Talk Talk

I have been in South Africa for the last 3 months. I blogged earlier, quite optimistically, on the slow progress that the country is making towards a more equal and race blind country. Since then I have tried to soak up the important trends and to learn more about what is really happening here.

Two very different data points struck me as relevant:

The first relates to an entrepreneur trading informally in the Eastern Cape. He refused financial help offered by a government agency charged with promoting the cause of micro and small businesses;  arguing that he would then become like a child of the agency and less able, rather than more, to stand on his own feet. This self reliance is a characteristic of people here, evolved from pioneering ancestors of all races and surely a reason to be hopeful.

The second relates to the recently updated corruption perception index. This places South Africa in 64th place of a 176 countries. The country scores slightly above the global average. This is probably better than most South Africans would predict. A real positive is that almost no one thinks this is anywhere near good enough.

There is a vibrant media here that is outspoken in its fight against government waste, corruption and big business collusion. Radio talk shows (Shado Twala on SA FM for example) provide a platform for equally vociferous members of the public. This same vibrancy also perhaps feeds the pessimism of people here.

The progress of South Africa (a member of G20 remember) towards a fairer society is undoubtedly hindered by her small tax base. Extreme income inequality means that less than 10% of the population contribute 99% of the income tax. Unemployment at about 25% and a thriving black economy are major factors and tax payers are unlikely to be encouraged if they think their tax contributions are finding their way into the pockets of corrupt officials.

SA is proud of her constitution and she has worked hard to establish functional government at national, provincial and local level. In doing so, I think the mark has been overshot. The straight forward language of the generation of ANC freedom fighters, many educated in the old eastern bloc, has been replaced by something else.  When interviewed, civil servants and politicians tend to get mired in fashionable phrases and gobbledegook; currently every initiative is labeled as part of the hoped for radical socio-economic transformation. It is not enough to claim to encourage just entrepreneurship. It must be social entrepreneurship. There is a strong sense that there is a lot of multi-sylabic talk and little action.   This seems to me, to point to a need for  government to be stripped down to the essentials in order to deliver more rapid and sustainable change.

So am I more or less optimistic about South Africa after 3 months of privileged existence here? Is this country another Zimbabwe waiting to happen as many here would have you believe? I do not think so. South Africans are protective of their right to dissent. They see through the talk. There is too much that is good here and a healthy set of checks and balances upon which citizens now insist.

Pressure of Work

This blog has been silent for the 7 weeks of 2017 that have rushed by already. This cannot be because of a paucity of change on which to comment. We have had the start of the Trump presidency which has been a thrill a day, proving wrong those of us that thought his presidency could not be as bad as his candidacy. As mentioned earlier, I am in South Africa for the southern summer and being this far from the action has a calming effect and reduces the itch that normally gets scratched with 250 or so words.

So it is not pressure of work that is keeping me from blogging although I am developing several business opportunities that I hope will come to fruition later in the year. In the meantime, as one of the fortunate and shrinking few that have a generous pension, I am not burdened by the need to earn today’s crust.

It is not many years ago that the talk was of the 3rd age and multiple careers in a long but more rewarding working life. Reality is kicking in and a new generation of workers will probably be forced into a more pragmatic future. This future will require full time work perhaps even beyond three score and ten. My generation is already envied and sometimes subjected to more hostile reactions to our good fortune. Our voting habits are analysed for evidence of selfishness and a lack of consideration for those that will look after us, hopefully, in our dotage. Our tendency to spend our money rather than build our childrens’ inheritance is not looked upon kindly.

How will this divisive trend be centred?

We already see that there is a return to extended families sharing homes and inheritances being advanced in the form of home loans and gifts. Grandparents are increasingly volunteering for their traditional role as child carers. These developments are often part of a negative narrative; consequences of difficult times and a broken economy. However, surely they are also evidence of a society that adapts to change while falling back on its core values. We should promote such developments and look for new opportunities to leverage the technology that makes our lives easier and more interesting no matter when we were born.

Change is good.






Flippen Lekker Mangos

I am in my adopted country of South Africa escaping the northern winter. If ever there was a country that should understand change management it is this beautiful nation. The transition from white rule to democracy in the early 1990s has been much written about like its starring character, Nelson Mandela. The white leaders of apartheid South Africa came to understand that the case for change was irresistible and they succeeded in selling it to enough of their white constituency before time ran out. The transition was managed over several years and the feared for civil war did not manifest itself. Mandela and his colleagues in the African National Congress had a vision of a South Africa for all South Africans irrespective of race.

How is South Africa doing in its quest for a race blind society? The current consensus is that it is not going too well and there is plenty of material to feed the pessimism which is a characteristic of most South Africans. The ANC government led by Jacob Zuma is widely despised as corrupt and self serving. The hoped for improvements in living standards of the black population have been slow to come. Informal traders still eek out a living selling “flippen lekker Mangos” at the roadside. Domestic servants and gardeners earn meagre wages and live in separate communities just like the bad old days. Most of the wealth of the country remains in the hands of the white minority. Crime touches almost everyone. The first thing anyone tells you about a new acquaintance is their ethnicity. This is still an unequal society deeply concerned with race and racism is close to the surface in most aspects of life.

Jolly nice mangos

What has gone wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe this is just the inevitable process of transition which may take generations and may encounter frequent bumps in the road. Or maybe the change management plan just did not comprehend the long slog that is fundamental societal transformation. The obvious things have been implemented. Universal franchise, access to education, better housing for some. Surely the rest will follow.

I think South Africa is a classic case of a change initiative which has stalled and run out of steam at least temporarily. The improvements are overshadowed by the failures and the unforeseen consequences of freedom without equality. Millennials are not that interested in the history of Apartheid which is already consigned to dry text books. Some older people have a tendency to be nostalgic even about the murderous police state of the cold war era. Madiba’s vision needs to be refreshed and energy injected into the next phase of the Rainbow Nation Project.

Where will the leadership for the next phase of South Africa’s transition come from? Politicians manage change on a 10 year horizon at best. They look for quick wins that translate into votes. A Change Manager is required here even more urgently than in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. The Change Manager should ideally have an in-depth understanding of the country, her history and her complex cultural masala. The planning timeline needs to comprehend 20 years and consider scenarios that include things getting worse before they get better. Addressing the perceptions of the increasingly cynical minority groups who experience apartheid in reverse will be as important as setting realistic expectations within the majority of still deprived black africans.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Change is good.

In Sickness and in Health

This has been a year full of life milestones and change for me and for my family. The latest milestone is the wedding of my eldest daughter. Said daughter is one of that generation of professional, young people forced by the high cost of housing in the UK to live with parents. Her fiancé and she decided not to live together before marriage. So her happy event was also a trigger for some quiet pondering on the part of her parents. How would we fill the gap left by her? At one level, there will be fewer lemon drizzle cakes and the discipline required to get to the gym each morning will increase without the help of a station drop off. On another level, more pressure on me to remain talkative into the evening when I have often had the luxury of slipping into the background while the women in my life discuss the day or the wedding plan.

It seems reasonable that we should treat personal change with at least as much care and thought as we might apply to professional situations but how many of us develop a Change Plan for such situations? More likely we make it up on the run or give it little thought until we hit challenges. Perhaps this is a good discussion to have with my wife on an evening soon when I might otherwise be tempted to go into standby mode.

I have learnt (again) that a spreadsheet approach to planning, in this case, a wedding is not welcome and that a family does not respond well to a too obviously structured approach to Project and Change Management. In the absence of such an approach it seems that my family falls back on intense communication and consultation followed by periods of frantic action. Roles are assigned without discussion based perhaps on previous experience of what works and what does not. My wife is the planner and has a complete grasp of the detail. On a practical level, my role is to manage logistics. At other times, I am the one that is expected to stay calm and see the way through a difficult phase in the preparations. My family has come to expect that I will often be grumpy but nearly always support our team effort.

I am not sure I would recommend the Lewis family approach to Project and Change Management but it demonstrates that there is more than one way to achieve success.



Brexit Plus Plus

My regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the invented word coined for the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. If you are based in the UK it is impossible to go more than an hour or two without hearing the ghastly word. A new, ugly vocabulary has sprung up to describe the type of relationship we might have with the EU in future and to disparage particularly those, like me, that would like to keep all our options open until we know more about what we are doing to ourselves. Our expensively educated leaders are adept at word invention. Just yesterday we had the British Chief Diplomat’s “Whingerama” which I take to mean “a collective expression of concern about the election of an unknown quantity to the most powerful position in the world”.

For me, it was another unwelcome development when the President elect of the United States started to compare his campaign to the apparent success of the forgotten people of England in putting the finger up to their governing class. Of course, being American (are we sure?), P(e)oTUS is compelled to add a double plus rating to his election win. It is rumoured that our very own Nigel Farage (Brexiteer-in-Chief) is advising the Donald.

The rallying cries of recent political campaigns have trumpeted change even, perversely, when the vision is conservative and reactionary.

Over the summer and more so now, I have been trying to find evidence for structured change management planning for the UK, in the EU, and now the US; not the mechanical transition of power but the kind of plan that would allow us ordinary folk to begin to understand what the future might look like. We are all stakeholders.

The British government has repeatedly said it will not run a commentary on its vision for the future; spuriously suggesting that this would undermine its negotiating position. All we need to know is that “Brexit means Brexit”. Thanks for the clarification.

The policy positions of the incoming US administration are now the subject of media speculation based on the idea that what was said during the campaign was for effect only and that we can expect something much more moderate and thoughtful. Really?

Behind the scenes in Washington, Brussels and London, I am hoping that there are teams of left-brain thinkers that are above political point scoring and focused on developing a coherent, realistic plan that everyone can at least understand even if they would not vote for it.

What you each need, Donald, Jean-Claude and Theresa, is a Secretary of State, Commissioner, Minister for Change. I am available.

Jozi Boy

My father-in-law died this week. He was an Indian South African whose own father came to Africa from Gujarat in the early 20th century. His life started and ended, 88 years apart, in Johannesburg. He was a devout, peace loving Muslim. For a large part of his life he lived under the Apartheid regime. He was neither an activist nor a collaborator. Like most South Africans, he got on with his life, raised a family and put up with the regular humiliations that, until the early 1990s, went with life in that otherwise beautiful country. He travelled for business, speaking multiple languages with his rainbow customers; English, Gujarati, Afrikaans, Zulu. Away from home, he slept with friends or in his car because he was not welcome in hotels. Even when Apartheid fell away, he preferred home cooked padkos to eating in restaurants which would earlier have turned him away. Why would he not?

The young Ismail was estranged from his family because he fell in love with a non-muslim, Nora then Zora, to whom he was married for over 60 years. Together they had 7 children. He  worked hard and played football in his spare time, wearing out his knees in the process. He liked to dance to records on the home gramophone; there was no television in South Africa until 1976. His idea of a perfect weekend was a trip to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) with his family in his VW Combi. The colonial Portuguese were more relaxed in their attitudes to race than their South African counterparts and camping on the beach was cheap and cheerful. LM Prawns could be enjoyed al fresco in the sea-front restaurants. He loved the sea and in later years would take long, surf sprayed, daily walks on the beach in East London where one of his daughters was living.

He also loved the Lowveld in the Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga, where he lived for many years. This edgy, green, only just sub-tropical landscape still holds scattered township communities in which his customers lived and through which he loved to drive; places with evocative names like Sabie, Graskop, Hazyview and Bushbuckridge. The Kruger National Park was another favourite place.

In a long life, my Father-in-law experienced a lot of change. He was kind of indifferent to most of it because his home grown family was the one constant in his life; always there and mostly making him smile.

May God grant you a better place Haji Ismail Adam Rajah. I will miss you.


No Victor but God

A few weeks ago, I reflected on a millennium of change in York. Last week, I travelled to the beautiful Andalusian city of Granada and found myself looking for clues to the preoccupations of our troubled world in the history that is embedded here. Granada is the site of the Alhambra; a reminder that multi-cultural Europe is nothing new (think also the Balkan countries) and that the tensions this introduces to society are not new either.

Andalusia was ruled for 8 centuries by Muslim sultans with roots in North Africa. The Christian kings of Spain, of course, were determined to expel the Muslim occupiers. Granada, the last stronghold, was finally surrendered to the Spanish king in 1492. At that time it was a prosperous city with important communities representing each of the Abrahamic religions. Today Granada is an exotic cocktail of Christian and Muslim heritage surrounded by olive groves, scorched mountains, and sharing its climate with Morocco. The handsome citizens sport features that perhaps point to marriages across the faith divide all those centuries ago.

The palaces of the Alhambra are largely intact and testament to the peace and tranquility which is at the heart of true Islam. Beautifully carved marble, gentle fountains, pomegranates and roses combine to transport the visitor into a world dedicated to the celebration of God and the beauty of creation even while the world outside lays siege.

The Koranic text that is exquisitely carved everywhere translates variously but most often as “There is no victor but God”; surely a reminder that our predilection for war is ultimately and always futile. Our tendency to turn suspicion and ignorance of other cultures into hate is blinding us to the opportunity for a more gentle, meditative world.

And the lesson for the Change Manager? Maybe that change washes over everything but beauty will not be easily swept away. The good in anything can be the backbone of  the new and the inspiration for progress.

Change is good.



Childlike Enthusiasm

The post corporate life that I have been leading since Spring has many benefits. Today I took the afternoon off and hiked up a lovely valley near my home simply because it was too beautiful a day to spend in the office. Better still, earlier this week, I was able to take my  Grandson to his first day at nursery school and witness the pure excitement as he rushed to join his unmet classmates and a bunch of unfamiliar toys. Disappointingly, from a professional point of view, I was not called upon to articulate the benefits of this new regime, nor point out that lots of things will be just the same.

The young child’s enthusiasm for change and new horizons would be an excellent commodity for a Change Manager to have distilled and bottled; to be dispensed sparingly when the going gets tough. At what point in our young lives does this spirit get diluted by anxiety about a change in the status quo? Is it when we discover that new friends can sometimes be mean or the first time a much loved teacher leaves for a new school. Probably we as (grand) parents unwittingly transmit our anxieties.  Of course it is different for everyone but nearly all of us eventually catch that bug that is aversion to change.

So in the absence of a bottle of Essence de Petit Enfant, I will just have to enjoy the moment and try not to let my worries get in the way of a my grandchildrens’ early life adventures.

Change is Good.

House and Home

Moving home is one of those experiences in life along with losing a loved one, your first child, divorce and (name your own choice here), that is rated most traumatic, stressful and, yes, exciting too. Very few of us manage a life time without having to cope with a home move at least once. If ever a life event resembled a Change Management initiative, moving home is the one.

I raise this now because my Mother has just completed a successful move and downsizing after living in the same house for 40 years. The case for action had been strong for sometime but until recently she had toyed with the idea several times before always rejecting it. The difficulties presented seemed to outweigh the opportunities. The burden of running an, apparently idyllic, English country cottage and large garden had inevitably and progressively increased for Mum after the loss of her soul mate, my Father, 7 years ago. Even when this burden became intolerable, there was still much room for discussion about the right course of action and the hope that it would be better tomorrow.

The process of selling a house in England is not designed for the faint-hearted nor those with doubts about the change they are undertaking. Neither buyer nor seller is bound to the transaction until an exchange of contracts.  This occurs weeks or months after the buyer’s offer is accepted and maybe only a couple of days before closure and the move itself. Usually, the buy/sell transaction is just one of several in an inter-dependent chain. Weak links do what weak links do. Sleepless nights and interminable legal questionnaires can easily be converted into a loss of determination to see it through.

Then there is the little matter of emotional attachment to the status quo; the treasured memories of decades of life in the same home, the neighbours and nearby friends, the beauty of the garden on a late summer morning. These are only amplified when the packing starts. The photographs, letters and ornaments with sentimental value are rediscovered. There is inevitably that low point in the change curve when only the wilderness  ahead is visible. Life will surely never return to normal. Nowhere will ever seem like home again. Everything is changing and it does not feel good.

My Mother wisely engaged the help of Meirion, our home downsizing consultant (a.k.a. Change Manager) who brought detachment tempered with empathy and combined with pragmatism and experience. In this case, as so often, our Change Manager was critical to success.

The move itself is a moment of truth but no going back now. The new home, with familiar furniture quickly in position, takes shape with surprising speed. Suddenly the focus is on the future rather than the past. The moments of doubt are still there at stressful moments and when short of sleep but the flood tide of hope and optimism cannot be held back.

Change is good.


White Noise

A friend and former colleague providing me with a critique of my website design prior to its launch in May, made the, perhaps obvious, point that it is hard to be heard above the din that is the internet and social media. The trickle of visitors to my website and this blog confirms that. Investing in a GoogleAd campaign does not have to be expensive and has increased website traffic by 1000% in the first week. Can I expect this to result in new business leads or am I waiting for the statistical equivalent of a meteor strike extinction event? How should I put this in perspective? Is it worth the effort?

Communication is at the heart of any Change Management effort. It is frequently mentioned that telling it 7 or 9 times is necessary before a message is heard and internalised by any given audience. Hence those moments of truth we have learned to react to. Nevertheless, line managers often prefer a solitary, simple e-mail or (rather than “and”) a 10 minute agenda item at the staff town hall meeting. Perhaps they are hoping the change will just go unnoticed.

Telling it 7+ times implies that Change communications must use a range of channels and repeat messages even when some of the audience is already claiming complete familiarity with what is coming. Some of the channels may not provide instant payback but are still worth considering especially if, like a website, they can become a “go to” place for information and near real-time updates. The potential reach of the internet (or your company intranet) is impossible to beat.

So although my trickle of visitors has yet to make a splash, I will continue to invest time and a little money to promote the wider effort of growing my business.

Change is good. If you are listening.