#1 Winter 2014

A leader who needs no pinstriped suit

When Zandile Nkhata found her own voice as a leader, she found Africa’s top business school was listening.

Zandile Nkhata, the Director of the Business Development Unit at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, is helping shape the future, vision and direction of Africa’s top business school.

The UK-trained chartered accountant admits that despite her vast corporate and senior management experience, she found her appointment as business development manager at the GSB daunting at first.

“Initially, I was terrified by the prospect of being the head of business development in a globally recognised organisation of this magnitude. As a woman in a leadership position, particularly as a black woman, I come with baggage and having been trained in the accounting environment, which is very male, very white, I wasn’t sure what kind of a leader I could authentically be … I was afraid I had to be something I wasn’t, afraid of losing myself.”

As part of her acclimatisation to the school, Nkhata enrolled in the school’s flagship Women In Leadership programme, and that, she says, made all the difference. “It changed my life. The course helped guide and shape me – I didn’t need the pinstriped suits, I didn’t need to consume large doses of testosterone. I could be a leader with ME at the centre. What a relief!”

Nkhata describes her leadership style as quiet and marked by listening, contemplating and questioning. “I like to try and take time to think, to question, to experiment. I consult, I deliberate and the programme really helped give me the tools to do that.”

But her vision for the school is anything but quiet. She leads a team that has significantly increased business for the GSB, and is the founding director of a newly established business development unit team of 23.

Nkhata’s roots are in the UK, where she was born and trained, serving articles at PricewaterhouseCoopers (London), her first job, and then working at the BBC in Television Drama. But her heart was in Africa, where her parents, Zimbabwean activists, were born. She missed making a more meaningful impact and decided to join VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas), taking up a volunteer lecturing position at the University of Fort Hare.

Making the transition from London to the small, rural town of Alice in the Eastern Cape was not easy. “It’s a tiny town in the middle of nowhere – home of one of Africa’s greatest universities, one that has produced some of Africa’s finest leaders. That said, it was quite a shift from London life! It literally took me three months to acclimatise! Although the work was challenging, it was also deeply fulfilling.”Seeing the hunger for knowledge and the effect her teaching had, shaped much of her future outlook on business education. She went on to climb the corporate ladder in South Africa, working at KPMG and Executive Perspectives, among others. Her work increasingly took her towards leadership training and management knowledge sharing and these interests finally brought her to the Graduate School of Business.

Nkhata feels strongly about providing training to leaders in a specifically African context. “We are not in Europe or the US and we need to be developing African leaders and managers, helping them to ask, ‘How can I be a better leader in my context?’”

She believes the growth potential in Africa is huge and that the school has a responsibility to provide relevant and appropriate executive education – reading markets and creating the kind of courses that can help leaders make a difference to their communities. While the job is challenging – she has been through two restructuring exercises since she joined the business school – she is acutely aware of the responsibility that she has to develop people.

“As I get older I think a lot about where I come from and the fact that I am really only one generation away from extreme poverty. If I had been born to my father’s brother instead, I would have been raised in vastly different circumstances: a village with no access to electricity or running water. My father had the benefit of education; he went on to have tea with the queen! So the power of education is something I truly believe in.”

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