Having taken on 4 new jobs in the last 5 years, Liezel Du Toit is no stranger to leadership challenges. Now Senior Director, Head of Revenue Excellence at Maersk, we spoke with Liezel about her participation in the Advanced Leadership Program for Women 2017, and why a successful leadership career requires both a strong drive, and moments to pause and reflect.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your career journey, job titles etc, before and after joining the Advanced Leadership Program (ALP) in 2017?
I started my career in Cape Town, as a trainee for P&O Nedlloyd, at that time the second largest shipping company. I learned a lot of things in my various rotations in different departments, but the biggest learning of all was that our industry is old, broken and riddled with inefficiencies. It was love at first sight! My personality was immediately triggered and the amount of issues facing our customers was a great challenge and source of inspiration.
In 2005, Maersk bought P&O Nedlloyd and I was very fortunate to step right into the largest global shipping company as Customer Service Manager for Cape Town. As a woman growing up in South Africa I was used to bias. Bias against my age and my gender was common place. Stepping into the Maersk organization was a revelation to me. All of a sudden nobody cared that I was a 24-year-old woman, they only cared about my performance, which meant that I was the only person holding the key to my career and I started to take that very seriously.
In the summer of 2008, I was offered a position as Trade Manager, responsible for Far East to Southern Africa, based in Copenhagen. My husband and I had already agreed very early on in our relationship that I had the higher earning potential and the drive, which meant he was willing to follow me around the world. When the opportunity came, he stepped up, quit his job and took the primary role in moving our lives, so that I could focus on working.
I worked as a Trade Manager for 2 years, creating strategy, meeting clients, building products and being responsible for a profit and loss for the first time. After two years I was promoted, still in the Trade scope, but taking a larger responsibility and a new geography covering West Central Asia to West Africa. I made another geographical shift in 2012 and in 2014 I broke through and become a director. At this point Maersk decided to create a professional Revenue Management department and I was appointed as one of the first 3 Heads of Pricing, covering West Central Asia and Africa. This was my first leadership role in 6 years and gave me the responsibility of setting prices for 50% of our global revenue. This role required a lot of Transformational work, since we had to standardize how we worked in order to start our digital journey. My natural tendency to seek out inefficiency was triggered once again, considering all we found in our journey to become digital and always available online. I became more and more interested in doing Transformation as a key part of my role.
In 2017 I joined the ALP and started realizing that I need to create the narrative of my career. I felt confident that a new type of role was needed and instead of applying for a new job, I proposed that a new, more senior role was created for me. It was very stressful, I have never leaned out this heavily, but my boldness was rewarded with a promotion to Senior Director in May 2017, becoming the first Head of Pricing Transformation. This was my dream job and also the first time I had a full global scope.
In Feb 2018 I was asked to expand my scope and take on all process, policy and technology ownership for Price to Contract. This was a big challenge, since I never worked with technology directly and was not familiar with working Agile, but somehow I managed. In September 2018, Maersk announced a new organization and a major shift towards becoming the Integrator of Container Shipping. This made me Senior Director, Head of Revenue Excellence and I am happily serving in this role as we speak.
What motivates you to pursue a leadership career, and how does your company enable this?
I enjoy being able to deliver results through others. I have always been a very trusting person and I naturally trust and empower others. I find that this encourages people to step up, since they prefer not to disappoint someone that has empowered them. I love the feeling when someone is suddenly able to do more, simply because you believed in them. Being a leader is a time consuming, but immensely rewarding role.
I am especially motivated to have a diverse team of people in my team, it helps me to balance my thinking and my views and it helps us to achieve more. My company has always been very supportive of my desire to be a leader. I was given the opportunity to have a team, but I was also partnered with an HR professional that takes care of me and my team. We have bi-weekly 1:1 sessions, talking about my team, what they are struggling with and creating career plans for them. This is a luxury in my opinion and I am very grateful to work in a company that puts this so high on the agenda.
What is one thing that you took away as a key learning from the 5 modules?
I learnt many practical skills, some strategic tools that I have heard of, but never had the time to truly study. If I had to choose one learning then it was that we all struggle with similar business problems. In a strange way this was a relief and helped me to focus more on where I can do better, rather than just being stressed about the things that were not working.
In what ways do you use the skills that you’ve learned in the ALP in your work and how has the program helped you become a better leader?
The key change for me has been to spend more time on reflection. These weeks at ALP were precious to me. They forced me to focus on something other than my immediate work, gave me access to a group of amazing sparring partners and allowed me to reflect on things I never made time for. I could discuss, vent and get a lot of advice. Post ALP I realized that I needed to continue this reflection time and build a structure into my life that facilitated this, otherwise it would just be another good intention.
Effective shortly after completing ALP, I introduced ‘Thursday Walk to Work Day’. When I am not travelling I work at Esplanaden 50, which is around 3 km from my home. Normally I bike to work, but now I walk to work and back every Thursday, rain, snow or shine! This gives me time to think and my team has noticed a big difference in me. I will ponder on questions they ask me and generally be more relaxed, so the depth and quality of our conversations has improved.
What is next for you in your career, since finishing the ALP, and what are your long-term career aspirations?
Considering that I have had 4 new jobs in the last 5 years, my ambition right now is to settle in my role. I want to build a strong team and create my natural successor. I am very happy that I managed to groom and promote two people to director level to replace me in my last two jobs, but I need some time to focus and groom the next senior director. My passion is with Transformation, creating new solutions for our customers and building a motivating environment for our Sales teams. Considering that my work is all about changing the landscape, I am certain that my next job does not exist yet. I am fine with that and a measure of success will be that I once more carve out a role for myself, this time at Vice President level. I know that it is tacky to talk about job levels, but job levels come with decision making power and I want to use my power for good!
What has been your biggest leadership challenge since finishing the ALP and how did you deal with it?
My biggest leadership challenge since leaving, was taking on 2 new roles in the space of 7 months in 2018. Neither of these roles were well defined, which I don’t mind, but it meant that I had to create a narrative to encourage talents to work in my team. This was hard work, but very much linked to my passion, so it was not an issue for me. However, some people that followed me had to accept a new layer being created between me and them, when my scope more than doubled in September. They felt betrayed and worried that they were no longer important to me. It was an emotional time, but I worked closely with them and also made sure their new leaders took their careers very seriously. In time they have come to realize that they actually get more quality time with their new managers, since my schedule is so hectic, but for a few months this was tough.
What one thing could encourage more women to pursue a career in leadership?
The reward of developing others, and the gift of diversity. It is such a pleasure to lead the combined brilliance of a group of people, instead of relying on yourself.
Name: Liezel Du Toit
Education: B.Comm Hons, Economics, University of Cape Town
Title: Senior Director, Head of Revenue Excellence
Civil Status: Happily Married
Children: No kids
Fun fact: I am the first person in my family to finish high school