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The best advice I ever got...

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The best advice I ever got was from a Buddhist monk during a meditation retreat my husband and I attended. He said 'for every action, there is a reaction'. In this file photo, Buddhist monk meditates on the helipad of Copan building in downtown Sao Paulo. Monks from the Busshinji temple in Sao Paulo meditate once a month on top of the 37-story high building.

Johannesburg - “Young people must be careful of the clutter, firstly the clutter of the mind and, secondly, the clutter of collecting things, whether it’s information or titles or degrees. Somewhere in that clutter you must find your own niche and your own space.”

These might easily be the words of a psychologist, or a life coach. In fact, the source is business luminary Saki Macozoma, who has interests in public companies such as Standard Bank, Liberty and Safika Investment Holdings and, at age 55, is reportedly worth R634 million, making him one of South Africa’s richest men.

It’s an unexpected nugget of advice, the sort that entrepreneur Siya Mapoko, 33, sought to unearth in his book The Best Advice I Ever Got, which he published himself and launched last month.

Having interviewed 32 business and academic leaders in South Africa over 15 months, Mapoko (who also wrote Conversations with JSE AltX Entrepreneurs) has come up with a compelling book that you can read front-to-back, or just open on a page and be fascinated by the insight that a recognised and accomplished South African has to offer on a variety of pressing economic and business leadership issues.

“I decided to write this book because, aside from my own wobbly beginnings in business, I found that the dozens of books I read about business, leadership and leaders didn’t really give me what I was looking for,” says Mapoko.

“When they were young, all leaders were confused and insecure at a point, and I felt that they could offer excellent advice to others about how to become successful.

“And I love learning from people, particularly those who are playing the game of life at a higher level.”

Mapoko is perhaps a good example of Macozoma’s advice about finding a “niche”, though it’s clear there needs to be some “clutter” or, perhaps, exploration, before finding it.

Mapoko started out in 2002 with a BSc (Hons) in chemistry from UCT, researching his thesis at GlaxoSmith Kline in England.

He then did an about-turn in 2005 and joined Investec as an equity trader, during which time he was also a financial markets reporter at SAfm.

Then in 2006, he decided to try his hand at business and launched a digital signage company, but a year later ran out of money. “It’s tough out there. I lacked business experience and I thought if it’s hard for me, how hard can it be for the uneducated?” he says.

He returned to what he does best, speaking, and today Mapoko is an international public speaker and lecturer at business schools – “I’ve found I really enjoy teaching business”. In December 2010, he was named one of the 30 South African Striders, a Johnnie Walker initiative, and featured in the book Celebrating Strides.

A valuable insight, says Mapoko, is another from Macozoma on the subject of Africa’s future.

Referring to China entrenching its position in Africa, Macozoma says: “I have no issues with the Chinese doing that. If I were them, I’d probably do the same. The West would have done the same, too. I don’t operate from the viewpoint that the Chinese are taking over… I have one message for Africa, and it is forget the boundaries, think economy.”

Other luminaries in Mapoko’s book include:

* Bheki Sibiya, chief executive of the Chamber of Mines;

* Bill Gibson, chairman of Knowledge Brokers International;

* Cas Coovadia, MD of the Banking Association of SA;

* Christine Ramon, chief financial officer of Sasol;

* Happy Ntshingila, chief executive of SuperSport;

* John Kehoe, best-selling author of MindPower;

* Johnny Dladla, chief executive of Eskom Enterprises;

* Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of UCT;

* Nicky Newton-King, chief executive of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange; and

* Mark Cutifani, chief executive of AngloGold Ashanti.

Mapoko says he found UCT’s Price among his most interesting interviewees, particularly about how university education “should change to better equip people for the future”.

Price notes that for 18-year-olds entering university today, they need to look ahead to a 62-year career that embraces four or more different jobs as the economy and technology change. “My message to them is don’t choose a vocation or a course of study that focuses on a particular career.

“Rather choose a generic degree – do a BA or a general BSc where you get a general education, because that is the foundation that will serve you best for the rest of your career. This foundation gives you skills about learning to think, to reason critically, and other skills like numeracy,” he says.

Nicky Newton-King, meanwhile, advises: “Listen, just listen. That’s the best advice I ever got. One of the things about assuming leadership responsibilities at a young age is that you can start to believe your own media, and think that it can’t be good enough if it didn’t come from you. Actually, true leaders are listening and reacting to what they’re hearing…

“One needs to practise active listening rather than competitive listening. Part of active listening is that you learn, and the clients feel that you really are making an effort to understand them.”

Among the subjects Mapoko tapped from his interviewees is their advice on people, on failure, fear and setbacks, on customer service, youth development, corporate citizenship, South African economic development, rural development and Africa’s future.

“Over the 15 months of creating this book, more than 200 e-mails were exchanged and a staggering number of phone calls were made,” says Mapoko in his acknowledgments.

It was worth the effort, as whether you’re in business or just starting out, the invaluable insights of those who’ve obviously navigated tough challenges will give you some of the philosophical and leadership tools you need to reach your own goals. - The Star

* The Best Advice I Ever Got is available at Exclusive Books for R229, or online at www.siyamapoko.co.za for R199. For every book sold, one will be donated to a young South African – at school, FET College or in a youth organisation.

SOME nuggets from ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’

* “The first thing is humility… you must be open to other people’s viewpoints. The second thing is to know where one is going. Work, like leadership, is not an end in itself. The question is, towards what are you leading or towards what outcome are you working?” – Ansie Ramalho, CEO of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa

* “I’ve learned that it is vital, no matter how old I am (presently 67 calendar years), to be open to change, adventure, growth, risk, learning, challenges, new ways, new places, new people, fun and excitement. Don’t retire, inspire!” – Bill Gibson, chairman of Knowledge Brokers International

* “The best advice I ever got, in the context of management, was from my father. He said: ‘You must always remember the people involved. A company that is poor on people is a dead company, because the company is the people’.” – Bonang Mohale, chairman of Shell SA

* “The best advice I ever got was from a Buddhist monk during a meditation retreat my husband and I attended. He said ‘for every action, there is a reaction’. This advice encourages me to always think of possible consequences before I say or do something instead of being too spontaneous.” – Christine Ramon, CFO of Sasol

* “The best advice I ever got was from David Ogilvy, when I was in my mid-twenties. He said to me: ‘You can never sell a bum product. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, but if you have a bum product, you can’t sell it’.” – Happy Ntshingila, CEO of SuperSport

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