Electronic Toll Collections, Mr Coenie Vermaak

Resilience, communication key to surviving negative public sentiment


Leadership in business by broad definition is both a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organisation to “lead” or guide other individuals, teams, or entire companies.

These abilities are put to the test when companies are faced with negative public sentiment, as has been the case with, among others, KPMG SA, McKinsey, Tiger Brands and Ford SA in recent times.


Neale Roberts, an accredited business coach and business coach trainer says the country has become confused as to what true leadership is, which starts right at the top with the leaders of society.

He believes CEO's have become more concerned with their company’s growth and the consequences for their stakeholders than principles. “Those pressures are seemingly being prioritised over true, authentic, ethical and moralistic leadership,” he says.

Roberts explains that, when a bubble bursts, either the pressure to perform or maintain an authentic leadership style comes to bear. “Think of it as a seesaw where one side represents retaining and ingratiating oneself to clients and the other represents good, authentic, moral and ethical leadership.”

He says companies that keep their noses clean have clearly defined differentiators between the two sides. He also believes leadership quality and leadership competency are different things.

Roberts argues that the leader that sides with ethics is able to stand up with the support of his/her followers.

“Exemplary followers are proactive and independent, critical thinkers who can work things out clearly. But they could easily become alienated because the ethics and morals they thought were being practised are actually not being practised. That is a leadership issue,” he says.

While leadership is most required in times of trouble, different CEO’s and companies respond differently to their challenges. The result of their action - or inaction - means that some survive or even emerge stronger than ever, while others crash and burn.

One company in the public opinion firing line is the Electronic Tolling Company (ETC), the SANRAL-appointed supplier whose job it is to manage e-tolling and the collections process in Gauteng.

Its CEO, Coenie Vermaak, is “With the public outcry against e-tolls and the consequent negative public sentiment against the system, the leadership group at ETC has reacted with energy and stamina and a deep resolve to keep on track.”

 “Disappointments are plentiful. But resilience is our key to success. It is the ability to - despite the disappointments - hold the line, to stay the course and to continue with our agreed strategy.”

Vermaak says the leadership team at the ETC leads by example.

“They demonstrate commitment. One cannot fake commitment. They believe in the future of South Africa and, despite many disappointments, continue to believe in creating a better future for all South Africans.”


But, how does a CEO keep his workforce together in the face of negativity and adverse public sentiment? A key component is accountability.

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), boards of directors, institutional investors, governments, and the media are holding chief executives to a far higher level of accountability for corporate fraud and ethical lapses than they did in the past.

Confidence and trust in large corporations and CEOs has been declining for decades, accelerating since the financial crisis of 2007-08. Furthermore, only 37% of people consider CEOs to be credible today, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

According to Roberts, companies in strife need leaders with a public image, who talk to the public while also communicating internally to keep their exemplary followers exemplary. 

“Leaders need to be mentally resilient, intra and inter-personally adept, technically competent and able to balance maintaining the status quo with taking risks and creating new beginnings.”

Roberts says leaders that stick around for long periods are generally emotionally and physically resilient. Some of this may be down to genetics.

“Psychological resilience is also needed, as leaders deal with emotional and psychological knocks from various sources. Their resilience must be physical, too, because emotional battery can affect ones health.”

For Roberts, the qualities of a leader are not merely technical. 

“It's important for leaders to be self-aware of their thought patterns, how they emote and how they control that as well as how they are perceived by the outside world. Leaders have to build their personal brand and be astute as to how they build it.”

He suggests how leaders spend their time might also need to change during trying times. “They could embrace company walkabouts as it’s a lot easier to manage the downside when your staff already know about you and know that you come around and visit them. They are therefore aware that the CEO is behind them.

Adds Vermaak: “Being seen and being available to your staff and team is important but it’s also about being transparent and having a clear vision and strategy for the business that is clearly articulated to all staff and backed by the very top executives and leadership team.”

 “At ETC we have developed a Strategic Alignment Map that we call our Gameplan. It is a clear, ambitious strategy in which 96% of the business participated in developing. This buy-in ensures vertical and horizontal alignment business-wide. It was developed to give employees an overarching sense of purpose and goals and I believe this makes them more likely to trust ETC, as an employer. When negative public news breaks or political sentiment swings our people stay focused on the plan and the strategy. This also creates purpose.”


While leaders have to be self-motivated, they also need to be able to motivate their staff, especially when the going gets tough.

Vana Prewitt, an organisational effectiveness consultant, believes staff motivation lies in trust and respect. “CEO’s must demonstrate integrity, conviction and empathy. They should be able to identify quick, easy wins to rebuild confidence.”

“They should keep employees informed, remain transparent and involve them in framing the solution. They should also reward problem-solvers publicly and showcase desired behaviours,” she says.

Roberts believes leaders have got to be seen to be competent in terms of dealing with negative sentiment before they deal with it.

“There needs to be internal campaigns and work done that talk to staff about why the company is still great, and that the negative sentiment is a bump on a long road,” he states. “An internal communication campaign in which proactive, inspirational leadership that inspires and motivates, must be demonstrated.”

Most agree that communication that is honest and open is crucial.

“People need to be trusted with the truth; they respond amazingly when you demonstrate that you trust them and when you communicate truthfully and honestly to them,” says Vermaak.

“Mutual respect is of paramount importance and a very clearly defined value system, backed up with transparency and behaviours that support this system is crucial,” he concludes.

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