Name: Benny Obayi
Title: National Director
Oranisation: Child Welfare SA
Benny Obayi is a distinguished development practitioner with several years of experience in development work and academic research, specializing in social and policy studies, decision design for business operations, and organisational development. He is the national executive director of Child Welfare South Africa, a social services organisation that focuses on research, advocacy, training, organisational support and development project. His extensive background in research and consulting has made him a leading authority in human relations studies.
Benny has a Master of Business Administration and a PhD in sociology. He also has a Master of development studies and a bachelor's honors degree in social sciences, among other certification programs in different fields. With this diverse educational foundation, Benny brings a multidisciplinary perspective to his work. Benny’s academic contributions are reflected in his published works. His recent work is a book, “Adapt and Thrive”, which explores the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and its influence on the trends in the contemporary labor environment.
He used the book to guide readers in making forward-thinking career choices. However, beyond his career, Benny is a devoted family man who enjoys the rich diversity of cultural tapestry and the beauty of nature.
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Benny's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
As a leader, I have encountered various challenges, but one that stands out is navigating through periods of uncertainty and change. The period of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 witnessed significant changes that impacted several organisations.
Adapting to the changes that resulted from the process, while maintaining team morale and productivity was very demanding. This required making tough decisions that were not universally popular. There were a lot of setbacks and letdowns that were emotionally demanding. However, the period also provided invaluable opportunities for growth and learning.
Furthermore, working in the social services sector, managing diverse teams with different personalities, skill sets, and working styles can be challenging. During times of uncertainty and change, such as the lockdown period in 2020, ensuring effective communication, fostering collaboration, and resolving issues constructively helps a leader in such situations. Based on the experiences I encountered during the period, I would say that the most challenging aspect of leadership is the ability to continuously evolve, adapt, and inspire others while striving to achieve common organisational goals.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My leadership journey was not a predefined path, but rather an amalgamation of experiences, learning, and gradual growth. It began with my early inclination towards taking initiative and assuming responsibility in various positions I held. Throughout my professional career, I often found myself naturally stepping into leadership roles in group projects. I was drawn to organizing and coordinating others to achieve common objectives. These experiences helped me understand the essence of collaboration and effective communication.
I started as a program officer in my first job. At the time, I would look out for opportunities to go beyond the job requirements, without expecting additional remuneration. I often volunteered for tasks that others may have declined, while consistently striving to be my best. I was recommended for promotion at every given opportunity due to my desire to go above expectations. That helped me hone my leadership skills.
I believe my leadership journey was shaped significantly by those with whom I have worked. I was open to guidance and constructive feedback from my supervisors, as well as colleagues. I saw challenges as opportunities; these saw me progressively grow in my career. I grew in my current organisation until I became the head of projects.
When the organization was going through operational challenges, I stepped up and provided recommendations on how to fix the challenges. After I laid out the plans on how I felt the challenges would be resolved, I was given the opportunity by the management to carry out the ideas I had proposed. I was made the head of operations and subsequently, the national director. It was scary and challenging, but commitment helped me, and it has been a rewarding journey.
Over time, as I encounter various challenges and successes, I have realized that leadership is not just about holding a position, or about titles, but about empowering others, fostering growth, and achieving collective success.
Each experience, whether a triumph or a setback, has contributed to shaping me into the leader I am today. I am continuously learning and evolving to better serve my team and the organization's goals.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
My typical workday involves a structured routine that helps me maintain productivity and balance. I usually wake up early to kickstart my day. Starting early gives me time for personal activities like meditation, reading, and exercise, which helps set a positive tone for my day. I prioritize nutritious meals to fuel my body and mind for each day.
I review my schedule, set goals, and prioritize tasks. This helps me focus on the most important activities for each day. I allocate specific time blocks for focused work on essential tasks, minimizing distractions and aiming for deep work during these periods. I usually schedule meetings during times that suit both my schedule and others. I stay responsive to emails, messages, and calls, but I try to limit multitasking to ensure the quality of my work.
To maintain productivity and avoid burnout, I take short breaks between work, often incorporating a brief walk around. As the workday winds down, I allocate time for wrapping up pending tasks, responding to any urgent messages, and organizing for the next day. I reserve evenings for personal activities, relaxation, and spending time with family and friends. Before bedtime, I usually unwind by reading, listening to a podcast, watching television, or any other relaxation activity to ensure a restful night.
It is important to note that while I have a structured routine, I remain adaptable. Unexpected tasks or priorities may arise, so I am always flexible in adjusting my schedule accordingly to ensure I address urgent matters while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
One of the recent leadership lessons that I have been reminded of is the importance of empathy. This lesson was reinforced during the Covid-19 lockdown. Before the lockdown, it was easy to get caught up in achieving goals and meeting deadlines, and sometimes, one overlooked the human aspect of leadership.
The period unraveled the different aspects of challenges that the team dealt with. Initially, my approach was to focus solely on the work-related aspects, but I realized that taking a step back to understand and empathize with the everyday challenge of staff working alone was crucial. By actively listening and showing genuine concern for the team’s well-being, I created a safe space for the team to discuss their challenges. This allowed us to find solutions together that not only addressed personal needs but also helped the staff regain focus and productivity at work.
This experience reminded me that leaders should prioritize empathy and understanding, recognizing that individuals face unique circumstances. Taking the time to connect on a human level, and providing support when needed, can significantly impact an individual's morale and overall performance. The experience taught me that leadership is not just about driving results. It is also about caring for the people and understanding that their well-being directly influences their ability to contribute effectively.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
One book that has had a profound impact on my leadership journey is "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek. The book influenced my perspective on effective leadership by emphasizing the importance of prioritizing the well-being of those I lead. The book's insightful exploration of leadership through the lens of nature highlights the significance of creating a culture of trust and support within an organization.
The book resonates with me as it emphasizes the responsibility of leaders to prioritize the needs of their team members, putting their welfare ahead of personal interests. The explanation of human interactions and trust within a group is crucial for a leader in establishing a safe and supportive environment.
The book prompts a shift in leadership approach to focus more on building strong relationships and creating an environment where individuals feel valued, and motivated to contribute their best. Implementing some of the concepts from the book, such as servant leadership and putting others first, significantly transforms how I interact with the team.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
The one piece of advice I would give a young leader is to always prioritize continuous learning and growth. Embracing a mindset of continuous learning is fundamental for personal and professional development. In a rapidly changing world, being adaptable, open to new ideas, and willing to learn from both successes and failures is crucial for effective leadership.
I would advise a young leader to seek opportunities to expand their knowledge, whether through formal education, mentorship, reading, or gaining hands-on experience. A leader should be open to feedback and actively seek it out; it is a powerful tool for improvement. Furthermore, a young leader should not underestimate the value of learning from others. Surrounding oneself with diverse perspectives, engaging in conversations with people from different backgrounds, and being receptive to different insights and experiences are valuable.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
One meaningful story that stands out to me involves the process of organizational restructuring that I facilitated in my organisation. At first, the operational challenges at the time seemed insurmountable. It was a challenging time, and as a nonprofit organisation with dwindling revenue, the sustainability of the organisation seemed uncertain. Among the operational challenges, what struck me the most was witnessing the extraordinary resilience and teamwork displayed by the staff members. Despite the uncertainties and mounting pressure, everyone rallied together, demonstrating unwavering determination and commitment to overcome the challenges.
There was a particular instance when the organisation could not keep up with financial obligations. Government funding and donations were reduced drastically. This was later compounded by the Covid-19 lockdown measures. The situation seemed like a daunting task to rectify within the period.
However, rather than succumbing to panic or giving up, the team members from the various provinces collaborated intensively, working around the clock to find solutions. We had a successful restructuring that enabled the organisation to navigate out of the challenges and continue operations as usual. What makes this impactful is that we witnessed individuals step out of their comfort zones, and leverage their unique skills and expertise to support the organisation. Staff members cooperated with the restructuring process and there was a sense of unity and collective effort. It was a reminder of the incredible strength that comes from a team working cohesively toward a common goal.