Nedbank CEO Mike Brown favours EQ over IQ in the quest for success

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Nedbank CEO Mike Brown favours EQ over IQ in the quest for success

Feb 25, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

Nedbank CEO Mike Brown advises professionals to invest as much as they can in their education because he sees it as the ticket to long-term success – something he’s experience first-hand. Winning the award for the best final-year student at the University of Natal (today the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in the early 1980s set him up for several future opportunities. He worked hard from day one, making sure he was the best prepared person in the room at every meeting, getting into the office earlier than others and leaving later than most of them.

However, he is also acutely aware of rising to the top requiring more than just brains and hard work. ‘Life is about balance. People pursuing analytical professions like engineering, mathematics and accounting often have the IQ [intelligence quotient] but lack the EQ [emotional quotient]. To work in a team and lead people, you need that to have an emotional connection with them. Enjoy success only in business but not having a rich social, spiritual and family life will not be fulfilling.’

Business leader of the year

Mike is the chief executive of a bank with 27 000 employees and nearly 8 million customers. He sees it as a tremendous responsibility to lead an organisation that, as the custodian of savings, has an important role in society and offers a key mechanism for capital transition into the economy.

In 2020, he was voted Sunday Times Business Leader of the Year in South Africa by his peers. ‘This is an award for which you are nominated and then the CEOs of the top 100 companies vote on their preferred name,’ Mike explains. ‘Maybe timing had something to do with my getting many votes. It was at the start of the pandemic and I was chairman of the Banking Association. Our industry played an important role in ensuring that the financial system continued to operate.

‘As COVID hit, several commentators predicted that we would have a health crisis, an economic crisis and a financial crisis similar to the [2008] global financial crisis. We did have a health crisis and an economic crisis, yes, but not the financial crisis. In fact, our financial system has remained remarkably strong and resilient. Banks were able to provide unparalleled support to their customers in those difficult times, which, in turn, had a massive impact in terms of supporting the economy.’

Looking back over the course of his career, Mike says having worked in both operations and finance has been valuable. When he first started out at the bank, he worked in the client-facing environment of treasury and structured finance, then moved to private equity and eventually ended up running the bank’s commercial industrial property business. When he was appointed as CFO, he moved to what some consider the ‘back office’.

‘Some CFOs do not transition to the CEO role because they’re quite happy to remain in a finance role and have no aspirations to lead the organisation as a whole. But those who are curious about life experiences outside their area of specialisation can move into the CEO role and make a success of it.’

Culture and values

Mike views the key to leadership as understanding company culture and values. It is about listening and being empathetic towards employees because in complicated roles nobody has all the answers. At the same time, it is important to get employees to buy into the company’s vision and show them a promise of a better future. He believes this is the way to galvanise and inspire people to want to be part of the journey the company’s leadership has set out on.

Management, though, is more of an operational concept he says, as it focuses on things such as excellence in service delivery. While management is important, it is strong leadership that really takes an organisation to greater heights, because it allows for people to accept change within a disciplined management structure.

Mike believes that of the many hats a CEO has to wear, there are three that are key to success. The first one is to ensure that the business is performing well for clients, staff and shareholders. This entails offer clients value and coming up with new products, ensuring that valuable staff are retained and new talent is attracted, and delivering good returns to shareholders.

‘The second hat is that of transformation, which is about the visionary role of leadership. It comes down to identifying the next big mountain everyone will climb together and outlining why we would want to climb it in the first place,’ Mike explains.

Competitive advantage

Then there’s the third hat, which is about culture and values. ‘The CEO is the custodian of an organisation’s culture and values, which, in many businesses, embody the “magic” of what makes the business work. If leadership gets the culture and values right, they end up with an extraordinarily successful business. The opposite is also true: in most, if not all, of the corporate failures we see, a weak culture lies at the heart of the problem.’

Nedbank’s strong company culture is one of their key competitive advantages, Mike believes. ‘Our culture is driven by people-centred behaviour: respect, integrity and accountability. It’s not based on short-term thinking, but rather seeks to build something that will be good for the long term.

‘This aligns with my own values, which I think explains why I have stayed at Nedbank for so long. Many people will choose to stay with an organisation for long if they believe in its values and have colleagues who exemplify them.’

Future CEOs who want to embark on following their personal legend, should remember that corporate success and career longevity are only possible if you balance it with a happy personal life, Mike advises. He enjoys regularly playing 18 holes on the golf course and loves to visit the Kruger National Park with his family or spend a weekend on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, where he grew up, whenever he can.

As a father of three, he always makes time for his family and over the years he’s learnt that ‘most work matters that seem very urgent are not necessarily so’.

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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