An environmentalist, conservationist and social entrepreneur, Alex van den Heever is involved in a number of enterprises in his native South Africa.
He’s co-founder of the Tracker Academy, a not-for-profit organisation teaching the ancient skills of tracking to disadvantaged people from rural communities. He founded fortified power porridge company Nhlayisa, to help tackle malnutrition among workers. He’s written books and gives motivational talks around the globe with his friend and colleague, expert tracker Renias Mhlongo. And he’s invested in a number of start-ups, including EcoTraining, which trains wildlife guides across the continent, and Evaluate, a tech start-up which has developed software that
reduces wasteful and unauthorised expenditure in big organisations and government.
It’s fair to say, if anyone knows about the opportunities and challenges of working in social business it’s Alex. We caught up with him to find out what his experiences have taught him and any learnings we can take away:
01. Keep it Simple
“This world is full of clutter on every level but through experience I’ve learnt that the simple solution is often the best, in life and in business,” says Alex. “In every enterprise I’m involved with I try and simplify and clarify everything – clarify the story, simplify the delivery method – so the goals and the aims are clear and the process is straightforward.”
2. Play the Long Game
“I used to want to do everything quickly and see results straight away but I’ve changed my thinking. I’ve read a lot about Japanese culture and how they take a long-term view on everything they do.
“Now I realise that the little things you do each day contribute to the long-term goal. There are no shortcuts, it’s all about putting the building blocks in place and that takes time and effort. You may not see success next week or next year but you will be building a solid and sustainable foundation.”
3. Be Empathetic
“I’ve learnt a lot of lessons about business from master trackers in the bush. One of their key attributes is that they’re able to get under the skin of an animal. When you’re tracking the evidence might not always be present, so a good tracker needs to understand how an animal is thinking and what they’re doing.
“My friend, expert tracker Renias Mhlongo, always says he puts the animal in his heart, and that’s just another way of saying you need to be compassionate. To understand people’s motives and behaviour you need to adopt the mentality of a wildlife tracker, be present, be open and aware, be patient and be empathetic.”
4. See the Bigger Picture
“In business you have to get deep into details and analytics but don’t forget to look up and see the bigger picture. A tracker will spend time looking at the minute details between a leopard’s track and a lion’s track but then he’ll look ahead and read the terrain. The tracker is constantly seeking to establish what the landscape’s influence is on the animal’s behaviour and it’s the same thing in business – the environment is constantly changing and at the same time its providing clues and evidence (tracks) which business people, like the tracker, must read and be flexible enough to adapt to.
“You need to lift your head and understand where you’re going. You need to try and understand where the market’s going, what is the environment telling you, how can you respond?”