We must admit, we at The Corporate Canvas were left amazed and taken aback when we discovered and read up on S’onqoba Maseko. At just 27 years of age, S’onqoba has established herself as a key player in the corporate world, and we are so excited to see where her career takes her! At just 27 years of age, S’onqoba is not only the Executive Assistant to the Group CEO of FirstRand Limited, but is also the Head of the FNB Innovators Programme! Seeing as FNB has received worldwide accolades for its innovative products and culture – we’d say S’onqoba’s role is quite the achievement! We spoke to S’onqoba about the importance of hard work, achieving an actuarial sciences degree and balancing the myriad of activities she performs in and outside her career…
Full name: S’onqoba Nonkululeko Maseko
Current title/company: Executive Assistant to the Group CEO, FirstRand Limited & Head: FNB Innovators, First National Bank (FNB)
Educational background: BSc (Mathematical Sciences) & BSc Honours (Actuarial Science)
Current city: Johannesburg, South Africa
S’onqoba, much has been written about your achievements over the last few years and you have built a brilliant reputation for yourself in corporate! Could you tell us about the journey you took to where you are now?
I was born in Witbank, Mpumalanga and moved to Johannesburg, Gauteng quite soon thereafter. I was raised, with my younger brother, by a single mom who has been referred to as a Lipstick Evangelist. I often say that my mother raised us by selling lipstick – she worked in sales for Justine & Avon, and was able to put us through school by selling makeup. She is in many ways the reason I am where I am. She also taught me the value of working hard, never giving up and always had excellence as the standard.
I received a bursary to cover my Matric year from a private education company called PMG Education, which helped in alleviating my mom’s financial burden. I then worked hard towards a full scholarship from the South African Actuaries Development Programme (SAADP) for university as I wanted to pursue a career in actuarial science. Each year I worked hard to retain my scholarship and in 2008 I completed my undergraduate degree followed by my postgraduate degree in 2009.
After university I joined the FirstRand Group through the FNB Graduate Programme and have remained with the group since.
You are the holder of a BSc in Mathematical Sciences and a BSc Honours degree in Actuarial Science – two degrees that are notoriously difficult! What inspired you to take this challenging route in your studies?
Up until my Grade 11 year back in 2005, I had my heart set on becoming a psychologist – this was what I wanted to do. I wanted the nice couch, the great office and the skills to fix some family members – every family has people who need some therapy.
It was a psychometric assessment that changed all of that when psychology was listed as one of the career paths I should not pursue. This made me rethink and forced me to explore other avenues. I then looked at all the careers that the same assessment said I would do well in. This list was in alphabetical order and first on the list was Accounting. I had quit accounting in Grade 9 and really could not see myself doing that for a living as I did not find it challenging enough. Next on the list was Actuarial Science – this was the first time I had ever heard of this career field and it intrigued me, even after I read the rest of the list.
I started doing my research and asked a few teachers about it, as well as for them to help me research it. One teacher told me that for as long as she had taught at Germiston High School she had only known of one student who went to study Actuarial Science. Another teacher brought me printed out sheets from the internet explaining what an Actuary was, the skills required and the work they did.
To me it sounded like the perfect challenge and it merged well with my love for Mathematics and Physical Science; so I took the leap. SAADP contacted my high school early in my matric year and I was selected as a learner to attend an informational day at Wits University about the career. This is when I was sold – it was challenging and a rewarding choice.
Apart from intellect, you have shown to have a myriad of creative skills too! You have previously headed up the communications sub-committee while serving as an Executive Committee member of the Wits University Convocation, edited the bi-annual newsletter Cutting Edge and on two occasions served as a speaker at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls! How have you managed to balance these various passions and what is your advice for the Millennial woman trying to balance the different sides to her?
I always say that one day you will run out of energy or run out of time. I always say that I would rather be in a position where I have run out of energy and have no regrets. Thus I always look out for opportunities to try out new things and develop holistically as a balanced person. I believe I am an individual who is not just intellectual but has different sides and talents that I want to leverage – from debating, to singing, to drawing, to writing, to orating.
You have managed to continue achieving well after your tertiary years. Give us a glimpse into the balance between talent and hard work – do you think one can survive without the other?
I believe that talent/skills will open doors for you but a lot more is required to keep them open, and to open many others. Talent/skill alone will only get you so far and thus you need to acquire the additional qualities that make you a well-rounded and sought after individual.
Hard work is a massive differentiator as it can even give those with less talent the ability to do better than those with natural talent.
At present, you are the Executive Assistant to the Group CEO of First Rand Limited, and Head of the FNB Innovators Programme. Could you tell us about your responsibilities in this role?
As the Executive Assistant (EA) to the FirstRand CEO, I am a strategic resource in the CEOs office. Not many days are alike as it all depends what is happening at the time. I generally work 12 (minimum) hour days that start between 6:30 and 7:00am and end around 7pm and sometimes later. I often put in a few hours in the evening and use Sunday evenings to prepare for the week ahead. I attend a number of Executive Committee, Strategic Committee and Divisional Board meetings and the like. There are relationships with internal and external stakeholders to manage. The role also involves a lot of reading and writing of reports as well as working with a number of areas within the Group to coordinate certain responsibilities, regulatory reporting requirements, annual results announcements and the organizing of an annual FirstRand Leadership Conference. It is a great opportunity to learn the business inside out and understand how it is run, how strategy is debated and decided and then implemented and tracked.
My role at FNB is around determining and implementing the strategic direction of our employee innovation programme that rests on the culture of innovations being part and parcel of the FNB DNA. It is a programme to facilitate innovation and empower any employee to innovate and see their idea come to life. In addition, innovators are rewarded for innovating with R1 million being awarded to the best annual innovation and a R3 million prize being earmarked for radical innovations.
This role spans across systems, people management, finance, internal communications and management, meaning that there are a number of factors to always consider in setting the programme and innovators up for success. It is a great role that gives me exposure to all levels of the FNB business and allows me to interact with the amazing people we have in the organisation.
As an Executive Assistant to the CEO of one of South Africa’s biggest Banks, could you give us one major tip you have learnt about business acumen and leadership?
As EA to the CEO of the biggest bank in SA by market capitalization, I learn so much on a daily basis from my boss as well as other senior managers in the business.
However, what I have found to be of considerable significance, is the importance of EQ and the ability to hire the best people, believe in and empower them, keep them accountable and then allow them to manage themselves! Witnessing this in action as lived out by my boss is awe-inspiring and seeing the respect he gets for it is unparalleled. I have also learnt from him the importance of always being true to yourself and doing the absolute best you can with EVERY task.
How did you ultimately determine the type of career you were most passionate about? When did the “aha” moment take place?
I have many “Aha” moments with every individual task or activity I get involved in. I believe we are born with an internal compass which tells us what we were created to do and the impact we are here to make. In moments where time flies, the feeling of fulfillment is apparent and when I am able to touch lives for the better, I know I am fulfilling my purpose and potential.
These are the daily “aha’s” I live for – in all areas of my life.
You are known to have a passion for young people and education and you currently tutor and mentor actuarial science students. What legacy do you hope to leave?
I tutor and mentor a number of students and young professionals. I do this because I wholeheartedly believe in leaving a legacy through touching the lives of individuals, adding value and inspiring people to reach their potential. I believe that education has the power to change lives, as I am a living example of this.
I want to be remembered for imparting the gift of education and assisting in the development of young people.
You have progressed extensively in your short career in corporate. What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how have you been able to overcome them?
I am generally expected to mention the challenge of being a young black female who is not the tallest of people (and is sometimes mistaken for a much younger person) and a list of other laundry items that could be a challenge.
Obstacles and challenges, I believe, receive way too much airtime and it breeds this culture of focusing on the negative. I am learning to remain positive no matter the environment and experiences as this sets the tone for my own experience and attitude.
My focus is on being true to myself, delivering quality and adding value regardless of the circumstances and difficulties.
What is a typical work day like for you?
I get to the FirstRand office between 6:30am and 7:00am. I will use the first 30 minutes to have some quiet time to focus and plan my day. This is also a good time to catch my boss and have a chat before the back to back meetings start.
I will then kick off my day with a plan: attending meetings, working towards deadlines, coordinating inputs and whatever comes up. No two days are exactly the same.
I spend a lot of time in my office reading reports, documents and other material to remain on top of things and inform other initiatives. I also spend time pulling together presentations, speeches and reports as required, which require numerous interactions (internally and externally) to ensure that the final product is appropriate for the audience and in line with the FirstRand story and strategy.
I also do some travelling between the FNB and FirstRand offices to manage my two roles and responsibilities between the two.
My sessions at FNB involve tracking innovation trends globally in the financial services industry and otherwise. I have a number of meetings to manage the system/platform we leverage, our champion network across the bank, meetings with different Business Units in the bank to assist them in engraining innovation as a culture as well as sessions with innovators (which I always find so exciting) to help them understand the business strategy and facilitating introductions to make their ideas an innovation reality.
My day usually wraps up at the office around 7pm unless I need to attend an event or work on a deadline from the office. I then head home to have supper, watch some silly TV and put in a few more hours before heading to bed.
What is most fulfilling about your career?
The most fulfilling thing is that I can find fulfillment in so many elements of what I do on a daily basis. It is proactively standing up and doing something, whether in my career or other endeavors, that I thoroughly enjoy doing. I have interactions and learn things that fill me up and renew my passion for what I do.
I love being surrounded by passionate people who are aware of the reality of the country and do their bit to make SA better. I love being around humble, successful people who take their jobs seriously, but who do not take themselves too seriously. I am fulfilled by learning and doing my part to add value and develop others.
It is also fulfilling to be a part of a corporate brand through a Group that consistently demands excellence.
Advice for aspiring actuaries?
We all know it’s a career that requires discipline and hard work, but it is worth it! It is one of the best ways to kick off your career and it is a skill in demand.
The road to qualification is a long one and you may feel discouraged along the way but you will learn more about yourself and what you are capable of by pushing through to the finish, than you will by giving up.
Always focus on making your skills relevant in the working world and in solving the problems of the day. Do not have tunnel vision in terms of the value you can add but realise that this qualification teaches you to think very differently and there are a number of non-traditional areas where your skill set would be a huge advantage.
Morning or night?
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Oprah Winfrey (we share a birthday) and I would order pasta.
I wish I knew how to:
African women are…
Strong, resilient, intelligent, untapped potential and humble.
South Africa is…
The best country in the world that radiates with so much potential that is coming to life each day
Worst money mistake…
Buying shoes that I believe will fit my size 2,5 feet when I get home, when it was not convincing at the shop
My loft apartment bought in my first year of working at the age of 23
Motivation in 3 words…
Be your best.