Having traveled to South Africa before I went into this trip thinking that it would not compare favorably to the wonderful trip I had with my family years ago. I was completely wrong. As a young child traveling to South Africa, I was entirely unaware of the economic, political, environmental and cultural chaos that was, and is, currently plaguing the country. By pairing our class learnings on these topics with meetings of local business executives and organizational leaders, we gained a well-rounded perspective of how truly sustainable businesses operate in South Africa (and should operate in the United States.) While all of the business meetings we attended will leave a lasting imprint on my perspective of business operations, the most impactful meetings for me were with the Democratic Alliance (DA) Chief Whip of the Official Opposition, John Steenhulsen, and Pick N’ Pay’s Director of Transformation, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, because they discussed making a difference for people and the community that would span generations.
In the discussion with John Steenhulsen he stressed that the DA’s strong opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) was necessary to hold them accountable. This is very important in South Africa due to the high level of corruption that surrounds the country but can this can also be applied to business operations in the United States. When I am confronted with difficult situations or people to work with instead of complaining I try to change my mindset by reminding myself that: “they are challenging me to be better”. Steenhulsen further stressed this point and acknowledged that by challenging your supporters and opposition it allows you to move your base with you so that you always bring out the best in them. Misery loves company and it is easy to snow ball into a downward spiral of “first world problems” but when you focus on the strengths, empathize, and recognize opportunities for growth you become a true leader that brings out the best in others.
A primary example of a transformative leader bringing out the best in people and the community is Suzanne Ackerman-Berman of Pick N’ Pay. Ackerman-Berman reminded us that doing good is good business and that while business is there to make a profit, how you get there is up to the individuals you hire. In America, we are told that emotions have no place in the professional world but Ackerman-Berman displayed that by working and leading from your heart you are able to rule the world. The Boost Your Biz competition that Pick N’ Pay created to provide small local businesses with the opportunity to win a business package that would help in their growth and expansion through marketing, financial aid and mentorship, speaks volumes to Pick N’ Pays dedication to the community and shows that the true heart of the company lies in the growth of South Africa and its people. The partnerships that were created and cultivated with local suppliers through this program provided business opportunities to people in the community who would have otherwise been stuck in poverty for generations to come. By appeal to the individual’s strengths and providing them with responsibilities/opportunities to be able to successfully achieve their goals, they were able to create successful business ventures and eventually become direct suppliers for Pick N’ Pay. These actions show how much Pick N’ Pay values their vendors and is committed to doing things differently.
I was also completely blown away by the international prowess of all the companies that we met with and their ability to think small but act big. While it is entertaining to see the map of “The World According to Americans”, the lack of global knowledge that American’s have is appalling and what is more appalling is that I have been guilty of this perspective at times forgetting that we are privileged with the fundamental needs of a human being and often overlook that these are luxuries in other countries. We also fail to recognize the complete supply chain for products that are being offered and their environmental impact as we are only focused on the final product. On the contrary, may of the business professionals and leaders in the community in South Africa start where they are, use what they have, and do what they can to give back to making the world a better place.
Sustainability takes different forms depending on the social, political and economic environment that it is targeting because the needs of the local people are different in other parts of the world. When listening to the business professionals and leaders in South Africa speak about recognizing that the largest opportunity for growth within the community is by investing in the African people, I couldn’t help but think about what Sheryl Sandberg is doing for women in America. Instead of empowering locals to help them with their path out of poverty, she is taking a strong stance on women in the work place to change the perception of women and men from what women can’t do, to what they can do. This subtle shift in the mindset of men and women is encouraging women to believe that they have control over their lives and claiming their equal rights in the work place.
One of my favorite quotes from Sandberg is that “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” All of the companies we met with epitomize this quote and since returning to America I am making a conscience effort to take our learnings of global business, sustainability, and leading from the heart to do good, make a positive impact, and become a better person. To remain globally aware, I read at least one article per day about events occurring in other parts of the world. I also have the privilege of getting to work with different countries and cultures so I have begun to ask more questions so I get a better understanding of their global perspective. To focus on sustainability, I am looking for creative solutions to show our vendors at Outward Hound that they are valued partners. By cultivating these relationships and working with them to be successful, we will both be profitable long term and continue to grow. A wonderful way to make sure we are all set up for success, is by providing our factories with quarterly, 6 month, and annual forecast/projection so they are able to plan staffing and production accordingly. This will also decrease our production lead time and make it possible for us to take advantage of new business opportunities. To lead from the heart, I am slowing down, listening to all perspectives, and making an educated decision based on what I believe is best for the long-term sustainability of the people and businesses that surround me. I never thought that I would come away from these travels a changed person but the new-found perspective that I gained has made me truly realize that “travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer”.