RBPlat and NUM show how to negotiate constructively

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the protracted and damaging platinum strike: “It seems this strike is unprecedented and smells not only of egos and extraordinary hunger for power, but also leadership and societal failures that stem, in large measure, rom our mining and even political history.”

I concluded: “After all the dissecting and debating, what is needed is extraordinary leadership where the well-being of workers and the country become paramount. It will take visionary symbolic actions from leaders in all corners of this battle… In the end it really calls for Mandela leadership. It may be a cliché, but leaders might do well to ask: What would Mandela do?”

I am happy to report that there is hope. Recently, Business Report wrote on the successful conclusion of a three-year wage deal between Royal Bafokeng Platinum (RBPlat) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – with no strikes and no violence. So perhaps the hope for extraordinary leadership, or Mandela leadership, wasn’t in vain.

We decided to unpack this apparent success story on Cliffcentral Leadership Platform by engaging the chief executive of RBPlat, Steve Phiri, and the deputy general secretary of the NUM, Tshimane Montoedi. They described their journey as “constructive, respectful and mature”. We wanted to know why and how, so leaders out there can learn and, hopefully, follow suit.

They referred to a relationship built on trust and respect, which was acquired over time. Phiri said one needed to savour the relationship on an ongoing basis for this to develop, guided by a surprisingly simple philosophy of “treating one another like people”.

Early on in the negotiation process they decided that their guiding principles would be trust, good faith and respect. Another core ingredient of this success story was a decision not to isolate the agreement from the bigger strategy of the company – these had to talk to one another.

According to Phiri, the wage agreement reflects the company business plan moving forward. Everyone seemed united in a desire for business imperatives like productivity and efficiency to form an integral part of the final agreement, so that profitability can conquer, closely followed by wealth creation for all parties. This includes not only acceptable wage increases but other benefits like a housing scheme that will roll out for the building of homes worth billions.

In this instance, long-term aspirations and planning affected short-term negotiations in a positive manner. This included preparation for the process of negotiations starting at least six months before, so that expectations for what the issues were could be clear and there was time to populate necessary detail. Both guests used words like “moving forward in unison” and “we”, “together”. There was little if any of “us” and “them”.

According to Montoedi, a key to their success was also that their “negotiations were conducted within the parameters of law”, doing what “is good for humanity rather than being destructive”. As union to members they used every forum possible to emphasise the importance of staying within the legislative process.

It makes sense that he views this as key, because all the guiding principles would be in vain if one of the parties decided not to respect the rule of law. Montoedi explained that when a union and employer came together it should not be viewed as a battlefield but simply a platform for negotiations.

All of this wasn’t easy but, as Phiri stated: “It’s about leadership, and leadership is about personalities.”

The company leadership culture stems from a belief that the chief executive is a worker, an employee and an equal and, by default, so are other senior managers. With this as a backdrop it is easier for him to treat employees as he wants to be treated.

South Africa needs more “constructive, respectful and mature” engagements. We need leaders who allow their attitudes to be positively influenced by the bigger picture; leaders who respect the rule of law. We need to be cautious of an emerging culture where leaders of specific causes believe the only way to attract sufficient attention from decision makers is to act aggressively, to push boundaries of law and common respect.

This is why leadership stories like this must be shared. There is a time to be tough and even act assertively, but only after an authentic attempt to exhaust the model that Tshimane Montoedi and Steve Phiri followed.

It was during a discussion on the challenge of empowerment with Richard Pike, the chief executive of Adcorp Holdings, a few years ago that he asked me to hold up my hand, pushed mine with his and I pushed back. He asked me why I pushed back and I answered that it was instinctive.

From a general leadership perspective, understand that when you push or force anyone to follow you or implement a certain strategy, they will push back, to a lesser or larger degree, consciously or subconsciously.

What happens when the leader eventually detects these push-back behaviours? In many cases ego and pride enter the scene and the leader pushes back even harder, creating a distrustful “us-and-them” environment. If the leader and/or his influence is “strong” enough, he may seem to eventually win, but at a cost.

A vicious cycle may ensue where parties push against one another with full force rather than embrace and walk together towards a dream or vision. There are just too many examples in our society to mention, e-tolls being foremost of these. It seems the government has created an “us-and-them” situation, which one could argue was expressed at the polls this year.

From a general leadership position, should a higher road of more agreement and unity not work for whatever reason, only then do great leaders compensate by instinctively switching over to the “push and be tough” approach. In South Africa we need to try to avoid doing it the other way around.

Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform, is a leadership expert, managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform (www.leadership platform.com / or follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP). Send comments to [email protected] or to Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu: [email protected] (@Ellis_Mnyandu).


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