How do we develop a growth mindset, one of teachability that says, “I make mistakes and grow,” one of adaptability that says, “I transform and change,” and one of possibility that says, “Yes, I can be more, do more, and achieve the impossible”? This is what we learn from the story of Yolanda Cuba, who went from wanting to be a white person as a child to being a trailblazer for women in business across the African continent: a proud African, a Young Global Leader. She is the Vice President for Southern and Eastern Africa of the super-successful MTN Group. This South African home-grown, super-successful large, listed company delivers sustainable impact and returns across Africa and the Middle East. In this conversation, she shares why and how mindset matters, why a twin sibling uplifts you, and why ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) issues matter more than ever. Lastly, why meeting Nelson Mandela forever changed how she thinks, acts, and leads. Tune in for all of these and more!
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‘Growing Up I Wanted to be White’ with MTN Group Exec. Yolanda Cuba in South Africa
A Growth Mindset Saw MTN VP Yolanda Cuba Rise to the Top
In this episode, joining us from Johannesburg with thunderous summer storms in the background is a bold, thunderous, trailblazing, and transformational business leader on the African continent, a chartered accountant, a Business Statistics, and a Master’s in Commerce graduate by training. At age 29, she was one of the youngest chief executive officers of a Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed company. Now, she is the Vice President for Southern and Eastern Africa of the super-successful MTN Group. She has been recognized as CEO and Business Personality of the Year on multiple platforms across Africa and recognized by the World Economic Forum initiative as one of the Young Global Leaders. In 2011, Forbes Magazine named her as 1 of the 20 Youngest Powerful Women in Africa.
Stay tuned as we learn more about why and how mindset matters and having a twin uplifts you, why in business, sustainable success is much more than the numbers, and Purpose, Environmental, Social, and Governance issues matter more than ever, and why meeting Nelson Mandela forever changed the way she leads on the African continent and in the world. We warmly welcome Yolanda Cuba.
Yolanda, it’s wonderful to have you with us and share this conversation with you. I’ve been so looking forward to it. Thank you.
Thanks for having me.
I thought of a good place to start. You have a big portfolio. You’re the Vice President for MTN, an incredible success story across Africa and the Middle East. Can you share a bit about your current role, your responsibility, and what gets you up in the morning?
Thanks for having me as part of your panel. Let’s start with what MTN stands for, and then I’ll talk about how it connects to me. MTN stands for the vibrant brand born in the South of Africa and went on to conquer the world. That is a fantastic story about an African champion going out there and providing meaningful solutions for Africa in the main and beyond.
How do I link up to the story? I’ve got two sets of business cards. The first one says, “Yolanda Cuba, Vice President of Southern and Eastern Africa MTM Group.” That’s my official business card. However, the one that gets me up in the morning every day is my second business card. It says, “Yolanda Cuba, Madam VP.” It doesn’t say, “Vice President.” It says, “Madam VP.” It says a lot about the gender issue and the inclusivity agenda around development. That’s why that is important.
The next line, even more, important than that, says, “Chief Champion for Africa’s Progress in the SEA Region,” the Southern and Eastern Africa region. I’m the Chief Champion for that because every morning when I wake up, I wake up and think, “How am I going to change the world? How am I going to change Africa for the better? How will I improve on what we did yesterday and the day before to ensure we see that development in our continent?”
That’s a wonderful opening sentiment leading to our next question. I’m curious. You’re a remarkable story of transformation in your right. You’ve been described as a transformational leader. I wondered. Going back to some of your early childhood experiences, what shaped you? Who shaped you? What ignited that passion in you?
If I go back in time, the first thing that shaped me was the expectation that I could do more and be more. When I was 5 or 6 years old, people used to ask me, “What do you want to become when you’re older?” Bearing in mind the context of South Africa under a party then, I used to tell everyone that I wanted to be a White person. Umlungu is the word that I used. Why did I want to be a White person as a kid? It’s because I used to see White people on TV, and they were having success stories to tell. I don’t know if you remember the Peter Stuyvesant ads with the yachts and the fun.
It’s the lifestyles commercials.
That’s how I used to experience that world. It was something that was not even accessible to us at that point. Me saying that I wanted to be an umlungu at that stage meant I wanted to have the best life had to offer. That was the first time I realized as a kid that there is something more. If you put in the effort and do stuff, you can be more. That’s where it started. Along the way came amazing people. The first part of the story is about my mom, who used to have a law practice in the ‘80s in Kempton Park, which is not a Black area. It was predominantly a White area. She had an office there and started her law firm.
My uncle coached me through many life lessons and life changes I would be going through. Whenever I had a major decision, he was my first person. He has the ability to simplify any context. He was very much a storyteller. I followed his footsteps in a lot of ways in terms of storytelling. He would never tell you what to do. He would tell you a story about what he has done in the past or a story with some lesson that you needed to consider.
He would always end our conversation with, “When you make the decision, you do not have to return to me. In other words, your decision is yours. You are not accountable to me. You don’t have to explain it to anyone. You don’t have to justify it to anyone. It doesn’t matter how much you respect people. It’s your decision. If you want, you do not have to tell us.”Your decision is yours. You don't have to explain it to anyone. You don't have to justify it to anyone. It doesn't matter how much you respect people. It's your decision. Click To Tweet
That liberates decision-making. You can aspire for more without feeling like someone is holding a red pen and saying, “You can’t go beyond this point because it doesn’t sound reasonable.” I’ve had people like that in my life. I’ve had great mentors in the form of Tokyo Sexwale (Editor’s Note: Mosima Gabriel “Tokyo” Sexwale is a South African businessman, politician, anti-apartheid activist, and former political prisoner. Sexwale was imprisoned on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities alongside figures such as Nelson Mandela), who used to be my boss. I’ve had Simon Susman, the CEO and Chairman of Woolworths Group, here in South Africa (Editor’s Note: Mr. Simon N. Susman is a Non-Independent Non-Executive Chairman of the Board of the Company. Other directorships include Trent Limited, Allied Electronics Corporation, Business Against Crime Advisory board member, and University of Stellenbosch Business School Chairman.) All of them are amazing in their own right. I’ve been super blessed to have people like that in my life. I’ve had many interesting and fabulous people.
Can you take us back to a moment in your childhood, one of those moments where you had to go to that wonderful uncle of yours, or a difficult, challenging, and dark moment? What was the light bulb moment in what he shared? How did you pivot out of that?
The first defining moment with my uncle was when we were about twelve years old. It was me, my twin sister, and my cousin. He’s a year younger than us, but we grew up pretty much together. He had asked us to computerize and capture the stock system in my aunt’s shop. At that time, we were playing games. She’s asking us to look at a piece of paper, keep capturing all the SKUs, and put a price to it on our computer system.
We were sitting there, and we were like, “Why must we do this?” We’re kids. We’re twelve years old and so on. This is not a fun way to spend a Saturday.” It took us about two weekends to do that because, during the week, we were at school. After we did that, he returned on the second Saturday and asked us who had been doing the work. I’m like, “Me.” My sister said, “Me too.” I’m like, “I’ve done the most work.” My cousin had done none of it. He started with us, but he enjoyed playing. He disappeared from us. My uncle said, “This evening, Yolanda and Amanda, please dress up. We’re going to the Ritz rotating restaurant in Sea Point.”
I’ve never been there. You’ve only heard that there’s a building with a rotating restaurant on top and stuff like that. These were movies for us. He said, “We’re going there this evening.” We were kids. It wasn’t normal for us at that stage as kids to go out with our parents to restaurants either, to be fair. This was a big moment because he communicated the first lesson that we needed to learn for growing up that I took at that time.
That was, “If you work hard, there is a reward.” That was probably one of the key lessons I even keep with me. If you work hard, the reward will come. Sometimes it might be delayed; it happens immediately or is visible. Sometimes it’s invisible, but there is always a reward to it. Strange enough, now I’m in that situation. I’ve gained a little bit of weight because of COVID. I’m like, “I’m going to start jogging and walking.” I’ve been doing this, and there is no change. Instead, I’ve gained more weight than when I started.If you work hard, the reward will come. Sometimes it might be delayed. Sometimes it happens immediately. Sometimes it's visible. Sometimes it's invisible. But there is always a reward to it. Click To Tweet
This is what I told a friend, “There is no one I know who runs consistently who is overweight.” There is a reward. Although I’m not seeing it, if I am consistent, I will see the difference at some point. That’s what drives me. It’s the same lesson that I learned as a kid when I was about twelve years old.
I have no doubt you will. Staying with this childhood mindset, I’m curious. You grew up in an apartheid system. Generally, there’s a low percentage, a low incidence of women who go into science, tech, or STEM subjects. You’re a qualified chartered accountant. You’ve done degrees in Commerce and Statistics, honors in Accounting, and a Master’s in Commerce. What mindset helped you reach the point of choosing that unusual area for women in education? That’s number one. Secondly, what mindset kept you going in the statistics, commerce, and corporate finance world?
When I qualified, and this is now after years of hard studying, boards, and all sorts of things, there were still less than 100 Black female CAs in South Africa. It was still a very scarce thing at that time. What kept me going was, firstly, the idea that if you acquire this qualification, you can achieve prosperity. Everyone around me was always around, and I said, “If you want prosperity, you work for it. If you want this, you work for it.” From that perspective, I knew I had to do the work.
My stepdad is now a Ph.D. He has done postdoctoral studies. He is a judicial judge, and so on. At that time, he had his honors. When we would brag, as all kids do, about what our parents are, “My dad is a lawyer. My mom is a lawyer,” he would say, “It is not contagious. It is not a disease. My education is my own. Each person has to work for their own.” Those things motivated me to say, “I want to do this. I won’t stop until I get back (what I want).”
I never stopped until I got there in terms of the qualification perspective. At that time, to be fair, you had a few careers that could give you some form of guarantee that you would be okay. I must be honest. Poverty is a great motivator to get you into the next level of development or education. For us to unlock that goal of walking away from poverty or not being happy, was education.Poverty is a great motivator to get you into the next level of development or education. Click To Tweet
Finance is a gateway to prosperity.
Understanding finance was always a gateway to that. I dreamed of working at the stock exchange because I used to think it was super sexy. It wasn’t because I thought it fundamentally changed the world. It was because I thought it was a sexy thing to do. Everyone used to talk about stock brokers. They would be talking about stocks. I wanted to be either a sell-side or a buy-side analyst. That’s what I wanted to become. To get there, I knew there was nowhere to get there for me without having a serious qualification or a qualification that would allow others to take me seriously.
That’s interesting. That’s the other thing that strikes me about it because in this world of corporate capitalism and what kind of capitalism we are following, very often, finance people thought to be concerned about the numbers. The numbers are important. We know that, but sustainability is so much broader than the numbers. What would you say to your fellow chartered accountants, finance wizards, and investors?
You were in the world of corporate finance. You look after the numbers. What would you say to them about the mindset required in the world of capitalism and the world now to help organizations create sustainability? What mindset do they need to play a meaningful role, not only looking after the numbers but the sustainability of their organizations?
The first thing I would say to everyone who is a numbers person is to commit to a meaningful purpose. That goes to creating sustainable societies and a sustainable environment because you also finance it and sustainable governance. That whole ESG core concept is landing it and finding how you want to interpret it in your world because that forces you automatically to start thinking long-term. It’s not only about the numbers because numbers are a historical record of what has happened. When you start thinking about the purpose, you’re starting to look at the future and say, “This is the transformation I want to be part of. This is the transformation I want to do.” With numbers, you think historically. With purpose, you think into the future.
In doing so, you start thinking about investments in a different way. I was talking to a group of people, and I said, “When I think about our industry, which is telecoms, especially in the context of the continent and what I do every day, we are the forerunners in technology for many countries if we decide.” It will not pay us back now not to invest in rural areas because the revenue that you generate from the rural side is low. It takes too long to pay back relative to an urban center. You would say, “We shouldn’t invest.” However, I’ll look at that differently if I understand the long-term purpose of the country’s progress and us being the inhibitors, accelerators, or catalysts of progress.
How I think about how fast I move to new technologies is a different proposition. If you decide, for example, “We are not going to get into 5G technology in South Africa for the next ten years,” that means you’re limiting the growth of South Africa in terms of new solutions for the next ten years. Once people looking after the numbers start thinking of their role in this futuristic or sustainability manner in a purpose-driven way, they will start to see that it’s not only about what is delivered within the last year or the next year in terms of your budget, but it’s a much longer-term game to transform society.
To the skeptics who say that the world of business is about the returns to shareholders and that’s wonderful in terms of making an impact at the end of the day if our commitment is to our shareholders, what would you say about the financial performance of an organization like MTN that has been driven by purpose, focused on sustainability, and had phenomenal financial performance? What would you say to those skeptics?
I always say to the skeptics that there is enough research that shows that socially responsible companies tend to do better in the long term. There’s enough research. You can Google it yourself. Go into Google Scholar and find enough articles showing the link between socially responsible companies and financial performance. It reflects in your financial performance.There is enough research that shows that socially responsible companies tend to do better in the long term. Click To Tweet
Secondly, look at who you are employing. The people you’re employing are starting to ask you about what you are doing for society and what impact you will have on society. Because of the change in your labor force and what they are looking for, you will be forced to enter the space. Like it or not, you will go into it screaming and crying, but you will get into it. It’s much easier when you proactively get into it.
The third one, I would say, is what we are seeing from investors. Investors are asking specifically, “What are you doing from an ESG perspective?” Before they talk to you about their numbers, they say, “On all the key indices around sustainability and ESG, how are you doing?” Years ago, someone asked me, “Who’s Sustainalytics?” I would be like, “Who’s that?” Now, as soon as you mentioned, “What’s your rating on Sustainalytics?” I’m on. It is that important now. Investors are starting to choose where and how much to invest based on your pledge to sustainable long-term impact in society and the environment.
You made an important point about how if you’re not doing this proactively, you can kick and scream into it. Can you take us back to a very specific example? Take us back to when you had a difficult decision or a difficult moment inside an organization, whether in your current or previous. What was that moment? How was everyone kicking and screaming? How did you pivot out of that? What was the catalyst for change?
I can’t mention the countries and the people involved. However, I can tell a little bit of a story around it. In some of the African markets, we do get challenges once in a while around digital human rights where you’re being asked to switch off the internet, for example, or social media, because there’s an election, an uprising, or political opposition. You get into those difficult positions. I was in one of those difficult conversations and periods, to be honest. It lasted for weeks on end, where we were saying, “We will not do what you, the government, are asking us to do.” It was a legal framework.
What year was that?
I can’t say because it would be very obvious.
We said, “We can’t do this with you as the government.” They threatened our people on the ground. It was a tenuous and borderline dangerous situation that we were facing. I remember when we went there with the rest of my executive team and my boss, who was also super supportive of this position that we had taken. We will not do what we are being asked to do. We went into that specific country. That country had taken some actions against some of our executives as well. We were in a position where we had to negotiate with key staff members as part of what we needed to discuss with them.
Were they imprisoned? Would you say what happened to them?
They were not imprisoned. They were asked to leave the country in not such a polite way. In the end, parts of the conversation were super difficult. I remember saying this to our Chief Legal Admin Risk Officer. Before going to the meeting, I said, “There are two likely outcomes of the meeting. One of them is that the guys backpedal from what they have said or that they become more entrenched in their positions.”
I shared with him an analogy that Tokyo had given me once. Rondavels, or those round huts, tend to have two or four windows with 1 door. In his quest to teach me street smartness, Tokyo once said to me, “When you have someone cornered, never stand in the door of the rondavel. You have the upper hand. They’re cornered. Do not stand in the door.”
Leave the door open for them to walk out.
Always stand aside right next to the door because if you stand in the door, you are forcing the person to go through you to get out of the corner where they have been put. I remember saying this to my chief risk officer before the meeting. When we went into the meeting, the guys did backpedal. They said, “We didn’t issue such instructions. We did not do this. As a country, this is not the kind of thing that we do. If you have had people who do these things on their own, you shouldn’t comply.” The knee-jerk reaction always, especially when you’ve been dealing with something for weeks, is to say, “You’re lying. This guy and that guy were part of the meeting. They’re sitting here now being quiet.” Because of that rondavel example, we kept quiet because these guys were looking for a way out.
The second thing was, “Were we clear on our objectives?” Our objective wasn’t to prove or disprove what has already happened. It was to get a specific outcome as a result of the conversation. That’s what I said to our chief risk officer, “Let’s focus on the outcome that we are here for because all the other stuff now is history. You are telling the history and saying how accurately you are telling history. Let’s not make that our focus. Let’s make our focus on what we came here to achieve.”
What was your stated outcome?
Our stated outcome was ensuring we were not blocked out of the country. The second one was to ensure that we do not still comply with the request but be able to show them the rationale behind it. We’re not saying no for the sake of no. We’re saying no because these things have severe implications beyond the borders of one country.
I’m with you. The third is to smooth things down so that your people and the operations are safe. That’s a wonderful example. Africa and the world is facing so many big different challenges.
We were still talking about billions in 2021. People living below the poverty line is unacceptable although we have a lot of resources in that regard.
Meaning South Africa, when you say us. On a lighter note, here are a couple of fun facts about Yolanda. What is your favorite childhood memory?
Driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town, standing on the side of the road, and eating the picnic basket.
How old were you? What was fun about it?
I was 5 or 4. On the roadside, the municipality provides tables and white chairs. It invokes childhood. It’s being taken care of and being with your family because it’s normally your mom and dad driving you from one place to another. There’s a sense of a journey or going somewhere.
Was it with your mom and dad?
It was with my mom and dad.
What is one thing that people don’t know about you?
I am studying for my private pilot’s license.
I studied it under COVID.
I couldn’t do my hobby and had to find a new one.
What was your hobby before?
Ballroom dancing and Latin American.
That’s wonderful. What is the one thing you love most about having a twin sister?
You have someone more joyful and happy for you whenever things happen. When bad things happen, they are the ones that are sadder than you. They cry more than you when something bad happens. When you’re happy, they’re the ones that are jumping on the bed on your behalf. You live your emotions precariously by looking at them. I called my sister, “This happened.” She’s like, “I’m coming.”
When she comes, she jumps all over the bed and is happy. You’re like, “I was supposed to be happier.” You know this, Anne, because you live in your body. It’s very difficult to be excited about good things that happen to you. It’s easy to feel the pain when bad things happen, but when good things happen, you don’t celebrate it as much, “This is something wonderful.” I have someone who does that. I’m like, “That’s how I’m supposed to feel.”
Do you then get into that emotion?
You also get into it because they’re doing it. That’s one of the most beautiful things about being a twin.
Does Amanda live nearby?
She doesn’t live too far from me.
You have access to that joy and happiness instantly. It’s on tap. Turning to a slightly different conversation, I know since 2006, you’ve sat on the board of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Endowment and Investment Committee. It’s also serendipitous how MTN gave birth in 1994, the new dawn of democracy in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was our first democratically elected president. What motivated you to step onto that investment committee for the foundation?
Firstly, it was Tokyo. Tokyo was part of it. At that time, he was my boss and said, “Look after investments here in the office. We donated a lot of money to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Can you please go there?” That’s how I landed up there, to be fair. I loved every minute of it. Every time you go there, you know you’re part of building the sustainability of a leader such as Nelson Mandela. I don’t think we will ever have a leader like that in the next century.We will never have a leader like Nelson Mandela in the next century. Click To Tweet
Meeting, talking, and engaging with someone like Madiba was unbelievable. We never had deep conversations. I must be honest. I wasn’t part of his inner circle in any way. It was generic conversations that we would have in the midst, many times, of other people also in the room, but it was always meaningful. I remember that after the first time he met me, he came to the office.
What was said? Do you remember?
It was 2003. Tokyo called me into his office to say hi. As I left, he said, “She walks with such grace.” He said it deliberately so that I could hear it. For me, that’s what epitomized the man that is Nelson Mandela. He will introduce himself to you as if you don’t know who he is. He will be like, “My name is Nelson Mandela.” “I don’t know who you are.” For me, that humility was something that I never got over about his leadership style. The comment that he made that day taught me.
How did you feel?
I felt amazing. It taught me that overhearing someone saying something good about you is better than when the person says it to you. If I tell you now, “Anne is beautiful. I love your hair, Anne,” you will be like, “Thank you very much,” but if I’m talking to someone else and I say, “Anne’s hair is amazing,” and you overhear that, you will believe that. You will have no inhibitions around it. It will feel good because we are these animal creatures. Society is important. Feeling and being empowered by someone else and someone else talking well about us to other people in the sense of community is important. You can tell me it feels good, but if you want to affirm me, tell it to someone else and let me overhear.
Sometimes it’s not always possible to overhear those comments. What would you say about what you learned from Madiba about sharing those affirmations, even if it’s not possible for people to overhear?
What I was saying is that he did it deliberately. That was the issue. It was a deliberate action. Madiba has lots of deliberate actions that he would take. He would read a newspaper and see someone who had fallen in hard times. He would ask Zelda, his PA, to call the person. The person would not know him from above. He wouldn’t know the person from above because he read the newspaper story. He would call them and say, “I am Nelson Mandela.” The person was, “No way. It is Nelson Mandela.” Zelda will speak to them first, and so on.
Reaching out to people when they’re down is super important. It’s then that people need the most support that we have to show up for them. That was his leadership, those humane things. I took a lot of inspiration in my life from Madiba. I must be honest. These are stories that probably most people never tell about him, but these are the things that made him who he was. It’s giving those little compliments. You don’t have to be in the same room to give compliments. You can write an SMS, a WhatsApp, or a text. You can write a one-line email giving someone compliments or affirming what they have done to be the right thing. That would feel good.
I remember when Lindiwe Mazibuko became the official opposition’s head of parliament. I didn’t know her from above. I did not know this lady at all at that time. She was with the Democratic Alliance. I wasn’t for the Democratic Alliance. I was on the opposite end of it, to be honest. However, I recognize the position and ceiling she was shattering for women. I asked my PA to give me the biggest bouquet of flowers she could get for someone in Cape Town. We got that.
I remember walking into Sandton. I said, “I want a special gift she will never forget.” I walked into Sandton in Montblanc, bought her this beautiful white pearl Montblanc pen, and gave her a gift to say, “Thank you for what you’re doing for women in this country.” That’s all it was. The fact that I don’t believe in what the DA stood for did not cut sides. It transcends all those political differences and acknowledges the difficulty of getting into that position as a young person and a woman in general and making it work because, for me, it encouraged her to make it work. That was the issue. Getting them might be easy, but staying it is hard.
I have to ask you. How did Lindiwe respond? Are you close?
She called me. That was the first time we ever spoke. I’ve got a group called the Mentorship Circle. I take a group of people every year that I mentor. In 2022, she was one of our speakers in the Mentorship Circle. For the first time, she spoke about this, and you forget that you’ve done these things. She said, “You cannot imagine how empowered, affirmed, and supported I felt when I saw these flowers. I had never gotten these kinds of flowers before. You have no idea how it felt.” It was the first time she had publicly spoken about it to me or anyone else because we had never spoken about it. She said, “Thank you,” and that was the end of it. I wasn’t expecting anything from her. It wasn’t done for any gain.
That’s an important point too. It’s not done for any gain. It’s done from a very open-hearted and authentic space. Coming back to Madiba, you make a point. Is that part of the lesson you learned from him? We know that Madiba did that across various divides. It was inclusive. He reached out to all sorts of people to whom people wouldn’t imagine he would be connected. Was that part of the learning and the lesson from your moment with him?
For me, that was a key lesson. The privilege that I’ve had is to have Tokyo as a boss for almost ten years. Tokyo lives Madiba’s values daily, sometimes to the point of “know more now.” What I did not learn from Madiba directly, I learned indirectly through Tokyo.
I’m with you because Tokyo was on the board of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation was super close to Madiba. The reason why we could have access to Madiba as well was because of Tokyo. It wasn’t because of our importance in the scheme of things. It was because of the relationship between them which transcended politics. They were together on Robben Island, so all that put together. Tokyo was a real student of Madiba and Madiba’s position. He speaks about it.
I remember the moments when we also worked very closely with the Nelson Mandela Foundation board. Tokyo was in those meetings and stuff. Ironically, 2003 was the first time I met Madiba in person. Tokyo was a very important member of that board, and Mvelaphanda contributed to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. What a great privilege and a wonderful place to be. Do you think Mandela’s leadership is relevant now? If so, how relevant for this moment in time?
More than ever. To be fair, Madiba was a consensus-driven leader. That’s important, but he was also decisive. For me, that’s what matters. You must know when the consultation is over and it’s time to decide for yourself. We have seen him time and again do that to move the country. I do not believe we would have moved as far without that. For example, walking out with a rugby shirt was an important and seminal statement. That wasn’t the plan. It was his decision. He chose to do that.
For me, those are the important actual pointers that we need to have as leaders. It’s to say, “Leadership is not a popularity contest.” Consultation and being consultative are important, but it doesn’t abdicate your responsibility to make the decision. Sometimes I see leaders do that. That’s why sometimes we end up in a vortex. I look at things like our electricity provider Eskom. It’s not been able to resolve load shedding from 2008 to 2009.Leadership is not a popularity contest. Being consultative is important, but it doesn't abdicate your responsibility of making the decision. Click To Tweet
In business, if I was telling you if I’m an infrastructure provider, “We are not able to solve 2G. You can’t have permanent 2G. We have to load shed you and cut your office at certain times,” you would never accept that after so many years. For me, our patience around it is not justified anymore. It takes true leadership to change where we are. If you ask me if Mandela’s leadership philosophies, key leadership styles, and way of thinking are relevant now? It’s important. In fact, it’s crucial at this stage.
Given that, if Madiba were alive, what do you think he would say to the leaders of South Africa?
He would say, “Get on with it. That’s unacceptable.” He left us with a good legacy after his presidency. It was for us to take it to the next level. We have not been able to. I don’t think so. When it was the breaking point when we could have gone bad, we didn’t because of him.
What do you think those next three steps would be?
The first has to do with ensuring that we implement the policies we put into place. We have read great plans regarding the NDP dream of a world where we have eliminated poverty and children not going to school and being uneducated. I dream of a world where prosperity is a right rather than the privilege of the few. Those are the things that Madiba would say now: “I want you to be that dreamer that never gives up on that dream because it is only then that we will collectively be winners.”
In our final moments, are there any final thoughts about leading bodily into the future? Are there any final thoughts about Madiba’s message around his legacy, his life, and his leadership?
For me, one can emulate many areas of Madiba’s life. Whichever one you choose, choose it with boldness and also execute it with an equal amount of zeal. If you choose his humility, do so well. If you choose his humanity, do so well. If you choose his decisive style, choose it well. In leading with morality, choose it well. If you want to play to his street smartness, choose it and execute it well no matter what because it is only through executing well whatever we choose that we can leave a mark.
Yolanda Cuba, a woman who’s a trailblazer and a transformational leader, thank you for leading with your striving, resilience, and energy. I’m not sure where you get it all from but thank you for the mark you’re leaving. Thank you for your wisdom and for being part of this conversation.
Thank you so much, Anne.
Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that count.” How do you rate and feel about your life thus far? Do you enjoy learning new things or prefer to stick with what you already know? Do you mind making mistakes, or would you rather defend what you did with a finger facing forward at another? Are your relationships broadly defined by mutual caring, kindness, and respect? Do you find yourself often competing with somebody else? Do you have fun and take risks? Do you prefer to see perfection and fear failure?
If the responses to these questions are more on the OR side of the equation, then perhaps it is time to change your mindset and continue with courage. Scientific research and development psychologists like Erik Erikson or Harvard Professor Robert Kegan demonstrate that humans evolve. We go through several stages of development throughout life. It’s an ongoing journey of development, growth, and change. How do we develop a growth mindset, one of teachability that says, “I make mistakes and grow,” one of adaptability that says, “I transform and change,” and one of possibility that says, “I can be more, do more, and achieve the impossible?”
Yolanda Cuba shares an empowering story. Her mentoring uncle asked her, her twin sister, and her cousin to develop a computerized stock system for their shop when they were twelve. Yolanda and her twin sister worked hard for a couple of weekends in a row. Their cousin did not. It was not perfect, but they worked hard, developed a system, and learned a lot along the way. Her uncle richly rewarded them. He took Yolanda and her twin sister out to a fancy Ritz dinner and night out at an upscale revolving restaurant in Sea Point, Cape Town, South Africa.
He richly rewarded them for their hard work and effort and for doing what was possible and their best. He never told them what to do. He told them the story and shared it for them to listen to. He gave them the choice that the decision was theirs to make, but he did encourage a growth mindset of teachability, adaptability, and possibility. They knew it is not how good you are but how hard you work and grow and how good you wish to be.
Remember, until next time, that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon. Share with your friends, and join this Global Mandela Leadership Movement for change. Why? Because the world needs you to lead boldly too. Take care. Take thoughtful, bold action.
- MTN Group
- Nelson Mandela Foundation
About Yolanda Cuba
Yolanda Cuba is the Vice President: of Southern & East Africa of MTN Group, having joined in January
2020. She was the Group Chief Digital & FinTech Officer before her current role. She is the former CEO of Vodafone Ghana and former Group Chief Strategy Officer for strategy, new business, and M&A at Vodacom Group, covering South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, DRC, and Lesotho.
She has a wealth of experience in telecoms, financial services, and fast-moving consumer goods, among others.
Yolanda was one of the youngest CEOs of a JSE-listed company at the age of 29 years and has been recognized as CEO/Business personality of the year by multiple platforms over her 20-year working experience. She was also selected by the World Economic Forum as one of the Young Global Leaders and named one of the Choiseul 100 Africa by Institute Choiseul (France).
She has served on numerous JSE-listed companies as a non-executive director, including Absa Group, where she was the longest-serving member for 12 years before resigning in 2019.
Yolanda is a Chartered Accountant (CA SA) by training and holds BCom Statistics (University of Capetown), BCom Accounting Honours (University of KZN), and MCom (University of Pretoria) degrees. She is an alumnus of programs at INSEAD and Harvard Kennedy School. She completed the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School in 2022.
She is passionate about education and inclusive social and financial development. She has served on the Advisory Board of Stellenbosch University Business School, founded the Cuba-Mtyi Foundation, and has served on the Nelson Mandela Foundation Investment Committee since 2006. She is also the founder of The Mentorship Boardroom, a platform for mentorship where trailblazers mentor the next leaders in Africa. The Mentorship Boardroom aims to impact 1 000 000 lives in Africa, of which 70% will be women and children.
I can only say, wow! I need a whole weekend to read, reread and process. So inspired. So energized. Brilliant women in pursuit significance