Stan currently runs the digital client experience function for a major South African insurance group, incorporating digital business models and design, advanced analytics, insights, CX (customer experience), client communication, campaigning, social media and digital marketing. He is a major fan of Instagram (@stanleygabriel), and is launching a podcast titled Sizoba’Right with Sibs and Stan, reflecting his passion for storytelling. This is his story, which concludes with five lessons from his journey so far:
What drives Stan
An extrovert, Stan is incredibly confident and self-aware, in tune with how he feels and what motivates him. He prioritises time to think and reflect, and knows well what he enjoys work-wise: “If I think of all the roles I’ve been in, they’ve always been about something that didn’t exist or existed but wasn’t getting traction.” He also talks about knowing that he wanted to have certain career experiences, rather than a defined career path, and he has taken his personal and professional development seriously.
I love creating new things. I love getting things off the ground. I’m not that amazing at managing things that have already taken off. Somebody else needs to take that role… I’m more of the person that creates the strategy, thinks of the symphony of what we’re doing, really embraces new ideas, and less of the person that is managing the thing that’s already gotten success.”
A consequence of being in tune with his core is that he tries to set aside time to rest and recuperate: “For me what’s really helped is I am unapologetic about the time I need. I take it… finding new inspiration, gathering my thoughts, and reflecting… I’ve taken deliberate breaks when I’ve needed them.” Read more for reflections on Stan’s personality and drivers, to follow his career journey, and see his insights from his experiences so far.
Stan is naturally a planner, even in the context of visualisation (“putting words to your dreams”), which we’ll explore further later. However, for his own peace of mind, he’s learnt over time to let go of controlling outcomes – randomness is important for innovation too. It has been a challenge: “I often don’t feel in control which is very difficult because I’m a bit of a control freak… I also don’t like failure. I fail so much now that it’s something I’ve had to become bedfellows with. It’s been uncomfortable.” It’s been an important part of his growth over the past decade, and he also speaks about “knowing that my power is enough”, “trying to completely trust that things will fall into place if I keep challenging myself” and practising being “okay with whatever the outcome is going to be”.
He values relationships highly, and prides himself in being able to put others at ease and speak to and collaborate with a wide spectrum of people.
From this, you can probably guess what personality type Stan is, which confirms his high openness, fully consistent with his appreciation for experiences, and love of travel. You’ll see echoes of his approach to life in the elements of his chronological career journey below, a journey over which he has learnt to own who he is and “believe in [his] own voice, believe fully in [his] own perspective”.
The early years
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Stan lived with his grandmother in the village of Ledig in Bophuthatswana, “now part of the North West province” so that his mother could study in her thirties. He moved back to Johannesburg at age six, and changed schools roughly five times after that. These experiences, he says, “shaped me, and helped me to empathise with somebody who has a very different perspective”. It is important to be comfortable with different opinions, morals and characteristics, which he’s learnt from a close friend Rapelang Rabana and he emphasises that: “Your experiences have carved a way for you to see the world, and that brings a certain perspective that nobody else has.”
Starting work: Cape Town to Kenya
After studying, Stan worked for a financial services company in Cape Town in a technical role, but he quickly “realised that I don’t want to do anything technical... I realised my mind was a lot more in the creative, strategic space. I thought more broadly about business. I enjoyed interacting with people.” A few years in, he moved to Kenya, after advice from a mentor: “I had an informal mentor who ended up being the MD in Kenya. I think it’s the first time when somebody believed in me, outside of my own self-belief. I literally went there without a real job description and he just threw me into the deep end, and gave me a high-level direction of what he needed and I just had to go and figure it out. It was a great formative time for me… I’d never been north of the South African border… I hadn’t actually explored the rest of the African continent. Little did I know that would be the start of a huge obsession with the continent.” He spent two years in the company, helping with their distribution expansion (across nine cities in Kenya).
Entrepreneurship and a sabbatical
Next Stan started a business in Kenya, “a logistics company that also traded wine, which is one of my bigger passions… I tried to take wine into the Kenyan market... It’s a pity that the business folded… the reason this business failed for me was the partnership: my business partner and I had moral differences. It’s the first time I remember having to make a decision and say I will not go down a certain route morally. Before that I hadn’t had a challenge in that regard. [Until then] a lot of things were very aligned with my personal values…”
This was a big shock for Stan: “All the money I’d made up to that point in my life I put into the business and it all disappeared. So I was literally starting from scratch. I spent a bit of time being unemployed – I moved back home. My mom was a bit worried…” He calls this period his “first sabbatical”, and he spent time in Kenya as well as India: Mumbai, Agra and Jaipur, before moving back to South Africa.
It’s a privilege… to be in a position where I could be at home and be supported. My mom worked very hard for us to get to that opportunity – she came from nothing. The mindset is an important one: even if you do take on something that you know is tiding you over… always believe in what you can achieve.”
Back to corporate life: Johannesburg to Nigeria
Stan then went back to work at a corporate in Johannesburg, working with a CEO as his Executive Assistant / Chief of Staff. As part of this time-bound role, he was able to travel to Nigeria, and he realised that moving to Nigeria for his next role would help him develop things he was struggling with at the time, including trusting his gut, influencing others, and building resilience. To put his development plan into action, he discussed the value he could bring with both the CEO of the Nigerian business and the Chairman of the African business unit. These discussions culminated in him heading up the Strategy function for the West African business. He describes his time living in Nigeria and travelling around West Africa as “a really awesome time… It was an exciting thing to be a part of, we worked on some digital plays, and I think the most exciting was the partnership we had with a bank with the largest footprint in Africa…”
Building an innovation function
After a period of personal growth in Nigeria, Stan returned to South Africa when the opportunity to head up an Innovation function came up. “I took it on head first… started it from scratch… Getting one voice around [innovation], and invest[ing] appropriately in the capabilities we build for our customers to make sure we are competitive into the future… Innovation is a mindset… to be open to new ways of doing things, to look at problems in a different way, to let go of the things that have worked before, and being comfortable that it involves sacrifice… You have to be open and vulnerable for you to really start thinking differently about how you solve problems.”
After some time in this innovation role, Stan was approached about joining another company. In his words: “...I was very happy in my job. I loved the people I was working with. I loved the work I was doing. It was really a fantastic time. Then I got offered a bigger job. As you rise, you attract different sets of opportunities and somebody came to me with a different opportunity… it all made sense to make that move. So I quit my job for another job – that’s when the complications started. Two days after I quit my job, the area I was going to join and create this function around innovation / business transformation was declared redundant by the CEO of the company that I was going to. So essentially I was retrenched before my first day on the new job.”
A second sabbatical
Even with his previous experience of no steady income, this dip was tough for Stan. He describes his second sabbatical as an “intensely vulnerable time” and recalls his initial reactions: “It was so noisy in my head: ‘You don’t have a job’, ‘You’re gonna be a bum’, ‘What does this mean for you now?’, ‘You should just go back to where you were’… All of these questions kept coming up. [With time] I felt okay that I could be without a job, and... assured in this mess, that whatever this is, it’s actually not a tragedy.”
He also benefited from professional help during this time, both from a business sculptor / life coach, Henk Kleizen (who supported Stan with further self-reflection and discovery), and a financial advisor, Tania Rossouw (who helped him come to terms with his spending, and sort out his finances). He recommends that others considering sabbaticals also “do it responsibly”, including understanding exactly how much you can spend.
It’s been a time of deep introspection and really asking myself the question about my purpose and impact. You do this corporate job, you get paid well, you’re meeting some of [your targets] at work, your boss is happy, you’re progressing as an individual, and the company is doing decently, but you just don’t feel like it is enough for you. When you’re really just quiet in your own space, you know that there’s something missing. And it’s hard to come to a place where you start accepting that, and then the work that is required for you to start living that.”
Stan again used the time to travel, visiting Africa and Asia, including an Ayurvedic retreat in Sri Lanka.
Travel for me is, you go out there and you just get ingredients. You’re discovering new things, you’re learning new things, you’re interacting with new people. You get these ingredients and you come back to your life, and it’s amazing what it opens up from a creativity perspective. It allows you to be free. You tackle some of your own insecurities when you’re travelling because you’re in a different place and there’s a new way of doing things. You really have to let go of some of your own preconceived ideas of how things should be.”
After this time of further self-discovery, Stan was attracted again to the corporate world, in his biggest role to date: leading a wider team of digital, marketing, analytics, creative and customer experience experts in a Digital Client Experience function for a major insurer in South Africa. This role is challenging Stan in new ways, allowing him to develop and grow his leadership skills even further.
He’s also spent time getting to grips with his new organisation’s approach to decision-making, and further developing his communication to effect change within the new environment. He’s been reflecting on the differences between engaging with people one-on-one versus in a boardroom setting versus in a presentation hall (say 50-100 people) versus in a stadium (say 1000 people), including the different levels of anxiety in different settings, and the need to surrender to the moment. Techniques like looking people in the eyes to connect better with them lose relevance in bigger groups, and Stan is learning to be comfortable that not everyone will connect with your message. He recommends instead connecting with those you can in any given setting.
Listening skills is another area Stan is working on, especially the art of active listening, which he describes as “a really valuable way to gain understanding”. He’s realising that as a leader, soliciting opinions from others by asking questions on how they’d approach the challenge helps gather diverse points of view, and ultimately improves decision-making. While his natural inclination is to fill up the pauses himself, there is value in remaining quiet and providing space for others to share their feedback and perspectives for collective benefit. All of this is testimony to Stan’s open approach to personal and professional development.
Five final lessons from Stan’s career journey
We conclude Stan’s personal journey with five lessons Stan has distilled so far:
1) Prioritise time to think and reflect, including taking the time to be still
It’s tremendously important to understand what really motivates you internally, and make choices that get you closer to those drivers: “really understand yourself and take the time to listen to your inner voice”. One example of this is when Stan woke up early near the start of his second sabbatical and wrote notes to himself, recording his thoughts, in the Maasai Mara at 3am. These reflections helped him make sense of the turmoil he was experiencing. He also suggests: “use your thinking power for positive, rather than your thinking power defining who you are”.
2) Learn from new experiences
Stan emphasises that “the skills of the future are quite different from the skills of today”, so he believes that new experiences will stand us in good stead. He expands with: “continuous learning, unlearning, being able to let go of what’s worked very well but no longer serves you… it’s about being open-minded”.
3) Visualisation: “put words to your dreams”
While Stan naturally envisions the future as a way to make it more tangible to him, he recommends that we do this too. He says, “be brave enough to ask for the things in the deepest place of your heart”.
I dream about things... I see what it’s going to look like. Whether it’s my mom’s fiftieth birthday, or running a workshop, or an event, or giving a speech. I visualise it, I see the entire thing. I now see the end goal, and I don’t need to worry about every single thing, I trust the process knowing that I’ve seen what the vision looks like.”
4) Invest in yourself
Stan also suggests that we invest in ourselves: “The best way to be the best person to your family, your friends, is to be selfish about your own wellbeing. It seems odd that being selfish ends up making you as selfless as possible. But that’s exactly what I’ve discovered.” He makes the case that being selfish about your needs can become the most selfless thing you do because it allows you to give without an agenda: “Taking time for yourself allows you to pour out your love purely."
5) Act when life gives you the opportunity to have an impact
Stan’s concluding lesson is to do what our hearts call us to do, including speaking up and/or acting in the moment rather than “betraying the moment”. He encourages us not just to watch while someone goes through something where we could reassure them, reach out, or bring humour in the moment. Instead we should take action in order to have an impact and support them.
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