The mind of a mentor: Insights from SA’s leading innovators

Golden tips from the man behind the Golden Arches

The Mentorship Challenge connects people across multiple boundaries. And this is all thanks to the time, talent and wisdom of the mentors featured on the show and online. We wanted to unpack their insights more fully because, ultimately, it’s all about the meetings, milestones – and mistakes! – that led them to be the leaders they are today.

CEO of McDonald’s SA Greg Solomon cut his teeth in construction as a project engineer in the ‘90s, literally building the McDonald’s brand across SA. This, however, was just a ‘drive-thru’ on his journey to senior management, where sales, customer service and guest count for the Golden Arches grew dramatically on his watch. Greg believes that to lead you must first be followed, and he’s visionary, charismatic and determined enough to inspire a multitude of followers. He’s especially proud of ‘The Hamburger University’, which develops entrepreneurial, business, culinary and hospitality skills – it’s pretty much like a mini-MBA in hospitality, and, it’s how McDonald’s creates its own leaders.

On his journey to CEO, Greg has built a mosaic of mentors who’ve helped shape his character. We sat him down and asked him to answer a few choice questions.

1. What is your understanding of the term ‘mentorship’?

The concept of a mentor has grown to encompass so many different definitions. But, in my view, mentoring occurs when a senior, more experienced professional acts as an advisor or counsellor. Wisdom is best acquired when you’ve journeyed some way on a particular path – and you’re willing to share those experiences with like-minded people.

In short, there are three tenets which form part of these experiences and these are experience, exposure and education. Somewhere in the space between experience and exposure the mentorship (education!) resides.

2. What, in your view, is required to forge a successful mentoring relationship?

Relationships are forged from trust and respect. These are at the foundation of any mutually beneficial relationship. In addition to these, open and frank communication, along with honesty

and integrity, are essential ingredients in a successful mentoring relationship.

3. Tell us about the earliest memories of mentorship in your life – with specific reference to the people who had the greatest influence on your development.

Personally, I believe the ultimate goal of a mentor should be to help grow the mentee into a greater version of themselves. This, I believe, cannot be the job of a single person. I have never had just one mentor; I prefer to have multiple mentors, because I like to be influenced by many different types of people. I surround myself with multiple individuals (both personally and professionally), and build a mosaic of their influential traits to help me on my own journey.

For me, a great mentor isn’t always someone who is in the same business as I am, but rather someone who adds value to my life, sometimes without even realising it.

4. Looking back on your life, what changes would you make and what would you do differently? What would you say to your younger self?

Personally, I would have had more children. As a young father, I was afraid to commit to a big family, but now, as an older, wiser man, I know children are the best gift you can ever ask for.

Professionally, in 2001, McDonald’s SA was in the unfortunate position of having to close 10 stores in KZN. From this, a regrettable decision was taken to retrench people, and this was something, if given a chance, I would have done differently today.

5. If you could pick anyone in the world to mentor you today, who would that ‘fantasy’ mentor be?

Nelson Mandela

6. What legacy would you like to leave in your lifetime?

I’ve broken it down into a set of questions:

What do I do? I’m a coach, a thought partner, a decision maker, a talent builder and an alignment champion – because this is what builds culture and a strong foundation.

Who do I do it for? Our people, because they touch the customer who spends money with us every day – this makes us money, creates growth and jobs.

Why do I do it? To unlock dreams and potential, to improve diversity and equality, to create positive discomfort and ask the difficult questions – this creates velocity, progress and growth.

How do I do things? Through influence, trust and respect, or just by being a good person who does good things. A good leader. A good husband, good father, and a good friend – this is a true legacy.

7. What does it take to develop an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset?

I believe one must always balance the tension between patience and persistence, as well as the conflict between great results and great loyalty. Balance comes from discipline and belief. There should also exist a balance between materialism and modesty.

An entrepreneurial, innovative mindset is also formed through making time, and through the meticulous planning of every single thing. While all these are important, one must be clear about personal priorities. Mine remain: Family first, then community, and then work.

8. What changes would you like to see in our education system (pre-primary through to post-matric)

Make it more supportive of disruptive, entrepreneurial thinking! And then make access to a good education a top priority in our country – a necessity, not a luxury!

I also believe that educators should be better compensated, as they are the foundation of the entire system. Teaching is a massively impactful profession, and teachers impact students’ lives daily. By underpaying educators, we’re not valuing them enough and we’re not positioning education as a core development priority. They underpin our entire education system – and this should be motivation enough to pay them accordingly! We need a greater focus on STEM subjects and on English. The work world is changing, and innovation drives change and leads to new products and processes that sustain our economy. This kind of innovation depends on science literacy and a solid knowledge base in STEM. It’s clear that most jobs of the future will require a more than basic understanding of maths and science, and English. English is the dominant business language and has become a necessity if people are to enter a global workforce.

9. What role can corporates, SMEs and NGOs play in rebuilding South Africa, and how can they make a meaningful impact in the communities that need this most?

Firstly, business needs to invest more in our country and our people. We must lead through our actions and associated capital spend, in building new businesses, new business lines and areas. Where possible, we must take ownership of infrastructure-building and responsibilities. So, we can stop worrying about what the country can do for us, and ask what we can do for the country. Even one person can make a difference!

Secondly, we need to invest more in education, learning and development. A business that is not upskilling its workforce will not survive. McDonald’s trains over 1 500 people every year in formal classroom training. That’s over 15% of our staff. Every employee has a personal development plan that centres on ‘Education, Exposure or Experience’ – what I call  the 3Es. McDonald’s SA is now Accredited by the Department of Education to NQF Level 4 and 5 . So, people who work at McDonald’s SA acquire both skills and a formal education too. This provides a model for all other businesses in SA!

10. What advice would you give a passionate young person who wants to start their ownbusiness in today’s economic climate?

The future of our economy depends on lots of smaller enterprises making a difference. The era of ‘big business’ as the only driver of our economy is fast changing. With this in mind, I would say to aspiring entrepreneurs that you should build your base, do the groundwork first. This means working for an established business before you start a business. This will build your character and mould you to be able to deal with the challenges that may come. Starting a business isn’t an easy feat, and there are no shortcuts to the top. You need to commit to the journey of leadership. Patience is key: things don’t happen overnight, and this is something most young people don’t accept easily. Your passion, determination and commitment to the course should always be driving factors when starting your own business.

We’re hoping these mentoring dialogues will deliver some meaningful food for thought for you to digest, and that they’ll inspire both mentors and mentees to join the challenge.

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