JHI: Marna van der Walt

JHI: Marna van der Walt

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You were recently named Top Women of the Year in Business at the 2010 Topco awards. What does winning the award mean to you and what do you believe it takes to stand out from the rest in this way?

Winning the award is very gratifying because it gives recognition to me and my team for years of hard work. In terms of standing out from the rest, I am in the position I am in today partly because of the actions of some brave men, who had the courage to give me a break in an industry that wasn’t a particularly female domain. For example, when I was seven months pregnant with my first child and head of Financial Audit at Gensec, I was given the opportunity to build a new financial function. Another courageous man gave me the opportunity to be CEO for Gensec Property Services for a three-month contract to prove myself. When you are given such opportunities you need to show the people who’ve taken a chance on you that their trust was well-placed. You work hard, pursue excellence and deliver results.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in your career?

To find the self-confidence to be me and to do things on my terms. When you are climbing the career ladder you see so many role models who you might try to emulate, but before you can be successful you have to accept yourself for who you are. Only then will you find the confidence that’s required for success.

What has been the most important lesson?

I think everyone starts out their career with certain financial ambitions, but when you reach those goals early on you can find that they are quite empty. You need to find something more meaningful than financial gain. For me, working within and serving a team is where I found meaning. It was an important lesson.

Has there been anything that hasn’t come naturally to you in business, and that you’ve had to work hard to master?

I still struggle with public speaking and am always trying to improve my mastery of English, which is my second language. I am sure there are many people in business in South Africa who can relate to this particular challenge.

I also come from an accounting background so I knew I was good at buying, but I had to work hard to build up confidence in my ability to sell. Under your watch at JHI, 58% of employees, 54% of management, a third of the board and 15% of the shareholders are female. What advice would you give to women who want to get ahead in business?

Start off with the best possible qualifications, and remember that it is possible to study even if you don’t have money. I studied while I was working, and so do many other people – it just takes discipline and dedication. You’ll also find that one qualification funds the next because it allows you to get a better-paying job.

After that, it’s down to hard, hard work – nothing replaces a solid output. Don’t spend too much time looking for rewards over the long-term. Focus on the job at hand and look for rewards for what you are doing now. If you do the very best you can in your current position, the rest will come.

Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.