The strength of Nonkululeko Gobodo’s vision, coupled with her drive to succeed, allowed her to lead others in her quest to build one of the biggest accounting firms in South Africa.
- Player: Nonkululeko Gobodo
- Company: Nkululeko Leadership Consulting
- Formerly: Founding partner of SizweNtsalubaGobodo
- Visit: nkululekoleadership.co.za
1. Accommodate those you want to lead
I have always dreamt big. It’s who I am. In 1992 I formed an accounting practice in the Transkei with two partners. I was young and I thought I knew it all. My leadership attitude was, ‘follow me, I know everything.’ It didn’t occur to me that others were in a different space, or that they didn’t share or see my vision. I ended up moving too fast, with people running after me to keep up.
As I grew, I realised that leadership is also about taking the spaces, personalities and life views around you into account. Having a clear vision is important, but there are other egos, personalities and individuals on your team — and everyone is important.
How I saw things was important, but everyone is entitled to see the world the way they see it. You need to find a way to get them excited about your vision too — without asking them to stop being who they are.
2. Employees are part of this journey too
They have careers that they’re growing. They have dreams and ambitions. As you grow, they are an integral part of it. At SizweNtsalubaGobodo, our future partners come from our employees. As we diversified there were more opportunities for them. Staying with us and benefiting from those changes crystalised their own careers. Continuously moving forward is one of the most important ways to keep talent.
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As a leader you are challenged in new ways as your business grows. It’s up to you to challenge your partners and employees in the same way. You are in a unique position to influence growth. When we started diversifying Gobodo Inc in 1998, we did it through our partners and employees.
If we noticed someone was interested in forensics for example, we built a whole business unit around them. If they succeeded, it inspired others to follow their dreams. The higher the confidence levels within an organisation, the more people will contribute.
3. Lead through influence and character
As a leader I’ve found that you need to be able to influence, inspire and support, but also put on the pressure when it’s needed. Not everyone will respond to a vision alone. Not everyone can be clear and decisive.
In 1996 I wanted to take my small business to the next level. It meant I needed to recruit partners. It was a scary idea for most of them. They would leave safe and secure management positions to join me. The rewards would be great if it worked, but they saw a big downside too.
I spent eight months trying to convince them. Eventually I realised that anyone not yet convinced would never be willing to take the leap with me. Once you know who they are, walk away. They will just hold everyone back. It’s better to let them go.
I had to push the issues and demand a decisive answer. It worked. Seven partners joined us, resulting in a firm of ten partners, and 200 employees. It had been time for a decisive action, and Gobodo Inc was formed.
4. The right people will learn to fly
The first few months of Gobodo Inc were tough. Everyone had to bring in business or they didn’t get paid. We were partners. It was up to them, not me, to ensure they earned a salary. But I realised that as long as you have the right people and they buy into your vision, they will learn to fly. We experienced incredible growth because we had the right people who, when pushed out of their comfort zones, achieved amazing things.
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5. Know when it’s time to change
At Gobodo Inc we never wanted to be small players, least of all me. We had to grow and make our contribution to the economy. But things change. We started out with a BEE competitive edge, but soon the big firms adjusted and this was no longer a differentiator for us. We needed to stay competitive in different ways. Things change, that’s the nature of business. It’s important for leaders to be cognisant of this.
When your market shifts or changes, you have a choice to make: Do you die, or face those challenges?
If you want to survive and grow, you need to read the market, respond and change. Size will never be your protection. All companies face the danger of becoming obsolete.
For a decade we grew by ourselves. By 2011 it was time to take things to the next level. If we wanted to compete with the big international firms, we needed to be bigger and this meant merging with another firm. We started with five firms around the table. Eventually there were just two left: Gobodo and SizweNtsaluba. We formed SizweNtsalubaGobodo and became one big, unified and diversified firm.
6. In tough times, persevere
Mergers are always a challenge for leadership. There are many things you can’t anticipate. We thought we had a shared history and it would be easy to integrate the businesses but we made some faulty assumptions going into the merger.
I’d done extensive research on mergers. I’d spoken to people who had done it, attended courses, read books — most of which was specific to accounting firms. I thought I was prepared. One lecturer told us that if we were planning a merger, ‘Don’t do it’. Of course I was going to do it anyway, but once we were in, I realised all the preparation in the world hadn’t adequately prepared me. And yet failure wasn’t an option. We needed to make it work.
7. Culture determines everything
The way we did business was different. We were tough, disciplined and decisive. SizweNtsaluba’s culture was more creative, easy going, and less decisive.
Leaders attract people who are similar to them. Gobodo had developed in a certain way, with specific personalities in leadership and management roles. The same was true of SizweNtsaluba. You hire people who suit your culture and then this culture permeates the organisation.
All this really meant was that there was now frustration from top to bottom. 55 partners, 1 000 staff and everyone was on edge. Mergers are a huge test of wills.
We needed to balance the cultures that existed, and develop a new culture that could encompass everyone. This was our growth path.
8. Find a culture champion
Mergers are a time of uncertainty for employees, and so it’s important to have someone they know and trust to champion the change. This was my role from the Gobodo side, and Victor Sekese’s from the SizweNtsaluba side, with consultants assisting us. It was a time of massive communication. But communication is only effective if it’s understood. You need to ensure that your message is received.
As a leader, I had to let go of our previous culture, which was tough for me. But I had a vision of growth, and that meant letting go of the culture I had created.
Change has to begin at the top. You can’t expect to change things within the organisation if you won’t change too.
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There was so much friction in those early days. It could have broken us. Instead, we looked at it as a good and positive thing: a catalyst for change, forcing us to critically evaluate what worked and what didn’t. We all had different strengths. We needed to find what worked well together and made us stronger than the sum of our parts.
When the new culture had settled, people started to leave. We let them go. The individuals who didn’t fit needed to leave for everyone’s benefit. And then we hired new people who suited the new culture, and the organisation grew and developed.
9. Know when it’s time to move on
One of the toughest leadership decisions I’ve ever had to make was choosing to let go of the legacy I had been instrumental in creating. SizweNtsalubaGobodo was a unified firm. In 2015 I decided to leave. At first two leaders were necessary as we found a way to blend our firms.
Once that was accomplished though, it was counterproductive. The firm had come of age. It needed one leader, not two. We were two different leaders with different styles. This mission was greater than us. I made a clean break to allow the firm to move forward under Victor’s guidance and leadership.
10. Leadership is a journey, not a destination
Leaving SizweNtsalubaGobodo gave me the freedom to choose the next challenge in my life. I’d been a leader all my life, and I could share this with other organisations. An effective team and an organisational culture that enables the execution of a business’s strategy are the cornerstones of success. Mature leaders are able to influence both.
This was where I wanted to concentrate all the lessons I have learnt over the past twenty years. Together with my partners we want to help organisations find the leadership frameworks that work for their businesses.
Leading a business to success is not an individual activity. It’s the ability to motivate and support a team that can execute your vision.
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