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Nestlife: Vusi Sithole

In 1996 Vusi Sithole was the chairman of a subsidiary of Hollard. He had worked his way up the ranks of the insurance industry and was earning an executive’s salary, with further advancement on the horizon.

Nadine Todd

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Vusi Sithole

The story of Nestlife Assurance’s founder, Vusi Sithole, is one of perseverance, determination and the willingness of one man to create a legacy not only for himself, but also future generations of South Africans. Vusi Sithole is not shy about his opinion on the value of working hard. His company was not built on the back of BEE funding, it was not an opportunistic move and he first learnt his industry from the inside out. He firmly believes that nothing in life comes easily, and that learning to roll up your sleeves and get dirty is vital for the development of individuals and the nation as a whole.

“Affirmative action means that young black graduates are snapped up by large corporates at big salaries as they leave university. They start their working life already successful, without really walking the path to success. It’s creating a generation of South Africans who don’t have to work for their dreams, which I find worrying. I want to leave a legacy that shows what you can achieve if you want something badly enough, and you are willing to work for it, without a hand-up from the system. That will be Nestlife’s legacy,” says Sithole.

Having painstakingly built his company from the ground up, he knows what he’s talking about. Nestlife began as Life and Pension Insurance Corporation (LPC), an insolvent insurance company about to be liquidated. Not even its holding company wanted to take the risk of keeping it open.

But achieving dreams comes at a price, and for Sithole, that was giving up his cushy executive’s salary, with the second home, boat and overseas holidays just over the horizon, to build his vision.

Today he sits at his executive boardroom table, immaculate in a pressed suit, the head of a company that underwrites R150 million in premium incomes. It’s a long way off from a decade ago, when he filled the role of admin staff, salesman and GM all in one.

He had to, he had a staff of one: himself. “My journey to this point has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows. I have never been afraid to take a step backwards in the present if it meant future growth, but that has also meant sacrifices, for myself and my family.” It’s this commitment to a long-term goal that has really paid off.

Looking back to where Nestlife started takes us to 1996. Sithole had just used everything he owned as collateral to buy LPC, which was based in Mafikeng. His wife had already supported him through numerous changes in his life, and now he was asking her to support his decision to spend each week, Monday to Friday, in Mafikeng, away from his home in Johannesburg and his family. He didn’t give her all the details, particularly the fact that the house had been used as surety to buy the business, because he didn’t want her to shoulder the stress of the risk he was taking; and, he quips, he wanted to stay married.

Not only would her husband be away each week, but she had to accept that he’d given up his safe executive position, comfortable salary and future promotions to do so. His ultimate goal was to bring the business to Johannesburg, but he had no idea how long that would take. LPC was an insurance underwriting business with a limited licence to operate in the North West province. Before he could begin operating in Joburg he needed to raise R10 million to buy a national licence from the Financial Services Board (FSB). He had no idea how long that would take.

Why did he do all this you ask? Because he had a gut feeling that a business that no one wanted and was about to be liquidated was his ticket to achieving his ultimate dream of owning his own insurance business and building a legacy.

It takes a lot of faith in yourself to make that kind of commitment, but Sithole has self-belief in spades, and by 1996 he had also worked his way slowly and consistently through every position in the insurance industry, knowing that he would need to know the sector inside out before he launched his own company. He knew his market and he was determined to follow his instincts.

“I’ll take it”

Sithole’s introduction to LPC was almost accidental. By 1996 he had been in the insurance industry for over fifteen years. He had worked his way up the corporate ladder and he was the chairman of a subsidiary of Hollard. Life was good. And then he was approached by Capital Alliance, a local company that had its eye on him.

“It was the mid-1990s and Capital Alliance was rebuilding its reputation. Its short-term insurance business had suffered setbacks and although its life insurance side was still strong it was focusing on damage control. That meant restructuring and getting rid of dead weight, particularly subsidiaries that were not performing, or were not in line with the group’s new strategy.” LPC was both. While wooing Sithole, the group’s CEO, Ben Geldenhuis, invited him to visit the floundering subsidiary in Mafikeng. The group wanted to liquidate the company and if Sithole joined them it would be one of his first tasks.

“When we arrived in Mafikeng it took less than ten minutes to assess the company, including its five employees. There wasn’t much to see.” Which Geldenhuis of course knew. 1994 had seen a major change in South Africa’s political structure. The homeland governments were disbanded, replaced by new provincial governments. LPC had been formed to cater for the Bophuthatswana government’s insurance and pension policies. With the dismantling of that government, LPC lost the bulk of its client list. By 1996 it was underwriting an annual premium income of R5 million.

From this revenue, claims and other business expenses had to be paid, and in terms of the Insurance Act, insurance companies had to maintain a stipulated capital adequacy requirement, or they would be declared insolvent. LPC was dangerously close to this mark and the FSB wanted to revoke its limited licence, which meant it wouldn’t be able to trade at all, and Capital Alliance had no real interest in trying to secure new clients in the struggling North West province, which had taken the place of Bophuthatswana. Liquidating the company was a no-brainer.

But not for Sithole. “I can’t explain what happened. Here was this struggling company and instead of agreeing with Ben, I suddenly had this irrational but burning fire in me that this was it. Here was an opportunity for me to get into the industry on my own. I had been prepared to start a business from scratch — I was planning for it even — but this was a way in now, and I was ready.

I literally walked in and thought ‘I’ll take it’. Ben couldn’t believe it. In fact, he put a lot of effort into trying to convince me not to do it. He told me I was crazy, highlighting that I’d need to raise R10 million before I could move the business to Joburg, and Mafikeng did not offer that many potential clients. Maybe I was crazy.

I certainly didn’t know where I would get the money to buy the company, let alone how I would make the R10 million to buy a national licence, but I wanted to buy it anyway. One of the things that I believe is that at the core of all successful entrepreneurs is the ability to see the moment of truth when you are facing it. I knew what I was capable of, and I needed to trust in myself that I could get it done.”

Despite all the hurdles Sithole faced, he and Geldenhuis agreed on the terms of sale. Sithole raised just under the required money by putting his house and everything he owned up as collateral, for which he would own 74% of LPC. Capital Alliance would retain 26%. “I remember the day we signed the papers. Ben turned to me and said, Vusi, now you own an insurance company. Don’t f*** it up.”

Building foundations

Leaving his position as chairman of an insurance company to go it alone was not the first time Sithole had started from scratch. His entire career is marked by decisions to take the difficult road, rather than be satisfied with his current situation.

“I was a black varsity student at Fore Hare during the early 80s, when activism was rife in South Africa, and that influenced me. I wasn’t going to accept a life of mediocrity because of South Africa’s political system. I had big dreams for myself, and the will to achieve them.”

That activism got Sithole kicked out of Fort Hare early, and he arrived back in Johannesburg without a degree or a job. “It was the early 80s and work was not easy to find. Black people were carrying pass books, which the government used to keep track of employment status and work permits.

After months of looking for work, my father managed to get his boss at Anglo American Shipping to organise me a clerk’s position. My first day arrived, and as a young, idealistic young man, I looked at the office job I now had and rebelled against it. I arrived late, I took an extra long lunch hour and I left early.

I didn’t like the office space or the work. I didn’t appreciate the necessity of a job. The next day I was fired and while I wasn’t really sad to see the job go, I didn’t realise the problems the ‘unemployed’ stamp one day after the ‘employed’ stamp in my pass book would have on future job prospects. I was unemployed for months after that. Finally, I was put in contact through a family member with Sam Moseu, who sold insurance policies to the working class in Joburg. He needed someone to do admin for him, and so I was introduced to the insurance industry.”

It was the mid-80s and Sithole was back in an office, doing clerical work, which was exactly what he didn’t want to do, but months of looking for work had taught him the value of a job, any job. That didn’t mean he was giving up on his ambitions though. “I had my eye on hitting the streets with Sam. It took some convincing, but within a few months he let me join him in selling policies. Sam ended up being the man who taught me my first lessons in sales, and the ins and outs of the insurance industry.”

Once there, Sithole soon proved his flair for selling policies. Under Moseu’s guidance he gained enough of an understanding of the insurance industry to become a partner in the business, an arrangement that would last for almost five years. By the late 1980s, the business was doing well, but Sithole knew it would never reach the heights he was ultimately aiming for. And then an opportunity presented itself: local insurance company African Life opened a ‘black’ branch to target the burgeoning working class in the city of Johannesburg. “African Life needed black consultants to sell the policies, and I was approached to join them.”

It was an interesting choice for Sithole. He had now been running his own business with Moseu for almost five years. African Life was not offering him a managerial role. He would be a sales consultant earning commission only and working with Khehla Mthembu.

Many people would have seen this as a step backwards. Not Sithole. “I saw an opportunity to increase my skills base and learn from the best. I would be working in a large corporate firm, and if I worked hard I would move up through the ranks.

“I started at the bottom. I thought I understood my industry, but it didn’t take long to realise how little I knew. I hadn’t been formally trained as a salesman either, so I needed massive growth in that area as well. But I also knew why I had made the move. The whole point was to learn where my shortfalls were and to fix them.”

It wasn’t an easy process. “I was on commission only. I had just gotten married and I actually took a pay cheque home one month worth zero Rands. Policies had lapsed or been cancelled and the returned
commission meant I earned nothing that month. It was an important lesson: don’t sell something to someone who doesn’t want it, or can’t afford it. Their cancelled policies meant I took no money home that month.”

Sithole’s perseverance paid off though. Over the course of nine years he worked his way up the ranks, learning from each position. “I was a consultant, field manager, branch manager and finally area manager for Johannesburg before the BEE insurer Afgen approached me to join them.

It seemed like a good next move.” After a few years at Afgen the opportunity to join Hollard through a subsidiary presented itself. It was the early 90s and Sithole was a hot commodity. He was an experienced black man in the insurance industry at a time when political change was paramount. His future in the industry seemed assured. But still the dream of owning his own company persisted. He was simply biding his time, waiting for the right moment to present itself.

One of Sithole’s strengths is the discipline and patience to lay excellent foundations. By the early 1990s he had come a long way from the youth who was fired on his first day for being a lazy employee. He is a firm believer that the best things in life are earned, and his business success is a prime example of this philosophy.

“By the time I bought LPC I knew my industry inside out, mainly because I had held virtually every position the industry offers. I knew what it took to sell insurance policies, and conversely the administration behind receiving and honouring policies. I knew where things went wrong, and how successful underwriters operated. I had learnt the business from the ground up, and I didn’t make my move until I knew I was ready.”

Creating NestLife

After so many years of preparation, one would think that finally owning his own company would be the end of Sithole’s journey. In fact it was only the beginning. The decision to buy LPC once again took Sithole backwards before he went forwards.

The first challenge was buying the company.  Once he managed to pull the money together though, he still needed to take the company from insolvency to making enough money so that he could raise R10 million in cash to buy the national licence. “I planned to take the company from Mafikeng to Johannesburg from the beginning. I knew there were no real growth possibilities in Mafikeng. As a life insurance underwriter my clients would be big companies, and those were all in Johannesburg. But, unlike Capital Alliance, I didn’t need huge clients in the North West to make LPC viable.”

In order to make LPC a sustainable company, Sithole needed to secure new clients and grow his existing client base. He also needed to run a tight ship, because although he would save money from his own salary, he needed to make the business profitable. “At that stage LPC was a tiny underwriter.

We couldn’t compete with large players in the industry on price, so we needed to differentiate ourselves in another way.” That way was superior service. Sithole shared his vision of growth with his employees and how they were going to get there.

Everyone was invested in his vision. He trained them in the art of customer service, and together they started growing the business, pulling it out of insolvency step by painful step. It took Sithole four long years to secure the national licence, which he achieved through the business’s profits, and by raising capital on the back of his own assets.

Four years of driving from Joburg to Mafikeng each week. Four years of wondering not only if and when he would reach his goal, but whether there would even be enough money to pay the company’s bills at the beginning of each month.

Sithole’s determination, intimate understanding of the insurance industry and support of his staff won out though. The company became ready to secure a national licence, which did not mean Sithole could rest on the success of achieving his goal; more work was ahead.

“When I bought the national licence from the FSB in 2000, I bought out Capital Alliance, changed the company’s name to Nestlife and moved the main office to Johannesburg, but I kept the office in Mafikeng. That was where our clients were, and we needed that business. But moving to Joburg presented its own challenges. After working as hard as I did for four years to achieve my first goal, I was now quite literally a one-man band again. I was making contact with the people I knew in the industry to pitch my business to them. I don’t think I slept for months.”

And then the tipping point came. Sithole had risked everything on being able to secure big clients if he managed to get a national licence, allowing him to sell insurance policies to companies across the country, and not just in the North West province.

His faith in himself and his reputation in the insurance industry were well founded. “I carried the differentiator we had used in Mafikeng through to Johannesburg with me. Even today, as a R150 million company, our differentiator remains service. Never underestimate the power of looking after your clients.”

His strategy was simple. He would use his reputation to secure a meeting, investigate what areas his potential clients were dissatisfied with in terms of their current providers, and find a solution for them. Success lay in following through on any promises he made to deliver those solutions. While doors opened slowly, they did open, and Sithole used every inch to gain a mile. “I approached insurance companies that I knew held big accounts, like Eskom, and I pitched our business as their underwriter.

I didn’t try to get everything at once. Instead, I convinced them to give me a small percentage of their business so that I could prove myself. Here my reputation in the industry definitely played a role. They knew me, and they were willing to give me a chance.

I wasn’t an unknown.” 5% of a company’s business soon grew into 10%, then 20%, until in many cases Nestlife now holds 100% of its clients’ business, all through an unwavering focus on service.

In 2006, Nestlife closed the year with R30 million in premium income, and has experienced exponential growth ever since. In March 2011 the company closed on R150 million, and Sithole aims to grow the business to R1 billion by 2015.

“One of the most interesting things I have learnt on this journey is that you never stop learning. Running a R30 million company is different from running a R10 million company, or a R150 million company. Each time the business has grown, I have had to grow with it, and expand my own horizons.”

Sithole recently completed an MBA degree, which took him four years to achieve on a part-time basis. “If I don’t keep my eye on the ball at all times, I won’t achieve my 2015 vision, or the goals I have set after that. I need to stay on top of everything happening in my company and the insurance industry.”

The human factor

Sithole does not attribute Nestlife’s growth to himself alone. “One of the biggest mistakes I have made is letting excellent employees leave the business without fighting for them. Without skilled staff there is no business, and if there is one piece of advice I can offer other business owners, it’s hold on to the people who make your business great.”

Nestlife employs 100 people across its four offices in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Durban and the Eastern Cape. The Mafikeng office was closed in 2006 and its employees relocated. 2011 will see further expansion with offices opening in Cape Town, Nelspruit and Limpopo province.

“Excellent service starts in-house. If employees understand and buy into a company’s vision, they can support that vision and the business’s overall values. We call it our 2015 vision, and it’s something that everyone, from the cleaning staff to our top brokers, lives and breathes from the moment they walk through the doors each morning.” Interestingly, this is one area that any business can achieve at no cost. Clients appreciate good service and follow-up support. Every business owner can foster this attitude in their staff.

Sithole has worked hard to earn the respect and dedication of his employees. He is particularly focused on helping each individual under the Nestlife banner grow. “We have data capturers and clerks that started as cleaning or gardening staff. If we recognise potential we will open every door we can for that individual to achieve what they are capable of.”

This isn’t ‘bleeding heart’ altruism on Sithole’s part. Netslife’s growth is testament to what employees can achieve if they believe in where a company is headed. “People are not productivity tools. They have personal and career aspirations. As a business owner I have worked hard to never stifle those aspirations, but encourage them instead.”

Future vision

The discipline needed to take an insolvent company and turn it into a major player in an historically competitive industry cannot be downplayed. Sithole lives his life according to three strict pillars: physical, mental and spiritual. He is a firm believer that both the mind and body need to be maintained and worked out for overall health and success, and that spiritual awareness completes a healthy balance.

His passion gave him the drive to not only create a dream, but doggedly pursue it, even when he thought he couldn’t go any further. His discipline has allowed him to realise his vision.

“I want to create a legacy for myself, my family and even South Africa. I’m proud to say that Nestlife isn’t the product of a BEE deal, and I think it’s important for South Africa that companies like mine exist. I want to show our youth that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”

Growing businesses

One of Nestlife’s goals is supporting people, particularly the historically disadvantaged. Sithole has watched people start their companies from scratch, and if he has believed in them, he has used Nestlife as a tool to give them business and support them, through mentoring and resources. One such story is a man who started a small local insurance broking firm. Nestlife supported him, and his insurance company has grown from strength to strength.

Four years since Sithole started supporting him, he has grown to the point of being able to place R11 million worth of business with Nestlife. “At our broker awards earlier this year, he came up to me and said, ‘Mr Sithole, I owe my company’s growth to you. A quarter of that R1 billion company that you are planning for 2015 will come from my business.’ That’s the commitment and the passion we share with the people we have walked our journey with,” says Sithole.

Naming Nestlife

When Vusi Sithole bought a national licence in 2000, he had the perfect opportunity to rebrand the company. The name Life and Pensions Insurance Corporation (LPC) did not actually reflect what the underwriting firm did, as the company no longer sold pension policies. “I got the whole company involved. We had a staff competition to see who could come up with the most appropriate name.”

As it turned out, Sithole himself came up with Nestlife. “I was in the bush watching birds build nests. They were building their homes so patiently and deliberately, piece by piece. I started musing about what we did, helping people build their futures and support their families. The symmetry was perfect. Nests for eggs and protecting baby birds, Nestlife for security for people.”

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mangaliso

    May 5, 2013 at 19:16

    One of the successful entrepreneurs I know.He gives me motivation on being sucessful in life

  2. Moe

    Aug 23, 2013 at 09:28

    Great piece, worth every read. Well done bra Vusi, adding more fuel to my business journey.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: propertypoint.org.za

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive

Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.

Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.

A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.

While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.

“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”

Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.

The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.

“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”

Related: (Slideshow) Top Advice From Local Entrepreneurs That Will Change Your Business In 2019

So, what were the differentiating factors?

What’s dragging your organisation down?

First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.

“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.

“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”

This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.

What the research revealed: Time

time-management-productivity

“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”

These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”

The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.

What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.

“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”

The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.

Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.

“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?

“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”

What the research revealed: Talent

According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.

“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”

To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.

It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.

This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.

“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”

The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”

The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.

“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.

“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’

“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”

The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?

“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.

“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”

Related: Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Teams perform better than individuals

To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.

“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”

Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.

“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.

“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”

According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.

“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.

“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.

“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”

How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”

What the research reveals: Energy

According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.

“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”

Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”

Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”

The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.

“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.

“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”

The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”

Related: How Yoco Successfully Secured Capital And The Importance Of A Pitch

Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.

Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up

Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.

Nadine Todd

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brand-cartel

Vital Stats

  • Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
  • Company: Brand Cartel
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit: brandcartel.co.za

“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”

When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.

Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.

“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”

The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon

We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”

This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”

The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.

Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.

This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.

“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.

Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”

The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.

“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.

The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.

Related: How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms

Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.

“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”

The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”

The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.

The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.

“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”

brand-cartel-south-african-agency

Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.

1. Play with your work

Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.

2. Wag your tail

The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.

We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.

3. Check it, don’t wreck it

The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.

4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)

We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.

That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

5. Put your name to it

It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.

We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.

When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.

We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.

6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)

We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’

7. Walk the talk

For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.

Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.

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