Harriet Heymans is not your typical accountant. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and lists having fun and laughing as a daily priority. While she may not take herself too seriously, she takes her work very seriously.
She recently joined Sasfin as the financial director, a role that her past experiences have prepared her for. She says: “Everything in your life brings you to where you need to be, when you need to be there. In this role, I can touch on my experiences in so many ways. It’s made me a holistic thinker and it helps me see things in perspective.”
“Everything in your life brings you to where you need to be, when you need to be there.”
That journey was anything but smooth, as Harriet puts it: “My life has always been challenged with opportunity.”
It all began at RAU, now known as the University of Johannesburg, where she did a BCom Accounting and met her husband of 25 years, Reynard. He is, she says, her biggest cheerleader, supporter and the person who helps her see things from a different perspective. She says: “If I didn't have him at home and if I didn't have him as part of my professional and personal life journey, I don't think I'd be who I am today.”
Harriet did her articles at KPMG and it was there that she met one of her most important mentors, the late Ahmed Jaffer. One of the biggest lessons he imparted to her was the importance of always adding value: “He always drilled it into me that if you're not adding value, you’re just delivering a service. It's not just about audit reports or risk reports. It's about helping the business improve.”
She left KPMG while pregnant with her first child and joined ABSA where she remained for 12 years and went through nine restructurings and her losing her job six times. While that may have discouraged someone else, Harriet says she’s glad it happened when she was younger. “I learned a lot of resilience. The first few times I lost my job, I cried myself to sleep. But the last two times I lost my job, I actually used it to springboard to bigger roles. So it's all in the eye of the beholder and how you deal with it.”
“It's all in the eye of the beholder and how you deal with it.”
When asked what advice she’d give someone who has lost their job, she shared the importance of acknowledging your feelings. “Don't deny what you're going through. You have to go through anger, you have to go through denial to ultimately accept the situation. Don't deny that process because if you deny the process, you can so easily become a victim of your circumstance and then you can't move. And if you can't move, you can't make decisions. And if you can't make decisions, you are lost.”
After leaving ABSA, Harriet joined UBank as financial director, and from there she went on to Standard Chartered Bank, where she was the southern Africa CFO. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Harriet then found herself in India working for a fintech company.
However, family has always been a top priority, so when her father fell ill, Harriet resigned and came back to South Africa and joined UBank as the COO. It was a move that was, in hindsight, perfectly timed as it was just before lockdown started. “I would have been stuck in India over lockdown and Dad passed that June. I was very blessed to be at home to put him to rest.”
Covid, she shares, brought changes and challenges and so she decided to take a sabbatical. “I think I learned early in my life that some things are worth it and some things are not worth losing yourself over.”
“I learned early in my life that some things are worth it and some things are not worth losing yourself over.”
In April, Harriet got the opportunity to join Sasfin and, although it’s been just a few months, she shares that it feels like it’s been so much longer.
Throughout her career, Harriet has had three important mentors: her mother, Ahmed Jaffer and Saks Ntombela. Each has imparted a lesson she has brought into her roles and how she leads.
Her mother, a strong and smart woman who was a bookkeeper for 40 years, taught her the importance of humility. “The one thing my mom always taught me is that nothing makes you better than anybody else. She told me that you never look down on people because you don't know their situation. You don't know what they're going through.” This is important in leadership, she says, “everybody's got something important to do in the organisation and realising that you have the opportunity to be a leader doesn't make you better than anybody else.”
“Nothing makes you better than anybody else. Never look down on people because you don't know their situation. You don't know what they're going through.”
Saks Ntombela taught her the value of authenticity, something she says he exudes. “He taught me to know why you're doing something, speak your truth and just be yourself, be authentic. I have a lot of respect for authentic leadership and the impact it can have on people.” She continues: “Being authentic is not something that you can wing. In a leadership position people look at you, people listen to you. Robin Sharma framed this in the nicest way – make sure your audio and your visual align. You can't say something and do something else.” Authenticity, she says, is so important when it comes to leadership, “at a very stressed level, being yourself is a gift and that's something that I'm very glad that I can be.”
Humility, authenticity and a passion for what you do and your people are the key characteristics of good leadership and what she lives and works by.
All of her experiences have added to her current role and, when speaking about her time at Sasfin, what stands out are the people she gets to work with every day. “It's the calibre of person that I've worked with at every level, the substance and comradery. Everyone is pulling towards a goal and everyone’s in.”
“It's the calibre of person I've worked with at every level, the substance and comradery. Everyone is pulling towards a goal or a target and everyone’s in.”
It is people who drive her. She says: “It's people. It's making a difference. The three things that I need to be energised and to feel like I'm living my life to the fullest are, one, I have to add value – in a situation, in people’s lives, in a process. The second thing is to be part of something bigger than me. The third thing is to have fun and I like to laugh. They’re all related to people.”
It’s that desire to add value that’s made way for her hobby as a mentor and coach. She started helping her son Arthur’s girlfriend with accounting and now five kids come through every Saturday. Along with accounting, she’s been mentoring them as they decide what to do after school.
Her boys, Arthur and Steven, are her proudest accomplishments. “The relationship that we've grown as a family is very special. I'm extremely proud of their hearts, what they stand for and that they are quite strong in their convictions… My great-grandmother always said, raise your kids for the world and not for yourself. I didn't understand that, but I understand it now because letting them go as young as we did to follow their dreams in boarding school made them [the people they are today]. Good people and I’m proud of that.”
“My great-grandmother always said, raise your kids for the world and not for yourself.”
She laughs when asked about balancing work life and home life, specifically being a mom. “Everybody always asks the working mom – how do you do it?” She shares the things that have helped her balance her roles: “When the kids were little I felt guilty if I was at work because I wasn't with them, and then when I was at home, I felt guilty because I was with the kids and I wasn't working. Getting rid of that guilt was difficult, but it was freeing. I also set boundaries for my kids and work. If my kids were sick or needed me, I was there unapologetically. I never missed a sports event, a cultural event. You plan your day and make time. But importantly, make sure you deliver when you're at work and deliver when you’re at home.”
Success to Harriet is sleeping at night: “It's knowing that I can put my head on my pillow and have a restful sleep. Knowing that I didn't do something that was against who I am and what I believe in. Doing it in the right way, without hurting or disrespecting somebody and doing the best I can. That, to me, is success. Having a good sleep says everything's okay. Everything's working the way it should be.”
“Having a good sleep says everything's okay. Everything's working the way it should be.”
She’s at a stage in her life where she’s learnt to live in the now, a move inspired by the ‘Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. “When I was younger, I didn't live in the now, I was either two steps ahead or pondering about where I went wrong. That book opened me up to this moment because that's all you have at the end of the day.”
And right now, Harriet is exactly where she is meant to be.