Jan Joubert has fought in some of Africa’s nastiest wars, trained presidential bodyguards to scupper assassination attempts and run a diamond mine in the face of rebel threat. But what was really hell, says the former private military contractor, was taking on an MBA at Henley Business School in the UK at the age of 40.
The South African, who joined the military at 17 and became a commander in 44 Parachute Brigade’s Pathfinder unit in Namibia and South Africa, has been used to giving orders all his life.
But signing up for an MBA meant hours of collaborative discussion instead, and refraining from “negative criticism” in what lecturers said was “a safe space”. “In the military, the guy with the highest rank is the final authority. He decides we go left; everybody goes left. There are no questions, there’s no debate about it; that’s it ... It’s not a two-way communication,” says Mr Joubert.
“What was hell was having been a commander/chief executive all your life where everybody had to dance to your tune – and now sitting in a classroom ... You have to consider everybody’s views and you have to consider everybody’s emotional state and you have to be nice to everybody. That was difficult for me.”
At the start of the MBA Mr Joubert “just kept quiet”. “Some people’s views are just so far out of whack with your own that you can’t see how you can interact,” he says. “I just got extremely frustrated and I thought it was an absolute waste of time and why should I convince people that my view is correct and theirs are not?”
Mr Joubert is used to issuing instructions without debate. In the 1990s he worked for Executive Outcomes, a group of former soldiers hired by governments. In 1995 he arrived in Sierra Leone to help defend the government against a brutal rebel onslaught and trained the bodyguards for two of Sierra Leone’s heads of state.
Eighteen years later, the 44-year-old still works in the west African country, where he has led a turnround at Koidu diamond mine, once ransacked and burnt during the 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.
For Mr Joubert, the MBA was a way to counter his military past, overcome a perception for being a rigid authoritarian and be taken seriously in the business world. He also wanted to expand the mine that he had spent years of his life developing.
“[If you’re ex-military] people always judge you and view you as a soldier and I wanted to get out of that stigma,” he says. “I want to be viewed as a serious entrepreneur who can stand my ground in any corporate environment.”
He has already stood his ground for 16 years. He helped safeguard the Koidu mine during the civil war and rebuilt it when the war ended in 2002. By then the mine had been closed for five years and had suffered badly at the hands of the rebels. Today the mine supplies Tiffany, the luxury jeweller, which buys 60 per cent of the Koidu mine’s diamonds by value.
While mine ownership has changed hands several times, Mr Joubert has been a constant figure. For years he was chief executive of Koidu Holdings; today he is chairman of Octea, which is the holding company for Koidu, and a diamond mining subsidiary owned by Beny Steinmetz Group the natural resources company founded by the eponymous Israeli businessman.
“You build such a strong connection with the country and with the people and your last 10 years of hard work ... you become really passionate about it,” he says. “You want to see it through, you want to see it work.”
Although Mr Joubert has long since swapped fatigues for a suit and tie, he still draws on his military training for everything from filing to finance.
“I use the military principles even today in a lot of my management systems and processes and policy procedures,” he says of his disciplined approach.
“The military has, over the centuries, developed systems that work for big organisations and they can scale it up or down. The administrative system that applies to a section also applies on a brigade level.”
Mr Joubert had no doubt about the MBA’s potential worth when he signed up to it. He first undertook a management diploma via distance learning in 1996, even as war in Sierra Leone raged around him. Three years later he began a long-distance MBA, via the South African campus of Henley, but abandoned it due to work pressures.
“The fact that I didn’t complete the MBA always bothered me so in 2009
I decided to take a sabbatical.”
His year-long MBA proved the ideal place to develop his dream to expand production at the mine and two nearby sites. His thesis analysed how best to unlock their full economic potential over the next 30 years.
On his return, he put the first part of the plan into action, building a new plant and increasing the workforce from 300 to 1,500. “The economic optimisation road map for Koidu ... enabled us to raise about $200m [from banks and Tiffany].”
This year, for the first time, the mine should produce more than 500,000 carats, up from the 120,000 carats it produced before Mr Joubert studied for his MBA.
“I think had I not done the MBA or the thesis, we would have been reliant on consultants –- and consultants don’t always give you an objective analysis or solution,” he says. He believes studying for his MBA saved time, money and mistakes and only regrets not doing it sooner.
“I should have done the MBA 10 years earlier when I had a lot less experience and I could learn more from others.
“But I also think that everybody who wants to move into very senior management positions in the corporate world must do an MBA,” he says.
He’s so sold on its effect he has sent one of his Sierra Leonean staff to the UK for the same programme. “That guy has got a huge future,” says Mr Joubert. “You don’t see the change [immediately]. It’s as projects or as problems arise; how you find solutions.”
While the focus on communal discussion initially rankled, it soon became the most important element of what he eventually found to be “an unbelievably powerful course”.
“What I learnt the most ... is the power of different views and opinions from different people, each one coming with his own perspective ... that is, I think, the biggest power of doing an MBA.”
One different perspective came from a 50-year-old graphic designer on the course, whose approach was initially anathema to Mr Joubert.
“His thought process [was] just completely all over the place; where I would like to see structure ... he would just start vomiting ideas. I just couldn’t cope with that.”
It was only after the fifth week he began to realise alternative views turned up “extremely valuable and powerful” ideas. They are still “very close friends” today.
“He writes emails that are very soppy and emotional and I will send him a one-liner or two words back ... He tells all his friends about this blunt, rude South African who helped him through his MBA and I tell everybody about my dreamer friend that did the MBA with me.
“He’s a bit more structured now because of the MBA and I’m a little bit more open to creative thinking.”
Mr Joubert, who plans to stay in mining, says the MBA has changed the way he communicates and views others’ opinions for good.
“Previously, if I felt confident that I’ve thought about something enough, and I’ve given an instruction, then I would expect people to follow that instruction. Now, I realise that you can never know everything.”