Sheila Motsepe's advice to young professionals with executive aspirations

T-Systems South Africa Vice President of Human Resources says it's about grabbing your opportunities

“I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist when I was 24 years old and subsequently received wonderful work and learning opportunities. I also had great coaches and mentors who saw potential in me and consciously set out to support me in realising it. As a young manager of 28 years, I was ‘adopted’ by a Chief Executive Officer who sought to expose me to executive discourse, strategic level engagement and, basically, all things that ‘keep executives up at night’.”

Motsepe says she learnt from sitting at the table, as a developmental candidate, and paying attention to exactly what takes to run businesses as an executive. The experience gave her a very different perspective from what she had previously gathered, sitting three levels down in the organisation, where her very legitimate concern had been to deliver professional manager-level results. Almost three decades later, she is again privileged to have a Managing Director who acknowledges her very extensive technical experience and proficiency as an HR Director, but nevertheless, puts more emphasis on work and results that prepare her for the more complex roles of Chief Operations Officer and/or Chief Executive Officer

Take on work assignments beyond your current scope

Motsepe’s view is that young professionals must continue to sharpen their competencies in terms of their knowledge, skills, attributes and attitudes. They must continue to grow their qualifications or, alternatively, ‘refresh’ them by attending many workgroups and other forums within and across their immediate functional roles.

"They must also pursue work-related growth opportunities within and without their departments, divisions and businesses.  they must seek out coaches and mentors, and be very deliberate about the desired return on their investment from the aforementioned relationships," says Motsepe.

Practically speaking, Motsepe suggests that young professionals be open-minded and willing to take on assignments beyond their appointed scope of work as this will provide opportunities for further development and for refining their competencies, as well as for making mistakes, without dire financial, organisational and structural consequences. In turn, the additional and extraordinary assignments will ensure that that they are continuously challenged and stretched, further preparing them for different and new opportunities, when they arise within and without their respective organisations.

Work life balance

As young professionals enter and solidify their contribution at middle to senior management, they will have an option of either becoming managers or specialists. They will also have the option to be full-time or part-time employed, associated with a public or private organisation or, alternatively, self-employed. These possibilities extend to the opportunity to balance their work life with other priorities, including familial responsibilities. What is most important is to make conscious decisions and direct your career accordingly.

“Work life balance is what a professional chooses to have as a lifestyle choice that accommodates their non-work interests so that overall, they may enjoy the quality of life they desire,” says Motsepe, adding that “it is informed by the values that one holds and what is important in terms of resources and time allocation”. Overall, Motsepe advocates a very conscious ‘opportunity cost’ assessment for she asserts that it is hardly ever the case that one can accomplish all that is possible and/or one desires with one’s career, as even with bountiful energy, time is a limited resource.

Lifelong learning and benefits

Penultimately, Motsepe says that “careers are now very forgiving” as the new ‘world of work’ no longer comes with expectations of a lifelong career with one organisation. It also doesn’t come with expectations of pursuing one career for an entire lifetime, and simply changing organisations. 

True to her word, Motsepe is now back in graduate school to pursue yet another formal qualification and obtain a second Master’s degree, 22 years after the first.

“I believe in continuously learning, in updating my knowledge and in ‘tuning in’ to current and emerging global trends. Refresh, stay current or risk obsolescence is what I believe will sustain careers and executives as the world evolves”.

Finally, to be or not to be an executive

Motsepe says that if one enjoys variability, problem-solving at both macro and micro outlooks; with local and international challenges; with different horizons in terms of short, medium and long term perspectives; ‘peppered’ with technical challenges and solutions; and, lastly, still being very relevant to the core business, then one should pursue the goal to be an executive. When asked about what it takes, her response was that “technical proficiency and IQ serve one well in the younger years, but beyond, it is the EQ as well as the business relevance that sustains an executive.”