A conversation with Dr Shirley Zinn – CEO Shirley Zinn Consulting, Director of Boards, Author of “Swimming Upstream”



My dear Sister, Thank you for giving me time for this conversation, I know our young leaders will gain so much from your insights and experience.


Thank you my dear Brother, Lincoln Mali, for this opportunity to share my story and plant seeds of hope and possibility in the hearts and minds of our youth.


You have argued persuasively that it’s possible for women to conquer the boardroom in stilettos – can you elaborate what you mean by this?


To be a successful leader (man or woman) in business, you need to be authentic and unapologetically who you are.

What does “authentic” mean? Real, Honest, Open, Sincere, True, Reliable, Dependable, Trustworthy, Unpretentious, Consistent, Honourable, Candid, Credible. It’s important to remain teachable and to continue to learn.

Being true to yourself and believing in yourself, is about the end of being a perpetual apology, of not feeling good enough, or feeling unworthy, or inadequate. It’s definitely not about arrogance but about courage and humility.

Stop second-guessing yourself and living in fear of failure. If you fail, you learn, dust yourself off, and keep on moving forward.

Sit at the table and speak your truth. Don’t be afraid to do something for the first time. All of us have had to do this.

Listen to feedback but do not let anyone bully you or put you down (men or women)

Be savvy, provocative…and do your preparation. Preparation is critical

Believe in yourself and respect yourself

Celebrate, mentor, and sponsor other women, and lift as you climb

I love stilettos (but not everyone does as they can be a bit impractical at times!). The point I want to make is that overall presentation is important. How you show up absolutely matters. How you are feeling makes a huge difference to your performance and image.

Stilettos, at least for me, represent beauty, art, confidence and femininity. It’s not everyone’s’ thing – so do what works for you – feel good in your own skin.


Some people tend to assume a particular persona, they emulate the behaviour of others, try to be something they are not, say things they don’t believe in just to move ahead in a corporate or public sector role – how have you retained your unique identity through your career?


It’s always best to choose to be the best version of yourself. You do not (or can never) be anyone else. Be true to yourself and your values. These are your anchors that make you unique. What happens in everyday life can affect our sense of self. Our relationships and social or professional interaction has an impact on how we view ourselves and how others might view us. Hold onto what you believe defines you and your purpose.


How should male leaders do to attract, retain and inspire women leaders in their teams?


They should believe in the principle of equality and fairness, and then seek to support and enable those who have been alienated and marginalised because of patriarchy. They have to remove the barriers that have been created to deter the progression of women in business (and in the world in general). They have to join hands with women to co-create a better world. This means mentorship and sponsorship of women to ensure that they achieve decision-making roles as senior executives and Board members.


Do you think that most corporates are driving transformation or employment equity in the spirit of our Constitution?


Many are still ticking boxes and doing the minimum to meet complaince requirements. Not too many are going beyond compliance to the spirit of the Constitution. The statistics year-on-year tell a sad story of glacial, painfully slow progress especially at the top levels of organisations, and that at this pace we will never experience the transformation as it is articulated in our Constitution.


There is a strong view that most HR departments have lost the Human aspect of the Human aspect of their role, is this fair comment, if so, what can be done about that?


I have presented at conferences and in my HR head roles have specifically focused on weaving the concept of putting the “H” back into HR in organisations. The problem is that it’s not only HR that has lost focus on the human aspects of the work they do, its also that leadership more generally do not take into account that there is no profit without people. People have to come first and this includes employees, customers, communities in which we do business, regulators, shareholders and broader stakeholder groups. These are all people that shape and influence the success or not of our business. Smart, people savvy organisations have figured this out and have improved their competitive edge, productivity, and their ability to attract and retain employees and customers.


What do you think millennials bring to the workplace and how can we harness their energy and insights?


Millennials have often been misunderstood within the workplace. They have been labelled as “job-hoppers”, looking to earn lots of money by doing the minimum (bling generation) and lack of commitment to their employers amongst other things. These beliefs are misguided and unfortunate. They have very different expectations from their careers than their predecessors (the parents and grand-parents).

The reality is that millennials make up more than half of the workforce. They want a compelling and flexible workplace and a sense of purpose at work. They also take pride in organisations that are making a difference to communities and humanity more generally. Digitisation, technology, and innovation are key elements of our present and future and millennials have a key role to play as our future leaders and future revenue-generators. They bring new ways of working especially considering the fact that technology has played a key role in shaping the way they think and attitudes/worldviews, as well as how they communicate, collaborate and work together.

They are extremely focused on developing themselves and thrive on learning new job skills, always setting new challenges to achieve. They are also the “can do” generation, never worrying about failure, and always moving forward. They are also not willing to give up lifestyle for career. The better we understand this, the more effective we will be in harnessing their energies and insights. We need to create a culture in our organsations that build trust with millennials so that they have a great experience and can be productive.

Millennials are the future of work. Nuture them


How do we bring back the “Human” in Human Resources or Human Capital?


We have to care more about people. I know that “care” is not a commercially compelling concept but it’s critical to understand the human condition and put into place a business philosophy of compassion and care for people that will permeate our beliefs, behaviour, relationships, policies and practices. This should be what defines us. It has to be a collective business effort rather than be left to HR departments to tackle.


One of the biggest leadership challenges we face is to identify, attract, retain, nurture and empower diverse and talented teams to thrive in a VUCA world, what should companies do to achieve this critical objective?


Keeping your skill-sets up to date and preparing a future-fit organisation that is ready for the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is upon us. Truly engaging people by building meaningful relationships with them is key. The employee experience goes beyond the traditional engagement and EVP strategies. Remuneration needs to be fair and equitable. Opportunities for development, growth and career progress will need more focus than in the past.


We have many young people feeling unappreciated and underutilized in their jobs, how can Managers unleash the potential in their people?


Care about people. Build trust and show compassion. I come back to my earlier view on the humanisation of our organisations. Give people an opportunity to grow and thrive, and learn from their mistakes. Giving feedback in a respectful way and providing tools and tips for success could enhance performance and career progress. The old command and control style of management is out for good.


The advent of the new technologies create amazing opportunities for innovation by companies. On the other hand, they may create challenges as robotics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, Big data and augmented reality are used in such a manner that they displace workers. How can companies overcome this challenge and move towards Digitization with their people?


We should never forget the human golden thread that runs through technological advancement and impact. We should seek to optimise this interface rather than create a polarity between the two, where people become anxious about being displaced, as new jobs will emerge that will require differenet skills – we have to ensure that we are budding future-fit organisations and invest in developing skills for the future. We have to find a way to combine automated tools with human interaction.

Part 2


As South Africa grapples with economic growth, a fight against poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment- what lessons can South Africa, and indeed the African continent learn from the countries in the East development?


We have to explore what the major driving forces of poverty, unemployment and inequality means in our context and how we collectively tackle these issues from a business, government and civil society point of view and be single minded behind putting into place a national culture that shares a vision of growing our economy, based on the sound foundations of education and economic policies for growth. Our NDP should be the strategic blue-print for our collective efforts.

Economic growth is an essential and necssary component for poverty reduction. But we also need to be more directed on specific initiatives that need to directly address poverty reduction, income inequality and increased economic participation especially in rural areas.

Countries in the East have taken very specific steps to reduce poverty and set public goals and a programme of action to make this happen. Despite specatular growth in many of these economies, we still find very high numbers of people living in poverty. China is an example of this.

Even countries that have made great strides in reducing poverty and inequality like Brazil find itself in economic turmoil because of the slowdown in the global economic environment.

SOURCE: https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/online-exclusive/making-progress/2016/02/04/economic-inequality-and-the-malaysian-experience/#etgikR0UDgHB5ji0.99

We need to be more focused on social justice and ensuring that people are treated with dignity and given the social services so critical for basic human needs to be met.

Many Eastern countries, for example India, have invested hugely in education on technical skills to create employable people that can contribute to and benefit from the economy. They have taken steps to place their economy on a high growth path. We need to learn how to leverage our diverse skills and embrace inclusive econmic growth if we are to truly transfrom our society.

We need to learn more from the East.


We have seen high profile CEO’s being fired for sexual harassment and abuse. Do you think such behaviours are limited to the Western world, are these abhorrent behaviours also prevalent across Africa? How should the HR community, Boards and leaders deal with this scourge against women?


There have been many global campaigns for example the #MeToo that have lifted the lid on sexual harassment and abuse of women around the world. Current conversations about sexual harassment are expansive and powerful. They happen both virtually and in everyday life, on Facebook and Twitter, over dinner tables. Sexual Harassment knows no boundaries.

But is this enough? #EnoughisEnough is another example of this as is our effort in SA during the month of August – Women’s month and December where we focus on 16 days of activism and abuse of women and children.

We should take a zero-tolerance approach as HR, Boards and Leaders as these practices are unlawful and criminal. It should be called out for what it is and stopped. Strengthening Workplace Sexual Harassment Protections and Accountability and HR, but more broadly and importantly leadership needs to drive this through policy and decisive action. The days of trying to sweep this under the carpet are over.

Many companies have sexual harrassment policies in place. Much less take swift action. Even less having anti-bullying policies and practices in place.                                   


The recent corporate scandals have brought huge companies into serious disrepute, on the hard, nepotism and corruption in the SOE’s has victimized innocent hard working professionals – do you think that in these cases our HR fraternity could have done much better in helping instil a better ethical culture?


The HR fraternity could definitely play a more catalytic, influential and persuasive role in co-creating an ethical culture by joining hands with the CEO, COO, CFO etc. HR professionals should be calling-out issues and raising risk flags, and be the early warning signal on human behaviour.


You have argued before that our debates about transformation are about compliance, tick boxes and numbers. We have lost the spirit of what we are really trying to achieve through economic empowerment.


Indeed. Economic empowerment is about effectively dealing with the ills of our past and charting a new path forward based on values of respect, fairness and equity for all. Transformation is about social justice, economic upliftment and dealing with poverty, inequality and unemployment.


How important has Kevin’s selfless support been in your life, what message does that give for men who marry talented wives?


Be a true PARTNER.


How do you find balance in your life?


I believe in living a congruent and integrated life – and living it to the full.


Your book, “Swimming upstream” is an inspiring read about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. What motivated you to write the book, and what message do you want it to convey to young and aspirant leaders?



1. Essence of book is to tell a story that will inspire hope despite adversity, especially for our youth

2. Life tosses us curve balls, adversity and even tragedy – its how we rise up from this despair that matters

3. Transformation of self first – change starts with each one of us. Organisations don’t transform, people do (Richard Barrett)

4. Swimming Upstream: pushing against conventional wisdom, a path less taken

5. You can do far more than you think you can – you have the potential to do so much more

6. We are more resilient than we imagine – remain courageous

7. The modern mind is faced with constant stress, overload, demand and distraction – we need to be mindful of this

8. Mindfulness – increasing personal effectiveness and resilience in the workplace

9. Mindfulness is a basic human capacity. The capacity to be present. It means the mind is fully attending to what is at hand – what you’re working on, the person you’re talking to the surroundings you’re moving through.

10. Surround yourself with people who inspire and uplift you

11. Choose a partner that cares and shares

12. Parents: love your children – they are a gift

13. Teachers and education – critical to successes in life

14. Think about what you could achieve if you were not afraid! Fear and anxiety is a challenge for many – we need to be liberated from our fears

15. Hold on to your dreams and don’t let people tell you that you can’t, or that you are inadequate

16. Optimism and positive thinking is half the battle won

17. We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely think of the changes it went through to achieve that beauty

18. We all need love, acknowledgement – give more of it. It’s free

19. LIVING LIFE WITH PURPOSE AND MEANING – devote yourself to this. Higher purpose focus

20. Education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world (Madiba)

21. Courage is not the absence of fear. The brave conquer fear (Madiba)

22. Respect people, treat people with dignity, and inspire hope every minute of everyday

23. After climbing great hills, you will find many more ahead (Madiba)

24. Use your time wisely! The time is always right to do the right thing. Time is finite.

25. It always seems impossible until its done (Madiba)

26. Let your light shine as it gives others permission to the same (Madiba)

27. There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul, than in the way they treat their children (Madiba)

28. Whatever you think you can’t do, you probably can do – so think big

29. It seems impossible until it’s done (Madiba)

30. Hard work + excellence + fun = success

31. Values, principles, and behaviour matter

32. Be true to yourself and not led by latest fads – trust your instincts

33. Authenticity – just be yourself

34. Never ever give up

35. Live in service of others – offer others what you have to give

36. Find a sponsor and trusted advisors

37. Discipline, dedication, determination are required to build resilience and tenacity

38. Continue to learn

39. It’s never too late to start. It’s never too late to be happy

40. Each one of us has a role to play – it is in our hands to make a difference (Mandela)

41. SA – Lets seek unity in our diversity and truly have a singled-minded shared vision of building a better life for all through growing our economy.

42. Let’s choose ethical and dignified leadership.


What are the kind of behaviours that men exhibit in the boardroom that undermine women, how can women stand up to these bullying tendencies?


Playing Politics

Agendas that are at odds with the best interest of the company

Unacceptable culture and behaviour

Power, domination and rank games

Race, gender, disabilities – overt and covert practices and blind-spots

Interpersonal relationships – undermining, or not listening to women (and men) around the table

Being dismissive of ideas that women might bring. Stealing the ideas of women and taking credit for it

Shortage of EQ, SQ

Narcisstic behaviour

Interrupting, ignoring, speaking above others, forming silos, patronising responses, not taking a challenge seriously, not listening nor taking advice, assuming an incorrect level of knowledge, undermining competencies, being direspectful, are common behaviours displayed by bullies. We can have robust discussions that lead to creative and meaningful solutions without the above beahviours.

There is a moral, social and business imperative that has to prevail in how we tackle bullies in the Boardroom. The issues that they raise often are focused on self-interest and domination rather than on good governance and the business. This is a real risk to the business and should not be tolerated. We become complicit by-standers if we do not call it out. They have to be told that their behaviour is unacceptable. Women become easy targets given the patriarchy in our society that is still alive and well. We cannot allow bullies to rule our boardrooms. This flies in the face of what Boardrooms are all about.


Some of the most brilliant women suffer emotional abuse at home and at work, how would you coach these women to deal with these challenges to still succeed SS entrepreneurs or as professionals?


Personal and professional life is interconnected. There is a frightening amount of abuse that goes on in both domains. We have to coach women to to take action against those who abuse them so that it stops. Whether it takes the form of legal, or emotional advice, we need to help and give guidance to women to deal with perpetrators.


What role should people who originally come from disadvantaged communities play as role models?


They should tell their stories starting in the communities they come from to inspire others and plant the seeds of hope.

Coaching and mentoring of our young people. Be available and accessible to give guidance and advice.

Show that through determonation, the seemingly impossible is possible

Build more role-models

Give back and make a real difference

Open doors and create opportunities


Your remarkable story is from the Cape Flats to obtaining a PHD from the Harvard University. What words of wisdom can you share with young professionals starting out in their careers?


Be bold and courageous

Be respectful and honest

Be the best version of your self in all that you do

Make excellence a habit (don’y try to be perfect!)

Work hard

Never give up

Surround yourself with people who inspire you

Be authentic and don’t forget your roots

Be diligent, disciplined and determined in all you do

Guard against arrogance

Ensure mind, body and spirit are always in sync

Take care of your health

Make a difference


What was the lowest moment in your life either personally or professionally, how did you cope with that and made you pull through? Are there any lessons in that story?


The lowest moment for me was the loss of our only child, Jamie. It was absolutely devastating and I didn’t think I would find my way back from the despair and grief.


Get help. Go for counselling

Muster your spiritual anchors

Do the inner work and pull yourself up. It’s very easy to slide down the slope of depression

Find your purpose and live it every day


What are you currently reading and is there another book on the horizon?


Have not yet decided about another book!

I am reading the latest Harvard Business Review.


You have accomplished so much, what is still on your bucket list?


Thank you. Finishing my tenth Two Oceans Half Marathon. Traveling to off the beaten track places. Being a good Non-Executive Director on Boards.


Thank you so much Shirley for such a wide-ranging conversation, I look forward to the feedback from our young and aspirant leaders, I’m sure there is a lot they will gain from your unique insights, deep expertise and vast experience, but most importantly from your humanity and authenticity. Thank you my Sister.