While a teenager in Limpopo, Priscillah Mabelane, BP Southern Africa’s new chief executive officer (CEO), told her father she wanted to be a chartered accountant.
“They had no idea what I was talking about, but I was clear and I achieved my goal,” she says.
“But eventually, I came to understand that I really wanted to be a CEO.”
Mabelane became chief financial officer (CFO) of the British oil and gas giant six years ago.
“It was when I got the CFO role that I then realised I wanted to be a CEO,” she says.
Mabelane attributes her success to her upbringing.
“My dad, a business leader, worked hard,” she recalls.
“Book-keeping was part of his office duties. I used to work there as a typist during school holidays. Typewriting teaches you to be more diligent because if you make an error at the end, you have to start all over again from the top.
“So, you have to be focused and diligent. These are attributes I have grown up with.”
Mabelane says she grew up as a typical village girl in Mabocha, near Groblersdal in Limpopo.
This is where she attended primary school and where she and her classmates learnt to count using sticks. Mabelane’s grandmother used to accompany her on her daily walk there.
Now, dressed in a light grey suit, her braids neatly tied into a knot at the back, Mabelane seems irritated that her promotion to CEO has caused such a fuss.
She says it is “exceptionally disappointing that in 2017”, people consider her appointment to be so newsworthy, pointing out that it should be “the norm” for black women to lead companies.
“I do not want to be a special story ... I just want to be an example to women that it is possible,” she says, adding that her parents were not surprised by the news.
“I just thought I had to work twice as hard to be where I am.
“I have dealt with perceptions and challenges, but what has made these worse is the fact that I am not only a woman, but also black. In our South African culture, we still have a long way to go in terms of dealing with racism.
“I deal with all these issues and try to prove myself all the time.
“Everyone is capable. It is all about our will, the culture and the tone we set to ensure that the environment is conducive for everyone to blossom, irrespective of their gender and race. This is the part that I struggle with.”
"I do not view my mistakes as failures"
Mabelane, a mother of two daughters, says she wants her success to “demonstrate to women that we are all capable”.
“To do that, I have to be above reproach in everything that I do.
“I have to work hard and be dedicated. Equally, I have to make sure that I do not create a principle that women need to be exceptional to be able to succeed”.
Mabelane’s advice to others wishing to make it big in business is not to be afraid of making mistakes or even shedding tears.
“I have made so many mistakes in my career. I do the same in my personal life because I am no different from anyone else.
“However, I do not view my mistakes as failures but as learning opportunities.
“I have cried a lot. I still cry now and then. This is where the vulnerability comes in because you are human.
“We all need to understand that.”
If there is one thing Mabelane would have done differently earlier in her career, it would have been spending more time with her children.
“There were times, during the early stages of my work life, when I was ambitious and competitive. I would have liked to spend more time with my daughter, but at that stage, career was top of my mind.
“If I had to do it all again today, I would do things slightly differently in terms of balancing my priorities.”
Later on, Mabelane set firmer boundaries.
“When my girls were in high school, one of my priorities was dropping them off at school three times a week. My personal assistant would have to reschedule meetings because that time needed to be respected.”
Mabelane advises other women to “give back the time differently”.
“I work hard at BP, but when I have to take two hours off, I feel guilty. Why?
“Organisations need to have policies and a culture that is flexible.”