Trishana Maharaj, Bongani Hlophe, Ruth Wotela share advice on what it takes to become an executive by 40.
On Friday, CHRO South Africa hosted a webinar in which G4S HR and health and safety director for Africa Trishana Maharaj, Samela Holdings CEO Bongani Hlope, and Silverbridge people wellness executive Ruth Wotela shared advice on what it takes to become an executive by 40.
Moderated by CHRO South Africa editor in chief Georgina Guedes, the panel discussion included anecdotal and practical ideas on how to make it to the big leagues of the HR profession. Now 36, Ruth’s said she had never really planned to be an executive at a JSE-listed firm at this stage of her career but attributes her meteoric rise to her constant willingness to learn and get involved in areas of the business that are not necessarily about HR.
She said she has always been hesitant to work based on job descriptions and to be defined by titles because, in her mind, any ideas she had for improving the business needed to be pursued or, at the very least, heard.
“You have to understand who the people are in the business that you need to speak to in order to bounce ideas off. In some instances, people will ignore your suggestions but sometimes they will land on someone's desk and they will be so impressed by your idea that they take it further,” said Ruth.
Trishana echoed these sentiments, saying that people aiming for larger roles have to remain curious, not only about their own function but about all the moving parts within the organisation.
“You must never feel like you know enough because as soon as you get there then you're not learning. To this day, I am probably the most curious person at the boardroom table,” said Trishana, adding that, in order to become effective executives, HR professionals had to be comfortable with numbers. While it is not necessary to have the proficiency of an accountant, she said it is critical to be able to understand what is driving the organisation so that when certain things happen, you are able better predict the best course of action.
“Numbers have to become a part of what you do on a daily basis and central to how you interpret your strategy,” she said.
Different ball game
Bongani said that much of being successful at a young age had to do with luck. He said that, while you can control what you put into their career in terms of effort, there is no guarantee that it will yield a development path that fast tracks the journey to a seat at the table.
Bongani was once the youngest member of the Institute of Directors which he had joined by the age of 26 and says that, even so, there was nothing that could have prepared him for being an executive.
“You do not know what you do not know about being an executive until you get there. As a young person, you think that you can get three or four degrees and that should be enough to take you to that level. It’s not.”
Trishana, who won the Young CHRO of the Year award in 2019, agreed saying that early on their careers, employees are incentivised based on their intelligence and your performance level. But it’s a totally different ball game upon becoming an executive and making that transition is a tough challenge.
“That is what the senior people in the business tell you will prepare you for the next level. It's about how quickly you can get things done and your overall productivity. Later on in the executive phase, it's more about wisdom. You are not the smartest person at the table any longer. It's not about how quickly you get things done, it's about how well thought out it is and how balanced the consequences are for the organisation.”
Executive coaches help
Asked whether it was critical to enlist the services of an executive coach in preparing for taking the leap into leadership, Bongani said it does help, particularly when it comes to seeing one's blind spots. He said that executive coaches are helpful for pointing out strengths that people don’t recognise within themselves as well as the weaknesses that they don't acknowledge.
Said Bongani: “At an executive level, it's 70 percent behavioural and 30 percent technical, so an executive coach helped me to fill in that 70 percent. When you first start out as a senior executive, you tend to think that what got you promoted is what will sustain you. But that's not true. Top management is a totally different ballgame. The behaviours you need to stay in a position are far removed from what got you there. At times you will find that, to succeed as an executive you may have to become unpopular with the people who promoted you in the first place. That's when it becomes important to have courage. And having an executive coach helps with that.”
Ruth put it a different way, saying it was all about self-awareness. Whether one has a coach, a mentor, a manager that believes in them, or a psychologist, succeeding at executive level is about being fully conscious of all your strengths and limitations because that helps you to be more deliberate about your development because you can only work on the things you need to improve if you are aware of them. It means you will be able to be honest about what you can and cannot do.
“Covid-19 was new to everyone but the business was looking to me and my team for answers. Some days you don't have the answer but in that, there is also a learning experience because you realise that it's okay to not have all the answers,” said Ruth.
The webinar concluded with a Q&A with the audience, who clearly relished gaining the first-hand advice they were able to get from such impressive HR leaders. Some of their questions and the answers from the panellists will be featured in a future article.