“How do children spell love? T-I-M-E” – Jack van der Merwe, CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency

On Friday, 11 October 2019, three leaders shared their time and wisdom with delegates of the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies Leaders on the Move tour, in association with the Gautrain Management Agency.

The attendees visited Carla da Silva, regional general manager of Africa and Latin America at Air Mauritius and chairperson of the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA); Jack van der Merwe, CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency and Ambassador Dr Konji Sebati, CEO of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa.

The tour started at The Maslow Hotel in Sandton, where award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster Redi Tlhabi welcomed guests to the day’s proceedings.

“Much of what I learned as a journalist didn’t happen at university,” Tlhabi said, “but through conversations, learning on the job, and reflecting deeply on other people’s experiences. See today as an opportunity to have meaningful conversations and tap into the lived experiences of CEOs.”

Humble beginnings foster great leaders

“We are on a journey of building a South Africa of our dreams and dialogue is an important part of that journey,” Tlhabi said. “I’m especially interested in hearing people’s stories of how they got started.”

Dr Sebati and Da Silva spoke about the mammoth obstacles they had to overcome to reach success. “I never thought of myself as a leader. I wanted to be a good person doing a good day’s job,” Dr Sebati said. A medical doctor specialising in paediatrics, Dr Sebati has been working in the public and private sector for over 25 years. She obtained a Bachelor’s of Science degree from the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo) but when she applied to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, she was denied access.

“Those days even if you were accepted you had to get permission from the minister of interior,” she explained. “He said yes, but decided I must do dentistry instead.” Dr Sebati refused to compromise her dreams and in 1976 went to Kenya to do her MBChB degree at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta Hospital. “I got on a plane and went to Kenya,” she said. “What has driven me throughout my career is courage.”

Da Silva started her aviation career as an SAA flight attendant. “I was told that women don’t belong in the cockpit,” she recalled. “I thought I would be given credit because I was performing. But I’m Portuguese and a woman, so I couldn’t be a captain. That experience taught me to be a humble leader and to take people with me on my journey.”

The power of collaboration

Da Silva spearheaded Air Mauritius’s Travel Smart programme, which aims to make travel to Mauritius more accessible to African families by working with its competitors and stakeholders. “We now have a lot more women and people of colour on aeroplanes. That shows the power of collaboration and partnership.”

Like Da Silva, Van der Merwe values collaboration. “You have to work as a team and tap into the skills of the people in the room. If I have more than two engineers in the room, I’m getting the same perspective.”

Tlhabi said, “The Gautrain is one monument I’m very proud of – we need world-class public transport infrastructure to unlock economic leadership. But it takes skills, leadership and collaboration to bring that about.”

Van der Merwe reflected on his role: “I am merely a conductor in an orchestra. I have to get each person to play their instrument to the best of their abilities. Surround yourself with people with different skills that think differently. In a room of diversity, there is so much wealth, knowledge and expertise.”

Dr Sebati established 21 primary healthcare clinics in the peri-urban and rural Odi District in Pretoria. As the hospital administrator at the 200-bed Odi Hospital in Ga-Rankuwa, she developed a model of collaboration between public and private doctors as well as traditional healers.

Through the model, traditional midwives learned new skills and started working in the maternity ward. The hospital engaged traditional leaders to help educate people about taking their medicine, first for TB and later for HIV/AIDS. “Once you involve the community in their own healthcare, it becomes more rewarding. They felt part of the healthcare system.”

“It’s very important that you are authentic and courageous – people must trust you.” Dr Sebati said that having an “us vs them” mentality towards traditional healers is not helpful in public healthcare. “Make them feel valued – people remember how you treated them. Acknowledge their expertise and show them what it could be.”

Connect with people

“You need a network of people,” Dr Sebati emphasised. “I still keep in touch with people I’ve worked with. Some have been so important in my career – I write to them every six months. Every relationship is yours. You never know when you’ll tap into it later.”

“Early in my career, I surrounded myself with coaches and mentors,” Da Silva said. “Leaders need to connect with people and establish trust. You can’t do it on your own; you need a strong team of men and women.”

“You can only make a success if you can connect with people,” she added. “You need to lead with your heart and your mind to set yourself apart and innovate.”

Keep reading and learning

Dr Sebati reads widely and believes you can never stop learning. “Every night before I go to bed I listen to a podcast,” she said. “Learn from others; you can never know everything. It doesn’t have to be in your field. Everything you learn will impact on what you are doing.”

Da Silva said, “Read biographies about people you love and those outside your industry. Take notes, develop yourself, and grab every opportunity.”

Van der Merwe follows Michael Simmon’s five-hour rule of deliberate practice – setting aside an hour a day to read, reflect and experiment. “You have to be a continuous student for the rest of your life,” he said. “You can learn something from every person, so have an open mind.”