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Growing from your career mistakes

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This article also appeared in
Finweek Magazine in their 26-Sep-2013 issue

Singer Eddie Cantor once said: “It takes 20 years to become an overnight success”.  Behind every seemingly instant success, are years of slog work, learning, experimenting, and many failures along the journey. What differentiates great business people, however, is their very unique view on failure. Unlike most ordinary individuals, they are not afraid to fail. They see failure as a necessary part of the path to success, and an opportunity to learn and grow and do things differently.

So if success is a long and winding road of trial and error and iteration, are there any lessons we can learn along the way from successful leadership icons who’ve been there? Finweek asked South African business icons Alan Knott-Craig Sr., Kumaran Padayachee and Tony Leon what they regretted most about their careers, and what they have learnt or done differently as  a result.

Alan Knott-Craig Sr.

Alan Knott-Craig Sr. is one of South Africa’s most successful business icons. In 1993 he started Vodacom and grew it to some 33 million customers in 5 countries. With Knott-Craig at the helm, the company enjoyed double-digit profit growth every year from 1995/6 to 2007/8. When his health declined, he retired from Vodacom in 2008. Some four years later in 2012, once his restraint had come to an end, he became Cell C’s CEO, and has been making big strides in fixing and growing the company and its customer base.

What are Knott-Craig’s biggest career regrets? There are three that specifically stand out for him.

1. Not ensuring that I have equity in what I have helped build;

2. Not understanding that doing certain things correctly and by the book in business, does not necessarily mean that perfectly transparent and honest decisions, may still be negatively perceived; and

3. Not placing my health first.

So, what has Knott-Craig learnt or done differently as a result?

1.“Actively trying to ensure never to place myself in a position where my actions can be negatively perceived – it does not always work, but I try. Ensuring that even though big decisions may take a little longer, to ensure that they are scrutinised in greater detail by a wider array of experts, before taking responsibility for such decisions myself. Personally keeping detailed records of everything I do in business. Being more careful of whom to trust. Rule of thumb: in business don’t blindly trust anyone until you have known that person for at least 15 years, and then don’t blindly trust them anyway. Talking less, and listening more, has saved me and the companies I have represented a lot of money. I never pick a fight, I just focus on what is right, which often leads to a fight, so I always have a bodyguard nearby. I never raise my voice if I am truly angry, only if I am mildly upset. And I trust in the golden rule of life: what goes around, comes around. So I always play the ball and not the man, unless the man is in the way.”

2.“First do what I must do to stay healthy. I eat healthy stuff, and only if I have to eat (you can only be overweight if you eat). I don’t go to the gym (I always hurt myself). I swim every day. I don’t run (my knees will have to replaced sooner or later, so I am saving the big moment for later). I don’t ride a bicycle with a narrow saddle (it’s just dangerous and painful). I don’t play rugby, unless I am the ref and not reffing at Loftus. I do blood tests on everything every 6 months, and interpret them myself, if possible, using Google. If I am drinking alcohol, I stop as soon as I start feeling irresistible to the fairer sex. I sleep six to eight hours every night if I am in the private sector, and I sleep anytime if not. I don’t eat broccoli (it is totally tasteless). Same goes for lettuce. And string beans. And beetroot.”

Kumaran Padayachee

The entrepreneurship bug bit Kumaran Padayachee early on in his career. He became the MD of KPA in 1993, at only 21 years of age. Fast-track to 2005 when he made it into the Top 5 as a finalist in the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Awards, Best Emerging Category. In 2006 he was selected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur (Endeavor is a non-profit organisation that identifies and assists high-growth entrepreneurs in emerging markets around the world).

So, where did his journey cross paths with Spartan? Back in 1981, Spartan was a small, privately owned business focusing on renting electrical equipment. With technology rapidly evolving, the company morphed into a computer and IT rental business. In KwaZulu-Natal in the early 2000’s, Padayachee was running KPA Asset Based Finance and was looking to expand into Gauteng when he discovered the technology financing business. KPA was keen to concentrate on the technology rental market and well-established Spartan was an ideal fit. In 2003 KPA acquired Spartan and became its holding company, with Padayachee becoming CEO of Spartan.

What are Padayachee’s biggest career mistakes and learnings? He highlights two significant ones.

1. Not “thinking big” early on. 

“I started as an entrepreneur at 21 years old, however, I only started thinking big and strategically towards my late 20’s. This represents a lost decade – and yes, I know time is relative.

An entrepreneur has to have a big vision. It should be big enough to be scary but not delusional.

A combination of obsessive learning towards business, leadership and strategy – together with appropriate mentors at appropriate times – has really aided and stretched my strategic thinking. This has eventually become my default vantage point.”

2. Not improving my people management/leadership skills sooner.

“I “woke up” to this in my early 30’s when I just acquired Spartan and had to lead a much larger people complement than what I had been accustomed to. I made many mistakes in this area.

By practicing self-awareness, acknowledging my limitations – and obsessively and continually learning and reading on this topic (approximately 40 books on it) … I’ve slowly but surely improved in this area.”

Tony Leon

Tony Leon is a familiar face to many South Africans. For almost twenty years he has been a Member of Parliament, and for thirteen years he led the DA and its precursor, the PFP. He is the longest standing Leader of the opposition in parliament, since 1994. He grew the DA from the verge of political extinction into the second biggest political party in SA. A trained attorney, Leon actively took part in the pivotal constitutional negotiations that gave rise to a democratic SA. He also served as a co-chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly’s Theme Committee on Fundamental Rights.

In 2007 Leon stepped down as leader of the DA. He was SA’s Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay from 2009 to 2012. Since then, he has been writing, speaking and consulting to business about issues in SA and the world. He has authored three books, “Hope and Fear: Reflections of a Democrat”, “On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa” and The Accidental Ambassador – From Parliament to Patagonia.

Looking back, what are Leon’s biggest career mistakes? He narrows it down to three key areas:

1. Not following my gut instincts.

“This covers a variety of situations and encounters in a number of fields. Too often I have followed a cerebral approach to decision making and shut down the emotional side. While I do not believe the heart should rule the brain, it does need to be in balance. Most of the mistakes that I made happened when I shunted aside my “inner voice” or warning that a particular situation required a rethink because it left me feeling discomfited, initially. Events often proved the initial concern to be justified.”

2. Contracting out my thinking to others.

“While I generally have enjoyed a robust “inner compass” which points in the right direction, sometimes I allowed myself, especially when under pressure, to delegate some key decisions to subordinates. There is, again, a fine line between proper delegation to other trusted members of the team on the one hand, and always remembering that there can never be room for leadership to allow others to make the key decisions on its behalf. A full and rational checking of available evidence is one thing, but allowing this through pressure of timing and events to let decisions be determined by others who have marshalled the facts and evidence can be costly later on. “Time to think things through” and reflect is often left at the back of the mental queue when in fact it should be front and centre.”

3. Succumbing to pressure

“Mostly, I avoided this trap, but sometimes I was wrongly swayed by the instant or moment of peer or media pressure into making a decision which I later regretted. Once again, there is a narrow but important distinction between listening and responding to outside and critical voices – which need to be heard – and allowing these to sway you off a necessary course of action. “

And Leon’s learnings from these regrets?

“All these are judgment calls, but my various careers and decision-making roles have confirmed that we mostly operate in less than ideal circumstances. A friend of mine, who held a senior position in the White House, put this best: “The essence of being a decision maker is making decisions with real consequences with imperfect information and with too little time.” So whatever lessons I learned from these ‘mistakes’, there is no iron-clad guarantee that they won’t be repeated in some instances again; as simple, and as complex, as that.”

So, looking at their experiences, what are the key takeaways? Even though these three remarkable businessmen have had very different stories and learnings, what they all share are humility, keen self-awareness and an ability to take ownership of their mistakes and turn these to their advantage. Even though it looks like things have come easy for them, just like the rest of us they too have made their fair share of mistakes. The difference is they don’t run from their failures. They embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow and to hone their craft. And this is the real learning in their stories.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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