Purposeful Woman: Tanya Kabalin

In addition to being a loving wife and mom to two beautiful children, Tanya is an accomplished and inspiring leader with 20 years international experience in sales, marketing, strategy, portfolio and supply chain management gained from the operational 'front line' to Board level. Before starting her own consulting business, Olakira (Pty) Ltd, Tanya worked in various roles for Shell South Africa and Shell International for a period spanning 19 years, the last four years in the role of Managing Director and Head of Supply & Distribution for Shell South Africa. Tanya shares some of her personal career journey with Purposeful Woman, and provides some advice for the aspiring career woman.

My earliest career ambition that I can remember was to be a vet. I grew up in rural Botswana, on a small holding near the Kalahari Desert, and holidays were spent in the Okavango Delta, so I've always been surrounded by animals. My father often tells stories of me wandering around the farm with my blankie followed by a pack of dogs, a couple of sheep, ducks, chickens and a horse! In the end, I think I realised I didn't have the stomach for animals in pain.

I then remember dreaming of being a journalist for many years. I even researched how I could get myself to Rhodes, which in those days was the University for journalism. I was most keen on covering major world events, but after a spate of high profile journalist killings locally and abroad I realised I probably wasn't brave enough.
In the end, my years of growing up on the dusty shop floor of my parents' wholesaling business and a deep desire to travel the world won over, and I decided to study Business and see where that could take me.

I have to admit that I did imagine one day becoming the Chief Executive of a company. I have always been very ambitious and remember clearly my dad once saying to me "shoot for the stars, that way you'll definitely get to the top of the tree!" Within the first few months of my first job, as a graduate employee I had the opportunity to have a personal introduction with our Chairman (Erroll Marshall of Shell South Africa). He was a larger than life character who welcomed me into his lofty 24th floor office with a view of Table Mountain. He ushered me over to a well-worn leather chair where he sat cross legged puffing on a cigar and told me "dream big or don't bother". I decided then that I'd have his job before I was 40! The structures changed over the ensuing two decades and his job no longer exists, but I did get as close to it as I could, as the MD of the Downstream Business, at the age of 38.

By the time I'd reached that level in the organisation, I'd earned my stripes and didn't face specific gender related discrimination. In fact, given the very specific sensitivities that we have to deal with in South African businesses, I believe being female was a great asset. Faced with a major business turnaround, my ability to easily empathise, to be vulnerable and welcome new ideas, and able to connect with people at all levels was hugely advantageous. The credibility that I'd built up over the years with our international shareholders was very helpful in securing the support we needed to succeed, and my age and gender didn't interfere. More interesting for me, was being faced with unexpected racial discrimination when I returned to SA. I had to learn and adapt to what being a white leader in the new South Africa means.

In the early parts of my career, I definitely had to deal with gender based discrimination. Bearing in mind I spent the first five years of my career working in Africa and in mining, I guess, it's not surprising that I had my share - like being denied entry to customers sites (because I might 'tempt' the procurement officer) and having seen the inside of more strip clubs than I'd like to have (once I'd worked out that the real discussions were not happening in the Board room, I simply insisted on being included). Fortunately, I grew up on a farm and with brothers, so I wasn't intimidated by these events and simply turned them around to my advantage. But I wouldn't wish the same experience on my daughter and trust that nowadays she wouldn't be faced with such situations.

There are a host of barriers for women in reaching executive level roles that come to mind starting with dealing with micro inequities in the workplace and having the balance career and family. But these are the things we can often touch and see. Our greatest barrier, I think, is understanding and managing perceptions – our own and others'.

Regardless of the changes in policies, procedures and training, which are slowly removing the obvious structural barriers for women, people will still always have their own perceptions of what women can and can't do, born out of their own personal histories. There will always be people who believe women are less capable and who will try to limit your ability to progress. But allowing their views to impact your self-belief, confidence and dreams entrenches these intangible barriers. In reality though, I don't think this is just a gender specific challenge either!

Knowing what I know about the world of work, I'd give my younger self the following advice:
Keep an open mind. Try not to have too much of a preconceived idea of your path to the top. Hunt for opportunities that will stretch and challenge you, and especially in your early career, experience as many different roles, environments and disciplines as possible. The reality is that very few of us really know what we want to be when we grow up, so never stop searching and experimenting.

Learn to embrace imperfection and compromise! As young girls we're often taught that we can have "it all" and then we're disappointed when we realise that it's not quite true. In my opinion, "having it all" is really about having CHOICE. Every choice will require us to say "yes" to something and "no" to something else, and will be inherently flawed, as we won't always have all the information we need, and some choices we make will be bad ones. As one choice is made, another set of choices opens up collectively forging our journey through life. But, having the right to choice, as imperfect and compromised as the outcomes might be, is freedom from discrimination. 

Three important skills for women to have to equip themselves to climb the corporate ladder include:
Confidence: set in a deep belief that you have earned and deserve your seat at the table – whatever the table you choose to be at!

Drive: self-motivated achievers always succeed no matter the challenge.

Generosity: openly and generously give of your time, praise and thanks. Everyone needs to know that you care about and appreciate them as a person. The more you give, the more you'll receive!

When I think of the words 'purposeful woman', I think women with purpose aspire for a life of achievement in everything they do. Unsatisfied with mediocrity, they push themselves to be constantly improving. With experience though, the purposeful woman also learns that 'achievement' is deeply personal and individual and therefore simply strives to be the best version of 'herself' that she can be, accepting her flaws and failures, as she embraces life.

My personal motto in life is borrowed from that indefatigable woman Zsa Zsa Gabor: "Never regret what you have done; only what you don't have time to do!"

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