By Nyimpini Mabunda
How did you get to be a line manager at 21? How did you position yourself to be a CEO candidate when it’s so competitive out there? How did you navigate corporate politics to get where you are? Who did you have to network with? How did you get an international assignment as a South African? Who supported your career journey and how did you get them to do it? I hear one needs a sponsor. How do you get one? Should I do an MBA to enhance my growth? Is it good to stay with one company for long, or am I better off changing employers to move up the ladder more quickly? What’s the role of a coach, and should I get one to move ahead in the corporate world?
These are some of the questions I have fielded most often as a business leader, and they come from all quarters: direct reports, mentees, coaches, friends, social media posts and journalists. I have been asked these questions, or their variants, so often that I decided the best way to make my career learnings accessible to anyone with an interest in curating their career would be to write this book.
The implementation of lockdown restrictions in South Africa in the second quarter of 2020 presented me with an opportunity to use what would have been my social time – which would typically have been spent travelling, attending conferences and dinners, playing golf and building relationships – to reflect on my career.
In sitting down to structure my thoughts and write, I realised just how significant this component of career growth can be, already beginning to answer some of the questions above. By eliminating commuting time and social engagements, I found hours with which to be productive in codifying my growth tactics and strategies to help others reach heights they perhaps thought unattainable.
I have been truly blessed in my life and career, growing up in a business-oriented family, becoming a student leader at the University of Cape Town at the age of 16, starting my professional career with a multinational at 19 and becoming a line manager at 21.
At 22 I ran a cash van operation and was responsible for direct employment of 50 people in a convenience and wholesale channel. At 28 I was a joint venture partner for Nando’s, running 6 outlets I owned with a partner.
I spent years of my working life abroad in the UK and then Uganda, where I was appointed to my first CEO role at the age of 37. I went on to be a group executive at several multinationals, including Boston Consulting Group, Vodafone/Vodacom and GE.
At my current age, 45, I hold several high-impact external board roles in various sectors and sit on the boards of international organisations like the Young President’s Organization (YPO) and the U.S.–South Africa Business Council (a division of the US Chamber of Commerce), where I serve as chairman.
There is much more I would still like to achieve, as much as I have led what I am told is an extraordinary life. I believe that the learnings, failings and work ethic that have together underpinned my career arc can be synthesised into the lessons for others in this book.
My family was not wealthy and I attended a public school in a homeland in pre-democratic South Africa. I was not an A-student and did not study accounting, engineering or science, nor did I study business as my primary degree. My university qualification was in social science and I began working in the marketing and sales stream.
I was neither overly popular nor a prefect, and I never played sport seriously or to any notable achievement. In that respect, my journey to a CEO was both atypical and profoundly ‘normal’ in that I worked hard, leveraged my strengths and consciously set out to achieve goals that would bring me ever closer to a leadership position.
I believe there are many potential senior leaders out there who simply lack the self-belief and toolkit to begin their own journey to the top. There are, as they say, many ways to skin a cat, and the world faces unprecedented disruption. If there was ever a time for someone to bring fresh ideas and a unique approach to leadership, that time is now.
I hope that this book will provide the inspired action necessary to develop new leaders who do not conform to the heavily criticised archetype of leaders of the past.
My intention behind writing this book was to inspire others to take charge of their career destiny, progress and journey. It’s easy to think your work will ‘speak’ for itself, to focus on education or training and hope your achievements will drive your growth. The assumption that it will be possible to ride the wave of relevant policies like empowerment of women, diversity and inclusion or Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) – if you are in the designated groups – is also seductive. However, my contention is that ‘God helps those who help themselves’.
One needs to be proactive and have a plan to stay ahead of the curve, and that plan needs to be grounded in insight and driven with focus. In this respect, a career is much like a marriage or a business: own it, drive it, make things happen and leave nothing to chance.
.This is an extract from Take Charge: Life Lessons on The Road to CEO by Nyimpini Mabunda, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. The author will be in discussion with journalist and entrepreneur Rams Mabote and radio and TV host Sechaba Gqeba at the launch of the book at Exclusive Books, Rosebank on Thursday, May 26, 2022 at 6.30pm.