The truth about being a woman in business in SA

Powerful quotes from the Play to Win book from some of the country's leading business brains


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This article forms part of the Women's Month 2015 series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of August, will shine the spotlight on female business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

The central message of Donna Rachelson's new book is succinctly put by Diane Schneider, head of talent and transformation Deloitte Southern Africa. She is just one of the many women in business quoted in Play to Win: What Women can learn from Men in Business

"I find it exasperating that women won't learn men's rules, because if you know them, you can use them to your advantage," she says in the first chapter of the book. 

Rachelson is a businesswoman, branding and marketing specialist. The basic premise of the book is that women should use every tool available to them to succeed, including traditionally "male" ones. 

Some of Rachelson's ideas may sound familiar, especially if you have read American author and business woman, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In which has gone on to sell over 15 million copies since it was first published in 2013. 

Rachelson's book however does offer a South African perspective. She references local published research and gets quotes from South African women who are occupying some of the most senior leadership positions in the country's biggest corporate companies including: Melanie Botha who is consumer channels group executive at Microsoft SA, Koo Govender CEO of VWV Group, Trish Wilson partner in charge of accounting and financial advisory at Deloitte and Touche. 

The words that these women share with Rachelson are where the book really shines. The women candidly share stories of the experiences they have undergone in their professional lives, the hard won lessons and the truth about the business world that not many people will tell you.

"Act and contribute towards the job you want to be promoted into"

Here is a round up of some of our favourite quotes from the book.  

1. The differences in how men and women play the game

"Men use their business relationships differently - often its about building a network, pure and simple .... By and large, they're not at work to find meaning or fulfillment. They're there to play a game and - most importantly - win" - Donna Rachelson, book author 

"Women have much more natural instincts when it comes to linking the dots, to making connections. I think it’s because they do it in their personal lives" - Melanie Botha, Consumer Channels Group Executive at Microsoft SA

"It's evident to me that when you view business as a game, your appetite for risk is higher - you make quicker decisions and there is less emotional attachment. Work becomes fun and you are able to see it from a totally different perspective" - Donna Rachelson

2. Don't wait to get noticed 

"Men command attention in the boardroom. They sit in a posture of authority. Men own it" - Koo Govender, CEO VWV Group 

"Act and contribute towards the job you want to be promoted into" - Monica Singer, CEO Strate

"You have to find strategic ways to verbalise what you have achieved. We talk about the 30-second lift pitch – if you’re in the lift with the managing director going from floor to floor, or if you only had 30 seconds to communicate to him or her, what would you say?" - Jo-Ann de Wet, Operations Director McDonald’s 

3. Results and deliverables

"Many women just don't realise how important this focus on deliverables and results is - and how the business world unconsciously grooms us not to focus in this area" - Donna Rachelson

"To be respected you have to work hard. You have to understand the needs of the business. You have to equip yourself, in terms of continuing to educate yourself. You have to devise a clear strategy on how to meet the expectations of the business" - Clarissa Mack, Executive for Regulatory & Policy Affairs MIH Group

"Remember that the business you work for exists for one purpose: to make money. If you don't align your career path with that purpose, and focus on building the business with a clear head and the requisite financial understanding and business acumen, you will soon be overtaken by those who do" Donna Rachelson

"Use the people in your networks, not only to gain, but also to give"

"Business is an art – it’s about how you brand and sell a concept. Women fail dismally in this area. I’ve noticed this on two or three big projects.Women have great ideas, but they don’t know how to package it to get other people’s buy-in. They don’t spend enough time on implementation, and they don’t focus on the numbers. The financial aspect is very important – how you link things back to the bottom line.Women seem to struggle with that" - Melanie Botha

"In every decision I’ve made I’ve asked, does this really make a difference? If this position didn’t exist, would it make a difference in this organisation? For me that is very critical. I like to be in a position where I can see what value I really add" - Nomsa Chabeli Mazibuko, Group Head of Marketing MultiChoice

4. Fake it until you make it

"Sometimes women don't take the leap, because they feel they're not ready yet. They don't take enough chances. Women don't sell themselves well enough. And they need to learn that they don't need to know it all" - Melanie Botha

"They [women] don’t want to do things until they are 100% ready, and usually feel (according to their own criteria) that they are potentially only 70% there. They are far more risk-averse. Men are much better at pitching how well they can do a project, even if they have no clue – we can learn from that" - Jo-Ann de Wet 

"Men fake it till they make it, I’ve seen people get into positions where they’ve totally oversold themselves, and they have no clue. And they’ve faked it till they got it right" - Koo Govender

"So it’s not so much faking, as living and rehearsing it until it becomes automatic, like a great actor learning a new role and then performing it night after night until it’s hard to tell where the character ends and the actor begins" -  Donna Rachelson

 5. Networking

"Women are so scared that people will think badly of them if they have a commercial conversation, that people will think we are using them. But this is a tainted view" - Diane Schneider, Head of Talent & Transformation, Deloitte Southern Africa

"Use the people in your networks, not only to gain, but also to give ... Make contact when you need to, even though you haven’t spoken in months. And you don’t have to have a big title to add value.Women feel bad about picking up the phone and asking. But it’s important to recognise other people’s expertise" - Grace Del Fava, Head SPF Micro Marketing Sanlam

"Men are quite shameless about leveraging their networks at every opportunity. They know that the people in their network will return the favour. And they use their network in a variety of ways: to make use of the skills pool, others' introductory power, for advice - for anything really. This is an area where we really need to learn to play like the boys" -  Donna Rachelson

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