Vicki-Marais Swanepoel – Young Leader Learning Tough Lessons

Vicki Marais-Swanepoel, though the youngest ever managing director of PAG (Professional Assignments Group) and within the Kelly Group, has learned some hard and important lessons in life.

From starting her career ten years ago when she did not even know what the company was about, to becoming the MD of PAG a company that  occupies the No 2 spot in the small companies category of the Deloitte Best Company to work for Survey, is quite an achievement.

However, this did not come without sacrifice and learning the hard way.

Most of the pivotal moments and experiences that shaped her to lead herself and others at such a young age “had to do with intra personal growth and development”, she says.

For example, her second child was born on the way to work. She comments that this was a huge wake up call to her “human side”, especially when her doctor said: “I’m glad to see that you can also be human.”

This remark made her think long and hard about how she treats herself and everyone around her, what she expects of them and how it impacts on their lives outside of work.

She says further: “We all need to be 360º degree people and work is but one portion of that!  My child could have died and I would never have forgiven myself if that happened. This was a very big wake-up call.”

Marais–Swanepoel reminded me of a quote from Bryan Dyson, former CEO of Coca Cola that also recently did the rounds on the internet: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air – work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will understand that work is a rubber ball. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop any of these they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for it. Work effectively during office hours and leave on time. Give the required time to your family, friends, and have proper rest.”

Marais–Swanepoel has embraced this philosophy and now tries to instill a good work-life balance in her people. In the last year she managed to obtain her MBA, be a wife and mother and of course did her fair share of traveling.

How possible is it really to achieve a work life balance on that road towards a “successful” career? Is this a standard that once was a possibility but has now become a mere theory that cannot be implemented in a world dominated by technology and speedy decision-making that is irreversible?

And this within a very competitive society where work cultures inadvertently and sometimes openly promotes, expect more than its fair share from employees?

Perhaps the lack of work life balance in our society in general seems like it cannot be turned around, as it may seem impossible to some to turn around the tide of lawlessness in our country.

But, the spirit of LeadSA and the attitude of a leader is to stand up and lead where ever you are, which means it starts with you.

Should we not carry this LeadSA momentum over to the work environment and start standing up one by one for work life balance? But first, is the lack of work life balance a tendency that we want to turn around? Can it be turned around?

Perhaps it is a trend that we have to turn around?

One of the reasons I decided to write about Marais-Swanepoel was that she is a young leader and we seem to have more of these in the workplace. She reminded me that being a young leader brings with it specific challenges. Perhaps if you are a young leader reading this article you can learn from how she confronts this reality. She has thus far always needed to manage people older than herself by applying certain principles to establish credibility. Some of these are:

1)    Work a little harder with those who do not know you

2)    Ensure industry knowledge

3)    Ensure you have the ability to do the job

4)    Be consistent in your approach

5)    Follow procedure

6)    Remain calm

7)    Show empathy where necessary

8)    Keep your promises.”

Even at this young age she has come to realize the critical importance of becoming and remaining “leadership fit” so she reads a lot (especially on planes).  

This past week I had a conversation with an Executive about how to connect with people and referred to Dr Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Language.  It so happens that this book has taught Marais-Swanepoel a lot, including the importance of words of affirmation, quality time, receiving/giving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. In her position as MD, she draws on these five languages daily.

Apart from reading a lot she listens to audio books and talk radio while driving. She is also active on Social Networks and participates in two professional associations.  All of this is very important and she tries to synthesize it in her weekly blog.

She is passionate about SA and believes that initiatives like LeadSA shows how great we are as a nation. Yet as an optimist Marais-Swanepoel is very aware of our challenges that she believes to be staff retention, EE, talent management, innovation, the economy and alignment of cultures.

For her values like ubuntu, honesty, respect, empathy and teamwork should be part of South Africa because values “constitute the cornerstone of life, they permeate every area in one’s personal and business life. Everyone has a value system. To achieve success, there needs to be absolute congruence between one’s personal values and company values.”

Of course age could be seen as an important contributor to mature leadership. But Marais-Swanepoel reminds us that perhaps more than age it is life experience that matters.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

 Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.