Helping others helps yourself
Thursday, January 13, 2022
Benji Coetzee recently joined KPN as EVP Growth & Change. Before that, she was the Director Digital at VodafoneZiggo and 2021’s winner of the RightBrains Digital Leadership award. Her wide-ranging work trajectory has taken her from insurance to investment banking, from developing her own start-up to consulting, from entrepreneurship to working in corporate. Evidently a flexible talent, Benji is clear that she is never defined by her role, but by her desire for learning and progress, both for herself and for the teams that she leads. In the lead-up to her talk for RightBrains on 27th January, Benji spoke with us about the importance of adaptability, about learning, and about mentorship as a two-way street.
“My profile is not my title, and my title is not my role: my role is to help others. That translates into customer satisfaction but also into growing an organisation and creating positive change. What I enjoy about being a leader is seeing others really thrive, encouraging them to step up every single day to achieve things that they don’t believe they can, and guiding them to believe in their potential. The most fulfilling moments of my role are when a team member says “I can’t believe we did that”, or “I didn’t think I was capable but wow, we did it”.
The challenge of adaptability
Working across all facets, from design to development to innovation to change management, Benji interacts with professionals of all levels. The key to doing so successfully, she says, is adaptability. “In any one moment, you have to be able to disengage from talking at an executive level and immediately engage with a developer on an operational level. The adaptability that you need to demonstrate is incredible.” She is clear that this is a learning process that requires constant questioning; “When should I be directive? When should I be inclusive? When are you empathetic? When do you need to show strength? When do you show vulnerability? I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of adaptability. Have I mastered it every time? Absolutely not. Am I aware that it’s a critical skill? Absolutely yes. Is it on my to do list? Every morning, right at the top.”
Learn-it-All versus Know-it-All
Benji’s questioning is a result of her curious, learning-focused mindset, and she dedicates this to making collective rather than individual gain: “I never want to be the smartest person in the room, but rather use my skills to bring out the best in everyone. It’s not helpful to have a room full of the smartest people who can’t collaborate – that doesn’t bring success. I constantly ask questions to get to know a little bit about everything, while never being the know it all; it’s the learn-it-all vs. the know-it-all. When we work and learn together, bringing all our different knowledges, we get more synergistic output.”
Benji believes that it’s time for women in particular to learn how to better help one another achieve their goals and find success. With a focus on mentoring female founders and working with women colleagues, she believes we must create a culture of stepping up for one another without jealousy or competition. “I think we need to change something in our mindset, to get over our own internal biases. When helping other women we might initially think ‘if I make her great, what does that make me?’ Well actually, if I make her great, that makes me great, too. Sometimes there is a competitive feeling, which I hate. As soon as I feel any jealousy creep up I remind myself: Benji, this is not who you are. Everyone is on their own journey, and you never know how someone might help you in the future if you put your hand out for them now.” She adds that men, too, can be important role models when they display behaviour and attitudes in the workplace that can be useful to emulate, but insists that because it is still men who are seen as providing most of the opportunities in the industry, “we need to find the right balance between male and female mentors.”
Leadership can be lonely
After graduating her first masters 14 years ago, Benji began her career in the marine sector, in insurance and risk management. She was lucky to have great mentorship, sponsorship, and guidance from the beginning, and was offered opportunities to prove her ability instead of being defined merely by her age or role. It was in this early stage of being a mentee that she learned how having the right mentorship can completely change the trajectory of your career.
Fast forward to Benji being a leader and mentor herself, but don’t assume she has stopped being a mentee. “Leadership can be very lonely. You struggle to confide in your colleagues because you have to seem competent, and you don’t want to question their strategy, so you often keep things to yourself. Having someone you can go to who you know is safe, who can think along with you, really helps both parties.” As a mentee, even in her senior position, she values the quality of vulnerability, believing that “you must be vulnerable enough to ask the questions that you really need answered. You have to be open with your mentor, but also willing to mentor back.”
A two-way street
Benji notes that she mentors women in particular on negotiation skills, and sees value in being clear and open when pushing for your needs to be met at work: “if you don’t know you don’t ask, and if you don’t ask you don’t get.” She believes mentees can learn by virtue of a mentor sharing not only their tips but also their struggles, and that “coming to a resolve together is very enriching.” Benji is also a strong believer in mentorship as a reciprocal practice, and she enjoys it when people share their thoughts and ideas with her as well as listening. “Mentorship is not just a one-way communication. I love mentoring my mentors. There needs to be more duality in these relationships; it’s so important to be a good mentee AND a good mentor; open to learning AND giving back. Reciprocity, instead of one-way traffic.”
Good people, good future
Benji’s next goal is to transform her management style from a consulting approach to a style more like coaching. Thanks to her many interpersonal experiences and lessons learned, she does not believe that she must remain in the digital and tech field to remain a good leader: “I believe that tech is a great enabler of the future, but not a bigger enabler than good leaders and good people. The value lies in what tech does for us, and what we do with tech, not tech in its self.”