Former Delta Corporation CEO Joe Mutizwa says his stint at Whawha Prison, where he was detained for political activism during the colonial era, shaped him as a leader.
Mutizwa (JM), an accomplished business leader and strategist, appeared on Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube’s (TN) online show In Conversation with Trevor where he shared insights into his leadership experiences and how businesses can navigate crises.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: Joe Mutizwa, welcome to In Conversations with Trevor. You and I were supposed to have done this prior to Covid-19 pandemic outbreak and our plans got disrupted. But I am delighted that through technology, we are able to do this.
JM: Thank you, Trevor, for inviting me. Much appreciated.
TN: Joe, let me begin by asking you what have been the effects of the lockdown on you? I know you have been locked down at home or in your office, how has this been for you so far?
JM: Trevor, I hate to say this, but it has been a very productive time for me.
I have had a long stretch of time available to me to introspect, to research and to write.
If I look at that time — over five weeks — it has been extremely extraordinarily productive.
Obviously there has been some downside to it.
I have been worrying over the economy and very concerned about not seeing members of my family.
But we talk very often every day, several times every day in fact. So yeah, very big pluses and some negatives as well.
TN: At the age of 21, you find yourself at Whawha Detention Centre and you were there for three years. Joe, talk to me about your leadership experience there that you got in the three years you were there?
JM: Trevor, I think you are right in calling it a crucible and as I wrote in my first book My Personal Crucibles, Whawha was the best education I ever got and I always say to people and I say this genuinely, it was the best university of my life because at the age of 21 [and] coming from the University of Rhodesia at that time, we had a lot of privilege.
We were very privileged.
And finding yourself in Whawha, living under very difficult circumstances was a life lesson, really.
First of all, my biggest takeaway from Whawha was to look at people and look at them with dignity.
We were denied that and, therefore, for me it was a lesson that I learnt very profoundly that whenever you are in a position of leadership, ensure the dignity of the people that you are leading is never trampled upon.
All through my career, I have always told my team that is a line that should never be crossed. Number one, but more importantly, Trevor, I think from Whawha I was able to leave with a very tougher inner fortress, if we may call it that.
Everything that was thrown at me later in life looked like it was easy.
All the challenges that I came across paled into insignificance as compared to the challenges at Whawha.
I met some wonderful people, people who had been there long before us.
Guerillas, who had been captured earlier in the struggle in 1969, serving their sentences there.
Some had been sent to Khami Prison and brought there.
But having a positive outlook even after all those years, for me, was an incredible lesson.
And I made lifelong friendships there.
But I came out a much stronger person, mature and fearless. So Whawha was, for me, influential.
TN: Awesome. Joe, you know, given where you are right now and the things that you have managed to achieve, I find it difficult to imagine that you were once an economist at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, that at one time you were a management trainee at Anglo-American Corporation.
Talk to me, Joe, about starting from the bottom and rising up from an economist at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and also a trainee at Anglo American Corporation?
JM: Well, Trevor, as you know, I left university in 1981 from the London School of Economics with a first class degree in economics and my first job was with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, really writing reports and gathering data.
Working really, in fact you might want to hear this, working for Richard Wilde. Richard was my boss round about 1981.
I was filled with a desire to make a contribution to a new Zimbabwe.
And I poured my heart out. I did everything I could and, you know, as a young man, I got attracted to a better salary next door.
I got attracted at Anglo American Corporation. These were adjacent buildings.
The Reserve Bank was just next door to Anglo American Corporation, which was recruiting and they offered me a position I could not resist.
It was the (post of) management trainee. They promised me, to have wide experience across the Anglo American companies that were operational in Zimbabwe.
That perhaps was a very formative time for me.
Being a management trainee but also being the secretary of the staff development panel for the entirety of Anglo and working with very senior people, retired managing directors, top engineers, going around from company to company looking at the succession plan underway and taking notes and being a fly on the wall, observing what was happening.
Incredible training I got at Anglo.
TN: And because of that incredible training and being a fly on the wall, feeding from people like Richard Wilde as you say, you found yourself, Joe, at the pinnacle of your career for 10 years, Joe, leading Delta as the chief executive officer until 2012 when you decided to take early retirement.
Which means, Joe, you were in charge of Anglo American Corporation in 2008 at the time of the financial crisis… In charge of Delta Corporation, sorry, during the times of the financial crisis, tell me the lessons, Joe, that came out around the 2008 period and the 10 years that you were at the helm of the Delta Corporation?
JM: For me, when I look back, it was a very difficult time but extremely exciting time.
The enduring lesson, when I look back, is what you can do for an organisation when you have a team that is fired up and you are working together.
Even at the depth of the crisis in 2008, I can say that the Delta team was excited, they were raring to go.
I can’t remember of any time that we felt we were overwhelmed.
In fact, in many ways, we felt like we were suckers for pain or punishment.
But we really used to love the fact that things were getting tough and we were getting tougher and we were overcoming the problems.
But why was the team fired up? The team was fired up because we were always planning what we were going to do within the crisis.
We were always of the opinion that the crisis was a passing thing.
TN: So you did not focus on the crisis?
JM: No, not at all. In fact, I remember me and my team going for a three-day conference and we were discussing and asking ourselves when the crisis would end?
How will we know that the crisis has ended? And we got teams to plan.
One team to plan how we would know the crisis has ended.
What are the markers that would be there for us to know that the crisis has ended?
And another team was looking on the post crisis, what Delta would look like post the crisis.
How we would revitalise our business. So everyone was busy. It was a terrific time, Trevor.
So there were lessons that we learned during that crisis.
One thing that I would probably love to share as a leader with colleagues was to communicate intensely.
You know prior to the crisis, we used to meet the top 150 leaders of Delta every quarter. We compressed that time.
We started meeting them frequently, monthly. And my top team would meet every week and at times every day when necessary.
Everybody in the organisation knew what Delta was doing and what it would do afterwards.
So there was never a moment where people did not know what was happening.
TN: Doubt, hesitation…
JM: No. That communication was incredible, crucial in getting people to know what would happen in future whilst also knowing what was happening at any moment in time.
In fact, the whole team stayed focused on the job.
TN: So tell me about this, Joe, it is fascinating to know that you can make people focus on the future while they are in a crisis. What is it that you need to do that?
JM: I suppose I go back to Whawha. At Whawha we were, can
you imagine, in a situation where you were in detention without trial?
You know you might be there for three years, for 10 years, but you would be planning for life after you are released from Whawha.
So I started applying for my place for a scholarship and for university while I was in Whawha without knowing when I was going to be released.
I got my place at the London School of Economics and I got a scholarship from the United Nations well before I was released.
My mind was focusing on what I was going to do after Whawha.
So I suppose in a way I carried that to Delta to say well, there is a crisis here, but it is going to pass. This too shall pass.
I remember, I must share this with you, in 2008 at the height of the crisis in September 2008, I went to the major shareholder in South Africa where I said can you finance our expansion and recovery plan.
We would like you to buy small shares in Delta in return for foreign currency for us to revitalise our plant and equipment.
I remember the distinct looks from the people, who were sitting at the table to say is this guy crazy?
They said, Joe, your economy is melting down and you are asking for money to rebuild your company.
I said to them we know this is temporary. This is going to pass. And they believed me.
So it was that forward-looking approach that carried the day at Delta.
TN: That moves me, Joe, to where we are now. We are in crisis worldwide. The coronavirus has upended our environment and created a perfect vuka environment, which is volatile, uncertain, complex, and at times ambiguous.
What advice do you have for leaders at this moment? We have seen businesses going up in flames.
We have seen businesses going into voluntary management.
What advice do you have for leaders in this season where there is so much uncertainty because of the coronavirus?
JM: Trevor, I would like to offer seven pieces of advice to say as we go into crisis, remember the Mandela paradox, as I like to call it.
This is a paradox of someone who spent 27 years in prison, but all the time, he retained a positive attitude. He was there.
He did not know for how long he would be there.
He was exposed to some of the harshest conditions at Robben Island, crushing stones with his colleagues there.
But every time we heard about Nelson Mandela, he was very positive.
I would like to say to leaders, you need to embrace a positive approach.
But you need to balance it with realism because the eyeballs of the organisations see that you are resilient and you have fortitude. The organisation will stand with you and tackle the problems that are before you with their whole heart.
If the organisation sees you crumbling, you demoralise the organisation.
So how you show up is a very important thing for leaders in crisis.
So please, look at Nelson Mandela, understand the Mandela paradox, balance properly between the positive outlook and realism of the situation, which is grim, but leaders cannot afford to crumble.
TN: So there is a very important question there, Joe. How do I, as a leader, manage to remain optimistic and show the fortitude that rallies everyone around when I am in the same environment with the people around me?
JM: Well, Trevor, it’s too late when you want to find that solution now.
Position of leadership requires you to have that inner fortitude way before the crisis. You can’t invent it during the crisis.
You have to be grounded well ahead of the crisis.
You know, a crisis does some other things.
It blows away the style and really reveals who really you are.
If you don’t have the values, grounding, principles, and self-belief, you will not be able to acquire them overnight during a crisis.
As part of the journey of leadership, you better have that fortress and values, you better know who you are, that self-belief because these are the things that will put you where you belong.
l “In Conversation With Trevor” is a weekly show broadcast on YouTube.com//InConversationWithTrevor. Please get your free YouTube subscription to this channel. The conversations are sponsored by Titan Law.