“‘Redefine the Leadership Playbook” with Sharmla Chetty in the UK

 

We are in a pivotal global moment – a world of crisis, chaos, and conflict. A worldwide pandemic with countless loss of lives and livelihoods, a world teetering on the edge of a third world war, and a world on fire. Humanity faces the biggest existential threats of all time as a species. There is no leadership playbook for leadership at a time like this. We need a radical new way to think, act, and lead. This episode’s champion of change, Duke Corporate Education’s Global CEO Sharmla Chetty, joins Anne Pratt to discuss the changes happening and what leaders need to do to grow their teams and organizations in these turbulent times. It is out with the old and in with the new! Join Sharmla as she dives deep into her career journey, building leadership capacity in the education and corporate sectors, creating “The Davos of Human Capital event,” and more!

Listen to the podcast here

 

‘Redefine the Leadership Playbook’ with Sharmla Chetty from the UK

Out with the Old and In with the New – Duke CE Global CEO

A bold leader joins us from the sunny shores of South Africa. She lives and works on multiple continents and frequently travels the world. She is often based in London, South Africa, and the United States of America. She joins us from our hometown in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In her previous life, she spent nineteen years as Head of Human Capital for one of the largest listed banks in South Africa, Nedbank. She is an Aspen fellow and recipient of the 2016 Africa Award for Entrepreneurial and Academic Excellence. She is passionate about leadership as a multiplier force for good in business, societies, and the world.

To further the same, she has founded, co-founded, and led several initiatives, including a global forum called The Davos of Human Capital, a live streaming initiative for the youth of South Africa on the future of artificial intelligence, and the Woman Leading Africa Board Program. We warmly welcome my dear friend and Duke Corporate Education Global Chief Executive Officer, Sharmla Chetty.

 

LBF 21 | Leadership Playbook

 

Sharmla Chetty, my friend from Durban, my former hometown, it’s so wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming to share this conversation with us.

It’s an absolute pleasure. I’m so excited and elated. It’s wonderful to have my hometown girl interview me in South Africa. I’m excited to be a part of your show.

I’ve watched your career and known you for many years. You started in banking. You spent nineteen years with one of the big listed banks in South Africa and were Head of Human Capital. You founded Duke Corporate Education in South Africa in 2007. I thought of a very interesting place to start. Your purpose and passion are around leadership and transforming organizations and lives. I wonder, from your perspective, what do you think the educational sector has got right around leadership? Where do you think the current gaps are?

The education sector is at a very difficult point in history. COVID-19 has created that opportunity. A lot of people didn’t want to do online learning. All of a sudden, the whole world pivoted online overnight. There is an opportunity. It gives people access to education anywhere at any time. The notion of expensive business school programs has been at a disruption space where the sector had to rethink how they give access to everybody. The education sector is going through a lot of changes at the moment.

Most importantly, there is no playbook for leadership at a time like this. This is the time of experimenting, relearning, and unlearning for everybody in terms of leadership. Leaders have to prove it overnight in terms of leadership at the moment.

 

LBF 21 | Leadership Playbook

 

That’s so true. It’s almost like we have a blank sheet to work on. From sitting in your remarkable position, you’ve also done a lot of research. In your research, can you share with us what is coming through regarding some of the big leadership challenges and perhaps the disconnects between what leaders are tasked to do and their skill set?

As I alluded to, it is a difficult time. The most important thing is how you encourage somebody to find solutions to problems instead of telling you the problem. How do we draw lessons learned from success or setbacks at a time like this that we could use to navigate through those difficult times? Is it safe to take risks in a difficult economic time?

Leaders are facing those challenges at the moment. It’s important for us to understand that there is no playbook. There is no recipe for this. Sometimes leaders are saying, “Do I use my gut feeling? Do I learn from some of my setbacks or successes to navigate this complexity, especially at a time like this?”

Most importantly, at a leadership level, you must care, show empathy, and listen to your people. For me, the whole notion of caring is such an important aspect. It’s not just caring for the employee but caring for the larger ecosystem. When you have the employee, you have to think about the families and the communities too.

A good example is that COVID-19 has given rise to leaders to think about broader than the organization. An example is a company that I’m working with. The employees’ kids were struggling with remote studying. They allowed those kids to use their parents’ laptops and study during those periods. For me, that was sharing care and empathy.

 

 

The second example is around a technology company that you and I know about. They said, “Can we increase Wi-Fi access to employees’ kids as well?” It’s around key empathy and wellness. Wellness is key at the moment. A lot of employees are struggling with wellness. Organizations and leaders are caring. They’re not only thinking about profits. They’re thinking, “How do I care about my employees now?”

You make the important point that we navigate through these values and peaks. You’re a purpose-driven individual and leader. What has been a dark, challenging moment for you? Can you take us back in time? What was that specific moment? How did you feel at the time?

You may not know this, but I was expelled at sixteen. This was the most difficult time. I faced a lot of uncertainties. Imagine being expelled from school. Although it was a pivotal moment for me, it happened at sixteen. As a child, I was not allowed to oppose the government. I was not allowed to become an activist, but I was openly doing this at school. I had a voice. I was not going to be silenced. Being expelled was that dark moment.

My family felt that I was the ticket to getting a good education. It was important for them that I graduated from a university. My dad was unemployed. This was his moment. He was claiming his moment by investing in me and then me getting expelled. You can imagine that was tough for my family. I was known to be a fearless disruptor and an absolute rebel in my family.

Can we ask which school? Were you expelled because of your activism?

In apartheid, during that time, everybody was boycotting. I was at Merebank High. It’s Merebank High in Durban. I also started a bursary for the school. I also wanted to contribute by saying that this community invested in me. This is a community that believed in me. This is my way of contributing by providing a bursary program for the school.

That’s a beautiful outcome. I’m curious to know. In that moment of darkness, how did you pivot out? What steps did you take to pivot out of that? What was the outcome? Where did you go to school?

During that time, the kids couldn’t return to school. We had a court case where it was the parents versus the state. We won the case. Every child returned to school, but more importantly, I had this amazing grandmother. I realized her words were carrying weight. She was very motivational. She experienced difficult moments because she was wedded early. She had to take care of her family. She saw my pain and fear and realized I could be part of something bigger and more meaningful.

She had the power and the ability to lift me by encouraging me and inspiring me to have a vision, “Don’t get distracted regarding the difficult moments.” She also said that despite all the challenges, they ease light. I thought that was amazing because this journey, as you can imagine, was a very difficult time for my family. A girl is getting expelled from school.

What year was that?

This was in 1982. It was tough. During this time, I thought it was a very painful experience I had to go through as a child. I remember somebody saying to me, “The only job you’re going to be doing is to work in a cotton factory in Durban because if you don’t have an education, this is what will happen.” Immediately, my grandmother said, “She is someone that is going to be doing something bigger and exceptionally meaningful.” I believed in that. Although there was a lot of fear and self-doubt going through my mind, my grandmother was so positive and inspirational at a difficult time. For me, that was the big lesson. You still need to inspire, give good messages, and create hope in difficult times.

In difficult times, you still need to inspire. You still need to give good messages and create hope. Share on X

That’s so relevant for people and many dealing with the trauma of the current moment. That’s wonderful. Is your grandmother still with you? Is she still alive?

She passed away in 1984 as I concluded school or my matric here. I dedicated that year to her because she was so inspirational, even to the extent that she saved her money so that I could go to university. How amazing was that?

What a tribute to her. What a remarkable woman. How right was she that you’ve got something big, purposeful, and meaningful to do in the world? Let’s fast forward many years in your current role. You founded Duke Corporate Education in 2007 to become Global CEO. Can you share with us a moment in your career life that has been particularly challenging? Often there’s a messy middle. Is there a moment you can take us back that has been particularly difficult for you? What was the anxiety or the emotion then? How did you pivot out of that?

For me to leave a steady and lucrative post as the Head of Human Capital at Nedbank, I initially did a lot of work in leadership. When I started taking up this job, I stepped into the unknown. I had no idea about building Duke and starting from scratch, but there was one thing that I felt close to. It was education around social change and how I can pivot a nation. With all the injustice that went around with education, how could Duke be a catalyst or a change for that?

I launched Duke Corporate Education as the first Managing Director. You could imagine embedding a US brand in uncharted territory. It was difficult. We were competing with good brands in South Africa that have done fantastic work. I knew education was a key driver for social justice. I knew that I had to build that leadership capability and that this was my calling. I had no idea that this was possible because, at that stage, I knew I was a great hard worker. I had entrepreneurial skills early. I had a change in me but taking a brand unknown in South Africa and launching it was impossible.

It was a time when we had to rethink this. It was around getting a team. People say, “Having a vision and blueprint makes it easier.” I had a vision, but this blueprint was changing because I had to adapt to whatever I was experimenting with and trying different ideas. I was encountering so many challenges at the time. I had to change the vision and goals as we were moving on.

Does a particular moment stand out as a little overwhelming?

There were a lot of anxieties inside me. I had to project confidence, optimism, and a can-do attitude because I was bringing a team along. At this moment, we were hit with a financial crisis and lost three clients that had set up the brand. You could imagine the fear going into me by saying, “All these people came with you. What happens? Are we going to close down at this moment in time?” I had to project confidence in the team. It was a very difficult time as well. It was a scary moment at that time because you’ve got people with you. What do you do?

What was the a-ha moment?

The a-ha moment was when I decided to be more confident because this was possible. We believe that education is key.

It was a decision you made.

I said, “We’re going to go all out in this route and do this.” As a team, you have to tell each other the truth. I said, “It’s difficult, but we are in this together. This is our moment to create a great brand on the ground. Let’s do this. If ten doors are closed, we will knock at another 100.” We went. At that moment, a client called us, not 1, but 3 called us in that same week. We were shortlisted because we were writing proposals nonstop. We woke up at about 2:00 AM checking proposals. The next team was taking it on.

We worked nonstop until we got to the point where we thought, “Is this possible?” When we got there, three proposals and RFPs (Request for Proposals) were shortlisted in one week. We won all 3 in 1 week. You have no idea how happy we were. It was an absolute game-changer in the country because we already won 2 banks and one mining company. Two banks talked to each other. History was made with those two banks and a mining company.

We were firm on the ground because the contracts we won were huge. We had to employ more teams as well onto the ground. We said, “We want to employ the smartest and the brightest. People who are committed to the purpose and want to do education may not necessarily come from education but from consulting or technology. Let’s aggregate the best assets around us to build this brand.” That’s how it happened.

That’s a wonderful story. What I’m hearing you say is this commitment to the brightest and the best people and how you engage people. What were the leadership realizations around how you energize people at that moment?

One of the things is that you need to dig deep and engage your teams. When communication breaks down, you need to think about how to engage with your team members. The other part is that you must encourage your teams to ask for help because, often, teams may feel that there’s a fear of asking. One of the things I do very well is saying to team members, “You can ask me anything anytime. You can call me at any time as well.” They need to feel confident.

When communication breaks down, you need to think about how you engage with your team members. Share on X

The other part is that you must work with your team to say, “What do you need to deliver? What does success look like?” You align the teams to establish good performance and create a culture of accountability. We all then say what the KPIs could look like. You make that your priority. That was important, but more importantly, it was to engage the team to feel like I’ve got you in a very difficult time when you’re working with them as well.

If they come into work on a Saturday, you must feel that you, too, can demonstrate and role model the same behavior. Why should they come to work if they’re leaving their families behind? You think, “I can stay at home. No worries.” I often join them at the office and say, “How are you doing?” I encourage them to bring their families if they are coming to the office. It’s important that you understand their families, too, because when you are working with the employee, it’s not just them. It’s everybody in the ecosystem as well.

That’s such a powerful reminder of how we need to go beyond the face of the employee and understand the team member as a human being and what matters to them. I was curious. Perhaps that pivots well into the other question that came to mind. At Duke, you founded an initiative called The Davos of Human Capital. Can you share why the name? Tell us a little bit about who is involved. I know there are CEOs. Tell us a little about this initiative, why the name, and the purpose of this.

 

LBF 21 | Leadership Playbook

 

I have never gone to Davos, to be honest. I had always wanted to go to Davos. I thought, “Why not create our Davos?” Human capital people contribute to building the assets of people in the country. Collectively, we all face the same peer pressures about people development leadership. Let’s get everybody into the same room.

I have this crazy idea: “I want to do The Davos of Human Capital and extend this out to everyone else around the world.” The word Davos created a lot of challenges from a legal perspective. We had to check this out, “Can I use the word Davos?” Everybody was worried about the word Davos in working for an American university. We had to check it out. We got our lawyers to look at the words ‘Davos of Human Capital.’ Hence, it was created.

It was a crazy idea. I never got to Davos. I wanted to create my Davos. If you make human capital people accountable for the leadership in our country, they own the challenge. Collectively, we can all be accountability partners by creating a forum where we all can share ideas but, most importantly, learn from each other, experiment, and create a community that can help each other with the generation of new ideas.

What is it about Davos specifically that made you choose that brand name? Can you share with us how broadly and widely that initiative has reached?

It started small. In the first year, we had about eleven million views on it. We had about 700 people face-to-face. The event has gone bigger over the years. It started regionally in South Africa. Now, it’s an absolute global event. We have global leaders, CFOs, and HR directors worldwide, but I didn’t want it to be exclusively for HR people. The people challenge is not an HR challenge. It’s everyone’s challenge.

The people challenge is not an HR challenge. It's everyone's challenge. Share on X

I wanted everyone to be part of convening the people and leadership agenda discussion. Most importantly, what is the cutting-edge thinking that is happening? Whether it’s leadership, technology, cryptocurrency, cyber, or ESG, we all own the challenge at a global level. Leadership has no boundaries. Topics have no boundaries. Let’s all learn from each other. We have access to the best thought leadership. Let’s pull that thought leadership together.

That’s the idea that started it. We said, “Let’s learn from each other and unlearn from each other too.” It’s not just learning from each other. The whole notion of relearning happened too. I said, “Let’s also have fun in this process.” When we created this, we said, “Let’s have lots of fun doing it.” At one stage, my colleagues said, “Are you sure you want to get 700 people into the room?”

I said, “If we can’t, can we hire a crowd, please? I’m in serious trouble. I’ve got the best thinkers in the world coming to do this event. Can you make me a promise that we can do this?” In this process, somebody has to believe in your vision because it can’t just be you executing these crazy ideas. We have this vision. Can we all work together? Can we all own this thing together? Let’s create this as our idea collectively together.

There is Julia Cook on my team. She’s amazing. She said, “We can do this.” Another team member comes on. It’s a slow process, but eventually, you get a whole community believing in your idea. Once the people see the ideas taking off, they start believing in it and trusting you with it. Most importantly, it’s being honest in a difficult time when you have an idea. When things are not working out, you need to say, “It’s not working out.”

Did that happen in this initiative?

It often happens in the initiative because, in this initiative, you have ideas. People are believing in your vision. I’m brutally honest when things don’t work. I told them, “We don’t have enough stakeholders involved in this process. How do we get more stakeholders to believe in our vision?” How do you talk to them about saying that this vision can work and we can achieve this goal? At times, nobody is saying, “Is this possible? This is The Davos of Human Capital. It’s a crazy idea.” Having a vision and a blueprint makes it easier to achieve the aspired goals.

In this case, we had this vision. People were saying, “I’m not too sure.” In this process, I found that there wasn’t a lot of pressure regarding the idea, but I also had to listen and have an open mind regarding how I will work with others. It wasn’t just thinking. It was my idea; it was very important to bring others along in this process. I also realized that having an idea requires hard work behind the curtains to make success happen.

Having an idea requires a lot of hard work right behind the curtains to make success happen. Share on X

I had also to conduct a lot of research before I came to specific decision points, but there were times in this process when I had to turn back and say, “It’s not going to work,” to our team members. It’s important to set people free by allowing them the power to say to you, “It’s not going to work as well.” How can they become a good contributor to the idea? You listen to them. Sometimes you may have an idea, push ahead, and feel that this is the way to go, but there were times when I said, “Let’s take stock, go back, review this, and think about this thing differently.”

A good example is if you have 700 people in the room, is there an opportunity to create a space or an outside area screen where others can have coffee but still enjoy the conference? I said, “We are all in this room.” My team says, “How about creating a casual and intimate space where people can still have meetings but catch the event?” I said, “Absolutely.” In the process, it wasn’t going into a conference room. We had to create spaces.

There was another idea that came around creating Davos and replicating Davos. It’s creating little spaces around sessions about thought leadership early in the morning where peers get together to hear something new regarding remote work, the hybrid work model, and the future of work. People had a fifteen-minute think tank session as well. It was a wonderful opportunity to get a bigger team.

The other part is that you want team members to push you. You want team members to challenge you. I enjoy that. I love working with youngsters, continuously pushing me and helping me to think differently because I love the creativity of the young team members. They’re giving amazing energy as well in the process. They challenge you, “Come up with certain ways and think about things.” These guys are energized and saying, “We thought about it this way.”

To finish off, where has the impact spread to? I had the great joy and privilege of being part of your 2021 Davos of Human Capital. How big has it grown? How many people?

It’s now in over 90 countries around the world. It’s also in well over 2,000 companies that are attending as well. The thing is spread worldwide from Africa to South America and Asia. It’s spread dramatically. Everybody looks forward to the event. I recall somebody in Asia saying, “I would love to be a speaker at your event. One of the things you should think about is having 100 speakers.” We had about 30.

I said, “Why not have more than 100?” to my colleagues. The event is in 2023. It’s going to become The Davos of Leadership because we thought this is the time for leadership. This is a very important time in history. It’s a great moment to think about 2022, not just a two-hour session. Imagine if we did this around the world with different time zones. We could recreate this differently.

That’s an excellent pivot point. We are sitting in this pivotal moment in the world with great complexity and a lot of fear out there. In your mind, what are the big leadership challenges that define what is called out of us as leaders and our next generation to lead boldly into the future? What are those big moments or challenges that keep you awake at night?

The big challenge keeping me awake at night at the moment is the wellness of people.

Can you define that?

COVID has created a lot of challenges for people at the moment, like isolation and working remotely. You are finding that employees are saying, “I’m burnt out. I’m managing not just my work environment. I’m managing my family life as well.” Leaders need to be in tune with employees and what is happening. The second thing is around a time like this with leadership. How do you engage for impact?

In times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your team. As a leader, you must understand your team’s circumstances and distractions. You must find ways to engage, motivate, and inspire your teams all the time. We also understand that goals and revenues are essential, but if you don’t have people, you don’t have revenue and goals for an organization.

You need to think about what are you doing at the time to bring people on. It needs extra attention. COVID is a pandemic. It’s a health crisis. It’s also a financial crisis, but leaders need to think about their people first. They need to put their people and strategy before thinking about financial strategies. At this moment, leaders are grappling with managing people first.

 

 

The second thing leaders are grappling with is remote work or hybrid work models. They’re grappling with how jobs will change for the future because of COVID-19. Multiple things are happening within the leadership space. Most importantly, there is no leadership playbook at a time like this. You must rise to the experiment and be in tune with your people. Listen to your people and be open to your people.

What is courage? Courage is about care, empathy, and support. People think courage is about doing something like climbing a mountain. Mountains are here. We have people. We climb mountains every single day in our private or personal lives. You can imagine when you don’t have Wi-Fi for your child. That’s a mountain to climb. Leaders need to show care and empathy and empathy. Our dean often talks about being decent as a leader. EQ is important, but decency is more critical in this timeline.

In terms of that decency, is that about your care? What is decency?

Decency is about care, empathy, listening, and holding people accountable for what we should be doing for our society. That is embedding the notion of making sure that we all are responsible for an ecosystem rather than just as communities. Everybody around us is also thinking about decency in a time like this.

That decency is a beautiful entree into a leader that we both admire, respect, and love in many ways. Nelson Mandela as a leader spent 27 years fighting for dignity, respect, decency, justice, truth, and transparency. You’ve probably had many Mandela Moments, but can you take us back to one specific moment? What was the moment? Can you describe it to us? How did you feel at that time?

I talked about it. I had many Mandela Moments growing up. It was when I started building Duke CE and the brand on the ground and trying to embed agility into management and leadership. I remember when Mandela talks about how the power of education extends beyond the developmental skills we need for economic success. We can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation. That Mandela Moment was when I was trying to build this brand and giving up. I thought, “What would Mandela say at this moment?”

 

 

Did you have a conversation?

I did. I was sitting back in our offices with one of my colleagues. I used the phrase, “The power of education extends beyond the developmental skills we need for economic success.” It can contribute to nation-building. I said to her, “This is what we are building.” She said, “I get it now.” That is how we got the team together. That ‘Mandela Moment’ said, “We are not doing it for us. We are not doing it for Duke itself. We are doing it for our country as a nation-building project.” Duke was nation-building. We are going to contribute to this moment as part of our nation-building.

For me, that was that moment in time. We had to realize that we had to make some smart trade-offs. We had to understand that there would be lots of challenges coming our way, but we also knew that along the road, there would be success coming. Instead of thinking about all the things that can’t happen, we are thinking about all the possibilities and the best types of leadership that can happen through Duke in our country and ensuring we show those opportunities.

What year is that?

This was in 2009. When things were going bad as I alluded to, we said, “This is our moment regarding nation-building. This project we are doing building Duke CE on the ground is a nation-building agenda.” We’re contributing to the economic possibilities of our country, not just from a growth perspective. We are talking about people’s growth. That’s how the teams felt at that moment in time.

That’s such a powerful story. You’ve taken Duke way beyond contributing to South Africa as a nation but your impact on the world. Share with us. How did that step up several gears to put you into this role with this vital purpose in the world? What created that quantum leap for you?

Africa has fantastic opportunities for leaders to learn globally. We can experiment. We understand resilience and failure, but most importantly, we are positive and hardworking as a nation. We are determined that this is possible. There was a massive opportunity for the global organization to see this team as a promising startup but, more importantly, that these models could be replicated elsewhere. People like you, Anne, can be taken from Africa into the next part of the world. It’s called great leadership.

We’re exporting talent from one end to the other instead of importing talent. For me, that was around how we transport our talent around the world because we never know the answer to no and impossible. We know it’s possible because we understand that failure comes our way. There will be setbacks in our way, but we also understand that we can change that more positively for us.

I’ve taken teams and transferred them to Asia. I’ve taken them to the UK and back to the US. For me, it was taking the recipe of South Africa’s hardworking nation. It’s a nation of determination. It’s a nation that sees failure as an opportunity, that sees hope, and that can dream big. We saw this with Nelson Mandela’s perseverance and resilience. We have that as a nation.

It’s implanting that elsewhere. That was wonderful to see that in teams. I took up the role of leading Europe and Africa. It worked well. I moved talent around by sharing experiences from both geo-political regions, but more importantly, learning from each other is essential. South Africa cannot stand on its own in the same way; it stands together with the rest of the world. For me, it’s about how you pull the whole thing together collectively. That was the magic in this entire thing.

That’s wonderful. Let’s imagine for a moment that Nelson Mandela did the opening to the next Davos of Human Capital. What do you think he would say?

Nelson would say, “The most powerful weapon you can use to change the world is education. I’m so glad you’ve taken this challenge and have not disappointed me. You went ahead despite all the adversities and laid Duke CE on the ground. I encourage you to keep on doing good work and never stop doing good work. Most importantly, keep innovating because you are responsible to the nation and the youth. Make sure that you keep going.”

Keep on innovating because you have a responsibility to a nation. You have a responsibility to the youth. Share on X

I can almost hear him uttering those words. I completely agree. To turn a little, here are some fun one-liners about you on a more personal note if you can share this with us. You’re a woman of the world. You started in our hometown of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. What is your favorite city and country in the world?

My favorite country in the world is Norway. My favorite city in the world is still Durban. I love the humbleness and kindness of the city, where you can learn and unlearn. Most importantly, it’s a city that cares for each other. It’s the humanity of the city. You don’t get lost in a city. It’s the kindness of everything around it. When I wanted to sort myself out, I came back home. I feel so safe in the city.

Often I say this. It brings out so much that the body needs to manage self-care around yourself. There’s simplicity. It allows you to reenergize yourself as well. I love Norway. I love the mountains, the oceans, the fjords, and the color. I love the beauty of the place. I love the food as well. I enjoy the people, too. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.

Which city within Norway stands out?

Oslo.

Can you share something about yourself that very few people know about?

People don’t know this, but I love sailing. I enjoy sailing. I love cooking. I’m a great cook. My mom was a great cook. Late in my life, I started cooking and enjoyed it a lot. I take a lot of pride. When I want to de-stress, I do a lot of cooking. I also enjoy climbing mountains. I climbed Mount Kenya. I would love to climb Mount Kilimanjaro at some stage as well.

We share that passion. There’s something quite special about that. Share one thing that you’re very excited about in the world.

The ESG agenda is quite close to me at the moment.

Can you explain that?

It’s the environment, governance, and social pieces. For me, it’s putting purpose into action. The big question is how we go beyond our material world and higher purpose. Most importantly, how do you bring the planet and people together sustainably? That is the most important thing because the whole ecosystem is coming together now. I’m excited. How do you put ESG on every single person’s agenda? It becomes the DNA of not just corporations but individuals because if I look at the youth, they want to join organizations for a social purpose and what that means. It’s an exciting time that ESG is in the center. It’s playing a higher order at the moment.

The other part is that when I think about the youth, they’re getting more technology-savvy. These youths are having a voice. How do we give them more platforms? How do they influence the things that are happening around us? That is how you create that moment for them to become part of a conversation. Wherever I go, I encourage that as well. We need to bring the next generation forward. We need to help them and create space as well for them. Women are so close to my heart. I created Women Leading Africa Board Program. We also know that women are going to be economic drivers. More importantly, how do we support each other as women as well?

In our final moment, are there any final takeaways in terms of our generation and the next bold leaders who want to lead with competence, care, and skill into the future? Are there any final takeaways?

Be open to new ideas; be open to unlearn and relearn all the time going forward. Share on X

The playbook of the actions that drove us will no longer be here. You need to adjust quickly, develop action plans, figure out how you can strengthen and build direct connections, triangulate, and help each other in the situation. Create networks and be open to new ideas. Be open to unlearning and relearning all the time in the future.

What a great joy to speak to you. I can’t wait to be together in person. I would love to be at one of your dinner parties and experience your culinary skills in the kitchen. You’re a trailblazer, an inspirer, and a bold future leader. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you so much. It was an absolute pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much for having me.

Talking to Sharmla Chetty takes me back to our transformational work with cabinet ministers, boards, and executives in a top internationally-aligned executive search firm where we researched, coached, and assessed around 10,000 top potential leaders in South Africa, Africa, and beyond. It reminded me of the leadership demands that came when South Africa transformed from an oppressive autocracy into a modern stable democracy pre, during, and post-Mandela’s presidency when he was elected as the First Democratically Elected President of South Africa.

It was a time when a Black majority took over power from a fearful White minority and a time when together, we needed to allay the anxieties and fears of many minorities, build a non-racial society and heal multiple angry and deep divides. It was a time that was out with the old and in with the new. Fast forward to now, we are living in a pivotal global moment, what I like to call a Mandela Moment or a twin-pillar moment of despair and hope.

Albert Einstein once said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” We don’t need to be an Einstein genius to know that the leadership models are broken. They’re not working. They have been broken for a long time. On this global stage and in this current age, we face unprecedented existential threats, challenges, and opportunities that transcend our national borders. It’s a time when national thinking and populist nationalism can no longer survive.

We also know that we are living in a radically changed world at a time that not only requires but demands bigger and better thinking, bold new actions, and a global leadership movement for change. With what Nelson Mandela did for and with South Africa and the world, you, too, can become a radical new thinker, a bold disruptor, and a courageous champion of change emboldened and inspired by Mandela’s life and leadership.

The world has done it before. We can do it again. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful and clear choices and that bold leadership is about taking bold actions one small step at a time. It’s one step for you, but together, it’s one giant step for humanity.

You, too, can throw out the old and bring in the new. Why? It’s because the world needs you to lead boldly, too.

 

 

Important Links

About Sharmla Chetty

LBF 21 | Leadership PlaybookGlobal CEO Duke Corporate Education

Sharmla Chetty is a visionary driven by one purpose – transforming organizations and society through leadership. She is passionate about achieving sustainable outcomes in what she terms ‘professional justice’- diversity, equity, inclusion, and women in leadership. Her areas of ongoing research include board leadership, the future of work, humanity and technology, and people practice and processes.

In her current role, Sharmla oversees Duke CE worldwide. Previously, she took care of business operations and global markets at Duke Corporate Education (Duke CE) to ensure alignment with a strategy for the company globally and its regional practices in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. She also leads client relationship management, advisory work designed to maximize the impact of client learning and development efforts, and leadership solutions to build strategic capacity and capabilities for clients worldwide. Sharmla brings extensive knowledge of each market and industry, collaborating with leaders across the organization to achieve measurable results.

An expert in emerging markets, Sharmla provides a global perspective to clients, with deep local experience in a range of industries, including financial services, healthcare, mining, petroleum, and FMCG, from working in many regions, including the USA, Europe, Africa, China, and India. Enlisting her global team, she engages in every market to build resilient business disciplines and networks to drive change with leaders in industry, key political stakeholders, community leaders, academic institutions, and consulting partners. She also focuses on developing business growth plans by studying economic trends and revenue opportunities and, analyzing organization operations, identifying opportunities for improvement, optimization, and systems enhancement.

Sharmla is a strategic advisor to the board and c-suite leaders, coaching senior executives on how to grow their revenues and profits; implement effective strategies; shift culture, build accountability systems and elevate performance.

Sharmla founded the South Africa office for Duke CE in 2007 and grew it into the continent’s preeminent custom executive education provider. Before joining Duke CE, she was Head of Human Capital Development at Nedbank for over 19 years, where she focused on building the next-generation leadership pipeline. She is currently a board trustee for the AVI Group of black shares scheme, the BCG Development Trust Chairperson, and an Aspen Global Leadership Network member. As part of an Aspen fellowship program, she implemented the Women Leading Africa Board Programme, building Pan-African bench strength for women serving in board positions for Africa.

Sharmla was a finalist for the Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2016 for Education and the recipient of the 2016 Award for Entrepreneurial and Academic Excellence on the African Continent. With her deep commitment to building leadership for a better world, she led Duke CE in hosting The Davos of Human Capital event in 2020, convening global CEOs, CHROs, and thousands of participants to discuss how leadership can be the force multipliers for positive change in business and society. In 2019, she also founded #MillionYoungMinds, a live stream with Sophia the Robot to one million South African youth on the topic of artificial intelligence and its impact on the future of South Africa. she is a founding member of a mentoring circle designed to mentor and coach South African youth.

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