Felleng Yende

CEO | Driving Culture Change in South African institutions

AfricaLive: Ms Yende, I’d like to begin with your experience in the private sector and multinational organisations. You had the experience that much of corporate South Africa is actively looking for. You decided to come and take up a very different challenge in the public sector, what was your motivation at that time?

Ms Yende: Yes, at that time I was an executive at a multinational, responsible for Southern Africa and working closely with our offices in Australia and North America. Working in that environment, and working towards deliverable goals was something that I enjoyed.

Coming to work in government presented a chance to implement my experience and expertise that I had learned in business. I had previous experience at PwC,  Lafarge, and companies with a strong corporate culture. I saw this as an opportunity to implement best business practices in a public sector environment.

In the private sector, while there is a lot of engagement around continuous improvement, you find that a lot of systems are already in place. We work to ensure that business processes are in place, that people understand what they’re supposed to do, and that there are clear terms of reference, timelines processes etc that a person needs to adhere to. You walk in and the culture is very clear.

I must admit when the option of moving to work in government came along I was initially reluctant. I was headhunted and it did take a while for me to say ‘ok, let’s meet and I’ll look at this’.  The recruitment agent said to me ‘I see you are in a very good position now, but I think that is an opportunity for you to now prove yourself at an entity that is actually suffering, an entity that needs a firm decisive leadership, and at an organisation that needs to be turned around.’

We looked at the financial challenges, the performance challenges and it was clear that it was an opportunity to step out from being part of a “corporate brand” and test myself in implementing new policy strategies and governance structures.

Of course, in terms of remuneration, you can’t compare this with the corporate world. However, to look at it as public service and to look at it as a challenge to take on an organisation where three entities had just been merged into one, and the many, many challenges that merger throws up, then it was appealing. I said ‘Okay, let me be the best I can be and I can prove myself to be competent of leading and managing a culture of success.’


AfricaLive: I can see the attraction in the challenge. It is a big risk though, and without wanting to offend our South African readers I am reminded of aspiring football coaches that will take on the Bafana Bafana job only to find it an impossible task and their club career derailed!

Ms Yende: I spoke with a friend who was also a coach in many ways to me.  She said if you succeed there your brand is going to be very strong, but of course there’s a chance that you might not win because government isn’t as straightforward as business. My mind however was set on success. I knew that I could come in and create high impact at high speed.

I didn’t feel I was finished with my corporate career, however I felt I could make a commitment of at least five years to take this opportunity on. I do also feel I am proudly South African and this is a tremendous opportunity to serve my country.

This organisation was two years old at that point. It had just merged from three SETAs, and performance levels were at around 45% of the set targets.

The financial situation wasn’t good, there were reporting issues, and all stakeholders associated to the organisation were demoralised.  The first thing I had to do was an audit to get to the root of the problems.

One thing I was cleared on was that business was the key stakeholder in this organization. Businesses inject funds, and we are also expecting business to train and retain our alumni.  It was clearly a strong relationship with business what’s required to run a successful SETA. I conducted a stakeholder analysis and could see that the untapped value was sitting in a strong relationship with business. There is no point in running a SETA without the private sector. Trust me, we could train people and they would just be sitting on the streets. Improving the relationship between the SETA and business was the fundamental task.

We went out and held focused sessions with business. We asked what the issues were, we asked why they were demoralized. I allowed business to advise, I went to listen. I was building a document that became the new F&M SETA business model and much of this came directly from listening to the needs of business.

After this I spoke to labour to ensure their needs would also be met within our new model. And from here we created a new culture. We changed the culture of the SETA,  and the relationship with business.


AfricaLive: You saw culture change as important from the start?

Ms Yende: The culture I walked in to was unpalatable. You had people not dressed appropriately, people sitting in the sun all day, people smoking….I just could not deal with that! It was clear from the first day. I actually asked if I was in the right place when I got here the first day!

I was here for little more than an hour and I called a meeting to say “Welcome to FP&M SETA.” I could see people were shocked, some of them looked at me with their eyes bulging. They were thinking “Why is she welcoming us, she is the new one here….”

I said from the start we are going to do things differently. From what I could see on that first morning there was no way this company could become one of the best and most efficient SETAs in the country, but I was here to make sure we did become one of the best SETAs. I could see at that first meeting a lot of people looking at each other and asking “what is she saying here?”

Now, let me say, government is very different from the private sector.  In government you have people that misunderstand their roles. Here we are administrators, in parliament you find politicians. There are those that will bring political thinking in to a work space. I had to make a distinction that we are here to work, we are paid to deliver on certain KPIs to meet our strategic objectives, and we are going to deliver on the goals of this organisation. We started with the basics, we will be on time, we will have what I call “bum on chair” which means working and not walking around or holding aimless meetings. Every person will be judged on delivery, on what each individual has done to make the organisation a success.

The culture started to change. Initially, I would come in at 5am and stay until everyone had left. I did that consistently for almost a year. It is leadership, you can’t just talk about it, you have got to do it. If you don’t do it, they will never follow. I would sometimes sit at the front desk with my laptop and work, and the staff would be shocked to see me there when they arrived. But it corrected the behaviour absolutely, suddenly everyone wanted to be on time, everyone wanted to come in and work.

At the same time, we restructured the business processes and the model to working with our stakeholders.


AfricaLive: This is such a crucial issue for South Africa now, the issue of driving rapid culture change within public organisations. Did you have any mentorship at this time in how to go about creating this culture change, or was it a case of relying on what you had learned from the private sector and your own instincts? It is often a finer line than we think between a motivated workforce and a demoralised one.

Ms Yende: That is very true.  For me I always believed in research. When you get into an organization you need to study it holistically. It is by studying the organization thoroughly you understand where the risks and opportunities are.

Of course though, I did rely a lot on what I had learned from the private sector and from engaging with the private sector here. I knew it was vital to win the confidence of the board early on, they are naturally very critical to ensure that the business succeeds. Leadership stability starting with the board is critical for any entity to be successful.

I had a coach that I worked with to understand the overall climate. I thought it was important to have a macro-understanding of the SETAs as well as a macro-understanding of the country and the policies of the country.

I can assure you it is risky, because you are putting your face out there. You are going out and saying “I am willing to learn, willing to study, and willing to listen”, but you are also increasing the scrutiny on yourself. You then need to deliver.

I can say it has worked because we have the feedback from the private sector. We are doing a landscape review now where we look at the previous five years and ask the private sector for feedback. You should see the letters they are writing comparing now to five years ago. I ask not to be in the sessions as I don’t want to be seen to be influencing the feedback. I was shocked when I read the reports! The Minister is talking now about further merging SETAs and the private sector is saying “if that is to happen, this time we want her to lead whatever situation we are going in to.”


AfricaLive: Again you are hitting on another huge issue for South Africa. Trust between the public and private sector really hit rock bottom over recent years. On top of that, the relationship between the education sector and business is concerning, with business often stating their needs as employers are not being met. How did you go about rebuilding trust with business?

Ms Yende: Consultation. I met directly with the CEOs, the executives, the HR managers who had been frustrated with training and skills development issues.

I must say honestly the relationship was very bruised. I remember attending one of the sessions with a printing company. It was a high-level meeting but when I walked into the room it was absolutely packed. I could feel the frustration…..I could almost touch it, I could almost cut it with a knife. Thankfully, I had already held a session with the head of the Printing Association and drew from him what he considered the priorities and the major frustrations for the industry. One of my executives started to speak in this meeting and, well, they finished him! The anger came out, there were accusations of lying, stories of promises unfulfilled for a long time. I thought “My word, this is heat at its best!”

I was reading the temperature in the room, and when I stood up I thought to myself “I am going to be human, and I am going to apologise.” I apologised for all the frustrations that had been caused to the business. I spoke in the language they would understand and said that business is about making profit. I articulated my understanding of business, and my understanding of the challenges they were facing.

In return, we had a performance compact which we agreed upon. One of the first things we agreed upon was that there would be transparency. We would come from a situation where bills are going unpaid for two years, three years….to a 72-hour turnaround on all communication. Any communication that is coming into the SETA must be responded to within 72 hours. One of the first things we agreed upon was that invoices would be paid within two weeks. Maximum. When I held my initial audit we had delays of two years on payments, it was easy to see why there was anger and frustration. After that, we addressed other issues of performance and delivery.

Creating that agreement with business meant I could come back into the organization and say “Things have changed. Expectations have changed. And I need people who will work with me to drive these changes”. This was the driver of culture change within the SETA. We then put reporting mechanisms with business in place to make sure that everything which was agreed upon, was monitored, and was delivered.

As CEO I also had to make sure our executive team is made up of “working executives.” Gone are the days when an executive could come in to the office, relax, wait for a meeting….no! If you join my team, you are a working executive. Executives need to be in complete control of their team, and need to be hands-on in solving problems. I believe that if you lead by doing it, then others will follow.

How I got business onside was really to go out there and meet them. It was not to hold meetings for the sake of it, but to hold performance focused sessions, create a “to do list” at the end of each session and use that list to create a performance compact which we held ourselves accountable for. I arrived in May 2013, and in 2014 we delivered an unqualified audit. We improved performance from 49% to around 70%, and every year we have had a steady increase to the stage now where we are above 90%.

We do all this with a background of decline across the industries we serve. We are therefore looking to work with industry to change the qualifications we deliver. Business will be changing and we are looking to change with it, but also encouraging business to change to ensure we deliver experiential learning that will benefit the long-term future of the learner.


AfricaLive: As South Africa looks to repair relationships on a national scale, what lessons that you have learned over the past five years can be applied at that national level?

Ms Yende: The importance of collaboration. No individual person or leader has ever succeeded without having partners who share a similar vision. No amount of power or economic muscle will change that. If we look at what the Honorable President Cyril Ramaphosa is doing, he is using his combined experience from working in labour, in business, and in government to show that he believes in collaboration and in coming together to work as a team.

The appointment of Tito Mboweni shows the President is looking for strong people who are able and willing to come together to rebuild the country and take the country forward.

Listening and understanding the needs from various stakeholders is important. You can not undermine business needs, you can not undermine labour needs, and you can not undermine communities. We need to find the way to fuse the thread together and show that there are synergies that will take us forwards.

Ethical conduct at all times and collaboration will yield results for all of us.

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