Talent Profile: Thandeka Molakeng, Head of Sales Performance Materials, Africa, BASF
By Carol Butcher
“There is no way you can travel around Africa and not be touched by what you see. You fall in love with the continent.
When I returned from Ethiopia, I wrote the following on my Facebook page: ‘I LOVE AFRICA! No matter the angle you take, our stories are painful, complex and sometimes with no clear answers. You look at how far behind we are in some areas when it comes to development, but, it is never hopeless!!! As a people we are resilient and strong. As a continent we have everything we need to get ourselves out of this quagmire. I pray to God He gives us the leadership that we need to move forward and create magic on this beautiful continent!!! I remain HOPEFUL, it is the morning of our lives and the sun will rise upon AFRICA” I love Africa because it is such a challenging continent.’
When my team travels in Africa, we often say: ‘No-one would believe this is where we are, and this is what we are doing right now. There is always that sense of hope. I always tell my team we are building a large puzzle and as we meet people in Africa it is like finding part of the puzzle,” Thandeka explains.
She is responsible for sales in the whole of Africa except for Egypt and Sudan. “If you go to Nigeria or Kenya or above South Africa there is not very much, so we have to do a lot of development; this makes us entrepreneurial. It makes one look beyond the rules and what constitutes your typical customer. You do not look for typical customers as they do not exist. You have to create these customers,” she informs.
In her experience, people who work with numbers or in the Chemical industry are often introverts. She has qualifications in both disciplines – she has a Diploma in Analytical Chemistry, a B Com in Financial Management, and a Post graduate Diploma in Business Administration. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that she considers herself both shy and an introvert.
“If you had asked me when I started in my career if I would move into Sales I would have said no; this is impossible. However, there has been a natural progression in my career, and this has taken away my fear. Earlier in my career, I did a lot of technical work, which entailed a lot of interaction with customers. I realised it is about having conversations and understanding what the client is looking for. It became very natural for me to move into that space,” she remarks.
Thandeka has held various positions in a career spanning almost twenty-five years – she has been a team leader, Senior Development Chemist, Superintendent Chemical Laboratory, Technical Service Engineer, Sales Team Leader-and her current role, Head of Sales Africa. Today, she considers herself a generalist – someone with a chemistry background, which enables her to understand the solutions and the technology that BASF sells, and someone who also has the business qualifications to understand the business-end.
Meaningful work is very important to her; this is aligned to the fact that significance was identified as one of her strengths in her Strength Finder analysis. Her current role is a very good fit; she derives a great sense of satisfaction from knowing that the products she sells touch lives in a very positive way.
Thandeka recounts a story about a group of subsistence fishermen in Kenya. By providing them with a cost-effective refrigeration solution, for the first time, these fishermen were able to refrigerate any surplus and sell this at a future date; this meant that they could accumulate wealth and improve their financial position considerably.
When asked for a role model, someone she truly admires, she does not hesitate to respond: “Darwin Smith, the former CEO of Kimberly Clark from 1917 to 1991 although is passed now, he took the company from good to great. He was shy, and the market rejected him since he did not fit the usual CEO mould. He was quiet and humble. He was not egotistical. However, he was strong-willed, determined and fearless in execution. I love outliers. These are the kind of stories that I look for because these leaders do not fit the mould, and yet they achieve something great,” she observes.
Thandeka is very proud of the fact that a former customer, now colleague, did not recognise her when he met her in Germany. “He said: ‘My goodness, Thandeka, you have transformed from this shy person I knew five years’ ago into an incredible human being.’ Being Head of one of the BASF divisions is a great achievement, and nobody would have given me a chance, because I am an introvert. I am shy. I see a lot of similarities between Darwin’s story and my own. Level five leadership is where I aspire to be,” she notes.
If she were to change anything in her own career, she would not have completed a B Com Finance; it would have been far more beneficial to complete a postgraduate degree. Ironically, she was accepted onto the GIBS MBA programme but decided against this when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child. She elected instead, to complete the Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration, (PDBA). Motivated by learning and applying what she has learnt an MBA is on her radar at some point in time.
In five years’ time Thandeka says she will definitely be doing something else; however, she would love to be connected to Africa: “I would love to say we were part of the group of people that created this – we were part of the people who tilled the ground. It is about laying a foundation. It is about preparing the soil so that we can have a great plantation for a great harvest. We are the people who have to make it happen. We have the technologies within our space. All we need to do is connect the people who did not know they need each other; this is how I see my role in the Africa team, connecting the people who need each other so that they can create sustainable business,” she comments.
She would love to finish what she started. However, Thandeka is very cognisant of the fact that it is a journey and she is building along the way: “There is a time where I will say this is far as I can take it. Someone else can take it forward I would love to have a sense that we built enough for someone to see what we have built.”
Thandeka has a 17-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Leisure time is spent reading or cooking with her daughter. She is sporty and enjoys outdoor sport such as netball and basketball. She has recently taken up golf and is enjoying this enormously.