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Why Empowering People Makes Good Business Sense Khonology has shown that South Africa might have a skills shortage, but that's not because of a lack of ability. Give the right people the right opportunities, and they'll flourish.

By GG van Rooyen

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Sarah Schäfer

Vital stats

  • Player: Michael Roberts
  • Position: Founder and CEO
  • Company: Khonology
  • Established: 2013
  • Visit: www.khonology.com
  • About: Khonology is an African technology services company that aims to transform and empower Africa's people and businesses. Rather than importing skills and experience from overseas, the company trains promising local talent to fulfill challenging roles. Khonology was named the Job Creator of the Year at the 2016 South African Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

Almost by accident, Khonology CEO Michael Roberts built a successful career for himself in London. He travelled to the United Kingdom in 1997, not really planning to move there permanently, but ended up spending 13 years there, working for prestigious blue-chip companies like Barclays, JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank.

"The aim was always to return to South Africa," says Roberts. "I always knew that I hadn't immigrated permanently. I wanted to go home and start a company there."

But there were challenges to launching a technology services company in Africa, specifically the lack of skills and qualifications.

"There's an assumption that we have a lack of skills locally, which is why many companies import knowledge from overseas, and that ends up costing the client an absolute fortune," says Michael.

"While there was a lack of skilled professionals locally, I didn't feel as if this was an insurmountable problem. We had a lack of experience, but not a lack of ability. I felt confident that if we got our hands on the right people, we could teach them to do what expensive international consultants were doing."

So, Khonology started recruiting promising STEM graduates and training them. Michael's hunch proved correct. Over the last few years, the company has successfully upskilled dozens of young people. In 2016, Khonology was even named the Job Creator of the Year at the South African Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Entrepreneur spoke to Michael about the process of finding promising candidates and training them on the job.

Why the focus on STEM graduates?

People who have studied in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have the sort of logical approach to things that's needed within a technology services company. It's not as much about what they studied as it is about the mindset they bring to the work. Because of this, assessment tools like analytical puzzles are useful for us when it comes to recruiting. We're not that concerned about the answer they give to a puzzle; it's all about the way they approach the problem.

So tests and assessments are something you would recommend?

Absolutely. It's crucial. What's great is that you can leverage technology these days. A lot of the time, effort and complexity that comes with these tests can be reduced through technology and automation. You can use technology to build capacity.

Hiring someone is always a risk. You can never be completely certain that you're making the right decision, so you need to find ways in which you can de-risk the process. A reliable test or assessment can be a useful tool in this regard.

Is it all about logic, or do you care about attitude too?

We care a lot about attitude, which is why we use attitude assessment tools as well. In fact, attitude is probably the most important thing for us. You can only train people who are eager and willing to learn, so we look for people who want to learn, and who are also willing to give back and pass knowledge along to someone else. We try to create a collaborative environment where people have a passion for learning.

And how do you create that sort of environment?

It starts with you. You really set the tone as the founder, so if you want people to be excited about learning, you need to exude that. You need to create a culture that prioritises learning. It's something that you actively need to champion. In a busy company, training and learning can quickly fall by the wayside, but the results are worth the effort, so it is something that should be protected.

We also make use of daily scrums or stand-up meetings. These tend to be cancelled when people are busy, so we believe it's important to set them in stone. We find them invaluable, since they keep everyone connected and on the same page.

How do you create these kinds of systems and processes in a quickly-scaling start-up?

It's difficult to be sure. You have to accept that your systems will break as you grow. What works for ten people will not work for 20, and what works for 100 people will sometimes not work for 105. So, developing systems and processes is an ongoing activity. You're never truly "done'. Also, you need to be honest with yourself when something isn't working. Don't just keep doing the same old thing. Stay agile and reassess things as you go.

You mentioned earlier that hiring someone is never risk-free. Have you had some bad hires?

Of course. Every company has. My advice is to admit when something is wrong and deal with the situation immediately. Don't put it off. The issue will not "resolve itself', it will only get worse. Letting someone go is never easy, but you have to take the emotion out of it. Culture is important, and a bad hire can poison the environment, so you have to prioritise the health of the business.

How important is the "raw material' or potential of an individual when it comes to hiring? What can be taught, and what needs to be present from the start?

The simple answer is: You should only hire A-players. Skills can be taught, but you want people with tremendous drive and intelligence. You want to find those gold nuggets. If you hire B- and C-players, you will spend too much time and effort improving their performance.

A young company can't afford to do that. You want to hire the people who will quickly be offered a job by someone else if you don't make an immediate offer. For this reason, you also need to draw a firm line in the sand. You can't let a potential employee make too many demands, as that will create issues later on. Overpaying an employee will result in a management debt that'll cause future problems.

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