Bulelwa Koyana, CEO SA Travel Centre (AKA: Top Leaders Put People First)

It has been my privilege to sit with a large number of top national and international leaders from various walks of life and serving in various sectors of business and civil society.  Each has shared something that has assisted all of us, via this column, to improve and grow as leaders.  But there is a particular group within this number that I especially admire and I cannot help but sing their praises whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It isn’t that this group necessarily achieves greater things than the other leaders I have been able to spend time with, nor is it related to the organisation they work for, its position in the market or impressive financial figures.

Rather, it comes down simply to the way that I felt while with them, and the way that I felt about the future, either that of their business or that of our (their) country, after we parted company.

This feeling is not related to some form of charismatic display, or how charming or enigmatic the leader is able to present them self as either.

Let me explain this way:  Analysing a leader begins way before one actually sits with the individual.  We are looking carefully at the organisation he or she represents.  There is careful consideration given to macro and micro economic factors that can affect this organisation and its relevant sector.  And where we are able, we are doing pre and post discussion interviews with peers and subordinates.

In addition to this, upon arriving at the offices of the leader, I am looking carefully at the building itself, its furnishing and fittings, what is on the walls, what messages are present.  I also watch employees very carefully because everyone, from security guards and reception staff, to personal assistants and those on the sales floor, tell you what is going on in the business, what the culture is.

After all this has been assessed, there is meeting the leader.

Here, everything from a handshake to how they walk or talk tells you about the leader.  How do those in the office respond to them, is there gratitude for the tea and coffee that is offered, and do they call you by name?

Taking all of this into consideration, and more, one is ready to see if what they say aligns with what you have already learned about them.

In many cases, as with this special group of leaders I am speaking of today, when this alignment occurs, there is a real sense of confidence and optimism.

As I sat with Bulelwa Koyana, CEO of the SA Travel Centre, I felt these feelings once more.

Like most top leaders, Koyana is well educated and has a wide range of experiences to draw on as she assists the South African Travel Centre towards their vision of being Africa’s leading centralised travel fulfilment and facilitation consortium.

Her education includes a BSS degree from Rhodes University, an Honours Degree in Psychology from UNISA, and various other postgraduate additions, including participation in an Executive Development programme from Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

However, I feel that key to her success as an individual and leader is not found on her formal curriculum vitae.

Many top leaders have inherited traits, behaviours, and values from parents and guardians that have had a profound effect on the everyday decisions and directions they choose in their lives.  As I sit with more and more leaders, it is interesting to compare one with the other, and the data is revealing more and more that we are the sum of decisions we have made which have been influenced by, and largely based in and upon, examples and behaviour that is present in our lives from a very young age.

As a side note and question, it is interesting, and possibly alarming, to ask ourselves:  Who and what is it that my child (whatever their age) is seeing in me every day?  What am I teaching them about life and leadership?

As I explored this with her, Koyana revealed that her principal role model, her mother, taught her a number of lessons from a very young age.  These include lessons in vision and goal creation; discipline and moral alignment; putting first things, like education, first; and inclusive decision making.

“Your mother sounds like she is a very strong woman, and a pusher?”, I asked at one point.  Koyana responded with a knowing smile, and in the affirmative that she was.  “…how much of that have you inherited?” I then asked.  “100%”, she shared simply.

As a strong woman leader and pusher, she emphasises, much like her mother, direction and goals.  Koyana feels her role is one of asking tough questions and mentoring, much more than the seemingly accepted idea that leadership is about control and dictating the way forward.

“Leadership, and business, is helping others to create a vision and assisting them to get there.” she says.

Consistency in this reliance on the values and early lessons she received in her life can be seen as one compares who Koyana is at home with the person she is at the office – she claims she is the same person; she expects similar things; and there is no deviation in character.  One of her colleagues shared with her after a visit to her home, ratifying her claim: “Now I understand why you are who and what you are.”  This consistency inspires great confidence in all who rely on her to lead them.

A question for all of us to consider:  Are we consistent, or do we wear masks?

Consistency is a key feature of top, extraordinary leaders.

Our conversation then changed to challenges.  Koyana feels her biggest challenge at the moment is dealing with a dynamic, ever changing environment while maintaining focus on deliverables and the bigger picture.  Her solution: understanding people, what they respond to and how they think.

“We must understand peoples’ backgrounds and the dynamics involved with decisions they make.  Critical to me is the principle of taking ownership and inspiring ownership.”  She places extremely high value on her studies in psychology and feels that this has played a vital role in her development and success as a leader.

Another leader in this group I consider top quality leaders, Mark Cutifani, CEO of AngloAmerican, has a similar approach to Koyana’s.  He shared with us that “Leadership is all about people.”

Another question for us:  During challenging times, do we inspire or do we alienate?

Sadly, all that was shared and discussed cannot be highlighted here, but these three critical things: character, consistency, and understanding people, are some of the reasons behind my feelings of confidence and optimism in the future of the South African Travel Centre and their CEO Bulelwa Koyana.

This is not to say that she is a perfect leader, but that there is something there that allows one to feel like the ship is in hands that can take their team and organisation to the right waters.  She is a strong woman leader that is going places.

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on CliffCentral.com, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

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