Nyembezi on her new role as incoming Standard Bank chair

‘I would be an extension to the suit of armour that the bank has already on the table’ – Nonkululeko Nyembezi.

FIFI PETERS: She’s a woman of many firsts. She was the first female chair of the JSE, Africa’s largest stock exchange, the first female chair of financial services group Alexander Forbes, now AlexForbes. She was also the first female, I think, to lead the steel company ArcelorMittal SA at one stage. And now she is soon to become the first female chair of the Standard Bank Group, the biggest lender on the continent by assets. That is happening in June this year.

I’m talking about Nonkululeko Nyembezi, who was actually appointed to Standard Bank’s board as an independent non-executive director in 2020. So she’s been on the board, but she’s going to be switching chairs as of June to become the board’s chair. She joins the Market Update. Ms Nyembezi, thanks so much for your time. First of all, a big congratulations.

A friend of mine actually sent me [news of] your appointment in my Twitter DMs, and she’s really excited because she shares the same name as you. It’s quite a big thing for women in the corporate sector. You could have said no – you had that option – but you didn’t, you said yes. So just talk to us about that. Why did you accept the job?

NONKULULEKO NYEMBEZI: Good evening Fifi and your listeners.

In going into the board in 2020, I had a chance to take a look, firstly, at where the business is at, what it’s planning to do, get a feel for the people around the boardroom table, in the management team driving the various forays of the bank into new markets, into new segments potentially over time, and tackling climate change and all the challenges that we all know about. I think I determined that for me personally it was a good fit.

It was a good fit because it came at a time when Standard Bank was tackling much more than its normal share of challenges as a bank, because it had to deal with technological change and therefore new players that were nibbling [at its] lunch. It was tackling an area of accelerated growth in some of the economies of the African continent.

Read: Nonkululeko Nyembezi appointed Standard Bank Group’s new chair

It was in all of this also changing [the] business model to become something a little bit different and maybe a bit sexier in the future. And I liked the people and respected them as a group. And so, yeah, I thought that I could contribute to what the bank was trying to achieve over the next little while.

FIFI PETERS: And just on that contribution, because I’m sure these were questions that came up in the process of recruiting the new chair as to ‘How do you make us better, how do you take us forward as a chair, what exactly are you bringing to the table?’ my question to you is what was your answer to some of those questions? What are you hoping, what value are you hoping to add to Standard Bank as its incoming chair?

NONKULULEKO NYEMBEZI: Well, against all of the challenges and changes on the horizon – actually some of them not even on the horizon any more, they’re here and now – I thought that a chair with a highly diverse range of skills, experiences, activities under their belt would serve the bank a lot better than somebody coming in purely from the banking industry, remembering there are plenty banking skills around the table.

So what I think I bring are perspectives from actually quite a few different areas as you introduced me, not only in financial services, although different from banking, but also in industry.

I think at any one time having a solid experience skillset on core industries in South Africa, as we are trying to recover post-Covid, is actually quite an important element to bring to the table.

I have worked before on the broader rest of Africa space and the space not only that I think I understand to a reasonable level, but I also enjoy and think that I gained a continent that wishes to see more integration, someone driving that part as well.

I would be an extension to the suit of armour that the bank has already on the table.

FIFI PETERS: Certainly. Your pedigree of experience speaks for itself. In fact, ahead of our discussion, I stumbled upon an article that was written many moons ago in which you were headlined as a being a woman of steel. I mean, at the time you were working in the steel industry at ArcelorMittal South Africa, but you have held numerous positions following that.

You’ve been a ceiling-breaker. As I said in my introduction, you are a woman of many firsts, and I’d just like to understand: what’s your secret sauce?

NONKULULEKO NYEMBEZI: Would you please repeat that? Just that last bit where you swallowed your words a little bit.

FIFI PETERS: The fact that you’ve been able to shatter so many patriarchal walls and barriers as it comes to the boardroom table and the executive within the corporate sector – what is your secret sauce to doing so for those females who are looking at you, behind you, hoping to one day achieve the same thing?

NONKULULEKO NYEMBEZI: Well, look, it would be really sort of self-congratulatory to say it’s hard work and all of those things. A lot of these opportunities just come because you happen to be at the right place at the right time.

Granted, you need to be ready to actually grab an opportunity, but there is a certain element of that readiness and having worked hard at many different things and applied yourself, but there is an element of luck. So I don’t think we should ever forget totally that aspect of it.

But let me just say that whenever I sit and reflect about this first and that first, I don’t actually feel terribly happy and find that to be particularly flattering. We should not in the 21st century, in the second decade, still be talking about firsts of this kind.

However, I do absolutely acknowledge with humility just the journey that’s been covered, and find it very gratifying when it gives girls and women the kind of thing that says, ‘Hey, if she can do it, so can I’, because quite honestly there is nothing particularly special about me.

FIFI PETERS: Very humble, but I agree with you. We shouldn’t be celebrating firsts in 2022. All of this should have happened many, many moons ago.

But it seems like there is a positive current of change. Just last week on the Market Update we were joined by Emrie Brown, who is coming to Rand Merchant Bank as its first female CEO. Just look at what’s happening in the mining space in which you’re still serving as a board member on the board of Anglo American; look at the transformation that is happening there. Mpumi Zikalala is the first female CEO of Kumba. You’ve got Nolitha Fakude, who is the first female chair of Anglo American [SA], and even Nombasa Tsengwa, who is taking over as a CEO of Exxaro.

So, while perhaps this should have happened a long time ago, do you think that the direction of travel presently in opening up positions formerly occupied by men, that that direction of travel is going at the right pace presently, or do you think it can be improved?

NONKULULEKO NYEMBEZI: Well, I think all change, particularly change in big, big ground-breaking areas happens incrementally really, really slowly, and then suddenly reaches a tipping point and things seem to happen all at once.

I would posit that we haven’t reached that point yet, but all of the examples that you’ve just pointed to now tell you that the direction of travel is positive.

Essentially I think what is starting to happen is that organisations, the progressive ones, leading ones, have long been just eating away at those areas that have been identified as particular blocks for women – whether it is working hours and the flexibility around that, whether it is nursery facilities on the premises to make it easier for mothers, whether it be just eating away at the unconscious bias that permeates organisations – shows that women of talent and mobility can move ahead.

As I say, we very, very clearly haven’t reached that, but we are starting to see the early movers [beginning] to show the results that are possible. And the women that you’re speaking about are not by any means in any kind of ‘soft areas’ which traditionally have been associated with women. They are in really hardcore, hard areas of industry and mining and financial services.

So I am really excited and, hopefully when I see that tipping point you and I will get to speak again. So you see, it’s happened. It has taken us – I don’t know how many years we’ve been banging on this drum. But yeah, I’m really, really excited.

FIFI PETERS: I look forward to that conversation, ma’am, but we’ll leave it there for now.

That was Nonkululeko Nyembezi, who is soon to be the first female chair of the Standard Bank Group.

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