Executive development in South Africa: the lived experience of the senior executive

Warren, Elizabeth
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Despite the substantial investment in leadership development made by corporates around the world, limited research has focussed on the lived experience of leadership development, with the research available typically focussed on specific leadership development interventions. In South Africa effective leadership development is particularly critical given both the emigration of experienced leaders in the past twenty years, and the need to have a diversity of leadership which is representative of the population as a whole. The study explored executive development in South Africa through the lived experience of a sample of senior executives, all of whom had reached “C” suite positions in either a Group or business line capacity. The interview process was inductive in approach, so the narrative was not restricted by assumptions as to what development interventions would be described by the research participants. Eighteen senior executives were invited to participate in the research, and twelve were interviewed, at which point saturation was reached. Whilst no quota was established for racial diversity, the racial mix was representative of senior executives in South Africa corporates. A significant theme in the research findings was the importance of childhood experiences in developing the drive, resilience and ambition that would enable the foundations to be built for adult leadership development. Another key theme was that formal leadership development should be supplemented by experiential learning if it is to have significant impact. Despite mixed feedback on formal leadership development programmes, international executive programmes were seen to provide the participants with the opportunity both to network with others and learn from reflection, developing their life purpose and philosophy. The research participants found that coaching and mentoring were important in supporting the development of their leadership skills, as such interventions could focus on their specific development needs. The power of childhood influencers, workplace informal coaches and mentors and other influential counsellors also appears to have been significant. There was a view that successful leaders “breed” other successful leaders. Another key theme was that of self-confidence leading to self-determination. The self-confidence of the research participants appears to have been balanced by humility and a willingness to listen to and learn from others. All the executives had a strong sense of purpose, often developed initially in childhood, and strong values underpinned their leadership identity. The executives also stressed the importance of work-life balance in developing as effective leaders. A crucial finding of this research was that leaders face unique challenges of diversity and empowerment in South Africa, but that transformational leaders with a South African identity and Anglo-US educational and work experience can be highly successful. The challenge of international leadership development and work experience was found to be particularly beneficial in developing leadership skills which were appropriate for the South African corporate culture. The findings from this research therefore suggest that leadership development is a complex process based on some innate attributes, enhanced through critical childhood influences and trigger events, and developed to full potential through a combination of formal and informal leadership development interventions. Achieving full potential relies on readiness to learn and the opportunities to gain valuable experience, particularly in adversity. In the context of South Africa it appears that “western” leadership development experiences can be adapted by executives to enhance their effectiveness in a South African corporate culture.
A research report submitted to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Management in Business and Executive Coaching Wits Business School November, 2016
Warren, Elizabeth (2017) Executive development in South Africa: the lived experience of the senior executive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <http://hdl.handle.net/10539/23076>