President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI/ Sunday Times
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI/ Sunday Times

Dear Mr President,

Ahead of your third state of the nation address (Sona) this week, may I venture a couple of thoughts, courtesy of Jeff Bezos, the outgoing CEO of Amazon. I know it might not be particularly PC —  his track record on wages and working conditions is not great —  but he has single-handedly led and inspired the creation of a company worth R20-trillion in the same time as SA has had democracy.  He must have done some things right.

Consider that Amazon employs 1.3-million people and serves customers around the world, of whom 150-million have accounts. SA, meanwhile, has twice as many civil servants to look after the collective interests of just 60-million people, most of them within the borders of the country. 

Imagine how much more effective your government could be, if you changed a few things. So, might I suggest framing this year’s Sona around Amazon’s 14 principles?

This is how those principles could make a difference:

1. An obsession with the customer Let’s substitute “customer” with “citizen”.  Amazon works on the basis that its leaders start with the customer in mind, and work backwards from there. Their focus is to earn their customer’s trust, and keep it. Amazon’s leaders pay attention to competitors, but they obsess over customers. 

Imagine if your government obsessed over its citizens and their needs, before considering how best to serve itself or worrying what opposition parties are up to. 

2. Leaders think like owners

At Amazon, leaders are taught to think like “owners”, but we can substitute that with “custodians” in our context. 

In the same way as an owner’s mentality is one of long-term thinking which does not sacrifice long-term value for short-term results, imagine if our political leaders and civil servants took a custodianship role and acted in the best long-term interests of the country instead of obsessing over short-term gains?

3. Invent and simplify

When you look at the queues outside SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) offices and then hear the waffle around “the fourth industrial revolution”, don’t you wish that the government had more of an innovation and invention mindset? 

I’m not sure when last you had to queue for a licence disk for your car, or any documents from home affairs, but frankly, it’s a soul-sapping, time-wasting enterprise. 

Were you to properly innovate to fix this, it would make your government considerably more popular and your citizens that much more productive.

Amazon’s leaders hire people who make them look good, through their ability to continually innovate and invent better ways of serving customers. They help themselves to ideas from everywhere, to improve the customer experience.  Just imagine if everyone in your government thought like that.

4. Leaders are right — a lot

Having the right leaders in place means having people who have a good sense of judgment and good instincts about what the right thing is to do. 

They seek dissent to challenge their own beliefs and ideas, but ultimately can make a call about the direction of the business.

5. They learn and are curious

Bar a handful of smart younger appointments to high office, once you became president, you didn’t surround yourself with people who are adept at learning new and innovative ways of serving SA’s citizens.  Great leaders have an insatiable curiosity about new possibilities and work out ways to explore new opportunities, while constantly doing the job expected of them. 

Looking at evidence led at the Zondo commission and elsewhere, there does at least seem to be plenty of curiosity — but this trait has tragically been exploited by the corrupt to advance their personal interests rather than those of the country.

6. Leaders hire, and develop, the best people

The ANC’s patronage system means that until you figure out a way to promote people on the basis of talent, you are never going to progress. 

Former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan insisted on hiring people smarter than him in their specific disciplines because he knew it would lead to better outcomes for the business he ran and would build his image as a leader. 

If you as a leader ensure that every person you hire or promote is the very best at what they do, and you reward and promote skills and integrity, you would attract talented people who want to make the government better. 

Leaders develop leaders and are serious about their role in coaching others, says Amazon.

7. Leaders demand the highest standards

Great leaders are relentless in their pursuit of the highest possible standards. Often, staff might think those standards to be unreasonable and they leave, but this clears the way for people who are more ambitious and hungry for success.  Imagine if, for example, the leadership of the SA Post Office were fixated on ensuring it delivered services for citizens that were comparable to those of the courier companies which have emerged thanks to its failure? Imagine if SAA were run with the same obsessive attention to detail as FlySafair? 

Leaders at Amazon are expected to fix problems in a way that they stay fixed.

8. Leaders think big

Over many years of attending the World Economic Forum at Davos, I have noticed how our national sense of self-confidence has been corroded by insecurity and doubt. 

The Amazon lesson teaches us that those who think small will find that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. 

One of your first Sonas tried this — but you missed the mark when you talked about high-speed trains and smart cities. I fear that what happened was that one of the “fourth industrial revolution” snake-oil salesmen, who drone on about Africa leapfrogging the world thanks to technology, got hold of someone in your office and convinced them that if you dream big about the future you don’t have to solve the problems of the present. 

Sadly, you do — but leaders do think differently, and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

9. They have a bias for action

Boy, is your government bad at this. I am not sure where you guys keep all the plans you talk about, but it must be a very big dusty warehouse with plenty of room for hot air. 

Amazon works on the basis that speed matters in business; imagine if your government took the same approach? 

Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. Where Amazon succeeds is in the way it values calculated risk-taking and, in much the same way that Stephen Koseff built Investec, it does not punish mistakes made in the interests of advancing the business. 

However, Koseff once told me that he did not tolerate those who made the same mistake twice. You have his number; he can confirm the story.

10. Acting frugally

Finance ministers have been talking about this for years. The message appears to be hitting home finally, but we’re often warned that if we don’t throw money at the problem, we won’t be able to expect the same level of service.

Were you to study the world’s most successful businesses, particularly the way they work during times of recession and difficulty like the world is going through today, you’d see that companies are not willing to compromise on standards – they simply find better ways of operating. 

Constraints should breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. 

There are no extra points at Amazon for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense. The same should apply in government.

11. Focus on earning trust

On his first day in office, US President Joe Biden warned staff at the White House that he would fire anyone who spoke disrespectfully to colleagues. 

Amazon says its leaders listen attentively, speak candidly and treat others respectfully. They are, however, self-critical and (I like this bit) do not believe that their team’s body odour smells of perfume. 

They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

12. Dive deep

Adrian Gore, the founder of Discovery, will tell you that he takes nothing at face value. He challenges everything he is told, to ensure that he fully understands the issues that face his business. 

At Amazon, leaders are encouraged to operate at all levels, stay connected to the details and audit frequently, and to be sceptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them. 

How many people in your cabinet, Mr President, can honestly say the same?

13. Leaders have backbone; they disagree and act with commitment

This is a big one, Mr President. The last time I chatted to Adam Habib, as he was leaving to work in London, he was frustrated at your apparent inability to make the big decisions in a way that would stick and become entrenched in the government.

Your consensus-building strategy has stood you in good stead over the decades, and I understand its utility – but Amazon’s no-nonsense culture can teach us all a thing or two. 

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. 

They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

14. Leaders deliver results

Finally, leaders set ambitious goals and work to achieve them. Of course it’s hard. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

Now imagine, Mr President, if you had a government that thought like that.

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