All the important little things add up

Khanyi Makwala was amazing to work with. No task was too small and no challenge was too big.


Khanyi Makwala was amazing to work with. No task was too small and no challenge was too big. She obviously loved her role and exuded confidence in all she did. From the moment I arrived at the GIBS Business School in Johannesburg on a chilly July morning, Khanyi had everything planned out and prepared with a deft and careful touch.

We had asked to move from the large and modern lecture theatre to a less formal room with round tables, enabling our attendees from Bidvest to better work together on the exercises and workshops that we had crafted. This was managed seamlessly and without any fuss at all. All was in order and well ahead of schedule as we awaited their arrival.

Khanyi had a story to tell that I wanted to hear. She had worked at GIBS for some seven years, but not always as the Programme Coordinator. In fact, her initial two years at GIBS were spent working as a cleaner for the outsourcing company that employed her. She loved the buzz that this great centre of learning and the students generated. She wanted the chance to do more, so much more, but without qualifications and any relevant experience, this seemed to be just another dream.

A vacancy arose for a desk receptionist, and Khanyi plucked up the courage to apply for the job. At first, she was not successful but she had been considered and despite not getting the job, her confidence had grown. She applied again when the next vacancy arose. She was accepted and she would never look back. Her strong work ethic and positive demeanour were soon being noticed and remarked upon.

A role with more responsibility was her target. A promotion brought her much closer to the custom executive education programmes that she was so curious about. One of the professors encouraged her to apply for the role of project coordinator and she had all that was required. She now had the job of her dreams.

Her enthusiasm and passion filled the room as she spoke, her pride and the sparkle in her eyes made her special story linger in the air. I somehow felt that so many could benefit from not just hearing how she had bravely navigated the many obstacles and barriers, but also feel her energy and determination. A truly golden moment.

For many women trying to build a career, it is difficult to stay positive when things are not going according to plan or not moving fast enough. It’s always worth simply remembering the journey you have been on to get to this difficult place. You may just realise that it’s been a hell of a journey, with bumps along the way, of course, but you may have come a very long way from the relative dark days when you commenced this challenging initiative. This knowledge might just raise your spirits for another push because things are moving in the right direction.

No matter how much companies claim they try to eliminate unconscious bias, promote fair wages and encourage diversity, women are still underpaid and under-valued at virtually every step in their careers. Even more alarming, most studies suggest that the problem is actually getting worse, but is that really the case?

Despite the fact that 57% of college graduates in the USA are now female, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level, according to McKinsey. That narrows the female talent pipeline from the start.

Just as worrying, if they do get hired, their chances of a promotion are limited. A 2018 Accenture report found women are 22% less likely to reach a manager level than their male peers, regardless of their qualifications; and only about one in five senior leaders are women. This is, of course, deplorable and further fuels the fight against such inequality.

Whilst doing my research for this article, I came across a really interesting and instructive article by the challenging and intelligent writer on all facets of contemporary leadership, Shellie Karabell, in Forbes magazine (19 May 2016).

It was so thought-provoking, hard-hitting and from today’s perspective, controversial, and perhaps already somewhat dated just two years later, it deserved a response.

The catalyst for her article was the seminal 1977 book, The Managerial Woman: The Survival Manual for Women in Business, which went on to become a best-seller, by Margaret Hennig and her Harvard classmate, Anne Jardim—who went on to speak and give training courses to women in management.

“In an effort to clarify some of the thinking of professional women of my generation, and to hand down the benefits of our experiences, I—with input from other professional women—compiled the following list of Ten Commandments for Women leaders”.

On reading her Ten Commandments, they already seemed really dated and from another era, or is it more that things have perhaps moved on quite a bit?

It’s not helpful to be critical of the past, as without the commitment, hard work and strength of those who came before, there may not be any platform at all to build upon. But it does help paint a vivid picture of the context of the times and it’s not that long ago at all.

Whilst reading her Ten Commandments, I couldn’t help thinking of the old adage, ‘boys are brought up to be brave and girls are brought up to be perfect’.

1 Hard work and excellence are important but they’re not enough. This is an important first step, but you and your competence need to be on someone’s radar screen. You don’t have to brag, just don’t pass up the opportunity to remind people what you’ve contributed when the opportunity arises. Too much modesty can easily get you overlooked.

Beyoncé was at her peak a couple of years ago and would appear to sympathise with this. “We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead,” she said.

Maybe today, the onus is balanced between both women and the prevailing working environments and cultures. Where women have the choice, they must become far more discerning about the environment they choose to offer their skills to and decide to work in. Ensure the values of the organisation match yours—it will be too late to notice a mismatch after you have joined.

2 Network. This is also how you share your competences with those who might give you a leg up. It allows you to share knowledge with others who need it, learn from those who can teach you, and create an important base. Lonesome cowgirls don’t do well in the business world.

An activist and powerful voice from the same time, Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States, captures it beautifully, ”No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”

Networking with ‘like-minded’ women is still vital, where experiences, best practice and lessons learnt are openly shared. This will provide a feeling of solidarity and foster growth.

3 Prioritise. You may be able to “have it all,” but not have all of it going well simultaneously always. When you juggle work, family, social demands, etc., you actually spread the risk: when one thing goes badly wrong, there’s another corner in which to hide. But to make yourself crazy trying to do everything perfectly all the time is, well … crazy. And impossible.

Flexible working environments have become essential for all employees. They cater and absorb many different approaches to work and are far more focused on outcomes than ‘how’ work is performed e.g. working from home, variable working hours and job share schemes.

4 Choose your battles. This is another form of prioritising. Choose those which will create the best for the company, for the family, for you. Err on the side of NOT sailing into battle. You run the risk of becoming a banshee.

Gender equality is everyone’s battle. The more men that actively sign up to be part of the necessary change is critical to the success in the challenge for gender equality.

Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner stands out for a new courage in speaking up, “I had two options. One was to remain silent and never to speak and then to be killed by the terrorists. The second option was to speak up for my rights and then die. And I chose the second one.”

5 Speak up. Recent research by INSEAD Business School Professor, Horacio Falcao, shows that one of the reasons women are lagging in the salary sweepstakes is their failure to negotiate. This may be a component of women’s belief that working hard will get them somewhere—that efforts will be recognised by those who are in charge. This is simply not the case. Those in charge have other things on their minds. If there’s something you want, ask for it. It’s not impolite; this isn’t a tea party. Don’t be afraid that the boss won’t like you.

There has been much rightful anger and indignation about the gender pay gap. The UK government has forced more than 10 000 large firms to reveal details of their gender pay gaps. Some of the pay disparities are more than alarming. All women in the workforce must know what their real worth is and openly talk about it.

Melinda Gates, Co-Founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, states that ”I tell my daughters to have their voice in this world, and it became clear I needed to role-model that”.

6 Dress well. Identify a female executive whose style you admire and copy it as best you can. Yes, like in high school. Even if you’re attached to your own style, you might find something to improve.

Earlier this year the UK government rejected calls for a specific ban after a campaign by temp receptionist, Nicola Thorp, who was sent home by receptionist outsourcing firm Portico, on her first day at PwC after refusing to wear two to four-inch heels.

It is unacceptable for anyone to suffer discrimination in the workplace and being forced to wear fashionable high heels is discrimination. Surely, it’s more about how people do their jobs rather than what they wear. Once again, find the environment which will enable you to thrive, doing it ‘your’ way.

7 Use silence. Not to be confused as the antithesis of “speaking up.” Women talk more than men; they ramble, they forget the cut-off valve between mind and mouth. I have no statistics to support this—only memories of business meeting presentations made by women that went on far too long and ended badly. Silence is a useful punctuation on either side of a well-thought-out statement.

Do not ever feel that it is best to be ‘seen and not heard’. Every voice deserves to be listened to with respect. There is room for many different approaches and styles. Do not be intimidated into selling yourselves short.

Meg Whitman, Hewlett Packard’s CEO and President, sees things a little differently: “Run to the fire; don’t hide from it.”

8 Do what you say you’re going to do. Do less, or say more, but make it balance. Deliver on the promise; make it real.

Become known for doing what you say you are going to do. It builds trust and respect from everyone in the team and is the best way to build a rock-solid reputation. Back yourself and don’t be afraid to make a commitment, no matter how daunting the challenge that lays ahead. If you’re bold you might fail, if you’re not bold you will fail.

9 Stay positive. Not crazy Pollyanna-like Cheshire-Cat-grin happy; comfortable-in-your-skin happy. Even if you’re not. Thinking of things that are going right will help you handle those things that are going wrong. Worry and pessimism only cast a pall over the realm of possibilities that could help.

Every team benefits from having those with a positive demeanour around. There is room for the more cautious and careful but that shouldn’t mean doom and gloom every day. Constant pessimism is never fair or liked.

10 Don’t sleep with the boss. Many do. Not smart. You lose.

Circumstances change—values don’t. No matter what happens at work, stick to your values all the time—never let anyone convince you otherwise.

The value in real terms (i.e. after accounting for inflation) of the prize money won by Wimbledon men’s champion, Rod Laver, in 1968 was £30 000—the first year professional tennis players were allowed to play in the Grand Slam tournaments. The women’s champion, Billie Jean King, won £11 000. Both the men’s and women’s champions in this year’s tournament took home £2.25-million.

Serena Williams has become the role model for so many and when asked about the gender pay disparity, she answered, ”The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.”

From best practice to next practice

  • Salary openness
  • Flexibility—make work/life balance a priority for your employees
  • Make things equal but not the same—sometimes managers think that they have to treat everyone in an identical manner. When Jane asks for a more flexible schedule, don’t deny it because John doesn’t have one.
  • Make mentors available to everyone
  • Harassment needs to be identified and stopped immediately
  • Re-evaluate job specifications for the senior management team in the case of companies not hiring women for senior level roles, they should identify what barriers they have constructed, which have led to fewer job applications from women.
  • Consider the culture, polices, and practices currently in existence in your business.
  • Bold leadership
  • Comprehensive action—one-off events and activities rarely deliver
  • An empowering environment

Shellie ends with, “perhaps another list of commandments will be written before another 45 years pass …”

It will not take another 45 years. As things change for the better, so many women get stronger and are now forcing change, not just asking for it. Many men feel compelled to also fight for what is right. Together, they are an unstoppable force for good.

Britons at long-last give up traditional gender roles

A new survey by the National Centre for Social Research suggests Britons have abandoned traditional views on gender roles. Almost three-quarters of the public no longer believe that women should be homemakers while men earn money. As recently as 1988, a majority still said women should stay at home while men went out.

We started with the perseverance of Khanyi, which led to the opportunity she always wanted, and the late and great Maya Angelou may well have been describing her, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.

In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

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