Interview with Steve Connolly, CEO, Penguin Random House South Africa
“It has been inspiring to see how a nation with our economic and social problems has pulled together to get through this pandemic. We had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, yet still had 680,000 infections in a population of just under 60 million people.”
What have been your biggest learnings from COVID-19?
People are much more open to change than they were in the past. They have witnessed their colleagues and themselves adapt rapidly and work in ways that before they would have dismissed as impractical at best and impossible at worst. I can see that this openness to change is still there, and we will work to make sure it stays a part of our company DNA for the future. We have always felt that communication within the company is an important part of the harmony that characterized our workplaces, and the pandemic has amplified that. With people being isolated, away from their colleagues and the familiarity of the office, regular communications and town halls have helped reassure staff that they are in the loop and make them feel informed, seen, and heard.
We also saw the power of small gestures and flexibility, whether they were directed toward staff, suppliers, or customers. It helps create a win-win mindset and emphasizes that we are all part of a mutually dependent book ecosystem.
What has inspired you during this time?
Being out on the southern tip of Africa, it is easy to feel as though we are on the margins of a massive global company with the bulk of its business in the northern hemisphere. Yet I have truly felt like an intrinsic part of the whole—as much in the center as if we were in New York or London—and I have done everything I can to make our staff in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban feel the same sense of belonging.
Outside of the workplace it has been inspiring to see how a nation with our economic and social problems has pulled together to get through this pandemic. We had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, yet still had 680,000 infections in a population of just under 60 million people. We saw the value of clear, simple messaging from our political leadership, the courage to make tough calls early, and the willingness of people who understand what is expected of them to work together toward a common goal. There’s a lot to be learned there.
What are some challenges you, personally as CEO, and your local territory have been facing?
As CEO, making sure everyone in the company feels safe and informed, while working hand in hand with senior management to maintain the financial foundation of the business, got us through challenges such as six weeks without a single book sale; and, as a company, the balancing act between doing whatever we can to support local booksellers and also looking after the fundamental foundations of the company.
Personally, because we are a small business with only 150 staff members, it’s wanting to know that everyone is safe, when they are spread so far and wide in the four major cities where we are based.
The territory has suffered particularly badly as we do not have any major online suppliers here. As a result we did not see the transfer of sales from bricks and mortar stores to online suppliers throughout the lockdown. To help cope with that we have adjusted publishing schedules, cut any non-essential expenses we can without damaging the business and carefully manage working capital, in an environment when both our suppliers and our customers are facing the same challenges. On top of that, global economic uncertainty has made our already volatile currency even more prone to rapid fluctuations.
Do you have any advice for our global colleagues?
This pandemic has been a true test of our company culture. Some countries have experienced complete lockdowns for almost two months, with no trading at all. Yet in the Global Executive Committee we meet weekly and speak and share our views, and while the challenges may be different in different countries, the approach of the company is caring, open, innovative, and positive—and we really do care about the staff.