Take Charge and act as your (own) CEO to forge your chosen path and drive innovation and excellent results in your life and business. Many potential leaders lack the self-belief and toolkit to begin their journey to the top. Tune in as Anne Pratt sits down for a conversation with the CEO of GE Southern Africa, Nyimpini Mabunda. They talk about taking charge, accountability, and making things happen despite life’s circumstances. Nyimpini’s journey from his childhood village in an apartheid-era segregated homelwand to the CEO’s office at one of the world’s best-known businesses is inspiring.
His career spanned multiple multinationals like Procter & Gamble, Nando’s, Diageo, Boston Consulting Group, Vodacom, and General Electric in South Africa, the UK, and Uganda.
In this episode, you learn why you cannot beat the daily drum without strategizing, unlearning, and self-disruption. Nyimpini Mabunda shares practical life lessons, including how to: Spot opportunities; Learn from business setbacks; Grow organizations by mentoring talented people; Make the best of every situation; Achieve well-being, and manage stress. A practical and powerful toolkit with inspiring insights to get to the top. You have the personal power to ‘make things happen.’
GE Southern Africa Nyimpini also talks about Africa’s dynamics and complexity of diversity from a business perspective, current leadership challenges, the need to be vocal, an active citizen, and his untold Mandela Moment: a moment that deepened his desire to expand his social impact and serve. He elaborates on childhood influences, challenging current thinking, and moral compasses. A servant leadership approach and the ability to believe in yourself, even when doubts claw at your subconscious – are practical lessons and inspirations.
Listen to the podcast here
Creating Social Impact From The Village to The Global Boardroom with Nyimpini Mabunda
Take Charge: Life Lessons On The Road to The CEO
Thank you for joining us from around the world. I’m formerly from South Africa and relocated abroad to attend a Harvard leadership fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our bold leader today grew up in the rural area of Gazankulu, a former rural Homeland in apartheid South Africa. As a young child, he began his business life and training and went from the village to the boardrooms of successful multinational companies in diverse industry sectors.
As an industry leader, he has worked in 14 different African countries, lived and worked on 2 continents, and is Chief Executive Officer in Southern Africa for General Electric and the Non-Exec Director and Chair of different organizations. He is the author of the best-selling book Take Charge, the US Chamber USA-SA Business Council Chair, and a former Judge and panelist for Stanford University’s Africa Business Forum.
You won’t want to miss his leadership and life lessons to get to the top. They are lessons like self-belief, personal accountability, the importance of self-disruption, and creating personal discomfort. His untold ‘Mandela Moment’ was in Uganda (an African country), when he was tasked to be the Master of Ceremonies (MC) for the country’s formal memorial for the late President Mandela. We warmly welcome Nyimpini Mabunda. Welcome to the show.
Nyimpini Mabunda, thank you so much for joining this conversation. It’s a real privilege to have you here.
Thank you so much. I look forward to the interview.
You are a remarkable human being. You’ve had a fantastic career. You’ve worked across different sectors, fast-moving consumer goods, retail franchise operations, and telecommunications. You are also Chief Executive Officer of Southern Africa for General Electric. What I noticed about that is that all of them are international companies. What attracted you to multinational operations, and why those kinds of organizations?
I started working in 1996. At that time, after coming from many decades of isolation in South Africa, I wanted a global perspective. I wanted to have access to many young men. I was nineteen years old when I started working. Growing up in a homeland, I was isolated within South Africa. I wanted to break away and compete with the best, see what’s happening worldwide, and hopefully, impact my country to make it globally competitive.
I’ve had the good fortune and luck of being attracted to some of the well-known brands like P&G, Diageo, GE, and Vodacom. That has been my experience, and I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve also enjoyed not only learning from these. My imagination broadens as I get a global perspective, but I am also giving them an African perspective on things, like an emerging market perspective. When we think about emerging markets, we think about Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We tend to be a little bit more innovative and unrestricted but also complex. It was important that you plant the image to take the business forward.
That makes a lot of sense. Having grown up in Unilever myself, balancing that international strategy with localization and understanding local markets, I can appreciate that would have been an interdependent relationship. It’s not only what head office is giving you but what you are providing to support some of those international leaders.
I also recognized and noted that you’ve worked in about fourteen countries across the African continent. Often, people abroad think of Africa as one place. Africa has 54 countries and a population of about 1.216 billion. Can you share a little about the diversity of Africa? From a business perspective, how important is it not to make assumptions about places? Can you delve into some of the diversity dynamics?
There are still people who think that Africa is one place. The main commonality in Africa is that we talk about and share the spirit of Ubuntu. If you look at it from the infrastructure point of view, there is a huge difference between what you find from a retail infrastructure and the sophistication of routes to market, for example, from the language you find. This country (South Africa) has eleven official languages. When you go to other countries, there are over 40 languages. That brings its’ own level of complexity.
From a business point of view, that’s the penetration of mobile goods, the sophistication of the road networks, and the banking system. It’s different when you are in South Africa or North Africa from what you find when you go out West. You also have the difference because of the influence of the (former) colonies, whether you go to Anglophone Africa or Francophone Africa, and whether you go to Southern Africa or Northern Africa, where you find the Morocco image. There are a lot of nuances that one needs to understand.
Another thing that I find quite interesting is religion. Many people don’t realize it, but some countries have a dominant faith, Christianity. One country, Nigeria, is a big and vibrant Muslim community, for example, and then in North Africa, there are different beliefs. From the consumer insights and the consumer behavior point of view, there are many differences.
The last one is that the political system also impacts how people think. Some of the countries have long-serving presidents. Angola was a good example of that. Liberia was not a good example of that, and so was Côte d’Ivoire. There is also Zimbabwe. Uganda, where I stayed and lived for three years, also had a president who sat for 30 years plus. It’s not uncommon. In some of those countries, there’s a democracy, but there’s also a certain leader who sat for a long time. The dynamics, attitude, and culture are quite different when you’ve had the same leader for 20 or 30 years versus when you are changing leaders in 9 or 10 years.
Can you give us an example of a country and perhaps an example where they have had a long-serving leader that hasn’t transferred power as necessary and the dynamics of that political system? Is there an example of a country like that? How did that impact the culture of that country?
I will give you two countries I have been close to. One is Uganda, where our president sat for three decades as a leader. Another country I’ve grown close to because they are a neighbor and I’ve got lots of friends who come from there is Zimbabwe. The late President, Robert Mugabe, was there for about a quarter of a century as well. In those countries, I found that the leader sometimes runs out of runway in terms of innovation. How much can you innovate and reinvent yourself in five years?
It gets to a state where a country desperately needs new ideas, new ways of doing things, and a mix of leadership. When it doesn’t have that, it struggles to move forward and be in touch with what’s happening worldwide. When that happens, and it starts to stagnate or not grow as fast, it loses people. I’ve seen a lot of brain leaks from Uganda to Kenya, Zimbabwe to South Africa to the UK, and all over the world. When you lose talent as a country, you don’t have the human capital to return the investment but also to grow the cash.
The second one is that you lose activism. People get active. You have activism up to the point where they will get tired, and there is not much to show and do. There’s no change. When you don’t have an active, vibrant, and vocal society, we can become complacent as leaders, whether you are private or public sector. We need to be held accountable as a CEO by our employees, shareholders, and investors, by civil society.
Even as politicians, you need to be held accountable. If people lose the energy to be active citizens to challenge, criticize, raise concerns, and support, the country doesn’t even move forward because you don’t have an alternative point of view. You don’t have another voice that puts pressure on you to perform. That’s what I find in this country (South Africa) because there’s fear. Sometimes, people are not as outspoken. People are not engaging, and therefore, the nation loses the ideas to be able to move forward.Sometimes, people are not as outspoken or engaging. Therefore, the country loses the ideas to be able to move forward. Having people who support you but also those that do not support you helps you to be better and stronger. Click To Tweet
I strongly believe in having people who support you and those who do not. That helps you to be better and stronger. If you are under no pressure and not accountable because you are a leader for life, then you stop innovating and moving things forward. Those are the impacts I see. People are very accepting and want to leave at the earliest opportunity. I don’t think that’s good for any country or company.
You raised several issues there. Accountability is a big one as well. If we go back a little in time, you grew up in a rural homeland in South Africa. Could you take us back to your early childhood? You’ve had an amazing career from the village to the boardroom. I’m curious to hear a little about your early childhood and what shaped you. I know you come from a business family but tell us a little about it. What was the influence of your parents? What shaped you in that childhood that helped you get to the top, in the boardroom, and become a very successful CEO?
I can think about a couple of things. I started working informally as a general assistant for my mother. The routine was always the same in the morning. I would open the café and receive bread and milk at 6:00 in the morning. I would then go to school to be there at 7:00 am and return from school around 4:00 pm. I would continue working in the kitchen until we close at 9:00 pm and then go to bed around 10:00 in the evening.
Even as a youngster, I was attached to my mom. I followed her around. When I was too young to understand the collection of money and change, I always picked out sugar, bread, and a cold drink and then gave them to customers as she brought the tea. I was working. I was an assistant. I understood teamwork because my mom and I were like a team. We were also selling at school. She was a Principal at a primary school.
When we went to school, we would carry a cooler box with lollipops and ice pops we would make the night before. During breaks, I was the one selling that. After selling, I give her the money before going back to class. I got my performance reviews every day. She would say, “You only sold half the box. You finished everything,” and I would get my incentive. It was the discipline of hard work, customer testing (trials), business development, and looking for customers and new opportunities.
I remember we started selling an orange flavor in those ice blocks. Not everyone liked it. We then started selling apple flavor. We were using the Kool-Aid juice. We mixed up the different flavors, and then we got to a point of innovation where we would mix the orange and apple flavors into one to create another taste, which is what people are doing when I fast forward many years later. In the liquor industry, people are coming up with flavors for beers. They are coming up with flavors for energy drinks. I have been flavor mixing and exploring from a very young age.
I find that the things I’m doing in business at a much larger scale are sophisticated. The principles are the same as what I learned as a child and growing up in that environment, particularly that of hard work. I don’t know of any successful leader who doesn’t work hard. I was doing 2 or 3 jobs. There was a point when my mother was a school Principal and then a general dealer at a shop. She was also starting a degree part-time through UNICEF. 1 person did all 3 things.
I don’t think there’s a limit to what I can do. I ran GE but also sat as a non-executive board member externally. I also am an author. I wrote a book. No one can challenge my ability in any of those responsibilities. Many people then would say, “I can only do one thing at a time.” I said, “Why not? If you can do 3 or 4 things pretty well and still have some sleep, then go for it. It makes you more productive. You can deliver more.” For me, those were important principles I learned very early in life. From my dad’s point of view, I learned about community impact, service, and being accountable to the people that follow you.
Back then, we didn’t have the right to vote as Black people at a national South African level. We could not elect a prime minister within the regional Gazankulu (Homeland) elections, but MPs were elected. I would see my dad go and campaign to be elected. After being elected, he has to undergo the same process every five years. He had to demonstrate that he had delivered the water he promised the community, the election promises, or the roads. That, for me, is about accountability because people follow you for a reason. You are going to be held accountable once you said what you are going to do. My principle as a leader is, “Promises made, promises kept.”
For context, could you clarify what role your dad fulfilled in the homeland parliament?
He was a member of the Gazankulu Parliament, which was led by Professor Hudson back in the day. He was the Deputy Minister and the (Parliament) Speaker five times.
You’ve alluded to your book. Congratulations. I see it’s doing incredibly well. You call the book Take Charge. You referenced life lessons on the road to a chief executive officer. What made you call it Take Charge?
I want people to take ownership of their destinies. I want people to be accountable. I find that sometimes, we outsource too much, giving our leadership destiny or personal destiny where we believe that a company owes us success. They will say, “HR leadership owes us development. My line manager is responsible for my growth.” I say, “It’s not. They are a support system in the ecosystem to help you, but you need to do it yourself.”
Please forgive me if this is misunderstood. I find Black individuals, Black leaders, and women in particular, because of the diversity demand and the fact that they have been discriminated against for so long, are saying, “Through recommended action and diversity initiatives, I’m going to get to the top because I’m the right color and gender.” I’m saying, “That’s not enough.”
They say, “I’m the right color and gender, and I’m delivering performance.” I’m saying, “That’s not enough. You are still competing with so many people who are Black and women. Therefore, you have to do something extraordinary to get there.” You need to take charge. You need to own it. You need to thrive. People who have reached the top have not left anything to coincidence and luck. They are the driving force behind that. Take charge of your destiny. Make things happen. It won’t happen for you if you are passive. Career development and success are an active pursuit of excellence.
It returns to your point of accountability and what you learned at a young age. What struck me in reading some of the reviews and stuff around your book, and even the words that you’ve expressed is the importance of self-belief, even when there are doubts that people have within themselves. What was it that instilled that incredible sense of self-belief in you? Can you then take us to a moment when you were in doubt? What was that moment? How difficult was it? How did you pivot out of it?
I can remember it very well. Let me tell you a story. When I got to university in 1992, I was fifteen years old. I had never been a leader in my life in terms of really being in a leadership position. I had never been a school captain on a sports team or in any leadership position. Part of that was that I never had time because every time I left school, I would go home and sell in a shop. I was working.
I went to school very early. I was always two years younger than my classmates. I was not a kid with a big body. Therefore, I could not participate in the undertakings and big teams because they were bigger than me. Also, I didn’t have the physique to even compete. I ended up not having confidence in sports or in leading. I was the youngest person. There was also a time, culturally, when leadership was indirectly equated to seniority in terms of age. You would find that the older members of society, in general, will also be in leadership positions, so I was told I was too young to lead.
Fast forward, I get to university. In my second year of university, I’m sixteen years old. This head student in my residence who befriended me from the first year somehow probably did it out of feeling sorry for me because I was so small. He says, “This election is coming for the house. I would love you to stand for the executive committee.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? No one would vote for me. Look at me. I don’t have experience. I have never been in a leadership position.” He says, “I’ve known you for a year, and we have been good friends. I see these qualities in you. Don’t sell yourself short.”
Fast forward, he became my coach because he has been in the leadership ministry for 2 or 3 years. And he said, “I will work with you. I will coach you. I will help you with the campaign. You’ve got what it takes.” He believed in me more than I did in myself. We worked together. I did a campaign. I had a formidable competition with people who have been on house committees before. I beat everybody. I was fortunate. I was a deputy head student. I was in charge of the commercial sector of my house.
For me, that said two things. Don’t write yourself off. If you believe in yourself, even if the conventional wisdom says that you don’t have the experience for it and can’t, maybe you can. Perhaps you’ve got something different that you are bringing to the party. That’s how I campaigned. I said, “I don’t have an experience in leadership, but this is what I’m bringing to the party.” When we look at things on paper passionately, it might give us a different conclusion: “Don’t hire that person.” For some strange reason, you hire them, then they might surprise you with how they perform. Things are not always straightforward. You must think ABC is too difficult for a while.
I have become a bit of a maverick to say, “The things that you think I can’t do is because of your current bias, but there are other things I’m bringing”. I’m quite challenging, and I’m confident. I don’t mind if the stakes are against me. I enjoy the thrill of that. I’ve seen so many cases where people would not make it into something on paper, but if you give them a chance, they surprise you with performance.
Honestly speaking, if Facebook was not Mark Zuckerberg, based on his experience and background, who would have hired him as CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world? Arguably and similarly, who would have hired Elon Musk based on the credentials on paper to be the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world? People say, “What company has he had? Is it the 1st or the 2nd rotation? Who has he worked with?” They hired themselves because they founded the companies. They are bigger than some of the companies that would not give them to run. Arguably, based on what the investors say of both Tesla and Facebook, they are doing the same job. It’s not always what it seems. If you’ve got something to offer and can present it to the public and sell it, then go for it.
That’s so true. We’ve seen many examples of that in executive searches. What instilled that confidence in you? What would you say to the person that is doubting? I get what you’ve shared around having someone believe in you, somebody coach you, etc. What do you do to reinforce that sense of self-worth within yourself?
I believe that I learn extremely fast, and I’m very curious. That’s the first thing. I have a high degree of self-awareness. You need to accept what you know and don’t know. Therefore, surround yourself with people that can help you with that. I’m not too cautious. I hire well. In fact, I say to people, “I like having people who are better than me.” They cannot believe that they are better than me, but when I hire them, they are exceptional. I love that because then they challenge me, teach me, and also learn from me. That compliment is important. It’s also important to know that even with things I don’t know, I can learn quickly because I don’t want to shortchange my shareholders, investors, coaches, and mentors who believe in me.
I have a record of situations where I didn’t come from the industry or the culture. Still, within a few months, I was operating at a mastery level because of my curiosity to learn: the ability to challenge myself, reinvent myself, and disrupt myself has been one of the hallmarks of my successes. Therefore, for someone that doesn’t believe, I can show them situations where I’ve come from where I wasn’t as knowledgeable, but I have been able to be successful. That’s number one.
The second thing is that if you hire the usual prospects, you will always get the results you’ve obtained. You are hiring on an incremental basis, contingent on the tried and tested and delivering on expected outcomes. If you want to disrupt, you also need to bring in someone who will bring a different perspective. I sell the fact that I’m getting a different perspective without disregarding what exists and throwing everything out. Exponential growth and transformation are delivered, but it’s also about having an outside view. In many cases, I come in as an outsider into situations.
When I entered Vodacom, I had already worked for Diageo, never in telecoms. That was a breath of fresh air in many ways. It was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. When I joined GE, people were very surprised because GE is in aviation, energy, and healthcare. I’d never worked in any of those three industries, but I came in. I have reason to believe I’m doing a great job because I’m collaborating with industry experts. I’m not discounting anything that came, but I’m asking challenging questions.
Imagine, the industries are amazing. The lines are becoming blurred. Facebook is a media company, Tesla is a technology company, and so forth. Their lines are becoming blurred. People like me with diverse industry experience would see commonalities and learn from the different areas with a unique proposition for employers. That’s what I tell them, but not everyone believes it. Some would say that bankers run banks. They say, “Unless you’ve had twenty years in financial services, you can’t come into this bank.” I respect that. Others will say, “Those who are disrupting banks are not bankers,” and want to bring in new ideas. That’s where I come. I enjoy it.
You talk about the importance of self-disruption in the book and allude to it. How do you disrupt yourself, and why is that so important in your rise to the top?
One is about having a broad view of things to learn from. There are limitations to what you can learn from the industry that we are in. When I move into different sectors, my learning grows exponentially. That’s number one. I disrupt myself by changing industries from consumer goods to a telco to consulting and industrial B2B business. Every time I make that change, it slows me down in terms of getting to the top versus if I were to stay within one industry and master it. From my leadership point of view, my papers, and my career plan in the long-term, it’s better for me because I learn it from each industry. I find that my solution is in business. My business career is my future.There are limitations to what you can learn from your industry. When you move into different industries, your learning grows exponentially. Click To Tweet
Secondly, it helps me build self-confidence when I’m able to excel and deliver strong performance in different countries, industries, or employers. What is common? It’s me. It means I’m worth it. I’m good. It’s not that I know the environment that I can run with my eyes closed. It’s not that I’ve got big, strong relationships in this company or I’ve got sponsorship, so, even if I make mistakes, I still get paid. If I survive in those different environments, it means that I’m resilient, I thrive, and I learn fast. I need that feedback for myself.
It’s like a self-reinforcing cycle, in a way.
It’s almost to test myself and put myself out there and say, “Am I as good as they say?” The last thing is that I pack it up after spending twenty years. I was stable in one industry where I spent 20 years in consumer goods, five years at Proctor & Gamble, and 15 years with Diageo. It’s not like I haven’t done the loyal stuff. I realized that in 2016 when I joined Vodacom, the external world around us was changing much faster than it did years before. I will lose relevance if I do not put myself out there, make myself uncomfortable, and learn new tricks.
That’s such an important point. Finish that, but it’s a great segway into the next question.
What I saw since 2016, when I joined Vodacom, I learned so much about AI, digital, and Agile. When I left Vodacom and joined GE, I learned much more about ESG, sustainability, decarbonization, and healthcare than I would have ever known had I continued my consumer goods career. The world is looking for people who have ESG experience and digital experience. This is the kind of experience that I would not have gained had I not made myself uncomfortable.
There will be more coming. People are talking about NetApp BES. They are talking about this and that. I need to keep on reinventing myself by learning. I learned by doing what I did in November of 2021. I went to INSEAD. I sat in the classroom and learned about these things. The world is undergoing unprecedented change, and I need to know how to lead inside for equality.
That’s a great segway. Given leadership and this dynamically changing world but also this pivotal moment, what do you believe the world demands of potential and current leaders? What are the demands of leadership?
It’s conscious leadership. We need to be aware of the impact of our work and our role as leaders in what we can do to change the world for the better. Many people say that it’s not just about our shareholders and profits. It’s also about greater impact. It’s conscious in the sense that we are a serious time bomb around the environment. The weather is getting warmer, 0.1% or 1.5% per year. It will be unlivable in 10 or 15 years if it continues like this. As leaders, we contribute toward that because we are sometimes not always doing the right thing in pursuit of profits.
Conscious leadership, for me, is very important. It’s also about being conscious of inequality. If COVID has taught us anything, we need to rethink the inequity. It is not sustainable as you would have a part of the world sitting at a 78% vaccination rate and Africa sitting at under 20% when that is the future of supplying labor. Africa is a critical market for many multinationals worldwide in terms of consumer goods because of the young population and so forth. It’s critical for diversity, but they don’t have the resources to vaccinate their people. They don’t have those resources for HIV, AIDS, or other things. That inequality creates issues. To my earlier point around climate change, we are starting to see the effects of that with the case of floods and many other things.
What happened in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa? What has happened on the coast?
We need leaders that can deliver the financial outcome and expectations of the shareholders in a sustainable way that does not leave anyone behind. It is easier said than done, but it will also leave us with high moral and ethical things. It’s what we have seen with so many corporate scandals worldwide, in South Africa, and in public spaces with emissions and accounting standards. We need leaders who genuinely care and are not there for the get-rich schemes. We are well compensated as leaders, but we must also consider doing the right thing. That moral compass is very important.
Lastly, we need leaders who want to develop others, who wish to drive sustainability in succession planning, and are committed particularly to diversity. The kind of experiences we have around the lack of women in leadership has been talked about for such a long time. Why are the boards still so underrepresented in terms of gender? Why are the executive teams or Fortune 500s so underrepresented? We need to act, not just talk. We need to be held accountable for the balanced scorecard because we need change. It’s not about change for the sake of change.
I know you work with Harvard. Many institutions have done that, even consulting firms. That shows that teams with higher levels of diversity, gender background, race, or ethnicity in their executive team deliver better results. You are not doing anyone a favor by having diversity. You are growing the business faster and engaging and motivating employees. Why are we not doing that? I do not know. We need to do that so we can fast-track that.
We need leaders who can persuade their boards and create that transition at the board level as well. It was certainly in many of the executive search work we did across the African continent. Still, very often, it took a champion of change at the top, like a committed chief executive officer or a committed chairperson, to recognize the business gift of that diversity.
When you look at big organizations led by women executives like Citibank, General Motors, and Pegasus, these are big Fortune 500s led by women executives, and they performed. I’m saying that organizations shouldn’t use much persuasion to make the change. Women are capable, if not more talented than us. That is the proof point.
You look at the share price and shareholders’ intent. Look at all of that. The point is that we shouldn’t say that those three leaders, as an example, are exceptions. They are good and exceptional but are not exceptions. There are many from where they come from. We need to get out of comfortable chairs, go and find them, give them opportunities, and drive rechanging organizations.
We could talk more about that. You made a point about leaders who care and are committed to doing the right thing. Let’s move to a leader we both know cares deeply and has impeccable moral authority, our former President Nelson Mandela. I also noted that you were the Master of ceremonies at the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Uganda. I wonder if you could share with us how that came about. Also, take us to a specific moment where Mandela, or Madiba, as we call him, so fondly inspired you, shaped you, and changed the way you think about leadership in the world.
I lived in Uganda for three years. I interacted quite a bit with the South African ambassador of Uganda at the time as a responsible South African, even though I was also interacting with the British ambassador because I led a Diageo business in Uganda, which is a British headquartered business. Africa and I interacted with both. We developed mutual respect, but I didn’t realize that respect was to the extent that would surprise me.
When we sadly lost an Icon, Nelson Mandela, the government of Uganda and the South African embassy decided that all countries in the world host a memorial for him attended by all the leaders of civil society and business hosted by the president of Uganda. As the South African embassy, they were asked to lead the program by working together with their Ugandan counterparts.
To my surprise, during the planning phase, even as corporates, we are involved in contributing financially to make the event a success because there are logistics costs and so on to pay for, the ambassador approached me. He asked if I could be a program director. I was taken aback because I’m not political. I have views, but I’m not political. I arrived in Uganda. Was it back in 2015?
I arrived in Uganda in August 2013. A few months later, I was asked to be MC. I didn’t really know enough people around because I had not even met the president. I reflected deeply, and the inclination was to say no. I did try. I said, “This is too big of an event.” You need someone who is politically astute, with diplomacy, and so on. He persuaded me and said, “Do it.” Upon reflection, I said, “This is a calling. I’m being asked to do something for my country. This is my opportunity to contribute to this legend and this statement.”
Watching on TV how everybody around the world was mourning this Icon touched me deeply. I felt honored. It was the kind of honor that I don’t think I’ve had since or ever in my life to be the one who leads the program that celebrates, honors, and remembers Madiba. It was so touching. I haven’t forgotten it. What it did for me is that it also forced me to prepare to get closer to Madiba because I had to do research.
To program direct well, I had to know my stuff. I started doing a lot of research. I read a lot of the books. I spoke to a couple of people. The ambassador was in exile. A part of me couldn’t say, “You connected with a lot of people I talked to.” Listening to those stories, I even felt sad about his death, so to speak. I felt more proud of my Madiba because I got closer to him then.
Hearing those personal stories and connections, and even speaking to President Museveni and listening about the perspective on how they hosted the ANC in Uganda, was so powerful and touching. What it taught me was something about playing a bigger game. It’s not just about being a Mabunda. For Mandela, it was never about him. It was about the bigger whole. It was about South Africa. It was about the world.
I can’t be sitting here in my cocoon, and it’s only about GE or my family. It has to be bigger than that because South Africa has given so much to me. Many people have given much to me. How do I give back? How do I do things of bigger and broader impact and influence change in my small way? It takes all of us. That has been one thing around thinking about societal impact, creating change and unity, and seeing beyond the differences. I belong to one of the smaller tribes of Tonga in South Africa. We have been ridiculed for all those historical issues, but even in Uganda, there was so much division around tribal lines. Madiba was beyond that. Reaching out to people and wanting to be a force for good has been very important.
Lastly, it’s being an active citizen and doing some work from an NGO point of view, particularly for children. My family and I sponsor children in sports and cycling through our family foundation. You may have seen that on my LinkedIn page and what we do. Madiba inspired that to say, “Give more of yourself.” At GE, we sponsored all the equipment at Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. They renewed some of the equipment and met and see how those were running because it was a multimillion-dollar sponsorship.
The children are our future. I see that with my children as a parent. My children remind me all the time because they also developed consciousness. Sometimes, they say, “We appreciate all of this. We are living well. We’ve got this and that, but we’re concerned that there are many other children who cannot afford what we have. What are we going to do?” Thinking about the broader whole and wanting to make a difference, if all of us can have that in our small way, we would have honored the legacy of Madiba. Be selfless in sharing what we know and what we have to impact greater.
That’s a very moving story. If Madiba were alive, what do you think his message would be to the leaders, not only of Africa but to the world?
It would be the same as what he has been trying to impact all of us: peace, unity, and talk to resolve differences. He would be concerned about the situation that’s happening in Ukraine and Russia, and he will be taking a stance toward peace and unity. He will be worried about some of the dynamics in South Africa within the ruling party, the ANC, and would preach peace and unity. He would also be concerned about the rise in inequality that we are seeing.
He would be standing side by side with more leaders and asking them to share more about how the vaccination campaign was run. I know President Ramaphosa tried his best, but Africa’s lack of resources was very clear. Madiba would have been in the frontline, calling on all the Western leaders to support developing markets much more. He would preach generosity, coming together, and then peace and unity. He would also be concerned about the plight of 5,000 families in KwaZulu-Natal. That is why you should preach peace, harmony, generosity, and ethics.
The ethical part and the morality he would be calling for would have also been around some of the things we are starting to see on data abuses and personality information security. He would be digitally informed because Madiba was a scholar. He would have taught himself about all of these things. There are very good things that AI will bring to the world, but there are also threats that data security and cybersecurity issues that may not be so constructive. He will be talking about that openly.
What I loved about Madiba is that whilst he was diplomatic, to some extent, he wasn’t afraid to speak up his mind even if it would steer things up and be a little bit controversial. I do think that it’s important for leaders to be authentic. As the late Desmond Tutu did, someone needed to be there to say things others feared. Since he was such a respective statesman, he had permission to do that. We lack that.
Someone would tell you when you go the wrong way. Sometimes, leaders do, but they need to be said. President Bill Clinton shared his phone call with Nelson Mandela when he was in a critical situation with his wife and Monica Lewinsky. He would be talking to you honestly and say, “You’ve done wrong. Get out there, apologize, and move on.”
Lastly, as leaders, we must be humble enough to be vulnerable. That is not an expression of weakness, but it’s an expression of humility and humanity. At the end of the day, we are human. One of Mandela’s more difficult times that I learned a lot from was his separation and divorce from his dear wife, Winnie Mandela. That was a painful moment in his life.
His coming out publicly and sharing it with the world. The way he did make me connect more with him as a human being to say, “I’m not a robot. Things happen. Sometimes, I fall in love. I get heartbroken.” You’ve got to be out there and be humble and vulnerable. Take a step back, recuperate, and then bounce back. I write about that in my book.
You’ve certainly exemplified a lot of that. How relevant do you think his leadership is for the world now?
It is quite relevant. For Mandela as a peacemaker and a unifier who brought people together, I think we are living in a dangerous situation where the world is increasingly divided. There is a lot of talk about sovereignty, standing alone, and being self-sufficient. Some of it has been caused by issues we face around the supply chain and difficulties. People cannot rely on inputs because they can’t get goods into their own countries.
Some of it is a knee-jerk reaction from the last few years of COVID, where people realized that they didn’t have certain things, were too dependent on others to produce pharmaceutical goods, and so on. There is a lot of talk about building these barriers around countries. We need to realize that we are still interdependent.
More so with climate change and cybersecurity threats. These are threats that transcend sovereign states and borders.
We are moving more and more the other way. Maybe it was well-thought-through, and there are reasons for it. I lived in the UK for four years. With Brexit, for example, and what the US was talking about Mexico and the borders, we are also experiencing some xenophobia and attacks inside Africa. That could send a little bit of a wrong message and create complexity where perhaps we are better together. Mandela was good at talking to leaders and bringing senior leaders to the table to speak without egos to solve that. That is one of the things that he would be preaching. He will preach unity, that we are better together, and what we need to move forward.We are better together. Unity is what we need to move forward. Click To Tweet
That’s very inspiring. We are shifting gears a little. Here are a couple of fun facts. You are a father. You are married to a wonderful partner who is a medical doctor and businesswoman. What, for you, is the best part of your family time? What moment do you treasure the most?
I cycle with my wife. We also exercise together with our personal trainer. For me, those are some of the best connection moments. On Saturday mornings, we cycle for about three and a half hours for 95K together. Sometimes, we are with a bigger group but are in that moment of cycling together. She’s a stronger cyclist than me. I’m trying to catch up with her.
Since we are such busy professionals, we don’t have enough time to see each other. She travels, and I also travel during the week, but we look forward to that connection. Fitness means a lot to us. Most mornings, at 5:00 AM, we also go to the gym together. Sharing that common interest is so special. It’s beyond talking business and doing this because there is suffering together. We are trying to carry heavier weights. We laugh with each other and reflect on that. That’s good.
The second one is also the family holidays. We love short getaways. We love the bush and the beach. We say our holidays are always B and B, which is Beach and Bush. Someday, we will go to the Kruger, and then we will go to Cape Town for the beach. Even when we go internationally, we look for bushes and beaches. We love the rejuvenation of a family holiday because our work physically takes its toll on us. The fatigue catches in. We don’t see the kids as much because one is in boarding school and they are busy at school. It is so special when we steal those moments to get a weekend away or a week away. The kids are so much fun to be around.
In your childhood, what is one moment where you were most challenged as a child? You were challenged but came out of it with a great revelation.
I don’t know if I did come out of it, but I remember vividly, as an 8 or 9-year-old, that I used to ride a BMX, which is a smaller bicycle. I was very competitive, not at school but in a club for the local community. This kid, Pesi, has always been number 1, and I was number 2. It frustrated me. I tried everything to beat him, but he was good. We ended up being friends and rivals. We used to have a healthy rivalry where we competed all the time on bicycles. That was a lot of fun.
I developed a love for being competitive but also for adventure.
Some Fun Facts. What’s one thing do you think your children would say about you that they love most about you?
I always find solutions. I’m very creative. They come to me and always have a proposed solution. Even when they get stuck, I lead them through a thinking process that allows us to find a solution. They will also laugh at me, and it’s not just my children but my friends as well. The one thing I can’t do, and let’s say I can’t because I believe I’m good at it, but no one else believes me, is dancing. They say I dance like I’ve got two left feet.
I love music and dancing, but apparently, I’m bad at it. I became a bit of a joke. My children laugh at me because I can’t dance. My wife was a ballroom dancer. She’s got so much rhythm. She dances well. I nearly tricked her during our wedding. After practicing for four weeks to do the wedding dance, I still messed it up, and she almost fell. That’s how bad my dancing is. We can’t be good at everything.
It sounds like she’s a great leader on the dance floor and in the world of work and healthcare. Do you have any final thoughts around leadership and leading boldly into the future?
My final thought is that we need to learn new things very fast and open ourselves up to unlearn things that we believe in our relevant. The world is changing quickly, and learning is equal to learning. I don’t think we are as good at debriefing ourselves on things we believe and throwing them out because there’s new evidence saying, “This is how things are.” If we are to learn to lead boldly into the future, we shouldn’t allow what we’ve learned in the past to hold us back from moving forward.
Nyimpini Mabunda, thank you so much. Congratulations on your wonderful work, not only in the business sector but for your impact on society and your great book, Take Charge. How you need to take charge in life and all the way to the top in the boardroom. Thank you for being with us. Bless you.
Thank you so much. Thanks for the conversation.
What an exciting conversation with Nyimpini Mabunda. How inspiring is this remarkable, humble, and curious human being who took us all the way from the village to the global boardroom? So many highlights and pearls of wisdom were brilliantly documented in his super-selling book, Take Charge. Some of the highlights for me included a reminder that the cornerstone of our journey to the top is a daily discipline. Sometimes, we don’t particularly enjoy it, but it’s so necessary. Once we get into it, perhaps we want them a lot more. We certainly gain more confidence.
The second is the fact that exercising leadership is a team sport. We all need cheerleaders in our tribe and our circle. It does raise the question, “Who is in your inner circle? How many cheerleaders do you have? If not, do you need to shift some of that in a circle?” The other part I found inspiring was his Mandela Moment and getting closer to Mandela. We can care for our families, communities, and organizations, but it is much bigger than us. It is genuinely an interconnection of how we can create social impact and what we do to serve humanity.
The final thing that stood out for me that’s so important in our fragile turbulent world is that every successful community, country, and world needs a healthy level of citizen activism. These citizens exercise leadership and hold those in power accountable, providing checks and balances. You are all called to lead. Anyone, anywhere, and anytime, have a duty or responsibility to exercise fortified moral courage and leadership excellence.
What do you care most about? Is it discrimination in the workplace? Is it climate change? Is it an immigration crisis? Is it a disparity between rich and poor? What things matter most to you to make this world a lasting and better place for all? Until next time, take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
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About Nyimpini Mabunda
Born in 1976 in the former homeland of Gazankulu, at the height of resistance against apartheid, a young boy working at his family’s trading store began to dream that despite all the political and social obstacles, he could take on the world as a leader in business. Nyimpini Mabunda completed matric at the age of 15, obtained a degree from the University of Cape Town at the age of 18, and became a manager in a global consumer goods company at the age of 21.
Through modeling himself on the traits of successful business leaders he encountered in roles across Africa and Europe, Nyimpini learned how to perform so that his achievements could not be ignored. Achieving the rank of CEO of one of the world’s most recognized global organizations before the age of 40, he turned his attention to empowering others, lifting African talent to the world stage.