The My Working Life series visits Johannesburg, where we learn about the career trajectory of everywomanNetwork member Lucia Hlongwane, just a few months into her tenure as EY’s Africa Tax Leader.
A CHILDHOOD OF POVERTY MADE ME DETERMINED TO SUCCEED
I was born in Mpumalanga, the Swazi word for ‘the place where the sun rises’, and after my parents separated when I was four, it was just me, my mother and my brother Rob. We were happy, but financially it was always a huge struggle. My mother was a domestic worker for a lovely professor and his wife. We spent our dream school holidays at their home, and we always looked forward to those times when we could eat cereal and toast for breakfast, read the books in their library, watch television and swim in the pool. Though we were very lucky to have such great employers, I was very resentful of the fact that my mother had inherited this role (her own mother had been a domestic worker too) and vowed to break the cycle. My conversations with Mrs Brink, the professor’s wife, were pivotal to my development. She talked to me about school and my plans for the future and impressed on me the importance of liberation and education. I was too young to understand politics at the time, but something must have stuck; despite an uncertain financial future, I became the first person in my extended family to graduate from university.
EVERY ROLE HAS BROADENED MY HORIZONS
I began my career with the South African Revenue Service. I started out as a legal advisor, providing support to tax assessors. I then moved into corporate tax, before I joined the litigation department at head office. That was a real career highlight for me – I loved wearing the black gown to appear in court, and some of the challenges I incurred in that position were particularly character building. I loved SARS so much that two years after leaving to take up a position at PricewaterhouseCoopers, I re-joined the team in a role that allowed me to travel to Australia and New Zealand. My first real leadership role followed; I headed up Shell’s tax affairs for nearly seven years, during which time I received executive leadership training and experienced life in a multinational operation. A three-year stint at Barclays followed, before I was invited to come and work at Ernst & Young. The opportunity, I felt, was very much the culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication to promoting my personal brand as both a technical expert and a leader of people.
A SUCCESSFUL WORKING DAY IS ALL DOWN TO PLANNING
After waking, I spend 45 minutes exercising before getting ready for the office. A grab a coffee and set off on my two hour commute. My first job every morning is to sit down briefly with my executive assistant to ensure nothing about my plan for the day has changed. I normally know what I’ll be doing a good few days in advance, barring anything urgent that comes along. I organise my to-do list by thinking about what it is I’d like to have achieved by the end of the day, and working backwards from there. I encourage my teams to do the same and to plan properly in order to ensure they aren’t messing up others’ plans. Being able to distinguish between what’s truly important and what isn’t a priority – that’s crucial; it’s too easy to get involved in activities that take up time but add no real value.
Tax has been my whole career so it might surprise people to know that operations and numbers and all the admin that goes around that are the parts of my role I enjoy least. What I really love is working with people. They’re every business’s number one asset and it’s critical to ensure everyone is engaged. In my role as leader I try not to get hooked into the detail, so as to empower the highly accomplished experts I work with to make their own decisions. There are other times when tough calls must be made and I have to be more directional – that’s just part of being a leader. Sometimes I think I should have studied psychology alongside tax!
STILL ON MY TO-DO LIST…
I’d like to retire on the bench as a tax judge – a role I’ll only do justice by gaining an awful lot more experience. I’d also like to donate more of my time to changing the plight of women and girls in South Africa. Recently I worry that we have to do so much more educating of young boys too. Without that, it’s their attitudes that pose the biggest dangers to women of the future.
MY QUICK-FIRE CAREER TIPS
Don’t take anything for granted. I’ve never felt entitled to any role; I’ve taken opportunities and given them my utmost. There is no substitute for hard work, careful planning and remaining focused.
It’s okay to say “no”. There have been many occasions on which I’ve been headhunted and promised all sorts of prospects, but I’ve turned them down because they just didn’t feel right. What matters are the times you say “yes” and sometimes being prepared to get thrown in the deep end, outside your comfort zone. Sometimes you’ll emerge shaken from the experience, but you’re usually stronger and bolder for it.
What got you here, won’t get you there. Settling into my current role has taken longer than I expected. It’s a completely different world and there’s so much to learn. The key is to celebrate the milestones and to have your own definition of what success looks like.
What binds us together is much greater than what separates us. We waste so much time pulling in different directions, whether in our personal relationships, careers or our communities. If you ask the questions, you might just find that your home help is a doctor or lawyer in the making and she just needs doors opened to an education. We all need to give more of ourselves – our time, energy and resources – to assist those less fortunate. If we all gave back with our hearts and our souls, we’d solve so many of the world’s challenges.
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