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LEAD: Cover Story: The quiet listener

The quiet listener who’s made a big noise in business

Sizwe Errol Nxasana is a man who has used his CA(SA) qualification to the maximum. If he had to do it all again, he says he would choose the CA(SA) path “many times over”.

“It teaches you how any business works, and it has enabled me to succeed in so many different sectors.” That breadth of experience has seen him doing his traineeship with a small firm, establish his own audit and accounting firm, become the founding partner of what is today the fifth-biggest national auditing firm, head Telkom and president of ABASA (Association for Advancement of Black Accountants). Today, he is chief executive officer of FirstRand Limited, one of the big four banks in South Africa, with a market capitalisation of more than R150 billion.

If he could change anything about the training process for a CA(SA), it would be to address some gaps he has noticed over the years: “General management and problem-solving are two components where I see a gap compared to other professions today. I find CAs(SA) a little too narrow in their understanding of business,” he says.

Though he started the first black-owned audit firm in KwaZulu-Natal, and though Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants, still bears his name today (Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo), it is dealing with diversity that he lists as his greatest passion throughout his career.

“First and foremost, I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds.”

To achieve this, he ensures that whatever team he works with has a mix of male and female and black and white, but primarily: “a team which challenges me, with individuals who are smarter than me, yet who balance their diversity with a belief in the same working values as me”.

In the upper strata of business hierarchy, he believes that listening is a vital skill. By this, he means genuine listening – not simply politely looking attentive, but actually being interested in understanding what the speaker has to say, and
encouraging him or her.

“I like to think this is the value I bring, above all, to my business relations. For instance, by listening I am then able to meet and hopefully exceed client needs and expectations. I see my role as solving people’s problems and making sure they can run their own business profitably,” says Nxasana.

Prior to succeeding Paul Harris (one of the three founders of FirstRand) as CEO of FirstRand in 2010, he spent four years in charge of wholly owned subsidiary FirstRand Bank, where he was responsible for all FirstRand banking operations, including First National Bank (one of the country’s leading retail banks), Rand Merchant Bank (a leading corporate and investment bank) and WesBank (a leading car financing company).

Of his role as CEO of FirstRand, which embraces an “owner-manager” culture in which business divisions are operated as individual companies, Nxasana says: “My role at the centre is to be a catalyst, to help make things happen, to offer guidance that empowers people and to pave the way for ongoing discussion and debate.”

Nxasana has also been quoted as saying: “Openness is the bedrock upon which success is built”, referring to the difficult task that CEOs have to communicate bad news in difficult times – a lesson pertinent to all companies that survived the global financial crises.

In 1979, Nxasana graduated from the East London-based University of Fort Hare. Established in 1916, this cosmopolitan university is recognised as the oldest historically black university in Southern Africa, boasting a long-standing tradition of non-racism and characterised by intellectually enriching and critical debate.

Fort Hare graduates have enjoyed prominent careers in fields such as politics, medicine, literature and art, and include some of South Africa’s most prominent influencers of the 21st century: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and South African poet Dennis Brutus. Nxasana graduated with a BComm degree and went on to become one of the first 10 black CAs(SA) in South Africa. In fact, this wasn’t planned.

He had originally wished to enrol for a marketing degree at Fort Hare, but was inspired by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, the first black person to qualify as a CA(SA) in South Africa, who had started lecturing at Fort Hare. Nxasana worked for Unilever and PricewaterhouseCoopers before establishing Sizwe & Co in 1989, the first black-owned audit practice in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1996, he became one of the founding partners of Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants, where he
served as national managing partner until 1998, when he joined Telkom SA as CEO.

It was at Telkom that Nxasana drew on his innate ability to listen and understand the issues surrounding the organisation the most. He implemented significant change as part of Telkom’s morphing from a government department to becoming a company listed on the Johannesburg and New York stock exchange.

One of his major successes at Telkom was changing the culture from an entrenched “job-for-life” – one in which employees were rewarded for their loyalty – to one that rewards performance.

Nxasana holds numerous non-executive roles, including non-executive directorships with MMI Group, Zenex 1995 Trust, Zenex Foundation. Nxasana is a passionate entrepreneur who believes in building lasting companies around quality people. However, he is also quoted as saying that a CEO should not lead an organisation for more than 10 years.

With the recent resignation of FNB CEO Michael Jordaan after exactly a decade at the helm, this is a philosophy that appears to be gaining some traction. “It’s vital for a company to have access to new people and new ideas; otherwise,
the whole organisation thinks just like you do,” he says, and this applies as much to himself. He does not
expect to retire at FirstRand.

“It is equally important for your personal growth – a leader needs to constantly challenge himself or his contribution diminishes. Leaders must know when to quit. It’s why I left Sizwe & Co – to separate myself from the legacy, which otherwise might have come to define me rather than the other way around.”

Nxasana is conscious of the responsibility carried by a CEO of a large listed company and major banking group: “If you’re CEO of any organisation, there is a close synergy between your personal reputation and that of the organisation – in effect, you’re the custodian of that reputation and must live its values, uppermost of which is a high level of ethics.”

Ethics, of course, is a highly personal value, and Nxasana espouses the old-fashioned personal values taught to him by his grandma, which include humility, respect, listening to people, an ethical life, hard work, discipline and self-control.
With values such as these, it is perhaps no surprise that the first reason he gives for his success is “my family”.

His predilection for diversity has found a resonance at FirstRand, because Nxasana sees diversity as core to innovation, and FirstRand is a highly entrepreneurial and innovative business. People of diverse backgrounds – and by training that
means not just technocrats but the humanities – bring in more ideas. “This is my personal contribution to innovation within the Group: I create the facilitating background by having business unit teams that are both diverse and empowered – empowered
to not only see problems, but possessing sharpened problem-solving skills. We seek out mavericks – and create an environment where mistakes are tolerated as part of the learning process.”

In fact, he doesn’t recognise mistakes at all, unless done maliciously or deliberately. Mistakes are only mistakes in hindsight: any decision made for the right reasons and facts at the time is not a mistake. “The important thing is not to dwell, but to evolve one’s
thinking with the evolving circumstances. “Thereafter, those teams and individuals are incentivised without making ‘dolphins’ out of them.

Often, incentivisation is not only about money, but also the acknowledgement of ideas, which we deliberately seek out from every level of the organisation.” Nxasana applies the same ‘enabling’ philosophy to decision-making, seeing his role as the encourager
of debate. “However, even if the creation of a corporate vision is a collective effort, it is the leader’s responsibility to crystallise that vision and thereafter guide all debate accordingly. I believe that is the primary value I bring as leader – laying the foundation around which robust debate takes place. That foundation is always the business case. While there are no ‘sacred cows’, any decision has to be financially viable.”

He describes this leadership style as an appropriate mix of leading from the front when necessary, and at other times being a ‘cheerleader’ and allowing others to lead. That’s because he’s a leader of leaders – a leader of a highly experienced and qualified team who are all leaders in their own right.
“It’s a pleasure to lead such a team, but only because we have such an open and entrepreneurial culture at FirstRand.” He says a typical audit firm might have just as many competent and qualified partners, but leading them is a different proposition because the level of risk-taking, risk tolerance and entrepreneurism is quite different.

Most leaders have had mentors, and many still do. Nxasana differs in this in that he has made a study of life, and has therefore not felt the need for individual mentors. “I read a lot of autobiographies – reading is one of my pleasures in life – and business books, and throughout my career I have observed leaders, seeing what I like and emulating those characteristics.
“I do believe in mentorship, and mentor possibly more people than I can manage, because, done right, mentorship is a time-consuming activity. I often have to turn down requests to mentor individuals, mainly because they seek mentorship for the wrong reasons: sometimes they simply want to advance their careers.

Mentorship is about guidance, listening and getting people to think for themselves rather than giving them the answers. That’s why it takes time: a mentor is a sounding board – to be used by an individual to confirm whether his thinking is right and if he’s on
the right track.”

The lessons he tries to inculcate in those he mentors is to look closely at how they live their life, whether their behaviour is ethical, to cultivate a positive approach to life and an ambition to succeed.
One reason he believes in diversity is to blend the positive values of different demographics. Nxasana lists one of his most important goals as the advancement of SAICA’s Thuthuka programme.

“One of the most important things we must accomplish as a profession is to increase the pipeline of disadvantaged students, if our profession is to be sustainable. If we want a successful economy and profession, we have to address this urgently,” he says.

When he’s not driving business and professional issues, Nxasana can be found driving one of his personal fleet of Mercedes cars. He has come to appreciate the beauty of the vehicle in ways that transcend their pragmatic use.
“I have come to recognise the car, and particularly the Mercedes, as an art form, and I extract an enormous amount of pleasure from my cars. When I’m not doing that, I may be found reading on any one of my interests. Right now, that is books on entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Nxasana.

Author: Eamon Ryan, LLB (Hons) is a Business Journalist.