Be­com­ing a black CEO is like the kiss of death

CityPress - - Business - Muzi Kuzwayo busi­ness@city­ Kuzwayo is the founder of Ig­ni­tive, an ad­ver­tis­ing agency

The days are get­ting longer, and the but­ter­flies will soon be re­turn­ing home. They live from sum­mer to sum­mer. What a life. What we know as the but­ter­fly, is the last stage in the in­sect’s life cy­cle — glam­orous, colour­ful, but ac­tu­ally near­ing death, af­ter it has been a worm and a pupa.

It’s like the life of the black chief ex­ec­u­tive in South Africa.

The job is of­ten glam­orous, the press loves them; but it is in­vari­ably a kiss of death be­cause our CEOs don’t last in their po­si­tions.

I did a short, un­sci­en­tific sur­vey, based largely on anec­do­tal ev­i­dence be­cause the sam­ple is too small to do a pre­cise, sci­en­tific one.

This is South Africa, and the race is­sue will al­ways find its way into the re­search re­sults, just like sand in a desert lab­o­ra­tory.

The so­lu­tion, there­fore, must al­ways deal with that layer of com­plex­ity in­stead of avoid­ing it.

If five years is the medium term, most black chief ex­ec­u­tives last no more than three years.

Let’s face it, a CEO who be­comes a di­vi­sional man­ager at an­other com­pany has ef­fec­tively been de­moted, un­less they join a pri­vate eq­uity firm as a part­ner, be­cause then they have the money and net­works to do big deals.

But it is not al­ways the case with ours. Some be­come a sorry sight, beg­ging for favours from peo­ple they once de­spised.

The brave ones leave to start their own busi­nesses.

The fail­ure does not lie with our CEOs, but with a sys­tem that sets peo­ple up for fail­ure.

When a poorly con­structed mall col­lapses, you can’t blame the vic­tims for be­ing at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The fail­ure of our CEOs is at the be­gin­ning. Most re­cruit­ment agen­cies make their money only when they place the can­di­date, so they tend to up-sell the job to the can­di­date, and the can­di­date to the com­pany.

“The com­pany wants to re­ally change,” they say, “and as a black per­son you’re bet­ter placed to do that.

“The com­pany wants to do the right thing, and they also want to be seen to be do­ing the right thing.”

Mean­while, they’re throw­ing the un­sus­pect­ing can­di­date into a pit of back­stab­bing vipers that hate their own com­pany as well as their col­leagues; men who are haunted by their worst fears where the colour of their skins has ceased to be their pro­tec­tion. They can­not be blamed be­cause that is the world they used to know, af­ter all, South Africa was created to be a place where skin colour de­ter­mined suc­cess or fail­ure.

Raised on the gospel of blessed are the meek, the black ex­ec­u­tive en­ters the fray, preach­ing a mes­sage of love, peace and kum­baya. But the board­room is not the church. It is about the root of all evil, money. It re­quires bold de­ci­sion mak­ers, and peo­ple with the po­lit­i­cal wits to nav­i­gate the choppy wa­ters of busi­ness.

Many CEOs around the world sur­vive the board­room be­cause they have pow­er­ful sup­port­ers.

An out­sider who has been head­hunted to join a big group will al­ways be like a but­ter­fly trapped in a spi­der’s web or a net­work in which he or she has lit­tle in­flu­ence.

So be­fore join­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion ask the tough ques­tions such as what your bud­get will be, be­cause an ex­ec­u­tive with­out a bud­get is only an ad­viser and not a de­ci­sion maker.

Re­mem­ber you are not beg­ging for the job, and you will sur­vive much longer if they are hir­ing you for your skill, and not your skin.

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