A Formidable Work in Progress - ATNS
Phindile Riba’s unique blend of humility, wisdom and dreaming big explains her leadership appeal. Ask Riba what she considers to be the most important attribute of a leader, and the answer may surprise you: “The ability to appreciate your own weaknesses.” Then again, after spending some time in the company of this accomplished yet deeply humble woman, you would expect nothing less. Appointed as chairperson of Air Traffic and Navigation Services SOC Limited (ATNS) in September last year, Riba knows that leadership is, in actual fact, a team effort.
Phindile Riba, Chairperson of Air Traffic and Navigation Services SOC Limited (ATNS)
“Knowing your own weaknesses allows you to balance these with the strengths of others,” she elaborates. “However, you also need a firm understanding of your strengths and being comfortable with who you are. Therefore, to me, a leader is someone who is able to harness all the available skills and knowledge around them in such a way that those you are leading give you the passport to lead.”
An Exciting Affirmation of Abilities
Riba sees her appointment as an honour never to be taken for granted. “It is an exciting affirmation of my abilities, but at the same time a daunting task in terms of the forerunner position in which it puts you.” She prefers to deal with the pressures and responsibilities that come with leading the continent’s foremost provider of air traffic, navigation, and training and associated services, by taking the time to gather insights from fellow board members and to reflect before making decisions. “The skills of the people around me, definitely makes my job easier.”
Her extensive experience across the human resource value chain, combined with her academic qualifications, have prepared her well for her role at ATNS. Riba attained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Sciences, Public Administration and Political Sciences from the University of Swaziland, followed by an MBA in Strategic Human Resources Management from Cardiff Business School, University of Wales.
Her varied career experience has honed her expertise in, among other fields, corporate governance, change management, executive and senior management succession planning, HR strategy, corporate social responsibility, leadership and management development. In a business career spanning 25 years, Riba has held senior management positions at various private and public entities. “In terms of aviation, my most relevant experience is the six years I’ve spent as board chairperson of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) – the first time a woman occupied this position, while my six years as a board member at Armscor prepared me very well for public sector governance issues”.
Raising a New Generation of Women
The empowerment of women in the aviation industry is a challenge that lies close to Riba’s heart. “Globally speaking, women are few and far apart in the aviation sector – there are not enough women in managerial positions, in traffic control, even fewer own commercial airlines let alone participating in recreational aviation. Generally, one would not be far wrong in saying it seems as if the aviation industry, although changing, is a well-protected old-boys club!” Given her passion for the cause, the doors of the club are about to be flung open… for girls. “From an ATNS perspective, we need to set targets for the number of qualified women employed. At present, only about 36% of positions at different levels throughout the organisation are filled by women. It is important that we rectify this imbalance to show other women that they too can make it in the aviation industry. This requires a focus on the pipeline of qualified women from which to identify and employ women into these core aviation jobs.”
To be able to raise a new generation of women who will be interested in a career in aviation, Riba stresses the importance of informing girls of the various opportunities available to them at school. “It starts at the foundational level – girls must know that they have an equal opportunity to make choices about their lives without anyone limiting their options. We also need to support them from a financial perspective.” To this end, Riba points out that the ATNS Engineering Graduate Development Programme (EGDP) is already providing young girls with bursaries to further their studies in aviation, information technology and engineering. In addition, the 2016 intake of 27 matriculants at the ATNS Aviation Training Academy is one-third female.
Riba sees the work of the South African Women in Aviation & Aerospace Industry (SAWIA) as the type of initiatives that needs to be supported and replicated. “Giving young women and girls the opportunity to fly, placing them in the cockpit of an aircraft – that’s the way to generate excitement and stimulate an interest in a career in aviation.”
IT Aviation as a Career
The next step in opening up aviation as a viable career choice for young people in general, thereby addressing the worldwide skills shortage in the industry, is to offer aviation training “in abundance” at tertiary educational facilities. “Aviation is becoming more and more about technology,” she explains. “Information technology in the aviation sector, in terms of both software and hardware, presents us with huge untapped potential for further invention and development, not to mention economic growth. It is the type of technology that will not lead to job losses, but rather improve skills and uncover new areas of knowledge.”
Riba would like to bring IT aviation technology home, so to speak. “We use radar communication technology that was not sourced locally, for example. We should be manufacturing this type of technology in South Africa. We know the aviation needs of our country and the African continent, yet the majority of the technology we use still comes from overseas and is copyrighted.”
Partnering To Walk Into Africa
In a move that will address Riba’s two main objectives as ATNS chairperson – growing women’s involvement in aviation as well as cultivating local IT aviation expertise – the ATNS board has challenged their service providers to establish women-owned subsidiaries in South Africa to produce the IT technology the local aviation industry needs.
“My personal goal is that, during my term, at the very least one such entity will be created with the potential, amongst others, to partner with us into the rest of Africa, thus ensuring the sustainability of the enterprise. No other air traffic management entity can rival ATNS on the African continent – we must leverage this position to the benefit of South African young people in general, and women in particular,” Riba states with conviction, before ending on a more poetic note: “You have to start with a dream first to realise something.”
On a Personal Note
Riba’s enthusiasm for opening up career opportunities for young people may have its roots in her own childhood. “I had a lot of career choices growing up – my dad, a medical doctor, encouraged me to explore different career options. It’s from him that I learnt my work ethic. My mother is an icon of what is possible when you put your mind to it. A student nurse and teacher, I admire my mother for her belief in the importance of education. She had the courage to return to university as an adult student and completed three years of study before illness prevented her from going even further.”
As for her own professional aspirations, Riba confesses that she once dreamt of being a “great business women”. It’s still an aspiration. “Choices take you where you need to be at a point in time. Some people pursue a signal goal aggressively, while others, like me, enjoy a taste of everything. I thrive on variety and challenge.” When it comes to personal achievements, Riba mentions the role she played, along with other board members, in appointing Poppy Khoza as the first female CEO of the SACAA. “What made it such a great achievement is that it wasn’t window dressing – to see her thrive purely because we had confidence in her abilities. It’s great to know that someone is doing so well because of something you did.”
When this busy executive has a moment to herself, she enjoys spending time with her three-year-old daughter Neo, whom she lovingly describes as “very social, talkative and affirmative”. She also talks lovingly about her other “children” Oscar, Inam, Bonolo and Nzuzo. To relax she watches a bit of television, relishing Isibaya for its authenticity and The Fixer “because secretly maybe all women are like that”. She also lists reading, watching movies, gardening and interior decorating as her favourite pastimes.
Returning to the job at hand, Riba describes her leadership style as the antithesis of micro-management. “If you allow people to do the things they know how to do, they perform very well. Simply allow them to go wild in their playing field, and provide gentle guidance when needed. After all, the bar is already set very high at ATNS.” She may describe herself as a work in progress, but it’s clear that along the way Phindile Riba has already accomplished much and gained the knowledge and wisdom that true leaders are made of.