How to turn a business into a community


Grace Harding is not your ordinary leader – in fact the bubbly petite head of seafood franchise Ocean Basket describes herself as “…a very proud CEO who wakes up terrified every day…”
Harding was one of the guest speakers at the Nedbank-sponsored franchise and retail seminar held at Gallagher Estate.

Other successful franchisors present were Nandos founder Robbie Brozin and Jade Kirkel, who is in charge of marketing the Sorbet group.

Harding says after listening to former US state president Barack Obama deliver the Nelson Mandela Centenary talk at the Wanderers Club in July, she felt optimistic about the future of South Africa.

Harding says what makes her company tick is the love and laughter that has become a culture among employees.

She “believes in creating work environments that focus on the customer and people; environments with no fancy titles or cumbersome hierarchies.

“We don’t sit in a boardroom in our business. We have a glass of wine and tea together. How can we not fall in love if we don’t touch? Bring back the love for your stuff, customers and franchisees. We love and laugh in our business so that sometimes people think there’s something in the water that we drink.”

Harding’s CV is impressive. She started working when she was just twelve, selling paraffin, matches and blankets in Troye Street in the Joburg CBD. She loved it and immediately knew that she wanted to work with people. She ran her own employee engagement consultancy for 15 years and was also head of advertising for a major clothing retail store.

As a person at the helm of a major food franchise, Harding says she is interested in leadership styles and is always reading and researching why great companies such as Kodak and Enron perished and why local companies such as Clientele Life have registered consistent growth at the JSE for the past 17 years.

She says in her view, transformation is key and companies that have failed to change are saddled with top management that fails to listen to those they lead or those that are younger than them.

“Humans run companies, and if they don’t listen or respect each other, they will fail. For companies to succeed and stay at the top, leaders have to change, although it is hard to change,” she points out.

Harding, who has a wicked sense of humour, quips that leaders have to give up what she calls the “willy syndrome” that gives rise to “ego and greed”. “Everybody wants change, but few people want to change. First we have to rid ourselves of the monkeys we carry. Why have reserved parking for executives?

“A company is a community, which is why in my company we don’t rate people with colours or numbers. We don’t have titles. We don’t work in conventional environments. We are human and therefore, hierarchy doesn’t work because when you have that, it means you only listen to 20% of your people.”

The Sunday Independent

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