“Diversity Is A Competitive Advantage” – Leadership Lessons From The JSE’

Updated on 24 July 2017

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"Diversity Is A Competitive Advantage" - Leadership Lessons From The JSE'Every company should take the issue of diversity seriously, says Nicky Newton-King in an interview on The MoneyWeb’s leadership series.

As the CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), a position she has held since January 1, 2012, Newton-King has seen first-hand the advantages of having a diverse work force, not just in terms of gender (which has been her area of focus), but also age, race and physical abilities.

Newton-King was the first woman CEO of the JSE and under her tenure, the JSE not only became one of the top 20 largest stock exchanges in the world, it is led and chaired by women and its executive committee is 72% female. Newton-King’s board has also achieved gender parity with a 50-50 representation. Despite these achievements, only two women are listed on South Africa’s top 100 CEOs – Newton-King being one of them.

Newton-King joined the JSE in 1996 and is responsible for negotiating and implementing the JSE’s major corporate transactions as well as the development of corporate strategy according the organisation’s website. She is also a qualified lawyer and was a partner of Webber Wentzel Bowens Attorneys, one of the country’s leading law firms.

Newton-King says she learnt from an early age the incredible value that women add, and this belief shaped her from an early age.

“My father was, as it turned out, killed in a farming accident just a couple of days before I graduated with my second degree. But he had retired at the age of 35 and moved our entire family from Johannesburg to the Cape and my mother became a professional farmer on our family farm. So I grew up on the one hand with this huge discussion about responsibility, and on the other hand watching my mother get up very early in the morning drive the tractor, negotiate the peach prices, organise the men on the farm, pick the fruit – hard work really, hard work. There was never ever a conversation about ‘women couldn’t do … ‘; or that ‘it wasn’t women’s place to … ‘. In fact, I saw everyday a woman doing something that was valuable to our family and valued in our family. So, I think I’m just unusual in the sense that I had this obvious role model and so I don’t define my journey in terms of gender terms of having to get over a hurdle. In fact, I just knew I would be able to do whatever I wanted to do,” she says.

Growing diversity in your company is the first step to succeeding in business, says Newton-King, but making it through these tough economic conditions will also take some grit.

“Each of us, to the extent that we employ people, that we are in a position to motivate people, we are in a position to influence whether or not we are going to close shop or keep it going even when the times are tough.”

5 Leadership Lessons Nicky Newton-King says will help you win.

1. Surround Yourself With The Best Talent
“Ultimately you get further by having better people than you around you. So as a leader, your first job should be to hand select people you think will push you and the organisation to be better. So, I have people around me who are better educated than me, who have better skills than me in certain areas, etc. So, you want the best talent you can possibly hire.”

2. Use Diversity As Your Strength
“You want diversity in all of that talent. It is, I think, a cardinal sin to have people that look like you, who have the same qualifications as you, who are the same age as you, the same experiences as you. Really, diversity is a competitive advantage. It’s actually interesting to me because in this country we tend to relegate diversity to something on a score card when it is something we come to the table naturally with. If we are going to tackle a problem, if you have very good people tackling the same problem from different perspectives, we’re going to end up with a richer and more creative solution. And it’s that diversity that actually sets us apart from others in our business.”

3. Be A Strategic ‘Leaf-Reader’
“Leaders have to provide purpose and direction to a company. I think you do that in two ways. The first part of that is you need to be able to put together a team that helps define and sift through the strategic ‘tea leaves’ (predictions of the future), so you have to be a strategic ‘tea leaf reader’ on the one hand. And on the other hand you have to be a cheerleader. You have to get the team motivated, enthused, excited by the possibilities that those tea leaves show you. If you are the chief executive you set the tone for the entire organisation. And you have the responsibility to weigh up what is sometimes insuperable, competing different types of energies and opportunities. It’s your job to pull that all together and to help the team get somewhere.”

See also: Find Out What Leadership Means To These South African Business Minds

4. Always Be Looking To Improve
“We talk about ‘turning the dial’. Every single day you are trying to do what you do, better, faster, cheaper for the clients, more trusted, more secure, etc. and that’s really the journey. I’ve been at the JSE nearly 21 years and today still work every day on saying ‘how do we make it better’ because that’s what our clients should expect. I talk in terms of, people don’t owe us a single cent. We earn their business every single day and trust is at the centre of that. You earn trust by doing what you do consistently.”

5. Look For 21st Century Skills
“But to be honest, you can never just rest and say ‘I’ve found the right team now’. This business is moving so fast. Our industry today is different from what it will be like in three months’ time. So, I’m looking for my people to keep on top of things, to keep pushing the end of what is possible for us. [Find people with] I would say, 21st century skills and you’ve got to keep pushing people not to be complacent. If you are one of the largest in your industry it’s very easy to believe, even if you don’t articulate it like that, it’s very easy just to settle back into [thinking] ‘well the customers must use us, we are the [best]. It’s a fatal error that. You’ve got to have that hunger, that fire, that real knowledge that if you don’t do it as well if not better tomorrow, you may not have the next day.”

Watch: Nicky Newton-King talks about what business can do to promote inclusive growth and ‘conscious capitalism’.


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