Peermont CEO Nigel Atherton reflects on leadership isolation and work-life equilibrium

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Peermont CEO Nigel Atherton reflects on leadership isolation and work-life equilibrium

Feb 29, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

The South African hospitality industry faces many challenges, which calls for strong leadership and a clear vision. Peermont, for example, is looking at ways to achieve energy independence and securing steady water supply through solar energy infrastructure, battery solutions and boreholes.

CEO Nigel Atherton believes a good strategy is something a leader believes in and is aligned to their sense of achievement and personal values. Your broader team should also buy into and be willing to deliver on the strategy. ‘You need the resources to support the strategy because simplicity, belief and empowerment of resources are what makes it all work,’ he says. ‘One of the lessons I have learnt along the way is the importance of asking your team for advice. It is crucial to surround yourself with excellent people who, within their field, are more knowledgeable than you.’

He also says a CEO should be willing to make difficult decisions and to implement them quickly. Already in his role as general manager, Nigel didn’t hesitate to take the lead when the moment called for it. When conflict broke out between two factions at a conference that was held at Emperors Palace a few years ago, he didn’t leave it to the security team to diffuse the situation, but took the microphone despite his introverted personality. It was nerve-wracking, but to his great relief he managed to restore calm.

Work-life balance

While Nigel has often worked long and strange hours, he believes in the importance of work–life balance. ‘CEOs must give employees space, both at work and after hours. During the COVID pandemic it became easy to call employees late at night or when they were off duty, but you should rather let things that are not urgent wait and give teams time to recharge. Work should be work and home should be home. That way, when a colleague calls at an odd hour, you’ll know it is really important.’

This happened one night over a year ago when Nigel got a distressed call from the general manager at Mmabatho Palms in Mahikeng. He just said, ‘Boss, it’s bad!’ A fire had broken out at the complex and soon after Nigel received photos of the damage that had already been done. The hotel had burnt to the ground and initially panic ensued because six of the hotel guests could not be accounted for.

Nigel jumped in his car and drove all the way from Johannesburg to the North West capital. On his way there, he was informed that the province’s premier had convened a press conference and he was expected to have answer. It was an immensely stressful experience, but thankfully by the time he got to Mahikeng, the missing guests had been found.

‘Profits can plummet and material things can be lost, but the worst thing that could ever happen to a leader is to lose a life on your watch. I am also glad that we were able to redeploy all our staff and no employee lost their job.’

 Dropping the ‘Big Boss’ front

For Nigel, an important quality of good business leadership is being able to reprogramme and reinvent yourself. For example, when you are in a junior role your work will likely be quite technical and hands on, which will require you to learn certain skills.

When you get to the corner office, though, the focus is on the big picture and about guiding people to ensure they are headed in the right direction. This is when culture and values become especially important – it is the CEO’s job to ensure that everyone is on the same page, he says.

CEOs should not be placed on a pedestal or put on a ‘Big Boss’ front, Nigel warns. Everyone has their shortcomings, and CEOs should not be afraid to show their vulnerability.

It is also a real problem when junior team members do not have the confidence or freedom to engage on issues. He says it is important for a, executive leader to be present and approachable; your job is to inspire employees to work towards a common purpose and to ensure that they feel positive about their contribution.

Nigel highlights another aspect of being a CEO: it can get lonely at the top. When something goes wrong in a business, a CFO can say it was the general manager’s fault, who, in turn, can put the blame on the CEO. The buck always stops with the CEO, which means you are limited in who you can share your problems with. You can easily feel quite isolated. To counter this, Nigel advises top executives to make contact with peers who they can talk to when facing tough decisions.

Striving for balance

Nigel tries to follow his own advice of achieving work–life balance. It is important for him to spend time with his family. His eldest son has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition Nigel says can be very difficult to understand as a parent. You tend to wonder if it is because you were a bad parent.

However, once you get qualified people to help you and start following a process to understand the condition and support your child, it gets easier. His son has learnt to live with the condition and makes his parents proud. The experience has taught Nigel humility and not to judge others until he understands their circumstances.

‘My daughter is the complete opposite,’ he continues. ‘Where my son is good with his hands, my daughter is excellent at academics. She probably gets her love for reading from me, because I spend a lot of time indulging in news, current affairs and technology articles. When I do read for pleasure, it is always fantasy.’

When I ask him whether he has any book recommendations, he suggests reading The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. ‘It’s a great relationship book that really helped me to understand my wife better,’ he explains.

‘I advise parents to spend time with their kids because they grow up and move away in the blink of an eye.  Work hard and go the extra mile at the office, but ensure that you make time to relax with your family. Your definition of success will likely change as you go through different life stages: first building a career, then building a family and finally retirement.’

‘Retirement?’ I ask.

‘Yes, eventually, but I am not there yet!’

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

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