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Nicky Newton-King: taking stock of where we are

With three law degrees, being a Yale World Fellow and South Africa’s 2003 Business Woman of the Year, Nicky Newton-King secured the position of CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.  She is the first woman to lead this company since its inception over a century ago …  Here are some nuggets from Nicky’s conversation with WIFN guests when she was the recent guest speaker at both the Johannesburg and Cape Town events.

Earn your place, make the space

Acclaimed business woman, barrier breaker, mentor, role model … these are just a few of the descriptions that apply to JSE CEO, Nicky Newton-King. Throw in wife, mother to two sons, cyclist, plus the occasional pilates session and you’ve got achievement and inspiration in abundance.

Nicky believes that we are all aspirational, and when you are a leader, many want to share a moment with you and learn from you. She gave the Women In Finance Network (WIFN) more than a moment when she shared her stories, her journey and her insights at their March 2016 Jo’burg meeting at 54 on Bath Hotel.

Strong, independent women have always been a feature of Nicky’s life. “For most of my life I knew about women who worked hard” (her mother ran a farm).  From negotiating prices to dinner table conversations – there was no barrier for women.  Women could do anything: they had a place at the table.

“You have to earn that place,” said Nicky, who has LLB and LLM degrees, “study hard, learn, work hard and put up your hand.”

Love what you do

But earning that place shouldn’t be a grind. Although there will be sacrifices along the way, the journey should be enjoyable.

Nicky is a firm believer in doing what you love. “I love my job. In the last 20 years I can count five days where I didn’t enjoy it.” One of those days involved retrenchments.

Making it meaningful also makes a difference. “Do what you do in a manner that leaves something for the next generation. That is how I was brought up,” Nicky observed.

For co-founder of Women in Finance Network, Kim Potgieter, this is about being authentic. It’s not status that drives, and will achieve, it’s believing what you do matters.

Create the space where more can flourish

When you have earned your place at the table – make sure there is space for the next achiever. Nicky said that as you climb the ladder, you need to make it easier for people to follow.

“It is tough being at the top, and you have a sense of responsibility to let other people know what it is like.”

Sometimes this takes the form of chatting to someone informally, sometimes it is networking events (note: Join Women in Finance Network!). Nicky shared that formal mentorship programmes can be tricky because of the commitment they require – but there is a lot that can happen informally that is of equal benefit. And don’t discard the energy inspirational women give and get in a networking event, at presentations and conferences.

One thing is clear for Nicky – along the way to the top there are compromises and sacrifices and late nights – that are made easier by a support network. “I have had lots of support in my career, I wouldn’t underestimate the value of support.”

“I think you make choices,” Nicky said. “I’m not the class mother, and I have a lot of support at home and work. But I do what I do and I love what I do.” Nicky has a househusband, with whom these kinds of choices and decision were discussed immediately after he proposed. And while work is one of her loves, she maximises her time and is clear on what she will and won’t do. “I don’t do dinners,” was a welcome sentiment.

Allowing your children to see a strong independent successful woman who flourishes in her career can be very inspirational.

The JSE has the enviable position of an exec that is more than 50% women and a workforce that is more than 50% women. The organisation employs around 500.

When it comes to diversity in the workforce, Nicky says this was a deliberate strategy – because the stock exchange used to be pale and male. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy to attract women, the goal was more diversity, but along the way more and more women saw the JSE was a place where they were more than welcome, and more and more women liked the idea of working there.

“You get to a tipping point where women say – this is a place I can flourish without having to do something bizarre,” said Nicky. So strong has the attraction been that the organisation now needs a few more men to balance the scales!

In the workplace women can also create an environment that allows women to flourish without asking too much. If you think the advice to sleep a lot, take time out for kids’ sports games and concerts is only relevant to women who have reached the top of the ladder – think again. According to Nicky, senior women can to create the right atmosphere where junior staff members would be able to ask for some flexibility that would allow them time for family commitments.

Strong support for South Africa

So, what about those markets and the state of SA Inc? Nicky had just returned from London where she was part of the Investor Roadshow. The team led by Minister Pravin Gordhan was “on top of its game.”

Sentiment appears low in many places across the globe, not just South Africa. Reading the London papers makes you think it is worse in the UK than here. “I think we create our own destiny. If we spend our lives saying it is all gloom and doom, this will happen. There are areas of excellence in South Africa and we need to give them our support. Let’s not make the mistake that the whole system is rotten. We have to give people a chance to succeed.”

Nicky believes that events over the last three months show a completely different mindset and belief, and there are many genuinely working together for a better country. What you read on the front page of the newspaper is not the whole truth.

And although a downgrade to junk status might be a wake-up call, it is not a good thing – a country can take at least five years before regaining investment grade status.

Be honest with your clients

But the economic climate is tough and market volatility looks set to stay for a while yet. “Tighten your seatbelts for a while; it’s an uncertain world, there is volatility and low growth.”

In this environment we need to be honest with our clients, and where we have influence we need to use it. “Get in there and make a difference.” And this is not limited to dinner table conversations – use your voice and be heard in more places that matter.

Below is a snippet of our Nicky Newton-King event that was held in Johannesburg:

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