The Creative Executive

The Creative Executive


Corporate South Africa seems stunned by current political anxieties, labour turmoil, fears of increased economic volatility and competitive pressures.

Every sector is feeling some pain and each industry faces a different, but ever increasing spiral of turbulence that threatens lasting growth and competitiveness.

The landscape is rough, but many leaders stand poised in the hope of conquering markets and reaping rewards. This courageous attitude has to be matched with the right thinking and decision-making skills.

As a leader one of your primary tasks is to set direction for your company that will overcome current threats, sustain value for all, outdo your competitors, infuse you with energy and ultimately break through everything that obstructs or impedes on the way.

Why strategic creativity matters

This kind of leadership requires a high level of strategic creativity. Creativity in strategy allows executives to play with big ideas and break through boundaries.

It deals with a way of thinking that allows leaders to go beyond what their competitors may be doing, what’s been done before and what they are currently doing. The seeds of such creative thinking can be found in every good strategy.

If creativity however is about having new ideas and multiple solutions and unusual strategies, and if complexity and ambiguity increase as you ascend the corporate ladder, then nobody needs creativity more than the executive.

However, creativity remains a largely unexplored source of positive change, growth and resilience, especially for senior leaders.

Whether it is to compete on assets like Shell, restructure your company to be more nimble like Toyota, or carefully choose the release dates of your products like Apple, the logical choices in business remain important.

But alongside strategic planning, it has become high time to prepare for unknown futures, re-evaluate your relevance and shape tomorrow.

Encouraging creativity

How do you do this?  How do executives embrace a creative, counter-intuitive way of thinking to drive new results?

Practical tips for developing strategic creativity:

  • Ask, look and listen more

When you expose yourself to wide-ranging viewpoints and information, you introduce new thoughts that challenge set mental patterns.

It may be by sourcing new ideas from all ranks and challenging your employees to come up with new solutions. Lazarus Ramashilabele runs an Exxaro mine and to drive a culture of a high-performance he has introduced a campaign called “Every second counts.”

He wants hard results and the aim of this campaign is to let everyone generate creative ideas.

“Challenging everybody to be creative has resulted not only in useful ideas, but also a wave of excitement to make this culture happen” says Lazarus. Leslie Matthews, CEO of Tempest Car Hire has also experienced the value of contrary views.

“New ideas come to the fore when I allow my colleagues to have a robust debate with me, without any concern whatsoever of reprisals.  This then stimulates my thinking of alternatives in strategy, instead of me forcing my thinking on them.”

  • Play more

In diverting your attention to less serious or pressing issues, you gain and generate energy.  It is not about doing frivolous things, but doing things that allow you to test various risks.

Tempests’ Matthews puts it this way: “When people are relaxed in their interactions and communication, they become confident and confident people become creative and positive people.” In his experience, creating an energetic, playful atmosphere in the office brings a sense of happiness and subsequent out-of-the box thinking.

  • Dream more

In Distell’s Ghana office, Burton Swain, GM of trade marketing writes on glass, doors and walls to visualise his thinking

“If I see it, if I physically draw the strategic roadmap, it helps us all to focus on the year ahead.  Our strategic picture forms part of all our meetings, and helps us to add to our ideas or track our progress” he says.

Visions and dreams in strategy introduce creative shifts in your own perspectives and lets others see new possibilities.

  •  Work more

Developing creative skills also involves hard work and the discipline of putting effort towards useful, practical and relevant solutions, rather than illusions or fantasies.

It requires you to combine your divergent, outgoing thinking with your convergent, logical and practical thinking. CEO of the packaging business Mpact, Bruce Strong, has turned his strategy review process on its head to do this.

Instead of starting with the vision and mission in mind, he has asked all the leaders to first identify opportunities and then only to map it through analytical processes to strategic intent.

Strategy for Mpact has become much more practical in the process.  What is certain is that any South African business, regardless of how innovative, will face completely new sets of challenges in the future and customers of tomorrow will have needs that differ qualitatively from what customers need today.

As a business leader in South Africa strategic creativity should be embraced as a source of positive change, growth and resilience, especially for senior leaders.

It has to be developed through practice and as part of a personal development plan. Opportunities to learn, play, dream and execute should be actively sought out as part of strategic thinking towards new and better futures.

Dr Charlene Lew
Dr Charlene Lew is a senior lecturer at GIBS. She teaches on the PhD, MBA and corporate programmes in the areas of strategic leadership decision-making and organisational behaviour. Charlene supervises doctoral and MBA research and publishes in the area of managerial psychology – focusing on the intersection where strategic leadership decision-making and organisational outcomes meet. She is passionate about the intra- and inter-psychological processes that drive behaviour at work, particularly at top management team level and holds a Doctorate in Psychology with a focus on adult career development.