From humble beginnings to climbing corporate ladders

Candice Watson has never been shy to push over hurdles in order to achieve her goals.

AECI group human capital director Candice Watson was only two months into her new role when the Covid-19-induced hard lockdown hit in March 2020.

“Your first 90 days are usually when you get to know the business and create rapport with the key decision-makers,” she says. “But 60 days into my new role I was ripped out of the organisation due to lockdown; it was exceptionally challenging because I had a people-centric mandate, but I'd hardly met the people.”

Candice knew it was time to act – she quickly built her core team network, and she went into “focus-mode”. She immediately set up meetings with people in different countries so she could put faces to the names.

Something interesting happened during this process, however: one of AECI’s Africa business partners said it was the first time the group HC executive was taking the time to talk to the team.

“Historically, you’re in head office; you see the people when you see them. I had to go a few levels down the organisation. We underestimate the power of leadership visibility and engaging with people on a one-on-one basis – even if it’s virtual,” she says.

On why she chose AECI, Candice explains that she was keen to get involved in the listed-entities space once again. Before AECI, she was the HR director for a large multinational in Cape Town: British American Tobacco (BAT).

According to Candice, in 2016, BAT was “the gold standard” for human capital practices, as the company operated in 180 countries and was on the Fortune 500 list. This provided a level of exposure and resources that most HR directors could only dream of. Candice moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and first took the role of head of talent, and then HR director. During her time at BAT, she had an epiphany too: that it was time to start her PhD.

Building resilience

“In retrospect, I wonder what I was smoking the day I put my proposal together!” she laughs. “But, in 2017, I went to the University of Cape Town, and I told them I want to pursue my doctorate. It would focus on the under-representation of women in senior executive roles, specifically in Africa,” she explains.

Candice’s proposal was accepted, and it marked the start of an interesting and challenging journey. At the time, she was a senior HR executive for a global company, she was living in a different city, she was a mom, and she was doing a PhD. She spent three years at BAT, before getting a call to return to Johannesburg to join AECI.

“The opportunity just made sense, because I’d be part of the group exco, reporting to the CEO. AECI’s mandate was to re-establish the people agenda for the organisation and put structures in place to deliver on the business strategy. I was definitely up for that!” she adds.

While her new role came with multiple challenges initially, Candice believes she was able to navigate them due to her background, and the resilience she has developed over time.

Candice grew up in Eldorado Park, a coloured township in the south of Johannesburg. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she lived with her grandmother in ‘Eldos’ – a community plagued by social problems such as high unemployment.

“I could see the plight of helplessness and hopelessness,” she says. “Fortunately, my potential was identified by a maths teacher when I was 12; he said that kids with potential should be given opportunities. He put my parents in contact with a girls’ boarding school in Braamfontein, but on a non-bursary basis – I didn’t even have a uniform on the first day!”

Candice excelled at boarding school: she captained the hockey team, she was a prefect and the president of the Christian Students’ Association. On weekends she undertook volunteer community work.

“I didn’t have a moment to be distracted and sit in my circumstances,” she adds. “My grandmother always said that when you have too much time on your hands you get involved with nonsense… I never wanted to disappoint my family and I took a lot of direction from her. My grandmother was involved in the community, and she’d use our groceries to run the church’s soup kitchen.”

Who’s that?

Spurred by her grandmother’s influence, Candice’s community involvement included being a volunteer at the Unisa Health and Psychology unit based in Eldorado Park. Gauteng. Here, she was exposed to clinical psychologists and the projects they ran, such as the Eldos Bekgeskiedenis (oral history) project, where Candice was introduced to the human psyche. This experience led her to study clinical psychology, with industrial psychology as a second major, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

On the day she enrolled at UJ, no one knew that she was catching a taxi to get there – Candice didn’t think about how much the endeavour would cost, she just knew she had to do it.

“I got back home and told my grandparents that I enrolled; they asked how I was going to pay for it. I told them they could start me off with the registration fees,” she says. “My grandad ran a carpentry business and he managed to get the registration fee of R1,204.47. I told my dad I needed textbooks and transport money – he really tried, and I got three books in my first year, which I cherished.”

During her first year, Candice spent many hours in the library; while other students had their textbooks in their bags or cars, she’d spend the day catching up and printing them, using part of her small stipend from the community work. In her second and third year, she received merit bursaries based on her results.

Says Candice: “When I look back now, I ask, ‘Who is that 17-year-old?’ The drive I had… I didn’t know what the future would hold, but I was determined to change my narrative for the next generation. I didn’t look at how it couldn't work; I looked at how it could work.”

The day that Candice graduated, it was a win for the whole family. She saw the PhD students in the red cloaks, and she said to herself, “That's going to be my next chapter,” not knowing it would happen 15 years later.

“I'm going to show you”

When she was in her early 20s, a pivotal decision would shape Candice’s HR career trajectory. While completing her honours, she found a job as a Momentum call-centre agent in the newspaper. But she was “too direct” for the job and was swiftly moved into the back office. Soon after, she was placed on a learning programme for junior management. An opportunity for the HR officer role became available, and Candice applied and was shortlisted, but she was not selected.

“During the interviews, they said I was a great candidate, but I was more driven towards business, and it was not the right opportunity for me. I thought, ‘I’m going to show you,’ so I applied for a graduate programme in HR at South African Breweries (SAB),” she explains.

This was an ambitious move for a 23-year-old, as only 27 graduates were selected nationally. Of that, there were just three selected for the HR programme. After a rigorous selection process, Candice became the HR graduate trainee for manufacturing in the soft drinks division. She took a significant pay cut too. But for that year she gave the programme her all.

“Within a space of a year, I had undergone an intensive HR training programme: I understood the business on a practical level. I did warehouse stacking, I fixed fridges with the guys, I did sales calls, I helped deliver the product. With every assignment, I had to write up my experience – at the same time, I still had to do my administration duties like printing CVs and attending management meetings," she says.

At the end of the programme, the graduates could make a presentation to the board of the soft drinks division. For the first time, Candice stood in front of an exco. That exposure was vital because it marked the beginning of building her confidence so she could engage with people at senior levels.

Pushing over hurdles

When the graduate programme ended, Candice took the role of organisational health co-ordinator at SAB’s head office. She spent a year in that role, but she felt it was too specialist. She wanted to be an HR generalist and get to grips with the basics of business, and the best way to do that was to obtain a business qualification.

After graduating with honours, Candice did a postgraduate diploma in Business Administration through the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), and while completing it, she landed her first HR generalist role at Standard Bank. From there, her career progression accelerated. Three years later, at the age of 28, she was appointed to her first senior executive role at Barloworld. Candice would then do her MBA, make the lateral jump to the multinational space – and complete that PhD.

For Candice, the underlying theme of her career progression has been to seize opportunity. As a woman of colour, coupled with always being the youngest exco member, she has also learnt to be “professionally robust”.

“As the HC manager on exco, I will ask questions about your return on net assets, your restructuring costs, your budgets,” she explains. “It’s not because I've run businesses, but it's because I understand the integrated nature of an organisation – and the part that I play within it. I can't effectively drive a people agenda if I don't understand the overall, integrated nature of the business agenda.”

Candice reiterates that being marginalised because of her age, race, gender, and background has forced her to push forward over hurdles – they have not impeded her.

“People see the categories: I’m young, female, coloured. Whether I like it or not, that is the lens they view me through. Yet I have learnt to go beyond those categories and own the fact that I’m a critical part of a leadership team. That only comes by having the right conversations over time, having another woman in a leadership role as a mentor, having a sponsor who will advocate on your behalf, and through reflection,” she says.

Candice points out that coloured women make up just over four percent of South Africa’s economically active population, and not being on anyone's priority list was motivation to not accept her circumstances.

“I am forever grateful for the hardships I had to endure. Those difficult moments are what shaped my character, especially when no one was looking,” she says.

Quickview: Candice Watson

Candice Watson’s early career trajectory was guided by a level of tenacity not often seen in someone so young. At the age of 24 she was selected as a participant in the highly competitive SAB HR graduate programme; since then, she has held HR roles in both the multinational and local corporate environment.

In 2017, she enrolled for a PhD in business administration and management. After spending three years in Cape Town at British American Tobacco as the HR director, she joined AECI in Johannesburg as the group’s HC executive in 2020.

Candice was named the 2021 Young CHRO of the Year, and she also received the Learning and Development Award.

She has the following qualifications:
BPsych honours (University of Johannesburg), PDBA in General Management (GIBS), MBA (GIBS), PhD in business administration and management (University of Cape Town).