Lessons from SA’s top CEOs

As research for his debut book on organisational culture, 'How to Build a Happy Sandpit', author, Colin Browne, spoke to 65 South African CEOs, company founders, heads of HR and experts on business culture and organisational politics.

Those interviewed for the book, which will be published in October, include FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, PnP’s Raymond Ackerman, Cell C’s Allan Knott-Craig, Comair’s Eric Venter, Investec HR Director Marc Kahn, CEO of Business Connexion Benjamin Mophatlane, Associated Media Publications CEO Julia Raphaely, and Ivan Epstein, CEO of Sage, formerly Softline.

Speaking to the captains of industry, Browne discovered, hiring the right people was crucial for the success and continued survival of a business.

In the book, the former journalist and magazine editor uses the analogy of a sandpit as a metaphor for the workplace.

“Employees in a business are like children in a sandpit. If you have a group of children who play well together, they will build sandcastles. They may build very elaborate ones. They’ll have such a good time doing it that they will want to do it again tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can sit at the adults’ table and have a cup of coffee. You supervise the sandpit, but don’t have to get involved.

But put one little bugger in that sandpit who won’t share the bucket and spade, or who thinks it is okay to kick sand in another’s face, soon someone is going to cry. When that happens, you’re off the adults’ table and back to managing the sandpit.”

Managing the sandpit is the equivalent of managing and resolving conflicts between employees. If you allow the wrong person into your organisation, you’ll discover you spend much of your time micro-managing people and not enough on strategy, vision and taking the organisation forward.

Browne experienced this first hand when, as one of the co-founders of Sales Guru magazine, they hired a woman who wreaked havoc on the organisation.

“She was completely wrong for the organisation,” Browne admitted to DESTINY. “But, I believe in personal responsibility and accountability, we had allowed her in the door.”

After a drawn-out HR process, the woman was ultimately dismissed. To avoid this happening again, Browne set out to do research, which ultimately led to the book.

Finding the right people: Group interviews

Finding the right people, Browne discovered, meant finding people who fit the organisation’s culture. To do this, Browne recommends unconventional recruitment processes like letting everyone who will work with the prospective employee interview them, the way it’s done at Investec.

“The decision to hire the person must be unanimous,” Browne said of Investec’s process. That way they have self-policing teams as colleagues keep each other in line.