Mentors, coaches and seminars are all well and good – but when it comes to support in one’s career, there’s nothing like the small, trusted group of friends you’ve always turned to
“A kitchen Cabinet isn’t the sole preserve of political leaders seeking unofficial advisors, but a resource every woman needs to succeed professionally.”
The term “kitchen cabinet” came about in 1829, when Andrew Jackson – the seventh President of the USA – watched his Cabinet disintegrating because of in-fighting. Of course, that’s nothing new in politics, but what was new was Jackson’s decision to seek guidance not from his appointed advisors and senior aides, but from a small group of friends and associates who helped him keep running the country while the crisis was unfolding. The press, always ready for a clever new term, coined this group the “kitchen Cabinet.” Almost two centuries later, the kitchen Cabinet lives on for all leaders who want guidance and affirmation from a group of unofficial friends and associates.
I was quite fortunate to see this phenomenon in action very early in my career. As an intern in the office of the Deputy President, I watched my boss, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, consult her own kitchen Cabinet. Through her, I learnt that such a Cabinet isn’t the sole preserve of political leaders seeking unofficial advisors, but a resource every woman needs to succeed professionally, whether in the Union Buildings, a company in Sandton or the corner office of their own business.
As a result of this early career experience and quiet observation, I’ve sought out a small group of men and women who are mentors and friends that I look up to and whose experiences and insights I value. Individually and collectively, they’ve become my sounding board, allowing me to tap into their wisdom to make better career decisions, sharpen some of my rough ideas and even find my voice in areas where my courage muscle was still under-developed.
My kitchen Cabinet is made up of members I consult for different reasons, for the different portfolios in my life: specifically for career, business and wealth-generation advice when I needed to make big career moves. When I decided to leave my full-time job as a business news anchor to start my own business as a moderator, theirs was the expertise into which I tapped.
As a businesswoman, the advice I’ve received from them has been very practical and valuable in differentiating myself in a saturated
market and has allowed me to position my business distinctly, retain and nurture clients better, and build a more profitable and sustainable outfit.
As a person who didn’t come from material inter-generational wealth, I’ve had to look outside family wisdom to create and build and wealth. I’ve learnt that it’s not enough to trust the advice of a financial advisor, who’s likely to be motivated by their own commission and fees. One of my Cabinet members has been critical in helping me think long-term and guiding me towards and away from good and bad investments.
Although our kitchen Cabinets may differ, I believe they should all have certain things in common. Firstly, every Cabinet should be well selected, based on what each of its members can contribute. I had to go beyond simply admiring people and truly interrogate the value I hoped to unlock from them. As an extension of that, and perhaps less comfortable, is building the muscle to fire Cabinet members whose contributions are no longer aligned with your journey. For example, if a member’s been key in giving career advice and your journey has led you to entrepreneurship or being a stay-at-home mother, you probably need different insights and expertise that this member can no longer provide. Just as every administration has a term, so should your Cabinet.
Secondly, your relationships with its cabinet members must be nurtured and watered, rather than simply called on in times of crisis. To be able to give as much as you’re receiving, it’s advisable to keep the Cabinet small. Mine comprises just four people at present and has never exceeded six. A consistent Cabinet allows the members to hold you accountable for your journey and progress.
Thirdly, the Cabinet should consist of “outsiders” who sharpen your curiosity and open-mindedness. Make sure its members aren’t only those of your own “tribe”, who see the world exactly as you do. Our own tribesmen can only amplify and reinforce what we already believe to be true or untrue.
Lastly, remember that this is your journey and you’re in the driving seat. The kitchen Cabinet can only support, guide and advise: you’re still responsible for your progress and success.