A conversation with Phumela Xanywa, Head Public Sector, Nedbank 



My Leader, thanks very much for this opportunity to connect with you. I am always amazed at how much time you dedicate to empowering others.


Thank you so much My Leader, I’m inspired by the potential that sits buried in many of our young leaders, this potential awaits to be unleashed towards a much better society. If our engagement can inspire and help one young leader or potential leader, we would have taken one more steps towards the realization of our goals. I should therefore thank you for being part of this initiative. 


I am interested in seeing more women climb the corporate ladder and I know you share the same sentiments. I must say though, there are a few examples of women leaders and it is difficult to be what you cannot see. What can be done at grassroots level to change this scenario? 


This is a leadership problem, not enough of us as leaders are putting our hand out to be counted on women leadership and empowerment. Many leaders are either totally ignoring the issue of women leadership and empowerment or paying lip service to it. You see Pumela, we have an amazing Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law and enables legislation and policies towards women empowerment. The inspiration behind that progressive Constitution and these laws are amazing leaders such as Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, Ruth First, Winnie Mandela, and Florence Matomela and many other brave women. 

We are now more than 24 years after democracy, what justification is there for the status quo to remain? What intellectual reasons can be advanced why we have not made progress on women leadership in our institutions? What objective business reasons can be advanced to deny women mobility in our organizations? I would challenge you to find me one leader, who can articulate sound intellectual, philosophical, biological, business or commercial logical reasons why women cannot take on more senior roles in their organizations. You will find very few who can, because there are no logical reasons for this – in fact, even those who tried to advance some logical reasons, are exposed as having a bias and prejudice against women. I invite women to read three articles that show that prejudice: 

  • Manikin Pillay who was the CEO of South African Institute of Civil Engineering
  • Letepe Maisela, a prominent commentator 
  • James Damore, a software engineer at Google, who wrote a sexist email about the capability of women in engineering. 

These articles all have the following sentiments in common, 

  • a strong belief that women are inferior to men and therefore should not be allowed into certain roles or particular jobs; 
  • women empowerment and development is a misplaced ideologically driven initiative; and 
  • women empowerment and development is actually to the detriment of women (the condescending cheek of these people) 

My position on women development and leadership is based on 7 key pillars: 

  • I have been brought up by powerful, strong prayer warriors who taught  me, through words and deeds that all people are created in the image of God and must be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their race, gender or religion. This is further manifested in my relationship with my wife Sva, we have been together for 28 years and married for nearly 21 years, we are equals in our relationship and marriage in all aspects of our lives, from when we were students to now as we bring up children; 
  • At an early age, I joined the liberation struggle in South Africa to fight against all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. The oppression of women was one of the strongest pillars of that fights against the apartheid system; 
  • In a career spanning over 20 years, in both the public and private sector, I have worked with and been led by some of the finest people I have ever met across 20 countries on the African continent. These women were skilled, talented, highly educated, committed, passionate and driven to success. There are thousands more women who are as good, but they are held back by prejudice and bigotry; 
  • Throughout my career, I have fought for and advanced the cause of women in my teams and in teams where I could have an influence. I have demonstrated that resolve by appointing or influencing the appointment of women from team leader, to branch managers, to Regional managers, to provincial heads, to executive appointments, to membership of executive committees. These women have gone on to become household names within the organization and in their careers in business, public sector and areas of entrepreneurship. 
  • I have two amazing daughters, I have brought them up to be fiercely independent, assertive, driven, passionate, sensitive, loving, caring and I do not ever want them to ever be prejudiced because of their gender; 
  • I have a coaching and mentoring role in the lives of huge numbers of women in my organization and outside it across the African continent. The talent, potential and achievements of these women are simply amazing; and lastly 
  • Diversity and inclusion are critical to the success of any endeavour or for the future growth and development of any organization. Failure to include women, who are the majority in most countries, businesses, corporates, and institutions 

I guess the point I’m driving at Phumela, is that each one of us, have a choice to make, are we for or against women empowerment and leadership. The battle lines are clearly drawn, and every leader has to nail their colours to the mast. We have heard the positions of Manikin Pillay, Letepe Maisela and James Damore, they are clearly not for the retention of the current status quo. I am arguing strongly that each leader, must show in words, but more importantly in deeds, their commitment to women development and leadership. 

What should be done? 

Each leader, in their sphere of influence has to do the following: 

  • Have a stated policy and defined action plan to prioritize the appointment of women, Black women, in all vacancies in their area; 
  • Ensure that there are no leadership or Exco teams made up of men only, there must be an increasing number of women, particularly in key roles; 
  • Learning and development opportunities must be skewed towards woman; 
  • Accelerated promotion programs must targeted at women; and 
  • Gender pay disparity must be addressed; and lastly; 
  • A huge personal commitment and interest in the leader to ensure that the women promoted or selected for key roles are supported in their personal and professional lives. 

These are simple, yet powerful measures I’ve used in my career, and teams transform in the shortest space of time. I challenge other leaders, male and female to respond to this challenge, not merely with words, but concrete action. 


Women often doubt their level of intelligence and seek validation from others; is this because of our upbringing or are there other factors? Do some cultures show up differently in this area?


I think it’s a combination of a number of factors. Firstly, there are still so many families raising girls to feel inferior, to be conditioned only to play particular roles and who use culture, tradition, and religion t reinforce the current male hegemony. Young women who assert themselves are seen as rebels, outcasts, and abnormal. It is important for families to raise kids to be the best versions of themselves, to accept their uniqueness and to love themselves without seeking approval from others. In my own life, I have brought up my daughters to be fiercely independent, to pursue their interests and to never doubt their abilities. We must consciously raise our daughters to become the best they can ever be regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in. 

Secondly, the corporate world is very hostile to women, it is based on a predefined view of who and what success is. Anybody who does not fit the predefined profile has to work three times to make it. In all the Groups that do not fit the profile, Black women, feel the pressure the most, they have work that much harder for acceptance. In such circumstances, when you have to constantly prove yourself, when you are faced with daily questions about your ability, when you add the socialization challenge it becomes inevitable that occasionally women will doubt themselves. I have worked with some amazing women leaders throughout my career, either as colleagues or as members of my team. In those cases of doubt, my role is to be the calming voice, the cheerleader, the mascot, the sounding board and ear to sometimes listen to the inner fears. So many of the women I’ve worked with have gone to achieve some extraordinary feats. In such times of doubt, our role as leaders is to create an enabling and supportive environment for women to succeed. 

Lastly, there are many A type personality men in corporates. These leaders, full of bravado and confidence, use this confidence during times of failure or setback. They either deflect such defect or failure or bounce back from such failure and move on as if nothing has happened. Corporate leaders, also back these A type personalities and help shrug off thee failures. 

A significant number of women take a setback or failure very hard. It compounds sometimes already existing insecurities and lack of confidence they may have felt before the setback or failure. In addition to this, those who did not believe in women in the first place, use this setback to reinforce their prejudice and bigotry. 

In my career, these were sometimes there most career defining conversations with women leaders during or after failure or setback. These conversations are aimed at pointing out normally the following issues: 

  • My personal support for the person is unwavering through the whole episode in words and deeds;
  • One setback or failure does not define a career; 
  • I use the opportunity to also point out my own failures in my careers and how I bounced back from those; 
  • I have also used the voices of other leaders to reinforce the positive message and lastly 
  • I also try and put the setback or failure in perspective as sometimes these are overplayed way beyond their actual significance. 

This is a leadership issue, it’s our duty to support women through bouts of insecurity and lack of confidence. We must not allow cultural, traditional and religious stereotypes to be perpetuated in our organizations. 


What about the pull her down syndrome? How do we challenge the mentality that successful women leaders have slept their way to the top? as this is a common assumption that people make about women who succeed.


This is a very horrible, horrible assassination of character that many fine women have to endure. I have known hundreds of hardworking, dedicated, passionate and committed women who daily give their all for their careers, their families and the organizations. They have had to make painful sacrifices, work more than most and are well rounded, values driven people. These cruel and scurrilous allegations are starting to cause rifts in teams. These allegations sometimes cause rifts in marriages, increase spousal insecurity and create tensions within teams. 

Women unfairly accused in this way sometimes battle to build stronger and proper relationships with male colleagues, mentors and career sponsors. Depending on the strength and character of the person, the environment they work in, the support from friends, spouse and family, this kind of allegation may scar a woman for life. In addition to this, these types of allegations can dent a woman’s own confidence in her own abilities as she starts to question whether indeed her achievements are based on any real or perceived support from a man. The other consequences of these type of allegations is that some of the most supportive male managers become more cautious in their support for women. 

Jealousy, gossip, rumours, and fake news will always be part of our lives, for successful women, allegations of impropriety will always be thrown at them. What is more painful is that some of those allegations will come from other women. 

There is no formula for how people can deal with this “Pull her Down syndrome “, but I would like to offer the following suggestions and thoughts about how I have dealt with it in my career:

  • I have strongly supported women colleagues or members of my team who have been subjected to these types of allegations. I have persuaded them to focus on the evil intentions of those who spread the gossip and urged them to stay the course. In most cases these rumours died down and the affected women have gone on to achieve great things. 
  • Friends, spouses and family members have to rely a lot on what they know the person to be, that view should not be clouded by faceless people who spread rumours and gossip. 
  • I have also urged male leaders to remain supportive of their female colleague or team mate as they go through this kind of episode. 

Men and women will work together in the workplace, they should create mutually supportive environments for growth and development. They can and should build supportive relationships for success. Each one of them, have to be cautious, however, to ensure that such relationships are appropriate and that their actions do not bring their good names, families nor organizations into disrepute. 


Let’s talk about the gender pay gap. It’s 2018 and we still read about women being paid less than men for the same jobs. Is it a function of women not negotiating as well as their male counterparts or perhaps we do not know our worth? 


It is quite sad, that after so many laws and regulations promoting equality and fairness, we still have a gender pay gap between men and women. There are many reasons the gap is so hard to close, according to Olivia Mitchell, the director of the pension research council at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

For the purposes of our conversation, I will focus on three key significant contributors: 

* the penalty women face for becoming mothers, 

Significant and widely accepted research shows that many mothers suffer workplace-related consequences after having a child. Unfortunately, when compared with men and childless women, new moms are often perceived to have lower competence and commitment, and they face higher professional expectations and a lower chance of hiring and promotion. According to one study, the pay gap between mothers and women who aren’t mothers could actually be even bigger than the one between men and women. It is clear that there is an opportunity cost of staying home, and many women are paying a huge penalty for having children and bringing them up as compared to males or women with no children. 

* women’s real or perceived lack of negotiating skills 

Research also shows that women are less likely to negotiate their salary than men—and a lack of confidence or guidance is sometimes to blame. The typical A type personality male will come to the negotiating table confident about his abilities and the price for such abilities. Women on the other hand have been more tentative in their negotiation. 

New thinking is evolving to show that the problem may have more to do with how women are treated when they do negotiate hard, rather than their general confidence or skills at negotiation. Companies that already have a prejudice against women, or managers who feel compelled to hire a woman, or executives that already are thinking of the “loss of time “due to pregnancy all lead to lowered value of the female skill. Those women, who skilfully negotiate a salary they think they deserve are sometimes prejudiced after they start work, this phenomenon is dubbed the “social cost” of negotiation.

* the bias women face from employers.

Leader, manager or employer bias is also at blame for women’s lower salaries. This bias—whether conscious or not—results in “not rating women as highly, and not paying them their due. Some employers may unknowingly undervalue the work their female employees do. Studies have found evidence that even when men and women with similar work experience and education levels were working at the same company with the exact same job title, women, on average, were still paid less than men. 

This is a leadership challenge, the gender pay gap requires extraordinary steps to be taken by each leader in their team, business unit and organization. I would propose the following steps I’ve always taken in my career: 

  • You have to be resolute to ensure that you pay all your employees equitably without bias against women; 
  • Ensure that there is awareness and consciousness in your team and within your HR community about the gender pay gap; 
  • Review the pay scales in your specific business unit and see how wide the gap is and take action steps to address it over time; 
  • Use the gender parity mindset in your salary negotiations with women so that they are not further disadvantaged; 
  • Use the gender parity mindset when you promote women; 
  • Use the gender parity mindset during the annual reward and recognition process; and ensure that women going to and coming from maternity leave are not unfairly disadvantaged. 

All these steps are possible, but they require positive and clearly directed actions. 


How do we deal with gender stereotypes? A woman can never be just alright, if she is not too hard, she is too weak or considered emotional. 


This is a very important conversation, I fear, however, that sometimes we are quite binary about it. 

Firstly, there are stereotypes about women, from both men and women, but mostly from men. The major stereotype is about making women subservient and docile, when women assert their rights, give their perspectives or debating an issue, it becomes a weapon to beat them up to say, they are “emotional “, they are “too sensitive” or is “too bossy”. These must be judged by the people at the receiving end of those comments, and women have a right to reject those, especially those comments they find offensive or unfair. 

Secondly, women are not a homogeneous group, they differ in terms of style, approach, personality, introversion, extroversion, interests etc. To have an ideal “woman” creates problems because it boxes people into the already laid out stereotypes. It is important for those who lead or manage women, had those who work with women, but most importantly for women themselves, to bring themselves to work. It’s important that each woman (as in any man) to bring your genuine and authentic self to any situation and not to fit or confirm to a set box of who you are meant to be. In my career I’ve worked with and managed a diverse group of women, and each one of them was unique and I worked with each person and led each person as who they were. 

Lastly, when you are in a leadership role, whether you are a man or woman, you have to be receptive to feedback as especially as it relates to your impact on others. As a woman leader, you may get feedback that you are bossy, aggressive, autocratic, or that you do not listen to others, or you are too emotional. Having established already that there are gender stereotypes, what do you do with that feedback from your team or colleagues. Do you immediately discard it as part of the gender stereotype or do you do some introspection to see whether there is merit to the issues raised? This is not easy, and the more woman suppression and domination happens in the workplace, the more difficult it is to see feedback as being genuine and constructive. I have had to navigate these difficult discussions with women members of my team, to say clearly, these are the leadership behaviours expected from all of us, me included. You cannot be exempt from this simply because you are a woman and there is gender stereotyping that occurs. I have consistently argued that our leadership responsibility is to take all feedback, examine it without first checking for motives, and then introspective and then see whether there are no modifications you can make in your behaviour. These require a lot of emotional maturity and trust to go through such a journey. It’s also important to bear in mind that some of the bad leadership behaviours are exhibited by women on other women. 

This is a very complicated conversation, I hope I have given you a sense of some of the nuances we have to look at. These types of conversations sometimes happen among friends who are all women, and you may get feedback about your behaviours, in that case, it can hardly be issues of gender stereotype, it may be genuine leadership of personal behaviour that others may be adversely affected by. 


There is also an issue of generational differences which is a reality for most young leaders. How do we bridge the gap?


The generational mix is very important, whether the leader is young, working with a mix of older and younger people, or the leader is matured, and works with younger and more mature people. I have had the benefit of being exposed to both scenarios. At the start of my career, I was inevitably the youngest and had to lead more mature and experienced leaders and staff members, and now later on my career, I have many more people that are much younger than me. In both these scenarios, there is lots of room or opportunity for misconceptions, miscommunication and possible tensions. What I have learnt, over the years, is that the mood, pulse, and posture of a team is shaped largely by the leader. It is important for us as leaders to fully understand, appreciate, value and respect each of the generations in our teams, regardless of which one we belong to. We have to be the leaders of all generations and not the leader of one generation versus another. 

We have to understand he fears and anxieties of the more mature generation about their future and their role in the team. I have found the most matured and experienced members very willing to help the younger guys to get experience and to grow in their roles. Off course, there are times where the anxiety, fear and uncertainty about their future becomes an obsession, where petty jealousies come out about younger people, then my duty as a leader is to provide context, guide, coach and yes sometimes occasionally reprimand. 

We also have to understand the impatience and high expectations of young people. We have to embrace this generation and embrace its energy, it’s fresh outlook and its radical ideas. I have found that when this generation is engaged, given challenging projects, and given a voice in the business, then magic happens. They challenge the status quo, they contest accepted dogmas and test our assumptions. Off course, there are instances where the impatience and ambition becomes negative and people start to disrespect their more mature colleagues, defy legitimate instructions and display destructive tendencies, then my role again is to guide, counsel, coach, engage, provide context, and occasionally reprimand. 

My sense Phumela is that inter-generational differences and tensions are normal, inevitable and can be expected in any institution. This is very similar to sibling rivalry and fights at home, they are undesirable yet manageable. It is our duty as leaders to create a conducive environment for all generations to thrive and prosper, through this we can get the benefit of all these generations and they can complete one another in the most brilliant way. 


Why are there few examples of leaders with long term personal relationships and/or solid family structures? It almost seems like you cannot have both, thus career success comes at a cost to the family life. You are one of the few leaders I know who has managed to navigate this well. How do you do it and what are some of the lessons you have picked up along the way?


Phumela, this is one the issues I am passionate about. As we produce young leaders, we do not only want them to become great bankers, lawyered, doctors, accountants, or engineers, we also want them to be great husbands, wives, partners, fathers, mothers and members of the community. Unfortunately, our society started to define success in terms of achievements, accolades, awards, and material possessions such as cars, houses, handbags, and expensive jewellery. As we do well in our career, we get promoted to more money, more accolades, we then get shower our families with expensive gifts, overseas trips etc. We start to chase the next deal, the next bonus, and have less and less time for our health, our families, our faith and overall wellbeing. New friends, new habits and new social circles emerge. Those closer to us, our long-time friends, our spouses, our children and those who care about you start to have less influence in our lives. Every time they point out the change, we point out how much benefit they have from the perks of the elevated positions we occupy and the wealth we have amassed. Then the inevitable happens, a stroke, a car accident, a failed business venture, a child who rebels, our kids on drugs. We then regret all the time we focused only on wealth, material assets, accolades, social networking and realize that life itself, our health, our families, our friends are the things that matter the most. 

In my own life, there are two key things that have influenced my life and choices: 

Firstly, I learnt a lot from my father about the qualities one looks for in choosing a life partner, and how you should complement and complete each other. I was fortunate to meet the love of my life, my wife Sva at an early age. We were both students and everything we had we shared, including our dreams and aspirations, our joys and sorrows. Those foundations we set during our 8 years in a relationship, we have been building on them over the last 20 years of marriage. In our marriage we are equal, we are also very different, and we respect each other deeply. So, when the promotions, new roles, assets, and accolades came, they could not change our foundation. Even when my wife decides to leave behind a great career with prospects to work overseas behind to build our home, it did not change who we are, we remain equal with the same airtime (I may argue she has more airtime) on all issues affecting our lives, our children, our families etc. She remains my most loyal supporter yet also my harshest critic to keep me grounded. I also have very close friends and family who keep me grounded, this is my circle of advisors. 

Secondly, although I thought we had done well in 15 years of marriage, I had an opportunity to go to the Harvard Business school in 2013. When I was there, I had 8 weeks to myself, to examine my life and its choices. I was heavily influenced by a lecture by Prof Clay Christensen, entitled, “how will I measure my life”. In this lecture, Prof Clay Christensen warned us of the dangers that derailed others that came before us, he told us of our MBA class, who were all very successful at first, but later at their reunion, many had lost their jobs, some were in jail for corporate crimes, while others were divorced or estranged from their children. 

I had to look deep into my life and my choices, and think 15 years from then, how my marriage will be, my relationship with my children, my health and my finances. I knew that I needed to make more changes. When I was elected by my class to speak at our graduation ceremony, I chose the topic, “Towards a more balanced scorecard”. I was signalling how my next years would be, that I wanted to be a loving husband, a present father, a good leader to my teams, a good employee and an involved member of my community. I look back over the last 5 years abs I’m grateful that my life is much more balanced than it was about 5 years ago. 

When it comes to women succeeding as entrepreneurs and corporate leaders, they must not be given a false choice between being a great professional or a loving wife, a great leader or an awesome mum. My dear Sister, friend and colleague, Nkiru Olumide-Ojo has just published a book called “Pressure Cooker” in which she demonstrates and gives tips as to how she balances her life to be a loving wife, a doting mum, a consummate professional, an entrepreneur and a valued member of her community. 

Lastly, all this requires work, dedication and commitment to make all aspects of your life a success. Such success should not be as defined by society but defined by you and embraced by your loved ones. 


I have had an opportunity to watch you connect with people from all walks of life, from the security guard to the Chief Executive. You don’t seem to be limited by hierarchy. How important is it for leaders to follow this approach and how do you strike the balance with those who prefer to be “worshipped”? 


I think that if most of us, if not all of us, were raised with strong values about treating people with respect and dignity. In my case, my two grandmothers, my parents, and my priests and my teachers all instilled a sense of decency and respect to all regardless of their status in life. This is who I am at my core, I really am not mesmerized or impressed by people’s wealth, status, or standing in society. I just love people, from all walks of life, from diverse backgrounds and different persuasions. I take every opportunity to engage those I meet, to learn from them and to assist them in any way I can. 

My late father, was a magnet to so many people. I watched how he interacted with everyone and only now, that he is no longer with us, do I truly grasp how special he was. He would drum into us the importance of relationships and of respect for all. So, when I meet people, I do not need a script, I don’t have to act or play a role, I can only be the best I can be. 

There are many who start out like this, but when the allure of power, privilege, rank, wealth and prestige take over, they change, they value or assess the benefits of any interaction. I have found that being vulnerable, human, normal, approachable and authentic builds more lasting relationships of mutual trust and respect. I spend a lot of time instilling the same values I inherited from my parents and hope that my children will treat everyone with respect and dignity. 

Finally, in the words of Sheryl Sanberg, Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence. This matters to me a lot, each engagement and contact with each person is an opportunity to make a difference, sometimes by listening, a quiet word, a compliment, or a conversation. This has to be done with sincerity. It is also important to be fully engaged with every encounter with people. This means being “in the moment “. Each interaction and engagement have to be meaningful, genuine and beneficial to the people you meet. 

Finally, I think I just love people, I love engagement with people from all walks of life and I learn so much from all these conversations. I get inspired by these engagements.


Lastly, I don’t play golf, nor do I belong to a book club. Am I shooting myself in the foot? How do I remain relevant?


Corporates or institutions are social phenomena, it is therefore very important for a person to “influence others” and allows themselves to “be influenced by others”. This requires more contact with colleagues beyond the day to day office meetings. So, having more points of contact with colleagues increases your opportunity to “influence” and to be “influenced “. 

I would, however, caution against three areas that may be of concern: 

Firstly, it’s important that a social activity such as golf, or a book club, should not be an automatic route to success because the leaders or a leader or the dominant group prefers it. When that happens, you start to compel people to take up an activity or to be involved in such an activity by coercion or pressure, and that is not conducive to great team dynamics. 

Secondly, the preferred social activity should not exclude people based on gender or their commitments to their families. If a traditional after-hours drinks, or golf club or even book club excludes, most of the time, a married woman with young children; or another colleague because of his or her sexual preference or because of cultural or religious beliefs. 

Lastly, I think an activity should get people to get to know one another better, build stronger relationships and create a positive mood in a team. Leaders of teams, or team members must avoid using or to be seen to use a social activity as a clique, faction, cult, or chosen group as it makes those inside to feel superior, smug or arrogant, whilst giving others a sense of being on the “outside”. 

I think that the concept of networking or the need to influence or be influenced remains important, but I think it must suit each person’s personal circumstances, value system and preferences. In my own career, I have never played golf nor belonged to a book club or golf club. Neither have I belonged to any group or had a particular individual or individuals that I interact with outside work in a special and regular way. I have chosen to be myself, relate to all people with respect, dignity and authenticity- that is how I have tried to be relevant. I have used every opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships with colleagues from different countries, cultures, age groups etc.


Woow, Thank you My Leader, such a deep and enriching conversation and for your willingness to share so willingly. 


It’s my absolute pleasure, My Leader, I hope our conversation will reach more young leaders.