Aspirant young leaders are often given the following exhortation: “It’s the attitude, not the aptitude, that determines the altitude.” Aptitude here may be somewhat underrated, but attitude is pitch-perfect. As for the altitude, it needs an exemplar to give the exhortation schtick. Suresh Kana, CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Southern Africa, springs to mind. He’s proved as adept at climbing the corporate ladder as he is at scaling some of the world’s highest mountains.
If you think he’s an adrenaline junkie, you’d be wrong. A lifelong vegetarian and adherent to Gandhi’s principles, Kana exudes a quiet confidence. “In my personal time, I enjoy a good challenge,” he says. “Climbing and trekking are a passion and a hobby.”
In his 35 years at PwC, he has risen through the ranks from being the first black professional to join the firm in 1976 and its first black partner in 1986, to being the only South African appointed to the board of the International Audit and Assurance Standards in 1995, serving for nine years. He currently serves on the King Committee on Corporate Governance and other regulatory boards.
Yet despite reaching the pinnacle of success, for Kana there are always mountains to climb, professionally as well as recreationally.
Like his career, there’s been an interesting trajectory to his outdoor adventures. In August 2000, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; in December that year, he walked 400km in 10 days across India to commemorate Gandhi’s Salt March, which was undertaken in the 1930s to protest the colonial Salt Tax. Kana has subsequently led two groups—22 people in December 2004 and 15 in December 2009—to Everest base camp. Both groups comprised mainly young adults under the age of 23 with some school kids.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” he admits, “but these expeditions are my way of mentoring young people and setting them on track towards developing into the leaders of tomorrow. They are taken out of their comfort zones and encouraged to think differently and innovatively, and to learn about themselves.”
Their trainer is Kana himself. “We train for about four months. The kids have to be at my door at 5am and show they’re disciplined and committed (do they know that their trainer is up at 3:08am precisely, six days a week, doing yoga and meditation?). You can’t simulate high-altitude conditions – it takes a lot of physical and mental preparation to enable you to face what’s there. By the time the kids write their exams in October and November, their parents tell me how focused and fit they are.
“We start the trek in Lukla, and once we’ve reached our destination at Kala Pattar, we’re 5,600m above sea level—that’s three times South Africa’s highest altitude and at freezing temperatures of about minus 20 degrees. We walk for about eight hours a day.”
All four of Kana’s children have joined these expeditions; two of them have gone both times.
So what happens on the trek? “Organization is key. The children are divided into groups of four and we operate according to certain acronyms. There’s the WAR (Watch and Review) Committee, whereby the sherpas ensure that the children are hydrated, are eating their meals and generally coping. ICU refers to any problems that arise—if so, steps are quickly taken to resolve the problem. For example, a weaker child is placed at the front and stronger climbers behind.”
What about the risks? “There are always risks, but we measure them in relation to the circumstances. This does not stop me as I believe there’s enough in place to assist when I need it.”
And measured against the rewards, “it’s a hugely satisfying experience—with a stunning view. On a deeper level, it centers me. Unlike the boardroom, mountains are vast areas of peace where all is still and nothing matters. It’s about pushing one’s limits.”
Yet he also draws distinct parallels between climbing and corporate life. “Both demand teamwork, risk and knowledge management, excellence, leadership and resilience. Both require you to master your emotions and focus on the task at hand. You have to determine how you are going to react to people and circumstances.”
How does this define his managerial role at PwC? “People rank high on my list of priorities and I have an empowering management style.” He’s not paying lip service; he has, at different intervals, headed up the HR, transformation and corporate social responsibility arms of PwC. “The firm invests heavily in skills development programs, and it shows: our students consistently rank among the country’s top 10 achievers.”
Kana’s other enduring passion is promoting good governance. The double dips of corruption and unemployment are of great concern. “Our credibility is at stake at a time when we desperately need foreign direct investment for growth and jobs. Corruption is nothing but a burdensome tax on the poor; it’s unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, he remains upbeat. “I believe that wisdom and truth will always prevail. It’s incumbent on a leader to be optimistic while recognizing what challenges you face. You become an authentic leader when you’re accessible and engage with people, aligning them to a common vision.
“At the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, South Africa came out tops for having the best accounting, auditing and corporate governance standards, as well as the best stock exchange regulations.
“We need to have this mindset of excellence all the time. This means planning for crises and having structures in place for disaster recovery—not unlike the WAR Committee and ICU processes that occur on our mountaineering expeditions.”
What would he say to other CEOs who merely play golf? “Whether it’s chasing a little white golf ball or a little white tip of a mountain, it’s what makes you wake up in the morning and look forward to your day.”
He’s looking forward to going to the South Pole next: any takers?