Shawn Theunissen is the CSR and Transformation Executive at Growthpoint Properties, the Founder of Property Point and Entrepreneurship to the Point, as well as the president of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This summary of his interview for the VUCA series was written by Lise-Marie Keyser, and you can watch the full video here.
“I believe it’s part of my purpose to recognise and develop the potential in people,” states social entrepreneur Shawn Theunissen. “I agree with the proverb that ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime’. But, what if you unpack the fishing industry and give a man the tools to build a business? Then you provide food for generations to come.”
Shawn is passionate about supporting small businesses with the skills, insight and access to market opportunities, because it extends impact beyond one person’s life – a successful business provides for their families, the people that they employ, and the families of those employees.
His outstanding track record in various portfolios inspired us to capture his lessons learned in redemptive leadership development – that can be put into practice in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.
1. Mentorship goes two ways
“In the beginning of my career, I always sought out people I could learn from,” Shawn says. “But leaders are not always accessible to those who need assistance. I promised myself that when I came into a position of influence, I would be open to mentoring people, because I did not necessarily have that access early on.”
He continues, “Mentorship goes two ways. As a mentee you have to seek, and you have to ask. You cannot assume that those who have been successful should simply ‘give back’ or share their hard-earned lessons with anyone. As someone wanting to be mentored, you have to knock on the door. And then as a mentor, you need to open that door in response.”
“Another lesson I learned is that every meeting should be an interaction of value. Don’t waste people’s time.” Shawn continues, “When you have a mentor-mentee relationship with a business, add value to who they are, but also hold them accountable in terms of what you want them to do, and bring to the table.”
2. Empower decision-making through empathy and accountability
He considers empathy to be a very important skill in mentoring others meaningfully. “In South Africa we have such a diversity of cultures, we need at least a basic level of empathy towards one another. We need to ask ourselves: Where does that person come from? What has shaped their thinking? We cannot prejudge them for their decision-making, or even for their lack of making decisions. Then we need to help them find the answers for themselves.”
Another critical skill as a mentor is to never pretend to be the ‘know-it-all’. Shawn is of the opinion that in the entrepreneurial space “the important person is the one who decided to actually start their business – with the level of conviction they have, the level of experience they have, and the level of passion they have.” The role of a mentor is to help the mentee shape their journey, and to empower their decision-making. “A mentor can paint different scenarios based on their own experience, and then lay out the consequences of each course of action, but has to encourage the person to make their own decisions.”
He firmly believes that everyone fails at some point, and that everyone makes a wrong decision (or three) somewhere along their business journey. “As a mentor, your role is to support the person after they made that wrong decision, and continue walking with them,” he remarks. “Entrepreneurship is a very lonely road. When someone takes on the challenge of running their own business, as a mentor you should encourage and motivate them, not judge them or certain decisions they make. Hold them accountable for those decisions, yes, but also give them a hand up to go forward.”
3. Remember that people are always watching you
“We don’t realise that other people are constantly watching us as marketplace leaders,” Shawn comments. “Therefore, as a leader you need to make sure that you always bring your best to the table. You need to consistently demonstrate the ‘right’ behaviour, whatever that is within your context.”
“But having said that,’ he continues, “you have to be authentic in your leadership. You need to believe in yourself as a leader and lead from your conviction, even if you are quite reserved or have an introvert personality. I am Shawn, I have my own shortcomings, and I cannot be one person in one context and someone completely different in another context. Authenticity is critical, because people see through the fake image we try to portray in order to be the leader on a pedestal.”
4. Call out people’s potential while providing a safety net
Another key lesson Shawn learned, was to take the time to see what others are capable of, and then challenging them to rise to the occasion.
“Part of creating an environment where people feel they are called to step up,” he explains, “is by providing a safety net for when they do fail. I grew up with a single mom, as my dad had passed away early on. I knew there was no financial or other safety net for me, which made taking risks very hard. That is why I always try to create safety nets for others – to enable them to step up to their potential with less fear.”
“Do not feel threatened by the potential of others. Do not feel threatened by the abilities of others,” Shawn cautions. “Developing next-level leadership by definition is all about creating opportunities for others to exceed what you have achieved yourself.”
5. Be multi-dimensional
“We living in such complex times,” Shawn acknowledges. “We have just come out of a global pandemic. There is a lot of uncertainty and frankly, dysfunction. As a leader, your ability to successfully navigate all the VUCA challenges in society is critical. So you cannot be one dimensional in what you do. In South Africa, we have a responsibility to be multi-dimensional. We need to be good business leaders, but also good social leaders. We need to be good political leaders, but also good family leaders.”
He believes that developing next-level leadership goes far beyond teaching entrepreneurs to run good businesses. “It is about teaching them to be good leaders in society,” he elaborates. “Because then they become a voice, and when they are speak up for what is right they represent someone else, and when they do what is right, it is not just for the sake of their own business – they are serving broader society.”