DECEMBER 2014 – Former Anglo American chief and renowned scenario planner Clem Sunter has enjoyed a varied, fun and impactful life – guided by his philosophy that you need to keep your options open and always be ready to adapt to change.
Clem Sunter’s life is a strong advertisement for the benefits of the mental litheness he champions in his role as South Africa’s most highly regarded strategist and scenario planner. The executive high-flier who set up Anglo American’s scenario planning unit in the 1980s and served as the multinational mining company’s CEO in the 1990s has staked his success on thinking outside the box – and encouraging others to do the same.
His famous alternative future scenarios for apartheid South Africa, presented during the conflict-ridden 1980s, saw him discuss strategy with both the outgoing apartheid government and future president Nelson Mandela. Now best known for his bestselling book, The Mind of a Fox, which predicted the terrorist attacks on US soil that came to pass in New York on 11 September 2001, he’s given scenario presentations around the world. His bold thinking and inspirational seminars have also seen him voted by leading South African CEOs as the speaker who has made the most significant contribution to, and impact on, best practice and business in South Africa. And it’s all down to thinking like a fox, he says.
A foxy metaphor
“It was the Greek poet Archilochus who, in about 650BC, said ‘the hedgehog knows one big thing, whereas the fox knows many little things’,” says Sunter, explaining how he and Chantell Ilbury came up with the title of their 2001 bestseller. “Chantell and I thought that was a lovely metaphor to contrast our way of thinking about the future with what was being taught in management textbooks.”
That conventional wisdom applied a hedgehog mentality: set your vision, get everyone marching towards it, ignore everything not relevant to achieving the target. “Foxes, however, keep their options open because they know there is a level of uncertainty in the world and they will have to adapt to changes in the game,” says Sunter as he goes on to explain his technique for scenario planning. “You identify the flags that impact most significantly on you, consider the scenarios they might produce and tailor your strategy accordingly.”
An English fellow
It’s a bold technique that has served Christopher Louis Sunter, born in the UK in 1944, well.
Just consider the night in 1964 when a young Clem’s student band shared a bill with the greatest rock group of all time. The hedgehogs of Oxford University, where Sunter read politics, philosophy and economics, might have been in their studies, quietly dedicating themselves to a mission statement. An altogether louder, groovier scenario was playing out under their feet.
“Every Friday and Saturday night we had these sort of student evenings in the cellars underneath the university,” reminisces Sunter. “I had a band with a friend of mine, Johnny Young, and we’d alternate playing with other groups. It was on a summer ball at Magdalen College when we played and one of the other bands happened to be The Rolling Stones. So I shared a stage with Mick Jagger!”
It was another tale of adventure and boldness that helped turn an otherwise unremarkable day at the sea into the spark that would bring Sunter to South Africa and enable his ascent to the helm of Anglo.
“I was on the Cornwall coast in 1966, not long after leaving Oxford, and I needed a partner for a dinghy race. I saw this girl dangling her legs over a wall by a pub and said to her, ‘Do you want to come and crew for me in this race?’. We didn’t do very well, but afterwards she invited me to dinner with her parents. It wasn’t the romantic story you might be expecting, but it turned out her dad was the MD of Anglo American.”
That chance meeting led to Sunter taking a post with the multinational mining firm in Zambia, a stepping stone to his long career in South Africa. “If it hadn’t been for that moment in Cornwall,” he says with earnest, “I would probably have spent the rest of my life in England. It is incredible how small things can lead to complete changes in your life.”
The Africa scenario
The shrewd youngster joined the Anglo American Corporation in Lusaka, Zambia in 1971. About two years later, he was transferred to the corporate head offices in Johannesburg. Sunter roared up the hierarchy, focusing on the gold and uranium operations, and set up the group’s scenario planning unit in 1982. His term as CEO, from 1990 to 1996, covered a spell when the resources behemoth was the world’s largest gold producer.
Perhaps more importantly, the forward-looking Sunter applied his strategic thinking to the bigger South African picture: the fraught transition out of apartheid.
Having done much to popularise scenario planning already, Sunter began presenting his work on South Africa’s prospects in the mid-1980s. Hundreds of audiences took in his ‘High Road/Low Road’ talk, where he conveyed two routes to democracy – one a peaceful and prosperous one, the other characterised by civil war and economic implosion.
One meeting in particular illustrates the impact the native Englishman was having on the biggest thing happening to Africa. “I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela,” he announces in his chatty Oxbridge tone. “He was in Victor Verster at the time and it was just weeks before he was released from prison, although I didn’t know that. He wanted to talk to me about the future, so I had five hours one-on-one with old Nelson – no one else in the house. I had the perfect meeting with him. He even gave me lunch. Imagine that, I’m with the most famous prisoner in the world and he’s asking me if I want ham! He just blew me away with his spirit of reconciliation. And he maintained that desire to reconcile the groups when he became president. I don’t think his successors have had that same passion.”
FW de Klerk’s National Party cabinet even had the ace strategist in to shed light on their precarious situation. Sunter even found a humorous moment in it all. “I always remember,” he almost chuckles, “at the end of the talk de Klerk turned to Pik Botha and said, ‘Do you think this guy is for real?’ And Pik, bless his cotton socks, simply replied ‘Yes’.”
Part of the Clem Sunter legend is a tale that he predicted Al Qaeda’s 2001 terrorist attacks on America on September 11. Re-told at management seminars and over pub lunches the world over, the story has taken on a near-mythical status, occasionally evolving into something it wasn’t. Sunter is quick to dispel the apocryphal attribution of any fortune-telling powers onto him and explain the extraordinary but scientific forecasting capabilities of his methods.
“I had teamed up with Chantell Ilbury, whom I now work with, in 2000 after she sent me her MBA thesis on the topic of scenario planning. It was such good work that I said, let’s collaborate on a book. It took us five months to put together and we published in June 2001.
“To begin with, it wasn’t much of a success. But then something happened to make it a bestseller overnight: the 9/11 attacks. Why? Well, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know it included a letter that we wrote to George W. Bush when he had just become president of the United States. Here we suggested that part of his legacy as president would be determined by the ‘foxiness’ of his response to potential extreme futures that might come his way. We also nominated as his number one extreme future a massive terrorist strike on a Western city, which would completely transform his presidency and possibly lead America into a gilded cage, shutting itself off from the rest of the world. About three months later those planes hit the World Trade Center.
“So, it’s not that we got it exactly right. We hadn’t forecast the method used. But you need inside knowledge to get the precise nature and timing of an event. What our thinking allows, is a good idea of the event.”
As with all of their scenario planning, Sunter and Ilbury had identified certain “flags” – any important event, idea or state of affairs that has a meaningful impact on your given situation – and considered the potential scenarios that these might feasibly produce.
Sunter continues, “We had two flags indicating this was the principle threat. The first was the growing confrontation among major religions, particularly Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Second, there were the two attacks on US embassies in Africa, one in Kenya and the other in Tanzania, by Al Qaeda, in 1998. We felt these were mere dress rehearsals for the real thing on American soil.
“This all made Chantell and I quite big celebrities. It was a very dramatic way for our methodology to be validated. Now we work around the world, looking at different flags and how they are changing the future for organisations, advising on how they can adapt their strategies to cope with flags as they arise.”
It’s not just corporations who seek this wise counsel, either. In 2006 Sunter was invited into the very heart of communist China’s decision-making machine. As one of the few Europeans ever given an audience at Beijing’s Central Party School, he not only taught his hosts, but brought home valuable insights he makes use of in his consulting work.
“The Chinese wanted to understand my technique so they could road test their five-year plans. At one stage I asked the question: Is there any scenario where you evolve into a multi-party democracy? In response, one professor who obviously knew about my past, stroked his beard in a distinctly Confucius-like manner and said, ‘Tell me, Mr Sunter, do you have a political opposition in Anglo American?’ I had to say ‘no’. He had made his point.
“That’s the way China has been run, very successfully, for several decades. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping became leader, their economy was ranked 100th in the world. Now they’re number two – they may even be number one, ahead of America, on purchasing power parity. That’s over a span of just 36 years!”
A fox and his flags
Still bright-eyed and bushy tailed at age 70, Sunter remains at the cutting edge of his field. So what are the flags he reckons will shape our world in years to come?
“The number one red flag is still religion – this clash of ideologies. That’s why tactics in Syria and Iraq have to be different to the wars that have been fought in the past. America is fighting this dispersed enemy, because it’s an ideology. However, the mindset of a hedgehog continues to roar. They have the vision of creating nations like theirs. They’ve spent something like six trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have they created the societies you’d call worthy of that expenditure? No! Nobody has yet come up with a way to handle this thing constructively, but you cannot have both sides intent on degrading and destroying each other. America needs the mindset of a fox in order to find a way to co-exist.”
Vladimir Putin and the rise of China are another two keystones around which Sunter plays out scenarios globally. Others include climate change, the ‘grey’ flag (ageing populations), Ebola and growing anti-establishment feelings among the middle class.
Sunter has several game-changers and scenarios for post-credit crisis South Africa, too. “In one scenario, we stay in the ‘premier league’ of world economies. We’re the 33rd largest economy in the world, so we’re in the relegation zone here. If we don’t get our act together, we’ll follow our second possible route, which is dropping into the ‘second division’ of nations. Business can still make some money on this path, but it is a disaster for government because tax revenues dwindle. Third is an off-the-wall option: we become a failed state and public violence becomes so prevalent that we could head towards civil war. Initially we gave this zero probability, but the Marikana tragedy illustrated such tension that we give it a small chance of happening. Certainly another Marikana could be to this scenario what the Tunis demonstrations were to the Arab Spring. We must not allow anything like that to ever happen again.”
Sunter offers three flags that will determine the country’s negotiation of this precarious future. To climb back up to the middle of the premier league we need inclusive leadership, replication of our pockets of excellence, especially educational ones, and nurturing of entrepreneurial spark. “People think politicians are what make countries great,” argues Sunter. “They’re not. It’s the entrepreneurs.”
The story of a rocketeer
If that all sounds too academic, Sunter never passes up an invitation to tell the Siya Xuza story as a real, living example of positive potential in this country. It’s an opportunity that arose from his role as chair of the Anglo social responsibility scheme, the Chairman’s Fund. This enabled him to turn his fiery belief in the powers of education into action, with millions of rands to deploy.
“We gave at least 40 percent of the money to education,” he says proudly. “Our approach was to find champions and back them, regardless of the facilities they had. This often meant we interviewed some of the brightest young kids around. But there was this one youngster from Umtata, Siyabulela Xuza, who had developed a rocket fuel that helped to break the national amateur altitude record. He got a scholarship to attend one of our real pockets of excellence, St. Johns College, and went on to study engineering at Harvard University. He did so well there. On the second-last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour he was given a special tour of the facility with a couple of other guests, Barack and Michelle Obama. The guy is a superstar – just the sort of person we need to support in South Africa.”
Man of the moment
And finally, what flags will weigh in on the scenarios for Clem Sunter’s next chapter? Well, just recently back from Vancouver, there are few signs he’s slowing down as a hugely in-demand consultant and speaker. He remains a prolific writer for a variety of media and even chanced his arm with a special appearance as a radio host not long ago.
You’ll agree Sunter has earned the right to indulge in the finer things in life. So what’s his answer to the favourite Opulent Living question: what does luxury mean to you? “Gee, I live such an ordinary life. As I get older I spend less and less. At one stage luxury was driving the very first edition of the BMW M5. What a luxury that was! But now I’ve got a Mini Cooper S. In the 1960s it was the car to have, but I couldn’t afford one then. I suppose I’m reliving swinging London. Oh, and when I’m in the Cape, lunch in the winelands is a real treat.”
A thoroughly social being who would “rather talk to people than ‘ching, ching, ching’ sit and type away on Twitter”, which historical figures might Sunter like to invite to lunch at a picturesque vineyard?
“First would be Charles Dickens. I think he gave a very good picture of life in Victorian England. He must be one of the greatest novelists ever. Next I’d say Elvis Presley, but not in his later years when he was in that white suit. Blue Suede Shoes was the first record I ever bought. I’d just love to go to some fast food place with Elvis and say, ‘Let’s do a duet!’ And number three, well, I’ve kind of already had that one: my meeting with Madiba. Though all three at one table would be quite funny!”
On hints he’ll soon make a permanent move to Cape Town, his favourite city in the world, he can only slyly advise we “watch this space”. It’s difficult to discern a single, major goal carved indelibly in stone. But did you expect one? Remember, “You can never know what your life is going to be.” So you’d better think like a fox.
Clem Sunter met with Florian Gast and Tessa Bailey
for an interview and photo shoot in Cape Town.