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Picture: 123RF/DANIIL PESHKOV
Picture: 123RF/DANIIL PESHKOV

As somebody who occupies a leadership role in one of the largest financial hubs in the world, I spend a lot of time thinking about role models and the type of people you need to drive a successful, ethical and value-driven organisation.

Without question, 2020 has been a watershed year for those occupying leadership positions and those tasked with steering us through this crisis are in uncharted waters. The decisions they take today will have an impact generations for years to come.   

When I was asked to prepare this opinion piece, the focus was to be on the positive elements of women empowerment, but I feel we need to create some uncomfortable spaces before we can start to celebrate the positives.

Absa operates at the centre of global financial markets and we are directly affected by bug leadership decisions on a daily basis. Whether it's politicians clashing over ideologies or news of a corporate scandal, these eat away at the trust and social compact that we depend on to do ethical business.   

More importantly, this kind of behaviour trickles down into boardrooms and business environments and those who have been tasked with leadership roles have often allowed them to go unchecked.

Somebody I particularly admire is New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who is an inspirational female leader and at the time of her appointment became the world’s youngest female head of government at age 37. She is one of the most progressive leaders in the world who is well respected for her views, but importantly I believe she is such a shining light as she is in touch with what is happening in the real world.

In this fastmoving world, leaders need to build understanding and their knowledge base from which to make decisions. They can only make these decisions and understand their impact when they are close to the ground. One of the greatest strengths to take from Arden is the ability to listen and take advice, build a strong diverse team where opinions and consequently the decisions made are inclusive. She shows strength with empathy, and an ability to make unwavering decisions — demonstrated by how she handling of Covid-19 and the Christchurch mosque shootings which earned her overarching support and respect. Listen, hear, opine and take a decision!

Whether you've been in business or politics, 2020 has been a humbling year for leaders everywhere and those who have displayed empathy and a willingness to listen are the ones who will emerge from this crisis with their reputations intact.

For those of us who operate in the world of financial services, we get to see the impact at a more personal level. We see the businesses going under or being forced to retrench staff or cancel contracts.

What we often forget is that our clients have a personal relationship with us and their money. Covid-19 has meant that we have had to change how we engage with our clients — just because more of it is happening virtually, doesn’t mean we can’t build and maintain meaningful relationships.

We succeed when our clients succeed, and this means we need to listen and be attuned to changes in their business and industries. If we understand the challenges and opportunities, we can react quicker.

For me the work-from-home environment has been fulfilling — not having to pack a suitcase to travel, and being more visible to my family has been special and powerful — for work, self and family. My children are slightly older — 13 and 16 — which has made it easier in some respects.

Having young children and homeschooling during this period has been difficult and has had a stressful impact on women. On the positive side, I believe men have realised the challenges faced by women in balancing all and have played their role given their ability to be closer — could this be a start of a great social reset? 

I do think that the virtual world allows women to really take a seat at the table, however it is incumbent on leaders to ensure that the conversation is as inclusive of all ideas as much as possible. What concerns me is the ability of younger women to get hands-on experience and learning. Earlier I mentioned the personal interaction with clients but we can’t discount the power of the “boardroom”, to feel included and to have the confidence to develop and have the opportunity to interact with like-minded people.

I also have a concern that this environment may be harder to build a name for yourself as old stereotypes and meritocracies creep in.

About the author: Cheryl Buss is chief executive for Absa International. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA
About the author: Cheryl Buss is chief executive for Absa International. Picture: SUPPLIED/ABSA

For those in my team, I would like to reassure you that this is front of mind for me and I regularly push our organisation to ensure we don’t just talk about these values but we live them as well. I do believe there is much more to be done to develop and promote females across the Bank — not much credence has been given to enabling women to balance careers and home life. The initiation has to shift thinking to ensure men believe in and want to support the growth of females, acknowledging that a diverse environment is not about ticking a box but rather believing that inclusiveness will enhance business growth.

Women should be independent role models bringing others on the journey with them — there are always new learnings especially when applying diversity principles through differing lenses to develop as much of an inclusive environment as possible. Spend time listening, build your fact base, collaborate and then make an informed decision on what action to take.

We are well into the second half of 2020 and many are barely holding it together — it has been long, hard and stressful. For those who occupy leadership positions, spend a little longer listening and looking to collaborate ... but most importantly, look after yourselves and invest a little bit more in your health and family. You will thank yourself down the line.

This article was paid for by Absa CIB.

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