A Blank Canvas — Where To Start Making A Social Impact


This post was adapted from a presentation given by Venete Klein, former Executive Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at ABSA, at Nation Builder’s annual In Good Company conference on 15 August 2019.
Venete Klein is a banking pioneer. She is the first South African to serve on the World Trade Organisation Banking Policy Commission and former Executive Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at ABSA, besides having held many other prestigious positions. She explained that when starting a business you have to consider the risks. “It also requires personal investment; time to develop yourself and those around you,” Klein said. You need courage and authenticity, be future-minded as well as understand the bigger picture. It is important to value humanity and longevity to achieve sustainability in business.
Klein had a colourful upbringing in Mitchell’s Plain in Cape Town, starting her career when there were few women in banking. Yet she eventually managed 25,000 staff and 11 million clients during her tenure with ABSA; in fact, she was the only woman in the Executive at that time. She achieved many firsts in her career but her time with ABSA was the job that gave her the warmest feeling.  She touched the lives of 25,000 people, but in what way?
“If you treat those you work with most closely with dignity and respect it will filter down through the business. It is also necessary to make every person in the business feel special.” Klein made sure that a message from her appeared on the computer screen of each staff member on their birthday. There are apps to do that but the thought was appreciated by the employees.
Klein maintains that if you show that you care about people as individuals, you will gain their loyalty. When travelling through the provinces, Klein met with the Regional Executive, and on the drive from the airport, she would catch up on all that was happening in the area before she met the rest of the team. She would then host a dinner for the executive team and their spouses.  This, she found, was the best way to get to know about the people as individuals. “You can never have too much information, and this could be your unique selling proposition. It is all about caring and it sets you apart.”
At this time the bank wanted 30% uplift in turnover so Klein decided to offer an incentive: a salary increase to align the 6 000 tellers with top-of-class in the industry if they could effect an increase in business. She got her 30% uplift in only four months, but negotiated with the bank for half the profit, partly to pay the salary increase but also to take the 100 top tellers on an international sea cruise. She repeated this incentive for five years with excellent results. “If only our executives could understand how to maximise our input; to turn it into an income-generating opportunity and to give us more back,” Klein suggested. “The way employees are utilised, regarding their specific capabilities and strengths, is the way to grow a business and realise greater returns while also improving their lives. ”
Klein posed various questions: what is your area of influence? Are you touching lives where you live and work? Are you using your influence to improve the lives of others? What will your masterpiece look like? Are we in business to show we are really good at what we do or are we hoping to address some greater need? We need to follow the steps and not expect to achieve our aims overnight.
In scripture, Abraham was told by God that he and his wife Sarah would have a son in their extreme old age. Abraham was sitting in his tent when God told him to go outside and look up. If Abraham had not followed God’s instructions to the letter and chosen to look up where he was sitting, all he would have seen was the roof of the tent. But when he did as he was told, he looked up and saw the heavens studded with millions of stars. How sad it would have been if he had missed seeing the stars and the realisation that he would be the father of millions over the ages. In your business do not omit vital steps or you may miss out on wonderful opportunities to add to your blank canvas.
Venete Klein is the CEO of Klein Inc. Management Consultants, and former Executive Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at ABSA. She is an accomplished banking pioneer and the first South African to be invited to serve on the World Trade Organisation’s International Policy Commission. She is also the first woman to serve as Vice Chair of the Agricultural Business Chamber and the first woman to be appointed as President of the Afrikaanse Handels Instituut (AHI). An esteemed and celebrated business icon in South Africa, she previously served as the Executive Director of the Retail Bank at ABSA, Chairperson of the Institute of Directors in SA and as a Non-Executive Director at the Reserve Bank.