“I” is a word very seldom used by JeffEllis, MD of Webmail, one of South Africa’s largest free e-mail providers with728 000 active users. To questions like “What is your leadership style”, and“Tell us a bit about your career path”, “we” is always his pronoun of choice.Viewed against the backdrop of what he has personally achieved to be in theposition he is in today, this humility is nothing short of intriguing.
Ellis started his career as a bank tellerfor First National Bank, filling various roles there before dabbling in smallpublishing ventures, and for a time doing a stint running a fruit juice barbranded with Barney the Dinosaur. He made some mistakes, got into debt and,with a wife and two small children, needed to find a way out of it quickly. Hejoined Webmail as a salesman when it was in its infancy and within a year wasappointed Sales Director.
But for all this, he’s still not willing totake much personal credit, preferring to talk about his team. Perhaps this isthe secret to his enormous success at running such a dynamic sales force.“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” he says simply.
Ironically, he places a high degree ofimportance on individuality. “I don’t believe that people all have the samepersonalities; you need to deal with them differently. We manage people asindividuals,” he says.
Investing this amount of time in people canbe time-consuming in a business with a notoriously high staff turnover (Ellispoints out that they can have a turnover of 60 salespeople in six months). Butin the end, Ellis believes it’s what makes the team great. “The trick is thatno one leaves here on bad terms – we encourage and support people as much as wecan, but if they leave, it’s because they decided it wasn’t for them, and we’refine with that.
“I know that finding my niche took a whileand we don’t want to stand in their way of doing the same thing. And I think atestament is that although we go through a lot of staff, we have never firedanybody. But what we do find is that people who stay, stay forever.”
Asked what motivates him personally, Ellisis quick to answer. “Family. Everything I do is for them. I want to retire tothe coast at 40,” says the 33-year-old. Perhaps it’s because family is such animportant personal motivator that it comes naturally to Ellis to treat hisstaff as part of a big family. “We have a very diplomatic leadership style,” hesays.
He understands that getting the best out ofpeople is about the little things, like constant feedback and keeping them inthe loop about new deals that have been signed. “We celebrate success; it’s agreat motivator because people want to be part of something successful.”
At the same time, he understands that hisstaff want to make money. For this reason, their commission structures are veryhigh. There are also motivational meetings and incentives like weekend getawaysto help keep motivation levels high.
In terms of dealing with non-delivery, theapproach is once again supportive. Staff who haven’t met their targets undergoMonday training sessions and although these are not a punishment, no one reallywants to be part of them, so people work harder to meet criteria laid down.“They don’t want to be seen to be failing,” Ellis explains.
“We try to get people to the point thatthey believe they can achieve anything,” he says. “The fact is, they can. Everyday I see ordinary people achieving extraordinary things.”
This ‘can do’ attitude informs thedirection of Ellis’s personal goals as well. “If it’s going to be, it’s up tome” is his personal motto, and his career and success attest to the fact thatan individual is in control of his own destiny. That, and being hardworking.“If the lift to the top is full, you have to take the stairs,” he saysphilosophically.