CEO Faith Khanyile explores the competitive edge of diverse leadership

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CEO Faith Khanyile explores the competitive edge of diverse leadership

Feb 29, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

Good leaders are bold leaders, says Faith. They are courageous when it comes to defining and designing a strategy, yet also realistic about whether the goals are achievable. The best leaders, in her view, are those who manage to find a balance between being brave and accepting reality.

‘A good leader also acknowledges that leadership is all about the people,’ she says. ‘People must be at the centre of what you are doing. You should be interested in their development because without a team that is inspired, motivated and engaged, you’re not going to be able to achieve your objectives.’

Faith spends much of her time coaching and exposing employees to challenging situations. ‘If you do not stretch people, you will not influence their growth. You must delegate tasks and trust that people are capable of them.

‘Leadership is also about remembering that it is not about you; it is about the stakeholders you serve – your clients, shareholders and communities. It is about putting their interests ahead of your own, which requires humility and a mindset of service. In addition, a leader must be willing to learn because no single person can claim to know everything.’

Women-led leadership

Looking back, Faith says the highlight of her career was being involved in founding and later running WDB Investment Holdings. During her tenure as CEO, the entire board was led by women and the company paid out tens of millions of rands as dividends to shareholders. She is also proud of the impact the company has had on women, young people and the unemployed.

‘We had a programme to incubate unemployed graduates and we managed to induct them as full-time employees in the companies we invested in. Our success rate in this regard was over 90%. It’s rewarding to think that a small team – we were only about 13 people – could be involved in bringing about impactful social change. The graduates we started bringing in around 2016 really needed mentorship because they came from families where nobody previously held a white-collar job.

‘I’m also proud of the bursaries that have enabled underprivileged students to attend university. We partnered with the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, where most of the children are from rural backgrounds. It is heart-warming to know that we were able to change the direction of their lives, which, in turn, also positively affected their families and communities.’

When I ask Faith about the lows of her career, she talks about seeing how the COVID pandemic impacted a number of the companies WDB invested in. She fears that some of those in the education and service sectors may never recover.

‘Another low was having to retrench people at Standard Bank,’ she laments. ‘Where people are let go because of poor performance you can at least rationalise it by saying they had an opportunity to do better but failed to do so. But with retrenchments, you take away bread from people’s mouths through no fault of their own. It is incredibly difficult, because at some point you may even have interacted with their families and then you have to tell them that you are going to take away their source of livelihood.’ 

Life after WDB Investment Holdings

In May 2022, the company announced that Faith had resigned to pursue personal interests and spend more time with her family. She continues to chair the WDB Growth Fund, a separate fund whose shareholders include WDB, Standard Bank, the Jobs Fund and Ascendis Health.

She is also a non-executive director of Discovery, Bidvest and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). These seats hold serious fiduciary responsibility, she says, and she takes time to read and understand every aspect of the board pack late into the night. The appointments she has accepted are for companies whose vision and mission aligns with her own and she is passionate about how see can contribute to overseeing their strategies.

To Faith, there is no set way to define success; it depends on what drives a person. ‘For some it is financial success, for others it could be something else. For me success is defined by how I feel at the end of each day. I reflect on whether I achieved what I set out to do and whether it is aligned to my purpose. The sense that I am fulfilling my goals is what tells me whether I am successful or not.’

Part of success is also about having a positive impact with your actions. Reflecting on women in leadership, Faith observes that there have been some positive changes in the corporate landscape, but that much can still be done. Of the JSE-listed companies, women make up approximately 20% of the board members and 6% of CEOs.

Diverse leadership

‘Considering women make up 51% of the population, it is quite sad that we are so underrepresented in corporate leadership, especially when research shows that entities with diverse leadership perform better. I have resigned from some boards because I realised the companies were not serious about transformation. They claim they are unable to find women who are capable of being directors, but my view is that they are not trying hard enough.’

Faith may have resigned from WDB Investment Holdings, but she will be a lifelong champion for women’s rights, as her views on the gender pay gap show. Women, on average, earn less than men for doing the same work. To be part of driving societal change, WDB Investment Holdings has therefore partnered with the International Women’s Forum and South Africa’s Businesswomen’s Association to advocate for legislation to address the problem.

Away from work, Faith loves learning new things. She is back in the classroom learning Hebrew as part of her embrace of the Kabbalah discipline. She recently took up mountain biking and she also loves running. Given her driven and hardworking personality, it comes as no surprise that she has completed the Comrades Marathon three times.

This article is a brief extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – Secrets for Success from South Africa’s Top Money Makers – available here

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