Michelle McGowan, Group Head of Marketing at Electrolux South Africa
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As Michelle McGowan, Group Head of Marketing at Electrolux South Africa, considers her journey to breaking the glass ceiling this Women’s Month. She recalls how some of the strongest, yet compassionate women. Who have influenced her along the way, have been those leading large teams in male-dominated fields.

Now, as a local, visionary leader of the global home and kitchen appliance manufacturing multinational, she focuses on similarly guiding her teams to market Electrolux’s range of luxury AEG products to consumers across all LSMs in South Africa.

McGowan, who grew up in the tiny Eastern Cape Town of Lusikisiki and followed her dreams to become a leading business woman, despite not having the means to study, hopes her story will be an inspiration to other young women.

Where the journey began

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“I have always loved business management, investing and economics, but leaving school I didn’t have money to go and study immediately,” McGowan recalls.

She recalls how her road to success in the retail industry began as an “accident’ when her female boss at PA Better Bond, where she got her first job as a co-ordinator. Gave her an opportunity to learn graphic design on Saturday mornings.

McGowan’s boss asked her to step in when the graphic designer was unavailable one day. She designed a job for a client, who reported that he was thrilled with her “most beautiful” work. Her boss promoted her to DTP operator, and she later got a job as graphic designer at Builders Warehouse.

At Builders Warehouse, McGowan’s business acumen came to the fore, and she became an integral part of the brand team. She had no degree nor diploma at the time. However, management, realising her leadership potential, seconded her to Unilever for six months to gain experience as an assistant brand manager.

“That’s when I fell in love with marketing. Unilever gave me an ‘Oscar’ award with a cheque which I took to register at Unisa to study further,” McGowan said. She obtained a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) focused on Marketing and Business Management and has not looked back since.

McGowan was promoted to Brand Manager at Builders Warehouse at the age of 24 and later became Regional Senior Brand Manager at Robert Bosch Power Tools SA.

A few years later she was appointed Makro SA’s Marketing Operations Manager. Thereafter she took up a role as Marketing Manager at LG Electronics South Africa before landing her “dream job” as Head of Marketing at Electrolux South Africa.

However, McGowan recalls that there have been difficult moments on her journey to success and “many different people who have inspired me”, as well as those who have presented challenges.

Inspiration comes in many forms

McGowan is inspired by what she describes as “outliers” like Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey – “people who are a little different and who do the unexpected”. Locally, she counts Karen Ferrini, Massbuild’s Operations Director for Africa, among her inspirations.

“What I really liked about Karen is that she stood out, she was the only female Operations Director, which was very rare within the retail industry. Senior positions in operations are mostly occupied by men. I admired her leadership and management style in that she kept true to who she was. Through the years, I have noticed how many women who have entered similar roles would immediately change the way they walk, how they speak, and how they would treat people. Karen did not change – her team trusted her and loved her. I realised that I don’t need to be aggressive as a leader. Karen was always just herself, gracious, and she got the message across and drove big, high performing teams.”

Describing her own management style McGowan adds: “I believe in strong teams, highly skilled, driven individuals from diverse backgrounds and leading from a base of trust. I like to take the time to explain and understand things in detail. It’s about unpacking the vision as a team and asking everyone to contribute their views. I believe we all bring immense value and I appreciate different perspectives. People gravitate towards you if you’re not about hierarchy.”

She is fortunate to have had good relationships with the men she has worked with. “They are very straight-forward in their way of thinking. I like clear instructions and goals, so I thrive in that environment.”

“Electrolux is really a different company – it’s unusual for marketing to have a seat at the senior leadership table and to report directly to the managing director. The company is also extremely progressive and on the leading edge of promoting gender equity in the workplace,” she adds.

In conclusion

McGowan’s advice to women who aspire to lead in business is to be confident and “get rid of that imposter syndrome, not wanting to speak up and thinking others know better than you”.

“We really need to learn to overcome that at an early age. I feel that only now am I truly beginning to believe in myself. I have read so many business and self-help books and followed many good leaders. Self-belief is important, even if you fail at a task. It doesn’t mean you need to be perfect to speak or to apply for a position. I am not one for big dreams without execution. We need to dream big and do. There are a lot of good ideas and concepts in our industry, but you can’t just have beautiful ideas, you have to be sure to follow through,” she concludes.