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COVER STORY: Staying Authentic

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For the new CEO of BP South Africa integrity and remaining true to her value system keeps the first woman to head a multinational oil company in South Africa grounded

Chartered Accountant Priscillah Mabelane, who has recently been appointed as the CEO of BP Southern Africa, has built her career success on authenticity, courage and old-fashioned diligence. These values are crucial, she says, and so deeply ingrained in her that she will not work for any company that is not aligned with her value system.

But on top of this, Mabelane believes agility and resilience are important characteristics for CAs(SA), the C-suite as a whole, and the businesses they work for. These will be the key to progress and ensuring stakeholder value and economic growth for the country in difficult economic times, she says.

‘At BPSA, it’s a huge agenda that I will be driving in these challenging times, and it’s very exciting to be working to continuously give back to our shareholders and stakeholders,’ she says. She believes her accounting training and experience has prepared her well for the role.

Rising through the ranks

As soon as she began assisting in her father’s bookkeeping office at age 11, Mabelane realised she had an affinity for numbers.

‘Back then, in the village of Mabocha, outside Burgersfort in Limpopo, there were hardly any chartered accountants in small villages and townships. The very term “chartered accountant” sounded very profound to me, and I fell in love with it. At an early age, I knew I wanted to become a chartered accountant,’ she says.

Mabelane’s parents were highly supportive, raising their children on a foundation of integrity and authenticity with the conviction that there was nothing they could not do. The affinity for numbers saw both Mabelane and her sister going on to become CAs(SA).

Through a combination of her own drive and ambition, and the support of her family and colleagues, Mabelane went on to excel at university and into her accounting career.

Passing her junior degree cum laude at the University of the North and completing her honours at the University of Natal, Mabelane did her articles at the then Ernst & Young’s in Pietermaritzburg.

‘I was really fortunate there,’ she recalls. ‘When I joined Ernst & Young, there were hardly any black role models for me, but there were a number of directors and managers who took a keen interest in my career, challenging me and giving me opportunities to grow.’

The diligence and precision she acquired through long hours spent helping in her father’s accounting office stood her in good stead in the early years. ‘Having had the practice of being a typist – where you could not afford to make any mistakes, I had become diligent. I used to work very long hours. Some of the pressure was probably coming from my own ambitious nature, and I pushed myself.’

Mabelane started at the bottom, which she believes was a valuable and humbling experience, and went on to rise through the ranks at Ernst & Young, Liberty, as CFO at Airports Company of South Africa, and in various management roles at Eskom. ‘I grew at Eskom, where I started as an accountant for the distribution business, and got promoted every two years into roles including financial management and general management. There, I worked on complex and exciting projects and so gained deeper experience. I was supported appropriately and I just blossomed,’ she recalls.

Bringing ca(sa) skills to the ceo role

Mabelane joined BP as CFO six years ago and was formally appointed as the multinational’s Southern Africa CEO with effect from September 2017.

Newly back in the country after completing a business management course at Harvard, Mabelane reflects on how her chartered accounting training has prepared her for this role.

‘For me, being a CA is such a key enabler, because as an accountant you are given an opportunity to truly understand business. In all the roles I occupied while I was in finance – particularly around performance management – it was never only about the numbers. The numbers are just the output of the business drivers. I’ve always been very interested in ensuring I play a holistic role and more general management in strategy formulation, enabling businesses and running portfolios such as IT, which are critical for any business leader,’ she says. ‘In addition, because of the ethical approach of the CA environment, you are able to get honest feedback because the expectations around what you’re supposed to do and deliver are very clear.’

Believing that the accounting profession is ‘one of the most dynamic professions’, Mabelane urges CAs(SA) to value it. ‘Valuing it means investing in it and investing in yourself. You need to push yourself to continuously grow. The tough and structured programme that CAs(SA) follow helps, by giving you a systematic, progressive growth path. At times we look at growth from a technical or commercial perspective, but we also need to consider where the future is going and be able to adapt to new skills sets that are required,’ she says.

‘Then there is the fundamental growth around leadership. Typically, accountants tend to be very performance driven and hard on outcomes, which are good attributes to have. But we have to balance that with the soft skills and shape ourselves to become better leaders who are able to challenge and become examples. This country requires more leaders who do more than criticise, and rather contribute appropriately and become an integral part of the solution.’

Leading progress

Conceding that South Africa faces challenges, Mabelane is gearing up to contribute to finding solutions and driving growth for her company’s stakeholders and the country as a whole.

‘We’re a young democracy and we’ve achieved a lot, but we need to keep driving progress.’ Admittedly, the South African economy is challenged, so business needs to position itself to remain resilient,’ she says. ‘We are in an advantaged position as both BP and the industry, whereby we have a great deal of capability and global experience. The question will be how do we then bring those experiences and continue to help government to shape policy frameworks and work with them to drive growth?’

Mabelane notes that BP, with a 90-year history in South Africa, is investing in local growth and development, as well as expanding its partnerships in Southern Africa. ‘In this new era, despite the short-term challenges, we are long-term focused. We are investing in a refinery to ensure we can respond to the supply and demand dynamics we see in the market, we are growing the retail business, and we have strategic partnerships that give us an opportunity to differentiate ourselves and leverage growth.’

Mabelane’s immediate goal is to ensure the business remains resilient. ‘What gives me confidence is that I have a capable team to be able to respond to short term challenges. I also believe we have proud South African people who are very capable that will also continuously challenge and help us weather the storm. The good thing about South Africa is that we can talk about these things in a transparent way. We still have a number of institutions that are still working well. We need to focus on those. But we need to play a role in shaping the dialogues and through this, and continuous persistence, I believe we will make progress,’ she says.

Growing capacity

In addition to driving growth for BP stakeholders, Mabelane is committed to increasing her contribution to skills development and empowerment. This commitment to growth starts with entrusting her team with critical workloads. ‘I don’t work the excessive hours I did when I was younger and more energised. Now I work smarter, and importantly, I orchestrate delivery through my team. Diversity and inclusion within the team means we all come with different attributes that we can harness for maximum value.’

Over the years, she has learnt that it is important to strike a balance and avoid becoming excessively controlling, she says. ‘You need to trust and take a risk on people, and you need to create a conducive environment for that. And I’ve seen that – every time people are able to make really brilliant, intelligent mistakes and grow out of them, that’s how they become better and that’s how you create an enduring capability going forward.

‘If there’s anything that’s part of my growth agenda, it’s learning to let go,’ she admits. ‘So I don’t micro-manage people; I don’t manage time – I manage output. It doesn’t come easy, since I’m very driven, and at times I want things done “the Priscillah way”.’’

Having pushed herself for over 20 years, Mabelane is now moving to achieve more balance in her life, working smarter, delegating more responsibility and allocating more time to family and personal growth.

One area she aims to focus on more in future is empowerment programmes. ‘I’ve been very fortunate to be in senior roles in organisations, which gives me an opportunity to enable people to grow through coaching, supporting and creating the environment for the growth. At BP specifically, we have always driven meaningful contribution and particularly focusing on the needs of the country. I was quite instrumental in ensuring we have a trust to focus on skills development with an emphasis on science, maths and technology, and I will continue to passionately support and sponsor that,’ she says.

‘I also care deeply about the people of this country. I’m blessed and God has given me the wisdom as well as the opportunity to be here; people have been generous in giving me the opportunity to grow. So I have a huge responsibility to give back.’

This giving back includes serving as a coach and mentor, giving talks at schools and supporting orphanages. Importantly for Mabelane, it also includes her commitment to her close-knit and extended family. ‘I spend a lot of time with my parents, siblings and our extended younger generation, and it’s something I will never compromise on, because that’s how I reenergise myself. I also create my own time for reflection, to go to church every Sunday without feeling guilty that I have to be in the office,’ she says. ‘Going forward, I will focus more on social imperatives and meaningful contributions.’

Words Tracy Burrows

Photos Theana Breugem