Financial planning was a natural fit for her inherent personality, says Advocate Shirly Hyland, Director of the School of Financial Planning Law – University of the Free State


Describing herself as someone who always liked to plan ahead, whether it was in terms of her personal or professional life, Hyland initially studied law and gravitated towards financial planning—a vocation that suited her well.

She believes that everything in life set her on her current career path and prepared her for her role, including all the people she has worked with in the past.

“I believe that you should learn from everyone you work with. Whether it is a good lesson or a lesson in what not to do, make sure that you learn from the people around you,” she says, adding that while you cannot always choose who you work with, you can choose who you identify as your mentors.

“I have learnt from some fantastic people who I have had the privilege of working with,” she elaborates.

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, the passion seemed to be in her blood.

“It was an environment where you constantly needed to make sure you knew where your competitor was and where they were on their way to, what the new trends were—and the risks and opportunities related to it,” she says.

It was her love for the industry and her passion to see it improve that drew her to her current position as Director.

“We have come a far way from the idea of an insurance broker selling a product to clients with a calculation done on the back of the till slip (or cigarette box), but there is still so much to achieve to make sure that our industry becomes a professional environment that can be equated to any other professional industry,” she says.

Hyland is primarily responsible for the running of the school—this entails the day-to-day management responsibilities that include human resources, physical resources and staff management.

From a more strategic point, however, she also ensures that the school offers the best programmes available and that they maintain the edge above their competitors, identify new opportunities, stay in contact with industry membership bodies and ensure that, from a legislative point, they are operating within the ambit of the law and institutional regulations.

Finding inspiration

Knowing that their clients are in a position to improve the industry is what motivates and inspires her daily, says Hyland.

“If we train and educate a good product, that good product goes out into the industry and can make a difference in the life of every person they come in contact with.

“Financial literacy—not to even mention financial planning—is severely lacking in South Africa. If we are able to ensure that the products we send out into the world can change the way people see and how they work with money, then we are slowly making the world a better place,” she enthuses.

Overcoming challenges

According to Hyland, the biggest challenge she faces on a daily basis is the resistance to change, which astonishes her.

“I am astounded that, in a world that changes so drastically from one day to the next, there are still people in this world—both young and old—who resist change,” she says.

And then, as a woman in a position of leadership, she experienced her fair share of difficulties in the beginning but she did not allow them to deter her.

“As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I refused to justify myself to anyone but I was adamant to allow my actions—my standard of work, my abilities, the application of my mind—to do the talking for me. And well, the rest is now history,” she says.

In her experience, however, the structure of emerging leaders, senior management and executive leadership has not transformed enough in terms of women leaders.

“We don’t see enough women in leadership roles and that is a fact. Women are as capable as men, however, women often choose a different path that is not seen as conducive to the demands of a traditional leadership, managerial or executive position. Thus, over and above the need to empower women, we also need to rethink the workplace and the environment in which executives, managers and leaders operate,” Hyland explains.

Triumphs and successes

While Hyland has accomplished much during her impressive career, she describes the school’s graduate programme that sees young graduates find good employment within a mentorship firm as one of the greatest successes, saying it has yielded some fantastic results.

“The team who run this under the guidance of Dr Alsemgeest and Me Moshe-Bereng can be incredibly proud of the opportunities that this creates,” she adds.

Additionally, she is also immensely proud of the school’s Recognition of Prior Learning programme.

“This allows persons who have experienced barriers—personal or financial—in life that prohibited them from perusing formal studies to gain access to postgraduate studies at the school.

“Students who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to acquire a tertiary education are placed in a position to be given admission to the University of the Free State,” she enthuses.

With any higher education platform, research plays a vital role. Currently, the school offers three unique programmes and is the longest-serving education provider of the Postgraduate Diploma in Financial Planning and, thus, Hyland says the school’s education factor is sound.

In terms of future goals, however, Hyland says, they have some strides to make in terms of research.

“The school has recently established a unit that will focus on financial planning and financial literacy research. The aim is that this unit becomes a unit that industry—both locally and internationally—turns to in order to conduct research into aspects of financial planning and financial literacy that needs clarity and development,” she explains.

A question of leadership

While Hyland believes that not everyone is cut out to be a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King Jr., this “is okay, because the world cannot handle that much greatness all the time.

“Making a difference in your immediate environment is already a contribution that would not otherwise have been there. Small changes can snowball and reach many people,” she says, adding that being a good leader does not mean you are the most liked or most popular person, it means that you need to ensure what needs to be done gets done.

“This often entails making difficult decisions, taking risks and being the bad guy. What distinguishes a great leader from a good leader is doing all the above and still maintaining some level of compassion, humility and humanity,” she says.

During the course of her career, Hyland has learnt many crucial leadership lessons, both positive and negative.

While she notes that people are complicated and some have little to no sense of loyalty, it is something you must learn to deal with.

“Never take a person’s word—as soon as you have completed the conversation, send an email and confirm what was discussed.

“As a woman, don’t try to justify your existence through words—put your shoulder to the wheel and prove your worth where it matters: to yourself first and then to anyone else who really matters,” she explains.

Honesty, compassion, humility and humanity go a very long way, she says. “There is no leader without a team—cherish your team, give credit where credit is due and be part of the team,” she adds.

Additionally, she has come to understand the importance of getting a hobby. “Have an outlet. You cannot pour from an empty glass—if you don’t take time to rejuvenate yourself, you won’t have capacity for the people and challenges around you,” she says.

People of influence and inspiration

There are many people who inspired Hyland throughout her life.

“From a business and finance point of view, I can mention a few, but on a personal note, I take my influence from those I truly know and who are close to me,” she explains.

In a personal capacity, she praises Dr Marius Botha for his generosity, attention to detail, always being willing to assist and teach where he can, for his non-judgmental approach to people and for always having more to give, as well as Anton Swanepoel for his unwavering ethical approach to life and the industry and for being an absolute gentlemen and treating people with humanity, and being honest in the kindest manner.

She also looks up to Warren Buffet for his less-is-more approach to finances and investing, and Richard Branson for his risk-taking and his love for life and people.

Within the local sphere, she credits Tokyo Sexwhale for his ability to identify opportunities, Richard Maponya for finding opportunities that benefited not only himself but his wider community and Adrian Gore for his innovation.

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