What was it like growing up?
I grew up in a modest family of seven girls. Because of our size, we competed for attention from our parents. To resolve this, our parents made a rule that whoever gave their best to their tasks will receive the most attention. I still try to live by this rule today. We didn’t have much: my mother was a housewife, while my father was a government employee. So, growing up in my family meant we couldn’t afford to buy toys. Our games consisted of looking for anthills and counting the ants as they moved in and out to practice our addition and subtraction. So, from a young age, playing was work, and my toys had to teach me something or there was no point to them.
The African tradition places much stock in male children. And since my parents gave birth to only girls, my father had to field different questions on what he would do with so many girls at family gatherings. As a result, my parents were very strict, which made us a little fearful of them. As we grew, all we did was work. We struggled to find time to play. Finally, my background taught me empathy. My family didn’t have much, which means we had to share many things. I am the second born. And when I had dresses, I had to take extra care of them so I could pass them on to my younger siblings. This experience taught me the importance of continuity, which I still practice till today. When I run a business, at the forefront of my mind is ensuring it is sustainable and can last beyond me.
After graduating from college, I proceeded to a university in George, South Africa to study for a diploma. After my diploma, I moved to Port Elizabeth. Eventually, I moved to Pretoria where I studied for a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology with a focus on Systems Development. I followed this up with an MBA program and other leadership courses.
How did you begin your career?
I credit two things for my career trajectory. The first was that, in my fourth year, I got pregnant. My parents, being who they are, didn’t take it well. As a result, I didn’t have much support. Fortunately, I turned things around and went from being an average student to winning the Student of the Year award. This occurrence opened up many opportunities for me and launched my career.
The second occurrence happened at the end of 2010, after the World Cup. At that point, I was consulting for Barclays Africa as their project manager and helping them roll out projects. We were rolling out projects all over Africa, except Botswana. I made the tough decision to come back home and use my skills to move Barclays in Botswana forward. I took a big risk, including a significant salary cut, and came to be the change I wanted to see. I’m glad that, at the end, the decision paid off as today, I lead the bank.
Do you think there are unique challenges you face as a female CEO that your male counterparts don’t?
I believe so. And these problems are not limited to the CEO position, but occur across senior executive positions. Let me share a story with you from before I became a CEO. When I got my first executive level role, I had to sit with my peers on a bi-weekly basis to discuss the performance of the company and the strategic way forward. Because of my programming background, I like pulling up facts and having data-driven conversations, as opposed to making assumptions. However, the data-driven conversations didn’t sit well with people who were not strong in mining data and presenting it. During these meetings, one particular colleague would say I was being too emotional. And that would make me even more emotional.
One time, I had a bad emotional reaction during a meeting. When it ended, I drove home. My father noticed something was wrong and I shared what happened with him. He advised me that the next time the guy taunted me, I should look him in the eyes and tell him ‘It’s okay to be emotional because I’m a woman, but back to the point I was making…’ That changed a lot of things for me going forward. It made me more confident and I think it’s partially responsible for where I am today. I learnt how to respond to such confrontations and my colleagues refrained from intimidating me after that.
That is one challenge that’s unique to me as a female senior level executive: male colleagues taunting me because I’m a woman.
Another challenge that’s unique to me (and other female CEOs) is that people tend to underestimate me. When I was being considered for the CEO role, the stakeholders were divided. The majority felt I was a young untested techno girl who could not be trusted with a big business in a customer facing role. They didn’t consider the impact I’d made prior to that. Nevertheless, I persevered and got the job. And this was despite losing a child during that period. I often tell this story when I’m highlighting the resilience of women.
Another challenge is the fact that some men will seek to demean you, a woman, probably because they see you as a subordinate, instead of as a peer. For instance, during my early days as a CEO, there was a boss who would send me for water before meetings began. I would go. However, I would ask myself, “KB, are you here for the title or are you here to lead this business?” Giving water to someone old enough to be my father wouldn’t take anything away from me. I viewed it as such, taking water to my father, and fulfilled the task. Along the way, he realized he couldn’t break me.
Even within your team, it takes time to assert your authority. And it’s not only men that create challenges, some women do, too. I remember junior female colleagues who gossiped about how I brought lunch from home, despite being in a big position.
In summary, there are many challenges.
Do you think being a female CEO has advantages?
I do. One special advantage I can think of is the fact that God gave women the ability to multitask. When I was appointed in 2019, we were going through a big transition. At the time, we were separating from PLC and joining Absa. To make matters worse, it was around that time that COVID-19 started. This combination of factors severely impacted the bottomline.
During that period, I was building my executive team. In fact, I was in Switzerland for training when COVID started. And when I got back, things had changed drastically. Because of this, I had to figure out how to move the business forward. Although women generally have the ability to multitask, the most effective multitaskers can separate what is within their control from what is outside their sphere of influence. And they can focus on those things within their control. Fortunately, I had learned to do this over the course of my career.
Furthermore, the effort to bring more female leaders into the fold is fantastic. We are not there yet, but the journey has promise. I may not live to experience it, but I pray to God the next generation does. That is another advantage that female CEOs today can enjoy.
In your opinion, why aren’t there more female CEOs in Africa today?
I think there are several reasons. To start, there are many young women with potential and amazing intellect. However, when they start facing frustrations in the corporate world, they take the easy way out and engage in unethical acts. Sometimes, this might be through befriending men. Unfortunately, this will lead to them losing their dignity and integrity. And once you lose these two things, it is hard to get them back. And that takes a lot from you as a woman. I believe that’s the first thing that kills women’s careers. I don’t blame them, though, because I have witnessed the difficult positions such situations can put women in unless they have a strong character.
Secondly, I think culture plays a role. We might have changed our culture to a large extent. However, we have primarily made incremental changes, instead of transformational changes. Because of our culture, such as being taught that we belong at home and in the kitchen, we lose our confidence. As a result, when there is an opportunity, we find excuses not to grab it. Meanwhile, our male counterparts will chase these opportunities even when they are only fractionally capable.
For example, I was the Chief Operations Officer when the opportunity for the Managing Director opened up. However, I did not apply. Why? I thought I still had many things to learn before I was ready for such a role. Meanwhile, many people saw me as capable. So, I think our culture plays a role, too. And a bad one, for that matter.
The third aspect is the “pull down syndrome” that exists among women. This is a big problem we need to address and fast, too. I grew up in a family that didn’t have much, and that taught me to prioritize basic values above all else. Also, the fact that most of us in my family are women taught me to see other women as partners, instead of threats. In fact, over 50% of my executive team are women, all of whom I appointed. I think we need to resolve this, too.
The fourth aspect is family. We talk about men and women giving 50/50 at home, but we are not there yet. For example, if a couple have young children, it’s the woman who will sacrifice her career to take care of them in most cases. Meanwhile, the man will progress with his career and climb to the pinnacle.
In my view, these four factors are the reasons why we have fewer female CEOs in Africa.
How do you approach work-life balance?
The reality is that, in life, you have to juggle many balls and prioritize some things over others. For example, if the business I lead is not performing well, I won’t go on holiday. Instead, I will dedicate more hours to it and work at turning it around. On the other hand, if I sense that I’m growing apart from my husband, I’ll close from work early and make him a seven course dinner.
In other words, I see work-life balance as giving attention where it’s due and choosing the right priorities.
How do you think we can help women looking to climb up the corporate ladder?
I think the first thing is to groom them. We need to teach them the basics that will take them forward. For example, they need to know the difference between mentors and sponsors, as well as the roles and importance of both. They also need to know how to employ both to their benefit.
Secondly, we need to create a conducive environment for women. A few years back, I was on the succession pipeline but my boss then wasn’t ready to put me forward for a senior role. Along the line, I got pregnant. Somehow, this excited her and she asked me to write an email saying I can’t take a senior role because I was pregnant. I confronted her and asked if she was a man or a woman. Also, we have special restrooms for men in the workplace but no nursing rooms for women, especially young mothers. This shouldn’t be the case and we should do more to support women in the workplace.
Next is the dual issue of training and development. To get to the summit as a woman, you have to have a high IQ. However, you also need a high EQ (emotional intelligence) to cope with the many challenges you will encounter. So, I think EQ training is important if we want more women to climb the corporate ladder.
Lastly, we need to know that if we don’t become part of the change we want to see, we are going nowhere. We need to see other women as partners and not as competitors and consciously make efforts to help them advance every day.
How do you think we can support women like yourself and help them achieve more success?
Being in this role means you will make tough decisions everyday. And these decisions can destroy or improve somebody’s life. It can be overwhelming and having a group of people you can be vulnerable with will be a big help.
What can be done? A forum where female leaders can come together and be vulnerable. A group where they can share their fears, successes, and most importantly, best practices. That is one way I think we can support women like myself because, frankly, it is lonely at the top.