Best Boss Series: Obadiah Khwinana, HR Director and Business Coach, South Africa


Obadiah is a seasoned Business and organisational executive who has a working experience spanning over 30 years in the labour market. He has worked in a number of strategic positions ranging from people and talent management, organisational development and effectiveness as well as strategic planning and execution. In his working life he has in-depth senior and executive management experience having championed a number of very successful strategic organisational improvement projects. He has worked in most business sectors, ranging from manufacturing, telecommunications, mining as well as the broader public sector. Obadiah has several business degrees including an MBA. As well as University based executive programs, he also specializes in leadership and management development and is an experienced executive and management coach. He brings a wealth of experience and specialised knowledge to clients that engage with him.

Tell me how you define a successful leader. 

A successful leader is a person who focuses their attention on making themselves effective as a person, making the team they manage effective and ensures that the task at hand is achieved as efficiently and effectively as possible.

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

I was appointed to a managerial position with 14 people to manage. Many of these were inexperienced people and wanted strong leadership. I started by talking to each one of them to find out what their personal needs were and I also shared information with them about who I am, and what drives me. I also shared with them what we needed to do as a team and why we have to do it. There were a number of get togethers to reinforce the message. These culminated in crafting work performance agreements which were monitored on a monthly basis. I appointed team leaders to assist with the management of staff as well as developing them to take on more challenging tasks. The monitoring of results to achieve both personal, and task-based goals ensured that we remain on track and we can see the results of our collective action. I also asked the staff to give suggestions as to how we can improve our team performance. I constantly gave feedback and recognition to those that gave the greatest contribution. At the end of the year, I could see that we achieved everything we wanted, and more on the objectives that were given to us by the company.

My key contribution was leading the team through communication as well as remaining involved and close to them to offer guidance and support.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience. 

I took over a team of highly demotivated individuals, very negative and not getting the results the organisation wanted us to accomplish. I started on working first on what must be achieved and then focused on the strengths and talents of each individual. My focus was on where we need to be and I reinforced this message over and over. This was accompanied by a lot of staff engagements as well as motivational aspects. This included, a coaching process where I trained job coaches and identified with them the key things we must pay attention to. Growth for staff, effective interaction through sharing of key organizational information as well as using communication channels like team sessions and briefs brought about team alignment as well as excitement to do the job. I focused on the critical issues staff had problems with and established joint teams to tackle the many issues the team had. Additionally, I held one on one discussions with staff to focus on their aspirations as well as ensuring that their performance was at their level best. I introduced a team recognition system managed by staff and involved giving out gifts and presents for those that perform better. 

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

It was a poor performing direct report. I focused too much on what this person was negatively doing and this drained me of a lot of energy. I realized later that I should have looked at what were the issues the person was experiencing and then redirect his energies in line with their strengths.

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 had Ray Topp as a mentor/ coach. This person was a senior member of staff, at executive level. I was fortunate enough to tap into his core skills and experience of having managed large teams and departments in a variety of industries. An authentic person and a great teacher/ guide. He has lots of interest in people development and growth.

The greatest thing I learnt from him was the issue of self-awareness. To know what my limitations are, what my strengths are and always beware the impact my actions have on other people be it at work or home.

He also taught me to have a deep focus on what needs to be done. I also learnt to make sure that I do have a personal vision that informs all my actions. He was a man of high integrity, I learnt that if I made promises I need to fulfill that and if I can, I must immediately go back to those I made promises to, and inform them what is happening. In short, he taught me to be real and authentic. To be my true self.

Also from Best Boss Series – Bronwyn Kemp: “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”.

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?

It depends on what a nice person means. For me it is all about finding balance between focusing on team issues as well as ensuring that the required task is achieved. A nice person gets this balance right. It also means that they ensure that accountabilities and roles are clearly defined. 

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 believe that when the pressure is high, one needs to pause and reflect. It works for me to take a break and look at the issues from other perspectives. Through coaching, I learnt to stand back when I experience challenges and issues. I had a number of personal and staff issues in the past and I dealt with them by standing back, doing some reflections to see clearly what is going on and also seek counsel from other people. The break that I took in dealing with some of these issues gave me new perspectives and its amazing how, in many instances I managed to deal decisively with quite emotive and challenging issues. I also find that one needs to gather objective information to be able to solve issues effectively.

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

I motivate myself by constantly reminding myself of my mission. I have a personal mission that states that I am here to help others to achieve their visions. I am motivated by who I am and what want to meaningfully contribute to the well being of those I interact with. To achieve my mission, I focus on self-awareness and self-management. I use the Wheel of life to ensure balance in my life. I also meditate and do mindfulness to keep me grounded and focused on achieving my life goals.

What are you top three book titles that you were most impactful for you leadership development? 
  1. The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes/Posner,
  2. Results based Leadership by Ulrich, Zenger, Smallwood,
  3. Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis and McKee
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?

I always focus on team values and I look at motivational issues such as development, growth and recognition to make sure excellent work is done. I also believe that one needs to be an example to others at all times. I communicate frequently and allow staff to give inputs and contribution towards the achievement of goals and objectives. When I took over a department I facilitated the development of team values, We are performance driven, Our accountability is clear and personal, We value other people. These values were unpacked further to highlight supporting behaviors and actions. We also developed a quick assessment process to establish if we are as team living the values. I also used these 3 values to assess overall person performance. 

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?

I always had ways to recognise people above a formal salary and bonus. One way to deal with this dilemma is to directly link bonus with performance outputs and outcomes. Anything that relates to organisational processes be it remuneration or leave needs to have a policy guideline otherwise there will be lots of inconsistencies. If there is no budget for bonus then one looks at non-monetary incentives like time off, flexible hour working, recognition awards like gifts etc. There will always be a way to incentivise employees to perform better. I have team lunches as well as team excursions to reward those that perform well.  

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

The organizations I have worked for had a number of initiatives to support employees. There are employee wellness programs (EWP) for troubled employees, coaching and mentoring, sabbaticals, bursaries for advanced and further studies, a buddy system and job rotation. We also engage employees on their career aspirations as well as allowing them to participate in secondment assignment as a break from work. Above this, there is annual leave as well as time offs to attend to important personal matters. This support process is governed by the EWP POLICY as well as the HRD and HRM policy guidelines.

Also from Best Boss series – Minter Dial: “You’ll only get established if you lay out what your legacy will be when you leave”.

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? 

I don’t think a hierarchy is a block for staff interactions or attention to people and task issues. It must be seen as way just to create order, stability and remove uncertainty. It can’t be used as an excuse for low levels of staff interaction and involvement. In my organization we have 4 key job levels ranging from Executive down to low level employee.

Any employee is allowed to engage with any employee no matter what job level the person occupies.

There are some guidelines that govern how at a minimum these interactions are to be managed. Low level employees can talk to the MD or CEO. There will always be a request and most times those requests are honoured.

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

To delegate, I look at the following issues; – the complexity of the task and the skills and career interests of employees. I take this always as a learning opportunity and thus use it as motivator as well. When I delegate a task to someone I remain accountable for what happens.

To delegate tasks to employees one looks at how experienced/ skilled the person is, how willing they are to tackle the new task, what support will they require from me and others, how they will know they are succeeding or not and most importantly is this in line with what they want to do.

I had to go away for 2 months and I had to delegate my total responsibilities to one of my direct reports. I spent initially 2 weeks before I left to allow them to have a feel of what will be required and also to ask questions on issues where they want some clarity. I also linked them with my coworkers -people at the same level as me to guide and support. To make things easier I quantified the exact results that they must achieve and also ensured that they have resources they need to achieve these. If they do not make it, I look at other developmental avenues and ask them to also do some self-evaluation to determine what led to the failures. They also need to propose a way forward which we both interrogate.

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? 

Team building needs to be focused on enhancing team effectiveness. It is a great motivator for greater team achievement. One needs to focus it on task requirements as well as team interaction and team motivation. The objectives must be specific and the results must be somehow tangible. I have used team building initiatives to enhance team member participation and contribution to work performance. I have utilized a model for team effectiveness. This lists criteria to evaluate whether a team is effective or not. We start by doing an assessment to determine the level of team health and effectiveness and the areas where we score low we put a strategy to close the gap. All the activities we embark upon are directly linked to one of the criteria that we want to achieve. There are a few team effectiveness models that can direct team building initiatives objectively. A book called- The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenbach gives a good process to do this.

When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo? 

I conduct daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly briefings. They all take different forms. I prefer a blend of methods depending on what the specific briefing is intended to achieve. Most of the methods I employ however leverage on personal interaction. 

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? 

Availability to team members takes a number of forms – There are fixed calendar times, ad hock times for urgent and pressing issues, use of voice calls and email where necessary.

Do you make yourself available to your team 24/7 or do you define ‘down’ time that your team knows you will not be available for a reply unless under unique urgent situations? 

I am not particularly strict with my time. I do however prefer some order when it comes to making myself available. I do have an open-door policy and team members are free to make an appointment if they have some pressing issues for discussion or engagement. I do prefer that if possible we need to resolve issues during working hours unless it is really urgent and pressing.

How do you communicate with your team – in person or online? How do you feel about your team members calling you direct? 

My team members do call me direct- cellphone, email, telephone or in person. I do not encourage email when it comes to sensitive matters or quite complex issues to attend to. My style has always been person to person. 

Also from the Best Boss Series: Béatrice Dautzenberg: “We are human, not machines.”

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

Weekly meetings are meant to share as much information as possible. I also utilize team briefing to update staff on any developments that may affect them or are of interest for them to know. The method I employ is two fold – weekly I circulate a note titled What I would like to know and ask staff to highlight their info needs. On another level – feedback from Executive meetings gets shared and staff are allowed to ask questions and give suggestions. There is also organizational issues that staff need to know. These are shared during team meetings etc.

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? 

To maintain balance, I have scheduled time offs as well as leave. I prefer to stop work after I leave the office. This is my time unless there is an emergency matter that can’t wait for tomorrow.

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? 

To recruit and interview, HR manages the process and I manage the content within the process. I design the job spec and requirements, I do the shortlisting and I develop the questions I want to ask and, in the end, chair the interview panel. Reference and vetting is done by HR and if it’s a senior appointment I get involved in getting information on the candidates. I employ what is called competency-based interview method. You use the same interview guide to assess and compare and rate the candidates being interviewed. The method looks at key examples of behaviour that the person has demonstrated in the past and this is used to predict future success. 

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

To deal and respond to employees who have been diagnosed with mental disorders, I utilize our Employee Wellness Section who guide the process. The section is staffed with social workers and psychologists who assist us line managers to deal with issues of this nature. If it is too specialised as an issue there needs to be a referral to outside expertise. The referral is communicated to the employee by the manager who must accept that they are not an expert in this matter and for the benefit of the employee and the company they source out external help. 

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? 

We do have a Labor Relations policy that deals with poor performing employees, we subscribe to progressive discipline, meaning we try and help and assist for a given period of time and afterwards if this is not working, we go through a process of incapacity due to poor performance and at last we will terminate the contractual relationship.

In my experience one needs to determine if its an ability issue or a motivation issue.

Once you have established that then a focused attention can be given to the issue. If it’s a motivation issue one looks at the environment and determines if change is necessary to another area or location. If it’s an ability issue I focus on the skills that must be enhanced or developed.

However, I established over the years that the source of problems starts at the recruitment phase.

I started looking at the results to be achieved in the job and then match the strengths of the person with that. If they do not demonstrate those strengths, I look at alternative placement or accommodation. My believe is it may be a misfit and hence looking at a proper fit will eliminate someone seen as not performing. I did some job rotation with some employees to determine the fit and in many cases the movements I made as a result of this did work. If the problem persists it may be an organizational fit and thus the person need to move out of the organization. You however do this after having tried few of these initiatives I have mentioned.