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Kulula: Erik Venter and Gidon Novick

Erik Venter and Gidon Novick made history eight years ago when the two Comair employees, with some help from senior management, launched South Africa’s first no-frills airline on a tiny budget. In 2008, Kulula generated turnover of R1,8 billion through its website. It’s no wonder that the carrier’s competitors are green with envy.

Monique Verduyn

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Erik Venter of Kulula

I put the Kulula story down to healthy paranoia and a deep-seated fear of lagging behind. The Comair culture has always been entrepreneurial. I discovered the true extent of that when I read a book about the history of the airline dating back to 1946. We have always had to battle against extreme odds to compete with SAA and that fighting spirit has won through, right to the present.


A lot of that is because we have remarkable consistency in the top management team. The company chair and deputy chair, who played key roles in getting Kulula off the ground, have been in the organisation for over 40 years, and in 65 years Comair has had only four CEOs. Because the churn at the top is so minimal, the organisation has always been able to focus on the future, to look at new trends in global aviation, identify potential threats to business, and determine how best to change the organisation in response to new environments and fresh opportunities.

We don’t seek out people with flair; rather, we aim to promote an entrepreneurial approach throughout the company so that everyone buys into the same philosophy. It’s a strategy that is quite unorthodox compared to many companies, most of which have set mission, vision and strategy statements. But we are in such a volatile industry that we have to keep changing targets all the time. As a result, we home in more on behaviours that make the company successful. Currently, for example, we maintain a great focus on the airline, but we are also moving into e-commerce, thanks to the cultivation of behaviours that are equally applicable to both sides of the business. Innovation and market leadership are at the heart of what we do. The ability to innovate comes from recognising proactive people and building recognition into performance assessments and measurements. We don’t single out people – it’s a process that we develop from the bottom up.

The biggest challenge in creating Kulula was that South Africa had not seen anything like this before. It was an extreme deviation from the traditional airline model which is all we had known since World War II. But while it was radical for the market, it wasn’t for us. The organisation had been in aviation for so long and was so familiar with the industry that it was a welcome challenge. Internationally, so many airlines have given up on their low-cost airlines, saying that it’s not possible to run a conventional carrier along with a low-cost offering. The truth is that Comair has always operated as a low-cost carrier anyway, because it is the underdog to SAA. The challenge therefore did not lie there; it was more about how to differentiate the new product to the customer. We did that by identifying elements of air travel that people would be prepared to pay for separately so that they could travel by air at a lower price.

We had seen what was happening overseas and we knew that it would have an impact on the local market. There were some carriers already looking at setting up a low-cost airline and we had to get to market first and quickly. And we did – we went from conceptualisation to first flight in just two months, taking to the skies in August 2001. Being first gave us huge traction in the market which has continued to the present. One of the biggest advantages at the time was that we launched it as kulula.com. The term “dot com”, which today is almost incidental, was new and in vogue, and had strong associations with the Internet – of course it was part of our strategy to incorporate the term into the name.  It got us immediate attention and gave us a fresh and fun image.

It’s very easy to lose monumental amounts of money in aviation, so we set it up on a shoestring budget, which enabled us to see profits from day one. Comair funded Kulula, but the amount was really negligible. Yes, we had to be entrepreneurial in our approach and take risks, but we also had to be cautious. Our first reservation system was built in six weeks at a cost of R300 000, which is just bizarre. When I think of it now, it’s amazing that it ever worked. The current version of the system is multiple generations ahead of that one, has a team of 30 people working on it, and is worth millions.
The airline industry is currently experiencing tough times because of volatile oil prices and the economic crisis, but Kulula is healthy, handling over 100 flights day. A lot of the reason behind that comes back to institutional memory, which is a great strength. The absence of that constantly catches out other aviation businesses, where management have no idea how to deal with challenges because the team is always experiencing them for the first time. We on the other hand have been through 9/11, the SARS virus, and a dollar that cost R12 – hard times don’t really phase us.

The other thing about long service is that it paves the way for long-term focus. Many companies make the fatal mistake of sacrificing long-term sustainability for short-term profits. You have to resist that temptation. A long-term view makes a business so much more robust, especially in a recession. As an example, when we bought our aircraft we decided to pay them off over five years and not ten. Sure, we would have had a better cash flow if we’d stretched out the repayments, but it would also have cost us much more interest and we would have had to carry that during a downturn; instead, today we sit with a large portion of our fleet paid off.

It’s a way of thinking that has spurred on the recession – greed over sustainability. The international banking sector has revolved around massive bonuses for quick profits. In airlines too, contractors and consultants are brought in and paid huge amounts to deliver short-term gains.
The point is that they do not have the future of the business at heart and they are only around for a fixed period, which is where all their energies are targeted. After that they walk away. Our approach is that there are no surface solutions; if you need a consultant to perform a task in your business, chances are you will continue to require that task to be done, so rather bring someone on board and have what they do permeate the business.
We’re known for our branding and advertising, all of which is targeted towards being current, exciting and fun, a little like the Nando’s of the airline sector. We have our own internal graphics department which handles our promotions, and while our advertising is outsourced, we place a strong emphasis on building the image and culture of the brand internally too.

The recession has worked in our favour in several ways. There has been a lot of downgrading from premium to low-cost carriers. Many international companies once had a ban on cut-price airlines; that has fallen away. Instead, the management of travel costs has become a key concern for most companies. Both the corporate and leisure markets are keen on getting the best deal. This also favours the direct selling model which cuts down on admin costs.

Our products – Kulula Air, Kulula Travel, Kulula Connect, Kulula Card – are not in themselves driving our strategy. Kulula Connect, for example, is more about attracting people to the Kulula brand before they’re even ready to fly. The cellphone is ubiquitous in South Africa, so what better way to get the brand into the market early than with airtime. Kulula Card is different from other airline loyalty cards which apply some mystical formula to give customers miles which are extremely difficult to exchange for a specially allocated freebie seat. With Kulula, you earn moolah on every booking and you can use it anytime you want to for your next ticket. It’s that simple.

The move into Kulula Travel is really just leveraging off what we already have in the business: a great brand, a lot of marketing spend around that brand, and an excellent technology platform. In addition, it’s a product that is positioned well to complement our flight offering.We’ve seen many businesses launch travel platforms, but they have to start from scratch. With Kulula Air we already have a huge anchor tenant and all the support structures we need in place. It’s about having all the ingredients to enable the logical extension of the brand. And it’s a market that has enormous potential – in Europe, over 40% of hotel bookings are done online; in South Africa that figure is just 1%.

3G cards and the expected improvements and cost-reduction of bandwidth bode very well for the ongoing growth of Internet purchasing. E-commerce is still in its infancy in South Africa, but the recession may favour us once again as cost and convenience factors come into play.

The brand extensions help in that regard – we are doing something new all the time and we are never stagnant. The company spends a vast amount of time and energy researching Internet usage, how users interact with our own website, and how to improve the layout and processes. The drive is always to keep it user-friendly and exciting. Regular users of the internet no longer have tolerance for poor websites, so any e-tailer must keep their website functioning optimally. Consumers are becoming fussier about the Internet, from usability and Interface to uptime and speed of processing, your support infrastructure must be robust, backup must be in place and redundancy must be built in.

One of the tricks is managing the impact of fraud. Bearing in mind that 99% of our customers are genuine, we have avoided putting in place complex and extremely detrimental security products that penalise legitimate users; instead, we have gone for the back-office approach, in which we constantly profile users and credit card numbers to spot irregularities. We do not force our need for controls onto our customers. One of the main projects over the last 24 months has been to cultivate cultural awareness of what makes us stronger or weaker. This forms part of a huge plan to deliberately identify and communicate the corporate culture, and has led our people to accept things they have begrudged in the past. It’s all about seeing things from the customer’s point of view. Our new business ventures are all a product of instilling that culture – that is what drives innovation and spurs people on to look for opportunities.

Agility is key. You achieve it by creating a culture in which change is normal. We have never gone through what companies call a “period of consolidation” which is a euphemism for sitting back and doing nothing. We simply don’t expect stability, so change is not an issue. Interestingly, we have no systems to manage constant change – it’s something that is just accepted as part of the business. At more senior level, we hire people with a dynamic rather than maintenance approach to business. 2010 is difficult to gauge, for example.

We’ve planned to increase our capacity by 50%, but will only do so as we see demand growing. No one knows how many visitors will actually come to South Africa, or how much internal travel there will be. No doubt, the impact will be positive, but we don’t know by how much – we’ll respond when we do.
That’s what has enabled us to survive and grow in an airline market that is almost permanently overtraded. A lot of that is because of the government airlines, which fuel the constant battle over capacity. We have an aggressive, cut-throat relationship with our competitors and there is not much love lost between us and Mango. The state subsidy makes it jolly hard for us to compete. If for example, we look at upgrading our fleet, it’s very difficult to raise the finance in this climate, but SAA can go out there and buy a whole lot of new planes with government funds. As a business, we have to build momentum and get our balance sheet right, while the State keeps on ploughing money into Mango and SAA. That’s what pushed Nationwide out of the market. There really is no reason for Mango to exist other than to take out the competition.

Having two joint CEOs has enabled both of us to do what we enjoy, which means we do it well. Gidon and I have quite different approaches. His preference is for PR and marketing; mine lies in operations. The board must have decided that by putting the two of us together, they would get the best of both worlds. It’s hard to find one person who enjoys every single facet of a business, so I believe we are lucky we can share the duties.
Our roles are clearly defined and if anyone tries to play one of us off against the other, they are quickly told who to talk to about specific aspects of the business. It’s also allowed us to spread ourselves further and create a flat organisational structure. There are ten people at the next level of management, which a single CEO would not typically be able to handle. We are able to do much more and with a greater depth of detail.

Kulula at a glance
Kulula employs 1 800 staff.
Comair’s turnover has doubled in size every four years since the launch of Kulula in 2001.
The domestic air travel market has grown by 74% since 2001.
In the five years prior to that, there had been zero market growth.
Until the fuel price went ballistic, airfares had declined by 25% despite inflation since the launch of Kulula, a fact, says Venter, that makes it impossible to argue about the correlation between low-cost carrier prices and passenger volumes.
Kulula is one of South Africa’s biggest online retailers with some R3,5 million in sales daily.
In isiZulu, “kulula” means it is light, or it is easy or simple.

Outlook for airlines
Kulula flies against a backdrop of global gloom:
Passenger traffic worldwide is expected to decline 8% in 2009, with corporate travel projected to drop by 15%.
The International Air Transport Association has warned that the world’s airlines will collectively lose $9 billion this year.
Aircraft buyers are cancelling or delaying orders. Since January, European plane maker Airbus has booked a net total of 11 orders, after 21 were cancelled. Boeing – which is cutting 10 000 jobs – has taken orders for 73 planes, but with cancellations of 66, the net order intake is only seven jets. Fuel prices remain volatile as ever and continue to rise driven by the surge in crude oil prices, which topped $70 per barrel in August.

What you can learn from kulula

Speed to market
Kulula had first-mover advantage, a lead gained by being the first significant company to move into a new market. Realising that other carriers were eyeing the local scene, Kulula’s founders got the business up and running in two months, achieving an insurmountable advantage over its potential rivals. If a business is first into a market, it can capture market share much more easily without having to worry about rivals trying to lure the same customers.
When the rivals do come along – as they inevitably will – the first-mover will have advantages in the ensuing competition. In Kulula’s case these include familiar products, brand loyalty, and a great website. By beating rivals into the market, the first-mover can consolidate its position and compete more effectively, not only defending its previously acquired share but also continuing to expand and innovate.

Long-term focus
Short-term gain often equals long-term pain. Don’t make the mistake of putting all your efforts into making a quick buck now; rather broaden your focus and work on long-term sustainability. That will make your business resilient and help see it through the recession.

Consistent brand communication
Exceptional brand awareness is a direct result of consistent, integrated internal and external communication. It begins with a clear brand strategy, such as being customers’ number one choice by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and an exceptional experience. Exemplary brands always begin with strategy. Brand communication is merely a way to articulate and reinforce the strategy. Make all aspects of your marketing communications cohesive and consistent. Track and refine all your programmes and watch how that impacts on company culture, enhancing service delivery and increasing sales.

Keep costs down, pay off debt
Kulula’s launch budget was minimal, with the founders opting to focus on profitability from the outset. Time and again, successful business owners highlight the need to keep costs at a minimum – especially for a new venture. In addition, tackle your business’s highest-interest rate debt first. Kulula opted to cut its payment period for an expensive capital investment by half, radically reducing the amount of interest it had to pay into the future. Better yet, the company does not have to service this debt in the midst of a recession.

Partner for success
The joint leadership model, which brings together two CEOs with complementary skills, has helped the company achieve its goals. It’s a valuable lesson for SMEs as partners have a vested interest in the business, more so than employees. When a business is new, and there are all sorts of unpredictability and challenges, two heads are better than one. You have someone to lean on, and you can strategise together. It means two leaders can focus their abilities where they are best suited without being distracted by other issues.

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+.

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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

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Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit: afritorchdigital.com
  • 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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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

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Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit: prommac.com
  • 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.

prommac

“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.

key-insights-from-jason-english

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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

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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: billyselekanespeaks.com

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.”

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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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