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Rising Horizons: Bridging Africa’s Talent Gap

Monday, November 18, 2013 | Category :
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Leadership Development Lessons From South Africa Pre- and Post-Apartheid

By Deon Greyling

Africa has shown tremendous potential in recent years, with 27 of its 30 largest economies expanding rapidly since 2000. Once considered the “hopeless continent”, the average purchasing power in the region has risen by a third in the past decade, nations are showing signs of political stability and foreign investment is accelerating. Looking to lay the groundwork for the next stage of growth, many of these countries are committed to investing in their people.

Currently constrained by a lack of talent, today’s leading African organizations are raising their sights, assuming responsibility, broadening their leadership development focus and learning forward. These corporations recognize the quality of leaders as a key strategic differentiator, and they are not waiting for public sector literacy programs and education initiatives to deliver results.

However, in markets depressed by low skill sets, how do you best engage the broad spectrum within an organization, from illiterate employees to experienced, highly educated professionals? How do you immerse employees in an experience that will build critical business, leadership and management capabilities? In today’s competitive and fast-paced economy, how do you bridge talent gaps faster, accelerate skill development and increase application on the job?

A Country Perspective: South Africa
With the Government Struggling to Act, Businesses Confront the Talent Shortage Head On

Coined in 1997, the “war for talent” has echoed throughout the corporate world and remains a critical concern today. For South African organizations, this challenge is especially real. Despite significant advancements, for the past five consecutive years South African corporations have identified an inadequately skilled workforce as the greatest challenge inhibiting business growth.1 The government has proven slow to respond.

Relative to the international community, the nation’s education system ranks near the bottom, considered 138 out of 144 in math and science.2 Although secondary enrollment remains high, few students successfully graduate from a tertiary institution. Even after achieving an advanced degree, many South Africans do not necessarily have the skills demanded by businesses.3 With rising rates of emigration, retaining the top talent capable of driving organizational competitiveness is increasingly difficult.4

To outpace competitors in growth and profits, South African organizations are not relying on the public sector to address the talent gap. Instead, many companies are taking responsibility, elevating the organization’s profile by investing in foundational business, leadership and management skill development. However, to drive competitive advantage on a global scale, companies are challenged to move beyond general capability building, align leadership and management skills to the organization’s strategic objectives and close the “theory-to-application” gap.

Premier South African organizations recognize this reality and are leading the way forward. For Telkom, Africa’s largest integrated communications company, the investment is delivering real returns.

Laying the Foundation
Developing Fundamental Leadership Capabilities Among Illiterate Workers

With approximately 3.8 million telephone access lines in service, more than 70,000 ports and operations in nine countries, Telkom is committed to delivering converged communication solutions and a quality network service with unmatched reach. Exceptional execution of the company strategy was dependent in large part on Telkom’s front-line leaders, engaged in the field extending the firm’s network coverage. Recognizing fundamental management capabilities as critical, the company was challenged to engage the largely illiterate population. Ultimately, an experiential learning initiative, supported by their partnership with AT&T, proved critical to success.

In a customized business simulation, Telkom’s front-line leaders stepped outside of their traditional roles, explored new tools, concepts and frameworks, and worked together to build essential business and leadership skills. In the high-impact experience, participating employees engaged with a visually rich and hands-on board simulation reflective of the company’s business. Through the risk-free competitive environment, leaders better understood the factors critical to driving profitability, recognized the importance of customer satisfaction and identified their role in the Telkom’s success.

This approach enabled application on the job, leading to tangible results. Following the experiential learning program, 99 percent of Telkom’s front-line leaders had a more complete understanding of the business and its interrelationships as well as profitability drivers. Committing to action plans targeting revenue, expenses, capital and customer satisfaction, the total value of the initiatives implemented was assessed at over $50 million SAR.

However, to accelerate expansion into new markets, leading organizations increasingly recognize that basic general management skill development is not enough. With a 150-year history in South Africa, Standard Bank, a universal bank and full-service financial group, identified the value of adopting a strategic approach and connecting leadership skills to the overall company strategy through customized initiatives.

Maximizing Impact
Strategic Leadership Development Initiatives Deliver Results at Standard Bank

Standard Bank recognizes talent as key to making a bold strategic shift—and the stakes are high. Driven by economic development, financial deepening and technological advancements, the continent’s banking sector is predicted to aggressively expand over the next decade.5 As the largest African bank by assets and earnings, Standard Bank is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this opportunity. However, success depends on the effective implementation of the company strategy, a challenge for an increasingly expansive organization, operating in 19 countries on the African continent.

Core to the company’s strategic agenda, Standard Bank engaged branch managers in a series of customized experiential learning initiatives, realistically integrating the company’s strategic objectives, the manager’s decisions and the implications on branch performance and customer value. Over the course of the sophisticated eight-day program, Standard Bank managers were given the opportunity to experience the value of the company strategy, disseminate best practices around execution, and build the critical business acumen and leadership skills for effective branch management.

Bridging the theory-to-application gap, the strong results of the initial strategy execution initiative have inspired further application. Going forward, more than five hundred branch managers are expected to participate in the high-impact program—considered key to the company’s success going forward.

The Way Forward
Capitalizing on the Lessons from South Africa’s Leadership Development Investments

To maximize the continent’s full growth potential and drive further economic development, organizations are challenged to address the talent shortage and can no longer afford to wait for public programs and education systems to bridge capability gaps. “To be able to compete in Africa, you need skilled people on the ground who know the business terrain,” says Sim Tshabalala, Joint Chief Executive at Standard Bank.6

To effectively surmount the talent crunch, leading companies must place leadership development initiatives at the top of the business agenda. However, to overcome competitors and uplift employees, companies are advised to:

  1. Move beyond generic skill-building programs that address a large number of non-specific competencies
  2.  Improve returns on learning and development investments by tying business and leadership capabilities to the company’s strategic goals
  3. Accelerate capacity building by leveraging innovative learning methodologies, including simulations, gamification and other experiential learning tools that deliver impact
  4. Maximize results by incorporating the insights of senior leaders to transfer critical experience, increase relevancy and reduce the theory-to-application gap

By closing the theory-to-application gap quicker, organizations can effectively accelerate competitive capability development and maximize their potential in the market—uplifting the people and economies on the Africa continent. The need is great, the business benefits are significant, and success demands courageous, bold action.

About the Author: Deon Greyling is a Senior Vice President at BTS, leading Africa and Middle East regions.

Read the full article

1 Pennington, Steuart, “South Africa’s Global Competitiveness 2013—Good News and Bad News”, South Africa: The Good News, 11 September 2013.
2 Moolman, Tiaan and Joachim Breidenthal, “How to Bridge South Africa’s Talent Gap”,, 3 May 2013.
3 “Talent Management: A Global Context and a South African Perspective”, Wits Business School Journal, 2013.
4 Kerr-Phillips and Adèle Thomas, “Macro and Micro Challenges for Talent Retention in South Africa”, South Africa Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 7. No. 1. 2010.
5 “Banking in Sub-Saharan Africa to 2020: Promising Frontiers”, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011, 2.
6 Dolan, David, “Africa Banking Set for Growth”, Reuters, 2011.


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