Leadership qualities that helped Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu build Africa's fastest growing footware company

This post is part of the Leadership in Africa Series by USB-ED. As part of our commitment to providing transformative executive education, we shine a spotlight on the most innovative people and extraordinary concepts coming out of the continent. This is episode 2 of the series.

Cinderella was on to something. Shoes really can be life-changing. Especially for Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, the founder of soleRebels, the fastest growing African shoe brand! Alemu is an inspirational leader who founded her company with the goal of alleviating poverty by helping her community through sustainable practices. Since its inception, soleRebels has expanded across the globe with more than 500 stores and a predicted US$1 billion in revenue by 2028. This Women’s Month, USB-ED shares lessons from Alemu’s exceptional leadership style for others to emulate.

According to Zion Market Research, the global footwear industry is expected to generate US$320.4 billion in revenue by the end of 2023 – but consumers want more than good-looking shoes. Sustainable fashion is top-of-mind, especially since the outcry over Burberry burning R506-million rands-worth of unsold stock last year. Today, big brands are stepping up to ensure their products are sustainable and innovative. soleRebels leads the pack in Africa. The female-led company champions homegrown artisanal skills, recycled materials and ethically produced natural resources.

Despite its exponential growth, Alemu remains refreshingly grounded and unusually approachable. “There are no hidden ‘executives’ or third-party layers to reach me,” she told Quartz Africa in October 2018. “You want me, email me.”

Her approach to leadership and entrepreneurship saw her named as one of Quartz Africa’s most innovative young Africans in 2015, while soleRebels itself has been described as the “Nike of Africa”. Here are some lessons from Alemu for other leaders to learn from, with quotes drawn from How We Made It in Africa and Successness.

What are great leadership qualities

1. Be a problem-solver

“I always reflect and think about the same thing: business is about solving problems. Trying to identify the singular most difficult situation would be doing a disservice to this simple fact: if you are not continuously encountering tough situations as an entrepreneur, and solving them, then you are not really in business. Encountering obstacles and overcoming them is my day-to-day existence.”

Alemu has always approached problems through a lens of opportunity – first with the establishment of a sustainable business to help her community and now, in her everyday leadership of a global brand.

Just like Alemu, if you look beyond your revenue towards business solutions that have a positive impact on society and the environment, you will not only be successful but also find a purpose beyond earnings. Additionally, your business will attract like-minded problem-solvers eager to add value to a company that makes a difference. The best way to entrench a business and earn it fans is to solve a real problem we collectively face, with a solution that reflects the context of the country you’re in.

2. Recognise your weaknesses

“I have developed a fine sense of my weaknesses, and I address those by building my team with people who have that strength I may lack. So I flip any weakness I may have and make it a strength … Weakness recognition, and a full embrace of that, is a powerful tool.”

Everyone has an area they struggle with but, as Alemu illustrates, identifying these vulnerabilities and finding ways to turn them into an asset is what leadership is about. By not getting hung up on your weaknesses, you’re showing your team that having a weakness is not bad – and that you can overcome these by working together. Ultimately, it’s about finding key people to delegate to and trusting the wisdom of your team.

3. Take an unconventional approach

“I think conventional wisdom is, by definition, the antithesis of entrepreneurialism, so I am probably on the other side of a lot of it.”

soleRebels would not be the brand it is today if its leader did not recognise the potential of her community and the natural resources of Ethiopia. By looking beyond conventional practices and redefining manufacturing in shoe production, she gained thousands of loyal customers and helped her society and country.

While tried-and-tested methods are a good fall-back, leaders that take the road less travelled are opening themselves and their companies to innovation – and the opportunity to be leaders in their industries, too.

4. Create a shared vision

“I like to visualise my goals in my own private space. I try and make it as real as possible so it is almost tangible to me. That gives these goals an immediacy and realness both for me and for my team that allows people to really chase that idea or goal in a visceral way.”

The best leaders are able to motivate their teams to work towards a shared goal. You can do this by providing everyone on your team with an opportunity to contribute their ideas, and implementing the ones that work well with the overall vision. This not only allows your team to feel like part of the process but will motivate them to ensure their ideas are successful.

5. Be an inspiration

“I am always engaging with people on my team, finding out what they need to make them better at what they do, and what makes them happier. This lets us have an incredible level of overall team happiness and leads to long-term team members…

I am also always on the lookout for talented people who may have never been given a shot at doing something BUT who I can see have talent that just needs an opportunity.”

Top leaders know that succession planning is a key factor of success. Alemu identifies and actively invests in talent. And she continuously asks her team how she can help them reach their full potential. Seeing characteristics that will enhance your team, production or overall business in others is a skill that can be learnt over time and will ultimately lead your company to greater things – even when you have passed on the baton.

Alemu’s leadership style is engaging and proactive. These qualities have helped her build a global brand that uplifts communities and is sustainable over the long term. At USB-ED, our development programmes are aimed at unlocking the potential of current and future leaders in Africa, driven by values such as Alemu’s: problem-solving, talent identification, motivation, unconventional thinking and team building. These programmes may be the key to moving forward in your leadership journey.

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