Meet the Boss: Colin Iles, MD, Absa Group Limited

Colin Iles

1. What part of your job keeps you awake at night?

How to breakdown the corporate immune system.

For a business to survive and thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they are going to have to become much more nimble and agile.

The problem most leaders face though is that the processes and structures that have been put in place to protect their business and brand, also prevent them from adapting quickly to these threats and opportunities.

I fail at my role if I’m unable to help leadership teams switch off that immune system, and that is never an easy task.

2. Name three traits required to survive in this role.

That’s a tough question, and I’d probably find if I analysed this too much I don’t have the ones I need.

The one trait which I do, however, think is very important, not just for this role, but for any role, is having a strong sense of purpose.

Waking up every morning with the knowledge, or at least the belief, that whatever you are doing is going to benefit others, is a strong motivator. It certainly helps me find the grit to keep trying, through the good and the bad times.

3. What is the biggest misconception about your job?

That it’s fun and easy.

Hopefully, that’s the impression people get, but the reality is that it can be stressful and I’m continually having to recalibrate my approach to make sure clients are getting real value.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love what I do – just not all the time.

4. Who has had the greatest impact on your career?

For this role, Anton Musgrave, senior partner at FutureWorld.

A few years back, Anton facilitated a full day leadership session for Absa and I made a decision that day that I wanted to do something similar. He made it look fun and easy, and I walked away with a very different mindset about how corporate leadership teams should operate.

5. What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

If you ever get to meet the queen, just remember she farts like everyone else.

A little colloquial perhaps, but for me the message was clear. Never be afraid to interact with people who have, or who are perceived to have, status or power.

6. The top reason for your professional success?

Probably the most important factor has been luck. Not being born into poverty, having a loving family and being provided with the opportunity for a good education, without question opened up pathways that were not available to others.

In areas that I’ve been able to control, whenever I’ve found a purpose or goal, that resonated at a personal and emotional level, I’ve made the biggest strides.

7. How do you relax?

I’m not great at relaxing. My worst nightmare is being forced to experience a massage or sunbathe on the beach.

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

I don’t have a set time. A lot depends on how excited I am about a particular project.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d have been able to give you two or three, which I felt were important.

Over time though I’ve come to the conclusion that interviews are actually a pretty poor way to determine the qualities of an individual for a job.

10. The biggest perk of your job?

Flexibility in how and where I work, the variety of clients I work with, and being lucky enough to do something I enjoy and might one day be good at.

11. In addition to your own industry, name one untapped business opportunity in Africa.

Any industry that relates to solar energy. The potential here is massive. Over the next 10 years, you’re going to continue to see huge reductions in the price per kWh in both photovoltaic panels and battery storage. This will mean the technology moves from high-end to middle income to mass market over time. There is an opportunity there at pretty much every point of the value chain.

Colin Iles is managing director for Absa Group Limited and CEO of The Equinox Leadership and Innovation Centre.