Woman On Top – Dr Pathokuhle Zondi
No career journey or detour is ever in vain, and no-one understands this lesson better than SSISA CEO, Dr Phathokuhle Zondi!
When Dr Phathokuhle Zondi walked through the doors of the University of Cape Town’s medical school, she already knew her end career goal — something that made her an anomaly in a field where most young doctors usually wait until the end of their internship before deciding what avenue of speciality to follow. “From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved and played some form of sports,” shares the 36-year-old CEO of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).
In Grade 11, Dr Zondi heard scientist and researcher, Professor Tim Noakes, being interviewed on the subject of sports medicine. This, she says, sealed the deal for her. “In that moment, I literally went: ‘Eureka!’ I knew I had finally found an area of medicine I wanted to specialise in,” she enthuses. SSISA was established by Mr Morne Du Plessis and Professor Tim Noakes in 1994 to optimise the health and sporting performance of all South Africans through science. It carries out its mission through three service areas. The first is individualised health and corporate wellness programmes. The second service pillar is performance, which is aimed at giving elite and aspirant athletes the technical skills and input to help them perform at their optimum. The third strategic area is education, where SSISA has a 10-year history in developing accredited and non-accredited courses within sports and fitness.
At one point, Dr Zondi’s certainty with sports medicine made her impatient with medical school. In fourth and sixth year, she was convinced that medical school was a waste of her time so much so that she considered deregistering twice. “I thought of doing a degree in biological sciences, followed by a postgrad in sports medicine,” she says.
She was fortunate to have had conversations with the right people, who convinced her of the value of staying. Upon qualifying as a doctor, she once again didn’t want to walk the community service and internship paths because they felt like detours. “Once again, I had a conversation with people who said: ‘We get that you want to specialise in sport, but just consider how frustrating it will be working with athletes and not being able to prescribe medication even when you know what’s wrong with them!”
After ticking off the mandatory stuff required to qualify as a doctor, she literally stepped out of community service and straight into sports medicine. “I haven’t looked back since!” she says. Since then, Dr Zondi has travelled with the under 17 and 20 soccer teams. Soon after that, she also travelled to the youth Olympic games. Dr Zondi has also been consulting for the South African Rugby Union since 2011. Now as CEO, the biggest shift — and peace — she had to make was the fact that she would have to trade in the adrenaline rush of working on the sports fields for a conventional office, meetings and longwinded decision-making processes. “This was initially difficult for me because as a doctor, I’m used to instant feedback.”
ON HOW SHE GOT TO THE TOP…
“I’m a big believer of things falling into their place at the right time. Through various interactions in my career, I guess I developed a unique skill set by backing up my on-field and games experience
with an MBA degree. Three years ago, I was having a conversation with someone at UCT about a position they had advertised. Mid-conversation, this person told me that Mr Du Plessis was retiring and that they were looking for his successor. My name was put forward as a potential successor, which was followed by a series of interviews to determine if I was the right person to lead the organisation,” she explains.
ON BEING ANNOUNCED AS THE CEO OF SSISA AT 33...
“I initially downplayed the possibility of getting this opportunity because my husband and I were not looking to move our family to Cape Town. Upon careful consideration, we both agreed that the opportunity was exceptional. Stepping into the shoes of Mr Du Plessis, a man with such a great legacy, left me a tad anxious and overwhelmed. I questioned if I was the right person for the entity because SSISA had achieved so much in a short space. Being offered such a big opportunity shouldn’t just be about the flattery of a job title. I wanted to get there and contribute meaningfully.”
ON GETTING AN MBA...
“My mother is an Accountant and an entrepreneur, and my dad has been in banking all his life. We were raised to be conscious of finances. Most of my friends at varsity were in the business, finance and actuarial fields. Outside of what my parents taught me, I always felt very ill-prepared during finance conversations. As I progressed in my career, I realised there was great potential to commercialise some opportunities in the health sciences. That is what pushed me towards an MBA.”
ON WOMEN HAVING HONEST CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SUCCESS…
“We need to have more conversations about how, much as its fulfilling, success comes with a lot of hard work, sacrifices and pressure. There are young women developing their careers who must never fall into the trap of believing that some of the symptoms associated with the downside of success are happening to them alone. They should never find themselves asking this question, ‘Why are things so difficult for me. Am I the only person struggling like this?’, only to find that we have all survived through it or have people to lean on for support.”
ON WHAT HOLDS HER TOGETHER…
“From my mom, sisters and cousins to my husband and good friends — the closest people in my life give me the strength to forge ahead when the going gets tough. I know that I’m loved outside of what I do at work. These are people who are completely honest with me when I approach them with whatever challenges I may be experiencing as a leader and they’re able to help me reflect with honesty! I also channel my energies through running — I literally hit the road in search of calmness. I’m usually at my fittest during the most difficult times in my life.”
ON WHAT SHE KNOWS FOR SURE…
“I get my greatest joy out of implementing and change-making at a practical level. I have a better sense of myself and the things that make me tick. This knowledge anchors me during tough times. In the bigger scheme of things, I know that I’m more than a job title and also understand my worth.”