Mxolisi Mgojo recently retired from Exxaro Resources as CEO. His career to that position has been led by curiosity, from humble beginnings in the South African countryside, through an engineering degree and then entrepreneurial mining start-up with Eyesizwe Coal and the consultancy that followed before joining Exxaro 16 years ago as a General Manager of one of its operations and then rising through the business. In conversation with DLQ Africa editor, Saar Ben-Attar, he shares how his desire to always understand what lies over the horizon and how it might affect his current operations, his curiosity drive, has informed his behaviour and underpinned his success, from tending the family livestock to leading a major South African corporation.
As we sit down at Paul’s, an elegant coffee shop in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg, Mxolisi casts his mind to when he first became an avid learner, full of curiosity, in his early life. We speak about what sparked curiosity in him, how he grew to become a curious leader and, in heading one of South Africa’s leading resources & energy companies, he reached beyond the organization’s borders, to ignite an ecosystem of curiosity.
Becoming a curious learner
Raised in the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, home to leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others, Mxolisi experienced a rural upbringing, where taking responsibility for the family’s stock of sheep and cattle was of the utmost importance. Curiosity was simply not a term used in the household. There were daily challenges to overcome and responsibilities to assume, from a young age. He explains ‘Dealing with challenging situations from an early age teaches one to persevere.’ However, between the many responsibilities which young Mxolisi was tasked with, curiosity was often within reach. Curiosity was a valuable ally to an inexperienced Mxolisi, as the necessities of daily life required him to seek new solutions.
During his 20’s, he found himself in what he later called a ‘crisis of identity’, with a deep sense of responsibility to fulfil his parents’ wishes for him becoming a Doctor, while he found himself drawn to and becoming increasingly curious about other professions. He enrolled to study Pre-Med studies in the US and found himself curious about a range of electives offered during his studies. He was particularly drawn to Computer Studies. These were the 1980’s, when personal computers began to appear across the US and colleges were offering Computer Science degrees, an opportunity which Mxolisi took on and quickly shifted from medicine to this growing field. Graduating with a BSc in Computer Science from Northeastern University, his curiosity has already begun to shape his professional life.
Curiosity was a valuable ally to an inexperienced Mxolisi, as the necessities of daily life required him to seek new solutions
In reflecting on those days, Mxolisi acknowledges the roles which challenge and necessity played as he grew to become a curious and avid learner. ‘Not seeing another option worked in my favour’ he says. ‘It pushed me in new directions, and I was curious to find what may lie just beyond the horizon’, whether herding livestock on his ancestral land or finding himself in the fast-paced life of a burgeoning computer industry. Returning to South Africa provided him with an opportunity to practice curiosity, this time in leadership.
Curiosity as the Leader’s work
Opportunities can truly ground us as leaders. Faced with audacious goals, which our curiosity has drawn us to and recognizing the responsibility thrust upon us, curiosity was about to play a vital role, once again, in Mxolisi’s life. In 1994, South Africa became a young democracy and many of those living in the African diaspora began to return to their homeland and participate in growing a more inclusive economy. The Resources and Energy sectors were to play a critical role in this economic transition, as new consortiums and black-owned business groups began to secure and grow a portfolio of assets in these sectors.
Mxolisi’s curiosity was driving him to explore new roles and investment banking seemed a fitting place to practice his curiosity in deal-making
The Eyesizwe group was one, led by Sipho Nkosi. Sipho was on the lookout for young talent who could help lead South Africa’s first takeover of a mining group by previously disadvantaged entrepreneurs and his eye caught a young leader, turned investment banker, who recently returned to the country. At the same time, Mxolisi’s curiosity was driving him to explore new roles and investment banking seemed a fitting place to practice his curiosity in deal-making, of which more were to follow. What began as an informal chat over coffee turned into an offer and Mxolisi found himself as part of the team that would lead the successful merger of Eyesizwe Coal with Kumba Resources’ non-iron ore assets to form Exxaro Resources in 2006. The transaction was hailed as the deal of the year and provided Mxolisi with an opportunity to bring curiosity into growing the merged entity. Exxaro Resources grew from what many analysts saw as an undervalued set of assets to a $1.5 billion market cap industry player, by 2020.
Taking on a number of roles in the newly acquired organization, Mxolisi was posing new questions which ignited curiosity not only in himself but in others, who worked with him. He recalls mentors who introduced him to international commodity markets, for example. His curiosity allowed him to be influenced by them, to remain open. He recalls ‘The smarter they were, the more I wanted to learn from them.’ This practice of curiosity also extended to colleagues who were assessing new growth opportunities for the group. Recognizing this diverse group of young talent, who shared his ambition for a purpose-driven Exxaro Resources, he often reminded himself of the human-centered approach which they shared, over many and deep conversations. He added ‘At the core of our humanity, we all want to self-actualize.’
Curiosity invokes powerful questions
By this stage, leadership curiosity was turning into keen commercial interests taking shape within the group, as it aimed to grow internationally, as well as in South Africa’s Waterberg region, a resource-rich yet under-developed region in the north of the country, bordering Botswana. Unlocking the value of this region required seeing the region’s potential, beyond the caution which was expressed amongst many groups, from the Board, to business leaders and parastatals (semi-autonomous government agencies), tasked with growing road and rail links. Such a growth path required a compelling and shared ambition, to which various stakeholders could commit. He recalls posing the question to a rail executive: ‘Really, why can’t it be done?’ and comparing tapping the region’s growth potential to an adventure. This helped draw others into a more critical examination of the challenges which lay before them. Curiosity began to galvanize into a shared sense of adventure, as he won shareholder approval for spending approximately $1.2 billion on this planned operation. The result was the Grootegeluk mine, one of the world’s largest coal mining complexes and a new power station being built by the country’s electricity utility, in response to the electricity shortages of recent years. Similarly, building a portfolio of new mineral assets and clean energy projects took shape, the latter in partnership with Tata Power (Exxaro Resources later acquired Tata’s 50% stake in 2020, reaffirming their commitment to clean energy.)
He recalls posing the question: ‘Really, why can’t it be done?’
Digitisation as a foundation for growth
Mxolisi noticed many new ideas emerging from the people around him. He says ‘I began to see new ideas emerging – it galvanized my belief that you invest in people first to create the foundation for people to showcase their curiosity, learning to solve new problems cross-functionally, and being recognised and rewarded for their curiosity.’
In 2017, Mxolisi succeeded Sipho Nkosi as the Group CEO of Exxaro Resources. One could have expected he would follow in his predecessor’s path, but his curiosity led him elsewhere, challenging the purpose of the group, right at its core. Within a short while, the Business of Tomorrow was established, where talent from around the group was given an opportunity to explore new trends and imagine the future of the business from new perspectives – from a business focused on the local market to a purpose extending across Africa and the world, from fossil fuels to clean energy and from a profitable core business, challenged by Climate Change, to multiple core businesses, which power a clean world, in minerals and energy.
Mxolisi recognised that curiosity can extend to the edges of the organization, and how he engaged teams across the business would determine whether they feel empowered and have a sense of agency to explore new ways of working and being. I came across Mxolisi’s immense impact on the people of Exxaro shortly after we began to work with the group. On an Innovation Day out at an offsite venue, the excitement was palpable. Team after team were showcasing their experimentation and learnings in digital transformation, finding new solutions and pathways to growth, from improved logistics to patented mineral screening processes, which the group licensed to others. While the atmosphere was festive, this was serious fun.
Curiosity at the center of Ecosystem leadership
Reimagining a proud and successful business requires us to venture beyond our borders – organizational borders, industry paradigms and long-held beliefs, which may have sustained the business in the past. Mxolisi recalls asking his team ‘What if we set the bar really high? What could we achieve and with whom?’. This led to igniting new ideas well beyond the organization’s borders, in mature and emerging ecosystems.
An example would be his work at Talent10, an investment holding company, whose mission is to create businesses that have a worldwide, long-term social and economic impact, where Mxolisi has taken this into practice. The Talent10 team recognized that they could build a diverse portfolio, based on the growth in digital technologies and the opportunities opening-up in the media space, in emerging markets. Bringing on-board veteran studio executive and producer Simon Swart as CEO of its independent film company Nthibah Pictures, and Los Angeles based US subsidiary, NTB Pictures, allowed the newly formed team to exploit the disruption that is occurring across the media ecosystem, by developing impactful, creative voices from the US, South Africa, as well as countries outside the main film hubs, while leveraging an evolved distribution structure. Drawing on Mxolisi’ question some years back, they asked ‘Really, why can’t it be done?’ and then got to work, igniting curiosity in ambitious projects with others.
We see curiosity-driven journeys across many client organizations. Curious leaders bring an innate sense of wonder, an open mindset and new perspectives to some of the world’s greatest challenges. We see leadership teams embrace diversity and, together, anticipate the future in new ways, back-casting to discover new and more effective pathways to todays’ realities, where they can make decisions and position themselves for the realities of a future that is, in some ways, already here. The impact which Mxolisi and his partners realized is a testament to what is possible when we allow curiosity to lead us, inspiring some of their biggest detractors to pause, reconsider and ultimately participate in building new, highly valued organizations. In the process, they change themselves and create the mechanisms, from conversation forums to leadership nudges, from digital networks to new ventures and a web of partners where curiosity is practiced, which makes this possible at greater scale. They become a value-driver in the digital economy which continues to take shape around us and new opportunity spaces in which we can play, with curiosity at heart.