Da Vinci @ Work: Meet Takalani Ndou

Child-headed household was the launching pad for Takalani

“Always look on the bright side,” is not a cliché for Takalani Ndou. Where others might consider it a hardship for a teenager to ensure the daily household chores were done and dusted, he believes it was an opportunity.

“Taking responsibility for running a household is like being the chief operating officer. I realised later that this is when I learnt to be a supervisor, to get people to listen when I talk and to feel comfortable with my management style. What I learnt aged 12 to 18 has been very handy at the workplace.”

Indeed it has. His leadership skills, honed as COO of the Ndou household, have brought him responsibilities and opportunities that would not normally be available to someone with (at the time) only a matric certificate. At the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), which he joined in 1996, Takalani climbed the corporate ladder from operations controller to head of several departments on the strength of his leadership acumen and people management skills.

But qualifications count, and Takalani knew it. Enter The Da Vinci Institute, where he enrolled for a diploma in Management of Technology and Innovation (MOTI). “While I was studying towards my diploma, I had the opportunity to upgrade to a BCom specialising in operational risk, so I took it.”

From average to excellent

At school, he was an “average student”. At Da Vinci, he has excelled, earning eight distinctions for his BCom studies. “Da Vinci’s Mode 2 approach fits me perfectly. At school, sitting and listening didn’t work for me. At Da Vinci, I am allowed to ask those questions I need to ask. I compete better when I engage, and I’m practical. I look at things in a problem-solving way.”

The problem he sought to solve for his work-based challenge was safety related. “I chose my topic while I was head of Safety and was witnessing injuries and damage to property on site. These were, in some cases, caused by lack of compliance. This got me thinking:  Why do we continue having violations, leading to injuries and damages, while we have all the systems, policies, procedures and training available for our environment?”

So he formulated two key objectives for his work-based challenge: to analyse the airport safety culture and to identify the factors that contributed to that culture.

Takalani sifted through three years’ worth of safety records to identify safety trends, violations and serial violators. He also read avidly. “That was the best thing about my challenge. I read a lot. I’ve never read so much in my life, and my reading kept on taking me to new and different corners.”

Response points to need for culture change

The hardest part was the qualitative information-gathering, involving interviews with ACSA people in the operational, tactical and strategic (management) levels. “I appreciate everyone is busy but it was a challenge getting people to assist, especially in management levels,” Takalani says.

His main findings were that the safety culture required vast improvement due to a lack of effective communication.

Implementation is next – after some additional work. “Besides the fact that I have just completed my studies, I have realised this is a very important contribution that, if it succeeds, will form part of my legacy. I have decided to review the study and tighten some critical elements, as advised during my final presentation.

“As an example, I believe my sample size could be improved upon, and this has the potential of changing my findings, which will have an impact on my recommendations. This has now turned into something seriously personal!” he says.

“For the first time in my life, I can say without any doubt that I have done something meaningful which has the potential to not only change lives of people but potentially to save lives as well. The effective cost saving would be an added benefit for the airport community.”

*The official title of Takalani’s work-based challenge was, “The need for developing and implementing of a safety culture: An ACSA investigation.”