Mike Brown – CEO of Nedbank

Mike Brown, CEO of Nedbank, comes from a family of bankers. His father, grandfather and an uncle were bankers. His entrance into banking, though fairly coincidental, was probably evident.

He qualified as a chartered accountant and, like so many CA’s, joined Deloitte & Touche to do his articles. He was placed in the financial services division to eventually audit banks, which resulted in a job offer from NBS bank in the early 90’s. He stayed with NBS until today, though of course NBS changed through several acquisitions along the way.

Brown learnt from his father that “one only gets one chance at today”, meaning one has to do one’s best every moment of every day. He was also taught “to appreciate opportunities that come one’s way in life”. Unlike his father who wanted to become a doctor but became a banker instead because of financial constraints, Brown had the opportunity to do what he really wanted to. He has a great appreciation for this.

Pivotal to his leadership development was being placed in leadership positions relatively early on in his career. Exceptional academic achievements certainly bolstered these early opportunities and, at about the age of thirty, he was appointed MD of BoE Corporate. The next youngest person on his Executive team was over forty. He had to learn quickly how to interact with people and manage relationships because technical and functional knowledge just wasn’t adequate any more.

Brown has therefore led older colleagues most of his life and is currently one of the youngest people on the Nedbank Executive.

His leadership abilities were no doubt accelerated by experiencing three mergers along the way – NBS/Boland; BoE/NBS Boland; and finally the merging with Nedbank. Inside this new Nedbank, Brown managed the Property and Asset Finance Division that formed part of a four-way merger with businesses from BoE, Nedbank, NIB and Cape of Good Hope. At the time of this interview, the HSBC deal was also on the cards.

These invaluable experiences taught him not only about the complex technical aspects of merging banks, but also the traps leaders can step into as well. The following are key lessons learnt: You cannot over communicate; you must have the right leaders in place with the right attitude as quickly as possible; if the strategy is compelling, notwithstanding the challenges, people will buy in to a better future; and think of the journey as a once in a lifetime learning experience. Some traps: Too much focus on the spreadsheets and not enough on the people (clients and staff); too many consultants; and it is easy to become too internally focused.

We know now that the HSBC deal did not happen, which is regrettable as few leaders may be more prepared for such a deal as Brown. Fortunately Nedbank Leadership seems to have planned their communication strategy about this possible deal well. Their approach towards stakeholders was as follows: 1) We believe that our business as it currently stands has an exciting vision and compelling strategy; 2) We refer you to the stock market where our share price was a top two banking stock over the last two years – proof that we are okay on our own; 3) We have a vision of building Africa’s most admired bank. We absolutely believe we can achieve this vision with our current base case, but if there is a change in a controlling shareholder we may get there faster. HSBC is an opportunity to accelerate the delivery of our vision but if it doesn’t accelerate that is also okay.

This approach seems to have been a mature and wise one as they are, for now, chasing their strategy on their own.

Also significant about Nedbanks leader was his part in an exemplary handover from one CEO to the next. One hopes Brown would repeat this in the future as doing so will entrench further their mature organizational culture and it is the ultimate proof of great leadership – multiplying future leaders.

Nedbank announced Boardman’s retirement date and Brown as his internal replacement, almost a year before, in the middle of a recession. The announcement did not affect the share price in the least.

However, the internal dynamics of having both an outgoing and incoming CEO for almost a year had to be managed in a mature manner. What made this possible was the good relationship between Boardman and Brown, and their emotional maturity to understand that it was a healthy process.

Brown said that not for one minute did he want to rush into the position sooner than planned, because it would not be beneficial for anyone. He also set aside two months of this period to attend a course at Harvard, using some of this handover period for personal leadership development and enrichment.

About two months before Boardman left they sat down and crafted a detailed plan on how he would say farewell to Nedbank and how Nedbank would thank him for a job well done. This required extensive communication, road shows, facilitated conversations and exercises with the Exco team, and much more.  

Even though Boardman is in many ways a legend due to his remarkable rescue of Nedbank, Brown has never felt a need to move from under his shadow. The reason for this is that everyone, including Boardman, would be the first to admit that the rescue was a team effort.

What the organisation got with Brown was absolute continuity, thus placing the team and Nedbank before any personal ambitions and egos. In my view this is proof of a healthy handover, healthy organisational culture and the advantage of an internal successor.  

For the first period of his tenure, the investment community often wanted to know into what new direction Brown would take the bank. Yet, he and several of the team members had worked alongside Boardman for several years, jointly carving out the bank’s strategy, so why the need for sudden change?

The strategy of the bank would simply evolve under the leadership of the Executive team. Brown believes an important part of the CEO’s job is to be ambitious for the company, not yourself.

A key challenge Brown and other banking leaders face moving into the future is to lead in an environment of regulatory and economic uncertainty, and to balance short term performance with long term investment – focusing on capital and liquidity, yet growing and building sustainability for the long term.

For Nedbank the future holds a challenge of how to grow business in Africa, while continuing their constant journey of aligning current and desired values inside Nedbank, to create a culture that is “facilitative of their organisation being more agile, mobile and competitive”.

Brown continues the legacy of an organisation that is vision led and values driven.

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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.




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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