What does it take to be a bold leader in the public sector? It’s a different ballgame altogether. Those in the sector understand there are greater complexities, extensive up-front individual due diligence required, demand for broader leadership competencies (business and political), tempting multi-billion budgets, political popularity contests, and shorter lead times between elections of public officials vs. the time to develop and implement longer-term strategies. Higher risks and rewards come with strong business savvy and wise political astuteness. In this episode, Tryphosa Ramano talks to us about the perils of public sector leadership. Tryphosa spent several years in senior positions working in treasury for the South African government. As Chief Financial Officer of South African Airways, she raised $2 billion when the struggling airline was mired in controversy, turbulence, and mistrust. Stay tuned as she shares her leadership insights, how her poverty-stricken childhood imbued solid values and moral integrity, and why our lives and livelihoods are always bigger than each of us.
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The Perils of Public Sector Leadership with Tryphosa Ramano
Risks and Rewards of Business Savvy and Political Astuteness
Greetings to all your future bold leaders. Thank you for joining us from around the world. In this episode, our bold leader joins us from Johannesburg, South Africa, Egoli, the City of Gold, a financial powerhouse on the continent of Africa. She is the former Chairperson of the Black Business Council and President of the African Woman Chartered Accountants. She spent several years in senior positions working in the Treasury for the South African Government and as Chief Financial Officer of South African Airways.
She raised $2 billion at a time when the struggling airline was mired in controversy, turbulence, and mistrust. Stay tuned as she shares her leadership insights and how her poverty-stricken childhood embedded a strong sense of moral integrity while we are created with two ears and one mouth. Importantly, no matter what world of work we are in our daily actions, it is always bigger than each of us. A warm welcome to Tryphosa Ramano. Welcome to the show.
Tryphosa, thank you for joining us. It’s always lovely to see you and connect with you.
Thank you for inviting me to your show. I appreciate it.
That’s wonderful. You’ve had such a remarkable career, Tryphosa. I thought a great place to start with is to share some of your career highlights. Was there a defining moment?
Some of my career highlights were the time that I was asked to lead the South African Airways turnaround. That was the biggest highlight for me because it was one of the biggest airlines in the continent and South Africa and had the most significant market share. The biggest shareholder is the government. The first thing that came to my mind was, “Why me?” I’ve never been a CFO before. What I’ve realized is that I was a young woman with great potential.
I had the competency to do that. I took that opportunity and went into SAA. The losses were considerable. It was close to $15 billion. I had to work with the team that I believed in and found there. I had to supplement and complement the team with new people. The biggest mistake people make is they want to replace the entire team, but unfortunately, they can’t. You must have institutional memory and people with expertise in the organization. We’ve managed to do that and turn around the business.
I then had to go onto my next level of challenge which was to be with WIPHOLD, which is still one of the successful women-owned businesses. I was there as a CFO (Chief Financial Officer). The biggest highlight was they wanted to get into the industrial sector and create jobs. It was before 2010, and there was a shortage of cement in the country. I led a team importing cement then eventually led to the establishment of a new cement company called Mamba Cement in South Africa, where we had to convince the Chinese to come in and invest.
For me, it was the biggest highlight in the sense that I had to learn (and learn fast). I found myself having to learn different industries. I was then headhunted by PPC, one of the largest cement manufacturers in South Africa at the time and on the continent, to be their CFO and help them grow out of South Africa (into Africa).
I’ve managed to do that successfully. PPC is now operating in about eight African countries. At the time, it was operating in only two African countries. I see it as a highlight in the sense that I’ve always been pushed to the limit. People believe in my talent and my ability to do things. I had to do it despite that little young girl whispering to me, “Is it me? Can I really do it?”
We all have those moments of needing to reaffirm our capabilities, our competence, and our potential. You’ve had some incredible highlights, Tryphosa. All of us, at some stage, have a dark moment, a big challenge, and a tipping point. Can you take us back to a time and describe one big dark moment for you? How did you feel at the time?
One of those significant challenges was that as I got into SAA with the losses they had, they lost credibility and trust in the market. There were eleven aircraft that were ordered, costing around $2 billion. Nobody was prepared to fund them. For me having to be put into this position, I was like, “Why me?” All I had was my professional integrity and capability. As we were going from one funder to the other, it was such a challenge because I never thought I could do it. I thought this was a failure at its best because you put a young girl in her early 30s into the aviation industry, women were not even in that industry.
What was the challenging moment?
The challenging moment was to convince multiple funders from the UK, Europe, and also South Africa to believe in the new management to be able to fund these aircraft carriers. For me, it was such a significant challenge – the pilots would come and say, “We’re about to lose.” We saw the South African flag packed in a field because they were waiting for us to come and deliver.
I don’t know if you understand how aviation works. To place an order, you must put it in five years in advance. The order goes through. You pay a deposit, and they manufacture it. They want you to come and take the delivery. If you don’t have money, tough luck. You have to find it somewhere, somehow, or somebody who can take it on your behalf.
The emotion was daunting in a sense, I would let my country down if I didn’t manage to find the funding, (but it is also not my fault.) Why am I being put into this deep hole? With the support and the professional integrity I had, the funders were now saying, “We believe in you. You are bringing new thoughts. You have professional integrity. You got the support of your group CEO. You have the support of your board. You have the support of the government,” and all had to come in with letters of commitment.
What was the a-ha moment? What was the moment when you realized you could cross that bridge between feeling a little overwhelmed and not being trusted, and we can do this? What did you realize?
I’ve realized that everybody has potential and that integrity is the key. If you can sleep with your eyes closed and dream without worrying about anything, knowing that your integrity is intact, it is critical. The questions that were raised were questions about what your credentials are. The only credentials I had were my integrity and my qualifications.
I didn’t have any other thing that I could show. Despite not having aviation experience, I realized that when people trust in you, and they believe in you, you got the know-how, the potential, and the energy to drive through it, it can take you far. For me, it became a tipping point that in anything I do, even now, I do it with professional integrity. I make sure I work with the team because if it was not for the team I was working with, I would not have been able to produce some of the information the funders were looking for.
How much funding did you raise? How did you feel about that? How did you celebrate it?
The entire funding package was $2 billion, which is close to 30 billion in South African rand. It was a lot of money. It requires a lot of structuring. I felt so good in the sense that I could do it. It also became an example to young people that were looking up to me to say, “If Tryphosa can do it, we all can do it.” You also hear some challenges in the corridors saying, “She’s politically connected.”
There is no such thing as a political connection. I’m one person who comes from a very poor background. My parents were teenagers, and they’d never been involved in politics. I’ve never been involved in politics myself. All I had to do was to take the dream of a young girl to say, “You go to school, and you learn. Education is a key to success. You do it to the best of your ability,” and I’ve done it. One of those critical aspects reminds me of Sun Tzu, who says, “It’s not about you, but it’s also about how you protect your country.” (Editor’s note: Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher, and writer who lived during the Eastern Zhou period. Born in Sun Wu in 544 BC and died in 496 BC. Credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy and alternatives to battle and war that impacted Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking.) As we were doing that deal funding, we’ve done it for South Africa.
It’s a great sense of pride and a grand celebration. That’s a very inspiring story, Tryphosa. Changing tack a little, in your opinion, what do you think are the three biggest challenges South Africa is facing now and perhaps the world? What are the three significant leadership challenges that keep you awake at night?
The three are, firstly, trust deficits.
In the country or the world or both?
In the country.
Is that true for South Africa, or do you think it’s true for South Africa and the world?
It is valid for South Africa and to a certain extent, for the world. I’ll explain why. It’s a trust deficit in a sense that in South Africa now, we’re having commission after commission, about corruption, about a whole lot of things. There’s a trust deficit between the country’s citizens and the government. There is mistrust between businesses and also within the government. I think it’s a transition that South Africa is in now.
Whereby during Mandela’s time, he managed to bring that into equilibrium to make sure that everybody ended up trusting and going for unity. South Africa is moving to solidarity to go forward. For the world as well, the whole world is lacking the solidarity to move to the next level. It’s the second day of the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly highlighted the solidarity required when dealing with the pandemic. The next most significant challenge is the pandemic, which is COVID-19, and climate change. The second one is about the intergenerational gap that exists between those that are retired, close to retirement, and young people.
What gap are you referring to? Are you talking about economics?
We are talking about the leadership gap. What do you need to develop the next generation of leaders? You need the young people to be part of the process and to be part of decision-making going forward. In developing the next generation of leaders, you need to have that intergenerational aspect. I attended a session where they talked about the Chinese and US governments in terms of IT and how it works in terms of artificial intelligence.In terms of developing the next generation of leaders, you need the young people to be part of the process in the future. In developing the next generation of leaders, you need to have that intergenerational aspect. Click To Tweet
What you are seeing is as we are moving into 4IR. The entrepreneurs are spending close to two-thirds in terms of R&D and the technological environment. Whereby in the past, it used to be the governments that were doing that. Now it is the young people, but in decision-making, we do not have them as part of that. As a result, we are having that disjoint between what is currently at play and the future of work. That is the biggest challenge.
The other one that is very personal to me as part of the challenge in the world is gender equality. After 25 years of the Beijing Platform for Action that has committed to gender equality, none of the countries have met the gender equality, and sustainable development goals set 25 years ago. It is a shame at this stage not to have that. I believe that in every country, if we can put gender equality at the forefront and generational equality between young and old, we will do the world a big favor.
Regarding the gender gap and the significant challenges facing the world, gender equality and inclusiveness are very important. We know in South Africa that the constitution was crafted to ensure gender equality was well represented. We know that Mandela and even following him, Thabo Mbeki, were very outspoken about including women across all sectors. In your mind, why is this a big challenge? How do you think this can help the world move forward in terms of ensuring that we achieve gender equality?
For me, the critical aspect is that women are good at making decisions. Women have come up with the decision-making ability to include humanity. We always say that there would be no wars if all women were presidents and generals worldwide. Probably we wouldn’t even have boundaries. They bring in their femininity in terms of decision-making because we care about families. It’s only fair as well.
Equality means 50%. Diversity and inclusion are very important. We are having all these wars, and companies are still struggling simultaneously because we don’t embrace diversity and inclusion. You don’t need the law to have gender equality because people will tick the box. All you need to do is to embrace it and to make sure that in corporations, diversity and inclusion are part of their DNA in doing business, and parliament or government will have diversity and inclusion as part of their DNA, then the world will be a better place.
If we look at some of the leaders around the world that have stood out during the pandemic, if we think of some of those leaders, it’s Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Arden in New Zealand. It’s gripping around this whole question of the business case for ensuring that we have full diversity, inclusion, and belonging. You alluded to Nelson Mandela. I know you’ve had many Mandela Moments. I wondered if you could share one of those moments that come to mind. Take us back to that moment in time. Describe the situation. What has been a Mandela Moment when he struck a chord or inspired you in some way?
The Mandela Moment, I believe, is crucial to any leadership and resonates very well with me. It is the ability to forgive (when he walked out of prison). In that forgiveness, Mandela united the nation that was divided into becoming one, to move forward and not look back. It reminded me of Lot’s wife in the Bible when God said, “Don’t look back. If you look back, you’re going to turn into salt.” She didn’t listen and looked back and turned into salt. It means that if you don’t move forward and you keep on looking back, you won’t be able to move forward.
That moment was when I experienced some of the hardships in my leadership journey while working for PPC. I realized that there was some conspiracy that nearly divided the organization. That conspiracy led to an extensive discussion between myself, the board, and some senior management (an executive committee member). Eventually, we managed to resolve it. When we resolved that particular moment, one of the senior managers came to me and said, “Tryphosa, we apologized for putting you into this situation. You may appear to have been the person that won this battle. I’m appealing to you to be like Mandela, forgive them.”
Is that what they said to you? Did they say, “Be like Mandela?”
He told me, “Be like Mandela, forgive them, and move forward.”
What position was this person in?
The person was on ExCo with me. He was the Marketing head. He was saying, “I apologize.” He humbled himself. Secondly, he says, “I apologize on behalf of my colleagues. I told them to come and ask for forgiveness, but we are all different human beings. I can’t live with myself if anything happens to you. My wife told me that if anything happens to you (in this crisis) and I haven’t asked for forgiveness, I will not be able to live with myself. I’m here to say I am sorry. It should not have happened, but it did. We were misled. We are happy to continue to work with you. You are a great leader. Be like Mandela and forgive them.”
Was that your Mandela Moment?
It was my Mandela Moment of forgiveness because I was very angry. I couldn’t understand why a human being could do this to push their agenda. I was just a leader who was doing my job. As you can see, I’m not sharing the details because it’s very confidential. It was something that happened in a boardroom, and that continued to happen to the extent that one had to say, “Here I am. You know my professional integrity. I can open all my cards.” It was proven.
Some didn’t come. That one came, and I forgave them. We worked to move the organization forward. Never at any point in time have I raised my voice to those people. I’ve worked with them as if nothing has happened. In fact, they became the best loyalist for me in this environment because they realized it was not about me. It’s about the organization. It’s not about how I want to present myself but about how you go to the next level to make this organization a better place. We had more than 3,000 employees. Let’s do it in the best interest of the employees.
That makes sense. Can you briefly take us through what process you followed in forgiving them? For a point of clarity, I know you can’t get into all the detail but was it an attack on your integrity? What was the dark moment for you?
That moment led me to my Mandela Moment. It was an attack on my integrity. The attack on my integrity was not even factual. It was the politics within the organization.
What position were you in?
I was the Chief Financial Officer, meaning I was on the board of directors. It was that machination that was done to attack my integrity. As I said at the beginning, as part of my journey, professional integrity is of paramount importance to me. The only thing I have is my name, and I will do anything to protect my name and act in the best possible way with integrity. I opened the books and everything to the board and to everybody who wanted to make an inquiry to find out what the issues were that we dealt with. The board was very shocked to learn about the conspiracy. The board was the angriest – rather than myself.
When you say you opened the books, are you saying you opened the financial books so that it was completely transparent?
No, it had nothing to do with the financial books. It was to say, “Here you are, I’m being accused of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Here are the facts you can investigate. You can do whatever you want and I will participate in the process.” The outcome of that was that it was a lie. It was a personal vendetta. It had nothing to do with me. It had to do with something bigger than that, and I was in their way.
You were in the way of what they wanted to do.
Exactly. They had to create this information. For most people, when they come through that and their character is being attacked and they believe they are not wanted, they resign or get into a settlement and be out of their way. I felt it was wrong. If you don’t want somebody, you can do it differently. We are adults. We can negotiate and have a discussion. It becomes a beautiful and amicable way, but you do not attack somebody on their character.
The (guiding) principle I have was I went to school. I come from a poor family. The only thing I have is my name and my qualification. I’ve worked very hard for it. I will not allow anybody else to come and poke holes for it. I’m going to go through the process of proving myself. I was offered that opportunity, and everybody was shocked that they wasted their time to even follow this inquiry because there was nothing wrong.
What do you use to fortify your strength?
I always look at myself and where I come from. I say adversity sometimes brings out the best in people. If you know that you hustle to put bread on the table, having a child at the age of sixteen, having had to worry about feeding that child, and not having a home, all of those things had molded me into becoming a much stronger person to say there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
As you go through that in the corporate world, I’ve been here before, although in a different format. There were times when I did not have food on the table as a child, and I did not have options. Now, I have options, and I can defend myself. It gave me that strength. All that strength comes from the hardships as a child.
Where did I learn them from? I learned them from my grandmother,, who is in the same age group as Mandela. I learned from my grandmother, who said, “My child, have integrity so that you can sleep at night. Number two, learn to listen to people.” It reminded me of Robin Sharma and his leadership wisdom. One leadership lesson is to listen twice as much as you can talk. You have two ears and one mouth to make sure you are listening twice as much as you can speak.
I have learned to listen, which was also Mandela. Other than forgiving, it was also learning to listen. He was not the one who always started to talk. It was about listening abilities. Also, he learned the right time to lead at the front and the right time to lead from behind, which is more like a shepherd.
That’s what she learned as a child, herding cattle and sheep.
We have a few minutes left. In summary, what do you think Mandela would say now to our generation?
Mandela will say, “Listen attentively, observe and make sure that before you act, you take care of your actions and then take care of the people around you as opposed to just taking care of yourself. Leadership is not about you. Leadership is about the people that you are with (surround you). It’s about the people that you are leading and have integrity.”Take care of your actions and then take care of the people around you. Leadership is not about you; it's about the people that you are with. Click To Tweet
I remember the time when there was a debate before the 1994 elections between him and FW de Klerk (Editor’s note: Frederik Willem de Klerk was a South African politician who served as state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 during apartheid and as deputy president from 1994 to 1996 in President Mandela’s government of national unity) in the newly formed democratic government.) He stood up, I don’t know who was interviewing, that debate was facilitating him, and he got angry. He said to de Klerk, “Remember, I am a man of integrity. You can do whatever you want, but you cannot fault me on my integrity and never call me by that particular (name).” That’s when I remember this integrity issue, which is very important to me. Mandela would tell young people to respect their elders, but make sure they listen and observe before taking action.
What are your final takeaways for our generation and the next Tryphosa? We are facing these unprecedented changes in the world, calling us to lead differently. What are your final takeaways for people who wish to lead boldly into the future and navigate the complexity of this time?
I would say develop the next generation of leaders. Mentor young people. As a young person, if you are being mentored or coached, listen and observe. That is why we see that philanthropists are becoming much more active in making a social impact in society. There is no point in becoming more affluent and prosperous; you’re leaving everybody behind, and then you have a society that doesn’t function.
To have a society that functions, you have to lead and be able to participate in making the world a better place by investing in socially impactful ways. That is why you’re seeing climate change, gender diversity, the organization that focuses on gender equality, the two times challenge to say, if you leave women behind, you are leaving a more considerable portion of the society behind. We will always have all these challenges we have developed for the next generation of leaders.
Tryphosa, thank you for being a woman that continues the fight for truth, justice, and impact. You, indeed, are a shining star. Your story is humbling. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it and all the best.
Talking to Tryphosa takes me down memory lane, working with cabinet ministers of the South African government, and chairman on boards of large government or state-owned enterprises, or Federal corporations as they’re called in the United States. Many competent, bold, and good people are trying to turn around these large, complex organs of state.
By way of example, South African Airways founded in 1930, rebranded in 1997 during Nelson Mandela’s presidency as the National Flag Carrier airline. Over decades of history, it has been mad and public and government controversy, multi-billion pounds, and frequent turnaround strategies, often with mixed results and limited success.
Governments and states have an unparalleled duty to their countries and citizens alike. Will we keep the aircraft in the skies? Will we keep the lights on? Will the post get delivered? Exercising leadership in this sector is not for the fainthearted. Individuals and executives alike are often placed under undue pressure and unimaginable stress.
Often, people put their lives on the line. Many are sorely tempted. Sometimes, good people go bad. This sector has particular unique characteristics that make it particularly high-risk for individuals and executives alike. People need a political and business astuteness. Executives and boards report to a publicly elected official politician.
Politicians are changing frequently with new and frequent elections. There is a much shorter period between elections to develop and implement much longer term strategies that are required for the organization to succeed, while their big boss, the politician is often focused and rewarded to win popularity contests rather than the longer term strategy for the organization to thrive.
There are multiple layers of complexity. There are diverse sources of personal self-interest. There are multi-billion budgets, essentially taxpayers money. Before entering the public sector or government’s state-owned corporations, federal corporations, individuals and executives need to manage a much higher risk. They do that by doing a lot more careful due diligence up front.
Executives near the top need to make sure they have this full support of those at the top, their minister or their Secretary of State, or treasury or labor, their chair, their board or their CEO. Most importantly, they need to re and pre-asses the track record of those at the top in terms of bold leadership, in terms of competence, and in terms of unquestionable character.
Importantly, when these tough minded ethical leaders at the top get it right, it is certainly a brave act of national service to country and citizen alike. They need to be publicly applauded and rewarded. When good people go bad, we know the fish rots from the head, and the tone is set at the top. They need to be held to public account. Ultimately, it is we, the people, the citizens that need to hold our executives and public officials accountable.
It is up to us because we’re all called to lead. Anyone, anywhere, and anytime can exercise 45 moral courage and leadership excellence. Until next time, remember, leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, just one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, one giant step for humanity. Take care, and take thoughtful, bold action.
About Tryphosa Ramano
Tryphosa Ramano is a qualified and registered Chartered Accountant (CA) with extensive experience in the financial services and various other key economic sectors. Tryphosa boasts a Bachelor of Commerce Degree and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Accounting from the University of Cape Town. She has made and continues to make a significant contribution in the public sector, banking and financial services, mining, manufacturing and aviation industries through the various leadership and management roles.
Currently Tryphosa Ramano is self-employed as a consultant and serves as board member for IWFSA and Solidarity Fund. During her tenure at PPC as CFO (2011-2019), Tryphosa played a critical role in the company’s expansion into the African Continent, specifically in Zimbabwe, Botswana, DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. As an executive responsible for overall oversight and monitoring of the company’s financial performance and balance sheet, Tryphosa ensured that these investments did not have adverse impact on the financial performance and sustainability of the PPC Group. This was achieved through such measures as market capitalisation of the business.
Prior to joining PPC, Tryphosa occupied senior executive positions and directorships in key strategic companies and South African government in National Treasury. Her previous executive positions are as follows; CFO for WIPHOLD and CFO for SAA. Her previous directorships are as follows; ACSA, Adcorp, Sasria, SAA, Landbank, DBSA, Board of Auditors at African Union, PPC Ltd, USB-ED, SA Express Ltd, PPC subsidiaries outside of South Africa, chairperson of Black Business Council as well as former President of Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals and African Women Chartered Accountants.