Dr Michael Jordaan – Young Leadership At Its Best

Dr Michael Jordaan is a very exciting leader and an incredible example of what young leadership can do in big business.

We sat with him a short while ago in what was a fascinating and enjoyable conversation, and just before his announcement that he would be stepping down as CEO of First National Bank at the end of this year.

Jordaan, or “MJ” as he likes to be called by those he works with, has a very interesting history that is as much worth exploring for its leadership insights as are the lessons he shared with us directly.

Jordaan is a commissioned officer in the South African Navy. He was required to do national service because of certain laws that were in force at the time. After leaving the service, he decided to pack up and move to Germany for a time where he joined Deutsche Bank as a teller.  He didn’t stay in that position for long though as he was quickly noticed and eventually became a Corporate Banker.  Jordaan was able to achieve this on the back of lessons he learned while in university about working smart… “it’s amazing what one can achieve when under pressure”, and, as he admits to “often being found at the photocopy machine” making copies of notes he had gathered from those in his class that he regarded as superior note takers; by surrounding yourself with the people that help you achieve your vision.  This is not to say that he was in any way lazy – instead from very early on we can see that he was using important leadership skills to get ahead.

Regarding his education, Jordaan is no slouch and has graduated with a MCom in Economics and a PhD in Banking Supervision.

But he was not happy in Germany, and in spite of the political and social turmoil that was occurring in South Africa at the time, he returned home and has been much happier here ever since.

In 1994, Jordaan applied be part of Rand Merchant Bank’s “Class Of” programme.  And after what he describes as a rigorous and thorough selection process, he was one of a handful that were to be interviewed by the then RMB Managing Director, and another South African leadership success story, Paul Harris.  In spite of his personal doubts, he was sent a job offer a few months later.

Now I can guarantee that if I were to offer a Personal Assistant position to many of you right now you would turn your noses up at it, but participation in this programme would culminate in what would probably turn out to be the lynch pin in Jordaan’s career:  serving as PA to Harris himself.  Becoming this familiar with his boss was a priceless opportunity.  Many years later, Harris, now major shareholder in South Africa’s mobile tech company Mxit, shares his regard for Jordaan in this way: “Having a business heavyweight of Jordaan’s calibre on the board of directors is no doubt a sign of great things to come from Mxit,” says Harris. (More on Jordaan’s involvement in Mxit later.)

Jordaan would then spend the next 10 years learning the ins and outs of innovative banking as he was called upon to launch and run a number of “Banking First’s” envisioned by his bosses – the afore-mentioned Paul Harris, and also Laurie Dippenaar and Gerrit Ferreira – known as banking’s “Three Musketeers”.

And at the very young age of just 36 he was approached to be the CEO of First National Bank.

Now, eight years down the line, FNB, under the guidance of Jordaan, is widely regarded as one of the best banks in South Africa, on the African continent, and in many ways globally as well.  Perhaps part of Jordaan’s decision to move onto new challenges came when he accepted, on behalf of the bank, the Most Innovative Bank of the Year Award at the 2012 BAI – Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards held in Washington DC.

There is so much we can share with you from our conversation with this man, but you and I will have to be satisfied with the following highlights and lessons:

  • “It takes a long time to create a culture.”

The FNB he first took over is a far cry from the FNB we see and experience today.  Although their goal to be the most innovative bank in SA was made eight years ago during Jordaan’s first EXCO breakaway as CEO, it has taken time, dedication, and sacrifice to be where they are today.  His tips regarding this include:  Tell people innovation is important; measure it; empower and allow for it to happen – which means leaders and managers must let go, take risks and make mistakes; and lastly, recognise and reward innovation heroes.

  • “Don’t waste a good crisis!”

He feels the worst thing you can do when faced with a crisis is withdraw and play small.  Do we make rash and uninformed decisions?  Absolutely not!  But we must step up and give even more than perhaps we had done before.  He adds that to leverage such opportunities we must “lower prices and advertise relentlessly”.

  •  “What can I as a coach [leader] do for you?”

This he picked up from a conversation he had with Gary Kirsten while on a visit to India a few years ago.  Gary was the coach of the Indian National Team at the time, and would go on to win the ICC Cricket World Cup with them that following year.

Jordaan embraced this principle immediately and adds: “Don’t fly solo.” We must surround ourselves with best people and help them to be their best.

Jordaan has now been appointed the Chairman of the Board of the mobile messaging company Mxit.  He is excited by what they have planned for the next few months and by the entrepreneurial and innovative space they are in.  He has also launched, MonteGray Capital, a small start-up investment vehicle that he will be running hands on as he pushes to invest in start-ups in the technology and innovation spaces.

At just 45 years of age, Jordaan still has many years ahead of him and we are very excited to see where this next adventure takes him and what next big thing he does to impact and change our world locally and globally.

This article was featured in the

The Workplace




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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Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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