While being the CEO of SABC should be one of the most strategic, exciting and important leadership positions in the country, it could very well be one of the least enviable jobs around, as things stand.
It seems more like a scandal and controversy mine field in which many a leader have suffered reputational injury following blow ups, be they self-inflicted or not.
The SABC is like a magnet for disagreements, egos and selfish motives, rather than an attraction for that which will assist it in achieving their country critical purpose and essence of educating, informing and entertaining.
Lulama Mokhobo is the current CEO that is trying her best to steer through this minefield with the least possible injury and damage while creating significant movement forward. But already her first year on the job has thrown enough resistance and controversy at her that would stop many a leader in their tracks. Fortunately she has a passion for the industry to which she has often returned after venturing into other corporate sectors. And it seems she has a hungry and revamped, though not complete, team of executives around her that may just want hard enough to make that difference for the right reasons.
If it wasn’t for passionate individuals spread across the organization, pockets of excellence, that continue to move onward despite skirmishes above their heads, the SABC would not only have come close to bankruptcy but also irrelevance. No ordinary organization would ever survive such never ending leadership battles. In fact one could argue that the SABC didn’t survive, but fortunately for them they had a big brother that bailed them out, in the form of government. Mokhobo views SABC employees as some of “the most resilient people I have ever had the honour of working with. Their resilience comes through daily. It doesn’t matter what happens, you will still get your news bulletin, your favourite programme on TV, regardless of the turmoil around them. It takes special people to do that.”
The road towards their hope for a better SABC that makes a real difference in SA is a long one though. Mokhobo knows this and is under no illusion about the uphill battle that lies before her. The current CFO is suspended and someone is acting. The Chief Auditing Exec is also suspended. Someone is acting in the COO position. In Mokhobo’s words: “It’s untenable, you cannot have so much instability when you are trying to turn around an institution that has been literally on the verge of complete bankruptcy.” It is also a fact that competition is way ahead of the SABC and part of this is due to losing highly skilled individuals to competitors, and justifiably so. Mokhobo understands she cannot afford to lose more talent.
She does however feel that even those that are acting in positions have a “united focus in moving forward. That is what is comforting. We sit, argue and look for solutions. We are driving the institution very hard. We are dealing with corruption decisively, with cases that are coming up, some leading to high profile arrests.” And they are left with R220 million to settle the government guarantee, after paying portions of it last year and this year. Mokhobo feels this “has resulted in everybody feeling like a huge weight has been lifted from our shoulders”, because this burden added to the complexity in that they had to operate under tight scrutiny from the DOC, National Treasury, the Portfolio Committee of Communication and more recently SCOPA.
All this is not fun at all. Mokhobo agrees that “eventually we will get to the fun parts”. As all leaders are, she strives to remain positive: “Look we still do some great things. We did a great Afcon. We will continue to produce great content.” She refutes the perception that they run repeats all the time: “We don’t. The repeats that we do are those that generate funding, revenues, like the big soapies, old dramas we have brought back that are classics.” She believes the overload of choice from competitors makes it easy to believe SABC delivers poor quality, which is not always the truth.
Though the brief to the SABC is to educate, inform and entertain the public, education is seen as paramount because SA is still a developmental state. Mokhobo says: “We are looking at highly innovative access possibilities for ordinary citizens to get information without having to pay for it.” The SABC also strives to provide platforms for government to inform South African society what it is doing for the people. She often says to her Executive team: “Make your people aware all the time that we must impact the lives of ordinary people.”
The SABC is viewed by many as the ANC mouthpiece. Mokhobo explains that they are a public broadcaster, but “a public broadcaster that is in misalignment with what is being done for the public by government cannot be a public broadcaster”, she comments. Being a voice for the public and their government is always going to require a fine balancing act. They attempt to bring the two parties together in a coherent manner for productive conversations to take place. Make up your own mind about whether they are succeeding at this audacious task.
Mokhobo’s passion comes through clearly, and the resilience of their people is fortunate, but it takes great leadership to inspire an organisation to another level; to push the boundaries; to remain relevant in this kind of industry; to drive a vision that expects even more. However as Mokhobo so aptly comments: “A lot of the leaders before me never really had enough time to implement the vision and drive the change within the organisation, again because of turmoil at the top, and in many instances people have had to be fired, contracts terminated, well ahead of its time.”
What the SABC needs, or even more importantly what South Africa needs, is for the current leader to be given the space and realistic time period to drive the change that’s required.
They are in the throngs of completing their overall corporate strategy and direction for the next three years. What makes this business tick is content and people and the latter specifically crave leadership! They also want to emphasize the importance of making decisions “based on sound business thought that can be stress tested for its veracity and is able to take the SABC forward”, says Mokhobo. Important to remember is that sound and healthy decision making thrives in an environment of trust and integrity that is the soil from which authentic leadership sprouts and grows.
Anything that does not take them forward Mokhobo has been bold enough to say no to. Of course saying no does not make people happy or a leader popular. How confident is Mokhobo that she will not only get through her term but also deliver the goods? She answers: “The honest answer is, well…confidence is something you live through every minute of your day. There are days when I feel I don’t have the confidence to get to the following day. Then there are times when I think, this is just a lesson. I look at criticism and think people don’t just criticize you but do so because they see certain behaviour, or there is something they don’t like, and I should take it as a lesson and see what it is that I need to change about myself.” And by the way, most top leaders have days where they don’t feel that confident. It is normal even at the highest levels of leadership, so Mokhobo is not alone in this but in fact demonstrates a level of honesty and oddly enough, confidence by admitting to it.
What keeps her on target and focused is her belief in integrity and a principle taught by her mother: “It is my belief that as a leader, if I demonstrate integrity in everything that I do, on a daily basis, chances are people will begin to feel the difference, and when they do they might just sit back and decide to leave this woman alone. Let her do her job, because if we keep on chipping away at her, before you know it we will have another CEO, and for how long are we going to be able to change CEO’s?”
Her mother used to refer to broken vases, the fact that people usually just throw away the pieces. She believed if you break it even further you can re-create the most beautiful mosaic – same material, different purpose, amazing beauty. She adds: “So every time people break me down I pick myself up, look at myself and realise I may have done it badly, so change it in order to be a better, different leader.”
Can Mokhobo ‘fly’ as a leader, or is she neutralized from having to balance endless agendas and aspirations of divergent stakeholders? It is easy for the SABC leader to be busy and tick off many actions on a day to day basis, with hours turning into days and days to years, but nothing significant really moves. Often, to get meaningful movement a leader must ruffle some feathers, upset some important stakeholders. In this instance, if the past is anything to go by, upset the board and she is out! If she upsets government she is out! If she upsets the public she is in trouble! If she upsets her own executive team she is also in danger! And so one can go on. The ‘traps’ that the leader of this organisation can step into are innumerable. At the SABC it seems that for a CEO to be able to remain at the helm for the duration of a contract is more of an achievement than succeeding with the strategy. In fairness though there are some good signs of support for Mokhobo from the Board, where they have stood by her through difficult times.
I work and have worked with leaders in many organisations and stability in leadership, including a stable and seamless transition from one leader to the next has a direct correlation with successful movement of that organisation. When the leader goes, momentum slows down. The only way to minimize the slowdown, and in exceptional cases prevent it totally, is through a seamless transition from one leader to the next, and when the strategy and priorities have been bought into across all levels of the organisation. And it needs to be mentioned that handover to an acting leader usually does not do the trick but opens the way for negative energy that manifests in many ways.
According to Mokhobo “everyone understands that without a strong SABC we will not have a properly empowered society, empowered through the information it receives.” But a strong SABC will only happen if the CEO and her team feel free to lead, to create that much needed movement. If Mokhobo feels neutralized her team will feel neutralized and ultimately the organisation will cruise along doing the necessary and not the important. Allow Mokhobo and her team to lead and working for the SABC could very well once again become an exciting entity that makes South Africa a better place.
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