Winning Women – Sharmla Chetty:??Creating leaders?in Africa

2014-09-14 15:00

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Sharmla Chetty sweeps into a room talking a blue streak, her energy and determination lapping over everyone as she talks about education for people in the corporate world.

“We want to contribute to building the next generation of leaders,” says Chetty, the regional managing director in South Africa for Duke Corporate Education (Duke CE).

It has a global educator network of more than 1 000 people – from traditional academics and educators to anthropologists, actors, ballerinas and race car drivers.

“We’re a blend of both business and university, yet we are distinct from both,” she says.

If that sounds contradictory, Chetty’s examples of how Duke CE operates will soon clarify its modus operandi.

“We create a courtroom experience during which students are presented with the issue ‘on trial’. Participants learn that it’s their role to be legal counsel in either charging or defending the case. They build an argument, which they later present before a judicial committee,” says Chetty.

“In this manner, the issue becomes very real and not some dusty, boring lines in a textbook.”

Duke CE also creates an authentic boardroom so that women, for instance, can understand what it is to operate in one. They learn to understand the nuances of boardroom speak as well as the unwritten rules of engagement.

“On one occasion, we took a class to a hospital’s intensive care ward so everyone could understand the pressures and tensions of split minute decisions,” says Chetty.

“We have doctors and judges and experienced board members teaching our courses. The aim is to make the

learning stick, to help people to retain the information we give them and to apply it at work.”

In one of its initiatives, Women Leading Africa, Duke CE links up with a head-hunting company, which gives participants some idea of the kind of companies on whose boards they might sit.

Chetty points out that Duke CE has been consistently rated among the best in corporate education. “It was ranked number one in the world in custom executive education by the London Financial Times in May for the 12th year in a row.”

Chetty, who opened the SA office in 2006, has helped build it, she says, into Africa’s pre-eminent corporate education provider. She’s driven the profit, revenue and growth for the company through delivery in 17 countries in Africa.

“I’m busy working on new countries that we can expand into. It’s really important that we develop the skills and capability needed by African companies to make an impact on the world stage,” she says.

Chetty also focuses on helping organisations develop their talent in such a way that it will be sustainable for long-term growth.

She has worked in industries ranging from natural resources and financial services to healthcare, mining and fast moving consumer goods in Africa, China and India.

Before being head-hunted by Duke CE, she was the head of human capital development at Nedbank and left it with 20 years’ experience. “So moving to Duke CE was a natural progression,” she says.

Chetty displayed strong leadership abilities while at

Merebank High School in Durban, where she captained the netball and athletics teams. This also emerged when, as a 15-year-old, she became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, protesting against the unequal education system.

“This led to me being expelled for all the right reasons,” she chuckles. “But I had to repeat a year. And then I paid for my University of Johannesburg [formerly Rand Afrikaans University] studies by working part time at Checkers.”

She started at Nedbank in 1989, working her “way up the ladder there, and doing everything, even two jobs at the same time if it was necessary”.

She agrees that it was a big risk moving from a secure and well-paid job to get Duke CE off the ground in South Africa. “I had to start off on my own – and at grass-roots. Furthermore there are many business schools in South Africa that provide excellent leadership courses.”

Chetty believes the fact she had no limitations imposed on her and could innovate in any way she chose, helped her establish Duke in South Africa. “Two of us started here and there are now 20 of us.”

She attributes her determination and drive to a grandmother who had a fruit and vegetable stall at the popular Durban Market. She says: “My grandmother taught me to think and behave like an entrepreneur.” Her father, who always believed Chetty could do anything, had taken considerable risks in business. “He taught me that we have to fail to learn how to succeed.” Duke CE works with entrepreneurs too, “inspiring them to create societal change that they can take back to their communities”. Chetty’s big dream is to see women become economic drivers for Africa. “Not only are they responsible for households and a vast economic spend, which is not always recognised in the manner that it should be, but every day I see how they’re increasing their impact in business and leadership.” Little pink book

Business tip: Recruit people who are better than you because one’s natural tendency is to worry about being outshone. Once you are comfortable in your own position, you will be able to recruit those who are talented, smart and even extraordinary.

Mentor: Mike Canning, my current CEO. He walks the talk – the true mark of a leader.

Business book: Drive by Daniel H Pink. He writes in this, his fourth book, the carrot and stick approach is so last century. For 21st-century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Inspiration: Find your passion in life and then it is no longer work.

Life lesson: Even if you are a little nervous at times – and who isn’t – learn to accept failure as part of growth.

Tune in to CNBC Africa (DStv channel 410) at 9.15pm every Wednesday for Women on Wealth

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