Esmé Coetzee – an accomplished business professional with 30+ years of experience in international trade, finance, staff development, change management, and strategy implementation, she now utilizes her expertise in the HR Transformation sector enabling businesses to achieve their goals through their people and enabling people to rise above their perceived limitations.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Esmé Coetzee: You would have thought that 30 years in corporate would have made me business savvy, prepared for any eventuality. Reality taught me that this is not the case. After being retrenched, in the same two-year period as moving home, losing my father-in-law and my own father, having two of my adult children leave home and being widowed, I was floored… completely and utterly floored – with no idea on how, nor desire to find my feet again. Then just for good measure, I was retrenched a second time in the third year after this sequence of events.
This catalyst enabled me to take stock of who I was, what experiences and accomplishments I had achieved in my 30-year corporate career, as well as the value I still had to give. In my search, I recognized that my greatest sense of achievement had come from those things I had achieved for myself, not those things done for me, and my greatest regrets are those things I have not accomplished or completed for myself. They had not presented a sense of fulfillment nor showcased my capability or capacity. Consequently, I recognized that I would like to have an impact on business and individuals alike, encouraging them to pursue this mindset of achievement, vigorously and unapologetically, as opposed to the prevailing mindset of entitlement. As such, ’Cultivating Excellence’, my company vision, is also a personal passion.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Esmé Coetzee: The biggest challenge I faced at the start was related to my headspace. I needed to overcome the loss and grief, the feeling of worthlessness and lack of direction. Family and friends were supportive but none of them fully understood the depth of this headspace so they could only placate rather than provide direction and practical support. The people I’d always turned to in the past, my dad and my husband, were no longer there.
Thankfully, my corporate learning ground was exceptional. Recognition of this reminded me of the vast experience I had to offer. Past colleagues, across the globe, are role models of people groomed to succeed. Reflecting on this together with my inner grit to succeed ultimately helped to re-establish my renewed zest for life and provide some insight into the direction I would take moving forward. Of course, I always said to a close friend at the time, that once I’d left the formal sector, I’d never return. This was initially said in jest but it became a mantra I held on to as I pressed forward.
I took a short-learning course on Entrepreneurial Studies at a local university and found like-minded people striving, battling, and leaning on each other. Connections made with the teaching staff and fellow students were a lifeline, and this remains so still today.
Giving up is not an option, although I can’t deny times of doubt, of feeling overwhelmed and wondering whether or not to return to the formal employment sector. Admittedly, these are fleeting moments, not real considerations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?
Esmé Coetzee: I knew from the start that I wanted to influence people. I wanted people, their development and growth, to emulate the professionals I had worked with for the previous 30 years. Initially, my efforts were to be focused on an individual level, but quickly this evolved to a business level. Nonetheless, I was fixated on the idea of fire, something that would fan an attitude, skills, or mindset into flame. So, one of my first assignments was to design my company logo. I created a word cloud in the shape of a flame in my selected company colors with two figures on either side of the flame. The professor at the time retorted that it looked too much like a “tribal dance around a fire” and had no semblance to the business proposition. In addition, he added, my initial company name, Execution Cloud, sounded like it had something to do with the French Revolution. “Was I driving change or chopping off heads?”
I was somewhat taken aback at first but not discouraged. Although I really loved the ideas I presented, I quickly learned that criticism must be taken as an opportunity to reflect and learn. There were times I took things personally, but when I was able to rise above this, I was able to raise the bar.
New entrepreneurs can get hung up on their ideas, unwilling to embrace new thinking or ideas. It’s often said that failing often and failing fast allows you to move through the entrepreneurial growth chain quicker. While I don’t disagree, I also believe that laughing at yourself, listening to feedback, and discerning what to take on board and what to discard should become a regular and ongoing part of the entrepreneurial growth cycle.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Esmé Coetzee: Resilience is indeed critical as we move through this PANdemIC. For me, it is the ability to stay focussed on the vision, to relentlessly pursue the end result, to root yourself in faith, and maintain the ability to be flexible. Not only has this global situation caused panic due to job losses and the negative impact on global economies, but it has caused great fear in the face of the unknown. Resilience is about pushing through the tough times, about becoming conscious about the impact and sustainability of your decisions, and by being prudent in how you spend your money. Reduce debt to increase sustainability as it allows you to keep your business afloat. Instead of panicking about the reduced sales, focus on improving product quality or service delivery. Resilience is choosing to focus on what you can impact rather than focusing on what’s completely out of your control.
In your opinion, what makes your company stand out from the competition?
Esmé Coetzee: Transformation for both business and individuals is not simply a case of implementing training, tools, or a variety of initiatives. Driving change is a delicate matter that needs an inherent understanding of each person or contributor to the business initiative, of gaining clarity of the company culture you’re working with, and helping to drive their strategic ambitions. It becomes a partnership where you journey alongside them to enable, support, and guide the changes that are required to reach the aspirations identified. This means immersing yourself in the business or people you’re working with and being an accountability partner throughout the partnership. We’re not simply providing a service or selling products; we’re partnering on the journey of transformation. We feel the pain, we co-own the muddles along the way and we celebrate the ultimate success.
What do you consider are your strengths when dealing with staff workers, colleagues, senior management, and customers?
Esmé Coetzee: A significant strength in dealing with people is to treat people with equity and respect, no matter their level of seniority. Each one deserves my full attention. Each deserves to be fully heard and each one deserves 100% of my support. Objectively. Any sense of bias, judgment, or prejudice undermines my ability to fully engage with people or get the best out of them. Overt subjectivity also undermines any change or growth I’m trying to achieve. In essence, the strength is seeing people for who they are, and always wanting the best outcome for them. Authentically.
How important do you think it is for a leader to be mindful of his own brand?
Esmé Coetzee: A leader is the primary representative of a brand. This means their personal brand must be supportive of and aligned to the business brand. Consequently, being mindful of your own personal brand and the impact on the business and colleagues speaks about the continuity of being authentic. Walk the talk comes to mind. People watch closely to see whether what you say and what you do is aligned. This is no different in the business. And, it is heightened if you’re in a leadership role.
What’s your favorite leadership style and why?
Esmé Coetzee: I don’t believe my style is aligned to any formal leadership theory but perhaps the closest may be the transformational leader where I continually move the target to raise the bar, not only for the business but for the individuals too. Leadership is the ability to influence people for the common good. This cannot be done without empowering, upskilling, and fully engaging people. My style is more about understanding people as unique contributors and treating them according to their abilities and motivating needs. If each person has the ability to perform and they’re fully motivated, their participation in the business is additive. And they’re growing as people too.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Esmé Coetzee: Entrepreneurship is not something you’re born with. It’s a decision. Yes, of course, there are those who take entrepreneurship as a lifestyle like a fish to water, but I am an example of someone who would never have considered this as a career choice had circumstances not flung me down the rabbit hole. I do believe that once you’ve made the decision to become an entrepreneur, you must realize that it is difficult, but the rewards that come from persevering far outlast the pain you go through in the process.
The advice I’d like to share, once you’ve made up your mind that this is the path to follow, is to surround yourself with cheerleaders. It’s sometimes a lonely path as family and friends who find comfort in traditional employment are not likely to encourage you, especially when it gets tough. Like-minded champions will help you keep the focus. Another piece of advice is to do a basic business or entrepreneurial course. As much as you believe you know how to run a business if you’ve been in business before like me, it’s not easy trying to manage every element of the business without guidance, insight, and support from entrepreneurial forerunners.
What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?
Esmé Coetzee: “Don’t try to boil the ocean” – Unknown.
I have a propensity for wanting to do many things simultaneously and when I don’t or can’t manage them equally proficiently, I am extremely hard on myself. This quote constantly reminds me that it’s not only impossible to do everything all at once but that it’s quite nonsensical to even try. It’s far better to focus on one thing at a time and in delivering on this fully I gain a sense of achievement and fulfillment. The anxiety from wanting to do more than is possible is placed in check and everything else is given a number in the queue.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Esmé Coetzee for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Esmé Coetzee or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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