Organisation As Servant-Leader

Written for Len Brand, Chief Executive Officer at TATA Africa Holdings and Head of Distribution Vertical at TATA International, and first published by TATA International Africa on 1 October 2019


“I had the pleasure and privilege of serving with Len Brand on the board of TATA Africa Holdings, for three years. During this period the company went through tough times and difficult decisions had to be made. Len, in his capacity as CEO, impressed me with his clear vision and his ability to develop and implement a new strategy which gave rise to a much more focused, profitable entity. In his leadership role he gave direction, demonstrated his courage and earned the trust, respect and confidence of his people. Len leads by example in terms of his principles and values, and he delivers results. He is a humble leader who doesn’t use positional power, but one who earns the commitment of his people by caring about them. Len is hard headed when it comes to results, but he has a gentle heart when it comes to people. He leads with a firm hand but a gentle touch. He has created a workplace where humanity flourishes and where people live their passion and realise their potential. In summary, Len is an inspirational, caring and effective leader.”

Brand Pretorius, retired CEO of McCarthy Limited and executive director of Bidvest Group, currently member of the Advisory Board of the Motor Industry Ombudsman of South Africa, and serving as a non-executive director on several boards, including TATA Africa Holdings

When I stepped into my current role in August 2016, the people were very unhappy, just coming to work to earn a salary. At the outset of my turnaround strategy, the first thing I did was try and set a new tone. I drew a great deal of inspiration from my mentor, Brand Pretorius, who is a well-known proponent of servant leadership.

Servant leadership

Servant leadership has nothing to do with being subservient or submissive. The core premise of the ‘service to others first’ philosophy is prioritising other people’s needs over your own. Humility is an absolute prerequisite for this management style, as your overarching goal is to achieve authority, rather than power.

To establish and execute strategies which drive growth in revenue and profitability, to lead cultural and process change, and to build consensus and develop high-performing teams, you need the buy-in of your people. To do this, you first have to earn their respect and trust.

You have to create an environment where your people want to come to work every day. Human beings have an innate need to belong, so you have to build a sense of unity and wholeness in the organisation. In order to help people foster bonds and build relationships, you have to provide opportunities and spaces for them to interact with one another, informally, across the company.

To inspire and motivate, you have to convince rather than rely on coerced compliance. To optimise your influence, you have to persuade rather than rely on hierarchical dominance. You have to be a solid role model and an advocate for your people – everyone in your team should know that you’re there for them. As a servant-leader, you have to make yourself visible, accessible, and available. You have to check in often with your people to see how they are. You have to look them in the eyes, and engage them in meaningful discussions. You have to listen, empathise, and make an effort to acknowledge things from their perspectives.

No-one likes to be micro-managed. People get de-motivated when they are managed and controlled into the ground. Remember, your people have been hired for their skills set. You have to create space for them to use those skills, and encourage them to take calculated risks. As long as they’re trying to improve the business, you should allow them to try new things, or new ways of doing things.

Encouraging a participative approach to decision-making leads to a higher level of engagement and innovation, and helps build a sense of community within the team. It is important however to remember that, as a servant-leader, you can’t avoid making unpopular decisions, or giving team members negative feedback when it is required. Servant leadership is about focussing on satisfying the highest-priority needs of others – not their feelings.

You have to prioritise the personal and professional development of your people, and empowerment should follow an orderly and structured approach. Coaching and mentoring your people has to take precedence over personal elevation. You have to lead by example to reinforce the spirit of service to others, and encourage mentees to prioritise serving others over self-gain.

Organisation as servant-leader

It should be noted that organisations – not just individuals – can also be servant-leaders. The ‘institution as servant’ is something which I think TATA does extremely well.

Founded in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata, the legendary “Father of Indian Industry”, and one of the most important founders of the modern Indian economy, the TATA Group of companies is India’s only value-based corporation, and the country’s biggest conglomerate.

Tata was the epitome of a servant-leader. He believed that in order to advance a nation, you need to uplift the best and the most gifted, so that they can go on to be of the greatest service to humanity. Most significantly, he believed that the community is not just another stakeholder in a business, but the very reason for its existence. In other words – institution as servant, or organisation as servant-leader.

Virtuous cycle of servant leadership

The ‘servant-leader is servant first’ philosophy – whether that be in an individual or organisational capacity – is, ultimately, a virtuous cycle. Because when your people become happier, healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous, they are more likely to themselves become servant-leaders. All of which bodes well not only for businesses, but also communities and society at large.

The Bus Driver And The Rugby Ball: How To Boost Turnover By 20%

Written for Len Brand, Chief Executive Officer at TATA Africa Holdings and Head of Distribution Vertical at TATA International, and first published by TATA International Africa on 1 October 2019


When I accepted my current position in August 2016, the business was not in good shape. It was spiralling downwards, had been making losses for three consecutive years, and was facing yet another loss. I had been on the TATA International Holdings Board as an independent director for 18 months at that stage, and so was well aware of the scale of the turnaround challenge that lay ahead.

Now, looking back at what we managed to achieve over the next two-and-a-half years, I realise that the strategy our team applied held some valuable insights and learnings – not just for our organisation, but for other businesses as well. By sharing this high-level road map of how we not only returned the business to solvency, but also boosted turnover and grew market share, I hope to inspire or motivate others in their attempts to breathe new life into their own enterprises.

Reality check

When I attended my first Board meeting as CEO I was very frank about its unrealistic expectations of transforming the business in three months, and offered rather an 18-month turnaround, with a proposed goal of doubling turnover in four years, from 2017 to 2021.

I also expressed my concerns about the decision they had made back in 2012 and 2013, to de-risk the company and create more than a dozen trading companies. I explained that diversity equals risk, and moving forward we would have to go back to the original and singular focus of the business – the distribution of commercial vehicles.

I definitely stepped on a few toes, but I knew it was my responsibility to stand by my convictions. It took me a full year to convince the Board that their de-risk strategy had been a mistake, and get approval to sell or close those businesses that didn’t fit our focus moving forward. It was an extremely difficult process. Eventually we sold four, and closed a further 10, where there was nothing left to sell.

Right people on the bus

For any business to be a success, you’ve got to have the right people on the bus. This is an analogy created by Jim Collins which really resonates with me. Essentially, you – the leader – are the bus driver. When the bus, your company, is at a standstill, it’s your job to get it going again. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you.

First, you’ve got to get the wrong people off the bus. And you have to start at the top. Those who want to be a boss must go. A leader is not a boss, and a leader should not be allowed to act like a boss. During that process we had to let some senior people in critical positions go.

Then you’ve got to get the right people in the right seats. We started blatantly headhunting senior management to fill the key seats on the bus. We handpicked people we knew well. Some I had worked with in the industry for many years.

Once you’ve filled your bus with the right people in the right seats, it becomes less a question of where you’re headed, but rather how far you can go.

Hard on the numbers, soft on the people

If you want to get that bus moving again, you have to create an environment where your people want to come to work every day. You should be hard on the numbers, but soft on the people. Your people need to know they have to achieve the numbers and you’re not willing to compromise on standards but they also need to know that they matter, and they will always be treated with dignity and respect.

It’s all about uptime

When setting the new direction for your business, and articulating your strategy, you need to make it easy for your people to relate to and understand. ‘It’s all about uptime’ is the business mantra we created to emphasise our core focus moving forward.

In essence, uptime is the opposite of downtime. For commercial vehicles like trucks and buses, uptime is the period when that vehicle is up and running, and downtime is when it’s off the road for maintenance or repairs. When human capital or other assets go down, the business suffers financially. So, the quicker we can get that vehicle back on the road, helping its driver or owner to earn an income, the better.

This was the backbone of our strategy. Vehicle price, running costs, and fuel consumption do matter, but uptime matters more.

The four-year football

I used the football concept to illustrate the life paths of our strategy. The seams on the ball represent the five main areas of the business we needed to focus on, namely: improving access to parts and service, ensuring a comprehensive product offering, providing customers with financing options, expanding our distribution network and footprint across the continent, and increasing brand awareness.

The seams all share a common starting point and a common end point. In between, they run parallel to one another, and along each seam there are different projects. On the one seam you may have 12 projects, on another you may have only three. Unlike pillars, which feel like silos, these converging lines give a sense of being interconnected – which different areas of the business are, or at least should be.

If all your people have sight of the end goal, and know where their work fits into the bigger picture, it’s so much easier for them to focus on what needs to get done, and pull together to create a, dare I say, more seamless operation.

On track to target

At the close of our 2018 fiscal year, TATA Africa had managed to achieve a 20 per cent jump in turnover, and we continue to penetrate the markets and make market share gains.

The business is still in the process of realigning itself, and we’ve still got a long way to go to reach our goal of doubling turnover by 2021. But the strategy is cemented. The Board is behind it. Our people believe in it. Today, if you talk to any TATA Africa employee they will tell you about uptime, and they will be able to quote the five life paths on the football.

Now it’s all about execution, execution, execution, and defining benchmarks for the continued growth and success of the business.