The term "millennial" would be a categorisation Lesego would reject, being fundamentally opposed to categorisation of any kind, but there is no doubt that he is shaking up the “way things are done around here”, which is a proxy term for Standard Bank’s culture.
“Standard Bank is undoubtedly a great organization but can be unnecessarily risk averse,” he says. “There has to be a balance between being innovative and being risk averse. Look at how many millennials are coming into the workplace. Corporates will struggle with the rate of change this brings.”
Elaborating on how frustrating it can be for millennials to work for big corporates, he says: “Organizations say that they want us because they want new ideas and ways of doing things, but as soon as you propose something, five guys above you have to sign it off. We don’t have enough work autonomy, and if you challenge things, you are seen as defiant. The word ‘millennial’ is trendy, but this trend will fade. You don’t have to be a millennial to be creative. A lot of creative guys are Generation X and Baby Boomers. The only difference [with millennials], is that we are more liberal and we have access to information. We know what’s happening before we get there.”
Career rigidity comes up in his list of bugbears. “I asked a group of CIB staffers the other day: if Mark Zuckerberg were to create Facebook in the bank at the age of 23, would he be the head of social media? They said no, because the bank sees people as being too young for certain roles. It’s rare to have a 25 year old executive. One of the frustrations for young people is the rigidity of career management.”
A self-confessed maths and science whizz, Lesego, trained as an industrial engineer. He was identified by the graduate team as a promising candidate for Standard Bank in 2014 following a brief internship. At the time, he was also being courted by Deloitte, but Standard Bank offered him a full year’s tuition bursary on condition that he work for us the following year. He joined the features engineering team in 2015.
He says he chose Standard Bank over other companies because of “the people” - the fact that they went above and beyond to make sure that their interns were well taken care of. “The graduate team is a classic example of having the right people in the right place. At the end of the internship, a lot of people said that if they were offered a contract, they would go to Standard Bank. When I asked why, they answered, ‘the people, the place’. The team went above and beyond to make sure that I was well taken care of, facilitated and welcomed to the bank.”
Lesego points out that Standard Bank has something else many other organisations lack: the room for manoeuvre and the possibility of possibility.
“It would have taken me twice as long to do the projects I am doing in other organisations. This is partly about leadership. We have leaders who understand that as much as they bear the burden of having to produce results, this shouldn’t be passed down to the people they lead. It gives us the space to experiment.”
Leadership is a subject close to his heart. Pointing out that executive leadership is a complex skill - even an art - he says, “You can be really good at what you do, but that doesn’t mean that you are a leader.” Standard Bank has a number of outstanding leaders, he says. They show intellectual independence, whereas a lot of people merely follow trends. They treat people as individuals and have a down-to-earth, human element. They are firm, but approachable, open to new ideas, strategic thinkers, and are able to see potential from afar and be radical enough to do things never done before. Great leaders, he says, also understand that they don’t have to tell people how to do their job, their job is to connect with people.
While working at the bank, Lesego also has a radio show on CliffCentral called Unplugged and In Charge, which conveys the need to detach from the status quo in order to take charge of what we want to do. If this sounds like a contradiction from the always-on, always connected millennial lifestyle, it’s intentional.
“A lot of the time – particularly in the case of millennials – we rely on the people before us for guidance. Sometimes, they don’t really know what is going on. [Unplugged and In Charge] is about redefining the status quo. For example, many people would say that engineering and banking do not mix. But they do. What do you think is behind internet banking? Some people say that you can’t be an entrepreneur and have a nine-to-five job. Of course you can. It’s about living your life the way you want to according to your dreams and goals.”
Over the past two years, he has been involved in Standard Bank’s proposals to revamp the NSFAS student funding scheme, and has worked on a project to build an app on WeChat called Shift which allows staff to refer customers to the bank.
As a process engineer, Lesego is passionate about optimization and enablement, which includes finding new revenue streams for the bank. The Shift app is a new revenue stream because it allows us to access clients directly through our staff, something never done before.
“Process engineering is about finding leaner ways of doing things. [It’s about asking] is there a shorter way of doing it? Is there a less cumbersome way? It is about the combination of people, machines and IT. It is about enablement. For example, I would ask why the Wifi in the building isn’t open to everyone? If you block stuff, you block knowledge. Thinking back to my university days, I probably learnt more from YouTube than my lecturers,” he points out.
Channel optimization and new revenue streams relates to another passion of his – entrepreneurialism – the business of business creation.
He is unapologetic about the fact that he intends to be a “serial entrepreneur” in the future, but says that doesn’t stop him from taking an entrepreneurial approach to everything he does now.
“I run my radio programme like my own company. I consider how to market it, how to get as many listeners as possible, how to trend, how to attract sponsors. The same thing applies to what I do at the bank,” he says. “I run projects like a business, asking whether they make financial sense, whether they have an impact, whether we are keeping costs low, whether we need capital, and so on.
“Working for a corporate and being an entrepreneur may co-exist for a while, but I will get to the point where I will move my energy to entrepreneurship. In the current economic environment in South Africa, it’s important not to be an island. As many employees as possible need to convert to becoming employers. It’s the only way we will create economic transformation.”
Being entrepreneurial and creative is about being free thinking. “I relish independent thinking,” Lesego says. “I question everything five times in five different ways. A big part of creativity is to step out of your comfort zone. As much as I work for a corporate in a fairly rigid environment, I am also on radio with Gareth Cliff. I love the paradox. It’s necessary. Cliches don’t really exist. We are all individuals.
“At this time in South Africa, the biggest advantage youngsters have is the ability to do what they want to do, and what they enjoy doing. We are the first generation not exposed to war or any type of human rights violation.
“Our burden and curse is that we’re the generation where purpose, dismantling of the apartheid legacy, poverty and emotional fulfillment are part of our main currency. The complexity of this is that our fight is more abstract and hits the core of human dignity and the authentic human experience more than anything else. We want to be seen.”
Lesego takes his platform in corporate SA and his traction in mainstream media to embody what it means to achieving personal goals and competing at the highest level when the environment is not condusive for a black boy form Benoni to do so.
“We have come extremely far in enjoying our current freedoms, but we still have quite a long way to go,” he says. “It is our responsibility to take these advantages & freedoms and run with them like the wind until we can all fully enjoy the privileges of an Africa we call home.”