Cape Town - It's easy to feel cynical about business, and to see the successful as spoilt, uncaring brats thinking only about the next car, or how to squeeze more out of their workers for less, says Liza van Wyk, CEO of management training company AstroTech Training.
"But every week day we experience extraordinary people coming through our doors grappling with how to produce more while treating employees better.
"However, no one can drive a company if a clear path hasn't been mapped for it by executives," says Van Wyk.
With this in mind she draws on some advice from top businesspeople to inspire others to make the most of 2013.
Prioritise: A mistake that companies and individuals make either when facing challenges or when very successful is that they take their eye off their core purpose and start entering different fields. This often tends to dilute the effectiveness of either the individual, or the company. Its better to step back, take a hard look at what you do best, and focus on that: how can you do it better? Or ask: If you could do only one thing, what would it be?
Keep moving: Sometimes companies become so flushed with success that they stop and spend too much time focusing on what they just did right (or wrong). They should take a leaf from publishers, when publishers sign a successful author they demand two books, the one they have in hand, and one that the author has yet to write. If the first book is successful, the author's name is still fresh in the public's mind when the next comes out, which guarantees good sales for the second book. You should follow success with the next innovation that will surprise your customers and leave a sense that you or your company are dynamic and always ready with something new. Apple is good with this, so is Woolworths.
Surround yourself with good people: Human resources is not given enough value. The best HR people recruit staff with values that complement those of the organisation, it's not just about the number of degrees or skills a person has. And clever companies create a happy, rewarding work environment, because like all the best families, if you're happy where you are, you'll stay, pay is secondary.
Optimism ensures success: Albert Einstein said: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." CEOs who have a positive outlook attract can-do staff, and project confidence in their company; whereas those who see only clouds are more likely to have demoralised staff and anxious customers.
Research your environment: Know your clients, understand their lives and the pressures they face, be sensitive to what gives them joy, respond quickly and courteously to complaints, understanding that those give you the opportunity to improve your business. Too often management fails in these tasks. They spend a fortune on costly outside research organizations when it would be far cheaper and more effective for them to use all staff, from the CEO down in speaking to their customers, and in doing everything they can to encourage dialogue with clients. In South Africa we tend to discourage complaints, or be rude, when those complaints are early warning systems that tell us where we are failing, and where we need to improve."
What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open the fields of opportunity? Staff that see clear career paths work harder, but it also means the company needs to help them learn better with courses and funding educational opportunities. Companies get more from this process if they have deliberate in-house networking events where new skills learned are shared, or feedback is given in skills-sharing groups at all levels in a company. Shared ideas help spur innovation.
Relationships matter: In these financially stressed times, and indeed throughout your career you'll get far if people trust you, if they know you are honourable and reliable, and that comes from sometimes doing things for nothing, or doing more than what is expected of you.
Van Wyk also lists some of her favourite CEO lessons of 2012:
Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, the professional networking site said, "We are only as valuable as the value we create for members."
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook said Eric Schmidt of Google told her when she joined it a decade ago: "When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren't growing quickly or their missions don't matter as much, that's when stagnation and politics come in. If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on."
"what I liked about this is that Sandberg took a lesser job than what she was qualified to do, and today she is a billionaire. She made a short term sacrifice to earn a long term bonanza," said Van Wyk.
Joyce Banda, Malawi's first woman president who took office this year, "inspired by quickly moving against corruption... everyone said she would come under pressure for her brave steps, instead she has lifted confidence ratings in that country in the eyes of the world, and is seeing good results".
Van Wyk also lauds the amazing performance of the SA Paralympic Team at the 2012 London Olympics that brought home 29 medals including eight golds. "These are people who could sit at home complaining, but they don't, they get up every day, work out, show discipline and make us all proud."
"Business has never been more exciting because we've learned that challenges create opportunities, you just need to know how to see and exploit them, and only education enables that," Van Wyk added.