Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture in Africa, on responsible leadership and trusting in the power of the team

A great leader is an authentic leader, according to Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture in Africa. ‘In order to lead, and to lead well, I believe one needs to be true to oneself. People are often tempted to emulate the leadership characteristics of others, but the recipe for success is to stay true to who you are – be your best self, not an imitation of someone else.

Great leaders possess clarity – both personally and for the organisations they lead. Being clear about what you want to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it, for both yourself as an individual as well as for the people that you lead, is critical. If you don’t know what your strategy is and how you are going to execute it, it’ll be difficult to expect others to follow you.

Another important characteristic that great leaders display is empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; to understand what they might be going through in their personal life and the reasons for their behaviour. This ability is key if you want to lead people, especially through tough times.

Vukani Mngxati, Accenture in Africa CEO

The final characteristic, and probably the most important, is ethical leadership. Ethical behaviour means doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, regardless of whether it is in your personal or professional life. Too many leaders are tempted by an easy way out, or by behaving in a way that – while it might not be technically wrong – is unethical. Ethics cannot be compromised. In a country plagued by corruption, we owe it to our nation to act ethically, responsibly and with accountability; to stand by and for what we believe in, no matter what.

During tough times such as those we are all currently facing, it can feel even more difficult to embody these leadership characteristics. However, it is now, more than ever, that it is important to do so, says Mngxati.

‘One of the lessons I have learned throughout my career, and which has certainly hit home over the past 18 months, is that leaders can – and should be able to – be vulnerable. People seem to think that asking for help, or admitting you don’t know something, means you are not a good leader. In fact, the opposite is true.

‘Asking your team for help in finding a solution means tapping into the top minds that you have chosen to surround yourself with, and also shows your trust in them. If you always think you have the answer to everything, soon you will find that nobody takes the initiative anymore, and that your team feels you have lost faith in them.’

There is no playbook for how to lead in a global pandemic, and admitting as much, and asking for the help of your team, will bond you even further, and ensure that together you reach the optimal solution. Trust goes both ways, and if you want the trust of your team, they need to be assured that their trust will be reciprocated.

‘Over the past 18 months, my leadership team and I have had to come up with many innovative solutions to previously unheard- of challenges, and one of these has been ensuring that all of our people and teams remain connected,’ says Mngxati. ‘Previously, we would connect on projects or at the office through various forms of face-to-face engagements. Now, with everyone working remotely, it’s easy for people to start disconnecting from each other, putting not only business relationships at risk, but also their own mental health. Sometimes, remaining connected is as simple as picking up the phone and finding out how someone is doing, and sometimes a more structured approach is needed.

‘It is also important for us as leaders to help de-stigmatise mental-health challenges, and encourage our people to get help when needed. There is no shame in seeking help, and that needs to be made abundantly clear. Our people are our greatest asset, and their health – mental, emotional and physical – is of paramount importance.’

Another way of staying connected, according to Mngxati, is to engage in a mentorship relationship – whether as the mentee, or mentoring someone else, or both. Having a mentor is such a valuable resource to have at your disposal, and something that everyone should aspire to. Choosing a mentor can be daunting, and many young professionals are afraid to approach more senior businesspeople as they fear they will be rejected.

Amid the challenges of the pandemic, the Accenture leadership team has continued its collaborative approach to adapt with flexibility

‘I’ve yet to hear of a senior person declining someone out of hand for no good reason – usually it truly is only a time constraint, which is understandable. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know,’ he says. ‘I asked a very senior leader in Accenture to meet with me for a few mentorship sessions, when I was far more junior than I am now. To my surprise, he said yes, and shared more time with me than I had asked for. Although I was nervous, I was also elated, and I got so much from those sessions – something that would never have happened if I hadn’t been brave enough to send an email that day.’

Mngxati adds that aside from looking for a good mentor, his advice to those who have recently entered the workforce is firstly to make sure you do what you enjoy – your career is a marathon and not a sprint, and you should enjoy the journey. Secondly, everything you undertake career-wise should be adding to what you want to achieve, even if it’s only incrementally. Every assignment or project you accept should be with your end goal in mind, and this requires thinking carefully and in a structured manner about what your goal is, and how you want to achieve it.

Lastly, ensure that your work has purpose, says Mngxati. ‘For me, doing business is more than waking up each morning and just going to work. I want to feel that my work is purposeful, that it speaks to who I am as an individual, and that it feeds my soul.

‘Wherever you draw your motivation from – be it your family, self-leadership, your inspiration to effect change or growing others – make sure that the work you do moves you forward and fulfils your purpose.’

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