“I refuse to celebrate mediocrity!” says Pot to Kettle

I don’t understand the reaction to the recent matric results. Have we gotten so used to complaining? Are we so easily fooled to even complain about the good things that happen in our country? We are truly a twitter nation, making snap judgements based on headlines, dropping comments like they were change, and moving on to the next story to vent about.

The context

The grade 12 pass rate in 2012 was 73.9% and it increased in 2013 to 78.2%. That is a significant improvement by any measure. This has made people very excited, but the wrong kind of excited. The immediate reaction from some quarters was that the results were cooked before you factor anything else into it. Now add the fact that the Western Cape did not occupy one of the top two positions as it had in previous years. It did not come third either. It came in fourth place. Once you’ve absorbed that then factor in the fact that in 2013 the pass mark was dropped to 30%. That means you only need to know 30% of what you have been taught to advance from grade 12. These facts have strengthened the perception that the results were tampered with.  No wait, that’s a bit of an understatement. These facts have convinced people that the results were doctored. No, that’s not quite right either. These facts have solidified the fact that the ruling party have been for years now tampering with not just the results but with the students themselves and the teachers and the markers to ensure that in 2013 the pass rate would be 78%.

The Da Angie Code

Yes, there is a national conspiracy to ensure that weak students never write matric and thereby guaranteeing that the government can celebrate improved pass rates. It is a conspiracy that involves teachers, students and their parents. They have agreed, under coercion from the government, to hold back weak students in grades 10 and 11 so that they do not sit for matric exams the following year. Robert Ludlum, were he still alive, would be impressed with the ingenuity to pull this off. Imagine the number of people involved in this, and there has not been a single leak on social media! Think of the efficiency of the government agents that have infiltrated the school system. Here in South Africa! I cannot wait for the movie to be made. To the Conspiracy Theorists (now on referred as CT) this project is called ‘culling’ (yes the same word used to describe the practice of controlled killing of animals).

Is the dropout problem new in 2013?

The high (extremely high) dropout rate in students after grade 9 has been cited by them for this assertion (it is no longer a hypothesis, or even a theory it is now a fact as far as the CT are concerned). Roughly 500 000 students wrote the grade 12 exam in 2013. Twelve years prior when the class of 2013 started grade 1 there were about one million students who registered. That means 500 000 students did not even make it to matric to write the exam. That is a ridiculously high number. A study was done a few years ago and a committee formed to investigate the reasons for this drop out. One of the things they found was that the dropout rate in primary school is so small as to be negligible. Their findings are detailed in the above report. This was done in 2007, it is interesting that no one talked about culling back then. Another report is available from 2011. Again there was no talk of culling. One has to wonder why there is talk of it now. As if to suggest the high dropout has only affected the class of 2013 (less than half the kids who started school in 200 wrote exams in 2012). And it clearly shows that there is something seriously wrong with education in this country and how it is being managed. I am not disputing that. But to suggest a nation-wide government-led conspiracy, really?

Some say we are lagging behind other nations in the world and in the rest of Africa. Zimbabwe with all its problems has been used as an example for comparison. It has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, significantly higher than South Africa and this is rightly due to their fantastic education system. Except it’s not so fantastic. In 2011 the primary school pass rate was 45%. The pass rate for O-levels (which is what they do after form 4 or grade 10, an equivalent of grade 12) was 19.5% in the same year. So maybe let’s stay clear of using Zimbabwe as a comparison.

What about the rest of the world? We are so far behind the likes of the UK that any comparison is ludicrous. From what I can gather, students are free to do whatever after grade 10 (form 4). Apparently only about 20% go on to form 6, our grade 12 equivalent. And then they decide how and when to complete their studies, with the average being 3 to 4 subjects being taken a year. The point is there are so many differences to the system itself that one cannot compare the two. Although in the states grade 11 and 12 are compulsory it is much the same in terms of comparison. Even between different states in the US there are differences in policy.

The (sudden) call for an investigation

Before we go on let’s address the other two factors that have led to conspiracy talk. Why is the fact that the Western Cape has dropped from number one to four matter in this case? Because it is the one province run by the opposition party and they just happen to be the ones screaming for an investigation into the results. As I’ve mentioned before this was the first year a call for an investigation has been heard regarding the improved results. If you take one and put it together with the other you can only come to one conclusion. Contrary to what other defendants of the results have said, I do not believe it is a race issue although I understand why they would say it is. Let’s face it as soon as you shout race it muddies the waters a bit and makes everything difficult from there onwards. It is purely a political decision. It is an election year and no good news from any party can be celebrated, especially when my party has not done as well as expected. That, I believe, is the reason for the call to investigate.

“And the other thing that everyone has been going on about?”

“Oh yes, the drop of the pass mark to 30%! Almost forgot about that.”

This article from a retired headmaster is the perfect read for you if you are in the stable that believes the drop to 30% is criminal and eroding the quality of education in this country. The pass mark in the previous regime was, wait for it, 331/3%.

“Wait, so we are complaining about a 31/3% drop?”

“Um, yes. Yes we are.”

“But people have been going on about 50%?!”

Yes they have, and they have been, and continue to be, wrong. The same people who went through that very same schooling system.

Some went to the trouble of quoting the FS University VC, “You no longer need 50% to pass certain subjects, which means that you can be completely ignorant of more than half of the subject matter content and still pass.”  Yeah, you never needed 50% on any subject, ever! I urge you to go into the DoE website and find out for yourself what the requirements for passing at each level are.

But the poor kids will struggle at varsity!

The final point I want to address is this fear that university students are being compromised by this. There is concern that kids going to university are being set up for failure. As in “these kids will get to university and fail.” Huh? The pass mark was dropped, not the university entrance requirements. A kid who passed with 34% or 30% is still not going to make it to tertiary. None of the kids who pass between 30% and 34% will be at university, so how has it affected university dropout rates? Again, you just have to check the DoE website and you will see that to get to university you need a 50% pass mark in at least four of your subjects, subjects that carry 20 credits. Keep in mind that universities determine their own entry requirements; this just makes you eligible to attend a university. So if they (the universities) have lowered their admission requirement to accept kids that are not suitable to study at university then they should be held to account (with Bra Blade if he’s involved). It’s got nothing to do with matric pass marks.

Cause for celebration

I choose to celebrate the fact that we have 8 provinces with greater than 70% pass rate and 4 at over 80%. I choose to celebrate the fact that we have 61950 more kids who passed matric than in 2012. I choose to celebrate the fact that we have 35708 more kids who achieved a bachelor’s pass and 20411 more who achieved a diploma pass than in 2012. I choose to celebrate the fact that the non-diploma and non-bachelor passes only account for 9.4% of the improvement from 2012. And if you believe in the conspiracy theory and the culling, then I suggest you get Dan Brown on the case although you may have more luck with Tom Eaton for this one.

Twitter strikes again… and again

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It is sometimes such an excruciating experience but I always go back to it. It’s not quite an addiction yet but it’s getting close. It is true that it sometimes makes me laugh, and I can always find interesting (useless but interesting) facts about stuff and things. I can catch up on the latest sports news, find out how my team is doing (but I have the Supersport app for that?) and just read through people’s thoughts about anything and everything. Mostly nothing. These are people I don’t know, have never met and will never meet. But I want to know what they think about whatever. It’s a craving, but only sometimes. I can stop whenever I want. I can delete it whenever I want. I just choose not to. The fact that this is what every addict says is immaterial to the point I’m making. So you can stop looking at me with those judgemental eyes. Well you’re not looking at me because you can’t see me but I can feel you reading this with eyes full of judgement.

Anyway, where was before you interrupted? Ah yes, the excruciating pain of visiting twitter. I must admit it is nowhere near as bad as News24 and IOL. I mean if you want to be truly depressed and be driven to the verge of giving up on the human race then go read the comments section on IOL and News24. It doesn’t matter what the story is. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Just pick any story and scroll down to the comments section…

Depressing right? Twitter is not so bad. Perhaps because it’s designed for people with (a little) attention disorder and has such limited space and you need tons of attention and acres of space to spew out the negativity like the guys do on News24. Don’t get me wrong they do give it their best shot. But at least they choose their stories very carefully. Anything that is political is fair game. This includes any mention of any politician or pseudo-politician. Any good news about South Africa is also up for attack. And they will never strike alone, they get shipped in The Band Wagon with their fingers ready for war.

The latest band wagon: the matric results. How painful it was to read the tweets! And sure enough The Band Wagon rolled in, full steam (for some reason this band wagon runs on steam, strange). Until about 09:30 (that’s when it ran out of steam). And then everyone remembered they were at work or simply forgot about it. I’m going with they simply forgot. Tomorrow when something else is announced they will become experts in that too (everyone on twitter is an expert). A quick Google search and then they are throwing numbers on their timeline and barely-understood facts to make their point. Logic be damned! And dare to be the one being positive in the midst of all the negativity. They will attack you relentlessly; well they’ll stop and slink away once logic defeats them. But you get my point. Before you know it you are typing furiously asking questions that should be common sense.

I remember Heritage Day fondly. That was incredible. As in, it was beyond belief and not in a good way. The righteousness I witnessed that day was biblical (except it was on twitter so that’s a bit of hyperbole). People who were having a braai were called weak, lacking self-esteem, victims, confused, allowing our culture to be destroyed etc. It was so much fun to read! One person went as far as to say that we should be holding debates and discussions and reflecting and not braaing. I don’t know, I guess because September 24 is only one hour long and South African law dictates that there will be no discussion while having braai, the only talk allowed is sports, but no national teams must be mentioned, only clubs and provincial teams. But I’m moving away from the topic. The pain. The twitter pain.

But I can’t stay away from it. It gives such insight to the people we are living with. And this is important. If one day these people decided to use more than just their fingers for protest and a real revolution started it will be important to know how they think and their views on running the country and the world. Maybe they will start the revolution on twitter. Send so many tweets all at the same time that the government just breaks. So I’ll keep checking in, just in case.

Entrepreneurship and the route to economic freedom

We fear so much losing what little we have that we dare not take a stance against something we know is wrong, or to fight for something we know to be noble. We fail to see that we should have much more than what we have because we have had nothing for so long. We have fallen into the trap of thinking true economic liberation can only come from self-employment. This is what we have been taught to believe. This is what, at least in our country, is the prevailing wisdom.

In fact, it is so deeply ingrained that you might find it hard to reconcile these words with common sense. I mean, of course you need to be an entrepreneur to make it in this world, at least financially. Everyone knows that! I believe this to be very far from the truth. Or if not far from true then significantly skewed towards what is merely one alternative.

The richest in South Africa are entrepreneurs (but are not self-employed)

The list of the richest people in South Africa – and how much they are worth – from Forbes is mind boggling. Incidentally, there is only one black billionaire in this country. That’s one. In the entire top ten there are only two black people. And there are no females.

Rupert is the chairman of Richemont and Remgro; Gore is CEO of Discovery; Bekker is Naspers CEO; Ackerman was chairman of Pick ‘n Pay; Dippenar is chairman (and co-founder) of First Rand Group; Oppenheimer was chairman of De Beers before he sold it for $5.1 billion in cash; GT is also co-founder of First Rand; Saad is co-founder and CEO of Aspen; Wiese is executive director for Shoprite which he bought for R1M; Gray is the founder of Allan Gray; Noutton is chairman of PSG (his son is CEO); Sacco inherited Assore Group from his father; Attridge is co-founder and deputy CEO of Aspen; Ramaphosa chairman and founder of Shanduka Group; and Motsepe owner of ARM.

Although they are all CEO’s or Chairmen of their respective companies they are also co-founders of these companies or they got very lucky with some risky investments. I’m not an economist so I will not try to analyse their situations and what allowed them to make it when so many others did not. Maybe you can read Jim Collins’ Built To Last and Good To Great for that. The point is that it is clear that some form of entrepreneurship was vital in making these men as wealthy and successful as they are. So at this point I want to clarify: there is a difference between entrepreneurship and being self-employed.

The difference between an entrepreneur and being self-employed

There was some research done to try to understand why self-employed people in the US on average earn less than their salaried counterparts. What the researchers found was that they had to separate entrepreneurs from other types of the self-employed by “disaggregate(ing) the self-employed into two groups—the incorporated and unincorporated.” They described the incorporated as having “limited liability” and “a separate legal identity”. This simply means you have your own business but you are owned by a bigger corporation or they have a significant stake in your company. The research they found was that these individuals earn 28% more than their salaried counterparts. They found that unincorporated self-employed individuals earned less than their salaried counterparts. Interesting.

They also found that successful incorporated entrepreneurs were successful salaried employees before they ventured out on their own and that those who remained unincorporated were never successful as salaried employees. Very interesting.

Entrepreneurs in the corporate world

We’ve heard about the incorporated self-employed, what about entrepreneurs in the corporate world? Can they exist? The answer, if you buy into the above argument of incorporated self-employed, is that of course they can and they do. In fact, I would argue that what encourages them to leave and start their own businesses is a recognition that the corporate world is holding them back from achieving their goals of changing the world. The same researchers found that there are have been organisations for a while now, long before Google and Apple that actively encouraged the spirit of entrepreneurship within their employees because they understood the role these people played in the success of the organisation. And think about these guys mentioned above. They are the leaders of their organisations. Is it not feasible and even probable that they will be looking for people like them to continue their businesses? I see a trend in corporate towards building a culture of entrepreneurship. The more forward thinking organisations have this already inculcated in their people and it is a key factor for new hires.

But for some reason we view people who stay in the corporate world as not being brave enough to tackle the outside world on their own. We use terms like the rat race (I saw a poster saying that even if you win the rat race you’re still a rat!). We make being self-employed sound sexy and earning a salary sound boring. You even see it with your friends and acquaintances. They walk around like heroes with the slightest bit of self-importance around them. It’s like people who have this insatiable need to tell everyone how difficult their MBA is while they’re doing it and how hard it is to have to attend lectures after-hours. MBAeish!

The sad thing is I used to feel inferior somehow (I could never really understand the exactly how I was inferior) for not following my friends’ and former colleagues examples of starting my own business. I think about it now and there really is no reason that I can see right now to leave the corporate world and start my own business. If a company is no longer fulfilling my passions then I need to find one that will. I need to rise high enough in the organisation to be able to influence decisions on things like culture change, contribution to economic development, the building of leaders in-house and whatever else you may be passionate about. And if you are truly entrepreneurial you will know when corporate is no longer sufficient to fulfil your passions and then you will build your own little corporate or big corporate to satisfy those passions. Not because you want to make money!

There is nothing less inspiring than money. I had a debate with my little cousin some time back. He was adamant that his goal in life is to make money. I asked why he wants to make money. He was unable to answer not because he didn’t have an answer but because he felt it was self-explanatory. It is not. If you one of those people whose goal is to ‘make a lot money’ ask yourself why? Why do you want to make money? Is it so you can be comfortable? If so would you accept other sources of this comfort other than money? Is it to provide for your kids? I would argue that staying in corporate is the best way to do this. You can’t get any more stability than that. Ask yourself why you want to make money and then stop focussing on the money and start focussing on the reason!

This is where the economical difference between an entrepreneur and someone who is self-employed. The entrepreneur is not focussed on being self-employed for the sake of being self-employed or for the sake of making money. They engage in entrepreneurship because they thrive on invention and innovation, on creating and finding needs to fulfil. A Forbes reader commenting on an article about entrepreneurship wrote that an entrepreneur has “an insatiable need to make the world a better place through… improved services or products.” Richard Branson said “There is no point in going into a business unless you can make a radical difference in other people’s lives.”

So the next time you feel under pressure to ‘start your own business’ think about whether you will be changing the world or not. Think about what difference you will make in this country with your invention. Think about the impact you have in your current job and whether or not you can do more. Ask yourself if you have not been successful in the corporate world where you are given all the resources at your disposal what makes you think you will be successful on your own with significantly less resources. Think about your driving passion and if it is compelling enough for you to say fuck it I’m doing it.

What is your purpose as a leader

DERS-Q~1

 

What is your purpose as a leader?  Is it not to help your employees love the work they do, to help them find that sweet spot where they are making the world – even the tiny space they occupy – a better place. There are a few points I want to make to (hopefully) illustrate just how far away from true leadership we have gone. In some cases we have found ‘alternatives’ to doing the difficult work of a leader and wrongfully equated them to leadership. Leadership is about people first, second, third and always.

Work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford

If you are a leader in your organisation and you do not spend time – hours, days even – thinking about your employees then you are sure to miss a crucial opportunity to engage meaningfully when you are with them. When your job wholly depends on the people under you then shouldn’t the majority (all?)of your focus and energy go into these people?

“Of course it should!” is the immediate answer often said with a look of incredulity and insulted surprise that someone would actually ask such a silly question. Well let’s look at your current boss. Do you believe s/he spends time thinking about you outside of work? I’m not talking about a passing thought about work in general, I mean a targeted specific session at home to think about where you are going, what makes you tick, how s/he will use this to make you a better leader. I’m talking about holding conversations in the shower with you in your absence. Plotting potential career paths for you that s/he will later engage you on, not because her/his boss or HR has now said they need a certain position filled but because s/he genuinely feels that you are capable of doing that job and that it fits with both of your ideas of career progression. Thinking about your gaps and the best way to help you close them while having a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Do you believe your boss spends this much time on you? Do you believe s/he should? Do you believe you should? If not, why not? Are you then going to try to do this in the work place? May as well try to do your MBA in your office.

Leadership is a profession and must be treated as one. We spend time and money extending our technical knowledge or working on that assignment or project for the entire weekend. Yet we don’t do the same for our people. If you can spend an entire Saturday evening working on a presentation surely you can spend the same amount of time working on your people.

I can see you saying that’s just ridiculous, when do you spend time with your family? What about work-life balance?! The MD of a company I used to work for said it quite nicely: it doesn’t exist. If you’re looking for a work-life balance you’re doing the wrong job. I would put it slightly differently: work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford. This is where Conrad’s quote becomes critical for you as a leader. After all, if you don’t like what you are doing how can you be expected to take it home with you? Another behaviour I’ve never understood is the people who are out the door of the office and out the gate religiously at knock-off time, every single day. These people cannot wait to leave the office. How much do you dislike your job that every single day you can’t wait to leave it? Even worse when you are a leader in your organisation! Do you not cherish those after-hours chats with your employees? Catching up on their lives, getting better insights into the people they are. These times when their guard is down and they open to you are gold.

Leadership is work and must be treated as such. It is not a means to an end, a way of delivering results. It is a calling and unfortunately too often people who do not subscribe to it as such are called into it. Your own leadership is to be analysed constantly and constantly improved. If you’re not doing this you’re not in the right game.

Work is love made visible

  • A friend posted this on Facebook (which inspired me to write this post):

“I don’t like work… but I like what is in work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – which no other man can ever know.”

It’s a quote by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t know who he was so I looked him up. Fewer professions can provide the sentiments he makes above than writing. Leading people is one of them.

I can honestly say I found myself when I was leading people. I can honestly say I don’t know if I did it well or not but I know I found my own reality. I created it every day with the people I was leading. I don’t know how successful as a leader I was (you can never know this but for your people – the moment you think you can do a self-analysis on your leadership you’re dead in the water; you must strive to do better than your last attempt no matter how successful it was) but I believe I would have been immeasurably less successful had I not enjoyed what I was doing.

So knowing this it only makes sense that I work hard to make sure that I help my employees achieve the same opportunity to find themselves, and create their own reality in the work.

Another friend asked on Facebook (yes sometimes value adding conversations do take place on Facebook!) if it was better to be feared than to be loved as a leader. The answer was instantly clear to me, it is never better to be feared. There is no scenario out there in the known universe where this is the case. Some people confuse fear for respect or, even worse, think it can be applied to get respect. I have found that these people are usually novices at the leadership game; they still have a few bumps and bruises of experience to get through. One of the questions that usually come up at this point is the question on delivery of results. It is here that it becomes apparent that people, on top of confusing fear with respect, also confuse love with weakness. An article in the HBR Blog Network titled What Stops Leaders from Showing Compassion addressed this very question. One of the commenters wrote this which summed it perfectly for me: “At the risk of stating the obvious, the leader without compassion is leaderless. Heart with backbone are quintessential points on the compass of life in whatever endeavour.”

This has to be genuine though. It cannot be an implementation of something that you have been told by a leadership coach. If you do not believe then something has to happen to convince you, a paradigm shift, or you are simply not suitable to be a leader. You have to believe with every bone in your body that your people come first, that if you help them be the best they can be they will deliver the best results they can. And you have to believe all of this will be done with love and compassion and not fear.

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”Kahlil Gibran

I don’t believe there is a better way to say it and something of which your employees must constantly be reminded.

Fear of competition from followers

Finally there is this competition that some ‘leaders’ create with their employees. A fellow blogger perhaps articulates it slightly different here in an article called Causes of Leadership Failure – Fear of Competition from Followers. He suggests here that the reason for this fear, and hence the competition, is a practical one, that the employee will one day take his job or, for private business, become competition to him. He then lists reasons why this fear makes no sense. And I fully agree with his reasons. Where I differ slightly from him are the reasons for the competition in the first place, sure there are those individuals who have that fear that their jobs may be at risks from their subordinates. But in my experience there are usually two types of people who engage in this competition, the ones who have climbed the ladder relatively fast and have set records within the organisation and ones who took an unusually long time to get to where they are and often think others (usually their own employees) must take the same amount of time to get there.

We are all in competition with each other. We want to come first, be the only one to have achieved this, the youngest to have achieved that, the quickest to have risen through the ranks. As leaders, we need to rise above this individualism. Years from now no one will care how fast you rose through the ranks, or how old you were when you promoted.  They will only care what impact you have made in people’s lives and the business. What legacy you have left behind.

Your purpose as a leader to allow, and even help, your subordinates to surpass the standards that you have set and not be envious of them. If they fail the accountability must rest with you as a leader first and then with them.

We all aspire to greatness. We all wish and dream about that moment when we will be pronounced as great leaders. Great leaders know that the standard has been set and if they wish to be pronounced as great leaders then they need to set a new standard. The greatest leaders do not aspire to be great leaders themselves but rather to build great leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr said that “All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” And this is what the greatest leaders seek to achieve and the legacy they wish to leave behind, an uplifting of humanity.