By Yvonne Perumal, Executive for Group Legal and Forensics at Liberty South Africa
As a person who has always valued preparation in everything I do, the legal and financial sectors have taught me one important thing: always be willing to change your plans.
Your career path isn’t set in stone. Your work relationships will constantly evolve, and your skill set should never be static. As part of an Indian family that struggled financially, I used to think my options were limited. From a young age, even though I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, I also knew that I couldn’t disappoint my family who were doing their utmost to make sure I could get a higher education. The pressure was there, and it appeared that a rigid path had been laid before me – by my parents, my community, and my promises to myself – but that never stopped me from realising how important it is to be able to adapt.
From law to the financial sector: always be willing to take the plunge
My first job at a law firm was comfortable. I had studied hard to make sure I was prepared. I was doing well, climbing the ladder, but a question always lingered: “What is it you want in life?”
This is something I still ask myself in the wake of all the changes we’ve all experienced since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But thankfully, the answer is still the same: “I want to keep learning. I want to challenge myself. I want to do purpose-rich work that changes lives.”
Even though I was succeeding at the firm, I wanted growth. When I first saw there was a position in a company secretarial role at Liberty in 2005, I knew this would be a bit of a step back from my position at the time. But I knew this would be my foot-in-the-door, because I could see a path through the company, even though it was not what I really wanted to do at the time.
I knew I was going to have to work hard – lots of work in the background to make sure I knew Liberty’s strategies and goals – but starting off in a company secretarial role turned out to be an incredible way to learn about the company and the industry. Working directly with the executive committee and the Board of Directors, taking minutes in high-level meetings and building solid relationships allowed me the opportunity to learn the inner workings at Liberty that still serve me well today.
Building your skillset: be confident in your competence – and do your homework
Throughout my tenure at Liberty, I have moved across the business, because I was always willing to take a leap when an opportunity presented itself. When I joined the stakeholder management unit, which I didn’t know very much about at the time, I knew I could train myself, find the right people to learn from and offer new insights from my previous experience. Yes, I hit some stumbling blocks, but I was always willing to learn from my mistakes and offer all that I could to improve the way I did my job. Building stakeholder engagement models, advocating BEE compliance and the complexities of this role took time, but as I started to become more familiar with the job, I realised I could offer more. I then took up the opportunity to work with the Liberty Africa Business Development unit, I knew I was going to have to broaden my thinking. When I had to become familiar with market intelligence capabilities, entry strategies into other African territories, and the commercial realities of my new work, I made sure that I watched and learned from the people around me, picking up where I could fill in the gaps in my own knowledge. Soon, I had the confidence I needed. I could put together the pitches, the proposals, because I knew I had started to see the bigger picture. There are always going to be times when you feel a lull in your confidence, but through perseverance, you can always learn and always get better at your job.
Finding a mentor where you least expect it: learn from your toughest bosses and your peers
Relationships are at the centre of self-improvement, and even those that start off as rocky can be incredibly valuable. It took time, but I was able to win over even my most difficult boss – because I realised she was shaping my skills and demeanour. I modelled myself on her abilities and learned how to take her best and apply it to my ways of working.
But it’s more than just managers who can be your mentors. When I returned to the legal side of the business in 2010, I knew that it would be my relationships within the team that would limit or promote my success. I saw a gap in the provision of legal advice to Libfin (an area which largely manages Liberty’s assets through securities lending, repurchase and derivative transactions). I wanted the legal team to feel that I was there to uplift their work with a different skill set, to share knowledge and make us better overall – and not as a threat. I built strong relationships within the legal team and when I became General Counsel, it was a smooth transition with immense support from my fellow colleagues in the legal area and the company at large. When I received the promotion onto the Liberty Holdings Executive Committee in July this year, there was a sincere outpouring of congratulations from the colleagues around me, the ones who also made the effort to build authentic relationships with me. I look forward to growing in this new role and making my contribution to the Group.
When I first began at Liberty, of course I wanted to reach the top, but the journey in my mind was so different to the one that eventually took place. If I can offer just one piece of advice: embrace change. Every mistake, every situation that you didn’t predict, it’s a new stepping-stone for your ever-evolving career.
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