Women Leaders In Africa: Balancing The Gender Equation

In this podcast, Africa.com speaks with Nitika Rosa, GE Africa’s Head of HR and Lerato Molebatsi, GE South Africa’s Managing Director. 

Nitika Rosa: I am currently the head of HR for GE Africa. I support about a thousand eight hundred employees across the continent and we are in roughly 11 countries today that are present within the SSA region.​

Lerato Molebatsi: I am the South Africa’s managing director. I look after government affairs and policy; I also look after communications and public affairs. I wear the three hats and in conjunction with that I look after External Affairs for South Africa​

The Exclusive Interview

Lerato can you tell us, what does GE’s hundred and twentieth anniversary in Africa mean to you?

GE being in Africa for 120 years means a lot to me. From South Africa’s growth perspective and Africa’s growth in general, GE made its first forays outside of the United States and came into South Africa and for me the important thing is that GE is committed to the growth of the continent and GE is a contributor to the development both economically and socially of the African continent and this is why I’m so excited about the fact that GE has been here for 120 years and still going strong.

Nitika tell us for you, what is the hundred and twentieth anniversary mean?

We have been committed to the region, we continue to be committed to GE Africa- from localization point of view, from a talent development point of view and I speak more from a HR view. We have had a number of investments over the last years. We have been in the continent 120 years, we would like to sustain our growth and we would definitely like to be as part of Africa’s journey as it continues to grow as a continent and continue to be one of the contributor’s towards that. In my mind as I think about GE 120 year footprint today I visualize it as being in the region for another hundred and twenty years with the pillars that we’re currently working on and striving to develop and not just the organization but also the continent as a whole. ​

We’re speaking to you as women leaders of GE and we know that GE is very committed to the development of women leaders in Africa. Can each of you tell us, how has GE supported you as a manager and as a female manager?

GE’s commitment to women leadership for me has been a very empowering experience. I’ve been empowered through courses such as what I did at MDC and there is a continuation of the up-skimming re-skimming and across business sharing of management expertise and leadership expertise. ​

The women’s network for example is for me one such empowering association where there is a sharing very broadly of women globally within the organization who do a lot of amazing work. The younger women in GE today see that it is possible to grow within an organization such as we have and what I find even more empowering is the fact that it is a meritocracy- it is merit-based and it is also based on the fact that there is a targeted and very deliberate action on the growth of women within the organization.​

Letiki tell us how GE has supported you as a manager.

I’m a product of GE Africa; I joined GE mid-career as an experienced hire middle management and what I was able to assimilate through and with, is that we have a very detailed inclusion and diversity strategy. It has been a journey and even in the region it continues to be a journey but there is a focused approach on making sure that women and leadership is always an agenda. ​

I’ve had the opportunity to through different businesses within GE, I started off with GE Oil and Gas and I spent some time with what we call our global growth organization and the last couple of years I have been with the healthcare organization. We have had phenomenal female leaders that have helped to create a path for people and women like myself to really have an ambition, to see what your next step would be and help create an environment where we really thrive.​

We also focus on programs such as homegrown programs in the region through grow classes, where last year for example we took 24 talented female leaders through a personal journey on understanding what as females their leadership capabilities are and how do they harness those talents that we bring to the table.​

I think through continued programs such as these and making sure that our inclusion and diversity standards continue to grow and evolve, as the global views and policies on inclusion and diversity grow, we continue to create a pathway for our female leaders within the organization to thrive.​

Nitika can you tell us how you see the human resources function playing a role in balancing the gender equation in Africa?

There’s a number of forums and avenues that GE Africa uses to make sure that gender discussions are at the top of minds of leaders and not just on leaders but also agenda for a business and a number of elements that we’ve used is looking at for example if you think about our Infinity networks and the programs that we have under the umbrella of women’s network one of the key couple of pillars that we have is specifically looking at women and technology, women in engineering, making sure that we equip our female talent with the right skill set to be really successful within the organization.​

There’s a couple of elements and pillars of our women’s network which gives focused approach to female talent that is upcoming within the organization to also then have a seat at leaders table so that’s the first thing. ​

The second thing I would also say in terms of just looking at female talent is from a senior leadership point of view. There’s a number of training and development initiatives that we do that are specifically geared towards our female leaders and making sure that we are able to bring for them awareness on their personal brand and how do they translate that within the organization and also have an authentic approach to developing them within the organization. ​

The third is that over the number of years we’ve had a consistent view of having executive sponsorship for female talent and leadership within the organization and from a HR point of view more holistically any inclusion and diversity strategy will require strong sponsorship for it to be taken forward and we’ve really been appreciative of the fact that our executive leaders have taken a good line of sight on it and made sure that from a HR standpoint we drive a strong agenda around inclusion and diversity within the business especially around female leadership.​

Nitika… do you see there being any difference between public sector and private sector in terms of the role HR can play in this regard?

Within the SSA market I’ve had the last few months to kind of get closer to understanding a little bit around the public sector and what the countries have as an agenda. Some countries are a little bit more advanced even as you think about education and how they think about incorporating women into the schools, into the universities, and what does that look like because that obviously creates the pool of talent that we would go and get talent for our organization from. So the public sector I think they are trying really hard and GE obviously benefits from the efforts that they make.​

There is still work to be done especially if I think about GE as an industrial organization we do need quite a bit of engineering talent and I think that’s where sometimes we struggle in being able to keep the women in those functions in a longer-term basis. ​

From a more private sector and not just specific to female leadership but just inclusion as a whole requires us to have a different perspective. There’s a proven point in terms of just looking at your bottom line and saying where we have differing perspectives you’re obviously able to bring that value add to the organization, so there is a general tendency in the private sector from at least the people that I have been able to communicate with. I had an external roundtable in Kenya; this was a very important issue that we discussed our agenda items that we had and also as we think about it from a South African perspective the engagements that I’ve had is that the private sector is quite keen on making sure that female talent has a voice at the leadership table.​

In both areas and forums there is still quite a bit of work to be done to really bring in equality and make sure that the female leaders are on par with your male counterparts.​

Nitika can you tell us how you see the human resources function playing a role in balancing the gender equation in Africa?

There’s a number of things that the HR function can do really well, one is having clearly delineated inclusion and diversity strategy that puts female leadership and programs geared specifically towards female talent on table, second is the need to create a space at the leadership table and executive sponsorship for our female leaders and talent to actually grow within the organisation and that comes with a lot of awareness building and HR as a function can truly play a big role at that.​

In GE predominantly we’ve had a number of prominent female leaders within the finance function and today I think it’s one of our functions where we actually have a very good diversity ratio male and female compared. What it has boiled down to in GE is our culture of meritocracy and also the culture of your expertise does count. What we have found is that if you would have two good candidates male/female we would definitely go with expertise as the defining moment in terms of making that decision. ​

Lerato, how do you think government inspires women’s leadership through legislation and do you think government’s role is more or less effective when it’s forced through legislation versus when it occurs organically? 

The whole issue around women leadership in South Africa is one which I think has been birthed by the fact that we come from a history where women were really on the margins if not excluded from the economy completely. So government came up with legislation called black economic empowerment or what we popularly call BEE which has morphed into BBBEE -basically it’s broad-based black economic equality the reason why government came to that particular conclusion is that when the policies are not deliberate about broadening economic participation the tendency is to do nothing. So it is a compliance issue for South Africa and it remains a compliance issue because if you look at statistics in South Africa on women who sit on boards, women who hold executive leadership positions, there’s still a bit of a lack between men and women in holding those positions.​

I find that the public sector in South Africa has become more deliberate in attracting women and it’s black women specifically in the private sector and in GE specifically I found that our policies of inclusion and diversity have created a space where all of us keep on having a diverse workforce and that is proof that the culture in the organization is that we go beyond compliance. We don’t just comply but we are deliberate in ensuring that we have an environment where there is an equal treatment of gender, race, culture etc. that the organization also attracts that type of talent which creates an innovative environment where everybody feels free, it’s safe enough to contribute towards the organization and the goals of the organization. ​

I’m not too sure whether or not having many laws around employment equity for example is the case. South Africa is counterproductive, I think that South Africa has had to go that route because when you don’t go that route the tendencies is that people will do nothing and organic growth will happen with more diverse people coming from a gender perspective, from a cultural perspective, and from the race perspective, coming into organizations both of the public sector and the private sector and seeing the needs to contribute towards a level of diversity. ​

Additionally at GE we have been a lot more forward-thinking in making this a deliberate effort both in terms of the programs that we have internally from a culture perspective and building a cohort of female leaders and strengthening the their abilities and their expertise through either the courses that we do through the coaching and mentoring and sessions that the leaders provide but also getting sponsorship at executive level for the empowerment and the growth of women.

If something is not developed it dies and I like the fact that as an example here in sub-Saharan Africa our growth Pro Plus initiative is one such initiative which ensures that there is a constant responsive communication between the people and cultures. And that it also engenders a sense of care and a sense that one will not be left to just go into a role without the necessary tools.​

Lerato, tell us a bit more about your particular role as a government affairs leader. 

My role extends to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho. But of course we focus on those countries that we receive as a huge potential not just as products and services but in economic growth point of view.​

My role is lobbying with governments throughout all these areas that I have mentioned but also to demand creation for GE products and services and to pull apart and look at what the policy environment can be an enabler for us as GE and in instances where the policy environment is one which we know will not support growth because it’s not just about us sending this product and putting products into the market but it is also about saying how do these products improve life.​

In the healthcare space or in the energy space, a good example is that in South Africa today and South Africa has a population of 50 million people and is the most electrified country on the continent – it also exports power to other countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe and others. But there are still 3 million people in South Africa that go without electricity.​

This has a huge impact on economic growth, on education, healthcare sector, and the financial stability of the country. The work that we do in government affairs and policy is around looking at governments in the countries we operate in and ensuring that where we operate we are able to spend our products and services, we do demand creation but also where there’s a need for lobbying and advocacy.​

Lerato, can you tell us where you see GE Africa headed in the next 100 years?

Because we’ve been around for 120 years I think that another 100 years is a possibility. We have a way of reinventing ourselves as a company and not just at looking for opportunities in a narrow way, we watch where the world is going, where the growth opportunities are, and for the development of the globe. ​

I keep saying to people that the work that we do in GE is development work, because it is work which makes people better, advancement of the continent from a power perspective, it is also about transporting people -moving goods and services through our aviation business. I think as these three areas where we’re active continue to grow there’s going to be a lot more innovation coming out of GE to ensure that we respond to the needs of the economy and that of society. ​

Nitika, tell us where you see GE Africa headed in the next 100 years.

GE as an organisation, for me, three things stand out, number one it is a company that embraces change and I think you know Lerato alluded to it and we’re constantly reinventing ourselves not just from what is happening in the marketplace but even within the organization.​

The second thing is it’s a very futuristic looking organization so if you follow us or have followed us in the last couple of years you will see we have played around with different digital technologies. When we think about the world and where we are headed towards, technology is a critical player in the market today and as a futuristic organization we’ve embraced that change within the business and we’ve also really embraced our journey on it right now there will be different and various affiliations as we are on this path.​

I definitely agree that we will continue to be a prominent organization within the next hundred years and purely based on our ability to constantly change, embrace change and uncertainty, and due to our agility despite our size we are able to really continue to strive on the path and I can definitely see us being around in the next hundred years.

Nitika, tell us how you and other women leaders support one another in the leadership roles at GE.

I’ll give a little bit of a personal story as I have just recently been appointed as the head of HR. I have been with GE about eight years now and a couple of things had to happen that prepared me to be in the position that I am today within the organization. As I look back at my personal journey number one is I had a strong opportunity to follow strong female leaders and within the HR function we have had some incredible talent over the last couple of years not just within GE Africa but globally. That made sure I had the right levels of sponsorship, coaching and development that comes with having strong female leaders in these positions and they have helped to grow me as a talent within the organization.​

The second thing that GE has done fairly well is at differing moments of my career as I needed it I was given an opportunity to further develop myself and the development took different views e.g. there was classroom training or experiential training, besides that opportunity to continuously stretch myself so even though I would sit in a particular position or in a particular location I had opportunity to either interact with a very global network and work on global projects that obviously add to your toolkit and expertise as a professional of the of the HR team. The differing experiences within the GE organization have really helped to frame the ability for me to have a robust tool kit and prepare me for when the opportunity came, I was ready or in a position to take it on.​

The third thing is it’s an organization that’s willing to take a bet on its talent and making sure that even if you don’t feel personally ready for something they give you that opportunity and platform to really take the bull by its horns so to speak and go forward. Those are a combination of three things. They give female leaders within the organization not just a support structure but also a very clear path to developing careers and being able to have a balanced view in your personal space and also within the organization space. ​

I make a joke that I had three out of my four children at GE and I had very nurturing leaders that gave me and allowed for time not just the personal time that I needed during my life and where I was in my life cycle and also then gave me the opportunity to thrive as a HR professional within the organization so that’s how I see and I view the support given to the female leaders and the organization’s. ​

Lerato tell us how you and other women leaders support one another in the leadership roles at GE.

That question is an important one for me personally because when I joined GE as a leader for government affairs and policy for Southern Africa and then there was opportunity to look at communication and public affairs as we were streamlining the business and so I thought wow I get to wear two hats.​

This happened because somebody looked at my experience prior to me joining GE and all of this happened within a space of two and a half years because I’ll be three years with GE in September and I was not just thrown into the deep end I was given the life jackets and I was told that you’re being given a life jacket. This is because of the support that I’ve enjoyed from colleagues in HR who’ve just been super supportive colleagues in the businesses both female and male but also like I said the programs such as the MTC which I was in. Last year I got an opportunity to do a really fantastic program in the university here in conjunction with Harvard and this is also just part of how GE see’s the importance of personal development both in terms of what you would like to learn and do and beyond that is also about how you become effective in delivering in your day-to-day job. ​

I’ve enjoyed the continued support not just from my female colleagues but from the organization; from a HR level right up to my managers and people outside the continent. When I was announced as a leader for South Africa the amazing feedback that I received and support for me coming into the role- I was hearing from colleagues in Germany, Japan and just people giving tips and saying I’m here any time and those conversations continue today.​

Lerato, if there’s one thought that you would want people listening to this podcast to hear in terms of women’s empowerment, what would that one thought be?

That we are responsible for our own growth, each one of us is responsible for our growth. The organization creates an enabling environment, the policies within GE from an HR perspective, a culture perspective create an enabling environment for us to thrive in the work that we do and in order to do that there’s a boldness that is required, you have to be courageous about what you want and where you want to be.​

There’s a saying in my mother tongue Sesutu, which says that a woman holds a knife by the sharp end; basically go out and fight for what you want and fight not in a negative sense but in the sense that it is not going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy but each one of us is responsible for just doing it because the environment is right and ready for us to do  what needs to be done.​

Nitika, if there’s one thought that you would want the listeners of this podcast to hear about women’s empowerment what would that one thought be?

Life is fluid, we need to be ready to deal with the uncertain times and we need to be comfortable with that and in that same breath don’t forget to invest in yourself, you need to be ready for when the opportunity comes to your door and make sure that you are investing in yourself not just from a learning and Development standpoint but also from a point of what is your personal brand, what do you want to be known for; be it in the market, at work, and what does that look like? Build your tool kit around resilience, around your duration, or your credibility, be courageous.​

How do we make sure that as female leaders within the different spaces e.g. at home, work, your children’s school, what are you known for and don’t forget to spend time on you because you are the one who will do it the best and you will do it for yourself. Don’t wait for somebody else to take your bar for you, make sure that you do it and when the opportunity arises don’t be uncomfortable or don’t feel that you can’t do. Every one of us has that opportunity to do the best and we shouldn’t feel that we are not able to do so.

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