fontainebleau, France, 40 miles south of Paris. He adds:”Around it is the protected forest of Fontainebleau, which is one of the prettiest forests in all of Europe. You enter the forest in spring, with a firm desire to have a very leisurely walk and you cannot. There is something about the smell of the air, about the trees, that will make you want to run, jog, jump up, catch a branch, to throw a stone, to do something. You will find that even though you entered the forest to have a leisurely walk, you are doing something else.”  

He called the difference between Kolkata and Fontainebleau “the smell of the place.” He hypothesized that many companies negatively affected their P&L performance because their corporate environment, the smell of their place, was more like Kolkata and less like Fontainebleau. In these companies, the culture disengaged employees rather than energized them. Some leaders create Kolkata environments while others manage to create Fontainebleau environments (see Youtube – the smell of the place).

I am convinced that Dames is trying hard to change “the smell of Eskom”. Momentum seems to be in the right direction. For lasting cultural change though, Eskom leadership would do well to ensure that they can answer the above questions in order to analyse and address the ‘below the surface’ part of their culture (iceberg) that matters most.

Dames admits there are weaknesses in the system, but there are also great managers and employees that have kept their heads down and worked through all the crises. He wants to support, help and make them really proud of the company.

The parallels between Eskom and South Africa are noticeable. Despite all the difficulties Eskom keeps recovering, which sounds like South Africa to me. We go through difficult times yet we keep recovering.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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