A conversation with Prudence Mashalane – Team Leader Client Management and Legal, Investec Private Banking



Why is leadership a lonely place? Who do you surround yourself with when it’s lonely …? 


Leadership is a choice, it’s a calling and it’s a mission to serve others and it’s a commitment to fidelity to principle. Part of that responsibility requires a leader to say what they mean and to mean what they see. It also means that you have to be always consistently congruent with your values. 

Against this background you may have to make difficult and unpopular decisions; you may have to be a whistle-blower against wrongdoing; you may have to stand up against bullying; you may have to call out a bad behaviour from a colleague; you may have to question accepted practices or refuse to support a colleague accused of wrongdoing. In all these cases, it might just be easy to go with the flow, to court popularity, to be a “team player” or not to “rock the boat”. 

The harsh reality, however, is that leadership is not a popularity contest, but an honest and noble endeavour. In these moments Leadership is indeed very lonely and you may feel isolated or even ostracized. 

My best advice to all leaders is to always surround yourself with a circle of very close friends, colleagues and family members who know you very well. These are people who are able to give you regular feedback; question your decisions; challenge your assumptions; and give you support when you need it. In my life, I have benefited from this circle of advisors – I have valued their counsel, accepted their criticisms, winced at their reprimand and found comfort in their unconditional support. 


What are some of the challenges of Leading through change and uncertainty?


Dealing with change and uncertainty is always difficult and frustrating for most people. This is so because we are largely creatures of habit. When change knocks on the door, it usually finds us unprepared- sadness, confusion, anxiety and anger follows. 

To lead under such circumstances is both daunting and challenging, it tests everything about you as a person and as a leader. There are a lot of techniques that can be applied to these situations, I will mention just a few that have helped me to lead through turbulence, change and uncertainty. 

  • the first and probably the most important is to fully understand the case for the change even if it’s initiated above you. Even if you do not like or agree with the change and uncertainty- you have to understand it do intimately, from different vantage points. 
  • The next step is to fully understand its impact on your team, your colleagues and the overall environment. You have to do a cold, sober and dispassionate analysis of the positives and negatives of the change, and fully understand how differently it will impact people in your environment. 
  • The next step is to understand the specific fears that members of the team may have; the interests they may wish to protect; the benefits they may gain through the change and the losses they may likely suffer from this change; 
  • Then comes the first in a series of engagements with your team, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as teams of as a group. The engagements have to be sincere, honest, transparent and sensitive to all the forces at play. In times like this, tone, language, medium of communication, timing and even the setting for the engagements matter. 

There are, however, lots of pitfalls you have to avoid, I’ve seen many leaders fall into these: 

  • Never see this as a tick box exercise, you have to have ongoing conversation with your team throughout the time of uncertainty and anxiety; 
  • Never adopt a “one size fits all approach “, every staff member is different, you have to approach each colleague and its situation differently; 
  • You must avoid, at all costs, to minimize the fears that people have, or to trivialize their concerns, you have to display empathy, sensitivity and understanding; 
  • On the other side of the spectrum, you have to avoid making false promises or half-hearted reassurances, you must be humble enough to admit what you know and what you do not know; and lastly 
  • Throughout this period of uncertainty, you have to be visible, engaging, sensitive, responsive and consultative – you must bury your own emotions and ensure that your decisions are rational, and fact based. 


Leading by being authentic, is that possible? 


Yes Sisi, it’s not only possible, but desirable and absolutely necessary. The alternative to authentic leadership is a horrible journey of deceit, lies, manipulation and false promises. Such a journey may yield short term results such as promotion, perks, material wealth, fame and fortune. The harsh reality is that those who follow this path make a Faustian pact – “I would sacrifice my identity, values and principles in order to advance my career “

The alternative route is to follow your conscience and to be true to your values and principles. Being authentic means that you have to know yourself. This journey of knowing yourself is quite enriching and liberating. When one knows who they are, they are able to draw boundaries around who they are and will only admit within the boundaries only what is true to their values and principles.   

In the words of Lance Secretan, Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This requires as leaders to be genuine, to be “the real deal “and not replicas, copies or imitations. 

Being truly authentic means that we have to be true to ourselves – to draw on the very essence of our values, beliefs, principles and morals. This means being clear about your True North – regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in. 

I have battled hard, in my professional and personal life, to stay true to my beliefs, in spite of the seductions of alternative routes.  This has had consequences for me, but if I’m given the same choices, I would rather remain who I am and not an imitation of another or being who others expect me to be. 


How do you Lead up, how do you lead your boss? 


I have had the pleasure to work for only 8 leaders in my life, each one of them was different and had a particular style and approach to leadership. One of the biggest problems I’ve observed with a lot of employees is that they make some fundamental errors that place the leader/manager – on a collision course. These are some of the errors I have observed: 

  • Staff members who love, like or admire a leader/manager, battle to accept a new leader and always judge him or her on the basis of the actions of the previous manager. Throughout my career, I have always accepted that the prerogative to appoint a manager/leader is vested in managers/ leaders above me. It has always been my style and approach to embrace a new leader and accept their leadership without question and not to prejudge them. This has helped me to work for two of my Leaders/managers twice. Key lesson, accept the leader/manager and give them the benefit of the doubt you would expect if you were appointed into any role. 
  • Staff members may not like the style or approach of a leader/manager. My view is, unless the leader/manager’s style or behaviour is oppressive, bullying, intimidating or in conflict with organizational values, each manager/leader has a right to lead in the manner they deem fit or is consistent with their strengths. In my career, I have made it my special task to fully understand my line manager/leader; their priorities; their background; their working style; key concerns and the things that they like and do not like. This has enabled me to modify my work style and approach to align with my line manager/leader; and lastly 
  • All leaders have blind spots, things that they need to improve on or development areas. I am also quite alive to the fact that there may be things a leader is aware of and in some instances, they may not be aware of these shortcomings. A huge number of staff allow these things to fester, do not raise them, do not tackle the matter and the relationship deteriorates. In some instances, this occurs because the leader/manager does not accept feedback or creates an environment where feedback is difficult or impossible. In my career, I have always raised my concerns with line managers/leaders from when I was still young and inexperienced up to now. The older I got, the better I became in giving feedback in a manner that does not attack the individual but focuses on the behaviours I have problems with. This has helped me a lot and I have to commend the leaders/managers I have worked with for their maturity in handling my feedback. 


Is it possible to keep people and the business first? 


My view is that these things go hand and glove, there is always a shareholder who starts a business with his or her own money, to offer a product or service to clients. They will then recruit staff who will offer this service or sell these goods to these clients. Sometimes talking about first denies one part’s importance versus another, they are part of one continuum. As an example, people as employees without customers would be unemployed; customers without the product or service offered would be worse off; whilst a shareholder without clients and staff may not be successful. 

My view is always prioritize the client/customers first, they are the reason for the business’ existence. At the same time, one needs to look well after staff as Happy staff makes for happy customers and therefore happy shareholders. 

In the end, there has to be congruence on a common vision between the staff, the leadership team and the shareholders of the business – that alignment must be felt by clients/customers as they interact with the brand. This is classic stakeholder management- ensuring that your staff, your clients had your shareholders all have the same view about the brand promise. Leading companies are brilliant at this and you see that across the value chain, these are companies such as Apple, Amazon, Google etc. 


What does it take to attract, nurture, develop and retain women in leadership positions?


This gives me great pain, I’ve seen organisations battle to do this across our beloved continent. This is a leadership issue – period. The case for women leadership is well documented; the policy and legal framework for this is also crystal clear, the talent to promote and develop into leadership roles exists across South Africa and the whole African continent. If this is all true, why would companies fail to change? My view is that it all has to do with the lens through which leaders see talent/potential/leadership. If you remove the rhetoric, empty promises and public stunts- the vast majority of leaders, in large corporates, Black and White and Men and Women has young and old do not see women on their talent/leadership/potential radar. This means that they are blind to the amazing talent below them; cannot see the talent going out of the door and cannot see the stars in other companies and industries. They are more comfortable with people they know, they trust, that sometimes looks, and sound like them. 

Practically speaking, they may attract great talent into their organisation, but later stunt those people’s growth; they may have brilliant women leaders, but overlook them when critical vacancies arise; they may not see the exodus of talented women leaders as they are aloof or do not see these people as a loss or they may expect women to adopt a make persona to ingratiate themselves to the dominant male group. 

There are however, a few men and women who champion the cause of women, who see women as being skilled, talented and capable of playing amazing roles – these people create an enabling and supportive environment for women to succeed. When there are difficulties, they are there to guide, cajole, coach and support women through the difficulties they may have. Those difficulties and problems may range from an abortion; a divorce, an inability to have children; domestic abuse; sexual harassment; a sick child; mental illness; weight problems; confidence problems or marital infidelity.

They walk the whole mile with those women leaders and support then through towards success. South Africa needs more of these types of leaders. Women are crying out for a voice, to be heard, to be appreciated, to be respected and to be given the opportunities available without being prejudiced. 

In my career, I have benefited from working with some of the most amazing women leaders like you. With each one of them o can trace the steps in their personal and professional lives; I’ve tried to walk the path with them and support them towards success- I have not been disappointed- all of you have gone to achieve great things in your personal and professional lives. 

There is no more time for words, we require decisive actions from leaders across Corporate South Africa. For the sake of my daughters, we dare not fail!