“One of the greatest tools to have is to never stop asking questions. By asking why and what you start building an information base and from my experience, the more you ask the more you can trust your informed instinct,” says Simon Susman, the former CEO of Woolworths.
He says during his career he has seen far too many people who jump to conclusions and come up with answers, not having asked enough questions. “If you ask enough questions, inform your internal database, then you can trust it. And when you can trust it, follow it,” he says.
Susman was recently appointed as an Honorary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). He is also the chairman of the business school’s advisory board. On his appointment, he said it was a huge surprise and was touched by it. “For someone who does not have a higher education to be given an Honorary Professorship is indeed a true honour.”
In his new role, he wishes to contribute to mentoring. “I do a lot of mentoring in my current career. I particularly mentor a lot of young black entrepreneurs and I believe there is a huge role for mentoring in our society.” Lessons over the years
“Over my career, I’ve learned not just lessons on how to fail but also some lessons on how to succeed. My own view that is deeply based in a set of values, and if you stick to your principles and values, you will get a lot of clarity on that and if I can share that with some of the students then I would be very happy to do that,” he says.
Susman says the biggest lesson he has learnt over his career of 37 years with the company, is that it is okay to fail. “In the failing comes the learning. I think there are a lot more learnings that come out of when you get things wrong, whether it is people choices, strategic choices, product choices or relationships.”
He says in his career he made quite a few mistakes, and at the time they felt terrible, having let everyone down. “But it doesn’t mean that you are a failure; it means you tried something. So I think one should encourage all young business people to be prepared to make mistakes, just go for it and learn from it,” he says. Year of change
Susman says 2020 was a year of change. “But I want to qualify the change. It’s been a year of accelerated change. The businesses and charities that I’m involved with are all seeing an acceleration of changes that were there beforehand, some of which we have recognised and some we hadn’t recognised. But when you look back, Covid-19 has been an accelerator.
“The business school needs both concepts of integrated online learning and physical learning. I think the biggest thing we are going to have to learn is how we truly manage online learning, distance learning and the mix of that with physical learning to create a cultural, integrated experience,” he says. Businesses and educational institutions forging long-term collaborations
“As much as a business is driven by how it sees the market and how it can carve out its own space, I think that universities create a context for future leaders who can think differently. One of the things I’ve been discussing with Prof Piet Naudé (past USB director), is that I think in South Africa and Africa we live in a world of immense uncertainty – political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, cultural uncertainty, confusion, guilt, and anger.
“All of these things that drive businesses on this continent and creating leaders who can chart a path through that confusion is one of the primary roles of the business school,” he says.
“If a business school can produce leaders who can operate in uncertainty in a principled way, understand the changing world, then they form the supply chain of the thought leaders and businesses themselves. You need those thought leaders driving the businesses. So for me, it’s a very close integration of what the business school can provide and what businesses need in the future,” he says.