“Run your career like a business!” – Shirley Machaba, CEO of PwC provides key tips for being an impactful leader

“Run your career like a business!” - Shirley Machaba, CEO of PwC provides key tips for being an impactful leader

Written by Staff Writer

Aug 24, 2021

By Fiona Wakelin 


Shirley Machaba is the phenomenal woman leader and South African Chartered Accountant who is recognised as the first black woman to be appointed Chief Executive Officer for PwC Southern Africa. Just recently PwC was announced as the Number 1 Ranked Best Managed Company in the Accounting & Consulting sector, by Top 500 Best Managed Companies

In 2004, Shirley rejoined PwC as an associate director, and in 2005 was admitted to the partnership. In her 16 years as a partner at PwC, Shirley had the opportunity to serve in numerous leadership positions within the firm before taking on her current position as CEO – exposing her to a deeper understanding of the firm locally, regionally and globally; to name a few of these positions: Southern Africa Governance, Risk and Internal Audit Leader; Southern Africa Risk Assurance Leader; Africa Governance, Risk and Internal Audit Leader; Southern Africa Government and Public Sector Leader; Partner in charge of our Menlyn and Waterfall offices; and Africa Diversity and Inclusion Leader. 

Shirley Machaba was elected to PwC’s Governance Board in 2006, and in 2012 she was appointed Chair of the SA Board and member of the Africa Board. In 2015, Shirley was elected to the global board and had the opportunity to chair the subcommittee on Transformation, Operations and People. Volunteerism has also been an integral part of her professional career. She established quality relationships locally, regionally and globally and kept up to date on latest developments, either in the profession or the country, which enabled her to engage at a strategic level.


Please tell us about your role as CEO of PwC in Southern Africa.

This is a wonderful milestone in my career at PwC and I’ve always strived to be the type of leader our people will look up to, and aspire to be. Today as CEO at PwC, I represent the firm on most key structures such as AMCHAM and the BLSA board and engage on many matters of national interest with Government, Regulators and other key stakeholders. I think this demonstrates how it pays to be agile, and to make the most of the opportunities that cross one’s path.

I also believe that there’s no one right way to be a good leader. One style of leadership might work well in one company or situation, but not in another. Ultimately, leadership styles are a personal reflection of each individual leader, and their inner strengths, but there are a few key pointers that certainly helped me build upon my leadership skills, influence people to believe, trust, and join in my vision, and become an impactful leader:


  • Establish a unique leadership style – Don’t simply go with the flow; avoid one-size-fits-all strategies as a way to lead. Reflect on your own values, character traits, and talents. This is the best place to start to define your own leadership style. Use what you already possess and build from there. You are unique. Make that uniqueness your drive to become an impactful leader.
  • Serve with your mind and heart – Leading is a gift. The greatest and most impactful leaders in history have demonstrated that one of the most essential aspects in leading is having an attitude of service. An attitude of service is what genuinely connects leaders with people and how you earn their loyalty. Think about the many other ways in which you can serve. Don’t lead blindly and without having a purpose.
  • Be generous and participate – Share your knowledge with those you lead. Speak of your failures and successes, and how you have overcome obstacles. Be a role model to inspire and motivate people to move forward. It is important to delegate, though it is also important to get involved with those you lead to learn about them and for them to feel supported.
  • Create an environment of wellbeing – Leading others and being there all the way takes a lot of energy out of you. You need to know when enough is enough. Don’t let yourself be consumed by attempting to take care of what can wait for another day. You and those you lead need to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy to be productive and to celebrate successes. Personally I look for ways to energise myself and take care of my mind and body so I can be the best at home, at work and in my community. I enjoy a daily consistent fitness routine, and on the weekends I put on my takkies and go for a run.
  • Foster a culture of inclusiveness – Get into the habit of focusing on the talents of each of your people and promote these talents. You need to be open to managing conflict and negativity effectively to make people feel they are in a safe environment. People perform and respond better when they know you are there for them, when you are approachable and encouraging.
  • Be a visible leader – Belief in senior leadership is one of the strongest drivers of engagement. People want leaders who walk the talk, and are seen to be involved and committed to the company’s vision and purpose. In the post-COVID world, people are increasingly looking to their leaders to provide robust direction and support. It’s also important for leaders to drive forward change and set the “tone from the top” and in times like this, how these leaders communicate is vital. 



What important lessons have you learned on your career and leadership journey? 
  1. Always run your career like a business – have a strategy with where you are, where you want to be and how to get there. Assess regularly.
  2. Believe in yourself and in your abilities.
  3. Raise your hand for opportunities, apply yourself and perfect what you do. 
  4. Seek a mentor who has time, experience and honesty.
  5. Never stop learning and improving yourself.
  6. Show up in meetings, sessions and presentations.
  7. There will be obstacles along the way – the choice is yours as to how you will deal with them – my advice is, in case you fall, stand up, dust yourself off and keep walking.
  8. Surround yourself with people who share your values and vision.
  9. Volunteerism contributes to my career growth. Thus, I continue to actively do this. 
  10. Be humble and treat all people with respect. Remember, the sky is not the limit, the universe is.


What excited you about your role as the first black woman CEO at PwC Southern Africa?

I was actually the first woman CEO, not just the first African woman CEO at PwC Southern Africa. I knew that there was no playbook indicating how other women did previously, and that I would be paving the way for other women. I was excited that while there were high expectations, I was also in a position to give hope to other women, and the African child in particular. I was also excited that the coaching and motivation I had been doing would now be from a position of authority; I would have the right seat at the table to be able to ask the right questions, be heard, felt and intentionally create a pipeline of potential young leaders who are confident to take over in future. Overall, I will have no excuse for not leaving an impactful legacy of a sustainable future.


What have been some of your milestones over the last 2 years?

PwC is a purpose-led and values-driven organisation and together with my leadership team I have been able to visibly implement our Africa strategy, ensuring that quality is at the heart of everything we do. My vision has always been building a no 1 firm with quality clients and people who are digitally fit, and as a team we have achieved that.

Through my proactive participation in structures such as BLSA, AMCHAM, BUSA and B4SA I have been able to elevate the profile of PwC and took every opportunity to actualise our purpose of building trust in society and solving important problems. As corporates, we have a responsibility to implement programmes that contribute to the upliftment of our country. We have developed a societal purpose strategy called Reimagine Africa, together, which is guided by UN SDGs focusing on seven areas, being gender equality, good health, quality education, good health and wellbeing, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities and climate action.

The following are a few examples where we are promoting transformation and contributing in addressing the seven areas: 

  • We continue to maintain a level 1 BBBEE certificate.
  • We have a transformation and gender equality strategy with specific KPIs for our leadership, monitored by the board regularly.
  • We have a gender neutral succession plan.
  • We have a gender neutral procurement policy.
  • We have merit-based recruitment, promotion and retention criteria and practices.
  • We have gender responsive enterprise development, procurement and corporate responsibility programmes.
  • We support a number of SMME programmes, such as the BSSA Foundation, PwC’s Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative and Yes4Youth programmes to name a few.



  • Through the BSSA Foundation we provide business skills to previously disadvantaged communities, the majority being female. To date, we have successfully trained over 67,000 SMMEs who are running profitable businesses and creating sustainable jobs.
  • The Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative aims to unlock the business potential of women living in rural areas and empowers them to generate their own income The project has been rolled out across the country, with BSSA providing training as well as three months of mentorship and after-care support. By mid of 2021, over 4,000 women had been through the Faranani training and 68% of attendees have been able to increase profitability in their businesses.
  • We support the government’s yes4youth programme. In November 2020 we held our first Skills for Society corporate responsibility day, in partnership with the Yes initiative.
  • Wellbeing is another of our focus areas. We recognise the impact COVID has had on our mental and overall wellbeing and we have had regular surveys to see how our people are managing with this. The responses we got helped shaped our talks and communications over the course of the year. It was important for us to let our people know that we truly do care about their wellbeing and that of their families. 


  • We are being deliberate about taking up membership with organisations that embrace the principles of gender equality.
  • Our commitment to net zero, for instance has been well articulated, in line with our global firm’s commitment to this priority. We’re making a worldwide science-based commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and our SA firm is committed to helping make this happen. 
  • We partner with skills development organisations to impart essential business skills and support. We’ve entered into a local collaboration with UNICEF to help prepare young people with relevant skills to enter the workforce. 
  • Through our partnership with the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative, we’re working towards achieving global gender equality in the workplace and beyond. 
  • We are providing pro bono services to the Solidarity Fund and Gender Based Violence & Femicide Response Fund.
  • We have also implemented an internal GBV policy, aimed at providing support to victims.


You were appointed CEO in July 2019 – and have been at the helm during the pandemic. How has COVID affected PwC’s business model, and how did you pivot?

COVID-19 impacted all of us including businesses, big and small, society and government globally. Unfortunately there is no playbook to deal with it. It is new to all of us, including the medical fraternity. We are learning every day. COVID-19 has afforded us the opportunity to reimagine where, how and when we work. It’s changed workspaces and workplaces, as well as how we interact with each other. In addition to mastering these physical challenges, women also display empathy and caring, bringing a different perspective. Organisations are actually in good hands when women are leading. For me it is not about leading from the front, but leading from behind. Empower your teams by giving direction and the rest will follow. My focus in response will be on the following:


Communicating with our people

  • What is critical about the tone from the top is that it is not just the verbal and written communication but the actions we take and the behaviour we display. It is important that we lead by example especially in these pandemic times.
  • When the pandemic hit, it tested our personal and collective ability to respond to real uncertainty that impacted everyone on a personal and professional level and we had the responsibility to not only navigate this ourselves as individuals but to direct and confidently lead our people.  
  • We did not bombard people with volumes of information but rather selected crucial messages at appropriate times, clear and concise.
  • We found it critical that we were open to hearing what our people were concerned about and addressing what their needs were in this environment. It was absolutely essential to listen to our people.
  • Communications our people wanted centred around working from home, wellbeing, updates when government guidelines changed. Video became a popular resource, with people centred messaging delivered in a authentic and compassionate manner 
  • Human-centred communications, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of people’s circumstances at all levels have been well received – in addition to their work responsibilities, we understand that many of our people are parents that needed to carry out homeschooling; many have responsibilities towards family members; and internet connectivity is an issue for some. At all times our offices are accessible to those who need to access our networks or wifi, and we developed a remote working charter of ten promises which is about valuing and supporting one another, saying thank you and reimagining our future together.  


Culture (purpose and values)

  • At PwC we’re guided by our purpose, to build trust in society and solve important problems which underpins our strategy. 
  • This, along with our values of example act with integrity, reimagining the possible, it aligns the focus of our people and directs the decisions we make and actions we take. It’s reflected in our leadership and governance structures, and embraced throughout the firm (and the PwC global network). 


Investment in technology

  • Because of the nature of our work, flexibility is already part of our culture and our way of doing business.
  • The vast majority of PwC workforce is mobile, with a small number being permanently office bound. 
  • In recent years, digitising our business has been a key focus for us, to modernise and mobilise our global workforce.
  • This investment served us well when COVID-19 struck – in Southern Africa, this resulted in the entire firm transitioning seamlessly to working from home, with short notice.
  • This has accelerated the conversation about the future of the workplace and what that will look like. A lot of our clients are, as are we, having conversations around hybrid models of working. Currently, a hybrid model is being exercised to manage the different waves and lockdown levels.


Digital transformation

  • In addition to investments in technology, we’ve also invested in the digital transformation and agility of our people. Aligning with the objectives of our New world. New skills initiative, our staff all have access to our Digital Fitness app, which provides them with access to digital learning resources aimed at building their knowledge and skills, in their own time. Realising that social distancing and lockdown mandates have left people isolated and in need of reliable information, we also launched a free version of the app to the public, with curated resources and content aimed at empowering people to stay relevant, boost their digital acumen and access resources to navigate COVID-19’s impacts during this difficult time. Building on the DFA, our digital transformation journey, called Our Tomorrow, has seen our people having access to powerful new digital tools aimed at taking them and PwC into the future.


What is your assessment of the role of leadership during these difficult times?

The role of leadership during these difficult times is defined by the following attributes of leadership: selfless, agile, adaptable, inclusive, emotional intelligence, decisive, courageous, fearless, innovative, humble, visionary, resilient, caring, collaborative, transparent, authentic, trustworthy, truthful, creativity, passion and critical thinking. It takes leaders with a combination of all of the above to be able to lead successfully during difficult times. 


How are you ensuring you leave a legacy of excellence?

I believe in lifting as I rise. No one should be left behind. Operating in silos dilutes power; my leadership style is collaboration with a focus on passing on wisdom. I use any opportunity to share my story – which includes successes and failures. A quality culture is something that as a firm we have been consistently driving and I take every opportunity to communicate this to our people to ensure it is part of our DNA.


What is your “why”? What drives you?

My purpose and values drive me. My purpose is to make a difference in people’s lives, particularly youth and women. Fortunately the firm’s purpose and values and mine are aligned, which makes it easy to initiate and implement programmes that are aligned to the firm’s purpose and values.


Do you have any advice for young women aspiring to leadership roles?

I believe that the future is female, therefore there are many opportunities for young women aspiring to leadership roles. We all have aspirations; however, you cannot be in a leadership role without depth – people won’t take you seriously. You need to show up and accumulate experience in order to be confident in your leadership role. Don’t accept mediocre appointments; they will affect your wellbeing.

Exercise ethical leadership to manage your reputation, show up and have confidence. And a final word of advice – don’t forget to have mentors; they are invaluable at leadership level.  

The road to success is not easy. It’s full of obstacles and you will fail at times. Don’t apologise for failure. Learn from it. Tell yourself it’s ok to be vulnerable. Make time for yourself and your dreams, and then go out and pursue them. If you fall, roll, stand up, dust yourself off and keep walking until you reach where you are going. 


What exciting plans do you have for the next year?

As a firm, we have recently refreshed our Africa strategy, which is also aligned to our  global strategy called The New Equation.

Globally we saw how fundamental changes shaping our world include technological disruption, climate change, fractured geopolitics, and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At PwC, we’ve been analysing global trends, and having thousands of conversations with clients and stakeholders around the world, and what’s emerged from these conversations has been very interesting. People all over the world agree on two interconnected needs that they will face in the coming years.

The first is to build trust, which has never been more important, nor more difficult. Organisations increasingly need to earn trust across a wide range of topics that are important to their stakeholders. Success depends on fundamental shifts in the way executives think, organisational culture, systems and ambition. The second is to deliver sustained outcomes in an environment where competition and the risk of disruption are more intense than ever and societal expectations have never been greater. Businesses need to change faster and more thoroughly to attract capital, talent and customers. Too often, however, narrowly conceived transformation initiatives do not deliver the outcomes they promise. A new approach is needed. 

Now, every organisation will approach these challenges in the way that is most suitable to their unique circumstances, and in a way that makes sense to them. At PwC we’ve reshaped our global strategy, and called it The New Equation. By bringing our unique combination of capabilities together, and matching it with serious investment and our commitment to quality, we can help clients unlock value for shareholders, stakeholders and wider society. 

As PwC Africa, we’re so excited by the opportunity that The New Equation presents for our clients, our people and other stakeholders, especially as we seek to deliver against our purpose in society – which is to build trust and solve important problems. Our growth strategy is aligned to our purpose, because we believe that we cannot be an island of prosperity in a poverty stricken environment. 

Business must do well by doing good. We therefore anticipate making significant  investments and creating more than 2500 jobs. The strategy also presents a lot of opportunities to our people in the areas of international development, cybersecurity, value creation, digital transformation and ESG. Again quality is non-negotiable in everything we do. Overall, we see ourselves as a community of problem solvers who do not just provide those solutions, but also look for them.


Do you have a message for people out there struggling to survive?

Feeling fearful, anxious, depressed and uncertain is normal. While the current situation is challenging, there are definitely opportunities that as a collective, we need to embrace. There is an opportunity for us to emerge from this crisis as better people. We can connect better through technology, therefore there is no need to isolate yourself. Learn to do things differently e.g. establish new networks virtually and continue to collaborate with other stakeholders, attend church online, have e-lunch, e-drinks with friends, colleagues and family members who are not staying with you. This is the perfect time to develop ourselves by learning new skills. To those running businesses, please be innovative and try to diversify your business. Most of all, let’s all do our part, let’s vaccinate, stay at home to stay safe!



*For more, check out our bumper 16th edition of the Standard Bank Top Women Leaders publication on Issuu – Digital Publishing Platform – here

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