Palesa's Story

Palesa Madi / 5 min read

My three key learnings from the first all women American Express Academy in South Africa.

Woman speaking whilst seated among other women

Palesa Madi is the Acting Deputy Director at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) in South Africa, a human rights centre and law clinic at the Wits Law School. Palesa is an admitted attorney, and prior to her admission she completed her articles and an internship at CALS. She is currently completing her master’s degree at Wits University and is a part time law lecturer.

As a participant of the inaugural American Express Leadership Academy for women leaders in Southern Africa, Palesa Madi shares her top three leadership takeaways from the Academy, including how to network as an introvert and the power of developing in yourself as a leader in order to better support others.

Eight days prior to the closing date, a colleague of mine sent me an email for applications for the American Express Leadership Academy for non-profit leaders in Southern Africa. She thought I’d be interested in applying – she was absolutely right.

Although the American Express Leadership Academy was more than what I had expected it to be, it was precisely what I needed. While I believe anyone can be a leader in any position they occupy (and lead beyond their authority), I find it crucial for any individual in a managerial position to constantly reflect on their leadership capabilities and to learn on how they can improve.

Networking as an introvert

During the Academy, the importance of networking was reinforced for me. As an introvert, I’m not a fan of large social events. I often don’t get excited at the prospect of speaking to large audiences, instead I prefer very intimate spaces where I can introspect, be reserved or stay quiet. Introspect, reserved and quiet aren’t words I naturally associate with networking. In fact, prior to attending the Academy, one of the reasons I was not quite a fan of networking is that I found it unauthentic.

After plenty of meaningful conversations about networking at the Academy, I now understand that networking is not about going un-noticed by everyone or drawing attention onto yourself. Rather, it’s about creating meaningful relationships, focusing on how you can help the person you are engaging with and how that new relationship can benefit not only yourself but your other networks and colleagues. I still don’t like engaging with large crowds but I do recognize the importance of networking and I now try to be more deliberate about it.

Everyone needs a life coach

The individual coaching sessions I received as part of the American Express Leadership Academy were a game changer. I introspect quite often and think I’m generally in tune with my thoughts and emotions but my sessions with my coach have me convinced that every individual (including those that think they are reflective enough) need a life coach. Life coaches assist you with specific personal and professional goals, they assist with analysing certain situations and, most importantly for me, my coach assisted me in identifying some limiting beliefs about myself and my achievements.

Through my coaching session, I discovered that I tend to be extremely critical of myself and prefer to be in the ‘background’ in the fear of public criticism. I love the public interest legal sector, which engages often with academics, activists and thought leaders. However, the ‘call-out’ culture (or public shaming) that exists in the sector can result in leaders being stuck in a constant state of analysis paralysis in order to avoid making any mistakes and being called out for those mistakes. As a result of my coaching sessions, I’m more aware of the root-causes of some of my workplace fears but, most importantly, I’m learning to approach my work in a more experimental, explorative and trial-and-error way.

Focus on your own needs too

During the Academy, I was also reminded of the need to be deliberate in developing oneself. Leaders and managers tend to spend most of their time attending to needs of their organizations or colleagues, at the expense of their personal development. I’m guilty of that and so are many in my line of work, particularly because our work is to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. Naturally, in our very long work to-do lists, the last things on that list (if they make it in at all), include things that require us to take time away from work to focus on our personal and professional development. It may not seem like the noble thing to do when you are pulled in many directions, but pursuing personal and professional development enables you to adapt to the ever-changing work environment. It not only shapes you into a more resourceful and equipped leader, but it raises your self-awareness and makes you more resilient. To serve well and to lead beyond your authority, one has to be constantly engaging in projects, training and content that contributes to personal and professional development – it’s a non-negotiable. 

In summary, of the many lessons I took away from the American Express Leadership Academy for non-profit leaders in Southern Africa, I learnt three main lessons: network as much as you can, get a coach if you can and always look for opportunities for personal and professional development.

Palesa Madi is the Acting Deputy Director at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies. She took part in the American Express Leadership Academy, in 2019.

Our Impact

Learn more about our 30+ years of impact around the world

Personal Development

Programmes that match your professional development goals