Discovery's Trevor Kunda on grooming the leaders of the future 

Trevor believes more effort should be put into developing leaders capable of weathering these trying and uncertain times.

There are two aspects of HR that are of particular interest to Discovery group head of leadership development and learning Trevor Kunda. The first one relates to how people tend to behave in general and the second is around organisational behaviour. He believes the two are so inextricably linked that he often sees the same patterns at the micro or individual level that often manifest at the organisational level.  When he began his career, he wasn’t very excited about the HR profession, but it all came together when he started to look at business performance through the lens of people and organisational culture. This was when he got involved at the operational level, working with the sales teams at Unilever.

“It gave me an opportunity to work with sales representatives and divisional managers when I got to really understand what salespeople do. It was at a time that we were making some very difficult changes within Unilever and so this was an opportunity to build new teams and to build resilience within those teams,” says Trevor.

“You then start to see that positive impact in the improvements in business performance. That is where my curiosity around the link between individuals and the organisation really began and my career kind of blossomed from then onwards.”

Trevor says his work remains interesting because, while his role has changed quite dramatically over time, in many ways the problems have remained the same. Because, at the end of the day, his role has been about equipping people with skills and providing them with guidance so as to continually improve company performance.

The red thread in Trevor’s experiences across the different functions of HR is leadership development and change. Whilst the disciplines of leadership development and business partnering both have a different focus, there are similarities in how you analyse the problem before you move towards developing the right solution.

“What makes a good HR professional is not so much about whether a person has all of the necessary skills to solve a particular problem but, rather, it's about being able to tune into the context of any given situation and generate the right insights to begin working towards building a right solution that is fit for purpose at that particular point in time,” says Trevor.

The HR leadership paradox

He believes that the HR function and the HR profession have dual roles whereby, on one hand, HR has to be at the forefront, leading the organisation into a new world of work. But, at the same time, HR has to operate within the confines of an existing organisational culture and thus has to follow the lead of the organisation to a large extent. That’s the HR leadership paradox.

That said, Trevor believes that, with all the socio-political turmoil happening throughout the world and within South Africa, coupled with the disruptive nature of new technologies, there should be a greater focus on trying to identify the type of leadership that will be required in the future. He says things are changing so rapidly, that it will be impossible for any one person or any one organisation to have the answers to the problems we face. Nevertheless, it is important to figure out how to anticipate challenges and ensure that companies are agile enough to adapt to new realities when things do not go according to plan. Collaboration will increasingly become an important leadership quality in order to solve problems in this new reality.

Says Trevor: “The world is short of leaders who have the ability to deal with the pressures of the short term whilst leading for the long term. How do we find talent that can lead under extraordinary circumstances? I don't think we have cracked that yet. For me, that’s the biggest challenge facing HR. How do we equip leaders to thrive in difficult market conditions and more importantly, how do we develop leaders that will be able to deal with the challenges of the future because the pace of change is accelerating? 

“I think we are still caught up on what has made us successful in the past, but success is both a blessing and a handicap because when you focus on past accomplishments you lose curiosity about the future. I think we should be focused on making sure that we build leaders that can deal with the volatility of a fast-changing world. There is so much uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity in the world. But we, as a profession, still don’t seem to have a clear idea of the skills that are actually needed to operate in this environment.”

Values-based leadership

Also important in the area of developing future leaders is the subject of values, which remains topical in the South African context. Trevor believes, that while every undergraduate is required to do an ethics module, that doesn’t do enough to direct the moral compass of professionals. He believes that there is a lot of education, particularly for finance professionals, that is based on compliance. But in his opinions, that only teaches people to learn the difference between what is legal and what is not. But leaders of the future need to think beyond that and practice their values in the workplace.

“In the South African context, certainly, many of the issues we are facing are down to having low confidence in our leaders, both in the private and the public sectors. There seems to be a perception that the predominant thought process is one where people consider what they can get away with as opposed to actually thinking about what the right thing to do is,” says Trevor, adding that the challenge for leaders is to be able to create the conditions for people to be able to express their real values.

Instead, corporate South Africa operates in a realm where things are either black or white. But the truth is, there are many grey areas in society and every decision that is made by leadership has a variety of implications, not only for the businesses they lead but for society as a whole. And that is why more effort has to be put into developing business leaders with sound values to deal with these ethical dilemmas and leadership paradoxes.