André Louw is an entrepreneur at heart and has co-founded various technology companies in and outside of South Africa over the last 30 years. He is the CEO of FREI, a mobile-focused technology company that developed the TradeSwitch® platform. This is used for the distribution of virtual products such as pre-paid airtime and pre-paid electricity. In 2018 the platform was expanded and the business was repositioned to become a fully integrated Mobile Virtual Network Enabler.
Leading in today’s business world is a bit like skiing down an avalanche. It is doable, and perhaps exciting, but not exactly safe. The pace of change is moving at breakneck speed, with multiple transitions at play. The way in which we work, trade and relate to one another are in seismic shift. Conditions are tumultuous, to say the least – but you can be geared to ride it out.
Change is a good thing, if you learn to harness its momentum for greater outcomes. Change can stir up the organisational creative silt and get us moving in the most unexpected of ways. Today’s best leaders are those who build strong organisational cultures in the midst of unprecedented change, and adopt an approach that is brave, inquisitive and willing to unlearn for the sake of reinvention. I am no expert in leadership, but I do have a story worth telling. It’s the story of FREI – of how as a leadership team we anchored our organisation in the midst of change.
Here is how we sought to build a strong foundation on the bedrock of culture.
We began by asking ourselves, what kind of culture do we want to cultivate? What values will carve the contours of this culture, and how can we weave these intangibles into the way we work and relate? How can we lead in a way that adds empathy to expertise, and dialogue to directives? Essentially, what do we want the DNA of our company to be?
The answers to these questions did not come overnight, but over many months, through robust debate and prayer. It was really important to allow time for this conversation, and not to rush our way through the phases of conceptualisation. We needed a framework to help steer the direction of the conversation, before opening the discussion on a broader level with our teams.
Eventually, as a team, we developed what became known as the ‘FREI FreedomFesto’ – a manifesto encapsulating all our values and commitments to be positive, spirited contributors to the FREI culture team. Today a colourful, oversized poster is displayed on a feature wall, so that every time we walk past, we are reminded of who we are and what we stand for as a company.
But culture is moulded, not manufactured. It is chiselled and shaped by the collective contributions of individuals, all working together for a common purpose. Values are not taught – they are caught, as people feel their voices are being heard and their actions carry consequential weight. The process of creating our FreedomFesto was done through many workshops, with various groups across the organisation testing and refining its proposals. It was, and still is, a highly collaborative and inclusive process, whereby everyone has a say in shaping our ever-evolving work environment. Culture is a never-ending journey mimicking human relationships – that thrives with skilful and constant attention, and withers without.
We then employed a talent champion to synergise these contributions and weave them into the day-to-day dynamic of our culture. Our investment in emergent technologies and techniques is vital, along with the talent who can master these innovations. So it became our talent champion’s job to push the conversations around skills and talent, and help nurture the culture we wanted to see grow. Although not every company can afford to hire a talent champion, it’s critical there’s someone in the company, other than the CEO, who can fulfil this role.
We realised we had to write a common language for our culture – one that would champion our virtues and identify the enemies to progress. We did this through storytelling – using allegory to inspire, direct and even rebuke, without having to point fingers or personalise issues. We could emphasise our aspirations, like living boldly in a world of great uncertainty, in an innovative and non-threatening way that captured the imagination.
The story of ‘FREI City’ was presented in playful, comic form as a way to encourage our people to be front-footed and fearless in their approach to disruption and change. Captain Chaos, the city villain, was the common enemy whose sole mission was to have you looking back, paralysed by fear, self-doubt or hopes of what you once had. We had to remind ourselves – burn the platform, build the new!
Like the Israelites in the desert of Sinai, you cannot go back to what you had before. God is doing a new thing, and we must choose to mine the gold within the new ground on which we build today. There will always be an element of self-doubt when we step out courageously in faith. That is no reason to turn around, but just confirmation that ‘off the map’ could actually be on track.
We wanted to create a culture of trust and transparency, where our words and actions are one and the same. Where each of us, starting from the top, are encouraged to own our mistakes as much as our successes, and to make good on our promises. Taking extreme ownership for your actions can only happen when people have bought into the values of that system, and freely chosen to adopt them as their own. That’s why each staff member is asked to pledge their commitment to this culture, and to actively contribute to its well-being.
Trust grows when it is extended freely. That’s why we offer a stack of generous benefits, such as unlimited leave and flexi-hours. These freedoms can help people to work with the kind of flexibility they crave today. There is definitely the risk of entitlement here – staff can, and have, taken without giving. But we would rather err on the side of trust, knowing it will produce the kind of freedom most people need to flourish, and deal with the entitled few as and when necessary.
Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping once said, “cross the river by feeling the stones”. His point was that you cannot know everything – on some things you have to feel your way to the other side of history. You have to be nimble and agile in today’s economy, with lean processes that can leapfrog old, wobbly systems and find steady footing. To ensure that words like ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ are more than boardroom buzzwords but lived values in FREI, our financial year is broken into quarterly cycles. Every three months we come together as teams for two raucous days of creative, collaborative planning and review. And though it’s quite ambitious to work within quarterly cycles, the structure helps us to stay adaptable and accountable, able to ‘feel the stones’ and make the next brave move more intuitively.
The FREI journey is still unfolding, along with our dependency on God to map its course. Like the Israelites, we sometimes feel out of our depth in this foreign, fast-moving terrain of today’s business world. We too can grumble and long for a pre-COVID past. But our job as leaders is to help lift our people’s gaze, and to find all those ‘Promised Land’ stories that justify the hardship and inspire great work. We will always have to face giants, whether it be disruptive technology or the disruptive colleague next door. If we can see the opportunities within the conflict and chaos, we can learn to use our giants for a long-lasting advantage.