Episode 11 by Mamello (Lekana) Selamolela
Rules of Engagement to Fast-track Your Success
Mamello was born at the Westrand, in a small mining town called Bekkersdal in Westonaria. Her parents were not married at the time, so she stayed with her mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousins. They were poor – lived in an informal settlement, in a small shack. It was a place they called home, a place where they did not know they were poor because everyone else was poor and poverty was all they knew. When she was about 4 years old her parents got married round about the same time her mother graduated from the University of the North. Those two events were a real turning point in her life. She and her parents moved to Eastrand, which was still a slow start. Fortunately for her, her parents prioritized her education.
Her father had vowed that his children would never experience Bantu Education, which meant that they had to fund her private schooling. They sacrificed a lot – living in someone’s backroom with no furniture just to afford her good education. Her education was the best investment her parents made in her life and she can never thank them enough. She went to an incredible school where they cultivated her curiosity. Which was a little bit counterculture at the time because as Africans, we grow up with the culture that children must not ask too many questions. Her parents and educators encouraged her to ask questions.
She had a very solid foundation from the education point of view and a solid foundation from a faith point of view. She connected to God at a very early stage of her life, in fact, her childhood dream was to be a nun and a doctor. She was told it was impossible, but she insisted she wanted to be both.
It was in high school that she began to grow as a leader. She was given opportunities to lead and there was always an expectation for her to lead. She found that she quiet enjoyed that. She was fortunate to get a bursary from Old Mutual and went to the University of Cape Town to study Actuarial Science. Her first year went well. She enjoyed being in a big city, meeting different people. Her second year was tough. Her health and academics were challenged. However, that year was the year when she discovered a new relationship with Christ. It was a year where she got saved – another massive turning point in her life.
She gained a completely different perspective of who she is and moved away from her identity being that of a girl that is good with her academics, because she was not good at the time. It was destabilizing to lose that academic identity until she found her identity in Christ. She got to understand that her identity did not depend on her performance, and also discovered that her identity is constant because God is constant. This completely changed her life. It gave her a new lease on life and gave her a sense of purpose and passion. She then switched from Actuarial Science to Economics. She loved Economics because they got to ask real questions and had the tools and the opportunity to answer those questions. They tackled questions like:
- Do female headed households have different outcomes that male headed households?
- How do child-headed households make end meet? How do these poor children actually live?
- What determines people’s economic outcomes, especially people who don’t have a degree? What determines who gets employed and who doesn’t? Is it something to do with education, background, or a person’s intrinsic capabilities?
Then there came a time where she had to think about what she wanted to do with her life, where she wanted to work. She was blessed to have a number of options before her – UCT offered her a teaching and research job; a specialist economics consulting firm also wanted to hire her to look at issues like competition and market structures, etc. ; the other one was with a leading consulting firm called McKinsey and Company. For the curious person that she was, she decided to go where she didn’t have to choose. A place where she would explore. So she took the offer with McKinsey. It was such an unbelievable way to start a career.
There was a wide range of things she could do. She got to engage to the most senior level of clients. She developed rigor, work ethic, and the ability to learn about industries and companies in a short space of time. She got the ability to solve complex problems in a very structured way, the ability to lead from an early age. It was a fast-track career move that set a trajectory that later on was a continuation. She worked for McKinsey for 2 years. She remembers that when she had only been there for 2 weeks, one of the senior partners who had been assigned as her mentor sat her down and said to her “my job is to turn you into a CEO”. That was the kind of expectation, vision, and opportunity afforded to a 23 year old. It was about shaping a leader in her. That was her career start off.
McKinsey has a program where after 2 years, if you perform well, you have an opportunity to go and study abroad. She had that opportunity. She had just gotten married when that opportunity was presented to her. Her husband was so supportive and encouraged her to take the offer. They went to London and she started studying at the London Business School. She had 2 years to explore and listen to the best thinkers in the world on various topics. She also had access to leading companies, entrepreneurs, and academics. London Business School is the most diverse business school in the world, everyone is a minority.
There were people from probably around 70 or 80 countries in her class, and the lecturers were just as diverse. When she left South Africa for London, she left as a South African and came back as an African. Her first realization when she got to there was how small South Africa is in the greatest scheme of things. South Africa is a special country in many ways, but it is small. Success in South Africa does not mean global success. She decided that she wants to be a global professional. Her standard is global excellence, not just excellence in the South African context.
When you get to a place like London, you do not have the luxury of saying “I am South African, you are a Zimbabwean”, you form part of an African community and you have access to a broader African diaspora and you engage on issues related to Africa. When she got there, she joined Africa Club on Campus and soon after lead the African Club on Campus. As president of the Africa Club her mandate was not just a South African mandate, but an African mandate. When she did conferences and events, she represented Africa as a continent.
After London Business School, she stayed in London and worked for McKinsey in London. Again, this came as an opportunity to make real the idea of becoming a global professional, operating at a global standard of excellence. She is a strong believer in excellence, if it’s not excellent it’s not good enough. She got an opportunity to also set a standard of what excellence is, on a global state. Working in London was intellectually satisfying – she got to work on interesting problems and the world’s biggest companies. But she did not connect emotionally to the problems she was solving, so they decided as a couple to return to South Africa.
They wanted to be in a place where they connect with their work even on an emotional level, solving problems that matter to people that matter to them. Coming back to South Africa, she was still with McKinsey, but working on issues around education, health care, economic development, setting big goals for African people. She worked with African companies to help them become globally excellent companies. Working in London was fulfilling, but being in Africa was fulfilling both intellectually and emotionally.
She did this work for about 2 and a half years. Then she decided that she wanted to build depth, because as a consultant you build a lot of skills but you are working in different industries. She wanted the depth of working in one space. So she went to work for MTN. She was privileged to be placed in a position that created so many opportunities and opened a lot of doors for her. She met with the group CEO of MTN and other members in the executive leadership team, and they offered her an opportunity to work with the group CEO directly. Now this is a Group CEO of a company that operated in 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East. It’s hard to imagine a better place to learn about the industry and learn about doing business in this continent. It was a true African multinational experience. She got to work with Sifiso Dabengwa, and he became such a mentor to her.
He challenged her every day. She worked at a pace of a CEO, which was fantastic because it was what she was used to. Being from consulting, she worked at a very high pace. But here, she got full exposure to the business and the biggest problems it faced, and had the opportunity to work on some of those. And later on, somewhat as a result of being involved in working in a digital strategy, was appointed to run MTN fibre to the whole business, including digital services. This started off as a project which had to be turned into a business, what a challenge.
Out of the blue, she was called by Vodacom. They were looking for someone who can head up group strategy. After she went to meet with them, the opportunity offered to her was to help change Vodacom into a digital company. This sounded like a fantastic challenge, considering the fact that Vodacom is part of a global group, Vodafone. It is the leading telecoms company in South Africa and in all the markets where it operates. This was a chance to take a winner and set them on a new trajectory. That is what she signed up for when she moved to Vodacom to do group strategy. It’s been a year ever since Mamello joined Vodacom. And she has been afforded an opportunity to shape the direction of a large company in different ways, positioning it to win and remain relevant in the next 5 to 10 years. What an opportunity.
How to fast track your career
One of the things that Mamello has learnt in her career is that there are rules of engagement. This is not to say we are limiting people or there is only one way to win, but every game has rules and this is a game in the purest sense of the word game. A game can be defined as an interaction between two or more parties, whereby the decision of one party has an impact on the decisions of the other parties. If you are playing a game and don’t understand the rules, you can’t expect to win. In most games, you would first pause and learn the rules or you would have a coach who can help you understand the rules.
Unfortunately, especially in the corporate world, the rules are not always transparent. They are very opaque. You come in with some technical knowledge learnt from whatever qualification you hold or prior experience. You may have induction or some training along the way, but that is the equivalent of competing with the best sportsman while you have only been a spectator. Most of us don’t understand the rules, but we want to play, and we wonder why some people are getting ahead. Some are not even aware of the rules. And even so, you are judged by those rules, your performance is measured by those rules.
Some people have the good fortune of having grown up in families where there were people who were senior business leaders. So they have learnt these things naturally. But for most of us, especially black people, we do not have such exposure. You are actually the first people in your family to be even working for the companies you work for, or to even have the entrepreneurial ambitions you have. So you are flying blind. You are a ground breaker and it is tough breaking ground.
The Rules of the Corporate World
- Understand that the trajectory of your career is established in the first 5 years. It is incredibly important how you start. How you spend the first 5 to 10 years of your career sets you on a course that is going to be quiet difficult to adjust later on. For example, if in the first 5 years you haven’t decided that you want to play to reach the most senior positions in your chosen profession, you will not have set that foundation. But knowing this early helps you to operate at a higher level to set a proper foundation. You need to know what company you need to be working for first; what kind of experiences and exposure is that going to give you; what kind of leaders and influencers are you going to need in your life; because that is going to determine what you intentionally learn early.
- Working 8 hours a day is not enough. Coming to work at a time stipulated on your contract is not enough. Doing the minimal or what is exactly stipulated in your contract and job description is part of the employment transaction. It only earns you your salary. There is no employment contract that promises you promotion, new opportunities, or even a bonus. Doing what is in the contract guarantees you what is in the contract, i.e. your salary. If you want more, you have to put in more. You need to realize earlier on that there is value in going the extra mile. One of the most career limiting things one can ever think or say is “That’s not my job”. Saying or thinking such means you are interested in actively killing you career, it is career suicide.
- You have to be willing to go above and beyond what is in your comfort zone. You have got to be able and willing to put your hand up for things that are outside of your comfort zone, things outside the narrow defines of your job. Doing that gives you access to learning, different people, and an opportunity to demonstrate to the decision makers that you are able to do more.
Raising your hand up for something you don’t have the competence for yet
Research shows that men are more likely to do that than women. Mamello advises that one must not be irresponsible and create an expectation to deliver something that they cannot. However, one must not be limiting to the point where they do not want to ever put their hand up unless they are 100% sure that they know exactly how to deliver something. If you are not operating a little bit out of your comfort zone, then you are not growing. If there is something that is of interest in something within your passion and curiosity but not fully within your competence, you might want to volunteer to be part of the team that delivers it so that you can be in a learning environment until you grow in it.
It is important to put your hand up for opportunities and challenges. Sometimes you must put your hand up for things that others don’t want to do. That can be a huge learning curve.
Volunteering in areas of our learning is important. But one shouldn’t do it in a manner of shadowing the people you are learning or getting exposure from, but rather coming in to add value. Our approach in such environments should be asking what can we take off their plate, how can we contribute to make them successful. When you partner with someone in that approach, they also have a vested interest in making you more successful.
- Find sponsors. Most people are interested in finding mentors, and a mentor and sponsor are two different things. Most people also struggle and are frustrated in their mentoring relationships because they are expecting their mentors to play the role of sponsors. A mentor is someone who comes in to advise you, answers your questions, and might give you advice based on their own experience. And that’s valuable, but that’s all it is. A sponsor, on the other hand, is somebody who makes it rain in your world. He opens doors for you, he actively champions your career or success. Somebody who is going to use their own social capital to create opportunities for you. This takes us back to the idea of adding values to others. That is how you develop sponsors. Sponsorship is what fast-tracks careers.
- One of the things that people feel they need to get permission at is permission to speak. And in fact, in a business setting, you have an obligation to speak and contribute. You have an obligation to bring in perspective to the table. So in every single meeting, it is important to make a contribution. If a meeting comes and goes and you have not made a contribution you have wasted your time. Why were you there in the first place? Silent attendance is not valuable. One has to speak up. There are types of speaking up in a meeting. Speaking up is not the person with the microphone, it is not the person doing the presentation. But speaking up could be asking a really insightful question that opens up an element of discussion that others had not considered. It might be playing the role of synthesizing. After a long discussion saying let me summarize what we have discussed – it is helpful for everyone. It sets you apart as somebody that is able to take the complex ideas and bring them together. If you do not contribute, people may forget that you were even there. And if they forget you were there, they will forget your name when an opportunity comes up. Your views and contributions will help your name to pop up when opportunities present themselves.
Overcoming the fear of voicing your contribution
When someone is relatively junior in the room, surrounded by people more senior than you it can be difficult to voice out your contribution. But Mamello thinks that there are a number of things one can do. First you need to understand what your source of authority in that meeting is. Everybody has a source of authority in a meeting, unless you are there wasting your time. Even when you are a junior. In a meeting, you may find that the executive’s source of authority in a meeting is experience; the manager’s source of authority is that as leaders of the team they understand how various parts the team is working on come together; the junior may be the one that was doing the spreadsheet. They might have data and facts. Maybe they also did the client interviews, therefore they have the clients’ insight that others don’t have, maybe they are the one that was doing research, therefore they have facts from research that others don’t have. That could be your source of authority. You figure this out before you go to the meeting. So that when you are in there you know when to speak up, e.g. If you interviewed the customers, you are the person who can speak with authority as to what the customers think and want. Not that you have to compete with the executive on experience, but you bring something to the meeting that others don’t.
Another thing would be to ask yourself what role can you play in the meeting. This links to what was said earlier. Are you the synthesizer that summarizes everything? Are you the person that is able to say “have we thought about something else?” Are you the person that will be able to say “When I look at the analysis I have done, the numbers suggest this course of action”. Are you the person that is able to look at a complex problem and structure it in a way that is easy to understand, and then say “I hear the discussion but I think there are 3 main questions that we are trying to answer here”. That doesn’t require experience, it requires good listening skills, and then sorting all you have heard properly in your head, and making the suggestion.
Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, you have an obligation to contribute. You have to find it in yourself, and find ways that make it easier and comfortable for you to contribute.
Considering Company Culture
Company culture is very important, and one has to understand and operate tactically in a culture. It probably won’t be the best idea to start asking questions that make your manager or your peers feel uncomfortable in front of somebody very senior on day one. But in smaller groups, in smaller contexts where there is just you and the manager, you should. You have an obligation to start raising your voice and sharing your ideas, and even encouraging the team to share their thinking.
But the truth is that, not every culture is conducive for everyone. And if you are the kind of person that wants to fast track your career, that kind of culture typically is not a culture where people progress quickly. The kind of culture where the leader makes all the decisions, does all the thinking, and everybody else is just an executor, is not an environment where one is going to learn to be a leader. And so, you want to think very carefully, especially if you are at a junior level, about the importance of how you start. That’s not a great place to start your career.
Most organizations are bad at giving feedback. And so you have to ask for honest feedback. And it is hard because most of us may not want to hear what other people think about our performance. But it is so important to ask for feedback and to find people in your professional circle that care enough to be honest with you about where you need to improve and do differently and what you still need to learn, because that is how you grow.
It’s not enough to get performance conversations only twice a year. You should be getting feedback all the time. If you have done an important task, ask for feedback. Because if you are only getting your feedback 6 months later, you have not had a chance to improve in that whole 6 months. So you could have been doing something that you could have easily improved but you were not aware of it for 6 months. At the 6 month mark it could be when someone is saying to you, “and therefore you will not be getting a bonus”, you do not want to find out at that moment. You want to find out immediately so that you can make changes along the way.
The more senior you become, the fewer people are willing to give you feedback. So the more deliberate you need to be about asking for feedback and giving people permission to give you feed back. You ask the people that report to you. Those are the people who can comment about your leadership ability because they are the people that are experiencing your leadership ability. Therefore you have to give those people the freedom and create a space for them to give you feedback. And in environments where people are not used to that, you might find that it is more feasible to send out an anonymous team survey. You will find that the team will be very generous with their feedback. And take that as a gift because it will allow you to reflect. It is not easy to hear the feedback, but you have got to just take it on the chin and take it without being defensive or wanting to attack people. The minute you are defensive, you close the opportunity to get more feedback later on.
It is also important to get feedback from your peers and hear from them what they think, because they are observing you at a different angle. And it is also important to get feedback from your seniors. If they are naturally inclined to only give you feedback once or twice a year, ask for it more frequently. Feedback doesn’t have to be long, even a 5 minute chat before you walk out after a presentation will do. Those little bits of feedback along the way help you to grow, and they force you to continue to grow. And that makes the biggest difference because you are continuously improving and getting better at what you do.
All of us have an inherent challenge to be better professionals, better leaders, better entrepreneurs, etc. Mamello’s challenge would be for you to get feedback. Ask feedback from people who really have seen you operate. Not just positive feedback, which is very important by the way, but more of constructive criticism.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew