It was not a ringing endorsement of Tiger Brands CEO Noel Doyle when his recent departure was accompanied by a rally in the firm’s share price.
It is tough being a CEO. The rewards can be outrageous — in terms of salary, bonuses, share options and all sorts of obvious and hidden perks. But the sacrifices can be awful: stress and sleepless nights, a terminal strain on family life, harsh judgment from business journalists, analysts, activist shareholders — and the share price.
Your legacy can be the rubble of a Steinhoff or a multibillion-dollar success story.
It can be lonely at the top, and you cannot always trust those who are in the running to take over when you topple to provide the best advice. One way to cope is by drawing on the advice, experience and wisdom of Mario Pretorius. The Unconventional CEO’s Destiny, Volume 5 is, as the title suggests, the fifth in a series of self-help books for those condemned souls who have been inflicted with the burden of corporate leadership.
Pretorius warns his readers that there is no place at the top of the corporate ladder for wimps. “Somewhere, there’s a button to release the Captain Jack in you onto the High Seas of Privateering for glory,” he suggests.
This punchy, irreverent, and infuriatingly well-read author urges the bosses of the world to tap into their inner Viking and conquer all.
He truly is speaking from experience. He has worked at SA Breweries and Malbak Subsidiaries and has listed three companies on the JSE. He has also hit the headlines as an outspoken shareholder of the Reserve Bank. When he ran the listed telecom firm TeleMasters, it was the first SA company to pay quarterly dividends, and it was only the regulators who prevented him from paying dividends each month.
This book has 84 chapters, and — as in his earlier volumes — Pretorius writes pithy, easily digested chapters. The author’s own advice is sound: “There is no particular order to this book. Start at any page. Pick it up and read it at random. Make critical notes and add your own insights. Disagree, object, change it for the better.”
While the cover might suggest that CEOs should emulate the Vikings and rape and pillage their way to success, Pretorius’ advice is far more nuanced. For instance, we are told that the CEO’s path ahead, when communicated to the oarsmen, should be “crisp, inspiring and executable”. It should be basic common sense, but all too often there are bosses who forget or ignore the basics.
Then, there is the advice on knowing when to quit. Many a firm has been sunk when the captain has been stubborn, oblivious to the dangers, insistent that failure can miraculously be transformed into success.
Making faster decisions that are imperfect, but mostly correct, is better than making slower decisions that are perfect
“Many leaders are panel beaters at heart when they should rather walk away from the wreck. Not wanting to waste a broken resource with the time, effort and cost of a backwards-looking introspection? Start anew and jettison the vestiges of failure, people and all,” Pretorius writes.
CEOs should be nimbler and be better at reading their people, and the author gives numerous examples of this. “You don’t have time to spend on needy, difficult staff. They mustn’t sap your time and energy. Set them free,” he suggests.
Another piece of invaluable advice is to be prepared to fail, but to learn the lessons of that failure. “Every plane crash makes flying thereafter safer. It is a tragedy to lose lives and equipment, but ameliorated by the system that gets to understand the reasons for events of doom. After investigation, legal requirements for future prevention are considered and air travel becomes less risky.”
The worst CEOs are the ones who fail to listen and learn, who ignore advice and input from their staff, and who decide on the way forward without pondering the alternatives. Pretorius has some words of wisdom for these stubborn, closed-minded leaders.
“What other possible outcomes were probed and found wanting? What crazy and unconventional ideas were considered, and why were these cast aside? How many alternatives would be adequate? You want to see the list.”
Just as he advises that lessons can be harvested from failures, he suggests that sometimes it is best to be bold, because it can be fatal to dither. “How perfect must your decisions be? Are you willing to create a situation where the imperfect is tolerated? Making faster decisions that are imperfect, but mostly correct, is better than making slower decisions that are perfect — because it forces your competitors to react to you instead of the other way around.”
While a lot of the book may seem more theoretical than practical, it is insightful to read of Pretorius’ own skill in what he calls “indirect warfare” — outsmarting your business opponents with bold, imaginative, cheeky tactics.
“In Namibia, we once recruited the whole sales team of the dominant school bookseller a week before schools placed their orders. Checkmate,” he boasts.
“With a major telecoms provider, we negotiated cumulative air miles which we used to incentivise resellers away from the opposition. It peaked at a staggering 13-million miles.
“We moved into the building opposite the best fibre connectivity vendor to mix with their executives daily at the only restaurant in the vicinity. We got first dibs at things on offer.”
For anyone who has struggled through the dense, snooze-inducing pages of some business books, Pretorius represents a breath of fresh air. Who knows? If your CEO reads it and picks up a few hints, the company’s share price may well tumble when he/she hangs up their spurs.
• John Fraser edited the first three books in this series but was not involved with this latest volume.
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