Using mentorship to navigate a non-linear career

Shell financial advisor Sanda Mahlakahlaka has learned you can find game-changing people on the way to success.

Sanda Mahlakahlaka studied chemical engineering at UCT and admits that, coming from a technical background made her more inclined to follow a technical route. However, she didn’t want to narrow herself to one specific path, so when the opportunity to enter the Shell Graduate Programme arose, she grabbed it with both hands.

The programme grooms young talent and future leaders and Sanda found that the scope of exposure, commercial experience as well as operational understanding in a fast paced, high-pressure environment, was just what she needed to grow her resilience and be adaptable. She found that she had a knack for numbers and was soon using her technical skills in tandem with the financial acumen she was gaining along the way.

In the footsteps of inspiring mentors
Sanda says being teachable is key to succeeding. For her, this means more than just the technical skills she needs in her career. It’s also about her development as an individual, and that is why she values mentorship so much.

“You may have personal aspirations and ideas of what you want, but if you have someone who is more experienced to bounce ideas off, to help you shape and refine your goals, you get a far better outcome,” she says. “ For someone who has made or is looking to shift like myself, moving from a technical background to finance, such guidance is crucial.”

Sanda gravitates towards leaders she would like to emulate, those who have the qualities she strives to grow within herself. One woman she holds in high regard is Shell SA’s chief financial officer, Barbara Makhubedu. “As a female leader, but also as a black woman, she represents something important to me. I admire how unapologetic she is about uplifting other women and how explicit she is about supporting young women,” says Sanda.

And it’s not just talk, she says. It’s evidenced by the fact that the majority of their local finance organisation is made up of women. “Seeing and being part of this level of representation of black women in practice makes you believe there are leaders who take the importance of diversity seriously and realize the importance of it,” she says.

Barbara’s mix of technical prowess and human empathy appeals to Sanda. “Her authenticity and not being afraid to reveal her true self and telling her story, gives me permission to express that side of myself too.”

Different voices, richness of viewpoints
Sanda considers herself lucky to be able to draw inspiration from such leaders at work, as well as beyond the office. Her sister, Noloyiso Mhlubulwana, is the financial director at Tsebo Facilities Solutions. Noloyiso brings her smarts and wealth of experience in corporate leadership to their conversations, and their close relationship means Sanda can draw out the kind of tailored advice that can only be garnered from someone who knows you well.

The dynamic CFO and acting CEO of Airliquide, Taki Nkhulumeni, is also an aspirational female leader Sanda has known through family. “Her opinions and views are so valuable to me. As a person in the energy space, she has a powerful mix of industry experience and a sharp mindset.”

Sanda thrives where her ideas and unique perspective as a young person are welcome. “I like knowing that my perspective will be heard and incorporated. Even if I have less experience in certain areas, my fresh outlook should be an asset. The best dynamic is where there is a mutual exchange.”

She also draws on inspiring peers, who are reaching for their dreams and transforming their unique spaces. “I am motivated by seeing young people launching different businesses and pursuing passions outside of work. I draw on their experiences, the lessons they share, and their ambition emboldens me to dream bigger as well.”

Being someone others can invest in
Sanda says mentorship is a two-way exchange and believes mentees should take their roles to heart. “I know those who mentor us are busy, so one has to appreciate their time and make the most of their advice. We have to make sure that we hold ourselves to whatever is agreed. So, if they see that you’re doing the work, it encourages them to keep backing you. If things change or challenges arise, one has to be upfront and hold themselves accountable. I expect those in my corner to hold me to those standards as well."

She is also investing in her own self-development so that she can be the best version of herself and show up in a healthy way.

In addition, she is ensuring she ventures beyond her comfort zone, “A diversity of views is a great thing. Going forward it’s important to broaden my influences. I want to seek out people who are different from me, or even my opposites, and proactively explore new perspectives.”

Future ambitions
At 27, this young professional aspires to occupy a strategic role in the energy space. “Energy is an ever changing industry with a lot of growth potential in South Africa. I would like to be a strategic architect of where we are going and inform the right decisions about our future.”

Not ready to be boxed in, Sanda says she desires a life where she is not defined by just one thing. “Ideally, I want to create a life where I am not limited by my primary job but can express other parts of my personality or talents.”

Through her self-development journey, leadership guidance and ensuring she has the right mentorship she is finding what makes her unique and sharpening that. “Being teachable, curious and brave has led me down interesting paths. Having taken my science qualification and used it in an unconventional way, I know there is so much more for me to explore and achieve.”

Sanda is interested in mentoring in the future, but is working on building herself now. “I still feel like I need to grow a lot more but will definitely pour into those coming up behind me when the time is right,” she says.