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Douglas  Walker

  • Programme: Proteus
  • Nationality: South African
  • Job Post-programme: CEO, Woolworths Financial Services (WFS)

Education and career

Douglas holds a degree in Marketing, Statistics and Economics from the University of Cape Town. Following a role in logistics and distribution management and then working in financial services in the fashion retail sector, he moved into banking as Director of Standard Bank’s Card division. He was approached by Barclays/Absa to run their card business, concluding a deal with Woolworths and creating a financial services joint venture. Douglas completed Proteus in 2012.

Developing a new perspective

When you are leading several thousand people and have tried different styles and methodologies across a number of organisations and industries, you already know your capabilities. Despite the senior nature of my current role, enrolling on Proteus was a means of stretching myself even further. I wanted to develop a new leadership perspective – something that would shake my beliefs and challenge me to examine my personal journey with others. Proteus wasrecommended to me as edgy and a bit provocative and the idea of looking at my business and leadership skills within a societal context really appealed to me.

Proteus preparation involves three or four months of reading, but it was the arrival in London that hit my heart, mind and soul. One of the biggest benefits was meeting others going through similar challenges; my role gets lonely at times because the needs of my stakeholders are very disparate. The programme was an opportunity to test my thinking against a small group of exceptional leaders; people diverse in both experience and nationality, who were willing to question my ideas and suggest avenues for future exploration.

Inspiring creativity

Some of the creative experiences on Proteus were superb. Back at work one of the first changes I made was to marry a bit of creativity into the business. When I took my team down to a beach resort and asked them to build sandcastles as a metaphor for the business, they initially thought I was crazy. Two days later, it had actually released a lot of dormant creativity in focussing on medium and longer-term issues.

A mental and emotional shake-up

Everything about Proteus provided a mental and emotional shake-up of my life journey. It challenged what I thought I had come to believe about myself and recalibrated what was important to me. Rather than just accepting the short-term delivery of numbers to keep shareholders happy, I now want to run my business in a balanced socio-economic and ecologically sensitive way that makes a real difference.I’ve changed the conversation with my board, sharing a rolling three-year view that looks at what we are doing in the community, how we can be more relevant in our customer value proposition and how we can differentiate ourselves. Fulfilling the stewardship role is really critical to me; I want the people I have worked with and led to be better off for making the journey with me.

Making a difference

Proteus has given me time to stop, think, and look at what I can do both in the community and for my employees. The culture in a business flows from the behaviour of leadership so I need to think about how my team can be more effective at the same time as making it a place where people can grow, learn, test themselves and get away from personal stress. Much of my challenge is about getting the balance right – managing the socio-economic ideology in my head around contribution, and making a difference whilst running a business for profit and meeting shareholder demands. As to what my legacy will be, it’s still something that makes me a little uncomfortable, but I think I’m on the right track. There will be journeys beyond WFS, and whatever comes next for me will be bigger, more complex and more interesting.