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South African Entrepreneur Jason English Rewrites the Rules of Corporate Culture in ‘The Oros Effect’

By Guardian Nigeria
29 October 2022   |   6:00 am
The Oros Effect is Jason English’s manifesto on corporate culture. The South African entrepreneur draws from a combination of personal anecdotes gained rising through the ranks to lead global teams and organisations. In the book, English eschews conventional corporate archetypes, arguing instead for a framework that defines how leaders can instill a strong company culture using something he refers to as their Oros – essentially their “vision, values and purpose”.

Jason English, Chief Ecosystem Officer, CG Tech

The Oros Effect is Jason English’s manifesto on corporate culture. The South African entrepreneur draws from a combination of personal anecdotes gained rising through the ranks to lead global teams and organisations. In the book, English eschews conventional corporate archetypes, arguing instead for a framework that defines how leaders can instill a strong company culture using something he refers to as their Oros – essentially their “vision, values and purpose”.

Named after a South African cordial, English recalls how he discovered his Oros while pouring a drink and thinking about how to scale a new venture. As he poured, English observed how only a few drops of orange concentrate infused themselves into the surrounding water, soon turning the entire glass orange. “The cloud of Oros as the two [water and Oros] mixed represented our organisation’s culture – [our] vision, values and purpose.”

Shaped by over 20 years on the corporate frontlines, the 44-year-old English describes an eclectic career across a number of sectors, working in “police, medical, oil and gas, technology, events and construction.” English describes his time in oil and gas as formative, “Much of how I now think, act and feel as a leader has been moulded by my past experiences in the oil and gas sector”.

Is English proposing that lessons in organisational culture are better experienced than theorised? In his book, English describes how he formed a mindset about “learn[ing] more from poor leaders than good leaders.”

With his double-decade traversal of the organisational ladder across multiple industries, English is perhaps better placed than most to commentate on “how just one person or a few people can steer the culture of an entire organisation – for better, or for worse.”

English drives his point about how the ‘few can steer the many’ by comparing organisational culture to making school lunches for his three kids. The golden rule: “no nuts.” English points out that the rule isn’t because a majority of the children at the school have a nut allergy; rather that “the consequences of a severe allergic reaction for a few kids are grave enough to justify a school-wide no-nut policy.”

What may sound like a trivial comparison, especially for someone who oversees a group of multi-million-dollar companies, and likely doesn’t make it a daily habit of making his kids’ lunches, English’s analogy belies an idea of vital importance: that a handful of people with sufficient will have the power to reshape the direction of an organisation and therefore have the ability to improve or impair organisational culture in equal measure. “The Oros Effect will only work if a leader’s values are inherently good,” writes English. Adding, “a leader who has bad values could potentially transfer that Oros throughout the entire organisation, and then it becomes hard to undo.”

Fond of simple metaphors to explain his ideas, English likens organisational culture to a house, with values forming the foundation – something English argues is important to get right. “Walls, roofs, windows, doors, electrical – they can all be changed or repaired quite easily at any time, but not the foundation.”

English broadens the concept of Oros to talent acquisition. While others might rank skillsets and capabilities high on the potential talent wishlist, English looks for character and an eagerness to learn. He argues that strong values are more important than proficiencies, as you can teach someone new skills, but it can be challenging to change someone’s values.

English goes further to codify his theory mathematically, something he refers to as the >51% Rule. “If you can keep more than 51% of your team aligned with your vision, beliefs, values and the way you do things (your Oros), then you can scale a business.” A ‘tipping point’ of organisational culture?

Team alignment is a recurring theme in The Oros Effect, with English narrating a lively example of how his ideas were formed in the crucible of conflict – quite literally staring down the barrel of a gun. “The SAPS [South African Police Service] ethos highlighted the fact that if people are aligned and understand systems and processes, they are more likely to make decisions which are in the best interest of everyone.”

With a vignette that could have come from a Tom Clancy novel, Jason English recollects a life-or-death moment during his time in the SAPS when he took a bullet to the chest. (Thankfully the bulletproof vest took the force.) English put his life in his partner’s hands, relying on him in a highly uncertain situation to switch roles and drag him to safety. “[These] experiences can help build resilience and allow you to respond fluidly to complex situations.” A formative experience indeed.

Throughout the book, Jason English refers to all the different roles he has fulfilled – an employee, a manager and now as CEO of CG Tech, an investment holding company with interests in a number of traditional industries, and adding a digital twist.

But English redefines the role of CEO, describing his role as the group’s Chief Ecosystem Officer leading across a number of companies within CG Tech. This distinction forms a major tenet of the book, which delves into the importance of creating and maintaining a culture that permeates throughout the ecosystem.

The CG Tech vision “to build a billion dollar group that inspires our ecosystem,” relies on acquiring companies that on paper, appear to have very little in common. With the help of digital technology, cross-group synergies are recognised and used as tools to power the collective CG Tech ecosystem.

But it’s how prescriptively English defines the ecosystem as “inside [and outside] the castle wall,” distinguishing between an organisation’s internal and external ecosystem.

“If Serve.Solve.Uplift serves as our external-facing vision, within the confines of the group, inside the castle wall have an internal-facing vision… Engage.Develop.Propel.”

This kind of purpose-driven approach to business isn’t new. Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last, told us almost 30 years ago that purpose-driven companies were shown to generate six-times higher shareholder profits than their purely profit-driven rivals.

In a world of smooth-talking populist management philosophers, English, at just 44 years old, sets himself apart from the crowd, drawing on over two decades of practical experience to reinterpret Collin’s ideas for the modern age.

The world is a very different place today than it was 30 years ago. And while much has changed, particularly in the last few years, English’s The Oros Effect is a reminder that Oros-driven companies built on strong corporate cultures are impervious to change. Perhaps all organisations can benefit from a cup of Oros.