Q&A with Alan Knott-Craig, CEO Cell C


BRLP: How do you lead?

Knott-Craig: People lead instinctively and intuitively, and I know that sounds very general, but I don’t think people lead in an academic sort of way.  For example, you walk into a place, you will have a perception of that place before you go there, but even as you’re walking through the doors, your perception is changing – if it’s not changing then there is something wrong with you. As you walk down the corridors, as you meet people, as you shake people’s hands, your perception continually changes, and so that which you want to do has to change all the time.  This happens quickly and so it has to happen instinctively and intuitively.  If you’re not comfortable leading that way then you may be a good leader for something else, but you won’t be a good leader in a crisis.

BRLP: Do you see leading Cell C as a crisis in a way?  Is it a “fix-it”?

Knott-Craig: It’s a fix-it.  This is not a thing that doesn’t exist, this is not a thing that doesn’t work at a certain level of success, but it is not a thing that’s working perfectly – it certainly doesn’t work at its full potential and so for me that’s a “fix-it”.

BRLP: How is your health?  It’s going to be more stressful, are you comfortable with that balance?

Knott-Craig: Much better, right now I am doing well. I always say to people that if you have a balanced life then you’re not successful in anything, and I know that’s an understatement but I’ll tell you this much –  I don’t want to have a memory of the last 10 years trying not to die.  That’s really stupid.  I am better, I have more energy, and I am ready to work again.  Doesn’t mean I won’t get sick again, but I am ready to take another shot at it.

BRLP: What do you have to say about the view that you’re going up against Vodacom, the company you built?

Knott-Craig: For me, I’m not going up against anyone or anything; I’m going in to a company to fix it.  In the process of fixing it, we have to become more competitive.  In the process of becoming more competitive, some other companies will have to get competitive back.  One of those companies will be a company that we built.  So what?  I have emotional ties to the people in that company; I don’t have emotional ties to the company. A company is a company is a company – they come and go.  I have emotional ties to the industry, the industry is more important to me than the company, even though I love the company and it’s a great company and I love the people.  But I am emotionally tied to the South African cellular industry and I’m not going against the industry. Hopefully I can just help develop it to go forward a little faster, maybe a little differently, and I hope I can make a small contribution to the industry.  This is not a destructive path – if it’s not constructive then I have failed.

BRLP: So are you going to hurt Vodacom? What is the relationship with Pieter and Vodacom?

Knott-Craig: Well I haven’t really been back to Vodacom for three and a half years.  It’s a long time.  I am in constant touch with people who are there, or they with me.  I am easy with them, I’m OK with them.  I am absolutely not going out to hurt anybody. My focus is Cell C.  I take a company that’s not operating at full potential, fix it, and get it to operate as close to full potential as it can and put a management structure in place that will survive another 5 – 10 years.  That’s the plan.

BRLP: Are you willing to share what you learnt from the experience when you left Vodacom?

Knott-Craig: The most important thing I learnt from that was the same thing I learnt about my health. I thought my health was bullet proof and I learnt it wasn’t.  In business when you get to a certain level of success, you think you’re bullet-proof.  But you’re never bullet-proof.  The world is a moving place and when you step off, the world just goes right on by.  And you’re just simply someone who stepped off.  It can be mentally devastating and you’ve just got to work your way through it.  I worked my way through it.  You cannot take a leadership position where your style is different and not attract both positive and negative attention.  You can only make sure you do what is in your heart and you do it right.   That’s really all you can do, and then be happy with that.

BRLP: Do you see part of your job as finding a potential successor then?

Knott-Craig: Absolutely.  And not only a successor, but an entire management team, so when I walk out the front door it just doesn’t matter.  I cannot walk out the front door and then they are back to square one. They should be able to say goodbye and be friendly and then walk back through the front door and forget about me – that’s what a successful management team and successor is all about.  If you don’t do that in a company then you have failed.

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