Meet the Boss: Mark Elliott, division president, MasterCard South Africa

Mark Elliott, division president, MasterCard South Africa

“If you don’t question everything, if you’re not competitively paranoid, you will not have the sense of self-introspection that you so sorely will need to be a real leader,” says Mark Elliott, division president for MasterCard South Africa.

1. What was your first job?

I was 18 years old when I got my first internship as a journalist (my dad’s career) at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Early on, it taught me about the importance of listening, the value of an analytical mind and above all the importance of meeting tight deadlines. I also learnt humility as what I wrote in the early hours and what appeared in the newspaper were often quite different!

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

Cash. In Africa, 85% of the retail transactions are still done in cash, which is costing governments anywhere between 0.5% to 1.5% of GDP depending on the country. There is also security spend, theft and loss of lives related to cash. Cash is the friend of corruption. Cash is not the friend of the person who’s trying to be straight with what they’re trying to do. And cash certainly isn’t the friend of the millions of Africans who are financially excluded and are kept out of the financial mainstream. Think about having to pay a bill in cash and standing in line for hours – when you get paid by the hour and you can’t pay that bill over the phone or online. Think about having the social benefits you just got in cash stolen as you make your way home. Or worse, by relatives at home – which happens far more than you might think.

There’s never been a greater opportunity for business to be a force for good in the world. And I don’t mean simply by providing jobs, paying taxes, and meeting needs. The World Bank has set an ambitious goal of ending financial exclusion by the year 2020, and the role the private sector plays here is vital.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

When I was at university, I was inspired by the BBC show Troubleshooter where Sir John Henry Harvey-Jones advised struggling businesses across Britain, while making touching connections with the people he met along the way. It made me want to be in the trenches, understanding what makes a business “tick” and helping it grow successfully. My career – which spans from accountancy to investment banking and now general management – is still very much in line with this initial inspiration.

4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

A senior executive once told me: “If you have good news for me, take the stairs. If you have bad news, take the elevator as I need to know that quickly, so I can do something about it.”

Our world today, with its amazing technological advances and the fact that this innovation cycle is ever-shortening, has no space for those who procrastinate. Saying that, you also need to be patient enough to listen to everybody, but yet, you must have a sense of urgency to take a decision and to execute.

5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I have developed a global view and believe that achieving a balance between patience, and the urgency to execute, is critical. I also constructively look for ways to improve and do things better, which keeps me grounded and coming back for more.

6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

Exposing yourself to different challenges, cultures and types of teams, with a healthy feedback loop, is the best way in my mind to grow as a leader. Having said that, a recent business school course on “authentic leadership” was a great intervention, reminding me about what employees and millennials are looking for in a leader today.

7. How do you relax?

My kids ensure I switch off immediately when I am at home. Table tennis is the new “big thing” in our house. I also bike almost daily. I am a strong believer in the connection between healthy body and healthy mind.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

I like to be at my desk at 8am sharp every morning. That allows me some quiet time to prepare for the day ahead.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

“What didn’t you get a chance to include in your resume?”

A CV is important but the hiring decision goes beyond this. You would be surprised by how much is often not captured.

10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

My message to aspiring African business leaders and entrepreneurs is two-fold. Firstly, be competitively paranoid.  And by that I don’t mean be fearful. What I mean is constantly ask yourself if you’re missing something. Is there more to the problem? Is there a better solution? If you don’t question everything, if you’re not competitively paranoid, you will not have the sense of self-introspection that you so sorely will need to be a real leader.

Secondly, be courageous enough to take thoughtful risks. Rarely are you going to have perfect information to make a decision. The willingness to take a decision at that time will depend greatly on your ability to take a thoughtful risk, which ultimately depends on your courage. As Winston Churchill said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Mark Elliott is MasterCard’s division president for South Africa and is responsible for the company’s strategic direction and performance in the country. He previously held key management positions at MasterCard in its Middle East and Africa division.

Elliot is a chartered accountant and possesses a BA (Hons) in combined studies from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Prior to joining MasterCard in 2011 he spent years working for Barclays in the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. He has also held various roles at ING Barings, PwC, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson and Arthur Andersen.