He lost his leg in a ‘freak’ farming accident during his final school exams, followed by complications that almost cost him his life. Yet, years later he climbed Kilimanjaro on crutches. This says a lot about Gert Schoonbee CEO T-Systems, a resilient, down to earth, humble man that together with his team is attempting to make money while making meaning.
At T-Systems, an ICT outsource provider, they have undergone a journey of not only offering return for their shareholders but also positively impacting the country in which they operate. They are trying to build an organisation that reflects the country they wish to live in. They are working hard on the big picture; to see the good intent behind many initiatives in South Africa, rather than the negative way in which it is implemented, or the faults of those driving it.
They are becoming part of the solution and giving structure and life to those good intentions. They want to tip the scale towards a positive momentum rather than a negative momentum.
Why did T-Systems start a nation building initiative? Schoonbee explains: “First, we wanted to do more than a tick box exercise when it comes to transformation. We realise and understand transformation must happen at all levels of our society, and T-Systems is not isolated from it. Seeing it as more than a tick box exercise requires a different approach. Secondly we wanted to make sure there is a proper overlap between the ideals and goals of the company vs one’s own personal, individual aspirations and goals for your family. And thirdly, we really want to make a difference…” He added: “Just walking the same road as everyone else and expecting to make a real difference within the country won’t happen.” For him authenticity is very important in these matters, being able to speak from own experience rather than quoting the experiences of others only.
Schoonbee had to be honest within himself first, to get to that place inside him where he saw the positive in not only South Africa but legislative programmes, nation building as a concept and something like the National Development Plan. He confronted his own and real intentions and what he truly wanted for his own children. He has two young boys and wants them to grow up in a country that is described within the NDP vision statement.
Growing up on the farm taught him about leadership. It is a labour intensive environment where he learnt “to earn my stripes in order to move people to a goal. My Dad gave me the freedom to lead if I proved that I could.”
Today for him “leadership is about doing the right thing and then mobilising others to follow.”
After losing his leg in matric he decided to start studying at university even though he could not sit down in class and his sister who was also studying there assisted him to get through every day. This experience he believes developed certain qualities like resilience that still stands him in good stead.
The Kilimanjaro climb on crutches and wisdom from the assigned guide taught him to choose the vision and path, and then take one step at a time towards the end goal, even if it means going slowly. The guide used a term “poko-poko” that meant “slowly”. When they started early in the morning they would never think it possible that they would reach the camp, but they did. From a leadership perspective says Schoonbee “where so much is changing all the time, you must have the patience and resilience to stick to your vision.”
Schoonbee is a man of personal purpose and this is rubbing off on the organisation he leads, his own circle of influence. He says: “I’m a purpose guy. I had several near death experiences in my life and I believe quite simply there is a reason why I survived, and I must live up to my identity, live out my purpose. There is a very specific reason why I have the privilege to fill the role that I have currently within T-Systems. We play a big role in this country and can play an even bigger role.”
It always starts with me, you, an individual. Schoonbee says it this way: “It depends on how you define yourself. Is it first as an MD or a CEO or do you define yourself as a leader, and making a difference and living your purpose?”
It may be worthwhile for every leader to ask this question of themselves. How do you define yourself? Do you see yourself as a leader first, because if you really do, you will see the big picture; you will always see the opportunities; you will always default back towards becoming part of the solution; you will confront the resistance to successful movement; and if you lead an organisation you will strive to build it in such a way that it reflects the country and society you wish to live in. If only we did this, who knows?
Listen to the podcast of Adriaan’s conversation with Gert Schoonbee on www.cliffcentral.com, under Leadership Platform podcasts.
Adriaan Groenewald (@Adriaan_LP) – MD and co-founder Leadership Platform (www.leadershipplatform.com); leadership author and advisor; presenter of Leadership Platform on Cliffcentral.com every Monday 12-1pm (@LeadershipPform)