Ajen Sita | CEO of Ernst & Young Africa

Ajen Sita is the CEO of Ernst & Young Africa. Ajen joined the firm in 1993 focusing on entrepreneurial growth companies. He became a partner in 1999 and was appointed head of the entrepreneurial services division in 2001. Sita is the E&Y’s South African head of audit and chairman of the South Africa’s Thuthuka Education Upliftment Fund. 


Leadership Starts With You As An Individual | We’ve got to inculcate this concept of leadership in every single person, irrespective of the role they play in an organisation. When people use the word ‘leadership’ they often attach that title to people sitting at the top, a CEO, a CFO, a chairman.


Everybody’s A Leader Of Themselves Are you able to effectively lead yourself? Whether it’s your career, the work that you do, the way you manage relationships with your colleagues, your family, your society. Inculcating the principles of leadership at an individual level allows us to drive it at an organisational level. If you can’t lead yourself there’s no way you can lead an organisation, or even just a team that you might be responsible for.


Context And Purpose | Once you get people to take ownership for themselves, their work, their careers, their personal development and growth, you’ve then got to create some context. So in my role as a leader I spend a lot of time giving purpose to work. People will give of their best if they work for a purpose, rather than just working for work’s sake.


Working For The Greater Good | What is the higher ideal? What is the long-term objective, not just the short-term objective, such as pay at the end of the month, or a promotion at the end of the year.


Ajen Sita quote pic 1What Do You Focus On | If you chase things like pay and promotion you tend to be very short-term focused, very self-focused, and consequently such people are typically very stressed. They’re not good team players and they run out of steam after a while. Because how many promotions can you get and how quickly can you get them?


If You’re Purpose-Driven You have a higher purpose to what you do, whether it’s building your firm, building the community, or making a difference to your clients. That is a continuous process of development and learning and personal growth.  For me as a leader it’s about making sure everyone can lead themselves and then creating an environment where they’re purpose-led.


Success | Everybody talks about it, everybody chases this thing called ‘success’, but success is an effect. It belongs in the future. It is the result of something. So, you’ve got to understand the cause of success. And I think this is what people don’t do. Everybody’s looking for a promotion or higher pay or some exciting job or whatever your definition of success might be.  But to get to that success you have to be in the present.


The Cause Of Success Is The Right Actions |  There are three things that you need to do. But firstly you’ve got to have purpose. So set a goal, set an ideal. What is it that you’re after?


1. Consistency Having set your goal, the first thing is consistency. Make sure that all that you’re doing is directed towards this goal or ideal. I think people get too distracted along the way. The more you direct your energy in one direction the greater the chance you’ll achieve your goal, because you’re not dissipating your energy.


2. Concentration This is the second thing. It’s about being in the present. All that is in your control is what you’re doing now. So make sure that you remain in the present and give of your best in the present. Too many people are worried about the past or something that’s happened and their mind is on that. Or they’re anxious about something in the future, something coming up – a meeting, a presentation, some event.  And with worrying and anxiety, people suffer stress and they never then give of their best.


3. Co-operation This is the third thing.  Recognise that no-one is an island. You exist in the context of a community, a society. So having the spirit of co-operation, as you move forward, bring others with you. Build your network, build your relationships. You’ll achieve more by working together with people than trying to do it on your own.


How Do You Stay In The Present |  There are a few things. The most simple is, learn from kids. Look at young kids playing. Kids play till they drop.  We’re sitting watching them in the garden and saying, no take a rest, you’re going to be tired. They’re not tired. They play till they fall asleep. Why is that? What is distinguishing about that? The simple reason is at that young age they do not suffer from worry and anxiety. They’re not worried about any past. They’re not anxious about what they are going to become when they grow up. Not even what’s going to be for dinner. When it’s dinner time there’ll be dinner. They’re not anxious about anything in the future.


Ajen Sita quote pic 2Worry And Anxiety | With adults today, most of our conversation and most of our time are dominated by worry and anxiety. These dissipate our energy. Adults are always tired. They’re looking forward to weekends and vacations. Work is tiring.


Work Is Not Tiring At All | It is simply the mental attitude we bring to work. Therefore the more you stay in the present the better.  How do we do that? Be more objective. Set a goal for yourself. The longer the time horizon for the goal, the more selfless the goal, the less you suffer any worry or anxiety in the present.


Setting Goals Those that are selfish or focused on self-interest – such as I want to make a million Rand in the next year, or buy this car, are very low-level goals. Your mental state of agitation goes up, because you’ve attached such significance to a short-term rather than a selfless goal.


Most Important Lessons Work with purpose, firstly. As long as you have a clear purpose, a long-term horizon, you start to enjoy what you do. Then as you work, ask if you are you making a difference.  I look at it at three levels. Am I making a difference for the people in our organisation? Am I making a difference to our clients? And am I making a difference to the community?


Making A Difference As we grow and develop, are we giving something back? Because the more society grows, the more our people grow. That’s what grows the organisation and the country, so everybody benefits. And you actually end up with abundance, with more, than if you’re trying to pursue goals that are just selfish.


Opening Up To Leadership Opportunities | Unfortunately in the media there’s a lot of reporting of people in senior positions who’ve done wrong or bad things. There isn’t reporting about people who’ve done good things! So consequently I think there’s quite a cynical view of leaders in communities, and certainly post-financial crisis. The trust levels between leaders in business, government, civil society is quite strained. There’s lots of conversation about the need for business and government to talk to each other. So let’s not sit on the side. We need to be an active participant and show that there are different types of leadership. You can only do that by getting involved.


My Personal Purpose And What Drives Me | As far as what I do with EY, there’s such a strong connection between the two that it’s probably why I’ve had EY as my only employer. The one thing is my focus on Africa. I truly love this continent. I think we’re in a window period now where the world’s attention is focused on Africa and on investing in the continent, given that the mature markets are quite distressed.


Africa In The Global Markets In this window period, which might be for seven or ten years, I want to be sure that Africa repositions itself in the global markets. I want to be sure that we’re attracting the investments that we should, that we’re connecting the various countries to each other better than we are today, that there’s more intra-Africa trade, that there’s economic growth, that there are more jobs created.


An Africa Business Centre My personal passion lies in that space. So of course EY as a firm is itself doing a lot in that space, through an Africa business centre that we’ve opened up, through research and though leadership that we produce, to engaging governments and business leaders from around the world about an understanding of Africa and its opportunity.


Entrepreneurship The second area is around entrepreneurship, the importance of entrepreneurs as people who grow economies but who also create jobs. This is desperately needed across Africa – African entrepreneurs who can start up businesses. Not just businesses that employ five, ten people, but fifty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand people.


Contribution Through using the resources or network of EY across thirty-three countries – we employ 6,200 people – we work with large companies, small companies and governments. We can play a role in encouraging start-up entrepreneurs by giving up our time, mentoring and coaching. This is very much connected to telling a new story about Africa.


A New Positioning Of Women In Leadership Roles Across the African continent women make up 50-55% of the active population. Yet they are not represented in the leadership echelons of business, so we’ve commissioned some research to help understand that.  In that regard we’re also challenging ourselves as an organisation. What are we doing internally, and through that learning? Firstly in the market place to get more women into business, and then to get women into leadership roles.


Women In EY In our own firm at the junior levels, about 50% of our staff are women and at the senior end, it’s 30%. The 30% is actually market-leading. But I say, where’s the other 20% of the talent gone – we’ve invested so much in them – why is it acceptable to lose them?  We should have that 50% carried all the way though, because it’s a waste of investment otherwise. So just at a simple economic level I see it as significant. That means a lot of challenge within our organisation.


Ajen Sita quote pic 3Summary Of My Passion And Energy We’ve figured out that the lessons learnt are valuable across the continent, where women are very under-represented in leadership roles. So these three things – Africa, Entrepreneurship and Women In Business – are where I’m spending a lot of my personal time. This is where I draw my own passion and energy from.


People Who Inspire Me There’s no one person I would pick as a role model.  I think I learn so much from so many people all of the time. I learn from my kids. My daughter’s thirteen, my son is nine. I look at their enthusiasm and passion for life. They give full commitment to sports or school, or whatever they’re doing.  That inspires me to say, am I doing the same?
Also people that I work with. Every day people are bringing new ideas, new innovation, new ways of thinking. It inspires me when I see that with the same issues, such diverse groups of people can look at them differently and see different things. So I draw a lot of inspiration from listening to broad and diverse groups of people to get perspective before making a decision or a judgement on something.
And of course there are many organisations that have had success, either for the organisation or individuals. In terms of growing businesses across Africa, I would look at those as role models of what people have done, and ask what has made them successful. So it’s not just one person, but I try to learn something from everything that’s going on around me.


The Meaning Of Life | You know my nine-year-old son asked this question last year, when we visited the Vedanta Academy in India!  For me, if I had to answer it very simply, I would say, it’s about making a better person of myself. The more I can be a better person in what I learn, how I grow, how I relate to people, how I build relationships, how I value things, the better individual I am, the more I am able to give to those around me.  This applies whether it’s to my immediate family, my organisation, or to the community in which I operate.