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Blake & Associates: Howard Blake

Blake & Associates began with one typewriter and a scooter, with Blake operating from his kitchen. Today he employs over 3 000 people across three continents.

Monique Verduyn




It’s hard to believe that Howard Blake started his business with just a typewriter and a home office. It’s even harder to picture him visiting his first clients on a banged up scooter. But that is how determined the founder of what is today a leader in the international business process outsourcing sector was.

Ask Blake (49) what made him launch his own business and he’ll tell you it was desperation. In reality, he is a born entrepreneur who would find it difficult to work for anyone. An attorney by profession, he started out in estate administration, and then became a legal advisor before joining a firm of staid attorneys in KwaZulu Natal. Not happy there, he left.

With a wife, two kids and his back against the wall, he launched Blake and Associates in 1990 when he was just 27, working from his kitchen. Today, the business is known simply as Blake and has established itself as a highly respected leader in business process outsourcing and contact centre services, focusing on all aspects of customer lifecycle management and not just debt collection. It has an annual turnover of R350 million with offices in Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius and the US. Blake also employs more than 3 000 people and has had a massive impact on the development of the community of Phoenix, which is close to the company’s head office in Mount Edgecombe, Durban.

Overcoming early challenges

Accountability is something Blake mentions often. He is known for taking full responsibility for what happens in the business – the good and the bad – without looking at the team that implemented the decision. He’s always accepted that ultimately the responsibility remains with him, and this is still one of his keys to success.

Blake faced and prevailed over a number of challenges common to start-ups. In the first two years of the business, he was lucky enough to have a sympathetic banker. His father had died when he was a child, and family resources were few. Money was always an issue in the beginning. He had no collateral to start the business and laughs when you ask where he got finance. But he also required very little money to get it going.

“Where I was fortunate, is that the mainstream technology available to everyone today had not evolved yet. I did everything manually, providing an excellent manual service that we slowly morphed over time into a fully automated one, which made it more possible than in today’s environment where so much outlay is required for infrastructure. I started out with just me and an assistant. Today, you would have to have a lot of money to start this kind of business. Technology has raised the barriers to entry from that point of view.”

Another issue he had to tackle early on was that people were reluctant to work for the business. Blake recalls that is was difficult to convince those early staff members that he would indeed be able to pay their salaries. He says it took a lot out of him to find people who were ready to join and take the risk alongside him.

“But the secret to success is simple,” he says. “You just have to persevere. The minute you stop, it’s over. You have to try to project yourself into what your endgame is. I always made sure we paid our staff on time, even if it meant we owed the bank a little more each month. I held onto my vision and honed the service aspect of the business. That’s what set us apart. It’s like Starbucks – without the customer service focus it would be just another coffee shop.”

The idea came about after Blake identified the need for a debt collection service without high legal costs. His clients were doctors and service stations. Soon the list grew to include vehicle dealerships and furniture retailers. Then the explosion of store credit cards between 1993 and 1996 boosted the business. Retailers across the spectrum turned to the firm for debt market advice to minimise risk.

Blake might be highly successful today, but he did not have an easy time of it at the beginning. By July 1991 he was worn out by trying to sell his services to bigger clients and ready to lock the door and throw the key away. But then he landed a contract large enough to enable him to service the business’s debt.

“As it so often happens in business, just as I was about to give up, we closed a fantastic deal. I had been pursuing a retail company for months, and my tenacity eventually paid off. I demonstrated to them that we had the capability to improve their debt collection and minimise risk, based on the work we had already done. I proved that we could manage their debt on a more scientific basis and help them to create better default prediction models. Within a few months I was employing 16 people.” The business doubled every year from 1993 to 1997.

“We help companies leverage their markets and enhance their customers’ brand experience,” says Blake, who is now the firm’s chairman. Among his oldest clients are Foschini and Truworths.

Identifying opportunities

“I was oblivious to the competition at the time,” he says. “I developed our system based purely on good service. One of the most unique aspects of the business was that I allowed retailers to use our letterheads and infrastructure so that they did not have to hand over their book. From that, as the business grew, we developed service offerings that drilled further down into their business, so today we look at the entire customer lifecycle, taking into account the opportunities to cross-sell and up-sell, and always enhancing the customer’s experience of the company and the brand.”

Blake notes that the South African market is still immature when it comes to business process outsourcing. Where his American counterparts would have a much wider mandate, South African business leaders tend to want to hold onto the family silver. But attitudes are shifting slowly but surely.

“As a continent, Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog when it comes to communication technology.

There’s no need for the laying of terrestrial networks; everything can work wirelessly. That’s the beauty of the Web – you can go from nothing to smart technology that enables you to trade globally. It’s great for the development of young people, who are able to see that the world is much bigger than the town they come from.”

Expanding into overseas markets

In 2002, Blake saw the need to either lock the business into a boutique offering and look after the needs of South African clients only, or to look for opportunities to leverage the organisation’s vast capacity and infrastructure.

“Some of our processes had been pioneered by the company and were not yet tried and tested. We overcame that by providing a range of services for the mobile industry in the UK. Because we did not have the expertise internally to interact with that market, we brought in an expatriate team. We formed a joint venture with a British company looking for capacity in South Africa. Initially, they were fairly sceptical about our abilities. We provided the capital and the infrastructure, and they provided the management and day-to-day expertise required to run the business. That relationship continued for six years.”

During that time, Blake began to explore the American market. In 2006, the company set up a call centre team in Mauritius to look after American customers. The focus was on customer service as all calls were inbound. From that experience, the company looks after a fair chunk of business in France using the Mauritian team.

“Initially it was extremely difficult to move into overseas markets,” he says. “We were coming in off the back of a mature industry.  But again, perseverance paid off.

To enter the global market, you have to be patient and you have to be aware of where your expertise lies and where it is that you need to bring in experts who know the local territory. There is no way of doing it quickly. You must be prepared to take the time to do it properly, cover all your bases and ensure that you have the capacity to bring on board local partners. Now, because we trade globally, we have a deep understanding of the business standards that are required and the expectations of our customers in Europe, the US and Africa.”

Blake says the company is leveraging its longstanding innovation drive as call centre functionality migrates from voice to data-oriented services. “Instead of calling and speaking to someone, customers can now have their problems and queries resolved through live online chat and other Internet-based services. That does not mean voice will ever disappear, but online services is an area that will continue to grow rapidly as back office services that really enhance customer experience.”

The international expansion changed the way Blake did business. Because European and American markets are so much more advanced, it accelerated the company’s maturity at a rapid rate, enabling Blake to introduce a number of new service offerings.

“We did a lot of support work in the e-commerce environment, which allowed us to grow a whole new line of business in South Africa. We are now able to guide our clients through the e-commerce process and provide best practice advice, services and platforms. We are in the process of building the first of two major e-commerce platforms for a huge local retailer. The company is doing things that enable South African clients to catch up with their overseas counterparts at a rapid rate without having to pay the school fees.”

Bringing shareholders on board

Over the past ten years, the company has always had external shareholders, some of which have changed over time. Blake says it’s because they are drawn to the high-tech nature of the business, but once they’re in, they’re not quite sure what to do with it. His own conviction is that he would much rather own a smaller percentage of a big business than the whole of a smaller one. That’s why he was always open to investors.

In 2008, furniture retailer JD Group increased its shareholding in the company from 27,5% to 55%, with Blake remaining a shareholder and running its operations. “They were not customers before they became shareholders. Now that they are, JD Group have given us enormous reach into the retail market. Their involvement in the business immediately allowed us to be taken more seriously by some of the bigger players. It showed that we were a business of substance. We’ve pooled many of our resources when it comes to IT expertise.”

Although technology played a large part in growing his business, it was his unfaltering entrepreneurial spirit that led to the longevity and success of Blake & Associates, which, in turn, led to him being nominated in 2008 for the Ernest & Young ‘Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year’ Award. “As part of the awards process, I was asked what motivates me. I have to say that I love seeing what we have been able to conceive and create. My vision for the company turned into a working business model that employs people, creates opportunity and adds value to the economy. That’s exciting. It’s also far more rewarding than pure financial gain, which is what I think you’ll find with most true entrepreneurs. There is something amazing about developing a realistic, viable business proposition. From there, the opportunities just flow.”

Blake says that building the business had a massive impact on his personal life. If you don’t have the support of your family you cannot do it, he cautions, adding that he really had no option because he did not have a job. But although he had a wife and two kids, he simply could not see himself working in the corporate sector for the rest of his life.

He risked everything to set up the business, even selling T-shirts at that point to at least have some income. It was a big step for someone who had no inheritance, and no private school old boys’ network. He’s not sure that he would have the guts to do it all over again, but right now he is adamant that being an entrepreneur is who he is. One thing he was never prepared to sacrifice was time with his children. But that came at a price. The hours he spent with his kids had to be made up and he often worked late into the night. “You have to be there to support your children, but when you are in the service industry your clients really don’t care about things like that, so you have to do it entirely in your own time.”

Blake is candid about his interests. “I don’t read successful people’s biographies. They really don’t interest me. I learn from reading business books and from my mentors in the JD Group. I believe that if you have hit the ceiling in terms of what you can do, you must look past your capabilities. Make yourself scared. That’s the best way to grow.”

He’s always been the personal driver for the success of his business. It’s his unfaltering belief that things can always be done, not only differently, but also better, that has driven the massive success of the company.

He has consistently refused to accept the current status quo as the best way of doing the job. Together with his passion for delivering a top quality brand experience to his clients, this is what has been driving his company to integrate unsurpassed levels of technological innovation, business practice and managerial skill with exceptionally high levels of service.

Driven to innovate

One of Blake’s clients, an insurer, has handed over its entire social media interface to the company.  Another of the retailers Blake acts for has one million customers and an average of 80 000 new account applications per month. “What interests me is what is being done to look after those one million clients, rather than just focusing on the new customers,” says Blake. And it’s that kind of thinking that has led to the company’s trademark innovation. “We are constantly looking for more web-enabled processes that allow us to chat live with customers. This means instant feedback, but we’re also trying to migrate out of the voice market into data interactions. Not only do you then have everything on record, but you’re also saving time and resources.”

That’s when he starts talking about the distinction between Blake’s classic business and innovation arm – which is what has enabled a business that’s more than 20 years old to stay way ahead of the game.

“The classic business takes care of itself these days and has an excellent management team. I focus on innovation and I have taken full responsibility for it. I do an enormous amount of research on the Net and I also have a team of seven researchers working with me. They go off and investigate markets; they go to trade shows, exhibitions and tech forums. We also serve several companies coming out of Silicon Valley, which obviously gives us great exposure to new technologies. It helps that we are now in a position where capital is not an issue, but innovation begins with great ideas and paying attention to your market – something we have always done. We’re going through another reengineering process, which is something we do regularly – every 18 months, in fact. We leave the classic business alone and hone new innovations. Then we take those to our clients in product form to find out if they are interested.”

Blake says that innovation requires a huge amount of effort and research. He has a long-standing association with Harvard and is a regular reader of the Harvard Business Review. Educating yourself, he says, is critical. He’s also a Twitter addict and interacts every day on the micro-blogging site. “I watch the feeds and click through whenever I see something that is relevant. We are now in the business of social media on top of everything else, so I have to be interested.”

Staffing solutions

When your business is all about customer service, it’s important to have the right employees. Blake has approached staffing as a vital component of his business – and a way to impact his local community.

1990 Blake is a business of one. He finds it difficult to convince early staff members that he will indeed be able to pay their salaries. One of his biggest challenges is finding people who are ready to join and take the risk alongside him.

2010 The company peaks at 3 000 employees and is actually focusing on downscaling its headcount and employing more technology. It’s possible to do this in such a data intensive business.Today, Blake hires unemployed school leavers, kids who have a wealth of experience on Facebook, Twitter and BBM. “Maybe it’s because I was once unemployed. I have empathy with these kids. We take on even those without experience, train them and help them tackle bigger things,” he says.

7 000 The number of people who the Blake group has employed over a period of 13 years, most of whom were unskilled and unemployed when they started with the company.

The Blake brand

Over its 20 year history Blake has grown from a one-man show to a business that employs 3 000 people and operates across three continents. Here’s the company in a nutshell.

The company

Blake provides contact centre solutions in customer lifecycle management, offering a solution based on servicing niche markets and identifying unique partnerships involving business process enhancement and back-office outsourced solutions.

Customer lifecycle

Blake is committed to working with clients throughout their customer lifecycle.

Client acquisition, customer service, customer retention and business process outsourcing are evolving in the South African market. These, together with broad-ranging cost saving initiatives among corporates, will support Blake’s activity levels. “We will continue to market traditional business services, but we are also pursuing opportunities to leverage our executive skill set to enhance business processes and provide differentiated service levels,” says Blake.

Adding value

The company adds value through technology, people, process and relationships to improve service levels and productivity as well as delivering successful business outcomes. It also builds partnerships that enhance its customer value chain.


The company recently got a makeover and has a whole new look. The landscape was changing and the business needed to change accordingly. The rebranding campaign – from Blake & Associates to Blake – was the perfect way to introduce Blake’s embrace of the future, as well as showcase its in-house talent.


The company’s online presence needed to be renewed in line with the new branding. “The company’s web site,, is an essential integrated business tool. Not only does it facilitate business activity but it also serves as an important source of information for prospective clients,” says Blake.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.


Entrepreneur Profiles

Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making

By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit:
  • About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.

There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.

Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.

 “All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Preparing to launch

While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.

“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”

Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.

“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”

The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.

Solving a problem

Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?

Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.

“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”

AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.

“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.

The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.

Take note

Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’

Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit:
  • About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.

Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.

Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.

“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.

“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.

“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.

“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.

“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.

“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.


“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.

“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.

“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.

“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.

“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”

Exponential growth

When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.


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Entrepreneur Profiles

Who’s Leading Your Business Billy Selekane Asks – You Or The Monkey On Your Back?

You’re either a change-maker, or someone who is influenced by the shifting conditions around you. The truly successful know how to determine their own destinies. Here’s how they do it.

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

  • Player: Billy Selekane
  • Company: Billy Selekane and Associates
  • About: Billy Selekane is an author, internationally acclaimed inspirational keynote speaker, and a personal, team and organisational effectiveness specialist.
  • Visit:

We live in a world of disruption. We live in a world where Airbnb’s valuation is $31 billion, but the Hilton’s market cap is $30 billion. Airbnb doesn’t own one square kilometre, and yet they’re worth more than the world’s biggest hotel chains with enormous assets. We live in a world where things have been turned upside down.

In this brave new world, you can either thrive, or fight to survive. As a leader in your organisation, the choices you make, the mental mind-space you occupy and how you engage with those around you, will determine your personal success, as well as that of your entire organisation.

“The business of business is people. You can’t just pay lip service to the idea that they are your most important asset. You need to live it. Leaders must be intelligent and honest. You can’t just push people to meet the numbers,” says Billy Selekane, personal and business mastery expert and international speaker.

The problem is that great leaders need to first find balance within, before they can successfully lead their organisations.

“Things can no longer be done the same way,” says Billy. “Success today is defined by people who are driven, are inspired by their own lives and goals, and have the power and capability to inspire others.” But before you can achieve any of this, you need to rid yourself of the monkey on your back.

Related: Billy Selekane

The monkey on your back

“If I continue doing what I’m doing, and thinking what I’m thinking, I’ll continue to have what I have,” says Billy. “That’s the definition of insanity. Are you doing things by default or design?”

Billy’s analogy is a simple one. It’s something we can all relate to, and it’s the single biggest thing stopping us from clearing our minds, focusing on the positive and achieving success. He calls it the monkey on our backs.

“Every one of us is born with an invisible monkey on their shoulder,” says Billy. “Your monkey is always with you. Sometimes they’re the one speaking, and you need to be careful of that.” What you need to be even more aware of than your own monkey though, is everyone else’s monkeys.

“Every interaction we have is an opportunity for what I call a monkey download. You have an argument with your spouse before work, and you end up getting into your car with not only your monkey, but theirs as well. Your irritation level has doubled thanks to the extra monkey. Now you get irritated with a pointsman, another driver or a taxi on your way to work. You’ve just added three monkeys.

“By the time you walk into the office, you’re bringing an entire village of monkeys with you. They’re clamouring, clattering, arguing with each other, and the noise is deafening. Not only does everyone get out of your way, but you can’t hear yourself think. And the more your mood drops, the more monkeys you download from the people around you. This is not the path to focus, achieving your goals or being happy. It’s certainly not the path to great leadership.

“Great leaders know how to keep all those monkeys out. They know how to control their moods, and regulate their own positivity. They understand that they are the architects of their own success.”

Getting out of the monkey business

To be a great leader — and personally successful and happy — you need to start by getting out of your own way, and as Billy calls it, ‘getting out of the monkey business.’ You need to not only shake your own monkey, but everyone else’s as well.

According to Billy, there are four simple areas you can begin focusing on today that will help you become the person (and leader) you want to be.

First, honesty is the foundation of everything else you should be doing. “Be clear and straight. Speak to people simply and honestly, but with respect. Connect with them, not through the head, but with the heart. Don’t play tricks.”

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

Next, be authentic. All great leaders are authentic, and recognised as such. Aligned with this is integrity. “This is sadly out of stock, not only in South Africa, but the world,” says Billy.

“There is nothing as disturbing as a leader without integrity, and on a personal level, you won’t achieve emotional stability if you aren’t a person of integrity.”

Finally, you need to embrace love. “Wish your employees well. Wish your family, friends and connections well. When we are given love, and trusted to perform, we take that and pay it forward. In the case of business, this means your employees are giving the same love to customers, but if everyone showed a little more love, the world would be a better place. When people feel cared for, they show up with their hearts and wallets, and they pay it forward.

“Great leaders understand this. They don’t only focus on making themselves better, but adding to everyone around them. Remember this: In every business, there are no bad employees, just bad leaders. Employees are a reflection of that.”

If you want to build a better future, business or life, you need to start with yourself.

Do this

Stop letting negative thoughts and minor irritations derail you. You are the master of your moods and thoughts, so take personal responsibility for them.

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