Secrets of SA’s most productive people: Khalid Abdulla – Group CEO, African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited
With seven divisions and around 40 companies and subsidiaries to lead and manage, Khalid Abdulla is a very busy man. His time has to be streamlined and maximised, especially considering he’s a hands-on executive who happily rolls up his sleeves to get stuck in any task at hand. His core role involves developing plans for each sub-organisation to build on the group’s overall “2020 Vision” strategy that has seen AEEI’s share price grow steadily over the past few years. Work aside, Abdulla spends as much time as his schedule will allow with his wife, son and two daughters with whom he shares a more than energetic love for sport. He is also passionate about music and movies, inherited from his late father who used to entertain local children with the latest films and music records to keep them off the streets. Abdulla is a staunch advocate of utilising entertainment, especially sports and music, to unite disparate communities and cultures—possibly one of the reasons espAfrika, organiser of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, is also part of the successful AEEI Group.
The meaning of productivity
“Getting things done! Once the decision is made, whatever that may be, I want to translate the strategy into action plans and start implementing them. The sooner we get going, the sooner I can monitor whether we’ve adopted the right strategic path, and determine if it needs adjusting or not. Ultimate productivity, though, is in seeing my staff working together, enjoying what they do because I know they have the ability to do so; because, as a team, they support each other and have top cover and guidance from me.”
“I’m one of those people who, as soon as I open my eyes, I’m up and about—this is usually no later than 6 a.m. The last thing I do at night is park my mind—with the engine idling. I can’t fully switch off, but have learnt how to get the most rest out of the quieter hours. However, clearing the mind for a good night’s sleep is critical, and I often use this time to reflect on my day and write down a list of any unattended items or WhatsApps to address the following day, so these thoughts don’t end up invading my head space during the night. Then it’s lights out just after midnight.”
First things first
“Once I’ve woken up my children and made them breakfast, I make my coffee, check my diary and think about the day ahead.”
Most productive space?
“My car: I have a great sound system, and when I’m driving I love listening to my music—from R&B to jazz. Although I’m fully aware of what’s going on around me, the music helps my mind decelerate, and it’s during these times that I often find the solution to some of the more pressing issues on my plate.”
“My phone is always on and always near me, even at night, so if someone sends an email at night (local time), it could be urgent and I’ll answer it. Because we operate in different time zones around the world, I’ve come to accept that I’m a light sleeper, and the best way to handle my communication is in the here and now. I’ve also been known to send WhatsApp texts in the middle of the night as thoughts or ideas occur to me. Fortunately, I work with people who understand me and the constraints of what we do, but it still surprises me when unexpectedly they respond at 3 a.m.! I’ve also come to rely on my efficient personal assistant who has been with me for many years, and on her ability to scan my more than 200 emails per day, to prioritise them—which is handy, as I travel a lot and therefore am not always directly connected.”
Tidy desk, tidy mind?
“I’m what you might call ‘organised in a random way’. I have my own system and know exactly where everything is, even though it may not look like it (laughs).”
Best work habit?
“Thinking broadly and implementing. People can talk the talk, but I like to walk the talk and get things done. Also, my never-say-die and positive attitude to challenges presented in our day-to-day operations is also a good habit of mine.”
Area for improvement
“Ignoring what has slipped below the fold in my email inbox—which, admittedly, are not priority issues. But I’m working on it.”
“Spare time is rare; however, I try to clear my mind by calling my wife to catch up, or take a 20-minute brisk walk to the V&A Waterfront from my office. I find that the sea air and the beautiful surroundings we work in just clear my mind and refresh my thinking. I do, however, take at least one extended family holiday a year. Although the phone comes with me, it’s still a break from the norm—and as they say, a change is as good as a holiday.”
“While a healthy eating plan is good for the mind as well as the body, I don’t follow a specific diet regime, but I have to eat something during the day to keep me fuelled. Breakfast is mostly a working meeting, with lunch usually grabbed on the go—either on my lunchtime walk or snacking on some fresh sardines with toast (we have them right here, as one of the businesses we’re involved in is a fishing company). During the week, it’s difficult to eat together as a family, but weekends I’m insistent that we relax and enjoy a meal together, as nutrition is about feeding the soul as well as the mind and body.”
“My Calendar and WhatsApp. I also find my GPS pretty useful, because although I enjoy the drive, I don’t always have the time to search for my destination, so finding the shortest route to get where I need to go is more productive in the long run.”
“My family is my motivation and inspiration; it sounds so clichéd, but I grew up during a difficult time in South Africa’s history and I want to make sure my children have a better, happier life experience than I had. I don’t want to make it easier for them, as complacency is its own enemy, but knowing that I can provide them with the means, motivation and support to move forward is rewarding in itself. They’re fun-loving yet ambitious young ones, who sometimes give me simple solutions to complex problems.”
“I listen to my music or play a round of social golf with my competitive close friends whenever I can. I believe the golf course still provides an excellent opportunity for networking as well as relaxing; it combines the best of both worlds.”
“Stay under the radar and observe; only show your hand when you have something meaningful to contribute. Work hard and play hard! Also, I believe it’s our people who make the company, and I’m constantly searching for opportunities to further empower them and the communities we work in, as well as to improve environmental sustainability within the AEEI group. A true leader has the ability to listen and understand the perspectives and inputs of others. Of course, information and knowledge is key, but one must make sure everyone feels respected—and the results will come from there.”