In a series of interviews, I explore the approaches of different business leaders (all of them chartered accountants) to strategy. This month I was in conversation with Zunaid Bulbulia CA(SA), who brought a wealth of C-Suite experience to the conversation
To truly appreciate the experience that Zunaid brings to the strategy conversation, a brief overview of his career is needed. During his articles in 1993, he was approached to join MTN, then a small company that was just awarded a licence to start a mobile operating business in South Africa. At that stage, it was a very risky exercise as the company had not started operating commercially yet. He was part of the team that started their finance department. ‘Fast forward and I spend 22 years at MTN, working my way through various aspects of the business: finance, customer services, distribution, logistics, sales and project management.’ He eventually became CFO of the South African operations and then CEO of MTN South Africa. ‘At that stage MTN was operating in 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East and had become a true multination conglomerate.’
He ended his journey at the MTN Group as the CEO of CEOs within the group structure. ‘All the CEOs of the different operations within the MTN footprint reported to me − it was probably the most challenging position yet and I spend most of my time on an airplane going between different countries in Africa and the Middle East to keep my hand and ears and eyes on those different businesses on a day-to-day basis.’ He left MTN at the end of 2015 and has been involved in a variety of interesting and challenging projects ever since, from being part of the team that took a small company from an AltX listing to the main board of the JSE to lecturing at Wits Business School to consulting to clients in the telecommunication and banking sector. Zunaid currently focuses his efforts on working with the executive team at the previously listed Morvest Group on Mergers and Acquisitions, as well as investing in a number of tech businesses (his current portfolio includes businesses in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, satellite connectivity, search engine optimisation and analytics, e-commerce and omnipresent contract centres) that are in either a start-up or early phase of their development. Zunaid also continues to lecture at Wits Business School and also holds a few advisory board positions.
On the first question of the importance of having a business strategy in place, Zunaid responded: ‘I think people tend to complicate the whole strategy subject, there is this expectation that a strategy needs to be something complex. The reality is that strategy is, in my mind, nothing more than a manifestation on what you want to do. It is your vision of the company unpacked in a more digestible format.’ He continued: ‘The reason it is important for the strategy to be known, documented and understood by everybody is that it gives everybody a very clear goal. Your energy is very different compared to someone who doesn’t have a purpose and vision. If I just look at people, you can see the difference in energy between someone who’s got purpose and knows what their strategy is versus someone who is almost meandering through the day. The strategy of a business creates that focal point for purpose.’
The conversation turned to methodology and the process of setting a strategy. ‘I have probably been exposed to a million different strategy-setting processes in my career, from the old “bosberaad” meetings to unbelievably complex, specialised sessions. All of them have plusses and minuses, but one thing stands out within all of then – you need to be very inclusive and involve the stakeholders that are eventually going to be responsible for delivering the strategy from very early on in the process. The process where top management go away, smoke the peace pipe and come back with the five points of why and how you are going to be successful, and then communicate that through the rest of the rank and file, never works. If people don’t feel part of the process of how the strategy gets put together and they don’t feel they have contributed, then they have great difficulty identifying and internalising it and making it their purpose,’ said Zunaid.
‘The best advice I would give is that the process has to be inclusive, especially the people who are going to be responsible for delivering on it. This does become challenging in larger organisations employing thousands of people, but you have to find the right mechanism of eliciting the necessary input so that everyone feels like they contributed. Then they internalise it quicker and go on the path of delivery far easier as compared to when it just gets given to them.’
Our conversation around getting buy-in and implementing a strategy quickly moved to culture within an organisation. ‘Defining culture is very complicated and there are different textbook definitions of what culture is, but the one that always stuck with me is that culture is actually “values in action”. The culture is not just what a company says they stand for, it is how you experience the behaviour of the people within the company on a daily basis, the behaviour they display to each other, to customers, to suppliers: that is what the culture of the organisation is. The culture is something you as an employee, customer and supplier feel when you interact with that company. That experience either reinforces the values they say they stand for or it doesn’t. A company can publish their nine values and put them on a wall and on their website (which is important for people to understand) but it boils down to how it is actioned and experienced. If, for instance, inclusivity and valuing the input of your people is a core part of your values and your strategic process is top-down, then there is a complete breakdown between what you say your values are and what your actions are. The strategic process, in a cultural context, is how genuinely and how sincerely you involve everybody in this strategic process in terms of genuinely getting their input in order to frame the strategy. The two are inextricably linked and a very important part of your culture is determined by how you drive the strategy-setting process in your business.’
On the topic of implementation Zunaid continued: ‘A very important part for strategy to maintain its integrity is that you deliver in line with the strategy. If the process of setting your strategy was inclusive and everybody buys into the vision, 20% of the work is done. How you deliver on your strategy and stay faithful to your strategy is 80% of the work. Again, delivery of strategy and the culture within an organisation goes hand in hand.’
We ventured into the terrain of what happens in a time of crisis. ‘This is often the truest test of how faithful you are to your strategy and how faithful you are to the culture of the organisation. Whenever there is a crisis (business related or personal), human nature is to go back to basics, and basics often mean you go back to what your default position is and what you feel most comfortable to do. If the default position is to forget about your culture of inclusivity, you are betraying your strategic intent and you betray the culture of the organization because it shows that what you were doing was not genuine. A crisis is a litmus test, the most severe form of examination of whether your strategy has got merit and whether you are genuine in making sure that everybody involved in the process remains involved in the process.’
Which brought us to scenario analysis: ‘Scenario analysis is important because it forces people to think in extremes − it makes you think out of the box in a very controlled environment, to examine the relevance and of your strategy under extreme circumstances and makes the people in the process jump out of their comfort zones – which is a very important part of ensuring that the strategy you are putting together is relevant and can stand the test of time.’
Our discussion ended with words of advice for younger chartered accountants who are moving into leadership positions where strategy will become part of their responsibilities. ‘I think the most relevant advice I can give would be to not just be obsessed with numbers. My experience is that the default position for most chartered accountants is to go to the numbers, because the numbers tell a certain story. Far more important is to understand what drives what the numbers are all about! The CA in the room is in a very privileged position because her or she already understands the impact of the numbers. This is a solid platform – now allow yourself the luxury of understanding the processes that drive how those numbers are derived so that you can appreciate how value is created in the organisation. Once you combine an intimate understanding of the numbers with a genuine understanding of how the company creates and destroys value, your contribution to strategic direction moves to a very profound level. The CA that understands the business is able to be part of the solution, as opposed to being a policeman who only calls out what is wrong in the business based on its financial performance. It gives the grey socks personality!
Christiaan Vorster CA(SA), SAICA Regional Executive
PHOTO Courtesy of https://transformsa.co.za/