THE WORLD OF SMES CAN BE SOMETHING OF A MICROCOSM OF THE LARGER CORPORATE WORLD. AMANDA DAMBUZA, WINNER OF THE VEUVE CLICQUOT ELLE BOSS AWARD, IN ASSOCIATION WITH OLD MUTUAL CORPORATE, SHARES THE BUSINESS LESSONS SHE’S LEARNT IN A CAREER SPANNING BOTH SPHERES.
by Charles Thompson
During the Renaissance, the word ‘microcosm’ was used to describe human beings, considered at the time to be small-scale models of the universe. A little over three centuries later, the comparison seems oddly apt for the relationship between entrepreneurs and corporates, when you listen to the story of one successful executive who decided to go it alone.
Amanda Dambuza, founder and CEO of project management consultancy Uyandiswa, was Chief Information Officer at a multinational company when she left the corporate world around four years ago to run her own venture. ‘I had owned multiple small businesses over the years, with great successes and some epic disappointments,’ she says, reflecting on her early career.
When starting a family, she decided to take a break from her side-line business ventures, focusing on her corporate career while raising her children, but in May 2014 the time had come to go it alone. ‘I made the jump because I wanted to own my time, drive my personal agenda, and have the opportunity to run my own organisation, unique in its values, culture and the causes it decides to support,’ she adds.
By 2016, Dambuza had been nominated for the Veuve Clicquot ELLE Boss Award in association with Old Mutual Corporate, but had to decline the nomination as she was travelling outside of the country at the time. In 2017, she was nominated again in the same competition, which celebrates entrepreneurial women who have made a significant contribution to business life in South Africa.
‘This time, I decided to give myself a chance. The gravity of the competition really kicks in when you get that email announcing that you are a finalist – one of only six. My world seemed to shift up a notch.’ After running the gauntlet of interviews by a panel of highly successful businesswomen, she left the Johannesburg awards ceremony as the winner of the entrepreneur category, and as the Businesswoman of the Year overall winner.
LEADERSHIP, PEOPLE AND BALANCE
The 13 years in IT that led up to her victory, taught this CEO many valuable lessons. ‘You learn to be resilient, persistent, independent and politically savvy in the corporate world. You also learn how to drive a performance culture through clear expectation management with your staff,’ she says.
‘We don’t always get things right, but we own up to our mistakes and fix them.’
Savvy investing is another arrow she could put in her quiver after those years. ‘Learning how to select certain projects over others ultimately led me to thinking about the kind of business I wanted to run and where the real opportunities were. I saw a chance to build a sustainable business by focusing on niche areas that were ripe for something different,’ she explains.
Since 2014, Uyandiswa has grown rapidly, offering services such as project management, business analytics, risk and liquidity management and executive searching in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Botswana. But what are the ingredients of such a successful business model, and why did it succeed when so many do not? With a team of over 70 people working under her, Dambuza cannot stress the value of great employees strongly enough.
‘Great staff who are self motivated and want to be part of something special help you carry the flag,’ she says. ‘And I strongly believe that financial results will always come when you have motivated and enthusiastic people who feel valued.’ Empowered staff also make it possible to build a sustainable business ‘outside of a personality,’ she says. And that all starts with the people you employ.
‘I make sure at the hiring point that I select people with strong credentials and credibility. I also make sure that I employ people who are far better in lots of areas than I am. What’s the point of hiring someone who is exactly like me?’ she says. Once the right people are on board, flexibility, dignity and respect is paramount at Uyandiswa. ‘I really believe that if someone has to dash out to do something for their family, they’ll repay that hour threefold. They feel they’re valued as more than just their bottom line, that they are a person, not just a number that should sit there and work their hours.’
The modern world of work also plays an important role in the way Dambuza manages her staff. ‘People are mobile now and they can work from home, or almost anywhere else. And what you measure is the outcomes, not how many hours they’ve spent in the office. I find that if you trust your team with that responsibility of deciding when and where they work, they rarely disappoint you.’
In the microcosm of small business, where staff contingents are much smaller than in large corporates, the importance of employee well being is cast under a bright spotlight, and with good reason. When it comes to taking leave, Dambuza thinks a work-life balance is nonnegotiable for staff and leaders. ‘I care about my staff’s well being. They must take time off, and not work on weekends or after hours unless it’s an exception,’ she says about her team.
‘I encourage, in fact I demand, that they have balanced lives. It can’t just all be about work. You have to go and recharge and replenish, so that you have a lot to give back. For me, that’s always been important, and I make sure that not only I, but my whole team live like that, too.’
Having staff she can trust also means this business leader has time to invest in herself, which ultimately makes her better at the helm. ‘I reflect a lot now as I have the time and space to do so. It allows me to think strategically about the business and where I am going as a person with ambitions and goals. And I get to spend more time with my key clients, too.’
‘I strongly believe that financial results will always come when you have motivated and enthusiastic people who feel valued.’
THE ABILITY TO COURSE-CORRECT
Another important aspect of a solid business model is that it should allow you to course-correct, she says. ‘We don’t always get things right, but we own up to our mistakes and fix them. One of the biggest I made in the early days of my business was underpricing, where we didn’t invest the proper time and effort into understanding what we were really going to do, and ended up short-changing ourselves. That was a very hard lesson, because running a non-profitable project is very depressing for any business.
‘After all these years, however, we have the right controls and processes to quote – the correct tools. So we can anticipate whether a project is going to take three or six months, and what exactly the deliverables are.’ A good relationship with clients also helps you to get back on track, even in the middle of a project if necessary, she says. ‘We’ve built such strong relationships with our clients that we can go back to them in the unlikely event that we’ve made a wrong assumption. More often than not, they’re really understanding.’
CAPTAINING THE DREAM
When a business expands so rapidly, does it turn out as one expects, or grow into something different along the way? It can stay true to the original dream, with a few key ingredients, it seems. ‘The business I started five years ago is the same business we are running now,’ says Dambuza.
‘We have stayed focused on our niche and remained true to our founding values. Yes, we have refined our offering and added complimentary services over the years as our clients and industry trends demanded them. But without compromising on our core.’
And what’s the key ingredient she brings as a leader? ‘As a founder, I get great satisfaction from seeing the amazing progress we have made and the spin-off opportunities that have come from this business. I remain hungry to do more and explore worthy platforms to better other people’s lives and create a future for myself and my family. Pushing boundaries and opening up opportunities for others – that gives me great fulfillment.’