Episode 12 – Sihle Mdluli
Sihle comes from the outskirts of KwaZulu-Natal in a small town called Ladysmith. She was raised by a single mother with her sister and brother. Her mother was a teacher at the time. She grew up in very humble beginnings, but her mother did her best to give them the best education she could afford. She was fortunate that at the time when she was doing her high schooling De Beers went to look for performing students in her school and she was spotted. They were offering bursaries, which was the only hope for Sihle to go to university since her mother wouldn’t afford tertiary education. They had a number of courses they were offering bursaries on and she saw one that was not familiar to her at the time – Metallurgy. She figured that choosing it would increase her chances of being chosen as it was not popular at the time and most students were not likely to go for it. After she got the bursary, she went to study it at Wits University and after completing her degree went on to work for one of De Beers Mines in Cullinan. She visited a lot of mines acting in different capacities. Her last role at De Beers was managing the office of the MD at their head office, from which she moved to Deloitte Consulting. This move came due to Sihle’s interest in strategy. De Beer’s strategy was done in London at the time and it was during recession time so there was no way she could be sent there, so the Managing Director referred her to Deloitte in order for her to learn for 3-6 months but she loved it there and decided to stay. She enjoys working for Deloitte because of the ability to impact different companies in different industries through consulting.
Succeeding as a female in a male dominated environment
Sihle believes in being herself and not try to be somebody else. Many women in male dominated environments try to act like men, but being yourself is key. Success in any organization requires good people skills – knowing how to relate with people makes a great difference. Relating to people in ways applicable to them and making them feel like you value valued their input helps you to win. Sihle mastered this skill, she could relate with people of any rank, from the lowest level to the highest level of employees. She believes it’s all about connecting with people. That’s how she survived the mining industry.
She really enjoyed production, where she worked for 3 and a half years. The section she was managing was old, so there were lots of maintenance issues, lots of production, lots of call outs in the early hours of the morning. She got so comfortable with mining that she could solve maintenance issues in her sleep. That is when she realized she had done it for too long and needed to move. She moved to head office where her role was internal consultant. She worked with the Chief Operations Officer as a start, and got to deal with operations and even got a chance to sit at the executive committee. This helped her balance working at operations and seeing the vision at helicopter view – being exposed to the section where she was as well as seeing how everything connects. This was quiet a beneficial exercise for her.
Sihle’s husband is an associate pastor. They both serve at Let’s Go To Glory Worship Centre, a small church in Braamfontein mainly comprising of young professionals and students. She has played different parts in the church. She was anointed a deacon a while back, she served in the women’s ministry, outreach, etc. She is currently also helping a friend of hers who is starting a church in Midrand. She is taking the lessons that she has learnt in strategy and is applying them in the church, not mechanising the church but using the elements learnt in the corporate world to glorify God.
The Uniqueness of Being a Woman in Leadership
Sihle once read a book that said, for a woman to be in senior leadership and be successful as a mother and wife, one needs to either superhuman, rich, or self-employed. When she read that she said “then I want to be superhuman”, because she really felt she wanted to be a woman that can be a phenomenal leader but also a successful wife and mother.
Women apparently do not aspire leadership positions. Something was written a while back that if there is a senior position advertised, it appeals more to men than women, because women by nature tend to be set back and are not ambitious enough to drive for such positions. But in her experience, Sihle has learnt that women bring to the table much more than men do. Even the way that women’s brains function, they can use both hemispheres of their brains and are able to see more of the bigger picture than men. The more women can learn not to play as men but as women in whatever role they are placed, is the more they will be able to see that they bring more to the table. If a woman can come as she is, coming with her motherly instinct, not necessarily to mother people but rather the view of taking care of people. That woman is more likely to succeed in leadership because she is coming with her nurturing aspect, causing her not to take people at face value, but to rather to have the ability to draw out hidden potential from them. This aspect can cause women to contribute more in the workplace.
Women need to appreciate the value of seeing things differently as this can be of great profit to their working environment.
20% of senior positions in the JSE are held by women, meaning men hold 80% of those roles. But when you look at the graduates that are coming in, most are women. This means that women get lost somewhere in the middle of the system. Either they drop out of the system or they get comfortable and not advance. Only a few get to the top, probably because of that lack of aspiration for top leadership positions.
If we bring women into leadership, we bring diversity and get to do things differently. Sihle believes that transformation is not just about bringing people because of colour or gender. But a transformed team is that which has more diversity. A team that is able to see things in a much broader way than doing things the same old way.
The mind-set that women should have in order to bring more to the table
For women seeking to break the barriers and start to bring more to the table, Sihle recommends that they read a book titled “Girls Do Not Make the Corner Office”.
As a woman, you must aspire to do more and advance in your career. If you do not have a target, you are not going to advance. You must have a goal, know where you are going. Sihle is currently the Associate Director at Deloitte, her goal is to knock the “Associate” out of her title, she wants to make partner. She is working towards something.
Be yourself – not everybody has to like you but you must look at your likability. People must desire to work with you. You must not try and mother everyone. You must not always volunteer for the womanly things, stand your ground. Sihle once read something that said “women tend to attribute their success to good luck or any other factor outside themselves; whereas man actually claim it because of their skills. If a women fail, they would blame themselves; whereas a man would blame the circumstances or whatever happened around them at the time”. Do not ever downplay your achievements. We must learn to sell ourselves as ladies. Sell ourselves in terms of what we have accomplished. We must own the accomplishments that we have had over the years. And be confident of who you are and what you bring to the table.
Maintaining work-life balance
Sihle doesn’t believe in balance. Balance means things must be in equilibrium all the time, meaning that if you lean a little bit to the left then the right falls over. She has a lot of important things in her life which all deserve some of her time, therefore she has built a good support system around each one so that she can be able to do all she does. If she has a deadline that requires her to work long hours, she works in order to meet the deadline. If her child is sick, she is with her child without worrying about what is happening at the office because she has support structures in place. Where her attention is needed at a specific time, she is fully present without feeling like things are falling apart. Support structures because you to be at peace and fully function where you are needed at a specific time.
Women often allow guilt to rob them of advancing and being fully present at the particular sphere of their lives. Sihle is herself – She love God, so she is going to be present at church when she is needed there; she loves her family, so she is going to be there when they need her; and she loves her job, so she is going to do her best to keep advancing even there. She understands that the best that she can do for those around her is to give them a self that is taken good care of and happy because she is able to do all she loves doing.
Simply put, strategy is a set of choices. You choose what you want to do and you choose what you do not want to do. Strategy is a set of choices. At Deloitte, they look at strategy in what they call “cascading choices”.
Choice 1: What are our goals and aspirations as a company? You choose where you want to go. What is your role in the society? What are your financial aspirations? What are your non-financial goals? This becomes a guiding campus. This is the stage where you craft what success looks like for you.
Choice 2: Where to play? You choose the markets that you want to play in. you choose the things that differentiate you as a company. This can also speaks of the geographies where you want to operate.
Choice 3: How to win in the chosen markets? What are the mechanisms/plans that you are going to apply in order to win in that market? What are the things that you are going to do differently that will make you to stand out from the competition in the market that you have chosen?
Choice 4: How do you configure? How do you configure yourself to win? This speaks of operation model – How are you going to structure the business? What clusters are you going to have? Within those clusters how are you going to configure the structures?
Choice 5: What are your priorities? What are the things you are going to do first? What are the things that you can tackle later? What must you prioritize to win at your chosen market?
Strategy, as explained in the above cascading choices, helps you to understand the reason behind your goals. These cascading choices are not only about what you aim to do, but also about the things that you are not going to do. The configuration part of your strategy helps you not to replicate what you have seen before, but rather going for your blueprint and fulfilling your individual purpose.
Advice to aspiring women leaders
There’s a quote by Lupita Nyong’o that says “No matter where you are from your dreams are valid”. Where you come from and where you are does not negate where you want to go. What sets people apart is knowing that you are destined for something great. Sihle is a firm believer that when God made each one of us, to each one He put a purpose and gave a mandate to fulfil. We were brought on this world not just to exist, but to live and make a difference. Our lives must not be lived in a comfort zone, but we must always aspire to fulfil our God-given purpose. That is Sihle’s principle in life because once you know your purpose, it makes you understand that even challenges are not the end of you but stepping stones to your destiny.
When you are placed in an environment, do your best. “When excellence is on stage, everybody pays attention.” Flourish wherever you are planted. Appreciate and celebrate milestones, but do not let that be your end. Maintain an attitude of discontentment, always have the desire to do more. More is not about just being eager, but about actually striving to attain your godly purpose.
- Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
- Lois P. Frankel, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers