Tell us a little bit about your childhood and growing up?
I grew up in a very happy, middle-class family in South Africa. My mother died when I was young, and as the oldest child, I took responsibility for my siblings – two brothers and a sister. This shaped my leadership drive and sense of responsibility. Also, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. And even as a young person, I recognized the discrimination that existed around me and concluded it was unacceptable.
I went to a boarding school where I had my first major leadership position as head of school. Later, I attended the University of Cape Town, which was a liberal campus. There, I had the opportunity to engage in the struggle against apartheid. I led an underground unit of the ANC and was also a student leader. I would say that the whole of my 20s, although I was accumulating various degrees, was mainly around politics.
Later, I got a scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in Economics at the University of London. When I came back, I decided to join the local government in local economic development planning. I had a hand in formulating the new economic policy for the city of Durban, South Africa. I thought that I would stay on as a public servant but the world of business attracted me. So I transitioned into business. I joined Mondi as a big paper and packaging company with mills in South Africa and Europe. At that stage, it was also part of Anglo American and that provided lots of opportunities to develop my capacities as a young leader.
What forces influenced you as a kid?
My father encouraged me from a young age that any career opportunity was open to me. At some point, he said I was going to be president. So I never had restrictions placed on my dreams.
Also, when the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released, I was fortunate to be part of the members of the first ANC office, alongside him, Walter Sisulu, and the so-called Rivonia trialists. Initially, we were a group of about 50 people in a small office. I worked on the economic policy of the ANC and got a lot of exposure to Nelson Mandela. Because we were such a small group, we could all sit down at lunch and be exposed to an iconic leader. If I were to comment on what was really special about him, it was the combination of being an enormous visionary and having a real drive for justice on the one hand and having enormous personal warmth on the other hand. For example, once he knew your name, he would never forget it, regardless of your position in the organization. At that time, I was an irrelevant cog in the wheel as an economic researcher. Yet, he would stop me and say, “Oh, Vivian, how are you and what is happening?” Then, he would ask for my opinion on everything. The next time he saw me, he would remember what we last discussed, and he would pick up the conversation and continue from there.
A recurring theme in our conversations with women like yourself, who have reached the top spot in Corporate Africa, is that their fathers made them believe they could do anything. Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah, it’s very interesting that you picked up on that because I’ve also done some reading on it. I’ve started to realize how significant it is when the male figure in your life feels there’s no boundary to what you can achieve. I do think this is a key fact that many women who have managed to progress have had that kind of support in their background.
You speak about how Nelson Mandela taught you to remember people’s names and follow up from previous questions. Is this something you employ in your leadership style?
I am very sorry that I cannot claim that. What I can say is that it impressed me enormously. I mean, that ability to talk to every single person respectfully, whether it is the cleaner, or some senior member of the government, and the enormous personal warmth, made a huge impression on me. I hold it dearly and treat everybody with respect. I also listen carefully to everyone. That knack of remembering names is something I don’t have the capacity for.
I do remember conversations, though, even if they happened a long time ago.
What was your first private-sector job at Mondi?
I was headhunted out of government and offered a role in public affairs. However, because of the way Anglo American worked, I was put through a very intensive assessment process. That assessment process said I shouldn’t be in a support function but in a line operational leadership role.
There’s a question I know you’ll like to ask, which is “What special challenges did you face as a woman in your career?” Apart from the usual insults and undermining, I think one of the challenges one can face is that one is pigeonholed immediately to go into support roles. There’s a list of careers that women are supposed to excel in, as opposed to direct line leadership. But because of that assessment that was taken seriously by the leadership, which I feel fortunate about, I got my first line role which was to be the head of the forestry organization in Mondi, South Africa. In all of the roles that I was in, I was the first woman. After my first meeting in a new role, one of the chaps said, “Oh, my goodness, she’s like a Rottweiler with lipstick.” I heard these remarks and I walked into the next meeting and I said, “I believe you called me a Rottweiler with lipstick”. They all looked a little bit stunned. And I said, “I just want to tell you, I never wear lipstick” just to make it clear to them that I was, in fact, a Rottweiler.
Do you think the assessments you mentioned should be more widely used to determine who’s best for a leadership role? Also, as the first woman who was chosen for this position, did you have a champion who believed in you or how did the management decide to take action based on the results of that assessment?
There are different types of assessments but really well put together assessments can make a fundamental difference. For example, if you’re pigeonholed in a particular way and then an assessment shows broader capacity. One of the assessments I did said I was a board-level thinker and my capacity should be allowed to develop. However, you can get such an assessment and people will squish it into the bottom drawer. So, what made the big difference in my career? I think it was the various mentors I had or champions, as you put it. People who saw ability. Because of the environments I operate in, those have all been men. They spotted capacity and allowed it to develop to its fullest extent. That’s why I think networks and mentors are extremely important. The other thing that happened soon after the assessment was that I was assigned an international coach. Given my character, I was often isolated. I was usually the only woman in a big team and that made me quite confrontational. For example, an enormous jerk asked me to make tea at the first executive meeting that I attended in Mondi, South Africa, and the way that I dealt with that was very aggressive. The coach helped me navigate these challenges. And a lot of the advice he gave me was, “Who could you speak to about this? Who could you network with around that?” I think many women are not natural networkers. In fact, some women think it’s repulsive to speak to someone. They believe our intrinsic worth should shine through without us having to do any networking. Because of that, I built a more nuanced and flexible approach to the challenges I faced.
You made a point about how women feel their good work should stand for itself and don’t feel the need to network, which puts them at a disadvantage when compared with their male counterparts who network. In your opinion, are there systemic or structural factors that make it easier for men to network with each other? Also, how have you addressed this need to network?
The world of work is evolving away from golf courses, locker rooms, and things like that into a more performance-driven approach where work itself is valued. So, the question is how to network within that context. I think establishing connections with people you have an authentic connection with is really important and meaningful. I wouldn’t recommend networking for the sake of networking. To give you an example, if you just joined an executive team, send everyone an email saying, “That was my first meeting, is there any feedback you’d like to give me on how I came across?” Now out of a team of 10, one or two will give you good feedback, including areas where you can develop. That way, a natural connection is formed that will allow you to build on things. So I think that style of engaging, asking for feedback, also then giving authentic feedback allows one to start building networks. Somebody approaches you after a meeting and says, I really found that comment that you made interesting. You should ask them questions like “Why did you find it interesting? What were your thoughts on this topic?”
You mentioned you were part of an industry association: did that play a role in establishing relationships outside your organization?
Certainly! I’ve developed networks outside. If you engage in politics, government, business, and industry associations, you will meet people you resonate with. But don’t network on a false basis, do so where there’s a natural connection and shared purpose.
You run a P&L, which means you understand numbers. How did you in your journey from politics, government to business come to learn how to read a cash flow statement and balance sheet?
I have a background in economics. And prior to coming into business, I was involved in the city’s economics. The bottom line is to have enough tax revenue to fund the transformation a city needs. So, all those concepts are basically the same. In business, you have to understand what the transformation journey looks like. In other words, you have to understand where you are, where you need to get to, the funding base to achieve that, and how you’re going to grow revenue and leverage opportunities. Fortunately, in my role, I was catapulted into a leadership role and surrounded by experts. So, I learned with them on the go. In my formal training, I did accountancy, but that doesn’t take one away from the kind of thing that you’re talking about, which is understanding the significance of the financial numbers that are put in front of you. And that mostly happens through practice. As with your household budget, it’s when you have difficulties that you start to know what really counts and why.
Are there special challenges you’ve faced as a woman CEO?
No, I mean, apart from the natural discounting one can face in certain circumstances. I think we all face challenges along the way.
But may I jump to one of your questions, which is, “What are the special advantages I have as a woman CEO?” What I would like to say about that, is that alongside the normal characteristics of leadership, drive, passion, and personal authority, I have insight, emotional intelligence, flexibility, and (I hope) compassion.
I think these are some of the unique attributes we can bring to a leadership role. Also, I think a powerful woman who is in touch with both her emotions, her history, and her background can be a fairly unstoppable force.
Five years ago, I lost my daughter in an accident. That was the greatest pain I’ve ever felt and the biggest challenge of my life. However, those extremely dark days gave me more fuel as a leader. Around us, especially in Africa, there’s a huge amount of suffering. And because I have suffered directly myself, I would always hope to be compassionate and clearly recognize the suffering of those around me. So, when I make decisions, it is rooted in deep experience. I would hope that instead of shutting off what is difficult in our lives, we incorporate them into a more holistic, compassionate, and powerful leadership style. And I would hope that the different challenges I’ve faced, including breast cancer, have shaped a different and, perhaps, more rounded, more wholehearted leadership style.
What do you think can be done to support women who are climbing up the corporate ladder at Mondi, in universities, business schools, and across the wider African society?
I’m a huge supporter of mentorship. It’s made a massive difference to who I am today. I also think that being part of mainstream business school training, not just women leadership programs, but mainstream MBA training, of the sort that Harvard offers, is extremely important. So, giving scholarships to talented young women to participate in mainstream business training, alongside coaching and mentorship should help.
One of the things we’ve heard from other women is how they would like to connect with other women in top positions. What do you think can and should be done to support women CEOs and help them achieve more success?
I like the concept of a secure base, which is a combination of healthy living, a decent amount of rest, and relaxation. So, providing a secure base is the first thing. Also, most of us benefit from environments that encourage us to learn and engage constantly. The fact I am 58 doesn’t mean my learning has come to an end; I hope there are other chapters. However, there has to be good coaches, good supporters, and a good supportive network behind that. I informally support four or five women in key positions. Because I think when you’ve had the rich experience that you and I have had, we should do everything we can to support other women. Most women who are new to leadership roles have massive imposter syndromes because they don’t know some things. Meanwhile, their male counterparts don’t know them either. So, little support like saying “If you bring common sense to your role, you will be fine” can go a long way.