Merit pool of capable black, white people vital

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DOES there have to be a trade-off between transformation and capability? In my opinion, every business needs to accelerate African involvement in the economy, especially business leadership. But balancing merit or capability with transformation is an emotive debate, because each side has different views.

If you’re African and you can do the job on merit, you won’t feel comfortable if you suspect you got it “because you’re black”. If you’re white, you’re angry that no matter how much merit you have, you won’t be given a chance “because you’re white”.

Transformation is a country and a business imperative. But does this mean there must be a trade-off? Quotas always create an assumption that we must compromise on competence. Why can’t we have both? We need to address the skills shortage, so that “transformation” doesn’t automatically mean “trade-off on capability”. Upfront, let us decide on the skills we need, then we can start a development cycle.

To take capability off the table and ensure everybody is appointed on merit, we need to make sure we have lots of black and white candidates who can do the job – while realising that the modern organisation needs a deep pool of leadership talent, so there is space for all. But we have to understand that everyone isn’t equal at the starting line – a young African candidate may be from a rural area where they’ve never even seen a chequebook, for example.

You need to recognise the imbalances, and include developmental intervention in everyone’s career plan. Organisations like KPMG need a clear requirement of skill sets in succession and career planning. If I know I’m leaving in two years’ time, I say to my team, “forget colour. What are the skills we need for leadership? We need this; we need that”. Once we’ve agreed on what we need, we can identify possible candidates, both African and white, and say, “we’re not appointing an heir; but these are the skills we require. You’re good with this, but you need to develop that”, and so on.

Then they work together, sharing their various strengths. When they’re equal in terms of skills, then we can choose the African person, but we still have the white person in the leadership team. Leadership is not about one person anymore; it’s about a team that complements each other.

That’s not something you know instinctively; you learn it through developing your emotional intelligence. It’s important for those who don’t get the position to understand that this doesn’t mean they’ve failed; that they can still contribute and be handsomely rewarded for the value they bring to the leadership team.

We can’t be apologetic about transformation – you’re setting an example for people to aspire to – but you don’t want the white business majority to think they have no chance to lead, either. You must be clear that, all capabilities being equal, you’ll give preference to an African. At KPMG, there’s a board resolution in writing; for every white partner we appoint, we appoint an African one. You can appoint a brilliant young white person… if you find an African one, whom you develop and bring to the same level. It keeps the focus on transformation and skills development. If all companies behave this way, as we progress there will be no need for this debate.

To achieve that, we need to keep the ratio of African to white students in accounting at 50/50. That’s why programmes like the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ Thuthuka are so important. We’ve had great success in convincing the public sector; through funds from higher education and the sector education and training authorities, we’ve been able to expand Thuthuka into schools, supporting pupils in science and core maths from Grade 10. Government investment helped Thuthuka become successful, but trade and industry also has to buy in. As Thuthuka trustees, we try to convince corporate South Africa to invest in this pipeline of African talent, to create a pool in which “merit” is a given. It’s a challenge: the financing from government is available, but private sector firms have the knowledge and expertise to make these interventions effective.

It’s not a quick fix; it’s a long-term plan. Young African businesspeople need to know they can make it to the top on merit – and are expected to. We need to inspire them to set goals and take responsibility to achieve them, with company guidance. The future is in their hands, but they have to want it. The more they want it, the better they see the challenges they have to overcome to achieve it.

Moses Kgosana is the chief executive at KPMG.

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