What is it like to be a female leader in today’s world? We asked some of South Africa’s high-profile women CAs(SA) what it takes to reach the top and what it’s like when you get there. As part of our 40 Years of Excellence, we are celebrating outstanding female leaders.
It has long been said that women bring a certain nuance to leadership – and one look at the practices and leadership styles of women in positions of power shows this to be true. These are the women who have challenged, questioned and propelled themselves forward in an environment where people haven’t always been ready to hear what they had to say. The fact that this did not stop them is inspiration for the next generation. From the women who are committed to pulling others up with them to those who will not rest until they have made it possible for the voiceless to be heard; from those who have set new standards of excellence to those whose ambitions are changing the way we think – we salute them all.
Varsha Dayaram, Senior Vice President, Massmart Financial Services
Being the smartest kid on the block doesn’t guarantee your success, says Varsha Dayaram. As a woman, you also need to own your space, own your role, and own your goal.
This philosophy has propelled Varsha through positions at Standard Bank and Alexander Forbes, where she fine-tuned the skillset she is now excited to apply in the fast-paced world of a multinational conglomerate.
Varsha says that her work ethic was shaped during her upbringing. Working in the family’s small retail business, she was exposed to the levers that drive retail in a safe, grassroots learning environment. ‘Hard work and humble beginnings fed my hunger to succeed. My family taught me to take risks, fail quickly, learn and be resilient. My parents taught me to work hard and continuously improve, and success will follow.’
As a leader, Varsha strives to be a multiplier rather than a diminisher and describes her style as collaborative and authentic. She focuses on identifying and endorsing each team member’s area of strength and leveraging those skills.
A growth mindset, abundance mentality and humility all contribute to the cohesiveness of the team and, for Varsha, that’s key. We are stronger together, she says simply.
With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the corporate landscape, Varsha says that the future looks both scary and exciting – but that, as South Africans, we have an innate resilience which is sure to help us prevail. From a personal perspective, she is looking forward to leading a life of significance both in the workplace and at home. Her positive mindset is a great asset in this regard, as she believes it will help her optimise her impact, especially as she moves towards her goal of serving on multiple boards, which will allow her to realise her aim of helping to grow the economy.
Zukie Siyotula, founder, Siyotula Holdings
Zukie Siyotula is working towards an ambitious goal: becoming the president of South Africa.
Although her aspiration may be lofty, it is rooted in a solid conviction: ‘We are ready for this generation to lead meaningfully and change people’s lives.’ She also has the background and experience to take her where she wants to go. ‘I come from a strong and driven family where success and making a difference were expected of me from a very young age.’ This foundation was developed further by mentors and sponsors who guided her and created opportunities to grow, so that she has developed a habit of delivering excellence – and expecting it from those around her, too.
This is the mentality that led her to establish Siyotula Holdings, a 100% female-owned and -managed company which focuses on advisory services and strategic investments in key economic sectors. Zukie also serves as a lead independent non-executive director and serves on various board committees on both listed and unlisted companies, including Wescoal Mining, the Bidvest Group and Denel SOC.
Zukie makes a point of surrounding herself with the best people, giving them real responsibility and holding them accountable. She also believes in developing as she leads. ‘People thrive when they feel that they matter and they can trust you,’ she points out.
Having devoted her career to breaking the ceiling and taking up space in non-traditional environments, Zukie takes a particularly dim view of patriarchy. ‘It’s a real challenge that is embedded in society, and most people aren’t even aware that they are enablers, or that they are actively discriminating against women in the workplace. I had to accept quickly the corporate world doesn’t expect much from women, especially black women, and focused on developing my skills and experience so that my excellence speaks volumes even when I’m not in the room.’
Val Davies, COO, EY Africa
Versatility, flexibility and a positive attitude are a few of the qualities which have seen Val Davies work her way to the position of chief operating officer at EY Africa after joining the organisation as an audit trainee after university.
Val’s leadership style is informed by several inputs. For a start, a career spent working in different roles at the same organisation has honed her understanding of a multi-faceted business and sharpened her insight into the importance of achieving success through a team rather than an individual. She also credits her CA(SA) qualification as ‘the most important building block in my career’ – equipping her not only with technical skills but also instilling high standards of integrity and conduct that have played a crucial role in how she tackles both personal and professional challenges.
These qualities are also central to her actions as a leader. ‘I strive to always be consistent and fair in my decisions,’ she explains. Although she consults others to make sure that she has more than one point of view, she is prepared to make and stand by her decisions. Leading from the front is important: ‘I don’t believe in asking someone to do something that I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.’
One of the things that Val appreciates most about EY is the rich environment it provides for guiding people on their journey – ‘whether professionally, academically or even in their personal lives’. As someone who is enthusiastic about mentoring people, especially young women, this is important to her. She plans to do much more of this going forward, concentrating on helping women make the most of their careers while balancing family commitments. ‘Women have such an important role to play in our profession and in our economy, and it is the responsibility of those of us who have walked the path before them to make sure that their road is more easily navigated,’ she concludes.
Boipelo Lekubo, CFO, Harmony Gold
Although Boipelo Lekubo has held her position as financial director of Harmony Gold Mining Company since March 2020, she has worked at the organisation as CFO since 2017.
It’s a diverse environment with a diverse team, she says, and that has had a major impact on her leadership style. So, too, has the dynamic nature of the mining industry, where constant change calls for an ability to anticipate risks and make calculated decisions.
Boipelo maintains that such an environment calls for ‘inclusive, visible leadership’ – but, at the same time, it’s also important to be able to provide what is needed at the right time, matching behaviour with the performance needs of an individual or group. ‘In this industry, you need to be able to adapt to changing situations,’ she says.
Given the overwhelmingly male nature of the mining industry, what are her views on the challenges facing women? ‘We should steer away from the male versus female argument,’ Boipelo answers. ‘Each person, irrespective of their gender, brings their own unique skills to the boardroom table. As a leader, it is important to establish your voice within an organisation in a respectful but assertive manner.’
That said, women can benefit from being bold and supporting each other. ‘Women are just as capable of achieving greatness as anybody else out there. If you work hard and harness your skills, the sky is the limit.’
The resilience Boipelo has developed through her time in a challenging field has proved useful during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, where she has concentrated on balancing the demands of stakeholders with the demands of family. She’s also had to accept her own vulnerability, and even declare it so that she can get the support she needs. For inspiration, she looks to the saying, ‘Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.’
Lindani Dhlamini, CEO, SekelaXabiso
It was while Lindani Dhlamini was completing her articles at Deloittes that the seed for her own business was planted. ‘At the time, I was exposed to several entrepreneurial businesses, so I saw what can be achieved through entrepreneurship.’
This may have been the start of her passion for development, but when – back in 1998 – she realised that she was one of the very few black females to qualify as a CA(SA), she decided to fine-tune her focus and concentrate on black women. ‘From the time I established Xabiso in 2003, the aim was on developing people rather than turning profits,’ Lindani confesses.
This commitment is evident in the age of Lindani’s team, all of whom are markedly young. ‘We believe in giving people opportunities,’ she explains. Her belief in her team has paid dividends: last year, the organisation became a member of Protiviti, a US-based firm focused on advisory services with offices in 80 offices and 4 000 partners worldwide, giving Lindani the chance to fulfil her goal of transforming SekelaXabiso into a global organisation.
As part of an international network, Lindani is well aware of the importance of diversity – and this is precisely why there needs to be a greater emphasis on developing female leaders, she insists. ‘If you restrict diversity, you restrict views,’ she opines. Against this backdrop, she is concerned by the lack of female participation in the workplace: ‘There are more female than male students at universities, and yet so many more men in the business world. What happens to those women – where do we lose them?’ It’s a question that needs to be addressed not only in the workplace but also at a societal and even domestic level. And in the meantime, Lindani says, women also have to be realistic. ‘Being a successful businesswoman is a joy, but you have to acknowledge that you will need reinforcements in certain areas and make a conscious choice to ditch the mother guilt,’ she advises.
Sindisiwe Mabaso-Koyana, Chairperson, AWCA Investment Holdings
Sindisiwe Mabaso-Koyana has always been aware that as a woman − and a young black woman at that − she had to fight extra hard for her space at the boardroom table. ‘Everything I did had to be excellent. I couldn’t afford to be flippant and I could never slip, because if I did, it wasn’t just my failure. It was a failure for young people, for black people, for women.’
Although the establishment of networks promoting and supporting women have helped in this regard, there is still much work to be done. Most of all, Sindisiwe explains, we need to see more men getting involved in gender equality work.
Neither time nor experience has diminished Sindisiwe’s commitment to hard work – or her determination to take others with her as she rises. This is why she was eager to establish African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA), an organisation which seeks to grow the participation of black females in the industry: ‘We realised the need to increase the number not only of black female CAs but of ethical CAs, too.’
More recently, Sindisiwe has expanded her focus. It’s no longer enough to make sure that women are represented in boardrooms (something which is still sadly lacking, she points out); we have to work to improve the quality of life for all women, as the recent rise in gender-based violence shows.
This is why she exhorts young women to live their purpose. ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to ask what really matters. It reminded us that tomorrow might not come and, if it does, it may not take the form we expected. You need to ask yourself: How can I make a difference to those around me? What can I do to make life better?’
Pamela Padayachee, Acting CFO, Tiger Brands
As someone who has benefited from the support of leaders who bolstered and guided her, Pamela Padayachee understands the importance of holding the door open for others.
Of course, being given a chance to prove yourself is one thing – seizing that chance is quite another. Pamela admits that, since her leaders had entrusted her with these opportunities, she felt compelled to make the most of them. ‘I made a choice early in my career to work longer and harder than the next person. As a result, putting in the extra effort became a way of life.’ Not that this was a difficult direction for Pamela to follow: as one of five children raised in a single-income family, she was well aware of the value of hard work and education from childhood.
As a leader, one of her primary goals is helping others grow and develop. She has realised that one of the most effective ways of doing this is adapting her leadership style as the situation demands. ‘I am hesitant to bucket my leadership style; my natural style is collaborative, but there are times when a show of strength is required and then I’ll be more directive. It might not be my usual approach, but I can recognise when it’s what’s needed to get the job done.’
Although she is aware of the need to deliver profits and shareholder value, she never loses sight of the importance of ‘how’ these objectives are realised. ‘You can do it by breaking people, but as a leader, leaving a trail of broken bodies is the worst thing you can do.’ In contrast, she wants to leave a legacy. ‘People sometimes tend to forget what you’ve done, but they never forget how you influenced them. Making a difference in people’s lives within the corporate environment is the legacy I would like to leave behind.’
Nomonde Xulu, Executive: Strategy and Investor Relations, Adcorp Holdings
For Nomonde Xulu, being a leader is primarily about ‘bringing people along with you, in whatever it is you’re doing; whether you’re needing to provide direction, enable, influence or motivate.’
This emphasis on inclusivity isn’t surprising, given Nomonde’s passion for education. In fact, her ultimate goal is to establish her own school, and each of the roles she has filled has taken her one step closer to this objective.
This is where her CA(SA) qualification has proved particularly useful. As a multi-skilled individual with a wide variety of interests, this is exactly what she needed to gain in-depth insight and increase the breadth of her knowledge. ‘I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do when I completed my studies but knew that I wanted to wear a suit to work, be challenged and do something with my life that would have a lasting positive impact on society. The path hasn’t always been clear, but with my qualification, I’ve been able to gain the skills I need to move me forward in the right direction.’ Her current position as head of strategy and investor relations at Adcorp is particularly relevant, as the emphasis on human capital development and training aligns with her own aspirations.
Having experienced the struggle of ‘being invisible’ – a state that’s unfortunately common among young black women – Nomonde is determined to lead with trust and respect. ‘Trust is built through technical competence. I’m fortunate here in that I think in terms of solutions, and not problems. Respect, meanwhile, is where many leaders come short. It’s a reciprocal quality – you earn it by giving it.’
Her advice to other young women? ‘Know your strengths and play to them, be deliberate about your career and be brave – always speak up and be heard even if your voice shakes.’
Dineshrie Pillay, specialist in leadership development
Dineshrie Pillay’s life changed, literally, when she found a book while clearing out the effects of her recently deceased father. The Settler: tribulations, trials, triumph by Barlow Govender and Tulsidas Perumal Naidoo outlines the challenges that her parents and grandparents faced as Indians in South Africa. ‘Until then, I had taken my very comfortable life for granted. This book was a blessing because it made me understand what they went through so that I can have this freedom.’
Understanding this also changed Dineshrie’s view of herself: ‘I understand that it’s not about being female or Indian. Ultimately, it’s my message that’s important; nothing more. I am a conduit of change.’
As a ‘societal leader’, driven to impact people’s lives and ignite their leadership abilities, Dineshrie serves with humility, gratitude, respect and love. ‘I don’t let titles define me,’ she says. ‘I have a deep appreciation of what I have, especially for the privilege of working with people, because with that privilege comes responsibility. This, in turn, helps me understand that while I may have my own values, they may be different to yours – but this doesn’t mean that your values aren’t worthy of my respect. Finally, loving what I do and the people I work with allows me to transcend all labels.’
Making the decision to live life on her own terms has been a turning point in Dineshrie’s life and led to her first book, The contract with yourself. Her second book – this time focusing on presentation skills – was penned during the COVID-19 lockdown, which she has experienced as a time of unparalleled inspiration and productivity where the slower pace of life has allowed her to connect with many more people on her social media platforms. ‘Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to fulfil one of my wishes: being able to clone myself! I can help more people by making available webinars and online training material.’
Priscillah Mabelane, CEO, BP Southern Africa
Priscillah Mabelane feels that the qualifier which so frequently accompanies her name and achievements – the first woman in South Africa to head a multinational oil company – does not adequately represent her experiences and her passion for women advancement. Her view is that ‘while it has been great to celebrate what I have been able to accomplish, I still find it disappointing to see that in 2020, which is more than two decades since democracy, this is still seen as a novelty when there are so many women who are capable of running major companies’.
Being celebrated comes with responsibilities, she acknowledges. ‘When you are given an opportunity, you have to decide what you are going to do with it. Are you going to use it to broaden the horizon for others, so that more women get chances, or are you going to use it to further your personal success?’ The answer isn’t always easy, as Priscillah has found: a personal failure could impact the future potential for other women you would have liked to help. It is, therefore, not an either/or question. She is, however, keen to continue driving transformation to remove some of the inherent barriers that inhibit women from advancing in the corporate environment.
Priscillah’s approach to success centres on three elements: self-drive, which determines the opportunities you pursue as you work towards short- and long-term goals; your value proposition, which relates to your contribution to the business in return to the mentors and sponsors who volunteer their time to support your development; and your own willingness to share your experiences so that you can uplift others.
She maintains that it is essential for every individual to choose an anchor for their career. ‘Young people tend to adopt a broad outlook, but my advice is to narrow your focus from the outset so that you can deepen your knowledge. And be patient – knowledge comes with time. I am here today because I invested in myself and I opened myself to continuous learning and growth from others.’
Abigail Mukhuba, outgoing Finance Director, African Rainbow Minerals
As Abigail Mukhuba prepares to take her place as finance director at Sanlam from October, she will be taking the next step in a career which has been driven forward by a refusal to take herself too seriously.
‘The Abigail that sits in executive boardrooms and contributes to the overall strategic direction of the organisation is the same Abigail that grew up running in the dusty gravel and muddy roads of Lwamondo; the same Abigail that took an early morning Putco bus in Soweto to go to school; the same Abigail that enjoys sitting at home and watching MasterChef,’ she insists. One of her greatest strengths is her refusal to be anything but herself: ‘I know what I stand for, I remain respectful, consistent and fair in the way I treat people regardless of their stature. I am always open to learning and enjoy listening to new ideas – I am not easily convinced, but when I am convinced, I give my all.’
She continues: ‘I believe in having open conversations with my team and really enjoy hearing their ideas.’ Connection is something she values and strives to achieve by paying attention and supporting the emotional needs of team members – so it’s perhaps not surprising that she considers the highlight of an illustrious career to be the relationships she has built along the way.
Abigail maintains that the challenges she experiences as a leader have not come about because she is female. Not that she denies the existence of gender issues, but, she says, being a woman in the financial services industry has been a blessing rather than a challenge because it has provided many opportunities. ‘I’m glad I realised this early in my career, otherwise I may have continuously struggled in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Self-doubt is the enemy of success and hinders the expertise that one can bring to the corporate table.’