Part 2 of the “Diversity Is Our Strength” series
My first experience at SAP will always serve as a reminder of how important inclusion actually is in the workplace. Prior to joining, I knew very little about corporate culture. I was a mom, and I had owned a small event management business completely outside the IT environment.
When I first came on board at one of our offices in Africa, one of my team members applied for the same role. What I very quickly realised was that the people in the team were very inclusive, but only to her. Without knowing me, they decided that I had “taken her job” and therefore was not welcome. In my first few weeks, there would be times when I’d walk into the office and everybody would simply stop talking, stand up, and walk out silently. I was a real outsider.
In the beginning, I just put my head down and tried to do my work as best I could. After a while, I realised that I couldn’t succeed in a vacuum. I decided to try an experiment – I put a sweet bowl out on my desk. Little by little, people started to come over to my desk and talk to me, but really it was an excuse for taking sweets. Over time these visits started evolving into real conversations, and after a while colleagues would come over even when there were no sweets in the bowl. This taught me (and still serves as a reminder) that the first weeks and months in such a big company can be very scary for anyone.
These days, when we have new colleagues join our team, I try to always reach out, meet for coffee or a chat, and get them included in the team as much as possible. And I really can’t imagine the kind of experience I had happening again. When I first arrived 14 years ago, it was a very different culture. Rather than being very corporate and political, we are more human and aware of the advantages of being inclusive.
Stepping into the unknown
A few years ago, our marketing director left, and I considered applying for the role. But unfortunately, my daughter’s father became critically ill at the same time, and my daughter really needed me. I knew that if I applied for the position, I would be torn between being a great mom and a great marketing director. There was no way, at that point in my life, that I could do both jobs well. I decided to withdraw my application; my focus had to be my daughter. Everything else, including my career, could wait.
As it turns out, this was the best decision I have ever made. My daughter started thriving again, and soon she was back to the happy, secure, confident child I always knew. In fact, she was the one who came to me and said we needed a new adventure and to make a change. You could say that she pushed me to look beyond our beloved home in Africa to look for new opportunities. From a professional perspective, the new marketing director was an amazing coach, and I learned a great deal from her. She even encouraged me to build up my self-confidence, take the plunge, and apply for the role in our regional offices in the UK and Ireland (UKI). And ever since I applied for that position, I have never looked back!
A year later, I moved from my role as marketing manager for the HR audience in the UK to the head of campaign management in our UKI marketing team. We manage the planning and execution of all the campaigns, events, social, and digital in the UK, and I can honestly say that it’s the perfect place for me at this point in time.
Even though the general thinking is quite similar, there’s a huge difference between the way you work in the UK compared to Africa. The African team is small, so everybody does a little bit of everything. I had a number of audiences to look after, but only a couple of sales and presales people in each of these areas. In the UK, I started out with only one audience, but more than 45 sales, presales, COEs , and other people that I needed to build relationships with. It is a lot more intense in terms of how deep you dive into your audience.
There are also some major social differences between the cultures. People in different countries are brought up differently, and they have different views on what is the “norm.”
For example, we had a team building session in the UK where everyone was asked to stand up and hold hands while we “connected.” For me, this was absolutely fine, totally normal. But I remember after this exercise, the team were commenting how awkward and unnatural it was to be asked to hold hands with colleagues. In Africa, the same situation wouldn’t even have been worth noticing; in fact they probably would have been asked to hug each other or massage each other’s shoulders, and they would have loved it! People are a lot more “touchy” in Africa; personal space is more of a suggestion than a given.
I do find both cultures very genuine, which made the move to the UK a lot easier. However, I think the biggest difference in the workplace is that in South Africa, you become friends as soon as you join, and thereafter you work to earn respect from a professional perspective. In contrast, in the UK, there is an immediate, indisputable respect for your work, and then you start building friendships.
I was born in Israel and moved to South Africa at the age of 8. But if you ask me today, I can confidently say that home is the UK. Even though in South Africa I had an easier life with my parents and lifelong friends and the comfort of knowing everything inside out, the UK is considerably better for us. At first, it was really quite daunting to figure out even the simplest things that we tend to take for granted, but today my daughter and I are really flourishing. I enjoy every aspect of my life here: my social life, my weekends, and my work. Everything simply feels right.
While I try to be the best at both managing to be a single mother and a people manager, I have realised that there will always be times when it’s a tradeoff: being a good mom vs. being a good employee. Sometimes I prioritise home; sometimes I prioritise work. I think the most valuable lesson I have learned is that there is nothing wrong with doing this; it is nothing to feel guilty about. It is just part of my reality and my life… and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Stay tuned for the “Marketing Professional Journey Webinar” with the Marketing D&I Community on 28 June where I will share my personal journey through three cultures, stepping into the unknown to grow towards becoming the leader, mother, friend, and employee of my dreams.