01 Dec 1999

South Africa's Lucille Meyer: Shaping a Practical Presidency

by Morgan Baker


Lucille Meyer (SEP '99) and her boss, South African President Thabo M. Mbeki, know they have a tough act to follow. While Mbeki's predecessor, the legendary Nelson Mandela, basked in the adulation of a country savoring newly won freedoms and democracy, the Mbeki administration is expected to deliver everyday tangible results. To that end, Meyer, deputy director general for The Private Office, has guided Mbeki's merger of the president and deputy president offices to form the Office of the Presidency. The new entity, which Meyer oversees, provides daily, personal support to the president.

"South Africans expect a lot from the president," says Meyer, a recent graduate of the School's Senior Executive Programme for Southern Africa (SEP). "They are looking for the presidency to improve day-to-day living conditions." Meyer's Pretoria office oversees all presidential services - ministerial, personal support, public liaison and registry, protocol and ceremonial, communications, and corporate services. Her team is responsible for all aspects of assisting the president, whether it be keeping his calendar, providing legal services, or preparing a presentation. "It's a very challenging job - both physically and mentally," says the energetic Meyer.

While she finds her new post all-consuming, Meyer says it is a thrilling time to be involved in her country's government. South Africans are clamoring for leadership that will ensure the prompt delivery of education, housing, roads, and an improved infrastructure for water and for jobs, notes Meyer. There is much at stake for Mbeki - only the second black president of South Africa - as he follows in the footsteps of Mandela. Meyer is careful to point out, however, that Mbeki is his own man with his own style. "Mbeki's interests and those of Mandela and the African National Congress coincide," she notes, "but he has his own way of doing things. Reorganizing the structure of the presidency is just one example of that."

Meyer credits her academic training with preparing her for her current post. Her recent educational endeavor with HBS was particularly useful. "The SEP was one of the best learning experiences I've had," she says of the newly established six-week program (see sidebar). "My fellow participants were exciting professionals with a deep commitment to rebuilding South Africa. The program offered us the chance to engage with others and to cross-pollinate." Since returning to the job, Meyer says she has referred to her course materials many times and has even conducted a workshop based on some of the cases.

The SEP experience also offered Meyer a chance to get away from the daily difficulties of running an office and taking care of a family. "It gave me a lot of enthusiasm and motivation as well as a chance to step back and see the presidency at a distance. I could think!" she says. As the mother of two children, ages eight and two, Meyer rarely has time for such contemplation. "It's difficult to balance work and family," she notes. "I often have to make difficult choices between responsibilities at home and at the office. It's tough for a woman in a senior position."

Meyer's challenges are not likely to subside. She is, however, considering taking a break from the Ph.D. program in organizational behavior at the University of Pretoria in which she is currently enrolled. While Meyer is familiar with the demands of being a student - she holds a BA in sociology and communications from the University of South Africa and an M.Ed. in adult education from the University of Manchester in England - she is aware that combining career, family, and school may be too much.

In addition to working in several other government positions, Meyer previously served as chief director of management and executive services when Mbeki was deputy president, so she is in familiar territory. "We will be judged by our results five years hence," says Meyer of her and Mbeki's tenure. "People will ask, Is there peace in Africa? Is there a sense of world order? Do South Africans have access to electricity? That will be the test."

Meyer expects the level of her own work to stabilize a bit, but because of the huge expectations put on the presidency she doesn't anticipate the workload letting up much in the near future. "It will be a tough five years. There's a lot of backlog. The president puts in long hours," she says. "It's hard not to do the same."

SEP: Helping Southern Africa Manage Change

"While it is not that unusual for black and white South Africans to be together, it was unique to have private and governmental organizations represented," says Lucille Meyer of the Senior Executive Programme for Southern Africa (SEP). "The program offered us a chance to see how different approaches are used for similar issues."

Two years ago HBS and Wits Business School in Johannesburg established the program in order to aid the rapid economic and social changes taking place in southern Africa. Participants are middle managers from the private and public sectors, nongovernmental organizations, and state enterprises with demonstrated potential for effective leadership. Designed as an effort to help the region become an integral player in the global marketplace, the SEP will soon have over two hundred graduates (who are recognized as HBS alumni) to its credit.

The SEP is a general management program offered in three two-week modules. The first two modules take place in Johannesburg and the third in Boston. Between sessions, participants return to their workplaces to test out the new theories and practices they've learned. With participants hailing primarily from South Africa but also from Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the SEP brings together Africans of all races to work and learn from one another. The networking opportunities are boundless, and new friendships are often continued upon completion of the program.

Through team workshops, case studies, lectures, and study groups, participants are exposed to topics such as international marketing, managing organizational effectiveness, competition and strategy, leadership, and negotiations. "The content was very important and relevant," says Meyer, who found the discussions on racism, leadership theory, financial management, and discrimination particularly interesting. "I continue to use what I learned."

The first two SEP cohorts have completed all three modules. The third cohort began in August in Johannesburg, and a fourth group will enter the program in March.


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