Turning crisis into opportunity: Dean of GIBS | Fin24
 
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Turning crisis into opportunity: Dean of GIBS

Jun 12 2015 15:03

The business of business, so the saying goes, is business. Which means, quite simply, that in business you are judged by results and delivery, rather than by grand plans, promises, and bold ideas. At the same time, the world of business is changing, and those who are best equipped to lead the way will be those who grasp the science behind the practice, the thinking behind the action.

Just ask Professor Nicola Kleyn, newly-appointed dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg. As one of the world’s leading business “thought factories”, GIBS is helping to change the way business works, and Nicola herself is proof of that proposition.

She sat down with Ruda to talk about shattering perceptions, the personal crisis that made her leave a high-power job in the corporate world, and the art and science of helping business get down to business.

*This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.

Welcome to the Change Exchange, where my guest today, Nicola Kleyn, just the other day appointed as the Head of GIBS, the business school. Congratulations.


Thank you Ruda, it’s lovely to be here. I had to explain to somebody the other day what a dean is. And he said to me: ‘What does it mean to be a dean’? And I said: ‘Well, you look after a business, and you look after a school. It’s a great privilege.

You’re the boss of a school?

Well, I think there are a lot of people who think they’re the boss of me, but yes, I suppose in essence, it’s about being a boss of a school.

Did you always want to be in business? You studied BComm and went on from there?

I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was a period in my life where I was at school and I knew I wanted to do something. I didn’t have these sort-of dreams of becoming a ballet dancer or some of the stereotypical girl dreams, and I still remember a family friend saying: “You’re very good at maths and science. You should go into physiotherapy. That’s a really good career for a girl.”

And at that point something in me going: “There’s something wrong with this, but I haven’t figured it out.” I was very lucky, I went to an all-girls school and there was never an agenda, we were just encouraged to be the best person you could be. It wasn’t relevant. But that stuck with me, and then a couple of months later at the school Wendy Lucas-Bull came and presented at the school about the stock exchange game. And I guess it was a game.

Business is a game. This sounds so cool! And then I went and studied commerce and I was offered a bursary by an accounting company – an auditing company – and my father said to me:

“I’m not sure you will be the best auditor, and we can actually afford for you to keep studying, so why don’t you keep studying?” And then I encountered marketing, and I thought I can do this! I have been consuming since the day I came out of the womb. I relate to this! And started studying marketing – and a bit of finance at the same time, because you’ve got to fund the stuff and then, that was the getting into business piece.

And then you did an MBA and a DBA. So when did you decide: “I’m going to the academic route?”

Oh, I didn’t! I oscillated. I think life sometimes is about deciding one thing and then you go this isn’t working and then you come back. You realise in retrospect that you’ve done a spiral – not just moving from one to the other. I was doing my honours …

Sorry, so you have to learn that that is okay? You don’t have to have a 10-year plan and follow it to the letter?

We should come back and talk about that. Because there was a point at which I was quite desperate with the corporate world and I had to make what I thought was a very conscious decision to say: “I do not choose a career – I choose interesting work.” It was very liberating. “I’m going to do the work that interests me, and that means I’m not going to become as most good marketers did, a brand manager at Unilever and worry about margarine sales.” Well then that’s what I’m going to choose. But it’s a hard choice, when everybody around you is going one route to say that actually, I’ve got to do what ultimately works for me. That’s part of it.

There was that oscillation, so at university I enjoyed that environment. Universities are a magnificent place for curious people. And I’m intensely curious. But at the same time when you’re in a university, there’s a sense of those who can do, those who can’t teach, should I get out there and do? And in retrospect – isn’t it ironic – that those choices about being at Wits at that point, doing an MBA and teaching, and then going into the real world and joining Investec, and then making a decision to come back to academia had been wonderful, because when we started – it’s a business school – and there’s business and there’s school in it.

What’s the best thing about teaching? What do you like about teaching?

It’s not the teaching; it’s about the power of the learning.

So you see yourself as an enabler?

You know, there’s an interesting progression that often happens with faculty and it really is not the best thing, because we haven’t been trained as teachers. You start off as a subject matter expert and in some countries actually this is being strongly regulated, that it says how can you let subject matter experts onto classes? You’ve got to actually understand heutagogy and andragogy.

Where have you ever found a mathematician who can actually talk to young people.

Who can talk! And there’s a sense of certainly for me in the beginning, there’s a potency in teaching. You stand up there and you hold a class, sway and people go: “Wow!” And you want to be better and better at it. And at some point you have to put that ego to one side and go: “Actually, this is so not about me. This is so about where people need to go.” It’s also – in a business school environment – it’s a privilege because we work with post-experience students, the deep respect for the knowledge that they’re bringing to the room, and the experience means that your job really is to work with what is in the room. Not to teach anybody anything.

You were with Investec, but in a kind-of teaching environment? Or not? You were head of their training?

Of what was called their Business School. For me it was not – it was a very strange environment. I decided it was time to leave the university and Investec in those days and I think still today – had a very rigorous interview process. And I went to go and speak to a recruitment consultant and said I’d like to do something. And they said: “Well, why don’t you become an executive assistant?”

I thought those words just don’t sound good. And in retrospect it was a great job, but it just didn’t sound right, and then they said: “We’ve got a position at Investec – but it’s in human resources.” And I said, well, I don’t know anything about human resources. Really, you know. And they said: “Well, we’d like to send your CV across to them.

Then, in fact, the mandate came from quite high up -– at Investec being Investec – didn’t want somebody who had an expertise in human resources to be in learning and development. But they’d preferred the idea that I had been in a client support – client facing and marketing. And they wanted that logic, because internal services is very much around these are your clients and how do we look after those clients? So it was bringing that logic in.

I wasn’t appointed to run the business school, and after one year I got the position. And it was very much an intermediate environment. So, what would happen is you would have clients on one hand – your Investec people who needed learning solutions or training. And we would go to the market and look for providers of that. But a remarkable environment. I learned an awful lot at Investec – I really did. I’m profoundly grateful for the opportunities I had there. But you can’t stay in the same place forever.

And then you were on maternity leave when you got a call?

Well, then actually … I guess before then, I had my first baby. So for some people this is maybe quite manageable and they can insert babies into their lives, and it didn’t happen for me.

And I probably made – in retrospect – a mistake. I was very logical about this change. I knew that this baby was going to arrive. I had a planned cesarean. So I finished work. I remember distinctly going to the shops to get some things and knowing I was going into hospital the next day and thinking: “I will just handle this, because that is the way it works.” And then post-natal depression struck. Horrible, horrible post-natal depression. And I don’t think I realised it at the time.

How long ago?

This was 16 years ago.

People didn’t really know about post-natal depression then. It wasn’t easily diagnosed.

I think people would say you’re a bit blue, or there was just the sense of I’m not coping. Which in retrospect wasn’t me.

Did you go back to work yet?

No. So I was sitting at home, thinking I can’t go back to Investec. “I cannot do this! This is such a high performance environment, I’m feeling a sense of gross inadequacy.” And to Investec’s credit, they really … I had a phone call from the chairman who said to me: “We would love you to come back.” And I said I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I just can’t. And I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

Then I had a phone call from Nick Binedell, and he said to me – he knew me from my Wits days. He said to me: “I’m starting a school.” And I went: “Oh, that sounds interesting.” And he said: “Yes, I’ve sold an MBA to a whole group of people, of the business model. We’re frantically building and we’re starting with our first MBA class in January next year”. This was about November. “And would you come and teach marketing in April?” And isn’t it amazing how sometimes you make a decision – you don’t know where you’re going, but doors open. And the rest is long history, but history.

And it’s also sometimes if you close one door, the … it’s as if other possibilities open up? Not only in reality, but also in your head?

I think what you’re saying is so important, because so often we focus in life on what do you choose to do? And I realise it’s enforced every day in the new role. What are you choosing to not do? And I think what we say no to, is often more important than what we say yes to. And being able to be conscious of that.

It must have been an absolutely wonderful growth experience to grow with the new school. You had hopes that it would become something great, but you couldn’t know..

It’s been remarkable from the perspective of … you only realise when you get into the position that I’ve got into now and I speak to people … I was a faculty member. So my intense focus was on making sure that people were learning in my classes. And in fact the development of the school and the strategic decisions actually were not that much on my radar. I think that’s part of the genius that was the founding dean, because he didn’t make these things everybody’s problem.

He knew the role that people needed to play and he wanted to give them as much autonomy as possible to play that role. And that was different to my experience at Wits University, which was then certainly quite regulated in terms of what you could do and who you could teach and how you approach things. And so it was just remarkable now, taking over the school and having conversations, and in the last couple of years since I’ve moved into senior management, hearing other people’s narrative about their experiences of what happened.

There was always a sense of urgency, a sense of the environment is … the time is now. We need to move. This opportunity to start this school is now and it will not be there in a year’s time. And in fact, when the dean stepped down, we gave him a statue of a cheetah because if I had to say in one word for me, what was Nick about, it was about FAST. It was about good choices, but you move fast. Can’t wait.

And what did he teach you, do you think that you are taking forward with you now?

I think there have been multiple lessons across the years. One of my lessons from Nick was he had a profound focus on: “If you mess something up, I want to know about it before anybody else.” And I remember one day teaching a class and I was very uncomfortable with my performance. I tried to do way too much. And I thought let me go and tell him before he hears about this from anybody else. So I went and knocked on his door and I said to him: “Nick, I’ve messed up this class. I don’t think I’ve done very well.” And he said to me: “It’s not about you – it’s about them.”

We got into a wonderful conversation about how do you push your boundaries. How do you change the way that you have always done something? And one of the things he said to me was: “You know, Nicola, sometimes when we try something new, you’ve just got to really jump.” And I hadn’t. I think I had been raised to be quite risk averse. To not try things unless I knew I was going to be good at them. Well, I had made those choices. I had decided that I would choose to perform in areas where I would succeed.

I think sometimes you’ve got to be brave enough to know this is what needs to happen. And I think the beauty, as I emerged from an academic career which was very much lonely. It was you on the stage, it is you doing the research. The joy is this is not about me. This is about we. And we can do this. It’s very empowering. So I think for Nick that sense of momentum, of take a risk, of the brave choices against my quite prudent background has been good for me.

And, what’s in it for us, as a community, as a society, as a country? What are you, what is Gibs bringing?

Ah, that’s a great question. And it’s a question that if we’re not mindful of, we lose the essence and the potency. So we’re unashamedly about business and responsible business performance. And I think since the financial crisis the role and purpose of business has been under question.

The notion that business should always operate as it has, that the purpose of business is to make a profit only, and serve its shareholders only really has been fundamentally questioned. But if we look at where we are and in the time that we’re at, if we look at the country that we’re at, at the continent on what we reside – the need to be a facilitator of economic growth that doesn’t just enrich shareholders is profound.

The whole idea of inclusive growth?

It’s inclusive growth and it’s about us being quite clear about the role that we want to play, but we have a profound philosophy that says inclusive growth is going to happen because of individuals, and because of organisations. So as a school we need to work on that individual level, with people to question, to innovate, to critique, to debate, to discuss, but ultimately to perform. Because it’s all very well sitting on the sidelines and debating, but if you don’t get out there and do.

One of my colleagues made a lovely comment the other day. He said we need to teach the actors how to think and the thinkers how to act. There’s that role, but also the role of organisations, but also the role of institutions. Not only in South Africa, but also across the continent that are committed to building better societies. And through that satisfying multiple stakeholders, it is the most profoundly exciting place to be. You know, we have 13 000 business schools in the world. We can’t figure out how many there are in Africa, but we think it’s about 50. If we look at the growth of the population, the growth of organisations, the growth of business … we’ve got so much work to do.

Just back to your specific field – your marketing experience. Has marketing in South Africa changed since 1994?

I think there are two kinds of change. I think there’s the change that’s in-your-face change, where you go “This is a big change”. And obviously a shift to democracy. Meant we just spoke now about inclusion. Meant for marketers new markets. Exciting markets. And so  you couldn’t be a marketer in this country and go “There’s going to be a significant shift – particularly on the consumer side who we serve”. Who is going to have the income?

The black middle class. So you need little black kids …

Well, we had, in some ways, a naivety. There was the black diamonds, there have been all sorts of terms used. But that change really came about as a result of significant political change. But at the same time there are those incremental changes that you experience, but you don’t experience them as a big slap in the face until you realise that you missed an opportunity. And I think those changes for marketers are more about social media, democratisation of consumers, the fact that a brand manager suddenly realises they don’t control …

The conversation.

They are the custodian of the brand, but ultimately to build the best brand, your customers are going to go “This is ours. We have the power to shape this,.” And so, interestingly, this theme of democratisation – the Arab Spring has filtered through into the marketing environment, where if we do not respect the individual and collective power of customers I think we’re dead in the water. But it’s taken a few people a while to realise it.

But that will mean that a lot of the training that was done 15 years ago is almost irrelevant? Because it’s become … the field is so completely different?

But full stop – that’s not just marketing. That’s management. The way we lead organisations, the way we obtain buying … The notion of who has power. That’s not just about marketing. I think we have to fundamentally question starting with the purpose of business and what we’re trying to do as businesses. Extending to our business models, so the model that may have worked to generate profitability may have worked 10 years ago, is not going to work in the same way today, and then through to our powers of leadership – our engagement.

A workforce or employees who in one way – I hear these two narratives … the one says your younger employees will only work a 40-hour week, so don’t expect them to do more. And on the other hand we look at the notion of crowdsourcing, and employees who are online in other businesses, contributing amazing ideas and in many cases not being paid for it. We need to make sense of the fact that people have far more choices today, and they’re going to exercise them. And if we’re not the place that people want to engage with, we’re in trouble.

There’s this lovely story that you may have heard about, and it’s sort of done in a typical South African style about a farmer who goes off to go and visit his cousin or his brother who has immigrated to Australia. And he says to him: “How big are these farms here?” And of course they’re hundreds, or thousands of times the size of South African farms because they’re farming sheep. And he says: “How on earth do you keep these sheep in? What do you do about fencing?” And he says: “We don’t fence here. We drill wells.” And the analogy is if you don’t drill a well and have people want to be at your well … fences are not going to work anymore – you better drill wells.

That’s a wonderful story. Getting slightly more personal – you met your husband while you were both doing MBAs? That’s not the usual image of MBA …

Well, I don’t know – if you chatted to our students you might find something quite different!

We were both single … There was a small story, because in MBA interviewing we take things very seriously. At Wits, where I did my MBA, I certainly did. And I had to go for an interview, and I was very young when I did the MBA, and at main campus they said to me: “You have to do a masters.” And I thought I just can’t face doing one of these dissertations. So they said to me: “You better trot over to the business school – see if they’ll take you.”

I had to go through quite an extensive interviewing process and there was a professor there who looked at me very seriously and he said to me: “Why do you want to do an MBA?” And I just looked at him and I thought I can’t face answering this question. “And I smiled at him and I said: ‘Because I’m looking for a husband!” And I found one! And I finished, and he didn’t! That’s the funny story about this. He went off to start his own business, because in those days the MBA really did not cater for entrepreneurs – it was designed to help people get ahead in big business. And I think this has profoundly shifted in that landscape. I would like to think that if he was doing his MBA today, he would get huge value out of it. But the rest, as they say, is history. So I stayed in academia, and he went off and did the entrepreneurship thing.

And now you have two very busy lives. How does one keep a relationship going?

A lot of trust … and trust in the sense of … we only realised recently that we had divided up roles, without doing any formal allocation. We have wonderful job descriptions in business, but I don’t think we do them in our private lives. And letting go of a whole lot of assumptions. So, certainly when I got married, there were assumptions that said that men did this, women did this in relationships …

And you had that model in your head?

That was the model in my head. And the realisation, for example, as I had children.. I don’t think I’m particularly nurturing. I think as a mother I’m a very strong mother, but I’m not the mother that the kids necessarily come to with their deepest, darkest problems. They might be a lot more likely to go to my husband with that. There’s stuff I like doing, and there’s stuff that I really don’t like and I’m lousy at. So Russel does the accounts and a lot of the detail stuff. I like food – so I do a lot of stuff with food.

In all seriousness, I think every marriage needs to find its own footing in terms of who’s going to play what role. And then there’s this wonderful joy of seeing your children get older and realising that they are just becoming these incredible people in their own right, and that your role is to create an enabling environment. So it shifts from this: “I am responsible for your well-being,” to “I am here to enable your well-being.”

Ja. “I’m not bringing you up.”

Yes, exactly. We’re not dragging you up. We’re not bringing you up – actually, you do that for yourself. But would you like to talk to me about some of the choices that you face and how you might want to make them? And if you don’t, I have to let that go. That’s also a part of kids growing up. So it is busy, I guess one of the compromises has been that I don’t do social side on his work, and he really doesn’t do a lot of social side on my work, because I think we’ll just never have time for each other and the family.

We came to exactly the same compromise. It was just too much. You go your way, I’ll go my way. It has changed now,  a little bit, because I work less. So I’m more available, but you can’t.

And isn’t it interesting how we have to recognise that we go through these changes and phases in our lives and we need to and we must relook. So my youngest is 13. She started weekly boarding, and suddenly we’re at home in the week and we sort-of struck this deal where I do two to three evening events a week, and we make sure that there’s at least one night a week where it’s just the two of us and then the kids come home over the weekend and that is fantastic.

But I had to change, because I used to do a lot of work over the weekend. Now I really want to try and avoid that, so there are some late nights and early mornings, but I think being conscious, being in the moment about what we’re doing. And they grow fast!

And your home? How long have you lived there?

Not very long. We have moved homes quite often, because we initially made a choice to move to a slightly smaller home. And then it wasn’t big enough, so we moved to a bigger home. And that was quite rough for me, because I grew up, perhaps confusing a house with a home.

Home is where your family are and where you choose to be and really be a very true self. And what I’ve realised is that’s not located to the geography of it and the building. And I can thank my husband for that – he said to me: “Home is where my pillow is.” I’m not sure I’m there yet. And we’re moving again. We’re moving closer to GIBS because everybody navigating Jo’burg traffic and being mindful of their time knows how tough that is.

So my family are being amazing,  We stayed quite close to my youngest child’s school and she finished grade 7. And I said, “It’s my turn now.” Now we’re going to move to where I want to live. So they’re indulging me – I’m profoundly grateful.

And if you’re house hunting, what do you look for? Space? Light? Pretty trees?

Gardens are important. They don’t have to be big, but I think as I become older what becomes important are some of these very fundamental things. Beautiful trees. Ja, the role of nature in that becomes important. And then of course the notion of taking into account what stage is my family’s at. So I sit with four children. The oldest are 24 and 22. They come and go.

But you want them to have a spot?

I want them to be able to. On the one hand I don’t want to rat around in mausoleum during the week. I want to go ‘it’s fit for purpose for that’ and that it can expand on weekends. There’s this lovely thing in marketing that we call occasion marketing. It says you don’t just think of a consumer as a consumer … It’s not about … Let’s use an example.

If I say to a consumer: “What do you drink?” They’ll look at me and go ”Lots of things”. But what do you drink in the morning with breakfast? And what do you drink when it’s Friday afternoon and you’re celebrating the end of a good work week? And those are different. Our lives are made up of these series of occasions and they shift and they change and we change, but my house needs to be the prop to support those occasions as they stand now. That’s kind of where we’re at. A little bit of quiet time as well – it’s busy at GIBS. It’s a marketplace, so I need to be able to come home and have some silence.

I hope you find the perfect place, and all the very, very, very best for your new role.

Thank you Ruda. Thank you for the time.

Thank you for making time.

It’s been wonderful.

Thank you for being with us. Goodbye.

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