At Henley, dreams really do come true

For more than a decade, Patrick Williams put off getting a formal qualification to back up the work he was doing. Then, an opportunity to attend Henley Business School Africa gave him the break he needed, boosting his confidence and enabling him to get a promotion that he’d applied for four times without success. It was, he says, an emotional achievement.

Selling always came easy to Patrick Williams, drawing praise and job offers, but for a long time the lack of a formal accreditation to back up his abilities meant he struggled to take his career to the next level.

It didn’t matter so much at first, when just selling in itself proved to be a lifeline. It was in his first job, working at retailer Pick n Pay, that Williams discovered his love for selling through his interest in people. By chatting to people, helping them find something they needed, he quickly became, he says, “that guy who knows everyone”, and knows how to get whatever you needed.

Recognising his talents, colleagues and clients encouraged him to go into sales. Which is how he landed his first job at a call centre, selling insurance policies. Soon he was one of the top salespeople with the company, doing well enough financially to buy his first car and to help out at home.

Not too long afterwards, a friend who’d left the call centre recommended Williams for his next opportunity, selling car insurance. Williams again proved a standout performer in this job. So good was he at it, in fact, that one of the people he’d sold a policy to convinced him to come for an interview at her company to sell medical scheme memberships. And so it kept going.

But it was around about this point that he discovered that not having a formal qualification was going to hold him back. For one, it limited his earning potential. “So even though I was earning more in commissions than other salespeople, I was never going to get their basic salary,” he recalls.

Job offers would come pouring in thanks to his track record, and the many conferences and meetings he was attending, but once the formalities had to be addressed, he was repeatedly being told that he wasn’t employable as he didn’t have the necessary degree.

“I always wanted to be an account manager, to go out and get new clients, build relationships, manage those accounts,” he says. “But I knew I could never do that without a formal qualification.”

He tried to remedy the situation by signing up for a self-study course that would give him the NQF Level 5 higher certificate missing from his résumé. But sitting alone in a room grappling with unfamiliar concepts proved hard and he was not able to complete the course.

Frustrated, and with opportunities passing him by, Williams recalls. “I got very despondent because my career was beginning to stagnate.”

Things started changing when, in 2015, he moved to Hollard Insurance as a broker consultant. Under the mentorship of Herman Louw, then branch manager with Hollard, Williams thrived, moving up to performance coach and, when the company underwent some restructuring in 2015, to junior account manager.

Now just one rung below the job he so desired, the lack of a certification again reared its head. He applied for a position as key account manager at the company no fewer than four times. Eventually he was told that it was simply not going to happen without a formal qualification.

The opportunity to finally get the missing paperwork came in 2022, when his managers nominated him for a place on the Higher Certificate in Management Practice (HCMP) programme that Henley Business School Africa was offering to Hollard employees. The course was a departure from the self-study courses he had tried before. There were regular in-person classes, for one. And even when he was working on assignments on his own, there were other class members he could engage with.

Henley also introduced him to a new way of studying. “You don’t always sit with a book,” he says. “In class, you have conversations on a topic, and in ways that you can understand that topic.”

Dean and director at Henley Business School Jon Foster-Pedley likes to say that one of the things the school does well is to de-jargon the world of business, so that it is not a barrier to entry, and Williams definitely thrived in this environment, easily mastering the key concepts he needed to advance in his workplace.

His year at Henley wasn’t without its challenges, however. He had to balance his studies with his job and his family commitments. “It was a question of how I structure my time around being a husband, being a father, and being an employee?” But he drew strength from family, his religious faith and his belief in the company to persevere. His wife and two young children keep him grounded, he says. His faith in God taught him that there are things other than money to pursue. As for Hollard: “I believe in what the company wants to do, and the vision it has.”

The commitment paid off almost immediately. He had barely wrapped up the course when Hollard advertised another opening for key account manager. For the fifth time, Williams sent in his application and this time the job was his!

After some 15 years in the industry, having a formal qualification has changed the way he feels about himself as well, Williams says. He is now more confident and, if anything, more ambitious. Buoyed by the success on the HCMP, Williams has immediately jumped into the Advanced Certificate in Management Practice at Henley, the second in the school’s unique, accredited undergraduate learning pathway that is designed to enable working South Africans like Williams to get the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree while they work.

He remembers his graduation at Henley’s Johannesburg campus with joy, even if his wife couldn’t be there with him. “I felt so overwhelmed and filled up with emotion,” he says.

“To think that here’s this guy from Mitchell’s Plain, who didn’t really think of going any further in life, and here’s someone calling his name on a stage to say he’s earned a certificate through hard work… I sent my wife a message and told her I feel like I could cry.”

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