Leadership Lessons

Knowing that what I do at the office every day, no matter how mundane, will have far-reaching effects on the lives of women in South Africa’s rural areas has made all the difference to my career and I know that my colleagues at WDB Investment Holdings and WDB Trust feel the same way.

The WDB story is an incredible one and the organisation celebrated its 25th-anniversary last year. The WDB Trust was founded earlier in 1991 with the objective of making a contribution to nation-building and poverty alleviation in rural South Africa by providing access to microfinance for rural women entrepreneurs. However, WDBIH soon realised that being an investor in large blue-chip companies, whose boards and leadership were largely male and white, created an opportunity for it to advocate for women’s advancement into senior management and leadership positions in the companies in which it invested. This included insisting on companies’ board seats.

To say this was challenging is an understatement. In almost all cases, we were not taken seriously by potential investee companies when we insisted on board seats and when we asked pointed questions about their women advancement strategies. As a newly established organisation founded and led by women who were well-educated but with limited commercial experience and no track record in investment management or business leadership, we had to learn by doing. Despite these challenges, we persisted, as we were driven not by personal positions or gain but by a vision to play a role in the transformation of our country. With the backing by other women and a few forward-thinking men, WDB continues to push for the increased participation of women in its investee companies.

Over the past 20 years, we have invested in more than 20 entities, ranging from blue-chip listed companies to privately-owned small and medium-sized companies. We have board seats in most of these companies. On average, these companies have over 25% female representation on their boards. What are the factors that have contributed to our success?

  1. A purpose and values-driven organization —The founding principle of WDB was to serve women and make a difference in their lives. Purpose is one of the key success factors in business. One of our key values is pioneering and innovation, therefore, when we make an investment decision, we don’t just look at the figures, we also look at how we can enhance the partnership and assist our partners to do business differently.
  2. Leadership—Good leadership is required in order for a purpose to be achieved. Good leaders guard the organisation’s mission and values, ensuring it doesn’t deviate from its core values. WDB’s leadership exemplifies these qualities, starting with its founder, Mrs Zanele Mbeki, who is motivated by the upliftment and growth of others.
  3. Developing and nurturing partnerships and relationships—Without strong and loyal partners, it’s difficult to make one’s business a success. In the case of WDBIH, these relationships include our investment partners, funders, co-investors and other women’s organisations. Thus, it is critical to invest in relationships, never taking them for granted.
  4. Hard work and perseverance—Ultimately, the grand purpose and vision must be executed by the people, who are every organisation’s greatest asset. A motivated and engaged workforce is critical to the successful implementation of the strategy.

Why should South African business leaders care about women advancement in their companies? The issue of increasing women’s participation in the economy is not unique to South Africa. Research shows that, over the past 20 years, there has been a steady increase in women’s representation in senior and leadership positions globally. However, women’s representation is still far below where it should be in relation to the world’s population. In its Women Matter Africa report, released in August 2016, McKinsey & Company surveyed 55 leading companies in Africa and interviewed 35 African women leaders. It found that, while Africa has achieved significant progress in women representation in leadership positions over the past 20 years, it is still far from achieving gender equality in the boardrooms. On average, women held 27% of senior leadership positions in African businesses. However, when one digs deeper, one finds that women still do not hold “influential positions”.

According to the research, in the private sector, more than half of senior women occupy staff roles rather than the roles from which promotions to CEO typically occur. In South Africa, at senior levels of JSE-listed companies, the proportion is around 27% female; at board level, it is about 24% female and, according to a PWC survey of JSE-listed companies, fewer than 4% of CEO positions are held by women. Why should we care about the equal participation of women in our economy? According to the recently published UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2016, released in August 2016, it is estimated that the total annual economic losses due to gender inequality in the Sub-Saharan African labour market have averaged US$95 billion a year since 2010. Furthermore, the report makes it clear that countries that invest more in gender equality and women’s empowerment are outperforming their peers in terms of human development. Among the biggest challenges we face are lacklustre growth and a critical skills shortage, yet more than 50% of the population is not given an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the economy.

It is time that the issue of gender inclusivity is elevated to the highest level, rather than being treated merely as a compliance matter. The barriers to success for women who have chosen to advance their careers are common across the globe. They include the lack of flexibility afforded to women as their personal lives change (such as when they start a family), rigid corporate cultures that are not open to change, leading to women feeling isolated at times and cases of persisting sexism, which affect women’s participation. Research shows that companies with a greater share of women on boards and executive committees tend to perform far better in the long term, as diverse leadership teams bring different perspectives and balance on matters such as risk management, marketing and client engagement and innovation.

Possible solutions I believe that more drastic steps must be taken to improve these numbers so that, 20 years from now, we can look back and point to a significant increase in women’s economic participation. This requires consensus and then deliberate implementation by decision-makers in government and the private sector. The senior female representation targets as part of employment equity must be doubled, as the current targets will not make a dent in changing the position of women in our economy. Women’s development should be on executive committees’ and boards’ agendas and should be monitored and measured. As a nation, we should be making the issue of women’s under-representation in our economy one of our top priorities if we are to seriously leverage talent and skills in growing this economy. With the right leadership focus and drive, South Africa can become a leader in women’s empowerment in Africa and will reap the benefits in the long term.

Faith N. Khanyile CEO and Founding member of WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH)