Adriaan Groenewald and I enjoyed our leadership conversation with Gert Schoonbee, recently appointed MD of T. Systems SA. It is always a privilege to share leadership ideas with a person who represents the kind of leader that moves barriers to the full potential of their organisation and our country – in our language, a seamless leader. Schoonbee seems to be one of those leaders.
He has taken over from Mardia van der Walt-Korsten, who, because of exceptional leadership herself has been moved up in the ranks of the large T-Systems international organisation to look after their growth plans for Africa. She leaves an excellent legacy behind. Schoonbee was a senior executive on her team for many years, and was a logical replacement. And by the way, a seamless internal handover from one leader to the next is more often than not one of the signs of a mature leadership culture.
Schoonbee is an industrial engineering graduate of University of Pretoria and completed an MBA at University of Cape Town. He comes from a large farm near Groblersdal and enthusiastically shares with us how his background strongly influenced his character, values and outlook on life.
The challenge he faces is to sustain and improve on the high performance standards set by his predecessor. Under her leadership, together with her team of course, T-Systems SA is now the largest information and technology company in its field in the country. This is quite an act to follow and the danger is that this can easily lull a team into a false sense of security! We asked him how he intends taking the business to the next level:
- Focus on ‘sustainability of hope’. The intention is to maintain and grow the present standards of excellence by fostering an attitude of ‘sustainability of hope’ in staff, customers, partners and share holders. In part their strategy to do this includes creating a ‘new beginnings’ mind-set amongst the top 100 management and then to the rest of the staff and customers. Change of leader in a performing organisation is often a golden opportunity to trigger a new attitude necessary for an organisation’s leadership to proactively take the next leap.
- Results through people. T-Systems are supported by excellence in technology mainly through head office in Germany. The major focus of Schoonbee and his team is therefore not so much on keeping up with state of the art technology, but focusing on the other elements that are required in order to be the best in their field. A major aspect of this is the focus on people. Schoonbee has a passion to work through people. We appreciate his conviction that the right people can execute any strategy. In other words, put the right people in place and they can handle all the challenges that may crop up. People are more important than projects. Good leaders and staff can usually drive any strategy successfully.
- ‘Sufficiently paranoid’. This is a key approach to avoiding complacency in the company, especially in view of its excellence performance record over the past few years. His attitude is in line with great leaders all over the world who are constantly on the lookout for potential obstacles to excellence of performance. We use an expression in Leadership Platform: ‘unanticipated negative tendencies tend to escalate into problematic structures’. Wise leaders anticipate negative tendencies amongst staff, the environment and customers before they become a problem. Schoonbee believes that being ‘sufficiently paranoid’ is a necessity of good leadership. It makes sense, doesn’t it? From experience we find that leaders who act positive to the detriment of discerning and processing negative indications are in danger of becoming loose cannons.
- ‘Don’t jump the chain’ is an expression we use to convey the imperative of not jumping to conclusions until we complete the ‘chain’ process required for mature decision making. Schoonbee believes in not forming an opinion until he gathers sufficient information to do so. This attitude has a multitude of benefits for a leader. Such a person tends to be far less judgemental towards the opinions of others, communication lines tend to be more open and trustworthy, fewer mistakes are made and fewer broken relationships occur. We also found Schoonbee to be open and receptive to good ideas. This is an attribute that tends to be possessed by people who do not jump to conclusions hastily.
- A positive values grounding. Human conduct is based on our believed values system. This implies that positive believed values will drive us to positive behaviour. It also means that a wishy-washy belief system, clouded with negative beliefs, will drive to negative behaviour. Schoonbee is proud of his background obtained from living and growing up on a family farm near Groblersdal. He feels that attributes of a work ethic, leading by example and the ability to focus was developed by his farm background. He is still involved in the farm when time permits. Recently he took his executive team on a kind of ‘bosberaad’ session on the family farm and they were able to share their own values and beliefs with each other. In spite of vastly differing cultural backgrounds in line with modern South Africa, the management team found that they had many precious universal values in common. Our feeling is that Schoonbee has a well-developed sense of respecting others and seeking common universal values as a foundation for good relationships.
- Leadership development. Working in the IT industry the tendency for leaders is often to focus on ‘catch-up’ of rapid development in technology and to consider that as being their major duty. When asked about his ideas on leadership development, specifically in a high tech industry, Schoonbee feels that they made the mind shift a while ago with leadership capability development and confidence as being a priority. He believes that their recent investment in putting several promising managers through a business school development program is already showing solid benefits to the company. They also embarked on a special intervention with their top executives coached by a US consultant. The purpose of the intervention is to facilitate understanding of the networks of commitment in delivering successful mutually beneficial partnerships with stakeholders such as employees, customers and shareholders.
- Success to significance. T-Systems are the top company in the country in their field, but they are convinced that they are not just motivated to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world. They firmly believe in responding to the demanding needs of the country as well as the environment. ‘Success to significance’ is an essential element of their strategy for the company. T-Systems are for example strong supporters of the National Values Campaign with the objective of helping to generate a culture of excellence in values in our country.
As a leader Schoonbee is blessed with likeability and at the same time portrays the spirit of a seamless leader that we need so desperately in our great country.
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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on firstname.lastname@example.org for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.