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Over the course of her career, Portia Heynes has learned a lot about leadership and professional development. By making sure she’s held a variety of different positions in a variety of different industries, she’s ensured that she can tweak her CV to match with virtually any job.
This deliberate career planning has led her to executive positions at global companies , as the head of group learning and development. In this capacity, she orchestrates learning and development strategies encouraging both individuals and organisations to excel. She is currently working for Sun International, a leading hotel, gaming and entertainment group.
“I’ve learnt cross-functional skills,” she said.” I’ve learned how cross-functional skills are applied across various industries. I’ve met different people. I’ve met different thinking…I’ve developed this over 30, 35 years now, and the benefit has been that I can literally tweak my CV to most jobs, most industries.”
But she was once a bank employee without any tertiary education.
Heynes was in high school when boycotts in 1985 interrupted her schooling. The most stable part of Standards 9 and 10 for her, she said, were six months of actual classes without disruption.
Because of the disruption to her education, she never felt that she received a proper education, and became resistant to studying further. After getting a job in the banking sector as a young woman, she devoted herself to improving the skills she needed to climb the ladder.
She decided to go back to school, and started working towards a Bachelor’s of Commerce in Banking Management. She’s lucky, she said, because the company paid for her to get the degree.
“That’s when my journey started, because the day I started studying and developing myself is the day I got that confidence,” Heynes said. “And then I soon learned, this is how other people think, and so I got involved in projects that would get me involved in helping people.”
She was working at ABSA when she asked to help manage the new intake of previously disadvantaged people who hadn’t had the opportunity to work in banking before. Once about 20 new employees had been hired, her bosses asked her to help them with leadership and strategy.
In addition to this, she was the innovator who opened the first coffee shop at an ABSA bank to improve the customer experience.
Her passion for people, development and customer experience would eventually lead her to the opportunity to lead learning and development at ABSA’s call centre.
Soon, she moved to CIDA City Campus, an NGO University, directing call centre training, and then to The LR Group, where she was put in charge of talent supply and learnerships. After earning her BCOM in 2004, Heynes decided in 2007 to get her Master’s degree from the University of Cape Town’s executive development program.
She briefly started her own coaching and consulting company, working with individuals and groups on team building, training and strategy. While studying, she and another student began purchasing property in Cape Town and formed SA Apartments, a company that supplied long- and short-term luxury accommodation. After graduating, she was also involved in the start up of a pre-paid electricity company.
She began working as an executive for Vodacom Academy in 2009, which trained 36000 employees in retail stores across South Africa. In 2012, she began working as an executive of learning and development. Finally, in 2014, she became the head of group learning and development for Sun International.
She achieved all of this through hard work: strategically designing her career and education and making sure she took opportunities that would upskill her. She’s also constantly brainstorming.
“To stay relevant I do lots of research and am constantly looking for opportunities,” she said. “It sounds crazy, but I have two cell phones and sometimes I wake up at night and send myself WhatApp messages so that I remember new ideas.”
Although her journey sounds ideal, it was not without it’s challenges. Heynes lost her husband to a heart attack at the age of 38, and almost lost her assets twice. She faced these hurdles, however, with typical steadiness.
“You kind of know your responsibilities, so you just have to get up,” she said. “You can cry for 15 minutes and then say, ‘who do I know, what do I do from here, what’s the plan?’”
Listen to her interview on career development, entrepreneurship and her personal journey below: