Kirshni on Point

Back to contents
Kirshni Totaram

Kirshni Totaram

Kirshni is Global Head of Institutional Business. She joined Coronation in 2000.


100 days and counting... 

“A truly living human being cannot remain neutral.– Author, activist and Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer

In April’s edition of On Point, I wrote, “What a long year these last three months have been”. Now, seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic and just past 100 days of lockdown measures in South Africa, I didn’t realise how these words would grow in resonance as time marched on. Life and society have changed on so many levels in a remarkably short space of time, from politics and macroeconomics down to the personal experience of our daily tasks and interactions in this Covid-19-disrupted society. There is no doubt that this year will leave a lasting legacy – events that hold the world’s attention consistently for an extended period and that alter the rhythms of our everyday life leave a mark.

Amidst the daily tally of infection rates, it was the brutal killing of an unarmed African American, George Floyd, on 25 May that shifted attention away from the pandemic and its ensuing fallout. This tragic event triggered unprecedented protests through the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the US and across the world. Protestors, mainly young, came from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds and shone a sharp spotlight on the systemic racism and prejudice that are still prevalent in so many, no, too many, countries around the world. The roots of the problem are deep and old, and it is now clear that the pent-up anger and the incontrovertible feelings of injustice have finally found a strong voice.

This heightened attention on the racial inequality and economic bifurcation in the US shows the ways in which they are inexorably linked – both generally and in terms of vulnerability – to this pandemic. The new world that emerges post-Covid-19 simply must do much, much more to eradicate centuries-old prejudice and create equal opportunities.

Lockdown reflections...

It’s been over 100 days since we’ve been in some form of lockdown in South Africa. Over 100 days of working from home. After watching the initial frenzy of people bulk-buying toilet roll, I think it’s safe to say that many of us have adapted and become accustomed to many ‘new normal’ things that we now do without question. We have learnt that we can work from anywhere, that our kids can be taught online (and that teachers truly are saints), and that physical distancing does not equal ‘social’ distancing with technology like Zoom, FaceTime and MS Teams at our disposal.

From a personal perspective, as a family we have spent significantly more time together and realised that there is simply no need to fill our schedules rushing from one activity or social engagement to the next – home is a good place to be. I have also enjoyed not racing through peak hour traffic to make the next meeting or appointment, or to catch another flight. And no, I don’t yet miss the airports or the significant time spent on planes. These are some valuable insights I have gained and I hope to sustain the new rhythm I set for myself when things return to ‘normal’.

But I do miss the interaction with my broader family, my friends, my colleagues and my clients. While we need to adhere to distancing measures for some time still, I look forward to the days when we can again share face-to-face experiences.

Without doubt, one of the biggest irritations of this pandemic is the wearing of face masks. It is after all one of the most visible and contentious reminders of the invisible enemy we all face.

I confess, I find them uncomfortable. It seems, however, that the wearing (or not) of masks has been used as a political tool in too many places around the world.

Admittedly, science and opinion on their use is divided; everyone can find an expert view to support their preference on the matter. And one thing is undeniable – in South Africa and across the world – not everyone is wearing one. To me, this all seems counterproductive. There is still so much that we do not know about this virus, but if there is a chance that wearing  a mask can reduce the rate of infection or can offer protection to the more vulnerable in society, then surely it’s a small price to pay? More importantly, intellectual debates over the science often detract from society as a whole adopting the required behavioural changes needed until pharmaceutical interventions are available.

The Covid-19 disruption is real, and the world has changed. Undoubtedly taking its toll is the overt trauma of the daily tally of the sick and the dying, coupled with the extreme economic fallout that has seen unemployment skyrocket and businesses fail, exacerbating the plight of the destitute. In addition, research continues to show that women, and in particular working mothers, have shouldered a significant part of the burden during this pandemic – the true costs and impact are unknown but are likely to leave a permanent mark.

We are all navigating an uncertain road today – our approach to this moment will inform the way we lead tomorrow. What we can do in such times is to focus on how we can rise to these new challenges of the day. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that as a mother, partner and business leader, not only have I had to come to terms with this new reality for myself, but I have had to learn a myriad of fresh skills to be there for my family, my clients, my team and my colleagues. And the life skills learning curve, much like that of the actual virus, has been exponential.

MANAGING THROUGH ADVERSITY

Those of us fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to continue working during the economic shutdown found ourselves working from home overnight as companies speedily equipped their employees for a virtual workday. It quickly became clear that this transition was not just a matter of sitting alone at your kitchen table or in a home office for the usual eight-hour workday. It has been a time of blurred lines, as families found themselves confined 24/7, combining homeschooling, full-time jobs, limited help and restricted shopping hours.

While there are many benefits to this ‘experiment’, current research shows that a greater proportion of employees miss the social interaction of their working environments. The truth is that the mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is significant and traumatic, even for the most emotionally resilient and mentally fit among us.

Covid-19 has accelerated unprecedented change and there is no doubt that the health of a business is visibly linked to the health of its workforce, its stakeholders, and the health of our broader society and planet.

At Coronation, as with many other leaders who run businesses and manage teams, the quick adjustment included gearing up our business to change overnight and finding appropriate ways to support our teams through this transition in a manner that is authentic and sensitive to all their new challenges. As many others have found, mental and emotional health (not just task productivity) have become an integral part of managing a team effectively.

I have found it important to understand this, and to take steps to ensure that my team remains connected and open, maintaining levels of trust and collaboration that can easily be eroded through isolation, uncertainty and anxiety. Sydney Finkelstein, professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and author of The Superbosses Playbook, believes those companies that nurture talent during this time will emerge from this pandemic better and stronger.

As leaders, we are required to step up and do things differently to what we have done before. Its starts with transparency, authenticity and communication that conveys action, seriousness of intent and empathy.

COVID THE AMPLIFIER  

Covid-19 will change many things for the long term. Many of the trends that were already emerging prior to the pandemic have seen a decade’s worth of acceleration in mere months.

But there are as many things that should stay the same. For me, a key focus has been and continues to be ensuring that our organisational culture and common purpose are sustained and, in fact, amplified through this time.

This is sometimes easier said than done. One of the big challenges of remote work is to ensure that our culture and values are not diluted over time as people spend less critical time in a shared space.

At Coronation, our unique culture has anchored our business since our inception in 1993.

We are all driven by a simple and common purpose to deliver superior long-term investment outcomes to you, our clients, while being responsible stewards of your capital. This purpose ensures that we put clients first – a focus that has remained steadfast and has kept us forging ahead through these uncertain and challenging times.

IN THIS EDITION

In our latest thought-leadership publication, we have once again included our strategy comments, as well as several articles about share selection and specific stocks that we hold in our portfolios. In addition, we’ve included an excerpt from our second annual Stewardship Report, reviewing our stewardship and responsible investment activities for the calendar year 2019. I trust you will enjoy the read and the insights that we offer you.

OUR CLIENTS REMAIN AT THE CENTRE

The challenges above notwithstanding, at the heart of our business remains our continued commitment to offering our clients a world-class experience. Through our support of our employees in ensuring they are receiving the tools and understanding they need to weather this crisis, we have also ensured that our service to you, our client, has been uninterrupted. While 85% of our workforce continues to operate remotely, we are fully equipped and operational to offer our clients the service that is the hallmark of Coronation.

As this pandemic and its effects continue to unfold, I’d like to assure you that my team and I are always available to you to answer any questions that you may have.

As before, I wish you, your family and your colleagues strength, fortitude and good health during this trying and ever-changing time. Please keep safe and well, and I look forward to the time when we meet again in person.

And on a last note, there is much discussion at present about the virus, the hope for a vaccine so that life can return to some form of normality and even the immunology around herd immunity. In reality, we are still some time away from a true understanding of any of these challenges to meaningfully move the needle in dealing with the pandemic. Ultimately, the main variable in all the modelling and projections scientists have is … us – our individual and collective choices. It is our behaviour in the short and medium term that will ultimately inform how much chaos ensues.