Dr Thulani Phakathi talks here about about how it was an experience that was to prove transformative, and has shaped his perspective on the kind of leader he wants to be.
I must admit, going to business school was a little terrifying to me. While I had been in academia for 10 years, finding myself at Henley Business School Africa as part of the Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB) Graduate Programme last year, was a very different prospect. But I needn’t have worried. I was enrolled on Henley’s Higher Certificate in Management Practice (HCMP) where I received training in personal leadership and other facets of the business world that was both insightful and transformational. Now that I’ve had my first taste of business school, I naturally am keen to continue – I have my sights set on an MBA! But in looking forward I also look back wanting to take stock of the journey that got me to this point.
Whenever I am asked about my life and career, how I got to where I am now, I am somewhat at a loss for words. I am often surprised, myself, at how I got here. So my response usually starts the same way: I believe that the only reason I am where I am today is because God has been leading me here. It is the only answer that makes sense to me.
I grew up and attended school in Manzini in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), completing matric in 2007. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mother was a street vendor, selling fruit, vegetables and snacks. I would take over her stall after school and help out over weekends and holidays. She made sure that I never missed school.
But our circumstances meant that going into higher education was a pipe dream. Instead, after school I ended up taking a job as a salesperson at a music gear and repairs shop – Destiny Music. It was an opportunity that would change my life. After some time, the owner came up to me and said, Thulani, your future is bright. You’re able to do more than this. What do you want to do with your life? I explained that I had always wanted to work with computers and was doing a certificate in telecommunications at the time. But that my real dream was to go to university in South Africa. Mr Lin – who started the company with no financial backing when he was 20 years old, and understands the challenges faced by young people when others don’t believe in them – offered to pay for my studies. It is a generosity that to this day I remain thankful for.
My life changed dramatically after that. In 2011, I headed for South Africa and North-West University, where I would remain for the next 10 years, doing my undergraduate degree, honours, master’s, and finally a PhD, which I finished in 2021.
Once I had my PhD, I came to a crossroads. Typically when you decide to move into doctoral studies, it’s because you’ve also settled on a career in academia. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted other challenges. And I wanted to do something that I felt would impact the African continent in a more significant way. So I started to look for a job that would allow me to do that.
Straight away, I discovered that getting into industry with a PhD is not easy. More than once I was told, “Dr Phakathi, you are overqualified for what we have available”. Fortunately, Nedbank was able to see past that. When I interviewed for a place on the Nedbank CIB Graduate Programme, which seeks to take university graduates and prepare them for a career in business and Nedbank, I told them that I wanted to learn new things, pick up new skills, and put myself in positions where I feel challenged. I don’t believe that anyone can ever stop learning if you want to be successful.
Studying at business school was distinctly different from my postgraduate studies in many ways, but the one that really stood out was how connected what we were learning in class was to the real world. We were often asked to relate what we were doing at work with what we were studying. Our studies were very much based on our lived experiences and our working lives. All the more so in the action learning project we had to complete, where we looked at how an organisation like Nedbank can value and invest in its people, and the returns they can expect from that investment.
My time at Henley also prompted me to think deeply about leaders and leadership, about the kind of leaders and leadership a country needs. When a country faces daunting challenges, as in Africa is often the case, you need extraordinary leaders, but they are few and far between. Take South Africa, where leadership is again under the spotlight in the face of the ongoing loadshedding currently facing the country. Finger-pointing and bickering appears to be the order of the day instead of accountability and action.
This brings me to a crucial question about my own journey: what kind of leader do I want to be? One who will walk the talk? One who understands what people want and need – which is not always the same thing? Above all else, I see myself as the kind of leader who can be honest and who will, when required, be accountable. Citizens and employees take their cue from their leaders. It’s in those moments where they learn what an organisation – or country – aspires to be. What its vision is, and whether leaders live up to that vision. It is then that citizens learn what kind of organisation and country they work for and live in.