Best Boss Series: Bronwyn Kemp, Chartered Accountant (SA) RA

Bronwyn’s self-fought career in the auditing profession started as an unqualified school-leaver and rose to engagement partner and professional training officer at one of the world’s most influential Supreme Audit Institutions, a committee member on training and professional development committees of both the professional body regulator and the professional institute in her country, and a senior lecturer for auditing in a group of education companies with global influence and a goal to disrupt education as we know it, changing lives with global scalability.

Her journey has not only been a professional one, but also a leadership journey of self-discovery that lead to a calling to serve and to nurture, to lead by building people. She feels strongly about sharing experiences and insights, that no leader has every answer, but that together, shared moral agendas will reinvent the global workspace.

Tell me how you define a successful leader.

A successful leader is a support function — a facilitator that ensures that individuals and teams have everything that they need to function at their best in a sustainable, balanced and fulfilling manner.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

It was about 10 years into my career when I allowed myself the opportunity to self-evaluate and allowed myself to make that evaluation a good one. This came as a result of seeing people who reported to me grow, and hearing their feedback and thanks for my contribution to their success. At that point, I began to realise that my teams consistently performed well, and that my hectic workload was as a result of being seen as a problem solver, and that I could grow my impact even more by growing others — an exponential impact. “Others” in this context were not just staff reporting to me, but also my peers, my superiors and my clients.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

This is difficult to articulate for me, because I see leadership as an act of service. On reflection, I think my greatest leadership success was being able to hold a team together emotionally, though an extremely trying audit project. The circumstances were exceptionally tough, both professionally and emotionally, and the project took an immense amount of emotional energy from my team, and from me. That I was able to get them over the finish line in one piece was pretty phenomenal. I was able to take an extremely difficult, negative and pretty much soul-destroying experience and lead people through it with as little damage as possible, whilst maintaining professional standards, maintaining integrity and leading by example, being out in the trenches and putting my staff’s welfare first.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

My biggest managerial challenges have always been related to people and figuring out how to get the best out of them within a very limited corporate scope and still enabling them to grow and find balance. I have had many challenges of such, and each one has been big in its unique way.

To pick one, a first major managerial challenge was one when I needed to give performance feedback to a reporting staff member where I had not initially been part of the performance contracting process. This is when, the employee rated their own performance, and then I needed to rate their performance as a manager. In this situation, the outcome of my assessment was far lower than that of the employee’s, and I really went about giving the feedback in the worst way (with hindsight). This caused a lot of emotional and performance stress for the employee. I had to handle it by seeking coaching on the situation from a more experienced colleague at the time, and then I had to call a face to face meeting with the employee, apologise sincerely and with integrity for the way I had communicated, and suggest a way of correcting this. The performance scores, however, were correct (my ratings), and therefore I had to simultaneously apologise to the employee for being wrong about how I handled it, AND obtain their buy-in about why their performance was still not satisfactory. In order to do this, I had to give them unbiased evidence of their performance, but also provide an action plan to fast track their growth and performance to the levels they desired. It worked, and they went on the excel in their career, but I learned that in order to facilitate that, I needed to take responsibility for their development, I needed to ensure that performance criteria are clearly articulated and understood at contracting, and that regular feedback is critical. Often, it’s not so much about the actual performance rating, it’s more about whether your staff and team members think you have their interests at heart. This brings out the best in them. It was a hard lesson but one of my most valuable.

Who has been your greatest mentor(s)? Where they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?

I have learned a lot from two sets of influences in my life. If I examine my whole career so far, my biggest influencer has actually been my father. My career-long sounding board, cheerleader and motivator. I have made many very difficult decisions, within professional and personal positions in my life, and most of them will come back to some form of consultation with him. Besides being able to quote some really good stuff on management and the psychology of the workplace, his biggest impact was allowing me to see inside my own head. Additionally, another key feature that influenced my growth was learning what not to do.

Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?

Whether people believe this is true or not would really be driven by their own definition of success. Success is such a personal word to people, and in my opinion an essential characteristic of a successful business is proven sustainability and responsible corporate citizenry.

In this case, it is not possible to be successful in business without being a nice person. Your staff’s energy and time, relationships with customers and suppliers, the sufferance of an increasingly active community, resources taken from the natural environment, taken by force will be taken back in the same way. Everything returns to a natural equilibrium.

“I firmly believe that if your success is at the expense of peace, it will not be yours for long”.

I know that sounds extremely philosophical, but practically, a successful business relies completely and entirely on relationships with shareholders, employees, investors, lenders, customers, suppliers, society, authorities, the media and public perception. If you’re not nice, your success is very fragile and tenuous.

Similarly, it also depends what your definition of nice is. If nice means giving people what they want all the time, then no — it’s not possible to be nice and still successful. In the world of business, my definition of “nice” would be “fair”, and human. Not always popular, but always fair, and always balancing the long-term interests of all stakeholders with the interests of your business. All your stakeholders, your micro team included, will want to work with fairness more than anything else.

“No leader can promise always to be nice. But you can guarantee fairness”.
Let’s talk about managing pressure — how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill — what are your tips?

I feel like I could write a book about this one. There are three things at play here which all need to happen, all the time.

Firstly, there is the obvious issue about the ability to control your emotions and temper. There is a lot of work that needs to be done there and it starts with self-awareness and a genuine concern for those around you and their well-being. I know myself very well, and I know that on days when I have had a bad start to the day, woken up on the wrong side of the bed, or feel a bit off, I really try to restructure my day so that I can allow myself some quiet, so that I don’t explode at people. If I can’t do that, then I make it a rule to take a deep breath and actually say to the person I am speaking to “ok, let’s park this for five minutes, I need a break, I will come and find you and we can find a solution here” It really works — take responsibility for your own reaction and manage it. It totally diffuses the boil up of negative emotions, and it’s ok to step away. I even take breaks from meetings like this — nothing wrong with walking out and cooling down first.

Secondly, part of the process of team building is building trust with your staff. I made sure my staff could cope with my personality. I explained to them that I am energetic and passionate, and that a short-term outburst didn’t mean any long-term consequences for anyone, and to not be scared of the outbursts. They grew to know me, and on days when it looked like I was ready to bite heads off, they would come bearing coffee, or come into my office and ask, “is it ok to talk now or would you like me to come back later?” — not because they were scared of me but because they trusted me, because I let them in and made sure they knew me as well as I knew them. As a leader, your staff knowing you is not a weakness, it is building strength in a team when you know that sometimes, instead of supporting them, you’re going to need some support too.

Finally, outbursts are unavoidable, unless you’re a completely unemotional human being. You have to realise that and you have to be a humble enough leader to admit when you handled something badly and apologise, sincerely, and as soon as you are able to do so authentically. We’re all human. These things happen. Minimise the impact and maximise the opportunity to build trust and respect. By being flawless and never losing your temper in front of your staff, although it sounds awesome, are you not also sending them the subtle message that it’s not ok to have bad days, or have their own outbursts, and if they do, they won’t have support?

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

For as long as I can remember, I have always been self-motivating. I can’t think of a time when I haven’t been able to talk myself out of a bad space eventually. Sometimes that talking has been as basic as admitting that I need help to talk myself out of it. But I have never stayed in a low point for too long without my natural inclination to find a way to move out of that space kicking in. I think that is the very building block of my self-motivation — the belief that things can and will change, and the instinct to move to something positive, no matter how small. Doing something, anything, motivates me.

The part that relates to what I do though, that’s a developing skill. I recently learned a technique from an amazing performance coach, Tim Goodenough, called scanning. Without going into detail, it involves looking for physical discomfort in your body when you go through certain thoughts. When I feel low or anxious, I run through the very important areas of my life in my thoughts — my children, my partner, family, my own wellbeing, finances, my work — and I feel where the discomforts or wobbles are. That’s how I know which area I need to be positively active in to move out of the low. It’s not a perfect science and I am still learning, but it’s a fantastic journey.

What are you top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?

Tricky question! I read a lot, speed read and skim read a lot of articles, watch video clips, use what resonates with me, and discard what doesn’t. There is a wealth of really good literature out there. Ted Talks are amazing for opening the mind to the humility of continuous growth. There are little nuggets everywhere. Sometimes, the best lessons come from just listening to other peoples’ stories, or from the people you are trying to teach.

The biggest influencers on my leadership development, would be ‘Seven Habits’ from Stephen Covey. A gift that my father gave me very early in my career, the principles of which I still refer back to after all these years, even after having moved back into an academic space. ‘Letting Go’ by David Hawkins, which was recommended to me by my lifelong friend, had a huge impact on my leadership development by shifting my focus inwards, shifting my focus to the energy I put out there and how I can maximise the good I can put out there, which was quite a big shift for me. Lastly, some very useful perspectives in understanding people and teams, and myself, came from ‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant. I realised that I am a giver, and that if I don’t manage that carefully, I will give until there’s nothing left to give, and then I will be burnt out and I will crumble.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

Simply, you create your own culture.

“As a leader, you’re the creator and manipulator of the world around you, you’re the gateway to your staff’s experience, happiness and productivity”.

You make a conscience commitment to stop any rubbish coming down from the top. You carry on building your team and their skills, with everything that you have. You’re the guardian, you’re the filter, you’ve got the thick skin and the experience. That culture stops with you. It’s that simple. By this I don’t mean creating a fairy tale, a totally out of touch, unrealistic department which works in a bubble, I mean creating an honest environment where you teach them how to deal with that atmosphere without losing their souls to it.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?

It’s a really tough thing to deal with. And the best you can do for your people is make sure that if you cannot give them monetary recognition, that you give recognition in any other means available to you. Of course, although money is a great motivator, when it really comes down to it, people are motivated by many more things than just that, and especially when they are family people, time is more valuable to them than money. Other motivators are the display of gratitude, acknowledgement, an agreement of mentorship and coaching to build capacity, performance and allow someone to shine, or to be successful in finding better positions to further their careers or abilities to provide, not to mention the creation of a trusting and productive and (mostly) happy daily work experience. An honest discussion with your team member about the financial limitations and a shared decision about what other rewards or incentives would motivate is the best approach. Know your people, help them to have the best experience you can.

Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few support their employees like a family supports its members — unconditionally and always. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?

I do believe that in a workplace, a contract of employment is actually a contract for the exchange of skills/hours for various forms of support and remuneration and other rewards. I don’t believe it is an unconditional relationship. However, it is a contract with a whole person, and therefore the support that is offered should relate to the whole person. The company should support its employees by ensuring that they have access to employee wellness programmes and labour relations support as a minimum, so that leadership can refer staff to support functions where necessary.

Some managers believe in strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

Having had experience in a highly regulated, professional corporate environment, I completely understand, on every level, that sometimes this is not an excuse. Yet, it comes from a space of fear of challenging the system, or an ingrained belief that has been drummed into managers having risen up the ranks, that totally buy into the corporate identity with an immense sense of loyalty and faith.

However, in my opinion those people are not leaders. They’re maintainers, policemen. They do not challenge the status quo for the growth of people, business innovation, or thinking and strategy. They might be very good at maintaining. They might even be good at, in the short run, getting phenomenal results by squeezing the life out of team members and then getting new members in when the others run out of “performance”.

But they do not create sustainable platforms for growth in balance. They do not improve the lives of their groups, and therefore the good that their teams can do is finite. In these cases, management is perhaps a useful term, for example, where people are managed in the same way that infrastructure or inanimate assets are managed — as a limited resource with estimated useful lives. Leadership, however, is not a title that these people would be entitled to claim.

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.

I am actually of the opinion that all things can and should be delegated. I delegate based on the objectives I have with regards to the people on my team. Always, what underlies all delegation should be done for the development of the person involved.

Sometimes, delegation is done in order to provide opportunity for learning. I would do this in balance with the cost in terms of resources and risk exposure, ensuring there is adequate time for coaching and review and re-performance if necessary, and always with a higher level of authority being absolutely aware that the ultimate responsibility for the quality and timeliness of that task rests with the supervisor. Occasionally, the delegation is on the basis of what is best for the team and its overall objectives in terms of quality of deliverables and deadlines as not every opportunity needs to be a teaching opportunity. Potentially, the delegation provides opportunities for a team member to shine. Assignments that will enable them to demonstrate performance at a higher level, or to assess whether they are making good career choices. Occasionally, delegation within a team of more or less equal team members can be done on the basis of team consensus, allowing the team to decide who should be attending to which tasks within a project based on their own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule for delegation except for this. The more a team is equipped to make these decisions themselves, the better the work of the leader is, and the better the accountability factors are within the team.

Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still not see the value in applying it to their group or organization. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?

I actually detest what the concept of “team building” has become — in my corporate experience anyway. It has become a tick box exercise of silly games or tasks that push people far outside of their comfort zones in a counter-productive way, where they squirm their way through it and can’t wait to get home or get to the bar afterwards, with a weak debrief and very tenuous parallels drawn to “the real work world”. It is a waste of time and money, and I have met very few people who do not dread those annual or *insert-balanced-score-card-frequency-here* “team building” days.

That said, real team building, based on uncomfortable but well facilitated, safe space conversations and exploration of ideas that bring cultures and mind sets together for all to learn from, where the point is to build trust, is critical. No team will function optimally without it. The location, method of delivery, frequency and content of these meetings cannot be dictated by anything other than the needs of the specific team, as identified and articulated by the team and its leadership.

I do believe that having fun together is also really good for teams. It should, though, then be fun for everyone, and not a forced social interaction that leaves people feeling worse off than they usually would. I have found that the best sessions of these have been unplanned and spontaneous.

My biggest success was in the literal, daily building up of my team. Getting to know them, making them part of the decisions about their own goals, as well as the team’s, making sure that they all knew what the work status and progress was at all times, making sure that they were aware of each other’s progress, ensuring that they could all speak for each other if it was needed and seeing the whole team’s progress continually instead of only having a view of their own work and only getting the final picture at the end.

“Team building is a conscious, daily commitment, which the whole team will follow when leadership gets stuck in and sets the example”.
When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?

Briefings have to be conducted within the available resources. Where team members are not in the same space, I try to ensure briefings still occur in the most personal and interactive way possible. This might simply mean a video or audio conference call. Where the briefing is imperative, it is preferable to conduct these in person. Doing so ensures understanding, the opportunity for seeking clarity, bringing up challenges and solving them. It also ensures that the team still feels like a valued team, and not just a group of people receiving an instruction. However, having meetings for the sake of meeting is unproductive and frustrates the team and can derail their current focus. Where there is no need for a briefing, when there is no requirement for an understanding check and does not impact on deliverables, a memo is a better tool to use.

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

This breaks up into two things; method of communication and time management.

For the method of communication, honestly, the point is to use the method that is most effective in communicating, and the situation will dictate that. My job as a leader is to ensure that the communication is effective, and when I can see that it is not, to intervene and use a different method to ensure that communication goals are not impacted. For example, that the message is clearly delivered and understood. Understanding my team members and knowing them well assists me to find the best method of communication with them individually, and I decide to be available to my team in the way that best facilitates their work and their goals. I am flexible in this regard. It goes without saying that some communication needs to be in writing, especially when there is risk management involved, and it would be up to me as the leader to recognise these situations and respond with a request for written communication where I saw it was necessary.

However, this flexibility does require very good time management. A critical part of my leadership is to ensure that team members are aware of my availability, clear communication of when I will not be available, due to meetings, or important tasks that I need to block out concentration time for. I also create clear expectations about turn-around time on responses to them, and then stick to my commitments there — as a leader, you need to prioritise your team this way. Don’t over promise, but ensure that you show integrity and stick to your commitments.

Generally, I am available during working hours and am very clear about family time. This is, however, something I mastered only recently.

“I used to view my role as support to mean that I need to be available to my team whenever they needed me. This created chaos — in their lives and in mine.”

My team interpreted this as a sign that they were expected to be available at all hours too, and would even communicate outside of hours just to show that they were, in fact, working outside of working hours — it’s a vicious circle.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

I think transparency is critical. I think the strategic goals and objectives, performance plans and continuous performance assessments, including profitability, should be shared with everyone in the organisation. This includes good news and bad news. I believe employees are entitled to know information, performance and circumstance will affect them in advance as far as possible, and I believe that they should also know what they can do to contribute towards achievements as well as to mitigate problem issues and contribute to minimising or even averting negative performances or consequences.

Transparency, relevant and well-communicated, builds unified teams, with employees more likely to contribute to problem solving and a bit of sacrifice here and there in the short term to keep long term prospects on track. It creates a far more positive and productive environment where everyone is committed to the goals and feels like their personal contributions can and do make a difference.

I shared every piece of information with my team that I was required to prepare for the various structures in my organisation, from budgets and budgeting principles, to project budgets, resource allocation, performance reviews (of the department’s performance), environmental scanning of clients, including high risk issues and assessments, criteria for performance contracting, evaluation, promotion, organisational remuneration policies etc. Everything except for obvious confidential information relating to personal and protected information and employee relations issues and individual performance evaluations and results.

However, transparency can be completely irresponsible without proper, honest engagement on these issues. It can create anxiety and fear if poor results or profit warning are published and these are not explained and communicated to that everyone not only has access to the information but really understands what it means, how it affects them, and what they can do about it.

How do you best separate work like from personal life — for a healthy balance? What are you biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?

A very honest answer to this would be that I have only recently learned to do this, and it took a move out of big corporate to get it right. I was faced with a difficult choice after 20 years in my profession, between staying in an environment that was systemically not providing work-life balance for the sake of money and a standard of living which I had lost myself in to compensate for the loss of “living”, and forgoing money for balance in all other areas of my life, including my family, peace and health. Now, having found a professional environment which supports and encourages balance, it is far easier to implement the lines of separation. I separate these two things now, even though I now work from home, by having communicated my non-negotiable family time to the team I work with and for, and sticking to my own boundaries as a rule.

Loving my career blurred the lines significantly in my early career, to the extent that I started taking my identify from my career and achievements. That was a dangerous line and I crossed it, as if I had my whole future mapped out.

“When you love what you do, be very careful that it does not steal your identify, self-worth, or your time from all the other bits of you”.

Two other big factors contributed to the lack of balance. The first was a deep seated, self-limiting belief that I was not good enough and always had to prove myself. A belief whole-heartedly supported by a patriarchal profession and society. A woman in a career has a whole lot more to prove. It took many years of soul searching to get to the point where I was willing to admit that, it is such a deep seated, sub-conscious belief, and so many people suffer from this. We have so much work to do here. The second is my tendency towards giving, at a greater cost to myself. Giver tendencies can make you a doormat. Then, there is no balance, only draining until you’re burnt out and are no good to anyone. These two revelations came in quick succession.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?

I have been involved in many different recruitment processes in my career and it’s a very tough part of business. I battled to work with HR for recruiting and interviewing where the process was policy driven, where the process was a tick box exercise, where job descriptions were generic, with minimum requirements and standardised competency questions, with no consideration of any other factors. The way I worked with this recruiting environment was to be as actively involved in the interview panel as possible, so that as a minimum, I had the opportunity to probe during competency questions, to ask other questions and to assess interview behaviours and personal attributes as much as possible. This way, I was at least able to ensure that my inputs were recorded, if not taken into account. This is my approach to anything that I do not agree with but that impacts me materially — become involved and do what you can.

In a completely different recruitment environment I have experienced, interviews started out as a gut feel “get to know you” discussion. My involvement here was to suggest and provide some structure to the interview process, to ensure that at least each candidate had an equal opportunity to answer basic questions as a minimum, but ensure that there was scope and opportunity for the candidate to put their best self forward. Which ensures that there is a minimum basis for discussion but no limit on where the candidate could take their answers. I found this to be the best experience so far. This worked really well for the interview process, and the appointments made on this basis have proven to be excellent.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?

I have personal experience with these conditions in close friends and family members, and I understand them relatively well from an employment and performance perspective.

Firstly, one has to be well versed in employment law and employee wellness regulations before one tackles something like this. It is an extremely sensitive situation, with the employee/colleague often carrying shame due to the stigmas that come along with these disorders. Personally, I try to win the trust of the person to the extent that they will feel safe to open up about what they are battling with. This forms the basis for interventions to assist them to seek medical or psychiatric advice and/or counselling. Should this proceed, this should be taken into account in resource planning and performance planning.

If the individual does not respond to this approach, the disciplinary rules of the company, which should be based in employment legislation, should provide the necessary process to address the possible lack to performance which would result from this, and provide alternative mechanisms for the individual to follow corrective action. I have had a number of these cases in my career.

“There is a fine line between providing a supportive environment with a relationship of trust as an employer, and becoming an emotional support/counselling crutch”.

In these situations, I found it necessary to refer employees for counselling to an independent party, making the employer/employee lines are very clear. There is another important aspect to this which is often neglected — and this is the impact on the rest of the team, either seeing their colleague suffer, or having to absorb the person’s workload. This needs to be sensitively managed as well to ensure that the team remains productive and properly resourced.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?

If you start off your relationship by setting very clear expectations and criteria, with regular, honest and unbiased feedback together with development mechanisms, this is actually not hard to do. The point at which I would decide to do this would take into account a reasonable learning curve time period as well as poor performance development plans that had been previously agreed. In most cases, if the relationship is not working out, both parties will not be having much fun and again, an honest conversation regarding the facts, and a discussion about the options and a way forward will probably allow the situation to take care of itself.

However, there are times when this will not be the case and an employee feels aggrieved, unfairly treated or victimised, whether founded or not. In this case, there are two options. I have successfully used the first, which would be to properly assess which management style and tasks the individual would best respond to, and to relocate the individual to a new team or a different department. The second and last option is the hard way out. Which is to ensure that throughout the employment period, strict attention has been paid to documentation of all types, performance agreements, assessments, feedback, and interventions, so as to build an honest, and legitimate portfolio of evidence for submission to disciplinary procedures. In this case, the resolution of these issues is left to employment law. It is an expensive, draining and unfriendly process for all involved, and I will always suggest that all other avenues are explored first.