2018 has been a particularly challenging year for many of us. As wave after wave of stinking effluent has rained down on us from the various commissions of enquiry; as the impact of State Capture has begun to be felt and as the economy has faltered, the citizens have been left reeling and even depressed.

Over the same period, this column and indeed this website, has celebrated South Africans who are making a difference with what they have in their hands. It has done this to encourage an alternative narrative; one of hope and action. As people we need to keep telling our good stories so that we don’t become overwhelmed by the bad.

I would like to end off the year with a rare and startling story of hope and good. Several months ago, I got a call from a Johannesburg-based CEO by the name of Thomas Holtz. He runs a manufacturing company called Multotec. They have branches nationwide and across Africa, in South America, Australia and China and they employ around 1800 people.

Thomas’s brief to me – along with the way he communicated it – was unusual to put it mildly. He wanted me to work with him (not consultant to him you understand) to help break down patriarchy within his organisation. A male CEO wanting to break down patriarchy? I checked outside to see if it wasn’t snowing in Durbs.

As we spoke it became apparent that this was no ordinary CEO; he was thinking way beyond the usual aspects of bottom-line, leadership development, customer service, team building, diversity and inclusion and safety etc – although all of these would of course benefit from this work. But he was going someplace else; someplace we urgently need to go in South Africa. How fascinating that such a brief would emerge from a manufacturing company servicing the mining industry!

Thomas and I have spoken extensively over the months and what has struck me is that his implicit questions are different: How can we continue to run a very successful business and go beyond CSI and SED to build our nation? How can we contribute to the shifting of the needle on racism and sexism, not just in here but out there? How can we turn the tables on patriarchy? How can we bring love, compassion and purpose into the workplace? You see, Thomas has realised that unless he uses his position, his power and his privilege to bring about change and not just tick boxes, then all he will be at the end of it all, is a successful CEO. The world will not have shifted at all.

Now you will notice from his name that Thomas is male and white. So was 90% of his Exco when we started this journey. And the problems weren’t just the lack of diversity and the lack of innovation that results. The problem was that although he himself (and indeed many of his team) were not archetypal patriarchs, they were labouring in and under a highly patriarchal system. A) Manufacturing b) in the mining sector c) in South Africa. Breaking down patriarchy and its cousins racism and sexism would take a concerted, long-term effort from him and his executive team. This wouldn’t happen through tokenism.

We have held several very intense workshops, one-on-ones and group interviews with middle management. His exco team has done battle with the concepts of patriarchy, racism, power distance and culture. It has been tough – particularly as this is a highly successful organisation that on the surface of it might say: “If it isn’t broken don’t fix it”. But you see in their own way, they were broken, and sooner or later this would have caught up with the bottom line. 

The business has begun to transform in profound ways as the individuals have done their own individual work. On one level, the exco is now more diverse. But more significantly, the tone, the mood and how they show up as people has shifted. There is a maturity, a weight if you like, a new way of seeing each other and others in the organisation. The smell of the place has changed.

As we look towards 2019, we can draw on the energy of Thomas and his team. Whether you run a business small or large, a classroom, a place of worship, a project, a government department, an NGO, a home, a family or just yourself – use that platform to have conversations that shift the needle in a positive direction. This team is not perfect, and the journey will certainly continue, but they are daring to speak about the issues that we would much rather pretend did not exist or impact on business. And the world is a much better place because they are doing this work. And by the way, Multotec is a better and more successful company for it and the people are loving the change in their leaders. Indeed, the business is on track to do its best year ever. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not.

I salute Thomas Holtz and his team for bravely tackling their shadows and working to make not only their business but this country and this world, a better place. They are using what they have in their hands – no more, no less.

They inspire us all.

Justin Foxton is a Process Facilitator and Founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

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