In business and in sports, the Rugby World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward describes two types of individuals: rocks and sponges.

Rocks are resistant to new information and set in their form. Sponges, by contrast, demonstrate a willingness to learn, to take in new ideas and adjust accordingly. According to Woodward, businesses and rugby teams alike need sponges to succeed. One of our recent global searches, finding a new chief executive for a South African retailer, provides a powerful example of Woodword’s concept.

An uncertain future

The company’s outgoing Commercial Director was coming to the end of their tenure, having completely restructured the business. The business was trading well but running largely by process, by fear, and by the numbers. The company was determined to deliver a pleasant experience supported by excellent customer service and relevant products. Yet there was a sense within the organisation of “death by spreadsheet,” and the team was feeling anxious about the future.

In our conversations with this client, it became clear that they needed a leader with more than a great track record in retail – although this would be crucial. They also needed someone who could promote a sense of hope, a feeling of psychological safety, encouraging people to share thoughts and ideas. They needed someone who could help transform the culture, mood, and lines of communication at the company. We set out to find the right sponge for the job.

Opening communication

After a six month search, we found our candidate in Zurich, Switzerland, and he moved to Cape Town to assume the position. He had the exceptional retail experience that our client required – and he was known for being a brilliant listener with a sharp attention to detail, someone who made people feel safe.

Immediately, the Commercial Director exhibited a powerful interest in the people who made up our client’s business. He sought insight from those around him, asking how the company could do better business. He got suppliers to open up and began winning hearts and minds.

The company’s new Commercial Director demonstrates a tremendous energy. He loves the environment and challenge of the retail business and sees great opportunity for growth. By winning over the team and influencing the board, he has been able to promote a more open environment. The new executive has made a point of going out and being in the stores, getting to know the day-to-day reality of the business. He’s received great praise from the board and suppliers alike, making a significant impact in a short space of time.

Some of this work has meant making tough decisions, and some of it has meant making sure that people in the company have enough time for their families. The lines of communication are open; the executive has made it clear that he is willing and eager to take in new information. With a new leadership approach, the company is developing a culture of renewed hope – and setting on a path to success.

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