Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 10 April 2013

On Excellence… and having a good hair day

We know it intuitively when we walk into a Serious Establishment. And we will go out of our way to return because there is something reassuring, compelling even, about being in a place where creativity, skill and pride come together. It’s all about teamwork and a total commitment to Excellence.

I went to get my hair braided today which means I was in the salon for the better part of the day. Because the women’s side of this particular salon was full, I ended up getting my hair done as I sat in the barbershop, separated from the women’s section by a wall and a small door. I sat happily checking emails and looking up to watch a parade of men of all shades of black and brown get shaved and mohawked and talcum-powdered all afternoon long. 

As I sat there, I realised that I was not just in any old barbershop and hair salon. I realised that I had stumbled upon a Serious Establishment. It wasn’t your typical ungentrified Braamfontein hole in the wall (God forbid that such places still exist in Braamies). I was sitting in a place owned by a serious entrepreneur. When I enquired I was told that he is from Cameroon. 

So why was I so impressed?  Firstly, the location – on the corner of Jorissen and Jan Smuts, across from the Braamfontein Centre and just next to a taxi stop, a Total Garage and the new Wits Art Museum – means that it gets a lot of passing foot traffic. Secondly, the infrastructure is good. The place is well lit and has clean implements – everything from the shavers to the combs was sprayed and wiped down after use by each customer. Thirdly, and most importantly, each of the seven barbers on the floor this afternoon was a consummate professional. The ease with which they handled the tools of their trade was evident to anyone walking in. In their baggy sweats and low hanging jeans, with their well maintained baby afros and their closely shaven heads, each of them was courteous and efficient. Lastly, the shaves and cuts were cheap – no more than R40 a head for most customers. Clearly the business model is based on volumes, so each barber tended to his clients speedily but managed to do so without making anyone feel rushed. 

I was even more impressed as I watched as a butch young woman walk in. She had studs lining her left ear and wore baggy Bermuda shorts and a loose T-shirt. She asked for a chiskop (for a particularly nice example see here) and was attended to speedily, without a sideways glance. As she paid up and left I checked the mirror to see if there were looks exchanged between the guy who had cut her hair and any of his colleagues. Nothing. They were too busy focusing on the heads in front of them to worry about the sexual orientation of their clients. I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t because of the obvious pride that they take in doing their jobs well – why bother with hatred when one is confident and comfortable in one’s own skin?

As the afternoon wore on, I thought about what makes a place An Establishment. Why are some places missed when their doors are closed while others make no impact whatsoever on their clients and therefore inspire no loyalty? The most obvious answer is that places like my Braamfontein salon are committed to excellence.  Malcolm Gladwell has famously written about the 10,000 hours it takes to master a sport or become a world-class athlete or pianist (yes, I know that he has become a victim of his own success and there are now as many Gladwell haters as there are fans, but Outliers is still worth the read). To be great at something, you have to put in the work. But moving up a notch into Establishment territory requires more than skills. 

When you are running a business, there are so many more variables at play than just whether a good service is offered or not. There are many moving parts, dozens of places where things could go wrong, many more where a small amount of slippage can slow things down or clog systems.  

And yet, whether it is a pizza place in Sandton, a hair salon in Braamfontein or a car manufacturing plant in Japan, we know it intuitively when we walk into a place of excellence. Over time we prefer to go to Establishments (when they are truly great we begin to refer to them as Institutions) even when it isn’t convenient for us to do so because there is something attractive about being in a place where creativity, excellence and pride come together.

So as I sat there today, it was clear to me that the reason this place was humming, why they were able to play almost every R&B song that I have ever loved, at precisely the right volume (not so loud that I cannot hear myself think, or take a phone call, but not so low that I have to turn my head to hear the tunes); the reason why the owner was able to walk in, smile at customers for a few minutes and leave, was because the barbers run the place. 

I’ve written about this before and I will continue to talk about it because it is something I think we don’t pay enough attention to. I certainly didn’t pay enough attention to it when I was heading up an organisation, but it matters greatly.  

While we have many good and capable leaders – not enough, certainly, but we emphasise leaders a whole lot more than we do others in the organogram – we lack a culture and an ethos of good followership. We also lack strong middle managers who are able to cultivate collaborative relationships with one other within our institutions.  When a team of committed middle managers is in place then an organisation is on good footing. Without them it will go nowhere. They have a crucial role to play as bridge builders between senior management and those on the “shop floor” or with clients. 

Even the best leaders in the world have blind spots, or rub some people up the wrong way, or don’t listen enough to good advice. That is part of the frailty of being human. But if you were to look at the literature on management taught in most MBA programmes today, or at the pages of business rags like Forbes and Fortune, you would swear that companies are run only by CEOs, CFOs  (and increasingly) CIOs – no one else matters. In recent years the cult of personality that has built up around senior leaders in organisations has been both misleading and unhealthy. 

The myth of the lone savior, the CEO who turned around a failing entity and sold it for a huge profit, is quite simply, just that – a myth. Anyone who works in an organisation that employs more than five people knows that stories about heroic successes pulled off by someone in an expensive suit are not only untrue, they are bad for organisational culture. 

The idea that one person is responsible for epic feats creates one of two narratives, neither one of which is helpful. Either the hero CEO lets everyone in the organisation off the hook, and puts enormous responsibility on his or her own shoulders to solve every problem in the firm, or he or she gets undeserved accolades for what is always a group effort. Indeed, where turnarounds are successful, and where this success is maintained over a period of years, they are always supported and implemented by those who occupy the middle and lower levels of the organisation. It is impossible for a CEO to achieve success on his or her own. 

Meanwhile, back at the salon, as the shop finally closed after 8pm, and the takings were counted for the day, I saw the head barber cross-check his amounts with what was written in the black notebook that I had seen them all use throughout the course of the day. Good leadership, strong technical staff, and a clear financial system? The staff at my salon should have head-hunters chasing them. South Africa needs their skills, ten-thousand-fold. DM    



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