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Diversity, inclusion, workplace safety, choices and more: an interview with Prof Nicola Kleyn

In March 2018, Professor Nicola Kleyn was in her car when she happened to catch an interview on a local Johannesburg talk radio with an employee of a financial firm. As the Dean of the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute for Business Science (GIBS) listened to the forensic specialist’s detailed description of how the sexual harassment she had faced was followed by a campaign of secondary harassment by the company that employed her, she was filled with outrage. And although GIBS already had several initiatives in place for workplace safety, she resolved to immediately take further concrete steps to ensure nothing similar could happen at the organisation she had been leading since 2015.

Underpinning Kleyn’s renewed commitment to combating harassment at GIBS on that day was a longstanding belief in creating workplaces that are both diverse (including across gender and race) and have the kind of inclusion that ensures every single person feels safe. The latter is of particular importance to Kleyn. “There is no point in having an incredibility diverse group around the table if they don’t feel safe enough to contribute and share,” she says emphatically.

Alongside a highly regarded background in the African business and business school environments, Kleyn brings this extensive experience in the intersecting areas of diversity and inclusion to her new role at RSM where she has been Dean of Executive Education since August 2020. We spoke to her about what she learnt working in South Africa, her move to Europe, the personal challenges she has faced, the importance of values, what makes a leader and more.



You joined RSM in 2020 after a five year term as Dean of the University of Pretoria’s GIBS. What was the motivating factor in making the move from Johannesburg to Rotterdam and not taking on another five-year term as GIBS’ Dean?

I have always wanted to experience living on another continent and, in my 20s, I resolved that I would live somewhere other than Johannesburg. But for many different reasons my life didn’t pan out that way. I had an eye-opening journey engaging in a multi-cultural South Africa that was not the South Africa that I grew up in, and I love my home country. Still, I had lived my whole life in Joburg and it was time to move to another city and country. I have four children and they had all finished school so when the opportunity to join RSM arose, the timing was ideal. Sometimes you have to know when to close a chapter and start a new part of your journey. The move to RSM is also about growing as an individual and making new connections but I continue to engage with GIBS and so the ties remain strong, both to the school and South Africa.

Your background also includes heading up leadership and development for Investec Bank and you were lecturer and senior lecturer in the Department of Business Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. In what ways did you encounter race and gender during your working years in South Africa?

You navigate your role as a leader, or, in my earlier working years as a teacher, with constant reference to the triangle of what is playing out socially, economically and politically in the country. In South Africa we have had to work very hard to focus on building a diverse and inclusive environment, driven by the racial inequities that had prevailed in society both prior to, and during, apartheid. But as I assumed positions of leadership, I realised that there is no point in having a diverse group around the table if they don’t feel safe to contribute and share. The two are so deeply interwoven.

What approach did you take to help materialise this?

When I took on the role of Dean there were already a number of interventions in place to encourage a diverse and inclusive workplace. My predecessor and founding director Professor Nick Binedell had built GIBS into a strong player in the global business school environment and it was on a strong trajectory. I did not have the extensive “deaning” experience that Nick had when I came to the position but, as part of the leader I wanted to be, I committed to building an environment in which I could leverage the remarkable skills and insights of my peers and the people in the school. I aimed to create an environment built on an ethos of collaboration, where people could express their aspirations and participate in the kind of school they wanted to build and I am proud that this manifested over the five years.

Was there a moment that stood out for you in terms of the importance of building a workplace that was high on inclusivity as well as diversity?

In 2018, I was listening to a local talk radio station and happened to hear Nerisha Singh describing the sexual harassment she had faced when she was an employee at Grant Thornton – and then the secondary victimisation she endured from the company in its aftermath. Hearing her speak about her ordeal added to my resolve to really foreground this, and enhance the measures we already had in place for the creation of a safe working environment which included an Ethics Hotline to report irregular behaviour. We happened to have an EXCO the next day and I raised the issue and requested that we commit to strengthening our internal environment and engagement with our multiple stakeholders in order to ensure everyone felt they were safe to contribute and share. From then on, I spoke consistently at our monthly meetings about the issue and, as a result of this, the leadership was approached by a few women employees about an adjunct faculty member who was harassing them. It was not an easy situation to deal with it as he was a senior individual on several boards and was also unwell but the situation was managed and we were able to demonstrate the seriousness with which we viewed incidences like these. A lot of the issues that alienate women in the workplace are fundamentally around building inclusive workplaces where it is safe to be yourself so emphasising and establishing social safety is very important.

You also took a stand against the Gender Based Violence (GBV) that is ever-present in South Africa but that had emerged in a particularly distressing way in 2019.

In 2019 there was there was an increase of GBV acts in a short space of time and in September protests against these filled the streets of South Africa. Because we had been having an ongoing conversation about harassment and social safety, a group formed at GIBS to specifically focus on the issue. It had the full support of the leadership team and we allocated funds to it. One of the actions that was undertaken was a silent protest on the steps of the campus. All employees were invited and it was important to see the number of committed men who joined women in the protest. A photograph of the gathering was posted on GIBS’s social media platform and soon afterwards, I got a message from my son saying what a powerful picture it was. I was very moved by that. As a family we really value having conversations about the difficult, but important, issues that we confront in society. 

You achieved excellent results in terms of gender equality at GIBS during your term as Dean.

Yes, I was very proud when the Financial Times (FT) Executive MBA Ranking in 2019 put us in first place as the most gender-balanced business school in the world. We were also highlighted as a global leader in sustainability, ethics and social purpose. It’s important to note that GIBS had reasonably good gender representation when I took over and we didn’t actively target gender during my term. Instead we targeted diversity because ensuring that we were racially and gender diverse was – and remains - very important to me. At GIBS we were able to create a space where we could engage in a truthful way about what we were facing as a country and that was very important.

You talk a great about values and you are committed to racial and gender equality. What underpins this for you?

Humanism. For me, it’s the most important thing. Gender is critical but we are multifaceted beings and we are not only defined through a gendered lens but in multiple ways. The opportunity to actually create environments that foster human progress in a humane way is very important. Part of the attraction of taking on my new role is the positioning of EUR and RSM - and the commitment to being a force for positive change. I believe strongly that this does not run antithetical to our role in enabling learnings on how to run commercially sound businesses. A business needs to be productive and it needs to make a profit, but in a way that holds human life sacrosanct.

Your own personal journey has also reinforced this notion of humanism first for you.

Yes. I joined GIBS as a faculty member as it opened its doors. The decision to join the founding team was propelled by the post-partum depression that I was dealing with. Post-partum depression is an experience that is unique to women and I did not feel comfortable going back to my role in merchant banking at the time. I had learnt a great deal from my position heading up global learning and development at Investec and it was a remarkable company but I felt that I needed to step away from that world’s full-tilt approach to work. So when Nick asked me to join him in establishing GIBS I said yes. I felt that I could handle that, given what I was going through. In retrospect it was an incredibly important lesson – one that showed me that there are times in our lives when we need to examine how much we are giving to work. I had been giving everything to Investec and I had to learn to recalibrate.

Is this something that you take forward with you now?

Yes. A major recognition at the time was how we need to be able to navigate across the different roles of our life and how these roles need to be foregrounded and backgrounded depending on where we are in our journey. GIBS provided this supportive place for me to recalibrate at a time when I really needetd it. Then, as the children started getting older, I became better able to balance these competing needs and was able to really grow at GIBS.

What role did your husband play in the unfolding of your personal journey?

I am extraordinarily lucky in ending up with the life partner and husband that I have. When we got together I had no clue what life was going to throw at us. None of us do. In retrospect what has been emancipating has been our ability to consistently negotiate the relative roles we play when it comes to our own relationship, and when it comes to raising our children. I have a very strong relationship with my children and husband but I have also had to forge an understanding of what matters to me; what I am choosing and what I am not choosing. I have thought a great deal about both the responsibility and the privilege of having children and about letting go of the stereotypes that society applies to women in this role. I had to become okay with not being as available to my children as I built my career as perhaps other women who have made a different choice. The simple truth is that you can’t be everything to everyone. You also have to decide for the most important stakeholders in your life what you can be and what you can’t be - and you have to be ok with letting go of what you can’t be. I have a remarkable group of girlfriends who have also played roles, at different times, in the lives of our four children. But you have to be willing to ask for help. That has been one of my big lessons. My job has always been to give and I had to learn to ask my girlfriends for help. Initially the way that I would do this was to build up a “giving” credit until I felt it was legitimate to request help. But then I realised that I could just ask my friends and they would happily step in if they could. Now that they are older, the children are stepping in for each other and that is wonderful to see.

What defines a good leader?

What ultimately defines you as a leader and an organisation is what you say no to - not what you say yes to. And it’s not just what you say no to strategically but, more importantly, what you say no to when it comes to your values. I correlate my leadership with who I am as a person, because if you can’t match who you are as a person with the kind of leadership that is needed you are going to be inauthentic. And that takes too much of a toll. Leadership is hard enough without you having to pretend to be someone else. I also place great stock on fairness - and, coming from a country where the social contract can be very fragile, on creating a culture of trust. A culture of trust - especially in a world where there is such a fragmentation of trust - takes an organisation very far. Part of building this trust at RSM is figuring out how my values can be expressed appropriately in a different country and organisational culture. In this I might have some unlearning to do - which is not easy for any of us. What might have been effective as leadership practices at GIBS may be totally different now but the ultimate intention is to build an environment that is high on trust and engagement.

You have spoken about the need for leaders to be learners. Tell us more.

I have always liked listening and I am very curious about hearing what people think. In retrospect I can see it was also my experience as a teacher that plays a role in that. When I first started lecturing to post-experience students I felt this enormous pressure to have all the answers. Then I realised that they had experience, knowledge and insights from the workplace that I could learn from - and that finding answers together was a joy. I became very good at accessing the wisdom that was in the room and I took that with me when I was appointed Dean of a school that operates in a complex environment that is also incredibly fragile on a socio, economic and political level. This approach can pay off handsomely. I was fortunate enough to meet Howard Thomas at breakfast at my first ever international Deans Conference and I welcomed the engagement and the opportunity to learn. I found Howard so wise and knowledgeable that then and there, I asked him if he would be part of the advisory board that I was forming at GIBS. He said yes and has been a wonderful mentor to me ever since.

Do you have a favourite book that you can recommend to our community?

My all-time favourite is Humble Inquiry – The Gentle Art of Asking instead of Telling by Edgar Schein. To humbly inquire. That is where the work really starts as a leader in order to facilitate a collective sense-making process and take that into action. This is what has been so hard about leading under COVID. Our ability to collectively sense make has been hampered. We are running a race where our only contact is through a screen. We sense make best when we are in the same room as colleagues, when we are sharing the space and communing together.

And do you have any advice for our readers and the ECWO community?

It is crucial to recognise that you go through different seasons in life. People have often asked me what my purpose is. I really struggle with that. I know what my values are but defining a purpose is harder. It’s far easier to identify my key projects and I have seen how different phases of my life have brought about different projects – even unasked for ones, like COVID. If women tried to be everything that is asked of us by all the different media - be it women in business, women as mothers, women in health and beauty – we would be in lunatic asylums. Pick your projects and periodically revaluate these according to which phase you are in. That’s one of the best ways to keep yourself sane and healthy.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management educationresearch and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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