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To stay on top, never stop learning


Leading a life of purpose and meaning, also in your career, is rewarding. For organisations, this could mean a workforce of long-term high-performing employees. 

Always continue to learn to stay on top of your game and understand that things change very quickly these days.

And, says Prof. Shirley Zinn, her father taught her to be financially independent and try to navigate life in an independent manner. Her mother taught her that you have to make a difference in the world and for that you need to know who you are and what your purpose is.

For Zinn, a director of various companies and author of the book Swimming Upstream, it is now about leading a life of meaning and purpose - that which drives you, what you are about and helps you to get up in the morning and go to work.

This was the subject at USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and finweek's regular We Read For You  presentation recently held in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The purpose of the book is for readers to find hope in what could be possible, despite adversity.

In her book, Swimming Upstream: A Story of Grit and Determination to Succeed, Zinn shares her story of courage and triumph over incredible adversity. Born and raised on the Cape Flats, she never allowed her past to dictate her future.

Despite growing up in an environment of gangsterism, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy, she relentlessly pursued her goals and forged an impressive academic career - even when faced with significant odds. After completing her studies, she set out to conquer the business world.

For her, women make a huge difference when they are empowered to do what they need to do within an organisation. Smart organisations have worked this out. "When you interpret this in a systematic and thoughtful way, you can realise results you never imagined possible."

The lessons she learnt from life and her career are the following:

  • Each one of us is gifted with various talents. Many of us do not make use of half of it. You have to realise that you are not inadequate and have more potential than you think.
  • You have to start somewhere in life and a career. It might not be a perfect place at the time, but just make a start and think clearly in order to avoid missing out on an opportunity.
  • Surround yourself with people that inspire and "lift you up" . You need to do it deliberately. You cannot get away from "toxic" people, they are everywhere. Rather learn to manage it or you'll risk getting caught up in negativity. It is decision that you have to make.
  • Humility is very important. It's very easy to fall when you are high up on the ladder. The higher the ladder, the bigger the fall. Living your personal values and standing by your principles are key to achieving your vision.
  • When you do fall, do not stay down too long . Get out of the downward spiral as soon as possible and move forward.
  • When a real-life tragedy strikes, take time off to recover. Although you might not think so at the time, people do have the ability to pull themselves up and get through the most difficult things in life.
  • For organisations the focus should be on caring for people and to create an environment for people to be people. They can get the numbers right, but it is the culture that counts. The culture will ensure long-term high performance and achieving the strategic objectives, which goes beyond the numbers.
  • In essence it is all about being a better version of yourself every single day.

Prof. Shirley Zinn holds an M.Ed from the University of the Western Cape and a D.Ed from Harvard University. In 2008 she was awarded the Top Executive In Corporate South Africa by Topco Media. In the same year, she was recognised by the Black Business Quarterly and received the award for Top Woman in Business and Government and Most Visionary Woman. Currently she is a non-executive director on several boards, and also serves on several advisory boards. She is the president of the Harvard Alumni Association South Africa and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors SA.

This article is based on USB-ED's recent We Read For You event that focused on Zinn's book, finweek is the USB-ED's media partner in its We Read For You series. The next event will be held on 16 September In Johannesburg and 23 September In Cape Town where Dr Renata Schoeman will unpack the essence of Bob Rosen's Grounded: How Leaders stay Rooted In an Uncertain World. To register, please email  or visit www. usb-ed-com/WRFY. Attendance is free.

First published in Finweek  on 8 September.
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