Helena Dolny has always taken the road less traveled. Currently, she heads up Grey Matters, a consultancy which focuses on leadership development, strategic planning, coaching and institutional transformation.
At 60, she is an accomplished, world-renowned empowerment specialist, writer and author of several books in fields as diverse as coaching, economics, organizational design and biography. Her vast expertise in navigating the choppy waters of corporate South Africa on the cusp of change and transformation is exactly what drew me to her as a potential columnist for FORBES Woman Africa.
I also knew Dolny had a way with words after reading her poignant account in the book Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography. In it, she explains the context in which her late husband, Joe Slovo, wrote his memoirs, and why they were left incomplete. Slovo, one of my personal heroes, is a legend and icon of South Africa’s liberation struggle. He was the country’s first housing minister and served in former president Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet. Slovo died of leukemia in 1995, barely a year after democracy dawned. Dolny was his second wife.
Her inside track on the vagaries of corporate South Africa struggling to come to terms with change comes from her many experiences in the public and private sector. In 2005, Dolny served as the director of leadership development, coaching and mentoring at Standard Bank. It was a role which she says offered her the opportunity to recalibrate the bank’s delivery team. Prior to that, in 2001, she was with the human resources division of First National Bank. Her book, Banking on Change, is an engaging and candid account of her tumultuous experiences as the managing director of the Land and Agricultural Bank of South Africa. Dolny headed up the bank from 1997 until her dramatic departure in 2000, when she was embroiled in a spat over the direction of the organization and the pace of transformation.
Dolny also served as a member of the Presidential Commission on Rural Financial Services, and in 1996, was an advisor to South Africa’s first minister of agriculture and land affairs, Derek Hanekom.
Her journey towards becoming a coach and empowering women leaders in the corporate sector spans many decades. Dolny’s professional passage started when, as a youngster, fresh out of university and armed with a degree in agrarian economics, she made the journey from the north of England to the shores of Africa. Along the way, she came into contact with revolutionaries, rural peasants, presidents and academics, all of whom set her on a course that would invigorate her life forever.
The heady winds of change were sweeping across the continent. Dolny had been involved in the anti-Apartheid movement during her student days in England. Through her work in Zambia, Mozambique and later in South Africa, she soon came into direct contact with those at the epicenter of change in southern Africa.
Explaining her decision to work in empowerment and development, and the connection between land and economics, Dolny often makes reference to her parents. Both were World War II refugees; her father was Polish and her mother hails from what was then Czechoslovakia. Her folks were ‘salt of the earth’ types, she says, and could have become very different people, were it not for their class positions . While her mother, who had greater class mobility because she finished school later on in life , became a nurse in England, her father was a factory worker.
“Although my dad worked in a factory, he was very inventive and always practical. In a different society he could have been an engineer. When growing up we heard stories of their lives during the war. Given my parents’ upbringing, I am not surprised that I wanted to go into an enabling environment,” she says.
“In my gap year I travelled to Zambia. I had to come via South Africa, and eventually, after completing my studies, I ended up in Mozambique.”
Dolny’s passion for and interest in land issues was sparked in part by a friend’s father, who owned a dairy farm. She also remembers wanting to study something ‘practical’ instead of philosophy. She enrolled in agricultural economics at Reading University in the United Kingdom, as conventional wisdom at the time dictated that “because you were a girl”, it was advisable to “read economics, rather than science”.
Shortly after Mozambique won its independence in 1975, Dolny found herself designing a bookkeeping system.
“When [The Mozambique Liberation Front] Frelimo took power in the 70s it was a very powerful time. It was a time of barefoot doctors doing stints in villages among the rural masses. I remember, at that time, my first task was designing an accounting system for people who had just come off a literacy course. Then we could dream,” she says, smiling.
As an agrarian economist in Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture, Dolny worked with farming cooperatives on development planning and bookkeeping from 1976 to 1981. She then joined a Canadian non-profit organization called Cuso (Canadian University Service Overseas), which supported development projects in Mozambique.
Dolny has traversed both the public and private sector as an economist, banker, empowerment specialist and currently as an executive coach. However, the thread that runs through her work over the years is a belief in the need to build and develop strong and ethical leadership in public and private institutions.
“The fish rots from the head,” she says, stressing the importance of developing and harnessing credible, quality and capable leaders.
As a member of Comensa, and with a string of degrees (including an MBA and a Master’s in professional coaching) under her belt, Dolny is at the cutting edge of her industry on the continent.
Asked to explain the difference between coaching and mentoring, she says, “Coaching is customized learning. Mentoring is about cloning little mini-mes.” Coaching, she continues, allows her to develop systems that are uniquely tailored to the individual.
In the November edition of FORBES Woman
Africa, Dolny will be debuting as a regular columnist, offering insights into how to navigate corporate culture and architecture across the African continent.
Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with the latest insights and inspiration from experts across the continent. Sign up here.