LESLIE Maasdorp is an affable guy. He exudes confidence. What is also most noticeable about him is that he embodies a rare commodity in the South African landscape. And that is what one could call “Non-deployee Leadership”. In other words, wherever he has been, he has been there because he was qualified to be there.
As an economist, banker and business leader, Maasdorp, 48, has risen through the ranks – both in government and in the corporate sphere – through sheer grit. I have admired his drive and passion for excellence. In more ways than one, he is what Malcolm Gladwell would aptly call an “outlier”.
His business track record suggests he is someone who is success-driven and a high achiever. And yet, none of this could spare him the embarrassment of seeing his tenure as the chief executive of private schooling company AdvTech evaporate before his eyes. His stint will probably go on record as one of the shortest chief executive stints in South Africa’s recent history.
After a mere seven months on the job, AdvTech announced on Monday that Maasdorp and the company had parted ways. Nobody knows for sure why because neither the company nor Maasdorp are in any position to speak about what really happened. They have both invoked some confidentiality agreement, which basically means nobody will ever really know what happened.
But this being South Africa, one is left wondering why AdvTech would have found it so difficult to bridge the so-called “differences” that Maasdorp apparently had with the board.
And having served initially as chairman of the AdvTech for four years, he would have had intimate knowledge of the company’s key pressure points – that is, what it needed to propel itself forward and more importantly, what role it saw for itself in transforming education in South Africa but starting within its own ranks.
So, that such a young, talented and bright executive could opt to head for the exit would suggest that whatever those “differences” were, they possibly evolved around the misalignment of Maasdorp’s own thinking and values versus those of the board and AdvTech as a whole.
Education, like any other sector in our economy, has become a highly contested space, not only because of the apparent failure of government to fix education, but because of the money that now stands to be made in the sector as private schools and other institutions pop up everywhere.
Maasdorp does not want to be drawn into what he now envisages for his future, only to say he intends to stay in the education space. He is passionate about what education can do to transform lives and lift young people, especially, out of poverty. He cites himself as an example of this, having grown up impoverished in Port Elizabeth.
“I am disappointed that my time (as chief executive) was cut short,” Maasdorp said of his abrupt departure. About his future, this was all he could say: “I am committed to the education sector in South Africa. Education is central to improving people’s lives.”
In fact, he credits his success to education, having obtained a BA degree from the University of the Western Cape and a MSc degree in Economics from the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
His alumni at SOAS include Lesetja Kganyago, the governor of the SA Reserve Bank; Maria Ramos, the chief executive of Barclays Africa; and Brian Molefe, the chief executive of Transnet. All of them subsequently joined Trevor Manuel and Tito Mboweni at the Department of Economic Planning of the ANC, which was the policy think-tank for future economic policy.
In 1994 he was appointed as special adviser to then labour minister Tito Mboweni, leading several labour market reform initiatives including the drafting of the new labour laws and the formation of government, labour and business negotiating chamber Nedlac. In 1999, he was appointed the deputy director-general of the Public Enterprises Department, leading the restructuring and privatisation programme.
In 2002, Maasdorp went into banking, becoming a senior investment banker to several blue chip institutions, as well as international adviser to Goldman Sachs, followed by a five-year stint as the vice-chairman of Absa Capital and Barclays Capital. Before heading up AdvTech, Maasdorp was president of Bank of America Merrill Lynch for southern Africa, a post he held from 2010 until 2014.
With this sort of backdrop it is hard to believe that he would have had any difficulty in steering AdvTech into the future, noting, of course, that the company’s stock notched gains of more than 20 percent during his brief stint. If anything, the announcement on Monday left a lot of unanswered questions, one of which is: how is it that the company could make such an abrupt executive change without entirely taking investors into confidence about what these irreconcilable differences between the board and Maasdorp were?
Maasdorp’s departure might have no bearing on what happens at each of the classrooms of AdvTech schools tomorrow, but to the wider world it throws the spotlight on the obstacles that black executives face in their quest to drive transformation where it matters the most. And with AdvTech, that transformation surely must start with the make-up of its executive ranks to better reflect the context in which the company operates.
Maasdorp was AdvTech’s first black chief executive, and only time will tell if there will be another one after him.