Andile Ngcaba: From Micromanager to Mentor – How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Lead

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About Andile Ngcaba

Andile Ngcaba is one of South Africa's most well known and respected tech gurus. He is the Founder & Chairman of investment group Convergence Partners, and former Executive Chairman of Dimension Data Middle East and Africa, a subsidiary of the Dimension Data plc Group. Through Convergence Partners, Andile is involved in significant new communications infrastructure projects across Africa including Seacom (the first undersea fibre optic cable system serving Africa's East Coast), the first private sector satellite in Africa (Intelsat New Dawn), a joint venture to bring high capacity, long-haul terrestrial fibre to South Africa (FibreCo), and recently a new joint venture with Google to invest in CSquared, a broadband infrastructure company headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

'Mindset of Mentors' with The Africa List

As part of a CEO Night with The Africa List community in Uganda, Andile answered questions from the members about the leadership practices he has cultivated along his leadership journey. This was part of a quarterly series of ‘CEO Nights’ hosted by The Africa List communities under the theme of unpacking the 'Mindset of Mentors'. At these events, a range of senior CEOs and Chairs from across Africa spend time with the community of 'next-in-line CEOs' that make up The Africa List community to unpack what it really takes to make it to the top. We only run 'CEO Nights' once a year so to make the interactions with the CEOs in attendance as structured and useful as possible, a selection of CEOs host breakout sessions, answering questions posed by the members on their 'CEO Life Hacks' that cover a range of topics including productivity, leadership, management strategies and their personal reflections. 

These are some of our favourite pieces of advice that Andile shared on the night: 

 


 
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You can pursue success but you must prevent it from defining who you are. Centre and define yourself by the people around you.

Journey

What’s the best or worst career decision you’ve ever made?

I’ve been in technology all my life, for over 40 years. My first job straight out of school was for Phillips in 1978. There is something to be said about focus, but sometimes I wonder if I should have experienced other aspects of life to balance the deep knowledge I have in technology. You build and accumulate expertise and almost believe that skill is what creates success. You focus on one thing, try and zoom into it, but realise later there is more to life than that. I should have spent more time to understand people better.

Who are you without your accolades?

I’m a father - I have seven children. They are my friends, the people I live with and they give me a reason to continue working. In life you realise that the true essence of a human being is belonging with those people who love you most. In work, you reach a stage where it is just intellectual stimulation. Spending quality time with my family, that’s what makes me truly happy. I don’t have a relationship with material things, and I think you can teach yourself that. You can pursue success and investments, but you must prevent them from defining who you are. Centre yourself and define yourself by the people around you. That’s how I was brought up.

How has your management style changed over the years?

There was a time if I’m honest with you when I had a more military style of management, but over the years as I’ve gotten older, I have changed. Today I probably relate more to people by listening than telling. When I was younger, I thought strong leadership was about being hard, and if you didn’t agree with me, you were out the door. I’ve fired a lot of people in my life. In those days, I did it without even thinking. If you didn’t meet quarter 1, 2, 3, you’re out. There are people I fired 20 years ago that I’ve gone back to and apologised to because I think I should have done things differently. They’ve moved on, but it still hurts me thinking about it. Over time you learn, you mature and look at life differently, but I do look at it as a part of myself. I’m not shy to share that perspective and tell other younger people not to go that route. It’s not necessary and there are different ways to do things.

As a man, there is societal pressure to measure life with success. I was on that roller-coaster for many years but I’ve calmed down significantly. I’m now pursuing management, life and business in a much more compassionate way, both to me and my surroundings.

What do you think it’s like working for you?

I have changed over the years, but previously it was difficult. I was involved in building more than 20 companies, so I’m quite a hard task master. In the beginning, I used to micro-manage quite heavily and put indirect pressure on people. I’d send e-mails between three and five in the morning because that’s when I’m most productive. Then I’d send Whatsapp messages to you as you’re driving to work, saying things like “Did you get my e-mail? I need a response by 10am.” That was a time in my life when work was everything, and I was driven entirely by the pursuit of my business objectives. I remember when my elder brother died, for the period he was sick I never had time to see him because I was everywhere else in the world, and then he died. I didn’t attend the funeral of my mother’s sister because I was somewhere in the world doing a deal. When I got older, I thought ‘why did I put myself in that position?’. I’m much more conscious about life balance these days.

Where does that drive to overachieve come from?

I’m a very competitive person because I grew up in a highly competitive space. In class, at school, at work – I had to achieve. When I was younger, I had this drive of success which was a little overboard. If I play squash with you, I have to beat you. We will not stop until I win the game.

I always say to younger people, don’t postpone thinking about balance until after you’re burnt out. Do it as part of your normal life. It paid off – I won’t lie, but it nearly ruined me. I developed extremely high blood pressure that blew up into numbers which were uncontrollable. The strange thing to me was that I thought I was so healthy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I was going to the gym. It was my wife that forced me to take this seriously, we had young children and it could have led to a stroke or even death. I took a step back and looked at how I pursue things.

What do you think about success and balance now?

I’ve changed my thinking on this quite a bit, so I’ll give you the past and present. Before, success was about another deal. We have to buy another company, we have to pursue another deal, we must develop another project, and it must be successful. I was on that roller-coaster for many years. I’ve calmed down significantly. I started looking into mindfulness, and I’m now pursuing management, life and business in a much more compassionate way, both to me and my surroundings.

What prompted that change?

I decided to learn how to become a mentor to other people and in determining what mentorship is, I realised that the best thing to be is a coach. There’s a big difference between coaching people and mentoring people. I did a coaching course which revealed a certain aspect of myself that had been masked by the pressure of the masculinity of success. As a man, there is societal pressure to measure life with success. However, in my journey I allowed myself to embrace vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  If I don’t achieve a particular goal, I don’t feel small or inferior or weak. If other people are more successful than me, it feels ok. I don’t say to myself anymore “I have to beat this guy”.

How do you inspire a similar type of mindset in your team?

I took a coaching course at the University of Cape Town’s Business School, and I coach part time, so I’ve learned how to put these methodologies into action. I should have probably practised mindfulness and coaching earlier in life. However, now I teach mentees to be mindful of the way we relate to the people we work for and with, our clients, our neighbours. I think mindfulness is what drives enterprises today.

Don’t postpone thinking about balance until after you’re burnt out. Do it as part of your normal life.
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Management

It sounds like what made you successful was work ethic and drive, but is there anything else you’d credit your success to?

More than work ethic, it's my passion for technology. I always make sure I am operating in the knowledge space - that’s where I am most at home. My competitiveness is in the sciences. I’m currently working on a cutting-edge technology solution that will launch in 2020. If you take technology and software, I’m not looking where everyone else is, I pursue niche areas. That strategy has given me more of a competitive edge than being driven. All the businesses I am involved in have some level of sophistication which is what drives me. 

What practical things do you do to encourage leadership in your team?

Feedback. The most important thing I often talk about is that leaders often don’t want to hear what the people they lead say about them. Get honest feedback from the people working under you – not just telling you how good you are and showering you with praises, but get people to tell you the things that are a bit difficult to swallow when you listen to them. That openness will build strong relationships with the people you lead. 

What happens when someone in your team fails?

I don’t regard failure as something that would push somebody away. People always ask me - what made you successful? The answer is failing a lot. More than any average person in fact. I’ve got suitcases filled with failed ideas, things I’ve tried and failed and tried again. Failure is something that should take you to another level, that’s how I advise people that work with me. Don’t think of failure as something to inhibit you, but as something to learn from and go forward.

How do you develop and condition your team so they can function optimally when things get tough?

There are two ways to motivate people. I’m not a believer in motivating people with material things, but prefer to enlighten them about the bigger goals of life.

What do you do to encourage gender equality in your business?

My mother was a gender activist so I grew up in an environment where these issues were not just theoretical things I read about, but that I experienced in the society I come from in South Africa. I understand what it means to be discriminated against, not just by gender but by race, so these are issues I take very seriously in the businesses I’ve invested in. For example, making sure that women don’t have token jobs but have meaningful responsibilities in my companies. 

How much of your life is spent making versus managing?

I hardly manage these days, I leave that to other people. I focus on innovating and developing solutions. I probably write more concept papers, and let others handle the management issues.

Leaders often don’t want to hear what the people they lead say about them. Get honest feedback from them, and not just the good stuff. Get people to tell you the things that are a bit difficult to swallow when you hear them.

Productivity / Learning

What do the first two hours of your day look like?

I wake up at 4am every morning regardless of where I am or what time I go to sleep – at 4am I’m up. I don’t use an alarm; my body clock wakes me up because that’s when my brain functions best. I write a lot, so between 4 and 8 o’clock that’s when I do the most writing and most productive.

Are there any apps you use to boost your productivity?

I use a lot of productivity tools, such as the business canvas modelling tools to brainstorm new ideas. I also use Claralabs for my day-to-day secretarial services – I don’t need a PA anymore, you can have a robot who will be your PA. 

How do you create and sustain your network?

To me business success is about human beings; the way we relate, and the extent to which we humble ourselves to other people. I have friendships and acquaintances that I’ve kept for more than 40 years. I’m over 60 now, and I have relationships that go as far back as high school. I work with young and old people, and that’s what keeps me going.

What books have you gifted most to others and why?

My mother’s book "May I Have This Dance". She passed on last year but she inspires me a lot. She spent a long time in prison (during apartheid in South Africa) and has written books about how she survived life in prison. I often think that if my mother can go through what she went through, then I can do anything. I have also probably distributed 'A Long Walk to Freedom' by Nelson Mandela more than any other book in my life.

What feeds your spirit?

I have a deep passion for technology and it's positive impact in the world. It goes beyond business, but also a hobby. I don’t drink or smoke so this is my vice.

Do you have any learning rituals to make sure you keep growing as a leader?

Working in technology one thing that is constant is change. For those of us that live in technology, the fun and thrill come from knowing that what you are dealing with today will not exist three years from now and you will have to learn all over again. Just look at the beginning of mobile, fibre, AI, the physics of optics. It’s that ability to learn all the time that drives us and stimulates us, and not just superficially either but deeply learn and understand it. This pursuit of knowledge is what drives me.

What do you spend most of your time thinking about as a leader?

When you are in my position, as a father, you start thinking about how to equip the next generation better. This is what keeps me up at night. How do I empower my children to build on what I have started and not just for their lifetime but for the generations that will follow? 

To find out more about The Africa List community in Uganda where this event took place, please visit our Uganda country page here.

For more information about The Africa List, please visit our main site www.theafricalist.com

Stay in touch with Andile on Twitter: @andile_ngcaba