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‘We are human after all’ – Prof Shirley Zinn discusses growth, generosity & how to live a purposeful life

‘We are human after all’ - Prof Shirley Zinn discusses growth, generosity & how to live a purposeful life

Written by Staff Writer

April 19, 2021

Born and raised in the Cape Flats area, Professor Shirley Zinn faced many challenges, but defied all odds, obtaining an M.Ed from the University of the Western Cape, and eventually completing a PhD at Harvard University. She successfully transitioned into the HR space, working as the Group Executive for HR at Nedbank and HR Director at Standard Bank South Africa. In 2008, Shirely was awarded ‘Top Business Women of the Year’ at the annual Top Women Awards. Today, she is a Consultant, running her own business, and is the published Author of Swimming Up Stream (2015) – a must read which truly inspires human endeavour. Shirely is incredibly passionate about leadership, equality and empowerment – a passion which informs her strong work ethic. 

In this week’s Business Unusual podcast, Karla Fletcher, Head of Marketing at Topco Media, engages in conversation with Prof Shirley Zinn for an incredibly motivational talk on ‘purpose-driven, value-based leadership’, and making a lasting, positive impact on society – and Africa at large. Shirley addresses new leadership paradigms, the growing importance of developing ‘soft skills’, practicing gratitude in all spheres of life, and committing to constant self-improvement. 


Key takeaways to listen out for in this podcast:
  • We need to celebrate the achievements of our women in South Africa more; so much greatness is developing by the hand of women and we need to continue to uplift them. 
  • The past 12 months have been interesting, and have had a huge impact on leadership and business models. An empathetic approach to everything is needed now. This means we need new forms of leadership to progress.
  • As a country we have proven that we are able to sustain ourselves through prolonged periods of stress and anxiety; we have developed resilience. 
  • It’s not just about ‘profitability’ at this stage. People’s livelihoods must be prioritised now, as remote working has prompted unhealthy ‘always on’ behaviours – managers need to step in to prevent burnout.
  • Important questions arise: How can we help people survive and grow? What types of leadership are we in need of that will make impactful changes in our nation?
  • From a business approach, high performance businesses are under ‘purpose-driven, value-based’ leadership – this is the winning formula to build a better economy, nation, and better communities. 
  • When we strip everything of ‘status’, we’ll find that we are all human at the end of the day. Soft skills, such as communication styles, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and collaboration, are harder to build, but will make the most significant impact in the ‘new normal’. 
  • You need to ‘unleash your own potential’ – It is the fear inside of you that is a barrier. Once you overcome fear your potential will emerge – Do the inner work and strengthen your resolve. Practice gratitude, generosity and be deliberate about what you are working towards – this is what leads to personal growth.
  • Women need to ‘swim upstream’ to claim their seat at the table – put yourself out there, even when you are being told ‘No’. 
  • A cultural shift is required for businesses to be more inclusive. We need to find a way for women and men to co-create to address gender inequalities and work towards empowerment and innovation. 


*To listen to the full podcast, please click here


Prof Shirley Zinn is the Author of ‘Swimming Upstream: A story of grit and determination to succeed’ (2015). Her career and life story is one of triumph over adversity and loss, which is illustrated by her biography. At present, she is the Non-Executive Director of Sanlam, and formerly held the position of Group Head of Human Resources at Woolworths Holdings Limited. Before that, she was the Head of Human Resources at Standard Bank South Africa. Possessing a wealth of experience in both Academia and HR, Shirley holds two Masters Degrees and a PhD from Harvard. She also launched her own venture titled ‘Shirley Zinn Consulting’ – providing consulting and advisory services in HR, Transformation, Leadership and Education.

Prof Zinn was awarded the Top Woman in Business and Government and Top Executive in Corporate South Africa by Topco Media in 2008, and was also recognised by the Black Business Quarterly, receiving an award for Top Woman in Business and Government, as well as Visionary Woman in 2008. Shirley also received an award from the World Human resources Congress in Mumbai in 2007 and 2013 respectively for Excellence in Global HR Leadership. She was also awarded Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government for 2016, in the SME Sector, by CEO Global.


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