Nikki Twomey, executive head of marketing and communications at Standard Bank talks to Glenda Nevill about living authentically and how she’s changing the culture within her sector.
Nikki Twomey has a clear idea of what ingredients go into making a woman of substance. And while there are women in media she believes personify these ideals, it’s the thousands of unsung heroines across South Africa whom she thinks should be given more recognition, in the media and in life.
“For me it’s not really the household names that spring to mind. I think of a lady that hails from a township in Mpumalanga who works tirelessly, raises children, holds down a number of jobs, and is a pillar of her community while asking for very little in return,” she says. Twomey adds that there are many South African women who are great examples of inner strength, fortitude and selflessness. “I have the greatest respect for her and other women like her,” she says.
Twomey believes that the South African media does a fairly good job of profiling and reporting on women in influential spheres of life such as politics, business and sport. “Of course, as a society we still have a long way to go before we achieve greater gender parity in these spheres. The media can play a role in highlighting the untold stories of lesser-known women of substance.”
However, Twomey thinks that South Africa is fortunate to have some local women who are blazing the trail for future generations of opinion leaders and influencers. For her, two excellent examples in the local media landscape are Ferial Haffajee and Redi Tlhabi. “Women of substance know what they care about, what drives and motivates them. They’re in touch with the small and great differences that they can and want to make in the world. They have purpose and vision. It doesn’t have to be too lofty, just authentic. They are focused, clear thinkers,” she says. Other qualities they have is that they’re comfortable expressing their points of view, have a deep-seated self belief and are hardworking. “They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. They exhibit consistent standards and values. They stand up for what they believe in. They care about other people and always do what they say they will do,” Twomey says.
Positive role models are vital
In order to foster the development of women of substance, young women need role models and mentors says Twomey. “If a young woman can be guided early to try and understand what truly motivates her and what she cares deeply about, the sooner she can bring her own unique skills to bear in a meaningful and fulfilling way. It’s about never trying to be something you are not,” she asserts.
Does Twomey feel that the media and marketing industry respects women in the way they are portrayed? “We’ve definitely made progress in South Africa. It’s a challenge for advertisers to truthfully reflect, in a plausible way how society is, while at the same time helping to shift society’s perceptions in a positive direction. For example, by using a female boss in an investment banking boardroom, advertisers challenge gender stereotypes. We try very hard at Standard Bank to get this balance right,” says Twomey. She believes that stereotyping is the lazy way out. She says, “My current irritation is a supermarket radio ad where the husband refers to ‘The Wife’. That term is so demeaning!”
In her book Lean In, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wrote that women should make their voices heard in media, write opinion pieces, make a noise. Twomey thinks this kind of effort has improved in the South African media. “City Press editor Ferial Haffajee is not afraid to speak her mind and doesn’t shy away from confronting topical and sensitive issues. Redi Tlhabi’s column and radio talk show are powerful examples of how thought provoking, relevant content can also be bold enough to challenge the status quo,” she says.
Twomey is struck by how few positive female role models in senior positions she was exposed to as she climbed the ranks in her career, “I was incredibly disappointed to find that some senior women actively shut out and discouraged other females from gaining entry to executive management positions,” she says.
After suffering the sharp end of this, she vowed to actively support up-and-coming female colleagues. “I learnt that it’s not so much ‘what’ you do but ‘how’ you do it. In the end it’s about understanding people
and what they’re trying to achieve. This
often boils down to simple human engagement that involves a lot of active listening,” she says.
Making a positive impact
Twomey confesses that it took her a long time to realise that her career progress wasn’t just about being lucky. “I tend to be tough on myself. I’ve learnt that while hard work is important, the fact that I genuinely enjoy and care about the people I work with means that I find it easy to bring out the best in them. I’m good at getting the team excited about what we do and – truth be told – I end up facilitating and bringing to life their brilliant ideas!” she says.
Twomey affirms that she’s found a “great home” in marketing and communication, which affords her the opportunity to “Work in an industry that can genuinely make a positive impact on people’s lives, businesses and communities right across the continent”. Over the past few years, the marketing and communication function at Standard Bank has really started to come into its own. “We’ve learnt to stop thinking about marketing as a department that tries to control the ‘4 P’s’ (Product, Price, Place and Promotion). Marketing responsibility stretches right across the organisation,” she explains.
At Standard Bank, Twomey really feels that they’re driving a collaborative culture within the marketing team. “We’ve also managed to positively shift internal perceptions about the marketing function, although we still have some way to go on this front. However, I can say with complete confidence that we’re on the right track towards creating real value for our clients,” says Twomey.
The lesson Twomey would give to her younger self would be to be less hard on herself. “Also, don’t worry too much about being liked. Listen and understand properly before diving in and defending your arguments. Trust your gut about ideas and your instincts about people. Focus and build on your strengths not only on your development areas.”
Although spare time is short, to relax, Twomey enjoys taking creatively-inspired photographs, sailing with her husband and making beaded jewellery. She confesses that her handbag is a “rat’s nest” filled with “a reasonably well-stocked pharmacy, emergency chocolate bars and biltong for traffic jams.”
Twomey also believes in giving back. “I help two particular families in specific ways like building a home and educating their children,” she says. She believes that there’s nothing more rewarding than assisting someone who really wants to grow and progress, adding, “I have unlimited time for someone who has a positive, can-do attitude.” Twomey concludes that any initiatives that help to positively empower women to help themselves, whether through education, mentorship or facilitating greater access to career opportunities, play a crucial role in advancing women in society.
This story was first published in the August 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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