Spotlight: Q&A with Global Ambassador Kathleen Matthews and Mentee Sbu Myeni
“I see the growth that came from it and it just gives me peace.”
South African business consultant and philanthropist Sbusisiwe (“Sbu”) Myeni was paired with her mentor – US based former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews at the Global Ambassadors Program (GAP) in South Africa in 2015. Since then, the two have sustained a meaningful mentoring relationship, each learning from one another as they strategize growth, take on challenges and grow as leaders.
What was the most impactful part of the Global Ambassadors program?
SBU: So interestingly, I was part of a panel on the Thursday [of Global Ambassadors]. I hated public speaking, even when I was in corporate. So, being there on a Monday [starting the program week], I was already on “Thursday thinking.” It’s something that Kathleen and I worked on that entire week. I promise you that entire week I would see her and I would just want to hide under the table because she would literally come to me with a microphone in hand. But that changed my life. It’s just one of the most memorable experiences for me on that stage, at the end of it, I (thought), “wow, this is the beginning of a new journey. I can start speaking to people about what I do, I can start telling my story,” because I had never told my story prior to that. I had been trying to do so for three years, but I never stood anywhere to tell my story, what I was doing, why I was doing it.
KATHLEEN: I think it’s always a surprise for mentors how much they have to give. If people haven’t formally tapped into that with them in their career, GAP is actually a great opportunity for you suddenly to have that epiphany of all the things you have to give. And it’s a catalyst to want to be a mentor in the future, to sort of see this as something you can give back. My previous mentoring experiences meant helping answer ‘what’s the next step in my career and how do I get there?’ Whereas, I think GAP was a much broader notion of how do I help this person become a leader? How do I help them troubleshoot generally because I’m not their boss? I’m not somebody within the same company or the same business, or even on the same continent as them. So I think that was really interesting because it taps into the more intangible leadership skills that you get in the course of a long career.
What is one key learning you’ve applied to your organization after the program?
SBU: I walked out of there such a changed person, I wanted everybody to experience what I experienced. GAP was in March of 2015, so on my birthday that year, I actually hosted a [Vital Voices Global] mentoring walk because I could not wait for the official Vital Voices one the following year. It’s been amazing, it’s brought hundreds of women and men to the valley to come and walk with [and mentor] the kids [we work with and support through my foundation.] It’s been amazing to see how this influences our kids on a daily basis, not just because they have those mentors that have taken on a financial role to sponsor a scholarship, but some have really taken a lead role.
KATHLEEN: Since I mentored Sbu, I left the hospitality business and I ran for office. I ran a state party for the Democratic Party and I have probably a dozen women who have interest in political careers who I’m mentoring now, in real time. I think GAP actually positioned me to say yes when they asked me to mentor them and made me feel like I do have something I can contribute to them, so I’m going to jump in there. I think you know the relationship I had with Sbu has extended for those five years. I see her once a year, when she comes to the US.
What has been the most meaningful lesson your mentor or mentee has taught you?
SBU: In our lives we all have people that we speak to. You know the people who you accept the truth better from, and people that you’re like “this one probably is going to be negative.” As I sat with Kathleen for our first one-on-one, in that moment, I don’t think I would have accepted what she asked me from my mother, brother, my friends or anyone. I would have been very offended, speaking about my [late] sister and doing what I do. Her question was, “in the work that you do, which part of it is about you and which part of it is about your sister? Are you doing what you do for yourself, or are you just doing it for the legacy work?” And I didn’t have an answer. She was saying that she thought that I was punishing myself for being alive and my sister not being there in terms of how I was doing things, and she was telling me the truth, she was telling me the absolute truth that I had not even owned up to myself. It really kicked off a journey of feeling and also trying to find the difference between what is it that my sister wanted and what is it that I wanted to do. And I can now see the very clear distinction and I see the growth that came from it and it just gives me peace.
KATHLEEN: I do think that it’s very reinforcing when you share your life and career story with people because you may not feel that it’s got big, bold lessons in it, but in fact it does. Sharing that story is also a friendship-building process. For me, I did that with Sbu, talking about the things that I thought had been big inflection points for me in my career, but also sharing times that I did have self-doubt. But for me, what’s rewarding is I see [my mentees] as the next generation of leadership, and I feel like I’m being their boosters now, their cheerleaders. Similarly, I feel very rewarded when I see things go well for Sbu, and she’s thrilled to be able to share those with me. It’s both ways, navigating the stumbles and cheerleading the successes.