Thoko is the Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard South Africa.
She was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, but her family moved to Swaziland when she was still very small, which is where she grew up. She had a very large family, but not all biological, with many of her cousins living with them, so the house was always buzzing with activity. Because of this there was a large influence on learning of social skills.
Thoko has an MSc degree in medical chemistry. She never had career guidance in school, so it was a matter of what she did well at in the classroom, (and she was hot with math, science and chemistry). Her family was keen on the medical field – but she discovered she doesnt like blood and hates to see people die. Being strong in the sciences, it was the logical thing to study BSc.
She attended Harvard and IMD in Switzerland, and her thoughts on South Africas education is that SA easily makes the grade – our universities are very good, but international exposure is vital in todays global arena.
She started working with pharmacological research and did her masters in the UK. She worked in R&D and in the labs where she researched and worked with atoms, molecules and so on. When she moved back to South Africa she found the work not as challenging as it had been, so when the job opened for a marketer, she decided to have a go. She was 8 months pregnant, and when Telkom called her for the interview, she had to sit in a chair without sides because her stomach was so big! She got a call to say she got the job and dropped the phone because she thought he was joking! You can just imagine this – young, black, and 8 months pregnant!
Her illustrious career includes brilliant positions such as CEO Alcatel SA, Divisional MD at Siemens, Sales and Marketing Director at Lucent and Managing Consumer Markets at Telkom.
She is grateful because if she hadnt had that opportunity, she wouldnt be where she was today. The trick is, once you have the opportunity, you need to embrace it and work hard. Thats why she is so set on continuous learning.
2005 was a watershed year for her: being a finalist for IT Personality of the Year, awarded Top ICT Individual for 2005, and Top ICT Business Woman in Africa for 2005.
A woman leader faces enormous difficulties – the role of leadership is to set the direction and the tone on what is expected of everybody. These are the parameters. In her words: When you hire people, you hire their expertise, so set them free to do what they must within your expectations. As a leader, you need to ensure the arrows are aligned. You need to keep coming back to ensure they are on the right path, correct, advise, reward and mentor them. You need to keep measuring – you cant just walk away after youve set the parameters.
Maria Ramos has left a big impression on her. Maria went into an environment that was difficult and stayed committed to making a difference in our country. Thoko says: My mission in life is I need to make a difference in my environment, whether its at work, at home – wherever. These are key reasons why I respect Ramos so much.
Her husband is a very supportive man and this is something that she is thankful for. He believes in them as a family. In fact, he always encourages her and the children to be the best that they can be, and go after the things we want.
Although her eldest child is ready to leave the nest, the two youngest must be a handful? How does she cope with motherhood and being CEO of HP?
She has an amazing support structure which enables her to not have to do everything myself. She delegates where necessary. Delegation is the key in ensuring that you are not swamped with too many tasks that all need to be performed simultaneously. As she works a full day it is not possible for her to be available to pick up her children from school or attend to other domestic activities, so at home, she has a solid team to perform tasks on her behalf, in the form of a nanny, an au pair and her parents, who ensure that home life runs like clockwork. Their help gives her the chance to spend quality time with her children and husband.
In the office, she is blessed to have a talented and dedicated team of staff, and they continue to do HP proud in their achievements everyday. These are capable people who were employed specifically because they know what they are doing, and are good at it. Should the need arise, she can delegate various duties to them, and trust that they will be carried out proficiently.
Thoko said: All industries in South Africa are male dominated, so as a woman you have to work twice as hard. You also have to find the balance between your different roles: executive, mother and wife. There are a lot of good women in S.A. business, but with women on boards only being 1 in 5 and in directorships 1 in 10. The most important thing for me was that I could show other women that it could be done, that it was possible. And second was the fact that I realised that this is what I was meant to do, it was a way of saying that I was going in the right direction.
Creating a balance between work and home life is a daily challenge for most women, myself included. We have many people who demand a great deal from us women. And we generally want to give of ourselves to everyone. Balancing your time and energy carefully is a skill that can be mastered. I make a conscious effort to make time management improvements, so that I can lead a better and more balance life. It is still a work in progress.
For many women, the proverbial glass ceiling is still there. Things in the industry have somewhat improved, but you dont need explosives to break through – you can do it on your own steam, with your own determination and focus. In our country, the government also supports the move to offer more capable women positions of leadership in all sectors, and transformation is a continuing exercise.
Women need to channel their natural ability to empathise with others, their nurturing spirit, and their female intuition towards business solutions, because, contrary to belief, there is a place for these elements in making business decisions. A woman must remain feminine and desist from imitating men in their decisions and mannerisms, as this is not genuine or sincere and is easily recognized as such.
One very pertinent example of a woman kicking down doors and smoking cigars was Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990). She is the only woman to have held the post of Prime Minister in the UK. Among other things, she defiantly opposed the Soviet Union, and her tough-talking rhetoric gained her the nickname the Iron Lady. However, many feminists criticize her, because they believe that she took a very masculine stance towards many issues, and as a result, was one of the boys. In her tenure, she made many positive decisions, but few of which pertain to women and their empowerment and upliftment.
Thokos philosophy and her message to Inspiringwomen readers: focus on winning the war, but understand that you will lose some battles in the process. You have to know when to fight and when not to fight, because at the end of the day you will win. You mustnt sweat the small stuff!
Full name: Thoko Mokgosi-Mwantembe
Position: CEO HP South Africa, since 2004
Main activity of the company: Information technology
Date and place of birth: June in South Africa
Education: Teachers diploma, University of Swaziland; Bachelor of Science (BSc), University of Swaziland; Master of Science (MSc) in Medicinal Chemistry, Loughborough University of Technology (UK); Executive courses, Harvard, IMD (Switzerland)
First job: Mathematics, physical science matric teacher at Swaziland high school during school holidays.
Size of first pay packet: R800 a month
First job with present group: CEO
Career history prior to current position: CEO Alcatel; Divisional MD Siemens Telecommunications Sales & Marketing; Director Lucent Technologies; managing executive consumer markets, Telkom
Value of assets under your control: In line with HP governance and standards of business conduct, I may not divulge these figures
Number of people under your leadership: About 1 000
Management style: Dependent on situations. Different situations dictate different styles. Predominantly, I allow staff to work within set parameters
Personal best achievement: My family
Professional best achievement: Company’s above-market growth and transformation progress in the last two years
Person who has had the biggest influence on your life: Comprehensive support structure in my family and a few good friends
Person who has had the biggest influence on your career: A few individuals who influence me in different ways
Person you would most like to meet: Oprah Winfrey
Businessperson who has impressed you most: Maria Ramos
Philosophy of life: Focus on winning the war, but understand that you will lose some battles in the process
Biggest ever opportunity: Getting the opportunity to study and get the kind of education that has given me a winning chance in the workplace and life
Biggest ever disappointment: None
Hope for the future: For South Africa to have a knowledge-based economy and I see information communication technology as an enabler in this regard
Favourite reading: I prefer to read magazines because I can finish reading the article within a short time and do not have to carry this over to the next day
Favourite TV programme: Reality TV
Favourite food/drink: Bacon & mushroom sandwich, fruit salad and water
Favourite music: Jazz
Favourite sport: Athletics
Favourite website: None
Hobbies: Sewing & ballroom dancing
Car: Range Rover Sport
Pets: Not stated
Miscellaneous dislikes: None
Favourite other South African company: None
Favourite foreign company: None
Married: Married to Dr Obedy Mwantembe, for three years
Children: Natasha, 19; Lebo, 15; Naledi, 12
Edited by: Terence Creamer