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ON SYSTEMS VS PEOPLE

“Trust everyone, but brand your cattle.” – A postcard on my dad’s desk.

When I was growing up, in Apartheid South Africa, there was a dominant chorus around me. It went something like this: South African education is way ahead of everyone else, including the USA. In fact, we are better at almost anything than those Americans, who keep on wanting to tell us what to do.

This was a pretty dominant line of thinking. Because of sanctions, we had limited cultural imperialism from the good old US of A, including being deprived, as kids, of the almighty Big Mac. This all changed in 1990, and now we are, like much of the world, firmly on board the consumer choice train. We now have Mcdonald's, Scooby Doo and we no longer need to wait two years to watch the new tv shows.

Most clear-thinking people also, nowadays, wouldn’t even dare utter the idiocy that our education system is ahead of our northern neighbours. Maybe there are a few lost souls who will insist that we used to be world-class but now it’s all gone to the dogs, but they do forget that Christiaan Barnard did his training at John Hopkins before coming back and pioneering heart surgery.

My father, in that funny time, didn’t buy the company line. Maybe because my folks traveled, maybe because they were exposed to the reality of the world as it was outside our borders. But when people banged the “we are better than them” drum, my dad would say: “You want to see how they get things done, go to the US.”

Why am I telling you this? Because he taught me something else. All through my early days in the family business, studying for my MBA and learning the ropes, there was another dominant theme screamed from the rooftops: “People are the most important thing in your business.” And it was true. I saw it in our family travel agency – good people were recruited, and they stayed a career lifetime, and they performed exceptionally well. My father knew how to build and lead and retain a great team.

What he said, though, was: “We win because we have good systems.”

A competitor opens up across the road? Don’t worry about them, he would say. Focus on what we do. We have great systems. And he was right. We built and innovated and stayed current, always insisting to have the best systems that set up our teams for success. Systems of accountability, of communication, of risk mitigation, of reward and sanction, of recognition, of learning, of fairness, of consistency.

What I learned in those early days is that good people will excel in great systems, but great people can easily fail in bad systems. Our job as leaders is to remove obstacles to our team's success, to thread the line between control and autonomy in such a way that everyone takes ownership and feels empowered, and yet the risk mitigation and control are at a level that lets us sleep at night. “Trust everyone, but brand your cattle.” Truer words were never spoken.

So I try to identify people that are aligned on values, competency and drive with where I’m going. But then equally, I try to build systems for them to bring forth their best effort, and where they feel supported not constrained. Systems will drive behaviour…

Do you spend enough time working on your systems and procedures, and do you involve your team in the decision-making?

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