Women’s Dinner unpacks the trek to the top


How South Africa’s women executives have approached challenges, and overcome them.

There “ain’t no mountain high enough” for women in South Africa’s business landscape. But the trek to the top comes with its own set of challenges, shared more than 300 successful and inspirational women at this year’s annual CFO, CHRO and CIO South Africa Women’s Dinner on 2 August.

But, before you get a seat at the table, you need to get to the table.

Nopasika Lila, group FD at Barloworld, as well as their corporate office CEO, said her biggest challenge was that she was a resident of the former Transkei.

“A challenge I faced was that it wasn’t quite easy to come to South Africa, where the real opportunities are. That was a real stumbling block in terms of building my career, because we had to stay in Transkei,” she said.

But, once Nopasika arrived in South Africa she started to embrace her career and discovered that being successful as a woman was not about imitating men, but by embracing he strengths as a woman.

“Once one actually embraces their womanhood, femininity, you actually walk with a lot of pride, you walk with a lot of confidence and that makes the power that is being a woman phenomenal,” she says.

She also adds that often women don’t stop and appreciate the many skills that they bring to the workplace. Shae says that sometimes we don’t pause and appreciate how a skill like multi-tasking and raising children are just two small examples of the range of talents women have.

Women also bring true resilience, overcoming stumbling blocks like these for women in business come in many shapes and forms.

Bringing your whole self to work, still

Stumbling blocks like these for women in business come in many shapes and forms. Two years ago, Norah Sehunoe, executive head, human capital at Santam Insurance, lost her husband. Norah realised that being brave during this time was to choose to be authentic, not just about the experience, but also how she managed her work.

“As women, I think sometimes we want to be superhuman. You want to leave your pain somewhere so that it’s not shown. Work gave me a world where for a minute I could forget about what was happening,” she said. However, while work allowed her some reprieve, she also gave herself the time and space to grieve.

“On the days when I was not okay, before I even asked for permission to stay home, I gave myself that permission. So by the time I asked for permission it wasn’t even an ask, it was to say today, I’m not okay, I’m going to stay home,” she explained.

Norah said that while her healing journey is a “work in progress”, it has allowed her to become more empathetic. “As executives, we are faced with the most difficult decisions. And I do think that sometimes we toughen up so much that we actually don’t realise what people are going through,” she noted.

Norah said that this experience has taught her to pause and consider where people are coming from. “Life is very unpredictable. I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned; as much as you might have a plan, it’s never your plan.”

One step at a time, together

The trek to the top is only possible if you take one step at a time and understand where potential emotional challenges need to be faced. It’s a journey that doesn’t need to be done alone.

Palesa Ntoagae, human capital executive at Old Mutual Insure, took up the challenge in a physical format when she summited Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Sometimes as we climb up the corporate ladder, things don’t always work out. Experiences are challenging, but it’s so important to craft that ‘why’. What is the legacy that you want to leave behind? That becomes your North Star. At times, we tend to look at the top, and all you need to do is actually just take one step forward,” she said.

Because of the sun’s rays, climbers need to summit in the evening, and every time Palesa wanted to turn around and go back she kept on saying to herself, “one foot at a time”. She said she has learnt to ask for help. “Don’t let your ego prevent you from asking for help and reaching out”.

“Summiting the mountain is more of a mental than a physical challenge,” she said, and one of the breakthroughs for her was what she calls the “little girl on her shoulder”: the inner critic that tells women that they can’t achieve a goal.

Palesa’s “little girl on her shoulder” didn’t just creep in when she was summiting last year, but also sometimes crops up in the workplace. She has learnt that it’s about acknowledging the feeling and not doubting her ability at that moment.

“Sometimes it’s okay to be nervous before a big meeting or a big engagement with senior stakeholders, or as we’re deliberating making an important decision and the consequences that the decision may have, be it positive or negative,” she said.

Challenges, however, are not something that Palesa shies away from. Similar to the training required to summit Mount Kilimanjaro last year, she believes in the power of daily attention to her feelings and the challenges that come with them.

Sometimes when people ask her at work how she is doing, she is not afraid to say, “I’m still breathing.” But this personal work was not done alone, and Palesa believes in the power of asking for help by seeing a therapist as well as connecting with women in similar positions, who can provide insight and support. “Some skills are transferable,” she says: it’s about finding them and using what has been learnt.

All the women on the panel have made it to the top by showing bravery in different ways, be it relocating to another country, dealing with loss or quite literally climbing the mountain in front of them.

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