This article also appeared on Finweek.com on 8-July-2013
“What social skills are important for MBAs in South Africa?” I was recently asked this question in an interview about the MBA space and my business, MBAconnect.net.
MBAs are leaders, or on the path to becoming leaders. So the question could become “What social skills are important for leaders in South Africa?” This is a very important question that we as leaders need to tackle. Especially at a time when our country is crying out for strong, inspirational leaders at the helm, and when Mandela, South Africa’s most iconic leader, isn’t well.
Social skills are a leadership necessity and not unique to South Africa. So the social skills, indeed all leadership skills, needed in South Africa are the same ones that leaders everywhere around the world need: humility, decisiveness under pressure, ability to move barriers standing in the way of your team’s effectiveness, sensitivity to others’ differences, strong communication, macro-management skills, strong listening skills, honesty, the courage to stand firm on important issues, ability to keep your word, the strength to persevere even when times are tough, ability to admit when you’re wrong and say sorry, valuing the opinions of others even if they disagree with yours, self-awareness, ability to recognise your own weaknesses and surround yourself with people who are strong in the areas where you are not, confidence, the ability to motivate and inspire. And the list goes on.
In South Africa, based on our apartheid history, the ability to be sensitive to and tolerant of others’ backgrounds, population groups, cultures, religions and genders, is particularly important. We need to be careful not to judge or make quick assumptions about people based on these differences. So I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and to ask questions before jumping to conclusions. And granted I don’t always get this right, but I’m working on it.
A very real example came up in a recent job interview that I was conducting. The candidate, a black African male by the name of Thabo #, didn’t seem to look me in the face when answering questions. Why am I mentioning his population group? My reason is this. In many cultures, such as South Africa, East Asia and Nigeria, it is considered rude to look directly at an elder or person in charge, and looking downwards is a sign of respect. However, in Western cultures, a common assumption is that avoiding my gaze means the person is untrustworthy or hiding something. So as a leader, I need to be sensitive to these cultural differences and not judge others harshly based on my own set of cultural norms. Towards the end of the interview, I asked Thabo, as diplomatically as I could, if there was a reason why he hadn’t looked me in the face when answering questions (yes, I can feel some of you cringing. My openness can be disarming, bordering on bluntness at times). Others would have shied away from asking sensitive questions like this, especially when they hardly know the person. However, it is these kind of questions that we need to ask because they help us understand others better and to be more tolerant of our differences.
As it turned out, there was a simple explanation that had nothing to do with cultural differences. Thabo hadn’t looked me in the eye because he had been nervous, considering how best to express his answers, and he wasn’t even aware he had been looking away. But once we got this potentially sensitive question out in the open, I saw Thabo relax around me and we could move past it.
The issue of tolerance of diversity may be particularly relevant in South Africa. However it isn’t a uniquely South African issue. It is also very relevant in other countries, for example in negotiations between Eastern and Western countries. Similar to the example with Thabo, when speaking to their teachers, Japanese children are taught in school to look at their teacher’s Adam’s apple or in that region. As a sign of respect, Japanese adults lower their eyes when talking to a superior. Or what about tipping? While this is socially acceptable and even encouraged in Western culture, tipping is considered rude in Japan. So when interacting with other cultures in South Africa and worldwide, you need to do your homework to avoid a cultural faux pax that could damage the relationship and make negotiations go downhill.
My 7-year-old daughter Kayla was recently called in by the school social worker to discuss being too quick to react to others. The social worker gave a suggestion to help Kayla: “Think of a robot, with its green, red and amber lights. When someone says or does something you don’t like, before you snap back, listen to the amber light: slow down. Ask yourself: Will the thing I am about to say or do, hurt that person? If the answer is yes, then think of the red light. Don’t say it. Don’t do it.”
This advice about listening to the robot is also very relevant when it comes to the issue of tolerance of diversity. If you feel yourself making harsh assumptions about others or judging them too harshly based on your own cultural norms, slow down. Think carefully. Stop to ask questions. It is vital that we continually test our assumptions about the world around us, rather than accepting them blindly. But don’t skirt around these issues. Put them out there. We need to ask the sensitive questions because they help us understand others better and to be more tolerant of our differences. They help us become better leaders.
# name changed to protect their identity