“DEI – Adapt, Transform, or a Rigged Monopoly?” with former JSE Director Zeona Jacobs in Switzerland

 

Can you imagine what it must have been like in South African corporate board rooms when apartheid was lifted and a new political order was in play? Diversity, inclusion, and equity didn’t just happen with a new constitution. Brave, and sometimes unwilling activists took bold steps to make it happen. Zeona Jacobs shares how she and a small group of black African men and women banded together and became unwilling activists in a conservative, large, white-dominated corporate environment in a company still struggling to come to terms with a democratic, free South Africa. She also tells us why President Mandela called her courageous at a large televised public event. Tune in and learn a ton from today’s bold leader!

Listen to the podcast here.

 

“DEI – Adapt, Transform, or a Rigged Monopoly?” with former JSE Director Zeona Jacobs in Switzerland

An Unwilling Activist in a Revolving DEI Door

Greetings to all your future bold leaders; thank you for joining us from around the world. Our bold leader joins us from across the North Atlantic Oceans in the beautiful city of Geneva in the Southwestern region of Switzerland. She is a former executive director of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in South Africa and a committee member of the Southern African and African Securities Association. In her previous life, she was an actress for 30 years and a director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, world-famous and established by President Mandela, to help heal a traumatized nation with lingering pain and deep divides.

Stay tuned as we discuss, explore, and uncover how her acting career helped her show up in times of corporate adversity because the leadership show must go on; how she and a small group of Black African men and women banded together and became unwilling activists in a conservative, large, White dominated corporate environment. A company still struggling to come to terms with a new political order and a democratic, free South Africa.

Also, why President Mandela called her courageous at a large televised public event, we warmly welcome a dear friend and colleague, Zeona Jacobs. Welcome to the show, Zeona. It’s always so wonderful to see you, my friend. Thank you for joining us from Geneva and it’s a real delight to catch up and see you again and speak to you.

Thank you, Anne. It’s lovely to be with you.

I’ve known you for many years, professionally and even socially. What struck me rereading your career highlights is that you’ve had this remarkable blend of starting off in cultural affairs, and of course, I know you love the arts and theater as well. We’ll come back to that. Having moved through this life and world of advertising, marketing, brand positioning, and corporate communications and then you had a stint as Group Manager of Corporate Finance in this tough world of finance. You then went on to head up corporate affairs for the Johannesburg Stock Exchange Securities and Stock Exchange. Can you talk to us a little about this interesting choice of different career pivot points, this blend of finance and corporate affairs and marketing?

 

Leading Boldly into the Future | Zeona Jacobs | DEI

 

It’s such a long story. I’m going to try and make it short. Interesting that you picked up on it because it was quite a short period that I did the corporate finance work. I think my passion in life was theater, performing arts, and particularly drama stage work. I started acting as a child. My dad had a theater in the community in which I grew up. It was right next to the station. It was quite noisy as trains went by.

What community was that?

A township in Pretoria where I’m from. I started acting when I was six, and I acted until I was 30. Actually, it’s something not many people know about me. If you look at my CV (resume) also, you’ll see I’ve been Chairman and the Board Director of a lot of the theaters in Johannesburg, particularly three of the theaters in Johannesburg. Arts has been a big part of my life.

As I got older in the art world, I needed to make a living. I used my theater background and went into a career that was linked to cultural affairs, the work I did there. It was about communications. It was about acting, marketing, and messaging. Quite a good segue into that. What got me into corporate finance is while I worked with a senior executive gentleman called Jeffrey Hedberg, who you know and have met, I worked with him for some time in Nigeria.

In Nigeria, we were working on exiting from Nigeria for the company that we worked for. At some point, he said, “I need somebody to manage this transaction.” I said, “I can do it.” He said, “No, you can’t.” I said, “Yes, I can.” I came back, and I said, “Here’s my plan. This is how I will work with the telecom team internally. This is how I would work on the team in Nigeria, and this is how I will support you, and this is the role I can play.” He’s like, “So you can do this.” I said, “Yes, I can.”

I think Jeffrey appreciated it at that time also when you’ve worked for a long time and you’ve worked in interesting positions in diverse industries, you become aware of the law, governance, and finances. For me, it was how I applied myself to the new situation. That was the challenge, not so much the content, because you need all of those things to be able to do a transaction.

The work we did then was very collaborative. Also, we had external advisors; they were telecom staff, and we worked very collaboratively. We were able to do the work together. That is how I moved into corporate finance. What also got me that role was my ability to bring things together. It’s not about the finance. What are we buying? Who’s in that company? How do you assess the company? How do you assess the management? You assess everything. There was a team that dealt with the numbers per se, which I’m not particularly good at, but I understand them.

To what extent has your passion for drama and acting helped you in leadership in the corporate world?

It’s helped me tremendously in difficult situations. I think when we think about what happens to us when we are afraid when we have to deal with a difficult situation in leadership, a situation like laying off people; when I worked in telecoms, I was working on a project where we laid off 12,000 people at the time. It was very traumatic.

For me, that is when I masked my own fear, my own sadness, my own discomfort. That is where acting would come to the fore when I play a role. I am performing a duty. I’m performing. I’m acting. What is quite interesting about that is usually, after such a difficult project, I would be quite ill because I contained my anxiety and my fears, and I hid them and didn’t deal with them. That’s how it would show up after the fact. That’s how I’ve used it.

 

 

When you are so tired and corporate life is exhausting. When there’s a difficult situation within the organization, it’s how to build the energy to go up and go forward because, in theater, you often don’t want to be there that day, but it’s your job. You cannot ‘not’ do it. You let the team down. How do you think yourself into the role when you are exhausted?

Could you take us through what are those action points? What do you do?

Warming up for a production, you do your voice warmup and you do a bit of stretching. There’s something that I use quite a lot, which I think at the moment it’s become a practice, like a yoga practice, but it’s how to release stress. That is, you bend over, tense your body for a long time, and then try to hold it, but you basically shake (after tensing your body a while, it automatically starts shaking). You shake it out. Obviously, some breathing, but the shaking releases you from where you are and gives you a new bit of energy to go forward. It doesn’t need a lot of time. It’s 10, 15-minute practice. That’s what I used.

How would you respond to the proponents of leadership who talk about authentic leadership and people like Brené Brown who talk about the power of vulnerability? How would you balance the two? I think a lot of people are challenged by that sometimes. On the one hand, needing to show up. The show must go on. On the other hand, also being in touch with your vulnerability and being authentic. How do you balance that?

I wouldn’t say what I’ve done was not authentic, and being vulnerable is not a difficult thing for me to do. For me, vulnerability in the workplace means honesty. It’s where you say, “We have a very difficult task at hand; we’ve got to lay off 12,000 people. We have to do it with sensitivity. This is going to be a challenge.” Somebody’s going to have to speak to the press. Are you ready to deal with that? How are you going to deal with it? How do you prepare people?

My dealing with difficult situations, using my acting, is getting my energy to be able to go and do what is necessary. Vulnerability is saying, “I am struggling with this. We are going to struggle with this, and this might be difficult for you,” and bringing people in. Crying if we need to cry because we are sad. It’s not pretending like it’s not happening.

If you think about what I’ve said to you, there’s knowledge of where I’m at. I know where I’m at. I know I’m struggling, and it’s difficult. I know I need to get my energy up. For me, vulnerability doesn’t mean falling down in a heap. It means showing up with the emotions that are there and leading and taking people along with you.

Vulnerability doesn't mean falling down in a heap. It means actually showing up with the emotions that are there and taking people along with you. Click To Tweet

That’s an interesting pivot into do you have a particular life-defining moment yourself where it was a dark, difficult challenge? Could you share what that was? The setting, when, where, and how did you feel then? Was there a moment? 

I grew up in a very racially divided South Africa at the time. I think one of the most difficult environments that I walked into in 1991 was working at Old Mutual in Pinelands, Cape Town.

For context, Zeona, that was the year after Mandela came out of prison in February 1990, right?

Correct. That was 1991. I moved to Cape Town, and I started a job at Old Mutual (a large, listed financial services company). It was quite a challenging environment to go into for several reasons. At the time, I was married to a Black man. Cape Town at the time was majority people colored (mixed race). I joined Old Mutual. The majority of the people did not look like me. The majority of the leadership was White if not all. There was a sprinkling of African-Black people in the organization. It was a time, as you would know, Anne, of affirmative action, and more and more people were coming in, but very slowly.

More people of color were coming in.

More people of color were coming in very slowly. For me, what was quite amazing as a human being and as a staff member is that I came in as a first-line manager in the communications department. Colored people did not understand why I had married a Black man and why I had an African surname. White people didn’t welcome me in as part of that first-line management, and Black people were like, “Who are you that married a Black man? What’s wrong with you? What happened here?” No one accepted me because I was an anomaly at that time.

What was interesting for me was that we also had what we called in South Africa at the time, and I’m sure the US used the language there, too, as ‘the revolving door.‘ People come into the organization, but the culture is so hostile that people leave. A group of us were young African black people who were in our 30s. We decided that we were going to form a support group, and we called ourselves the ‘Affirmative Action Support Group.’

We then took a leadership role without management and the executive to support Black people coming into the organization and to also conscientize the majority of the colored people around the fact that they are not moving in the organization. Hence, we all need to join forces. There’s no need to be hostile. We are all in this together. That was a very challenging role to play. It was necessary for us because, coming from Johannesburg, we were quite aggressive, and we were like, “This can’t be true. Nelson Mandela’s out of jail. This country’s going to change.”

The role we played there was challenged. That put me in a position where I started looking at my activist role outside of the ANC or whatever political parties were operating at that time. It’s almost like you became unwilling activists, as it were, in an organization. At that time, we were so young, and we were challenging the leadership of one of the top two insurers in the country who were fearful. They feared us, yet we supported the organization to stop the revolving door. They saw us as rebellious activists.

How did you feel before joining this support group, this Affirmative Action Support Group? Of course, you’ve shared with us how management was feeling about it. How did you feel before getting the support group together and after you got this reaction from management, what was you’re a-ha moment? What did you realize you needed to do, and how did you pivot out of that?

It was a group of us that knew each other, either from Johannesburg or we knew we needed to do something. It was a group of people who put this together. We talked a little bit before the interview today about ‘intuition.’ For me, my intuition is what drives me. If it doesn’t sit well with me, I need to do something about it. Given my own background and the way I was raised, we were raised in a very multicultural environment.

Although we were living in our township, which was colored people, my father exposed us as children, and I was one of those early kids who went to a non-racial school. This level of discrimination did not sit well with me. I was not going to tolerate it. While I was never a political activist, I knew what was right and what was wrong.

Growing up in South Africa and with my level of exposure, we knew. The other people who were part of it also came from an exposed background, and we did not understand what was going on because Cape Town had job reservations for certain groups for much longer than the rest of the country had. For me, it was the sadness of seeing people in that revolving door and knowing that if they went somewhere else, they’d have the same experience. It is not going to change.

If we don’t try and change this environment and make this work, it’s not going to change. A very interesting meeting happened. Two of us were selected to go and talk with the Group Chief Operating officer of the company. I was selected, and a young man. I remember him so clearly. He was younger than I was, confident and strong.

I remember trying to secure a meeting with the Chief Operating Officer. He wouldn’t give us the meeting. It took us a long time and when we eventually got to the meeting, we were called up and said, “You’ve got to come up right now and meet with him.” We initiated the meeting but we could never get the appointment. One day, we were called up. We went up, and we had a conversation. We had a conversation with the COO.

It was quite interesting because our positioning was we are the Affirmative Action Support Group and we would like to support the organization in keeping staff and ensuring that integration happens in the organization. The gentleman was so shocked at where we came from that he did not know how to engage with us. What I learned that day is he had never sat with two young Black people and had a conversation and thought that we were coming to support him. Look at this in two ways. He doesn’t need our support, he doesn’t want our support, or he doesn’t think we can make a difference. I realized that he feared us because he didn’t know us. He never ever had a meeting with us after that again.

What happened?

He got up and walked out. He couldn’t deal with us. We continued. The environment was hostile. If you went into the restaurant canteen, generally, there was no place for you to sit. We joined each other for lunch. We created a community effectively. That’s what we did. We saw each other, and we spoke to each other. We spoke to teams in the organization about the transformation agenda. Why is affirmative action necessary? What is the benefit to them? We were our little selves basically working for the organization.

A little activist movement going on.

Throughout my career, that was the moment I realized that this was going to be what I now know was a lifelong fight until I left corporate life. It was always going to be there. It wasn’t a surprise in the next organization I worked for and the next organization I worked for thereon.

It’s clear how it supported the group and created this sense of community, which is incredibly important in helping people settle into the culture. Did your group and how your group was operating change the culture at all? Did you think the organization changed in any way?

I think we created awareness. We created a bit of a buzz and discomfort that something has got to give. I don’t think in the short term or the 3 or 4 years that I was there, the culture shifted significantly because the numbers were still so low. I do believe people of color who became quite senior in the organization were there at the time. Clearly, the organization shifted and moved.

Also, very different laws came into play where the organization had to adhere to those employment equity laws that came into being later in a post-1994 Democratic general election in South Africa. Things did change, but I wouldn’t say that it changed significantly. I think for those of us who were in the organization, our activism and the roles we would play in other organizations became clearer for us. This followed us throughout our careers.

If we fast forward a bit, this whole issue of this big challenge in the world of dealing with these incredibly deep divides, the need for diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, takes us forward in time. You’ve held some pretty high-powered positions, and your last corporate position was as head of corporate communications for the Johannesburg Securities Exchange. What changed in that time? The country at that point had the benefits of new legislation, as you said, the Affirmative Action Act, the Black Economic Empowerment Acts, etc. There were legislative changes, but they were not quick fixes. Is there a different example you can share later in your career?

This one is a little reverse, actually. There was an organization I worked for that was predominantly White. This was after 2010. I worked in the group, and the organization was very male. There were two senior Black people, myself and a gentleman, in this organization.

Can you tell us what sector?

It was in the IT sector. What was quite interesting in this environment, I was, in particular, treated very differently from anybody else. My White counterparts were treated badly, but I was not. The reason for that was, at the time, (what I surmised) my network, the people I knew what it would mean for the company’s reputation. I remember being in a meeting where the CEO treated one of the senior executives so badly. The language that was used was so unbecoming and so insulting. I sat there, and I wondered, “If I were ever treated like this, what would I do? How would I respond?”

How did you feel?

Silent Acceptance. What I felt at that moment was that I was so afraid that it would happen to me. I was afraid, actually. I was honestly afraid. The other thing I was confused. I was afraid, and I was confused that all of us were keeping quiet, including myself. None of us are standing up and walking out. Why is this gentleman accepting this treatment? Why am I accepting it? Why is the group accepting it? I decided on my strategy if it were to happen to me. I became protective of myself if this was to happen to me.

I had my strategy worked out, and then the meeting ended. It didn’t happen to me. The meeting ended, and I went to my desk, and half an hour later, I was called into the CEO’s office with the HR director. He apologized to me that he behaved in the manner that he did. Saying that is not his normal style, that’s not his normal behavior, the HR director there, and he knows that. I should please not think ill of him. I said, “Thank you very much.” I left the meeting, and I went home.

Within a month, I resigned because when I understood in that second meeting with the CEO and the HR director that this is what happens. I cannot change this at the moment. I was also afraid of myself in that situation because I was afraid that I would speak up if it happened to me. There was no way that I would’ve accepted that behavior towards me. If it continued, I would’ve walked away. If I couldn’t calm the situation down, I would walk out, but I was not willing.

People could say it’s cowardice on the one hand, but I think I had too much respect for myself. I also felt bad that I was one of the few that were treated differently. I didn’t want to be treated differently. I didn’t want to be the Black girl who gets the privileges because I’ve always been in spaces for most of my career where I felt someone else was getting the privilege, and I didn’t want that inverse situation. I want parity and equity. You treat us all the same. That’s what you do. For me, that was quite a difficult situation. I didn’t stay. I was only in this organization for four and a half months, and I left. It was the shortest stint in any company I’ve worked for.

What do you think the leadership lesson is and what was you’re a-ha moment in terms of the action you took in the decision you made to resign?

The leadership lesson is more a lesson of self-leadership and leading self rather than leading others. It was about how I know I need to be regulated for me to be the best person that I can be in the workplace. The moment when after the conversation in the CEO’s office with the HR director that was what I feared. It’s that the HR directors protect the CEO. That was the a-ha moment.

The bad behavior in the room with everybody present is one thing. When you are called aside, and he’s not having this conversation with me alone. He is actually bringing somebody in to support him. He’s protected. My self-regulation, as you know, is that at some point, if that’s meted out to you, you will do something, you will say something, you’ll act. I will leave. I’ll speak up and then leave, or I will leave, and it will escalate. I could not see myself continuing in that culture. It was very much about self-regulation and self-leadership.

Also, knowing at what point, sometimes, we can change and exercise leadership and help transform a culture and organization. Sometimes, we have to know when it’s time to leave.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future | Zeona Jacobs | DEI

 

For me, the disappointment was so soon. By the time I resigned, I had been there for four months, and I left soon thereafter.

I’m curious. What happened to the fellow that he spoke so badly to?

He continued to work there. This, for me, is an interesting phenomenon when you have that aggressive male culture, which comes with financial rewards to the team that takes it. That was the culture. It was a carrot on a stick, and people stayed.

Going back a little in time, I know in 1996 and 1997, you were part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which our wonderful Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed up. Obviously, that was still during Mandela’s presidency. He came in April. He was inaugurated in May 1994. Can you sketch it for us, Zeona? That was such an interesting role you played. Take us back in time. What was going on within the TRC? What was your role? What were you feeling at the time regarding the role this commission was playing in the transformation and healing of South Africa?

What a privilege. I remember very clearly my first day at work. I had a desk with the lacquer on the desk and my sinuses flared up. No papers, nothing. It was just a desk. I was setting up the communications department and being called from my office to go to the committee room where the commissioners were meeting, and the archbishop chaired the meeting. I was sworn in. I didn’t expect this formality and meeting all the commissioners.

That was a very special moment being sworn in because it made it so official. It wasn’t just a normal job. You don’t get sworn in or take an oath at work. There were three committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee, the Amnesty Committee, and the Reparations Committee. All three were operational, but the first one that got to work was the Human Rights Violations Committee.

My role was to make the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act accessible to people so that they could understand how they could come forward with the human rights violations that happened. Firstly, the work I did was to work with several people, universities in particular, to work on simplifying the act into, in layman’s language. Secondly, to take that and translate it into the ten other South African languages. That was quite a task.

If we can back up for one moment for people who are not that familiar with it, can you perhaps give us a couple of sentences as to why this (TRC) commission was set up? What was the big picture and its role in South Africa then?

The commission was set up, I think, in South Africa before our Democratic election. The manner in which human rights violations were denied. Human rights violations in terms of whether it was torture, imprisonment without trial, being abused even at your workplace for farm workers or political activists, or how they were imprisoned and tortured. Several other violations that happened during the 1960s and pre-1960s were to demonstrate and give evidence to this.

Human Rights Violations Committee: Be Seen. Be Acknowledged. Be Heard. It’s almost to recognize that what happened to you was real and for you to be seen, for people to be acknowledged. The pain that people are still going through because a family member disappeared. It was to surface that and to show it to the whole country because a large part of the country was in denial that this actually happened.

A lot of atrocities were committed.

That was the role. That was what the Human Rights Violations Committee serviced.

Be Transparent. Be Accountable. Be Truthful. The Amnesty Committee was where we looked at people who actually committed these atrocities and would come forward and speak about it. Part of what they had to do was to actually name the people who gave them the instructions for them to be able to get amnesty. It needed to be linked to a political crime, a political activity and you needed to name the people who were giving you the instructions.

Reparations, Restitution. Restoration. The Reparations Committee is exactly what it says. What reparations are we going to give the people who have been subjected to human rights violations? That is what the TRC was all about. It had a commission of elders, as you would call it that worked tirelessly on this work and sat for like a year in different parts of the country where people would come forward and tell their stories.

My job was to work on creating awareness and understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, in particular, of the human rights violations. Try for the investigators to go into the communities that would be susceptible to speaking to them. One of the biggest challenges for some of those people was they were still living in parts of the country where human rights violations still continued in 1996 and ‘97. It was very challenging for people to come forward.

There were some incredibly heartbreaking stories. Is there a particular hearing that comes to mind that you did sit in on? Is there any one story you could share with us?

No. For me, the disappointment was there were amazing hearings. Those were big stories in the country. They were big country stories. When those hearings were on, they were quite emotional and emotive. Also, what it did is it allowed the pain to surface again. For me, the disappointment was when the corporates came to the commission because there was a role that corporates played in this whole situation. It was very weak what they brought forward. It didn’t honor, in my view, the spirit of reconciliation that the country sought to work towards. That was disappointing for me personally.

Are you saying they didn’t bring forth enough substantive evidence of what has been going on?

Correct. To take accountability for their role.

How far did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission go to achieve its goals and objectives in the country to provide a basis for truth, reconciliation, and healing?

I think many families and those who came forward to the Human Rights Violations Committee are very disappointed with what the commission achieved for them as families because reparations were symbolic. There was nothing significant. If you didn’t come forward to the Amnesty Committee, not all of those cases were investigated, and not many people were charged.

I think for a lot of families, it didn’t achieve the objective at all. It’s actually a sore point. It was a very expensive exercise at the time for the country. I think the expectation of what reparations would be was not well managed. In some communities, there are memorial sites in memory of some of the people who lost their lives. For others, nothing happened.

Financially, the country couldn’t afford it. I know that the model has been used elsewhere. I don’t think it met its original intent. I think the intent was good. The motivation was good, but it didn’t meet it. If you look at my position, for instance, money was running out. We were laid off because they couldn’t afford us as they went on with some of the amnesty work because that committee stayed on for a little longer, and the reparations stayed on for longer, and the human rights violations stopped. I think the intent was good. The execution didn’t necessarily meet the needs of families who had been violated.

If you had to summarize some of the leadership lessons from that, if one had to execute it more effectively, what do you think the leadership lessons were from the TRC?

For me, the first one would be when you are dealing with such deep pain, you need to be clear about how you take care of that human being in pain and what the journey that you’re going to walk with them. Money, on its own, doesn’t help. The leadership lesson going forward is what do we do to take care of that raw pain and be clear about what reparations mean.

You need to be clear about how you take care of a human being in pain. What is the journey that you're going to walk with them? Money on its own doesn't help. It’s really the care. Click To Tweet

Set up some clearer expectations around reparations. I must say, as a citizen, Zeona, watching some of those hearings and listening to some very powerful figures in the country a) Telling the truth, b) Asking for forgiveness and apologizing, I think there was a lot more exposure of some of the darkness of apartheid that we had not been privy to. I think as an ordinary citizen, having that exposure, that truth-telling, that revelation for me and many of my friends, family, and colleagues, we spoke about it. We were shocked. We were often traumatized, but we also were appreciative of the fact that the secret, this dark veil of secrecy, had been lifted.

 

 

I think it did well in that regard. There’s still some denialism even now in the country about that period with some people. I do think it did lift the veil.

Zeona, obviously, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was during Nelson Mandela’s presidency. I’m sure you’ve had many moments, but can you take us back to a moment when you had a particular ‘Mandela Moment,’ a moment he inspired you or lit the fire? Is there a particular moment you could share with us?

I have a very interesting moment, a surprising moment I had with Nelson Mandela. It was in 1999. He was not the president of the country anymore. Mbeki had become the president and the South African Defense Force and the liberation movements military arms were coming together to form the South African National Defense Force. It was an event for all the veterans.

I was the master of ceremonies for this event. I’d been asked to do this. It was a very male-orientated event, as you can imagine, full of soldiers everywhere. It was a live broadcast from the presidential guest house in the gardens there. I had to keep this thing running on time. You know Nelson Mandela better than I do. When he got into a room, everybody wanted to talk to him, and he took his time.

Thabo Mbeki was already in the room, and I was on the podium. Somebody brought him in. Of course, everybody from every single table, about 200, 300 guests, wanted to shake his hand. This is a live broadcast. You’ve got a responsibility for a nation watching the national television station, and you’ve got to keep this thing going. The more I say, “Could we all take our seats please? We are about to start. This is a live broadcast,” but Mr. Mandela is not hearing me. I had this moment, and I thought, “Okay, who is in charge of this event? I am in charge of this event.” I spoke to him directly from the podium. I said, “Mr. President Nelson Mandela, can I please ask you to take your seat?”

He looked up at me, and he said, “Yes, ma’am.” He sat down. It was a wonderful moment. I was very anxious about keeping it on time. I did not want to disrespect him. I had seen this at other events before. I had never seen anybody actually telling him from the podium to sit down, but I had to do it. I think my lesson from him was how respectful he was in the way he turned to me because I spoke with him directly.

 

 

I didn’t ask his people to sit down. I spoke with him directly. He was allowing this to happen. It was a wonderful moment. Afterward, he told me, “You are a very courageous woman to speak to me like that from the podium.” I said, “You are a real gentleman to sit down. Thank you so much.” It was a beautiful moment.

What did you learn about your own leadership, Zeona?

I think what scares me sometimes about myself in times like that, or like the other incident I spoke to about I know what I need to do. It’s my own truth that speaks to me and my truth and my responsibility. When I’m committed to doing something, I need to do it well. I can’t let people down. It’s a very important thing for me.

It was a choice between pacifying a small audience of 200 people and keeping millions of South Africans waiting. I had a choice to make. It’s not always an easy choice to make. You make the uncomfortable choice because you are in the room with everyone, but you actually prevent a disaster. For me, the lesson there about myself is that I’m willing to take the short-term pain. If anybody took umbrage to what I did, I would take the short-term pain for the long-term gain. That’s what I learned about myself in that instance.

Take the short-term pain for the long-term gain. Click To Tweet

Also, there was a way in which you delivered that message to Mr. Mandela.

For me, respect. If you give respect, you receive respect. He did that. It was the tone of voice. It was a bit of a charm. You use everything that you can muster to be respectful though. The tonality is important. I think we often forget, as leaders, what tonality does and how the tone of a voice and the words we use either encourage and spur people on or crush people completely.

Some fun facts about you.

The other thing people don’t know about me is that I actually went to boarding school in (the province of) KwaZulu-Natal. It is in the hills of Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal, and German nuns educated me. A very strict convent. I’m 1 of 7 children, and I’m the middle child. Five of us went to this boarding school. My father, who grew up in Marabastad (west of Pretoria in South Africa) and then was educated by nuns, wanted us to have an English education because Afrikaans is my first language. English education and Catholicism. We went to school by train like other kids. There was this colored (mixed race) school called Little Flower School in these beautiful surroundings in Ixopo. We didn’t go anywhere. We would be at boarding school for three months of the year, and we came home once a quarter.

Is that where that Germanic discipline has come in? Was that the voice that spoke to Mr. Mandela?

No, they were not gentle. That was not the ‘Mandela’ voice. I think that tone of voice greatly comes from my acting career and my father. My father was very charming and a real performer. I don’t get near my dad when it comes to performance. He was large. Boarding school was very strict. It was a good time because I was there in 1976 and 1977. In ’78, though, I returned to Pretoria because I could then go to a non-racial Catholic school. My father was after an English and Catholic education, and those schools weren’t available to us in Pretoria. We were able to come back, and I had Irish nuns then.

What was your favorite boarding school meal?

Most days we ate samp and beans and gravy. On a Wednesday and Sunday, we had rice and chicken. Let me tell you, even though Samp was so often served, I love Samp to this day. (Editor’s note: Samp is a favorite traditional meal across Southern Africa. Samp, or isitambu in my native Zulu language, or umngqusho in the Xhosa language, is a favorite traditional meal. It is made from dried corn kernels, pounded, and chopped until broken. The coating around the kernel loosens and is removed during the pounding and stamping process.)  

It’s interesting how these cultural foods have taken off for tourists coming into the country and going to Soweto and visiting Vilikazi Street and eating these traditional meals. It’s become quite an appetizer. Share with us one thing that you’re currently very excited about.

I think what I’m excited about is leaving corporate life and actually reimagining my life. It’s exciting, but it’s also very challenging, and it’s testing me. There are days when I think I need to find a corporate job because that’s what I know how to do. I know how to work in corporate, but I’m excited about the opportunity to try and create something and then the challenge of creating it in a country that is not my own.

It is possible for us to reimagine another way of leading. Click To Tweet

Talking to leaders out there, many of us are grappling with the issues of this moment in time. We are at this pivotal point in world history. What are your final takeaways for bold, courageous leaders who care about exercising leadership and navigating the current complexity and challenges in the world? What final takeaways do you have for them?

2020 changed all of our lives so dramatically, as you’ve said. I think that this new generation of young people responds to leadership, and people who perceive themselves as leaders are very different because they believe that they lead themselves. The challenge that I think leaders will face is how these two ideas come together: “I am a leader,” the traditional corporate leader versus the young person who leads themselves. What is that intersection going to look like?

What is leadership? Who exercises leadership? We can see how leadership has changed over the years. Already, the autocratic leadership style, although in some parts of the world, has been trying to come back, I think people are resisting it. Today, a more inclusive leadership style, much more aware of self and giving voice to other people. I think there will be another shift with this new generation that is saying, “I need to lead myself.” What role do we think we play, and who calls ourselves leaders? I think that is the challenge for the future in terms of leadership.

What role do we think we play then who calls ourselves leaders? That is the challenge for the future in terms of leadership. Click To Tweet

Zeona, it’s always such a pleasure, my friend. Even though it’s virtually across the waves, the oceans, and the Alps, it’s always such a joy to speak with you. Thank you so much for sharing your amusing, compelling, and insightful stories, and I look forward to reconnecting in person soon.

Thank you, Anne. It was lovely talking to you, and I felt like you were right next to me on the couch, so it didn’t feel too bad. It was lovely being part of this and this is great work. Thank you for the opportunity.

Thank you.

When is a system dysfunctional – a reality or a myth? Talking to Zeona Jacobs, the former director of the Johannesburg Stock and Securities Exchange, currently based in Switzerland, helps us think about the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion, of transformation, and how we adapt and transform. When we look at a system, whether it be a corporation, a country, or a family, is it a broken system, or is it an illusion of a broken system?

For example, when we look at our current economic models of capitalism, often characterized by the very popular board game Monopoly, which many of us played as kids, buying houses, hotels, and utilities in popular, desirable areas, many would regard that system as a biased, broken, and rigged system that favors a dominant, powerful select few. Any social system, as I said, whether it be a corporation, a country, or a family, is the way it is because those with powerful leverage want it that way.

Even if you perceive the gaps, the imbalances, and future risks, trying to alert others to that will not make you popular. Don’t expect to be rewarded or applauded. Those with dominant leverage want it the way it is.

Understanding this leads us to very different strategies to exercise leadership, adapt, transform, and change. It is pointless to try and persuade a powerful, dominant view of ‘the rightness of your cause.’

 

Leading Boldly into the Future | Zeona Jacobs | DEI

 

Instead, it is more expedient and practical to focus inward, to build your teams and allies, and to succeed within the system. As the system adapts and changes. In time, it also refocuses us and our strategies and how we mobilize and support those resistant to change in navigating through periods of risk, uncertainty, and loss.

Zeona and her DEI colleagues understood this and implemented it in a very pragmatic way. They stopped trying to persuade White executives of the need to change this very hostile environment for DEI employees. Instead, they focused inwards on supporting their DEI colleagues and allies in a way that helped them navigate this hostility, settle into the culture, and negotiate their way upwards.

 

 

The system is not necessarily dysfunctional. It depends on who is enforcing the system and how we operate within the system to adapt and change.

Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action just one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Until next time, take care and take thoughtful, bold action.

 

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About Zeona Jacobs

Leading Boldly into the Future | Zeona Jacobs | DEISkilled, multi-talented and experienced Director, Board Chairperson, Executive, Coach and Consultant with over 30 years’ experience leading and managing strategic business units for large reputable companies.

I have a strong interest in the fields of coaching and consulting and seek to leverage my extensive experience with executives, teams, start-ups, and small to medium sized businesses. I enjoy the process of establishing businesses and developing them to the point where they are ready to scale. Turn arounds are also a passion. I have had exposure on every level, with a proven track record in strategy development and implementation, analytics, mergers and acquisition, corporate development, human capital development and performance management.

Demonstrated capacity to attract, inspire and mobilize talent across many industries. I am clear, transparent, responsive and focused on teamwork and delivery with the courage and perseverance to master complexity.

Solid entrepreneurial flair (co-founded Lobedu Communications Group) and governance skills with strong business strategy development and implementation acumen having contributed to the business health of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Telkom, Cell C and Lobedu Communications Group.

A modern day globally enlightened business leader, with a strong network on the African continent, I have successfully leveraged my broad understanding of governance, human capability and organisational dynamics to manage and find solutions with agility and creativity. My varied experience affords me the ability to zoom out my lens and leverage the richness of my knowledge to identify problems and seek to co-create solutions.

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