LEADING EDGE | Vaal University of Technology
by Andrew Ngozo
Passion for everything ‘people development’ oozes from Professor Irene Moutlana, Vice Chancellor and Principal of Vaal University of Technology (VUT). Professor Moutlana believes one’s life does little good if it is not intended to positively touch and impact on society at large. She dwells on her career and aspirations for VUT and South Africa and dispenses some valuable pearls of wisdom to those whom she is helping to shape as South Africa’s current and future leaders. She says beyond our borders South Africa and Africa are each coming in to their own and both should utilise the human capital and natural resources available so as to create the balance necessary for prosperity.
Can you share what fuels your passion, dedication and commitment to people development?
My whole upbringing was premised on a people centred family environment, one that is humane in
the sense that I come from a family of teachers, priests and nurses. Essentially our home environment was one that was solely focused on serving other people. That became one of the values that drove me to help by contributing to, and in, other people’s lives. In fact, back then, I never thought of anything other than becoming a teacher. Thus, it was my ability to make a change in people’s lives that spurred me on and, for me teaching was the path that would help me achieve that goal. That is why, today, I still brand myself as a teacher irrespective of who I meet.
You have been a leader at various academic institutions in South Africa. From your experience, what are the essential attributes for a leader to guide South Africa’s future leaders?
As a leader that has found herself landing roles in many institutions over the years, I have learnt that if you really want to be an ethical or a transformative leader, then you have to look after your people, as the first principle, by, among other things, acknowledging them and their efforts. This can be individually or as a collective. Use the 3Ps philosophy as your mantra, which puts people at the fore, then service to the same and, lastly, profit. One can never go wrong with this formula because you will get the type of services you need to make your institution a success. Secondly, always strive to give your people the necessary resources that will make their contribution more meaningful. I have also learnt, over the years, that in order to deal with people, one has to grow, in oneself, a sense of caring, sharing and empathy. I suppose this is where being a female came in handy and augured well for me as I did not have to strive for those virtues but they came with my being a woman.
Can you give us an insight on the issues that affect (positively or otherwise) the business conduct and socio-economic behaviour which are vital to the performance and success of the University?
The question to ask in this regard is: what is the fundamental mandate of a university? It is for the upliftment of society and this speaks to the availability of resources which should be the driving force. Having been at various institutions, one of the most crucial, and common, of the challenges is that of having enough resources. By challenges, I mean the ability to identify the right talent, retain it and grow it. Hire the right people and it translates that you will get the proper services. Again, this speaks to the ability of a university to constantly strive at improving its clientele through empowerment programmes of professional development. It is not so much about the money you give to them that makes people stay, but about the empowerment programmes of professional development that will make them stay. You have to create an affirming environment that makes them want to come to work each day. Universities are, by nature, highly conflictual environments which can be very hostile if you, as a leader, lack the sensitivity to deal with people who might not possess the same strength as you or share in the vision you have. Consequently, one has to be able to navigate their way through these various expectations, aspirations, people’s dreams, their fears and doubts. This is only possible through constant contact with them which I call ‘Management by Walking’. I think my ability to do exactly this, has allowed me to achieve success over the years. So much so in a very competitive and white dominated environment!
Having been involved in the higher learning sphere for most of your career life, what do you reckon still needs to be done by South Africa, and Africa, vis-à-vis innovation and technology?
While Africa, as a continent, has all the ingredients it needs for technology to flourish, it may not have the political will or the trained human capital to do it. Hence, I would think that, Africa must train its people and use every space and opportunity available to improve her people. The emphasis should be the introduction of a value chain where ideas can come in from whatever source. Because the institutions have the expertise, they will be able to convert the ideas, commercialise them, and transfer them as well as apply them, and meaningfully so, for upliftment.
Another factor is that, because we are a University of Technology, then technology is our object of study. We are moving towards a knowledge, technology driven society hence going forward, technology will be a major driving force in our programmes and qualifications. Infused in our qualifications will be an element of entrepreneurism which is something all gove-rnments, including South Africa’s, are pushing for. We want, not only skilled people, but skilled people who know how to know. This is where the entrepreneurial edge comes in.
What are the challenges you face on a daily basis and how do you deal with these?
Turning back a student in need is always tough for me. We often take it for granted that young people or students have it good but if we can go beyond that point and do something about that lack, I think we will be able to bring out the best possible quality of students in institutions that are places of people.
What piece(s) of advice would you offer to a young executive aspiring to achieve your levels of success?
Firstly; read and be task focused! What is focus about you may ask? It is about making certain that every task is a complete task. If you are in a position of power then hire good people that will make you look good in return. It is the goodness of these people that changes your position into one of very influential power which will give your institution the power of action. Another is that one must always share and give by embracing everyone within your circles and giving them an insider status. The marvel of humility is that it is the ultimate hallmark of a good leader.
When your tenure as Vice Chancellor comes to an end, what do you hope to look back on?
Well, the notion of an end is one that does not exist in my life. I never think about retirement because I have never planned my life in the manner that [other] people are planning theirs. I can confidently say that I am one of those people on whom the gods keep on smiling at. As such, when I come to an end of a section of my life, something happens. I will go on teaching and I have rendered myself available for that but nothing will make me change my vocation. The rules will be the same wherever I go and I might change the space, but the most important thing is that I will still be able to change lives. I suppose, in continuing to do that, I will move from this point of success, as it were, to one of significance. As for retirement, well, it will only come when the last bells ring. Otherwise my intention is to carry on working because people were meant to work!
Looking to the future, what can South Africa expect from the University in terms of product offerings
and service delivery?
We are no longer in a developmental stage but are becoming highly developed within our own backyard of Southern Africa. The country also has vast wells of minerals and pools of untapped human potential and capital in addition to a lot of industries. On the other hand, universities, in general, are being blamed for not churning out a skilled labour force. So I have to look for a balance between what industries need and what we, as a university, can offer with regards to expertise and marry these with ideas from outside to assist me with crafting different curricula. Alternatively, we should identify university needs in a way that is [to me] applying a solutions driven approach to the needs of the country. I am by no means saying that industry must start crafting curricula lest we stand to lose out on the human aspect that is so fundamental to citizenry.
Are there any [other] thoughts that you would like to share with business leaders?
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Given all the recent events in the higher education space concomitantly with a rich pool of human capital, South Africa is found caught up in a cycle of poverty, disease and want. But if only we can reframe the whole notion of education in a manner that will address these chan-ges needed, then we may yet be the change we want to see. But above all, given, again, the recent events in South Africa, I believe ethics should be an integral part of what is taught in schools right from primary school upwards. It must become a virtue that one experiences throughout their academic reformation. Lastly, all partnerships that have been created and fostered thus far must be maintained in such a manner that they are equal partnerships that will lead to double victory. Interdependency must be respected based on trust from both parties.