Born to lead

Lillian Barnard is unapologetic about being ambitious.

Read time 5min 30sec
Lillian Barnard, Vodacom Business
Lillian Barnard, Vodacom Business

What words best describe Lillian Barnard, I wonder, as I listen to her speak.

She's obviously supremely confident and opinionated. Not arrogant, but definitely forceful. And I'm grasping for a word that implies self-confident in an almost annoying way: boastful, perhaps? Or maybe I'm too used to people hiding their talents behind modesty.

Actually, I doubt it's just me. Many people must meet Barnard and find her intimidating. But no doubt she's brilliant as the new chief sales officer for Vodacom Business, and you definitely want her heading your team, not playing for the opposition.

She speaks quickly and assertively, and comes out with endless quotable quotes that you could cram into a self-help book. "My personality gets misinterpreted," she says. "I'm not trying to prove a point, I'm just trying to be me. Why play small? I don't need to."

Barnard was born ambitious and has honed it over a few decades, and I don't think for one second that she has reached her pinnacle. "If you decide to live a life where you're apologetic and look for permission, you will suffer the consequences and you will never live the life you could have lived," she says. "People will talk anyway, so rather do something than nothing."

The corner office

She certainly carries the pedigree to fuel her confidence. Before she joined Vodacom, she clocked up 15 years with IBM, then ran her own business, not surprisingly called Lillian Barnard Consulting Services. "When I joined Vodacom, I closed down the consulting part of my business, but an important part of it was mentorship and I'm still doing that," she says.

Winding back to childhood, Barnard was one of four sisters whose mother instilled self-confidence into them. But ask if she comes from a privileged background and she practically snorts with derision. "Absolutely not. The power of confidence doesn't need money," she says. "It's a belief in who you are and what you have to offer and a deep sense of your own capabilities. I wanted to make it big."

After obtaining a B.Com, with Honours, she worked for a non-government organisation training people to run small businesses. I ask how a student with no work experience can mentor others, and get a verbal chiding. "When you have a B.Com Honours, you can help people running small businesses because most of them struggle with very basic things like how to read a financial statement. You can lend some of your knowledge even straight out of university because they lack formal training."

When she hit the ceiling there, Barnard joined IBM in 1996 in its first Rainbow Graduate programme of diverse youngsters. She tells an almost self-depreciating story of how she expected slightly more than she got from her initial interview. "At university, your lecturers tell you you're great and the world is your oyster, so at IBM, I was sitting in the reception area very arrogantly waiting for someone to take me to my big corner office. But of course that didn't happen!" Well, it did, it just took a little longer than expected.

Monstrous challenges

She rapidly climbed the corporate ladder, working for a female boss who mentored her. Within a few years, she was offered an assignment in Paris. She was hugely excited despite the 'monstrous' challenges of the job. "Every time you're offered an opportunity, you have to showcase what you have to offer so you can convince everyone you're absolutely right for the job," she says.

People will talk anyway, so rather do something than nothing.

Lillian Barnard

By that stage, Barnard was a single mom, so she set off with her young son and her widowed mother. She talks of strolling down the Champs-'Elys'ees and buying perfumes just for the hell of it, before taking an assignment in Zurich.

What brought her home years later was realising that her son was losing his identity as a South African. "You need to know who you are and where you come from. It was a risk from a career point of view, but it was a decision as a mother."

Making a difference

I butt in to say her son must find it daunting to have such a driven mother, and she laughs. She doesn't tell her son the sky's the limit because it no longer is now that there are footprints on the moon, she says. But he knows how to deal with her, telling her not to impose her hyperactivity on him.

Eighteen months after coming home, Barnard resigned from IBM to set up her own business. Then the offer from Vodacom came, and she closed her consultancy to become a sales person. When I ask why, she looks at me askance. "It's not a small title," she says. "When you're appointed as a leader and they say you have skills and knowledge to move the business forward, that's exciting."

Besides, she adds, there's still time to reinstate her own business in the future.

When Barnard says she was always very clear about wanting to climb the corporate ladder, I ask why. Is it for the money, the power or the glory?

"Money and power are really great, I won't diminish it, but my slogan is making a difference, it's something that consumes me," she says. "I task myself with it every day. Did I make a difference to the team? Are they better off because I'm there? It's about making an indelible mark. It's about giving people wings to fly even higher."

She's still mentoring young women, and those with the guts to emulate her will probably see their careers soar. "With mentoring, you can lend your strength and boldness to people in the right way," Barnard says.

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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