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7 Questions on Leadership with Polinah Gatawa

Name: Polinah Gatawa

Title: Senior Banking Executive

Organisation: Absa Group

I am a seasoned executive leader with a wealth of experience spanning more than two decades, I have successfully led high-performing financial services teams. My skill set includes expertise in central functions, driving innovation in product and solution development, and overseeing client segment teams to execute effective go-to-market strategies. In my most recent role, I held the position of Chief Operating Officer for two substantial business units within the Corporate and Investment Banking Division of Absa Group, one of Africa's major banking institutions.

On a personal note, I am a mother of three—a dynamic 11-year-old, wise beyond her years, and spirited 5-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. I am happily married to a mathematician, and together, we've embarked on the journey of relocating to Australia. Our family home is a haven of music, with our eldest mastering the piano and violin, the twins exploring the piano, and my husband skillfully playing the bass guitar. As for me, I've humorously opted out of playing an instrument, choosing "Nails over Strings."

Our emigration to Australia signifies resilience and a willingness to embrace opportunities and the unknown, reflecting the adventurous spirit that defines our family.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Polinah's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

The challenging aspect I have encountered is navigating the delicate balance between fostering humanity within a team while ensuring the efficient accomplishment of tasks. Leading high-performing teams, I've consistently faced the intricate challenge of recognizing and respecting the unique qualities of individuals. People, with their diverse perspectives and personalities, bring a richness to the team that requires careful consideration.

Simultaneously, working within the intricate landscape of complex systems poses its own set of challenges. Financial services entail navigating intricate processes, and overseeing central functions and client segment teams necessitates a deep understanding of these complexities.

On a personal note, being a mother of three, each with their distinct personalities and needs, has reinforced the importance of acknowledging the individuality of each team member. While steering teams toward innovative product development and go-to-market strategies, I have strived to create a work environment that recognizes the inherent differences in people.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My leadership journey is a testament to resilience, determination, and a commitment to continuous learning. At 18 years, facing financial constraints that deterred me from full-time university, I packed my one bag and moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Enrolling in distance learning, I embarked on a self-driven pursuit of education and professional qualification.

Balancing work and study, I not only earned my degree but qualified as a Chartered Accountant. This challenging journey demanded self-management, as studying part-time required discipline and dedication without a safety net. Despite these hurdles, my educational pursuit didn't stop there. I continued to seek knowledge, undertaking part-time studies for my MBA and a Post Grad in Digital Business.

Remarkably, during my part-time studies for my Honors degree, I achieved a ranking in the top 0.5%, standing alongside students who had pursued full-time university education. This accomplishment underscores not only my dedication to learning but also the caliber of my academic achievements despite the unconventional path.

Coming from a large Polygamous African family, where I am the eighth of seventeen children, I unknowingly began honing leadership skills at a young age. Leading my family, bringing unity among siblings, and coordinating efforts became second nature. It was a responsibility I assumed without realizing its significance at the time. This early experience unknowingly laid the foundation for the leader I am today—a leader forged through overcoming challenges, continuous learning, and an innate ability to bring people together.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Recognizing the finite nature of willpower per day, I prioritize efficiency by meticulously writing down tasks and relying on comprehensive notes and reminders, placing emphasis on the most critical aspects I structure my workdays with meticulous planning, relying on notes and reminders to maximize efficiency.

Delegation plays a pivotal role in my workflow. I surround myself with individuals possessing complementary skills, enabling me to distribute tasks effectively. This strategic approach ensures that each team member leverages their strengths, contributing to overall productivity.

Throughout the day, I track tasks and progress, maintaining a structured overview of ongoing projects. However, I intentionally reserve personal messages and non-urgent communications for the end of the day. Despite these efforts, managing personal messages has been an ongoing challenge. The sheer volume, particularly on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, often accumulates, creating a balance issue between professional and personal life.

Adaptability is a key principle in my daily routine, as the nature of my responsibilities evolves based on the role I am in. This flexibility allows me to align my strategies with the unique demands of each position.

While I have achieved success in maximizing productivity through strategic planning and delegation, the challenge of efficiently managing personal messages is an area where I continue to adapt and seek improvement. I recognize the importance of finding a harmonious balance between personal and professional communication to maintain healthy relationships with family and friends.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

A recent leadership lesson that has been reinforced for me is the importance of bringing the voice of the voiceless into decision-making forums. Traditional hierarchies often structure meetings, potentially sidelining valuable insights from those who may not have a prominent voice. Embracing diversity, particularly incorporating the perspectives of younger individuals who are often tech-savvy and have unique insights from platforms like TikTok and Snapchat, is crucial.

Acknowledging the need for diversity of thought means actively seeking input from all levels within the organization. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute ensures a broader range of perspectives, fostering innovation and informed decision-making.

Additionally, the reminder that it's okay to ask for help is a powerful leadership lesson. Leaders don't need to have all the answers, and seeking input or assistance demonstrates humility and a commitment to collaborative problem-solving. Furthermore, I strongly believe that hiring individuals who are a lot smarter than me is a strategic move that brings diverse skills and expertise to the team, enriching the collective capabilities.

Lastly, embracing vulnerability as a leader is crucial. Acknowledging uncertainties or seeking support when needed creates a culture of openness and authenticity. This, in turn, fosters stronger connections within the team and empowers others to share their thoughts and concerns openly.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I don't have just one impactful book; rather, I draw inspiration from a variety, including works by Dale Carnegie, Eckhart Tolle, Yuval Noah Harari, audio books by John Kehoe, and lessons from the Bible. Each contributes unique insights to my leadership journey.

One book that has had a profound impact on my leadership is "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. The book's central message, urging readers to realize deeply that the present moment is all we have, has significantly influenced my approach to leadership. Tolle's emphasis on making the present moment the primary focus has become a guiding principle in my leadership style, emphasizing the importance of being fully present when leading. It has taught me to make a difference in people's lives by truly listening, adding value, and fostering a sense of connection in the present.

In "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari, a particular passage resonates deeply: "We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine." This perspective on history has broadened my horizons, reminding me that our current circumstances are shaped by choices and possibilities, offering a valuable lens for navigating the complexities of leadership.

Dale Carnegie's works, especially "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living," have been instrumental in shaping my leadership philosophy. Lessons such as putting other people first, being genuinely interested in others, and the importance of asking questions instead of giving orders have become integral aspects of my leadership approach.

Carnegie's wisdom, encapsulated in statements like "Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him," and "Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude," has reinforced the significance of humility, continuous learning, and maintaining a positive mindset in leadership.

These books serve as constant sources of inspiration and practical lessons, guiding me to lead with presence, empathy, and a genuine commitment to understanding and adding value to others.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

If I could offer one piece of advice to a young leader, it would be to be fearless and unafraid to speak up. Embrace Ralph Waldo Emerson's profound advice on trusting your instincts. He highlights the transformative power of creating and believing in your thoughts, stating, "In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Emerson emphasizes the importance of believing in your own thoughts, recognizing that what is true for you in your private heart can hold truth for all—a quality he defines as genius. Trust in the greatness of your ideas, and don't underestimate the impact your unique perspective can have.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

One impactful story from my leadership journey occurred during my tenure leading the front office Private Banking business. I encountered an exceptionally talented individual contemplating leaving the Bank to start his own business. Recognizing his leadership qualities, I insisted he stay, expressing my belief in his unique capabilities. In a light-hearted manner, I even mentioned I would work for him one day, provided he paid me well.

As fate would have it, my role shifted, and he rapidly ascended through the ranks. From reporting to me, he was promoted to a director and eventually reached the position of Managing Director—a corporate grade even higher than my own at the time. Witnessing his swift ascent, I marvelled at how my initial recognition of his talent had manifested into significant professional growth.

Additionally, I've frequently inherited teams labelled as non-performers and transformed them into top performers. I firmly believe in unlocking the potential within individuals, often expressing that if you want something to grow, you should metaphorically pour you very best and most expensive champagne on it.

This experience reinforces the power of recognizing and nurturing latent potential, bringing joy from witnessing individuals thrive and surpass expectations in their careers.

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