CEO Mteto Nyati cautions against tempting parking spaces in your career

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CEO Mteto Nyati cautions against tempting parking spaces in your career

Jan 2, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

My favourite quote in the book Betting on a Darkie was ‘the road to success has many tempting parking places’ – Steve Potter. I asked the author Mteto Nyati  (Chairman of BSG) about the parking spaces he encountered in his career.

‘When I go back to the village and look for the people I grew up with, many of my agemates are not doing well. In fact, a number of them are dead as a result of continuing in the trajectory we were on of engaging in negative behaviour. That would have been a parking space I would never have overcome had my mother not insisted on pointing me in the right direction.’

The downside of comfort

Mteto was at IBM South Africa for a very long time. He was quite comfortable in that environment and hang around in that parking place for close to 12 years. ‘I should have realised earlier that the promises (of becoming CEO) that were being made to me would not come through in good time. It is important not to let your loyalty stifle your growth. When I left IBM, my career growth was accelerated which made me realise I would have been much further if I left earlier.’

‘Then at Microsoft, I was a very successful CEO and it was very difficult for me to leave given how well they supported me.  If I stayed, my experience would not be as rich as it is today at Altron which is a listed company with heavy demands from investors. The Microsoft business was well supported by funders in the US and therefore if I had stayed I would never have developed the expertise to deal with the kind of liquidity problems I found at Altron.’

The common denominator in all the roles Mteto has held is that he has demonstrated that a leader has the primary responsibility of stewardship. It is about making sure that management takes care of the things that they are given such that when they hand it over, it must be in a better shape than when they found it. That is one of his guiding principles.

‘I don’t think I would have had the impact I had at MTN if I did not have the experiences I had at Microsoft and IBM. Each new assignment I have taken has been progressively harder than the previous one but the experience at the previous one is necessary for me to tackle the issues in the job at hand. At MTN, it was my first encounter with investors in a listed company because although I was not the Group CEO, I was the CEO of one of the largest subsidiaries. It was my first exposure to the world of investors, and I came to appreciate how important people are in the success of companies. It is critical to ensure they have a voice in order to shape and execute strategies.’

Betting on a Darkie 

The book’s title is a challenge to people to recognise that there is no single race that has a monopoly over excellence. The term ‘Darkie’ is used in a derogatory manner and by using it in the title it immediately brings about some tension that makes everyone sit up.

‘Many people from other races think their success should be attributed to their own efforts failing to recognise that they are a product of opportunities that have not been given to their would-be competitors. I think my story is an example of what a person of colour can do if given the chance and therefore those with the ability to do so should not shy away from affording opportunities to black people to demonstrate their excellence.’

On the question of nature versus nurture when it comes to leadership, Mteto is not a person who believes in either/or. ‘Some people are natural born leaders but the majority are made. You could be a leader born in the village who does not invest and build certain aspects of your competencies and therefore fail to become the great leader that you were born to be.’

‘A leader should not be afraid to make tough decisions for the benefit of the company. I did not make decisions on the basis of what is best for Mteto but rather based on what is best for the company. The tone at the top is important; during COVID-19 we cut executive bonuses and shareholder dividends before even thinking of asking our employees to forego salary increases. We focused on being equitable rather than being equal because the lower level employees are most vulnerable. The require greater financial protection than senior management.’

After less the two years leading Altron, the company was one of the top three companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange whose shares had gained the most in an otherwise tough year. The group had been restored to profitability and was paying dividends for the first time in many years. Ample proof that you can indeed bet on a darkie to make good things happen.

This article is a brief extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – Secrets for Success from South Africa’s Top Money Makers – available here https://www.takealot.com/the-ceo-x-factor/PLID92980382

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