Discovery’s Steven Teasdale is a lifelong student of leadership

Steven realised at an early age that there wasn’t a much better feeling in the world than helping people grow.

Steven Teasdale, global head of organisational development, change and transformation at Discovery, is a lifelong student of leadership. Despite studying finance, and spending a large part of his career as a management consultant, the road has always led back to leadership and playing a key role in the development of others. 

“I’m a student of leadership and, if you took that away from me, I’d be lost,” says Steven, whose fascination with leadership began during his high school years. 

“Leadership was thrust upon me from quite an early age. I had leadership roles at school and that was where I first felt the sense of purpose and meaning that comes with helping people through the journeys they were on. It was also my first taste of having to understand the challenges and personalities of people that were very different to me,” he says.

That said, Steven was on the finance path straight out of school and joined Deloitte in London. One of the partners of the firm wanted to grow the consulting business and put him on a project that took him away from the audit work he was doing at the time. It was then that he realised that the human elements of consulting were more suited to his personality and interests. 

“Consulting was a lot more fun than auditing, to be honest, because it involved people-based projects, from restructures and operating model changes to organisational design projects,” says Steven. “That was when I developed a huge passion for change management.”

He then moved on to various actuarial and financial services businesses like Mercer and Aon, which had been clients of his while he was at Deloitte. Eventually, he joined a medium-sized actuarial investment consultancy in London where he took up a strategy role at a time when actuaries were starting to be held legally liable for the advice they were giving clients. 

“It only takes a small error to have massive consequences when the numbers are big,” says Steven explaining that, prior to that period, there had been something of an unwritten rule preventing peer criticism, let alone legal action, against actuaries. 

“I stepped into the behavioural space, particularly around matters of adapting people's perception of risk and behaviours towards risk. And, because of my academic background and my affinity for numbers, coupled with my passion for people and change management, I had a unique ability to have conversations with actuaries about the opportunities for change that were available to them.” 

Becoming a different kind of leader 

During this time in the UK, he completed postgraduate degrees in strategic finance and creativity, innovation and change, revealing the two very different worlds that piqued his interest and defined his expertise. 

Reflecting on his career journey, Steven shares that, as a young professional, one doesn't really get to exhibit one’s leadership capabilities. But as a young management consultant, he enjoyed observing other leaders and how they approached roles he hoped to one day be in. He took notes from them and tested what he had learned when those few leadership opportunities arose. 

An obstacle he had to overcome as a young leader was unlearning some of the lessons and approaches that he had taken from the wrong leaders who, while effective at getting the job done, often left many bodies behind. 

Says Steven: “A large part of my job at one point in time involved restructuring organisations. You go in as an external party with a great idea and business case, but you overlook the impact that your plan has on people. I remember sitting in rooms with people who were so devastated that it affected me deeply. Eventually, I came to a realisation that, perhaps, there was a better way to do things.”

Coming back to South Africa

When his first daughter was born, Steven and his family returned to South Africa and he joined Eskom.

“My wife, who was born in Swaziland, and grew up in South Africa, didn’t feel at home in the UK and, after our daughter was born, she eventually convinced me that our children deserved to have their childhood at home in South Africa. So, after 12 years on that side, we moved home,” says Steven.

Today, Steven is the proud father of two teenage girls, both of whom give him as much joy as they do anxiety about the next stage of their lives because “teenage boys are now very much starting to become a part of the picture.”

Nevertheless, Steven is grateful for his wife persuading him to drop a very enjoyable and unique career in the UK to come back to South Africa.

Eskom’s great minds

Steven joined Eskom at a time when it was filled with great minds around organisational psychology. They had a huge capability around organisational behaviour at that stage.  Mpho Letlape, who was the HR director of Eskom, recruited Steven while he was still in London, appointing him as the head of change management and culture transformation of the procurement and supply chain capability in Eskom. At the time, the procurement and supply chain of Eskom was run as a separate entity, which was the biggest logistics operation in Africa – and he was handling the people side of that operation. Within nine months, he was promoted to lead organisational effectiveness function for the whole project - a position he held for just under five years

In 2013, Brian Dames took over and trusted Steve with the group's leadership and executive talent management strategy. “In some ways, it was the most amazing time of my life, simply because of the energy and calibre of minds that came together.” 

Brian directed the leadership agenda in a way that hadn’t yet been seen in South Africa. He singled key people out and removed them from the business for a period of six months, charging them with the mandate of creating a revised business strategy. Thereafter, he ensured that, in order to deliver the said business strategy, leadership was equipped and given all the necessary resources. 

“The team built an incredibly strong force of leaders, which Brian looked after directly. It was different from common structures seen today where a leader is accountable to a division. Back then, all the leaders formed part of Brian's team, where the top 200 leaders in Eskom were essentially under Brian's watch.” 

Brian also brought in leadership guru Dr Andrew Johnson, who introduced concepts of leadership such as the importance of self-awareness, servant leadership, and empathy long before they became mainstream. 

“I owe a lot to Andrew for realigning my mindset around matters in life and work, and introducing me to action science, which now forms the foundation of how I think about how people respond to organisational contexts,” says Steven.

Asked how it all unravelled at Eskom, Steven says it was a reflection of how much politics can get in the way of organisational effectiveness and self-interest can emerge ahead of collective purpose. When Brian left, several senior leadership changes were made and Steven felt he would struggle to live his leadership-focused purpose. 

He later joined Tiger Brands as the organisational development and change director and, when Tswelo Kodisang, then CHRO of Tiger Brands, became the chief people officer at Discovery, Steven joined him. 

“I was deeply aligned with who Tswelo is both as an individual and as a business leader and I knew I could learn more from him.”

The perfect fit

“I feel most at home around numbers and finance, or people that speak that language. I think that's why I love Discovery. I've spent enormous amounts of time on my own journey of awareness, studying myself. I've also delved quite deeply into the behavioural aspects of neuroscience and behavioural economics in so far as their teachings allowed us to create unique solutions within our organisation,” says Steven, adding that Discovery has an incredible culture of shared value, which just resonates with who he is. But what makes Discovery a perfect fit is that he really feels a connection with his colleagues. 

“For lack of a better term, I work with some really nice people: genuine and friendly souls who are simply a pleasure to talk to and engage with on a daily basis. I love to surround myself with brilliant and intelligent people that are easy to get along with, because it creates a sense of excitement within myself that I've realised is essential in order to trigger my own innovation,” he says. 

The most profound correlation between the organisation’s values and Steven’s human-centred approach to leadership is how Discovery responded to the pandemic. From the onset of the national lockdown in March 2020, the executive leadership team prioritised its people by leveraging the technology, access to medical experts and data analytics to bring employees along in their response. This led to a common mind shift throughout the organisation that has enhanced the culture exponentially. 

“It led to a culture where instead of listening to the most important in the (zoom) room, we shifted to listening to the person with the most expertise because that’s what was necessary to emerge successfully on the other side of the pandemic. The manner in which Discovery responded to the pandemic saw our engagement scores last year rise to levels never seen before, and outperformed the global high-performance norms in every single category of the employee experience” concludes Steven.