Being sent far away to boarding school in Zimbabwe at the age of 13 laid the foundation for Ralph Mupita’s broad worldview. He remembers this as a time of becoming interested in the world around him and exploring new possibilities – qualities he embodies now, even while at the top of his game. “I was always trying to seek out and find new things to do,” remembers Mupita. “A lot of that has shaped me into the person I still am today. I am a work in progress, that is how I often think of myself.”
Mupita, who has had executive positions in two of Africa’s biggest brands, MTN as well as Old Mutual, is a strong believer in life as a continuous journey of learning and growing. “I see failure as an important part of growth and development,” he said. “If you are not failing, then you are not pushing the boundaries hard enough.”
At a recent UCT Graduate School of Business Alumni Reunion Weekend, the MBA alumnus from the class of 2000 shared five of his biggest career lessons on his journey to success.
1. Push yourself – hard
While some failures are fatal and need to be avoided, these tend to be quite rare, in reality, says Mupita. “You have to push yourself to the point where you are learning,” he says. This means being willing to be uncomfortable. It also means being able to get up again if knocked down. He admits to being unsure about key decisions during his own career. Before taking the position of Chief Financial Officer at MTN for instance, he worried he lacked the right experience or traditional financial background for the role. It was his wife who reminded him that he was good at transitioning between roles and industries. He often reflects that if he had known how difficult a particular situation would be, he might not have signed up for it in the first place. It’s important to avoid overthinking decisions and spending too much time worrying about potential pitfalls, he says.
2. Back yourself
Apple founder Steve Jobs once said that young people need to “stay hungry and stay foolish” – referring to the drive to do something others might not understand. Jobs said that being fired from Apple in 1985 was one of the best things that happened to him. It led him to rediscover his love for innovation and to the development of new ventures, like Pixar, which made the world’s first computer-generated animation feature film, Toy Story. Mupita says young people need to believe in themselves, even when others don’t. He recommends finding people who will support you. Mupita acknowledges the support that others have given him in his career and credits people like Paul Hanratty, the current Group CEO of Sanlam, for sharing sage advice and guidance.
3.Surround yourself with the right people
Hiring the right people is absolutely critical, says Mupita. More diverse teams, consisting of different races, genders, and cultures leads to more ideas, better productivity, and greater execution. “You can get everything right in your business, but if you don’t get people and culture right, you will fail.” He believes in having more women in executive decision-making positions and actively supports gender diversity at MTN.
4.Learn to walk away
Mupita has learned the hard way that sometimes it is better to walk away from a deal. At times, big opportunities may present themselves and the possibilities might seem very attractive. It can be difficult to accept that perhaps stepping away is the right decision. However, it is important to be able to stand back and really evaluate the opportunity, the long-term benefits, and the potential hazards. Don’t be afraid of making hard choices, he says.
5.Obsess about the customer
“What is stopping that lady in Ghana from selling her woven baskets and seeing the world as a market, like Amazon does? What stops her is the lack of access to the Internet,” says Mupita. Thinking like this has led to MTN launching a highly-lauded fintech platform providing mobile money services in Africa. MTN’s Mobile Money (MoMo) service has millions of users across the continent and had an estimated valuation of $5 billion in May 2021.
While COVID-19 wreaked destruction in many parts of the world, Mupita says it has also transformed the way we work and created more digital opportunities. “My advice to young professionals looking into the future is: be agile and resilient. Be prepared to learn and unlearn. It is not possible to learn everything, so try to find the space where you are comfortable to not know everything and create systems around you to support and help you grow.”
Ralph Mupita is Group President and CEO at MTN and an MBA alumnus from the UCT Graduate School of Business. He was speaking at the 2021 UCT Graduate School of Business Alumni Reunion Weekend.