Women in WASH Leadership Series: Refiloe Tlali

Women in WASH Leadership Series: Refiloe Tlali

Retired after serving as Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) Chief Executive for 7 years Refiloe Tlali is an inspiration and aspiration for women in WASH!

1.      Describe your journey towards senior management?
1.1.  Describe your education / training and how it advanced your career.

I have a degree in accounting and education, and I am a Chartered accountant. The accounting qualifications enabled me to enter corporate entities, and that enabled me to advance in my career.

1.2.  Tell us more about your work experience.

I started work when I left high school because my parents could not afford to pay for a university education. I worked at a bank for 5 years, after which I went to University. I had studied to be a teacher because in those years it was easy for teachers to find employment and I also liked to help people. However, I also wanted to have a better life than my parents had, and therefore after three years of teaching I applied for a job as an accountant in a housing development organization, Lesotho Housing Corporation (LHC). I got the job and worked for three years. I then applied for an accountant’s job in the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) and I was accepted. In LHDA I was promoted to the positions of Senior Accountant, Chief Accountant and Director of Finance. I left LHDA after 15 years and joined the Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO) as Chief Executive. I worked for eight years in WASCO and then re-joined LHDA as Chief Executive. I am now retired after serving as LHDA Chief Executive for 7 years.

1.3.  Did you have a role model who guided you and if so, what is their advice that helped you the most that you still apply today?

I have had different role models throughout my life. However, the one I remember from as earliest in my working life was a lady I met at the bank and who encouraged me to strive to be better. The advice she gave me was that I should always work hard and, I should ensure that I maintain high quality standards in everything I do. She also advised me that, if I make a mistake in what I do, I should remember that even monkeys fall from trees, forgive myself and move on.


2.      What have been the most significant challenges and obstacles on this journey?

Some of my most significant challenges have been lack of confidence and doubting that I would be able to cope with the work, balancing responsibilities of family and work demands, stress and unsupportive bosses that find fault but are not willing to help. This is either because they cannot do what they are asking you to do, or they will not help you because they feel threatened that you have the potential to do the work better than they can.

2.1.  How did you deal with these obstacles?

Starting early at work so that I would give myself a little more time to do a task than the allocated time and asking where or when I did not understand. In a situation where my immediate boss was unsupportive, I would look for a friendly person and ask them. However, this requires one to be careful not to speak ill of the boss. Just find a plausible reason why you are asking the other person. As an example, you can go to the other person when the boss is in a meeting or engaged somewhere. You can say that you need to finish the task urgently, but the boss is unavailable.


To deal with stress, I allocated time to doing exercise. It is best to do exercise that you also enjoy. I played tennis and other times I went to aerobic classes. Talking to a family member or a friend about your challenges can also help you to get advice that can help you to put things into perspective and not feel overwhelmed. However, it is important to speak to the right person for this.

It is important to find time for the family. Talking about what is going on at your work can help family members support you. However, you should also find time to ask them about what is going on in their lives and listen attentively with interest and be supportive to them. Do not make promises that you cannot keep and remember all the important events in their lives. Diarize family events the same way you diarize work commitments.


2.2.  How was your journey different from your male colleagues?

The lack of confidence that I had in the early years was partly because I was a woman, and my boss who was male, would often make snide remarks about women who do work that was meant to be men’s work. I realized early on that in order for a woman to be recognized in the workplace they need to be doing outstanding work. Whereas with male colleagues – as long as they are good workers and they meet most of their targets, they get recognition.

2.3.  Which of your challenges were unique because you are female?

The pressure to perform was much stronger than for men, because as mentioned above I had to perform exceptionally well to get recognized. Male colleagues that had joined the workplace at the same time that I did were promoted to higher positions and I was left behind.


3.      What has been your experience with male colleagues?
3.1.  How have they supported you?

I have worked well with most of my male colleagues and we supported one another. There are many decent men that helped me when I struggled at work, and that have asked for my help when they had their own problems.

3.2.  How have they blocked your progress?

As indicated above, in the early days, I was passed for promotions, in my view, because I am a woman. Much later, when I was now in a senior management position, there were men who attempted to get me to lose the job.  Some would even go to Government Ministers to try to influence them to get me expelled.

3.3.  How could male colleagues have championed you more?

They could have treated me the same way as they treat other male employees. They could have recognized my efforts at work. Those who were good colleagues could have stood up for me, when I experienced discrimination at work.

3.4.  How can men support their female colleagues to overcome the obstacles on their career paths?

Men should treat women the same way that they treat men at work. It is also important that men should stand up for women when they are mistreated at work.


4.      If applicable, can you explain how women have negatively impacted your career
4.1.  How did you navigate adversarial relationships with female colleagues?

Generally, I have worked well with other women. However, when I was promoted to a Senior Management position, one of my friends turned against me, and would bad mouth me to others. I lost her friendship. I did also meet with hostility from women colleagues a few times. But I always ensured that I maintain a professional attitude towards such people.


5.      What is your advice to a young woman who feels overlooked/passed by/sexually harassed in her career?

My advice to someone who feels overlooked is that she should not be discouraged or stop doing her best. I would say that she should not let being passed by define them. In fact, if she has good reason to believe that she should be getting the promotion, and the policy of the organization supports her view, she should complain to the senior giving reasons for the complaint. That way, the reasons that the employer gives her will help her to determine whether she was right in her perception or not. She can improve her performance based on the feedback – if it is constructive feedback. The feedback will help her to decide on the next steps. These steps could include leaving the organization.

In the case of sexual harassment, tell the person harassing you to stop. If it does not stop, report the harassment to Human Resources as soon as possible and get assistance and guidance.


6.      What are the personal characteristics or skills that are vital to becoming a successful leader?

In my view emotional intelligence is one of the most important personal characteristics in a leader, as uncontrolled emotions could lead to irrational decisions. In leadership one should have integrity, be accountable and highly disciplined, ethical, and altogether exemplary in how they conduct themselves. As a leader one should be well informed about the work of their organization and should continually improve themselves and work to improve the way the organization works. A leader needs a high level of resilience in order to be able to navigate through difficulties.


7.      Being a mother and managing an organization:
7.1.  What was your experience being both a mother and building a career geared for senior management?

It is not easy to be a mother while also building a career. Society tends to judge a working woman and make her feel as if she is an irresponsible parent and neglects her children. When one of my children performed badly at school and succumbed to peer pressure, and adopted bad behavior, I felt that I had contributed because of the time that I spent at work. This is especially because sometimes I would be unable to attend school events because of work commitments.

7.2.  Are there ways in which being a mother enriched your journey to senior management and ways in which your professional career enriched your parenting?

In other ways my career growth enriched my family life. I was able to send my children to good schools, so that they could get better education than otherwise they would have. Also, I became a role model for them, and therefore they became better able to deal with the challenges of life.


8.      What are organizational responsibilities that would work to make this balancing easier for women? I.e. if a woman gets to a position of influence, what are the programs/projects that she should be championing to make advancement easier for all women?

Organizations should have policies that protect women from harassment. They should have zero tolerance for discrimination on basis of sex and/or sexual harassment. In an organization there should be ongoing education of employees about all forms of discrimination, and particularly about discrimination against women. The organization should consciously develop policies that promote gender equality in the workplace.


9.      Research has shown us that there are numerous benefits from having women in leadership positions. Do you think the same holds true for the Urban WASH field?

It is true also for the WASH field. Women are generally humble and practical in their approach to work. They are always continually prepared to learn. They can be compassionate and can empathize. They do not lead by aggression but by instilling a sense of trust, commitment, and a shared vision. This attitude achieves far better results than aggression.


10.  What are some of your greatest accomplishments (whether personally or professionally)?

I have always made efforts to champion the growth of women in the workplace. I have ensured that women are promoted to Management positions as deserved. In one instance I succeeded to ensure that a woman who was paid less than her peers, was paid the correct salary and compensated for the previous period that she had been underpaid. I have changed organization culture to ensure that women get the respect that they deserve.


11.  Do you have any personal or professional goals that you are currently trying to achieve?

I now have more personal goals. I am involved with charity organizations that help the underprivileged. One of the charities that I am involved with assists young girls in getting education.


12.  When it comes to work – what are some ways you manage time?

Start early on an assignment and do not wait until the last minute. Starting early helps you to plan and to decide what kind of help you may require.

Differentiating between urgent tasks that can be postponed to later and important tasks helps you to deal with important things on time.

Asking for help and delegating some of the work will help. Emails and WhatsApp messages can take a lot of our time. Leave unimportant messages until later, like in the evening.  You should also be able to say no to a task if you already have a lot to do. Meetings can also take up too much time. Always make sure that meetings are focused and results oriented.


13.  Why did you choose to work in the WASH field especially in developing countries?

I enjoyed the challenge of improving the service delivery.


14.  Do you have any other advice or any other information you would like to share with young women trying to work within the WASH field?

The WASH field can be quite enjoyable, but also very frustrating because usually you need the support of the Government. Such support is not usually forthcoming. Working in WASH requires that you should be resilient. It is a field that is dominated by men you should be well prepared to handle challenges of discrimination, arrogance of some of your colleagues, and even sometimes sexual harassment.