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A quietly gutsy and reflective leader

Henley Business School Africa alumna Lolly Gwabavu, the group head of Leadership Development at Nedbank, lives the values she advocates around lifelong learning, personal mastery, and ongoing human development. Hers is a holistic view of life, work, and relationships, which resonates deeply with the concept of human-centred, conscious leadership.

Gwabavu’s career started at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), where she studied industrial psychology and economics. By the end of her studies, she knew that working with people was her focus. In pursuit of this ambition, she started working in a generalist human resources role but, after six years, her desire to help people advance in their personal and professional journeys pulled her towards organisational development and learning. She has excelled in this space ever since.


A great deal of Gwabavu’s work, and that of her team at Nedbank, involves advising busy line managers and business leaders. It is in these important interactions that Gwabavu has found tremendous value in her coaching qualifications – skills she first honed at Henley.


In 2011, Gwabavu obtained a Professional Coaching Certificate from Henley Business School Africa. At the time, coaching was still fairly new and there were few places offering formal qualifications, but the year-long programme proved to be an ‘amazing experience’. ‘I think that’s where I developed an appreciation and respect for Henley’s approach to learning,’ she reflects.


Since her positive experience at Henley Business School Africa, Gwabavu had been keen to work with the business school in a professional capacity, but it was not until 2016 (while at her previous employer) that she began working closely with the Henley team. ‘We had delegates on their HCMP [Higher Certificate in Management Practice], ACMP [Advanced Certificate in Management Practice], and PGDip [Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice],’ Gwabavu recalls. ‘Just from a values, mission, and purpose perspective, that alignment was definitely there. So, it was a really, really strong partnership, which continues.’

A love of learning

As Nedbank’s group head of Leadership Development since November 2022 – and with some 30 000 careers to help guide and inspire – Gwabavu continues to work closely with Henley Business School Africa to develop emerging leaders identified through the bank’s established talent management structures. While business programmes have a core place in the development of leaders, Gwabavu believes the starting point for any leadership development journey lies in personal mastery. After all, leaders must first understand how to lead themselves before they lead others.


‘One of the positives about Nedbank is that we believe everyone has the ability to be a leader. Leadership is not a position or a title, it’s a disposition. At the same time, different levels of leadership require different levels of capability, so we develop leaders from those who are just starting their formal leadership journeys all the way to leading a business or enterprise,’ says Gwabavu. ‘I’m busy finalising a leadership pathway that we are building for our learner system that focuses on leading self and influencing.’


Formal development programmes are part of this developmental process, as is mentorship, which Gwabavu benefitted from during her career. ‘I do a lot of informal mentoring, and I’ve had so many mentors … people I can role model and learn from, and who have brought encouragement,’ she explains. In particular, she singles out some ‘badass female leaders’ during her days in the engineering and logistics sector, women who ‘gave me so many opportunities’ as well as a male manager who ‘100% believed in me’.


Personal insights and challenges

Working on herself has also helped Gwabavu manage her own career path, in spite of both external influences and internal battles. One theme she addresses is the importance of getting out of your own way. ‘We are shaped by our experiences, what has happened to us, and how we frame situations. This means we can sometimes develop a certain mindset that is not the most conducive to a straight path to a goal,’ she explains.


For instance, when she joined a leading earth-moving business, it would have been easier for a young Gwabavu to conform to the standards of the almost 80% male-dominated, Afrikaans-speaking culture. However, she made a conscious decision to be true to herself and agitate the organisation to ‘bend and shift’ around her. ‘It’s the norm now, but in 2002, to go to an interview with dreadlocks that were not all nice and neat was quite revolutionary,’ she recalls. ‘I remember getting feedback around that and questions, and just having to stand my ground and say, “This is who I am, and this is what I bring”.’


The company did ‘bend and shift’. Today, the organisation that often had no separate ablution facilities for women on site when Gwabavu joined is consistently recognised for its holistic approach to gender mainstreaming and diversity efforts.


This experience lingers with Gwabavu, who learnt that, as a young female leader, you do not have to adopt masculine qualities to succeed. Instead, organisations can become more inclusive. As a woman, she knows this fight is far from over; recalling how during her second pregnancy – which she rushed due to health issues – she fought back against a discriminatory company policy at her then employer, which tried to dictate when it was appropriate for women to fall pregnant and also cut women out of fully participating in annual bonus structures if they were on maternity leave.


Gwabavu continues to be a passionate advocate for women’s equality, so much so that how women leaders build leader identity through self-awareness is the theme of her master’s dissertation, which she submitted the weekend following this interview.


Leading from within

Reflecting on issues of self-awareness and self-belief among South African leaders, Gwabavu acknowledges the current host of complexities and issues. Nevertheless, she maintains that South Africa has positive and impactful leaders who are doing great things. ‘These leaders have foresight and they are planning for the future in a space where that optimism is not readily available,’ she asserts. ‘They are still building futures for people and taking responsibility. I think that’s amazing. We look at Mike Brown, our own leader, and there is this feeling of energy, motivation and focus…. So, kudos. We have ecosystems where things are actually happening and people are able to move forward.’


Globally, Gwabavu believes there is a growing acceptance that leadership does not start and end with government; it is about people, communities, and neighbourhoods. ‘I’m excited by that,’ she says of the maturing of community involvement in South Africa and a return to a more straightforward time when ‘we were all responsible for each other’.


A South African perspective

What informs this view and enables Gwabavu to appreciate South Africa through a deeper lens is her unusual upbringing. While her parents are both South African, Gwabavu grew up in exile, only returning to South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.


‘I’m that child that grew up her whole life being told “When we get home”, while living in all these different countries,’ she recalls. While her parents instilled in her a strong sense of being a proudly black South African, her sense of culture and identity were formed with ‘never having set foot in South Africa, not knowing these experiences, not knowing this family’.


As a result, when the family returned to start building a life in the Eastern Cape, Gwabavu often felt like an outsider in her own land, and to her people and culture. She would often shrink from the limelight to avoid being singled out as different. Fortunately, coaching proved beneficial as a means of understanding this dislocation in herself, and how important it is to acknowledge the past and challenge ingrained assumptions.


In her work, where reflective and transformative leadership is so critical to corporate longevity and the future health of the country, Gwabavu sees particular relevance in guiding others on a similar journey of personal development. ‘Maybe we’ve been forced, as a country and because of our past, to invest in people. This is important work; after all, there is more to business than just getting ahead,’ she muses. ‘There are broken communities and people [in South Africa] who have been disempowered. So, everything we do is within that context.’

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