As South Africa finds its way out of the minefield of state capture and corporate collusion that has in a very real way come to characterise the last decade, we are all faced with some truly uncomfortable existential questions.
Perhaps chief among these is our own culpability as citizens. As the sages tell us, we get the leadership we deserve.
For business, the reflection is that much more poignant given the symbiotic nature of corporate collusion not just in state capture but in craven profit-taking at the expense of shareholders aided and abetted by the very watchdogs of capital who should have excised this cancer when it was first detected.
The names of once proud institutions; KPMG, McKinsey, Bell Pottinger, have danced dangerously close to becoming synonymous with the Guptas as the worst kind of venal and shameless kleptocracy. But Steinhoff – once a blue-chip company beloved of investors – was an inside job. It brought all the opprobrium upon its head itself. Now it faces a turnaround that will require enormous courage and clarity from its remaining management.
As we look to rebuild from the wreckage, the greatest existential question for business schools is what should we be training the next generation of business leaders to do? The answer is fairly simple, in fact it’s always been there.
What we shouldn’t be training our business leaders to do is follow blindly, to chase profit for their performance bonuses. The old adage teaches us that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Conversely if you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime. The corollary is that if you only teach MBA students how to make profit, they’ll kill all the fish.
We have to build the people who build the businesses that build Africa.
You can give people placebos and opiates to get through the dramas of life or you can give them real skills to avoid or handle them. It’s the latter that matter. You can’t do that in the classroom only and you certainly can’t do that if the learnings that you receive are not rooted in the real-life, real-time problems that you will experience on the shop floor and beyond. A big problem for many business schools and academia in general is the obsession with research for research’s sake under the guise of academic freedom. Research, real research, is critical, and real researchers are creatures of rare beauty, to be cherished and honoured as they drive progress. But research can often be misappropriated for pure self-indulgence or for a numbers game of hardly-read, derivative publications to secure funding, tenure and promotion. Academic freedom, properly applied, is ultimately the guarantee of speaking truth to power, not a smokescreen to legitimise sophistry.
In a country such as ours with the sometime highest Gini co-efficient in the world, we have to be teaching that business can and should be transformative, that it should be benign. We should be creating business leaders who are determined to leave ready to create value that benefits the shareholders, the staff and the societies where they are located. And make profits to plough back into making yet more value. They should come to us with real problems and be given the tools to find the solutions. Most of all, we should be slaying the sacred cows of anachronistic academic habit decaying to be no more than superstition. Fresh global challenges require fresh thinking and courageous experimentation – that is what our business schools must produce.
What is world class? Harvard in the US has a totally different complex context than ours in Africa with 54 countries and the intersection of traditional values and western constructs. We need to decolonise our education – in particular the myth of black inferiority which underpinned the brainwashing of the sociopathic apartheid policy. Apartheid was like living for generations in a violently abusive personal relationship, eventually undermining self-belief and confidence. Imagine. Where I teach, all our MBA learning is assessed blindly, by external international moderators. The examiners don’t know whether they are assessing students from the UK, Africa, China or Europe. Students from Africa of course do just as well as everyone else. Some people still seem to find this surprising. We still seem to have to reiterate the reality that our differences are cultural not neurological or intellectual.
We’ve got all the intelligence we need. People need to start believing this and owning it – that’s true decolonisation; getting rid of a set of values that systematically destroyed the others it was imposed upon.
A decolonisation of an imposed sense of inferiority. Steve Biko’s work is a great starting point on this journey. It’s not as simple as ripping down statues of (Cecil) Rhodes, but understanding the context that we are operating in and creating learning environments that address those needs.
So, what is world-class education? I think it should be about helping people escape the poverty trap and having to depend on pitiful state handouts. In our fast-moving context, skills are the ultimate freedom, not wealth. World-class business education in the context of economies of emerging countries, has to be to create a new form of economic growth that isn’t a surrogate for soft diplomacy or, even worse, neo-colonialism, but rather organic African solutions for African problems, which may or may not then be able to be scaled up to the rest of the world.
Business schools must provoke, must create opportunities, but we can’t be doing that in an ideologically abstract environment, which is why the ideal MBA and associated executive education must be rooted in people’s lived experiences, their pain and the correction of it. We do need high-tech skills, high academic skills and high levels of research but unless those that are taught are transformative and land into practice, then they are just a waste of time and money. Academia must be the servant, not act as master. In the lived South African context, that message is simple: if it hasn’t changed the Gini coefficient, what’s the point?
The final lesson all business schools should be imprinting on the DNA of all their students is corporate activism; the responsibility to speak up in the face of bad business practices that do not just harm society but actually have catastrophic implications for the companies they work in.
Managers, young and old, senior, mid and junior need to be able to have the courage to stand up and say ‘not in my name’. No tender can be worth winning with a bribe, not when the long-term effects are the impacts on the health and nature of the society we’re leaving for our children and our children’s children – in fact we should be calling out colleagues for even having the temerity to consider it.
As we celebrate the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth, his immortal words ring out, a clarion call to all of us: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
He could just as well have been speaking about state capture and corporate collusion.
(Published in The Sunday Independent, 1 July 2018)