Dr Maya Angelou, the Pulitzer Prize nominated poet and author, educator, historian, and civil-rights activist once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
On a few rare occasions I have had the privilege of interviewing and discussing leadership with leaders that really seem to understand and embrace this principle. And a couple of weeks ago I again met one of these leaders, this as I sat with Venete Klein in her comfortable Brooklyn offices.
If you are unfamiliar with Klein, here are a few things you ought to know about her: Her educational background includes studies completed at three of the world’s top five business schools – Harvard, MIT, and Insead. She has held board positions in numerous companies and organisations, including Old Mutual Wealth Proprietary Limited, PG Group, SABS – South African Bureau of Standards, Proudly South African, Postbank South Africa, BUSA (Business Unity SA) and more. Klein was voted Business Woman of the Year in 2009, is the first South African to serve on the World Trade Organization’s International Policy Commission, was the first woman to serve as Vice Chair of the Agricultural Business Chamber, and was the first female president of the Afrikaanse Handels Instituut in its 66 year history.
While leading ABSA’s Retail Bank as its Executive Director, she was responsible for 25 000 employees, was depended upon by 11 million clients, and had an operating budget of R8 billion. All in all, Klein has a 32 year banking track record with local and international experience across: Retail Banking, Business Banking, Government Relations, Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, Agriculture, and more.
What an impressive resume.
So where did it all start for Klein?
She shares: “I grew up in the Western Cape, on what is commonly known as the Cape Flats. My childhood years were spent in a place called Crawford, and I received my primary and high school educations in Athlone and Lansdowne. My formative years took place during some of the major uprisings in the Western Cape. This of course did a lot to shape my views. And although I didn’t really understand politics at the time, I was thrust into a situation where going to school was a challenge. This challenge escalated to the point where it was so intense, the constant threat of Casper’s and teargas being so real and ongoing, that it resulted in my not being able to complete my university education with the University of the Western Cape.”
Her initial desire, and focus at university, was to become a teacher. And while this is a profession she still thinks on fondly, Klein considers not completing her education therein as turning point in her life: “My father was the sole provider for our family, and with a now outstanding bursary needing paying and my life needing to be lived, I realised he wouldn’t be able to afford doing so and so I needed to find employment myself.” Of the fifty applications she then filled, only one responded to acknowledge receipt. This was enough motivation for her to begin pushing for more. She shares: “In those days banks (Barclays being the one who responded) used to close at 1 o’clock on a Wednesday, and so every Wednesday at five to one without fail, I would phone the woman who had signed the letter acknowledging receipt. I knew that if I phoned her enough, she would one day get tired of me calling and tell me to come in. It worked. After six weeks of calling she said she was rushing off to a meeting but asked me to come in the following Monday. And the rest is history.”
One of the things that have made her so successful over her career is her tenacity and never say die attitude. She attributes this to her parents and their examples of hard work and perseverance. “Always looking for opportunities in your difficulties will give you an edge,” she adds reflectively.
A key leadership moment in Klein’s career came early on when she made a mistake in a document she had been required to draft. Her then supervisor proceeded to publicly humiliate and berate her in front of their entire department. She resolved to do three things from that day on: “(1) I would never do that to another human being, if I was going to reprimand you it would be in private and in a way that was going to build you; (2) I wasn’t going to cry even though it was very humiliating. People needed to know I was strong; (3) And I was going to get to the top of the pile even if it was going to take me a lifetime.”
25 years later, Klein was appointed to a Group Exco position in Barclays South Africa, the very bank where she received her first but now invaluable leadership lesson.
What else has assisted her to successfully lead the way she has?
She shares that it is very important to develop an informed opinion of things going on in the world. Leaders must read, investigate, and ask questions. And then they must be able to share that opinion in an articulate manner. Klein also believes that respect comes as a direct result of delivery. And where one may have failed to deliver, she stresses that time is needed to reflect on what should have been done, and what lessons have been learned.
The following Q&A is also revealing:
Q: What in your opinion is the most important function of a leader?
VK: The most important business function of a leader is to ensure that each person in the organisation understands the vision and knows how their individual roles contribute to the ultimate delivery of the organisational goals.
The most important personal function of a leader is to “Praise, Raise & Amaze”.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
VK: Managing talent who do not have the patience to grow into their roles but gravitate towards money (better offers). I find many young talented people job hopping and not allowing themselves to hone their skills. This will in the long term not help on your career trajectory – as your foundation will not be as solid as required.
Q: What is one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
VK: When leaders go into the market to recruit what they consider to be top talent, very often these recruits once they join don’t get the necessary support/mentorship or induction in order to succeed in their new roles. This is wasted cost for an organisation but also destroys the pool of talent that exists in SA today.
Q: When faced with two equally-qualified candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?
VK: This is easily answered as we have the BEE codes to help guide us. A woman will take preference over a man and a person of colour will also take preference.
I also attach a heavy weighting to experience as this will generally give you delivery in the shortest possible time.
Q: What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
VK: I find myself reading as many articles and business books as possible. I further remain updated on all the legislative changes as it affects business today. Of utmost importance is the Presidential Speech as well as the speech by the Minister of Finance.
The feelings I referred to in the beginning of this article can be considered in two ways. First are my feelings towards Klein as a leader – that she has a certain poise and confidence about her that allows me to in turn have confidence in her. And the second are my feelings about myself while being with her – that I am acknowledged, my view is heard and relevant, and that I might be able to be my best self working with her.
When all is said and done, the truest measure of a professed leader is whether or not they are being followed, and if Klein asked me to follow her to a particular vision, I think I might just do so.
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