Lessons in Leadership From Tata Africa Holdings' Turnaround

People make a business. When employees are just coming in to get a paycheque, you'll never build the team you need to succeed. Here's how the Servant Leadership model can turn things around.
Lessons in Leadership From Tata Africa Holdings' Turnaround
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CEO, Tata Africa Holdings
5 min read
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When I stepped into my current role at Tata Africa Holdings in August 2016, the business was not in good shape. It was spiraling downwards, had been making losses for three consecutive years, and was facing yet another loss.

Unsurprisingly, the people were very unhappy, just coming to work to earn a salary. I was well aware of the scale of the challenge that lay ahead.

At the outset of my turnaround strategy, the first thing I did was try and set a new tone. I drew a great deal of inspiration from my mentor, Brand Pretorius, who is a well-known proponent of servant leadership.

The Role of Servant Leadership in a Turnaround

Servant leadership has nothing to do with being subservient or submissive. The core premise of the ‘service to others first’ philosophy is prioritising other people’s needs over your own.

Humility is an absolute prerequisite for this management style, as your overarching goal is to achieve authority, rather than power.

Related: The Leadership Lessons That Have Helped Bevan Ducasse Build a R100-Million Business

To establish and execute strategies that drive growth in revenue and profitability, to lead cultural and process change, and to build consensus and develop high-performing teams, you need the buy-in of your people. To do this, you first have to earn their respect and trust.

So, how do you do this? First, you have to create an environment where your people want to come in to work every day.

Human beings have an innate need to belong, so you have to build a sense of unity and wholeness in the organisation. In order to help people foster bonds and build relationships, you have to provide opportunities and spaces for them to interact with one another, informally, across the company.

Creating a Culture That Inspires and Motivates

To inspire and motivate, you have to convince rather than rely on coerced compliance. To optimise your influence, you have to persuade rather than rely on hierarchical dominance.

You have to be a solid role model and an advocate for your people – everyone in your team should know that you’re there for them.

Related: How To Be A Great Leader When Leadership Doesn't Come Naturally To You

As a servant-leader, you have to make yourself visible, accessible, and available. You have to check in often with your people to see how they are.

You have to look them in the eyes, and engage them in meaningful discussions. You have to listen, empathise, and make an effort to acknowledge things from their perspectives.

No-one likes to be micro-managed. People get de-motivated when they are managed and controlled into the ground. Remember, your people have been hired for their skills set.

You have to create space for them to use those skills, and encourage them to take calculated risks. As long as they’re trying to improve the business, you should allow them to try new things, or new ways of doing things.

Get Everyone Involved

Encouraging a participative approach to decision-making leads to a higher level of engagement and innovation, and helps build a sense of community within the team.

Related: Why Inspirational Leadership Alone Is Not Enough

It’s important however to remember that, as a servant-leader, you can’t avoid making unpopular decisions, or giving team members negative feedback when it is required.

Servant leadership is about focusing on satisfying the highest-priority needs of others – not their feelings.

You have to prioritise the personal and professional development of your people, and empowerment should follow an orderly and structured approach.

Coaching and mentoring your people has to take precedence over personal elevation. You have to lead by example to reinforce the spirit of service to others, and encourage mentees to prioritise serving others over self-gain.

The Organisation as Servant-Leader

It should be noted that organisations – not just individuals – can also be servant-leaders. The ‘institution as servant’ is something that I think TATA does extremely well.

Related: Why Waitering And Junior Sales Jobs Made John Woollam A Better Leader

Founded in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata, the legendary ‘Father of Indian Industry’, and one of the most important founders of the modern Indian economy, the TATA Group of companies is India’s only value-based corporation, and the country’s biggest conglomerate.

Tata was the epitome of a servant-leader. He believed that in order to advance a nation, you need to uplift the best and the most gifted, so that they can go on to be of the greatest service to humanity.

Most significantly, he believed that the community is not just another stakeholder in a business, but the very reason for its existence. In other words – institution as servant, or organisation as servant-leader.

The Virtuous Cycle of Servant Leadership

The ‘servant-leader is servant first’ philosophy – whether that be in an individual or organisational capacity – is, ultimately, a virtuous cycle.

Because when your people become happier, healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous, they are more likely to themselves become servant-leaders. All of which bodes well not only for businesses, but also communities and society at large.

Related: It's a Connected Economy – Are You An Empowered Leader?

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