This is an extract from Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs.
This is the success story of a committed South African activist, politician, diplomat and business leader who once a year deep cleanses her life by deleting people in her address book who add no value, optimism or inspiration.
In a swirl of noise and energy, Cheryl Carolus arrives twenty minutes late and immediately owns the room, kissing everybody, shaking hands, ordering coffee and inquiring about collective general health in one long jumbled high-octane sentence.
By way of excuse she says she’s been cajoling politicians to, in her words, “grow a pair” and do something about the parlous state of both the country and the economy.
It’s easy to forgive this transgression of tardiness in the interests of affairs of state.
She dives straight into her favourite topic – the country – before I can even seed the conversation, saying she’s an eternal optimist but is deeply concerned about how systemically and deeply the rot is entrenched.
“Something has gone wrong with the soul of this nation and I think we’ve all let it go on for too long. For middle-class people it’s actually fine because we’ve privatised our safety and security with our response units; we’ve privatised our children’s school care, sending them to private institutions, schools; we’ve privatised our healthcare with the fabulous health plans we have and so our tolerance level for what nonsense we’re prepared to put up with actually just keeps on shifting out.
“But what’s been great has been this nuclear action of President [Jacob] Zuma leaving us under such a cloud it has jolted people to want to seize back power. I sense right now there’s a much stronger sense of civil society rejuvenating itself. Now it’s a question of how we make an impact on my organisation, the ANC, and actually get members to understand they should not take voters for granted.”
I decide to let this high-speed political spinnaker run a little longer before we get to the notion of success.
So what does all of this political negativity mean as a portent for the next couple of years and does she still hold on to the optimism she’s held for so long in her life?
“I don’t think we’re going to be out of the woods fully, even when President Zuma is gone. It’s about the values on which the next set of leaders in the ANC are going to be elected. I think it’s going to be turbulent and messy. This boil is so big and there’s so much filth around it we’re going to have to cut deep and lance it quite clinically.”
I see an opportunity for a clever segue here before we get too physiological. What should successful people be doing in times like this when there is so much turbulence? What responsibilities do we all have? Cheryl, not missing a beat or drawing breath, says it’s about the P-word. Power.
“People like you and me have power to make and influence change. The big mistake we’ve made since democracy dawned is we think only the State has the power to mess us around, to make us happy, to look after us. Not at all. We have that power. We have to use it.”
Let’s move away from politics and on to the pure nature of success and its attainment. She believes success is nothing if you’re not respected by your peers, by your family and by your community. And part of being successful, she says, is being able to rise and lift others with you at the same time.
“If you are successful in a sea of misery and depravation, you are always at risk, so I attach a lot of value to helping other people succeed in business.”
Cheryl then throws down a challenge to other successful people, saying they should make it one of their missions to expand their ecosystems.
“And one of the primary parts of anyone’s ecosystem is that it’s not just about your business but your family and your community. You can make a huge difference sometimes by doing very small things.”
Cheryl also believes there is a moral dimension to success and that it’s not only wrong to trample over others, but stupid, because the more successful other people are, the more successful your country and your ecosystem become.
Phew. Let’s take a breath here and gather our thoughts. And no one has even taken an initial sip of coffee. This conversation is like a sprint finish at the Tour de France. Maybe a quick tale of when it first dawned on her that she had achieved a modicum of accomplishment?
“Undoubtedly, when I became high commissioner in the UK and the over-reaction of my mother. She was always proud of my struggle roles; of the fact I was recognised as a leader in the UDF and later in the ANC and that even Nelson Mandela respected me, but when I went to London, she said, ‘I wish your grandmother was alive to see how far you’ve come. You are now a proper person in the Queen’s country!’”
Much like HRH, Cheryl has had her fair share of hard times. So how do you overcome adversity?
“It’s about one’s ability to be resilient and to keep rewriting one’s script because we all should have some sort of plan and thread for our life. For me it is a generosity that starts with being kind to yourself but also being brutally honest as to when I’m not succeeding or where I have failed.”
She says it’s about having a complete sense of self-worth and telling yourself that success is deserved.
“I tell myself I am a worthy, capable person and I have confidence in myself to say when something is not working and being able to be honest about it.”
A lot of this introspection happens when Cheryl is in her PJs.
“The older I get, the more value I attach to my sleeping patterns and when I no longer wake up at two in the morning in a cold sweat and think about what I’m doing, or say why on earth did I think I could pull this one off, then I know it’s time to move on. I also love the fact that at this life-stage I am a serial re-inventor of myself, confident that I have a set of core skills and accomplishments that I’m recognised for.”
So back to that cold-sweat thing. When it comes in the middle of the night, what’s it all about? In Cheryl’s case it’s not being healthy enough to chase the things she still wants to chase. In this year-long quest for the secrets of success, time and time again I’ve been told how important the chase is, but with it, the fear of not having the capability to run. Like many others Cheryl takes good care of herself.
“Some people don’t think so because they think I eat too much chocolate or drink too much red wine.” Who am I to judge one’s indulgences, being highly partial to a little Merlot and Lindt myself. Successful people, it seems, also have set rituals that continually re-spin their flywheel. In Cheryl’s case it’s on her birthday. “Every year I get up at 5am to do a personal balance sheet. I look at my toxic liabilities and delete people’s numbers from my cellphone. You’ll get deleted if you are a horrible person; somebody who does bad things to me and other people. I simply have no room for people like that in my life. Those who hurt others and who try to hurt me.”
I’m glad to say I’m still in Cheryl’s contacts list! She believes de-cluttering is a healthy part of life, both emotionally and workwise. But there’s more. Patently it’s a busy birthday before gifts are opened and cake is cut. She also draws up a list of people she thinks she needs to apologise to for any transgressions committed over the past twelve months.
“Apology, I think, is something that successful people should become better at because we are often surrounded by people whose importance we underplay in our lives.”
By 5pm Cheryl says she’s drinking bubbles but not before setting goals for the next hectic year.
“I am officially an ambitious person. I love success – I thrive on success – and I think most human beings do. I love it when a thing comes together, particularly when it is totally impossible. In fact, the most attractive thing to me is if somebody says this thing looks impossible. I love getting to the top of huge mountains.”
So in order to scale these mountains it’s fair to say that you have to stay competitive most or all of the time. How, then, does this always-at-full-speed dynamo do that? She goes to hardware stores.
“I love learning new stuff all the time. It gives me the edge. Don’t put me in a Builders Warehouse. I look at everything and ask how does it work and then I buy it, battle to assemble it and try and use it.”
In this year-long quest for the secret formula for success, the route has been paved with many clichés and none more so than that old line of pushing through the tough times. But in Cheryl’s case it has resonance.
“It not only takes consistent hard work but also being on the right side of an issue. Apartheid was a very bad idea and I think early on people had to decide which the winning side was. I and many others took it.”
In our energetic conversation Cheryl also coins a new word – “enoughness”. She says, like most people, she likes having enough money to indulge herself.
“But I don’t feel I need a handbag that costs R125 000 and I say this as a girl with a formidable handbag collection. I also like wearing nice clothes, but will I spend a hundred thousand rand on an outfit? I think that’s obscene.
“I don’t define myself by my material possessions and anyone who wants to be seen on Facebook and Instagram wearing expensive stuff says they have a moral emptiness.”
Like many other successful people, Cheryl admits to having a short attention span that she believes works to her advantage.
“Give me an impossible thing to turn around or build and I will do it successfully. But ask me to maintain the momentum, I can’t. Once I’ve achieved a turnaround I must leave or I will destroy the organisation.”
It’s a useful observation for people climbing that big shiny ambition ladder. Know when to leave. You will notice that one of the questions I’ve put to most of the guests in the pages of this book is the one about legacy. Cheryl has the answer down pat and I suspect she’s been asked it before.
“I want to be remembered for how business should get done in South Africa by somebody who was given opportunities in the BEE space. But also around the constitution and the rule. But the biggest legacy I want to be part of was my small role in ending apartheid and the bigotry that went with it. I have the scars on my back and I carry them as a badge of honour. I’m also grateful I’m young enough to be part of actively rebuilding a different future.”
• Success is being able to rise and lift others with you at the same time.
• Success is having a complete sense of self-worth and telling yourself it’s deserved.
• Successful people should become better at apologising because they are surrounded by people whose importance they underplay.
Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs is published by Jacana Media. It is available in all good bookstores. Recommended retail price: R240