Visionary Woman Leader Abigail Mukhuba taking on a whole new world

With a new job in a new industry and a new baby, Abigail has spent the last 18 months relearning.

After 15 years working in the automotive and mining industries, Abigail Mukhuba joined Sanlam as its FD in October 2020. “It’s totally new territory for me – the industry and the company,” she says. “I am having to refresh some of my knowledge and at times learn from scratch again, and it’s stimulating.”

One of these learnings has been the significance of return on group embedded value (RoGEV) to a company like Sanlam. “It is a robust forward-looking financial performance indicator that primarily measures the value that Sanlam adds for our shareholders. Given the direct relationship over the long term between shareholder and other stakeholder value creation, RoGEV also indirectly reflects how successful we are in creating value for our other material stakeholders,” Abigail explains.

She adds that part of the reason she joined the company was its ability to deliver RoGEV consistently.

“It’s challenging having to eat humble pie occasionally and admit when I do not know something and need help from a team member,” Abigail says. “But the teams I work with are awesome, they absolutely step up and assist in any way they can, and at times we both end up learning from each other.”

She explains that, while the mining and financial services industries are very different, there are similarities in concepts. “In the back of my mind I apply some of the concepts I learnt from my previous mining environment to the insurance space,” she says, adding that there’s never a dull moment. For example, how capital allocation is crucial in the successful running of a balance sheet in both industries. Because of the long-term nature of the investments made, it is crucial that disciplined capital allocation practices are maintained to protect the longevity of the company. “In mining, companies require a significant amount of capital to sink a shaft for a mine that could only see returns in many years.”

She adds that the funds, usually shareholders’ or debt provider funds, need to be invested for productive purposes that generate returns for the company over a long time.

Similarly, the pooled premiums of the policyholders help create capital for insurance companies. She says that this capital can then be invested in productive purposes that generate returns for the company over a long time. “Of course, Sanlam is much more than just insurance, it is a diversified financial services group with expertise in financial planning, retirement and employee benefits, investments and wealth management,” Abigail reminds us.

She adds that, with the continued market volatility aggravated by the pandemic, capital allocation discipline is yet again a focus area to ensure long-term sustainability of companies, finding the right balance of debt, equity and cash resources. “In the mining industry, capital was a limited resource and multiple projects had to compete and ‘parade’ to get funding,” Abigail says. “I am finding that the same principle applies at Sanlam, with multiple M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity currently on the cards, along with balancing these with investment in existing business.”

New job during a pandemic
Not only did Abigail have to learn how to work in a new industry and company, she also had to deal with the challenges of joining Sanlam during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Starting a new job during the advent of Covid-19, remotely, took its toll, especially on trying to build relationships,” she explains, acknowledging that it was frustrating at first being unable to engage with her team physically in the same room. “You couldn’t get to know your team members virtually in the way that you would get to know them if you met around the water cooler or coffee machine.”

She says it has been equally challenging to meet external stakeholders. “It is not easy to figure out whose voice is which when in a Teams meeting and all 20 participants are not on video nor on screen.”

As a result, Abigail says that she has to create other platforms, including digital platforms, to build different types of skills and relations. This has also led to more one-on-one contact with teams than ever before. “In a way, Zoom and Teams meetings provide more access and reach to team members, and new networks are being built.”

She adds that building and nurturing these new networks and relationships has been fulfilling, and that she has met many great people in the industry during this time.

Strong relationships
When Abigail was lining up to sign up for her degree at UNISA, she was still intending to become an industrial psychologist one day. However, after the BA registration queue was just too long, she chose to stand in the shortest queue, which ended up being for BCompt accounting sciences. “Having not done accounting in school, I figured if they took me, I would try it,” she says. “My mother taught high school accounting, so I figured she would help me catch up.”

She says that she believes a career in finance chose her and that her destiny was predetermined. “Working my way up the ladder after that was mainly based on a strategy that if I show up, roll up my sleeves, do what is required of me, and be patient, most of my aspirations would be achieved.”

Abigail had a 20-year plan documented clearly and set out in a file she could easily access if she needed to be reminded of her vision, and she explains that most of the milestones she set out have been met – all the controllable ones anyway. “Life also happens and not everything goes according to plan, and that on its own becomes the new plan.”

Abigail acknowledges that she got to where she is today because of the many people along the way, like her former bosses and colleagues, as well as the people who continue to inspire, motivate, guide, and advise her. Some of the people who stand out along the way are her mothers, who believed in her, saw her potential and gave her the opportunity to be herself. as well as her grandmothers, the matriarchs of the family who moulded her self-confidence and self-esteem. “To this day, I am forever grateful for them shaping my path. I also keep in close contact with my former colleagues, because they too have become my family.”

Because of the people in her life empowering her to become the person she is today; Abigail is also passionate about empowering the people around her. However, she explains that at this stage in her new role, she is more the mentee than the mentor. “I obviously keep the previous mentee relations I had before joining Sanlam, but I have not taken on more as I am dedicating the first 18 to 24 months of the new role to learning and improving my knowledge of Sanlam and the industry at large.”

She adds that it is important for her that, before taking on any coaching or mentoring roles, she fully understands the responsibilities of a mentoring role and that she has the dedicated time required for the relationships to be fruitful. “There is great value in the principle of ‘each one teach one’,” which is something she tries to live by.

Abigail explains that this principle aligns with Sanlam’s purpose, which is to empower people to live with financial confidence. “By giving people the confidence, tools and knowledge to take control of their finances and go after their goals, we can move the needle in terms of fostering broader socio-economic inclusion across South Africa and Africa,” she says. “As our CEO Paul Hanratty has said, ‘it’s not just about providing access to financial infrastructure to the previously marginalised, so much of it comes down to upskilling people through financial education as well’.”

New way of working
Abigail says that Covid-19 has been the best time for her to realise that no (wo)man is an island, that she is more than just her career and should spend as much time as she can with her loved ones and family. “The hard lockdown at level 5 was tough and made me realise the value of family. The work from home hybrid model has allowed us the flexibility to choose where we spend time. The two hours that you aren’t spending in traffic every day can be redirected to spending time with your loved ones,” she says.

She adds that Covid-19 has also strengthened the trust relationship between employers and employees, as well as managers and team members. “It has moved us more towards output-based KPIs rather than the traditional ‘bums on seats’ measure of performance,” Abigail says. “And while this was a challenge at the beginning, when people still wanted to see you logged in to believe you were working, we are now totally focused on outputs.”

Abigail explains that, in order to maintain the positive lessons the pandemic has taught everyone, employees need to have more flexibility to allow for a better work-life balance. “Give trust and people will deliver,” she says. “Yes, you will have the odd one here and there who exploits this, but generally all employees are committed and will deliver.”

However, she warns that women usually go the extra mile and want to show up and over-deliver. “If you don’t manage your time carefully, the same benefit can turn into a nightmare for both your workplace and your family.”

New baby
While juggling the challenges of starting a new job during the Covid-19 pandemic, Abigail also has a two-month-old baby boy – her first child. She explains that while she thought she had enough practice with her siblings’ children (after all she is considered as “the best aunty ever”) to her shock a baby is a full-time demanding role, albeit a fulfilling one.

“It was during this time that I truly valued my mother and sisters for all the support and care they provided throughout,” she says. “There is something about women and their ability to nurture and receive nurturing that is inspiring.”

“I have to thank the 2020 Covid-19 experience that helped a lot of employers to accept that one can work from home fruitfully,” she says, adding that the support she receives from work has been truly great. “Every mother can choose if they want six weeks or six months with their child, and that personal decision should be respected and protected.”

Knowing that she had the best support, both at home and at work, Abigail decided to return to work, remotely, at the end of six weeks of maternity leave. “The new flexibility in the workplace has allowed me the opportunity to continue to do what I enjoy – my work – and to be there for my new love: my child.”

She acknowledges and appreciates the privilege to choose how much time she wanted to be on maternity leave without anyone dictating or judging the duration.

Between changing nappies, middle of the night feeds, work commitments and making sure she makes it for bath-time in the evening, one can only imagine how her 24-hour day is split up at this stage. “I would not have it any other way” she concludes.