The journey to success

Tanya Keller

Arthur Ashe said: ‘Success is a journey, not a destination,’ and I can tell you the road is bumpy.

Balance – Living your Life in Equilibrium’ on LinkedIn recently asked me to tell them a bit about my journey to success. We often see the title, the final product, and we forget that nobody miraculously wakes up one morning and finds that they have arrived. I happily share my story.

The LinkedIn snippet is an abridged version of the account below.

I started my career as a Travel Agent. I loved it. Travel will always be the love of my life, but sadly life had other plans for me. So, after spending some time at various tour operators, my ambition led me to set new sights for myself, and I reinvented myself.

I moved into the Financial Services Sector. It was a massive culture shock for me. The Travel Industry was fast-paced, the phone never stopped ringing, and each call brought a new client with a holiday request. Each client had a different destination. Banking felt so slow in comparison. I had a set number of deliverables per month, and once I completed it, that was it for the month. This job consisted of gathering information and compiling reports for the monthly Exco meeting. My office was just down the passage from the IT team. With the amount of free time between Exco reports, I ended up spending quite a lot of it with the support team. IT seemed like fun, so I did an A+ course and became a desktop techie.

On returning from maternity leave after having my first baby, I received a retrenchment notice. I found myself on gardening leave until re-assignment or when my three-month re-assignment leave ran out – whichever came first. I started interviewing internally and externally – any interview I could get. For almost three months, every answer was negative every time. The most common reason cited was that I did not have a formal qualification – no, a Travel Diploma didn’t count.

As I entered the last month of my re-assignment leave, I finally got a second interview with the GM at a bank. After an insightful chat on what the job was about, this man told me that he was willing to take a chance on me, on one condition, that I study for that formal degree. He was one of the best leaders I have ever worked for. I was very grateful for that job, and I was also very thankful that the company paid for my studies.

So, I studied, for ten long years, until I finally got my BBA degree through Unisa. During this time, I completed three more degrees: a second bachelor’s degree, an honors degree, and my Master of Commerce degree. I was determined, no one was ever going to tell me I didn’t have the right qualification again. I have to admit it became a bit of an obsession at some point. I’m hoping that when I finally get my Ph.D. I will be able to close the book on this chapter.

Studying with kids was not easy. It took perseverance and dedication. You have to work on assignments and study for the exams when all your friends live their best lives. You feel like you are letting everyone down, your husband, your kids.

Along with it came my job, the drive to become better, the goals you set yourself: dreams that you dream for yourself and your family. Work added to the tremendous amount of stress. The corporate world is rife with politics, competition, and at times it can be a real boys world. Finding your footing can be as challenging as scaling a cliff in the rain. You work hard to prove yourself and even harder to win their trust. But once you do, you are in; they have your back. You become an accepted member of the pride.

I spent about a decade in IT before I was nudged – not too gently – towards Project Management by someone who understood my skill set better than I did at that time. I was terrified of failing, so I worked very hard to make it a success. As the size and complexity of the transformational programs grew, the responsibility increased.

There were times when I worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, for months to ensure my programs were successful. We all know programs rarely run smoothly. At times issues seem insurmountable, and the goalpost keeps moving. Stakeholders can be powerful allies, or they can be a handful. I finally felt I understood what it was all about when we successfully delivered the Absa Towers West Programme, a multi-billion Rand program for which I earned a nomination for the Barclays Women of the year award.

My career has taken me to various countries, afforded me opportunities beyond my wildest dreams, and highlighted what I am capable of – more to myself than anyone else.   For those who are on this journey, hang in there. Today I can say stay the course. Hard work pays off in the end. You will look back fondly, even on the hard times.