TBrA Dialogues Series: Conversations with ‘Women at the Top’ — Sizakele Marutlulle

Welcome to the first episode of the TBrA Dialogues Series: Conversations with ‘Women at the Top’, a Boardroom Africa production. This is a special one not only because of our guest interviewee, but also because this is our maiden episode, and comes at an opportune time, in anticipation of International Women’s Day (#IWD2018). In this episode, Tamsin Jones, co-founder of TheBoardroom Africa speaks with Sizakele Marutlulle, a catalyst and change-maker, sharing her career journey, board insights and impact driven works.

Sizakele has over 23 years’ experience in business leadership, brand building, innovation and people development. Prior to founding her company, she was the head of marketing at ABSA Africa, and before then was CEO of Grey Advertising in South Africa. She is a former COO of South Africa Tourism and received an MA in communications sociology and is completing her PHD which is another entire fascinating topic. Sizakele, or Za, as she is affectionately known, also has extensive board experience, serving as Non-Executive Director on the Boards of various South African Listed and Blue Chip companies; Rhodes Food Group, and Lewis Group to name a few. In 2017 she launched Fentrepreneurs, an initiative that aims to help women build bankable and scalable future-fit businesses and offers solutions on how financial lenders can stop using a gender lens that disadvantages women.

So Sizakele, this is a pretty amazing list of achievements…Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your journey to the top?

Firstly, thank you for making me your first candidate. I am really, really honoured. My journey is a long one and it is also not typical — as it wasn’t a planned process. When I was younger and very good at maths and science, my mother wanted to me to be a doctor, but I came across blood and that was the end of that idea. As soon as I got hold of writings by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and all the people who started my feminist consciousness, I got an increasing interest in representation, identity formation and image creation. So those things became dominant in my brain and I knew that it was a fascinating opportunity and field for me to explore.

I lost about two years after finishing high school because my mother was a single parent at the time and trying to raise three children on a nurse’s salary wasn’t really the easiest thing. So, in that time I was modelling, I sold insurance, and the third year after high school I finally got a banking loan and went off to university. At that time, I registered for a liberal arts degree majoring in sociology and political science and I threw in a bit of French because the French lecturer was good looking. At the end of my junior degree I had to do a piece of work — present a paper — and I started exploring in earnest the field of identity formation and creation and creativity and that’s how I ended up writing a paper called “Is advertising meant to be socially responsible, or socially responsive?”. That then led me to interviewing people in the advertising sector, and I started with the guys at Herdbuoys Agency who remain up until this day South Africa’s first black owned and black managed advertising agency. I also went to Hunt Lascaris “TBWA” and learnt a little bit more about advertisement. So I was certain that after graduating I would go back and try and find a permanent job in advertising. And that happened in 1994 at Msomi Hunt Lascaris. This was special because I worked on our country’s first historic campaign on behalf of the ANC, it was our transition into democracy.

I was too young to understand that I was part of history yet professional enough to pay attention to the people I was meeting and the occasions that were unfolding around me. That started my journey into advertising and from there I went off to New York. I won a scholarship and spent time at Chiat Day and NW Ayer & Partners, which are ad agencies in New York. I came back to South Africa and continued to grow from there. I eventually got back to that agency called HerdBuoys, that I interviewed before in the early nineties while I was finishing university. And rose up to the level of deputy managing director by 2004 and then left and joined South African Tourism as COO.

In a nutshell my journey has always been diverse. I have always responded to challenges that are presented by a career opportunity rather than a planned process that says, “by age 30 this is what I want to do, by age 35 this is what I want to do.” When I was not working to solve for corporates as an independent, I was solving inside them as an Executive. We also grew Herdbuoys Agency to a very successful component of the “McCann Erickson network worldwide. When inside corporates I would be doing the same thing, which is influencing the direction of brands and contributing as much as I was aware to the growth of the people who were on my teams or who came into contact with me either as agency partners or business partners.

What about your board journey? When was your first board position?

You know what was really amazing? — When you are a young professional the people you come across who sit on boards tended at least in my case to be older, they also were men, and also were not black. So, it wasn’t until perhaps 10 years ago that I actually started opening myself up for opportunities to serve on boards. Because whether we like it or not bias still exists. It’s a bias that is ageist, that’s also sexist and also limited in terms of racial representation. So, my first board experience was 2003 which was 15 years ago now, for a very tiny family owned business in the Cape which is in the FMCG category. I walked into the environment raw, and if TheBoardroom Africa existed then I guess I would have benefitted from some level of coaching and mentoring. I have had to learn with each appointment since, on what are the things to ask for, what are the things to look for, and to be very specific about the skillset one brings to a board.

One of the threads I was hoping to draw out was the way being female has shaped that journey, but you have very much highlighted those as you have gone. Going through those new experiences and in these environments must have been challenging. Are there any mentors, female or male, that have supported you through this journey given as you say TheBoardroom Africa didn’t’ exist then?

The one fortunate thing I have experienced in my professional careers is that have I have been adopted by senior males who have taken me under their wing, and just committed to helping me grow which I guess from a personal stand point (I didn’t have a father since the age of 13) was quite heart-warming as I did have father figures who were nurturing, who were present, who would offer guidance, support, counselling and discipline in some instances. So my professional journey is littered with amazing human beings who happened to be male, who invested in my growth, whether it was Happy, who was my managing director at Herdbouys, I presently have Brant Pretorious, it’s a long list of males who have been present. Where, Tamsin, it was really difficult was at the top of the hill in my advertising career, where I was the youngest and one of three women leading ad agencies at the time, and it felt incredibly lonely, so having mentors was really important for support in those instances when you didn’t really know what to do or where to look you at least had a telephone number that you could reach out to. But it wasn’t until much later that I benefitted from the counsel of older, wiser women — and they still remain a minority in my circle of wise people.

Are you a mentor to others and how do you see your role as a female leader in terms of giving back or engaging with the community of women who are also on this journey?

I subscribe to the essence that we must lift as we rise. So as soon as my own management style transitioned into a leadership style, and this is something that I had to learn — when you’re young, you think barking at people, is a demonstration of authority, is the best way to get your results. And eventually you figure out it’s not the best way to do it. The best way to do it is to show respect to people and to assume best intention and also to assume that they deliver their highest levels. I found that as soon as my leadership style transitioned I began to attract young, independent, incredibly ambitious and fierce females who wanted to go somewhere. I have 10 women in my circle — they orbit my universe and we’ve been together for the last four years. I decided to form a community as it was a lot more expedient, and also, they could learn from one another. They go by the name of Diva’s because they are just absolutely fierce and they have a great sense of responsibility to the community as well. My role as a mentor is I am giving to these young leaders everything that I wish I had received at their age, which was guidance, support, discipline, but also truth telling. Because at 33 you can behave as though you have the answers to the world’s problems, and as a consequence become unintentionally arrogant or unrealistically impatient.

That’s really interesting. I think that there are lessons that are certainly really important for everyone to learn and you can’t, as you say, learn it without that truth and honesty in the relationship. Given this is a discussion with TheBoardroom Africa, I want to know how you heard about TheBoardroom Africa and what you plan to achieve through your membership with TheBoardroom Africa?

Firstly, I think the quality and the timing of this intervention is something that the continent is going to reflect on many years from now and will recognise just how poignant it was to have the leadership and imagination of people like Tamsin and Marcia, who present to the world in an organised fashion and answer to “we can’t find quality executive women to serve on boards”. Why I think it is going to be a success, besides my undying support for the founders, is an understanding that future facing corporates recognise now more than ever that without diversity, and diversity including gender, race, age, skillset, without that dynamism that is presented by that diversity, success will be short term and incredibly unsustainable. So the challenge, TheBoardroom Africa presents to corporates, is whether the quality of their CEOs is of a nature that is visionary, that is creative, but also that is inclusive and long term, because if you are, as a CEO at the top of a corporate, that is either in the top 100 of JSE listed or listed under the New York SE, and you’re only thinking about next quarter’s financial results, then you’re doing your business a great disservice. My hope, which will turn into a reality, which I am confident that TheBoardroom Africa will be able to deliver, is to present to corporates proof that women, such as myself and my other peers who are also members of TheBoardroom Africa not only do we exist and want to contribute, but we also have the skillset, the depth and the nuance to present to boardrooms what is currently lacking today. Just to be clear, I resist the narrative that says that women are meant to be nurturing and walk into a boardroom to be nurturing, that is a deliberate attempt to limit and confine the other skills we bring to life and the other skills we bring to the corporate world. Yes, we are socialised to nurture but that is not all of who we are. We are smart, we are strategic, we are creative, we are complimentary, we are solution providers, we are problem solvers, we are all these other dynamic things that Africa needs today. I am confident that the vision of TheBoardroom Africa will find traction with future facing corporates.

I think Za, with candidates like you and the others we have, you really tell the story that there are definitely women who are qualified and available for those roles, and the traction we are getting is significant and growing and it really is special to give a platform and profile to the amazing leaders across the continent who perhaps aren’t getting the access they need to some of these opportunities. We are certainly hoping that we can deliver all of those things to our members who we value very highly. What is your proudest moment in your career so far?

I am chuckling because I was asked that question about two weeks ago. For me, it is not about the attainment of a particular position, my proudest moments are always the moments where I have been able to keep promises to myself. So, let’s explain: I choose roles and opportunities based on my ability to be of positive influence. And I have been able to walk into opportunities based on my assumption that that would be possible and walk away when I felt my circle of influence was shrinking. So, my proudest moment are those moments where at the risk of everything else, including physical signifiers of success in those moments where I chose to listen to my truth and walk away if I felt a circle of influence was shrinking, remains the things I am most proud of myself. As you grow and evolve you recognise the different between personal and positional power. Once I figured out that difference, I had no fear about choosing to remain true to the voice that said: “if you can no longer be of influence here, you are no longer useful”. So, my moments are when I have been able to remain true to that.

Are there any moments that you’re able to share with us — one specific moment where you felt proud?

Let’s talk about transitioning from my senior role in South African Tourism because I wanted to go into film making. It was a balancing act between serving my country in the role in South African Tourism, but also supporting a dormant dream at the time to go and learn how to become a screen writer so that I could contribute to the stories that were being told about my country. My leadership at the time felt that the two things were mutually exclusive, although I didn’t think so. I actually thought that with more imagination we would have been able to grant me space to go to film school, yet I could still serve my country. In the end, the journey and responsibility at South African Tourism was about presenting a positive picture to the world. And to locals that makes it interesting to discover our nation. So that was one example.

Another key example was most recent of course was my departure from my role at Barclays Africa. It was the most senior role. ABSA/Barclays Africa Bank was the biggest bank in terms of customer numbers in South Africa. We had done incredible work which was transitioning the brand from a sponsorship-based brand to a purpose led banking brand. It came first in its category and went on to win a craft award at Cannes Lions. All those successes were incredibly satisfying, personally, but as the environment unfolded and the culture unfolded it became very clear that my circle of influence was fast shrinking because the corporate politics were overtaking my ability to be creative and problem solve the way that I best know how. I chose to leave that environment and many people still look at me and go “Why would you have done that? It was a very powerful position”. And I was then able to respond and say my power doesn’t come from position my power comes from my person. Those are the two key examples I can provide.

What would you say to women who are just beginning their careers and hope to make a difference like the difference you’ve made?

Firstly, I would say that they were born in an amazing time, so this generation is the generation that is going to shift things around. I know that baby boomers said that about the people in my generation said that about the generation before, but I can’t think of a more poignant time to be alive and to be a woman, and to be smart and to be very clear about what you want to achieve in the world. So, the first thing would be to figure out what your purpose is, because the faster you can do that, the easier it’s going to be for you to decide what to do and what not to do. Because functioning without a purpose means that you may very well just follow whatever is trendy, which may be counterproductive to what you need to do to get to your next level. The first one would be figure out your purpose. The second one would be please pay attention to relationships — nurture them and focus on the giving because the getting will take care of itself. It is quite off putting when you come across young people who are selfishly ambitious who come to relationships to take, versus thinking about ways in which they can contribute, so I would challenge them to be benevolent as they rise to the top because there’s no point in summiting Mt. Everest on your own, because you could end up taking a selfie, right? And that’s not cool! You want to take people along with you, so when you do reach your highs there are people around you who can celebrate that success with you. The third one would be please have a balancing act about how you apply, express and perform your gender because we can’t use being female as a reason for driving conversation around diversity and inclusion but also in other instances use it as a reason to chicken out from things. So be careful of how you apply the gender lens. Many exciting things unfold from the unplanned, as long as your intention is to cause no harm, throw yourself into what life presents you with, go with the flow. In the end, it all makes sense. It may feel like a journey is not “A to Z” because it never is, just lean into those detours. Eventually you’ll get there.

That is wonderful advice. Thank you so much, Sizakele, for sharing your journey and insights with us, and for those listening, please stay tuned for more of the TBrA Dialogues.

For more on TheBoardroom Africa please visit our website, theboardroomafria.com thank you.