Q&A: Firoze Bhorat and Azania Mosaka - What does it take to lead in a time of crisis?


There’s no easy way to navigate the impact that COVID-19 is having. Now more than ever, we’re beginning to see what makes for a good leader in the face of a crisis. Discovery’s Chief Marketing Officer explores this theme in his podcast interview with Azania Mosaka.

There’s no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 on South African people, businesses and our economy will be far-reaching. Exactly how it plays out over the next few months will be determined by the leadership we receive in our homes, workplaces, and from our government.

Azania Mosaka sat down with Firoze Bhorat, Chief Marketing Officer at Discovery, to discuss what it takes to lead in the South African business world right now. Their interview was recorded in the following podcast, some extracts of which follow. Listen to the whole interview here:

Q: How has COVID-19 changed your world?

A: It’s presented unique challenges. At a professional level, I have to balance leading my team remotely as we all work from home, and make sure we achieve our many pressing goals. On a personal level, I have to manage my household as a single dad with two young boys, who I need to keep engaged and active. It’s draining, but I’m learning to manage.

Q: How are you balancing home and work life?

A: I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t done a good job at separating personal and professional time! Given the early proactive role Discovery took in dealing with COVID-19, we’ve been working hard from the get-go to take care of our members, as well as help broader society, because ours is a shared-value business. There’s an intensity that comes with that which has pervaded everything right now.

So, weekends have no meaning anymore, and that’s an unhealthy situation to be in. It seems necessary at the moment, but I recognise that it’s not sustainable. Understanding the urgency of the situation has required me to function at that intensity, but I’m hoping to get better at balance.

Q: Have you had time to reflect on what resilience means to you?

A: When you’re in the thick of things, you don’t realise how resilient you are. At this point, many people are just trying to hold it together. That is the resilience we all have in us, and we only realise its power once we’ve passed that stage. When you’re in a difficult situation, meditate on what grounds you. What is it that you hold dear, what is your core purpose? If you stick to that purpose as a guiding light or anchor, and you continuously deliver on it, it will fuel your resilience, because you know you’re working towards something. No matter how tough things get, if you know why you’re doing it, that will help pull you through.

Q: What have you learned from how the leadership at Discovery has responded to this crisis?

A: What impressed me most at Discovery is how quick the leadership was to pre-empt the challenges and anxiety employees would feel, and act fast to address their mental wellbeing. Communication has been regular, clear and reassuring. Daily webinars were made accessible to the entire workforce, about 12 000 people, to encourage engagement and interaction.

The leadership brought on board superb guest speakers like Caroline Webb, a NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who’s an expert on living in isolation (he holds the record for the single-longest space mission by an American astronaut), Prof Salim Abdool Karim (an infectious diseases epidemiologist who is our COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee chairperson) - all of whom have offered insights, perspective and coping strategies to help people think about challenges in new ways. Employees can also ask Adrian Gore (Discovery Group CEO), questions, which he addresses and shares.

All this has shown me first-hand the value of recognising potential issues early, and providing support and solutions in time. We may not always realise it, but employees yearn to be connected to the mothership, so to speak. We underestimate the power of human connection.

A hands-on effort is required to help each employee feel, ‘Discovery is there for me. They reach out to me every day, they ensure I’m well-informed, they remind me of what’s important, I feel part of something bigger.’ Personally, I’ve learnt that talking to my team daily and making sure that I have solid connections with them, is very important. The minute my people feel like that haven’t connected back with me, I can sense their anxiety. As leaders, we shouldn’t underplay that.

Q: Who else has stood out as an inspiration at this point in how they’ve responded to COVID-19?

A: I believe that President Ramaphosa has stood head and shoulders above many other world leaders. Our government is charged with people’s lives – that is a big responsibility. They have to make highly complex choices for the benefit of all South Africans. The decisive actions taken are not just subjective calls, it’s all been grounded in science. And it takes effort and humility to learn from leading authorities and weigh so many variables. That’s superbly commendable.

We may not thank them for it right now, because we’re all a bit frustrated at home, but I’m encouraged by the journey our country is taking under this leadership. We’re showing the world that South Africa has a lot to offer.

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