Summary: ‘Transformation’, fulfilling BBBEE and Equity legislation all call us to cut down on the number of White males and have more Blacks, women and disabled fill the ranks of management and other senior jobs in our public and private sector organizations. I have devoted much of my own thinking and consulting work to the cause of ‘advancing previously disadvantaged’ people in our society so that we transfer more responsibility from White leadership to Black leadership. But ‘transformation’ alone isn’t good enough. Transformation has come to mean changing the numbers without the transfer of real responsibility from White to Black leadership. A good BBBEE score card may do little more than make it look good, but be no more than a change in the numbers. Is this what we really want to see in South Africa? This brief article will offer a more authentic approach to advancement that does more than just getting the right score.
Why my objection to the concept of transformation?
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, transformation is about changing the form – “making a thorough or dramatic change in the form, outward appearance…..”). Now I know that the meaning of transformation is changing but, in practice, I suspect that we are doing little more than changing what happens on the outside and neglecting what is happening on the inside. We need to manage real change both on the inside and the outside. “Metamorphosis” is a more appropriate term if we are really serious, since this deals with both form and substance or, as the Oxford English dictionary describes it, change of character and conditions as well as change in form.
So all the energy going into Transformation of our public and private sector organizations with the targets for more Blacks in management positions and business ownership, is at serious risk of achieving little more than looking good and keeping Government inspectors off our back with threats of fines for not achieving our BBBEE and other targets for transformation. The statistics may look good on paper, but there is general neglect of making it part of a serious business investment to accelerate the numbers of Black managers taking over responsibility from White managers – a disastrously cosmetic exercise for South Africa and its future. We can’t afford to play this kind of game so as to fulfill the letter of the law. It is gross hypocrisy. It is, indeed, nothing more than shallow transformation…changing form and disregarding substance.
What are the barriers to real metamorphosis?
First, right at the start, we pay the price in our lack of objectivity in recruitment and selection. There are cases of people – from all race groups and genders – coming into senior jobs for which they are ill-equipped. They may have been sent on a course or two and have a certificate on their wall which declares their competence for the job. But certificates don’t guarantee competence. In our rush to fill positions and get the appearances and the numbers right – to ‘transform’ our organizations to be politically respectable – we appoint people who have the certificates, but miss other key requirements for the job: experience, tough trial-and-error learning, adaptation to complex organizational life and business culture. Some organizations genuinely try to find the best person for the job and, all things being equal, give preference to the ‘previously disadvantaged’. But many are also willing to make token appointments to get the numbers right on paper, while someone else – perhaps an assistant or a deputy – does the real work. On the outside, the BBBEE score card looks good, but the person in the job flounders, gets by-passed for important decisions, then becomes resentful because he or she fills the position but does not have the authority and responsibility that goes with the job. This is patronizing and hurtful for the person who is being “used” in this way, and confirms stereotypes about the ‘previously disadvantaged’ being unable to do a good job. The disease of cosmetic transformation will continue when organizations fail to do professional in-depth selection in the first place followed by learning from making real management decisions.
Second, there are cases of previously disadvantaged people being carefully selected and having the potential to succeed, but ‘not succeeding’ because of the inappropriate leadership climate and culture in the organization. So often, there are: (a) negative expectations of the new person; (b) failure to accept and get to know the person concerned as a unique human being requiring a normal period of planned adaptation; (c) failure to give real responsibility and constructive calling to account; (d) insufficient chance to learn by doing and making decisions with constructive feedback and coaching. When they fail to do it right there is a silent confirmation of our prejudices: “I thought so – just as I expected”; (e) the vain hope that “more training” will bridge the performance gap without consideration of each person’s unique learning style and pace of learning. It’s not about qualifications and training programmes, but about establishing a ‘learning culture’ in an organization. We have to believe in those we promote to senior jobs, and expect them to succeed no matter who they are – White, Black, Coloured, Indian, male or female. There has to be a positive expectation, trust and a period of trial and error. We don’t expect someone to be a perfect driver the first time they drive a car. Why do we expect this of someone who first takes on a complex management job? Everyone in a new job requires attention to (a) to (e).
Third, there is an even greater and more subtle price to pay for this so-called “transformation” – changing the outward form and getting the numbers right without changing the substance. By our very cosmetic action we introduce a set of values of deceit and disrespect for people. Instead of a genuine effort to develop and advance previously disadvantaged groups with encouragement, training, and opportunity to learn and take real responsibility as equal partners in building a new South Africa, we play a game of lying to those we appoint – saying with one breath: “Congratulations. It’s good to have you on board” and, when out of earshot, “We may be getting the numbers and the score card right because we have to, but we really don’t believe you are going to succeed”. There can be few more disrespectful and dishonest ways to treat another human being than to tell him or her that he or she is OK, while really believing that they won’t make it. It’s better to tell someone honestly, “Sorry you are just not suited to this job because of….”. No self-respecting human being wants to be patronized by being advanced, or held back because he or she has been put into an affirmative action box to get the score card right. Let’s have the courage to go about the advancement of the previously disadvantaged with sincerity and determination to make it work. As with the appeal to pay your TV licence, “it is the right thing to do” for ourselves, for others and for South Africa. Let’s open the doors for all those have been previously disadvantaged. It is not only the right thing to do, it is in the long term interests of all of us. The small Whie minority can no longer expect to continue to manage and lead all our institutions.
Let us retain high professional standards of management, spell out these standards, go for professional selection to get the best possible person for the job, offer sound guidance and training, hand out genuine decision-making authority and call people honestly and fairly to account. If we don’t, we will cultivate resentment and perhaps revolution – and a negative reaction to cosmetic transformation. We may then end up with draconian legislation which forces us into an even more counterproductive charade of filling of positions just to get the numbers right and stay out of trouble with government, the Unions and the Department of Labour. Let’s “play the game” with respect for those we employ, regardless of race, colour or creed. This is the challenge to SA managers in the 21st century.
If we are going to achieve change towards a fairer and more equitable distribution of our human resources in management and senior jobs, we will have to manage this change with professionalism and with integrity. There should be no manipulation simply to achieve numerical targets to fulfill the letter of the law while, in so doing, we abandon the spirit of the law. What we really need is metamorphosis… a real change of heart, attitude and action, not cosmetic conformity to get the numbers right.
What’s this got to do with JPS Associates and consultants?
The whole focus of and values behind Joint Problem Solving is to find better answers to difficult Situations with and through others. It’s an approach where managers and leaders (a) honour the need for rational and effective leadership and, at the same time, (b) honour the need for working with and through others in a respectful, fair and considerate manner. Do we engage all new recruits (Black, White, Men, Women) with a serious measure of honouring these two factors? We will need to do this much better than at present if BBBEE is going to work in the best interest of all South Africans and its economy, by moving from ‘transformation’ to ‘metamorphosis’. JPS strategies can help us to do this.