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Women Leaders Making Their Mark In Safari Eco-Tourism

March 14, 2014 Responsible Tourism No Comments Email Email

Women leaders’ strengths in team-building, inclusivity and collaborative decision-making are increasing their influence and impact in business– not only in the corporate jungle but in the wilds of Africa too.

573360Whether it’s in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies like General Motors, IBM and Yahoo, or as a rising force in entrepreneurship and small business, women bring leadership qualities that are valued in increasingly diverse workplaces, and make business sense.

In Africa’s growing safari eco-tourism industry, women are coming out from behind reception desks and kitchen counters, bringing strengths in interpersonal skills and relationship-building to develop interactive guest experiences, while breaking down stereotypes of a world dominated by rugged male adventurers.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2010 Women’s Report found that female entrepreneurs were more likely to introduce innovations and to spot new business opportunities, while research by US management consultancy Caliper and London-based businesswomen’s network Aurora found that women leaders were more persuasive, assertive and willing to take risks.

573363The Caliper study found women to be more empathic and flexible, with their interpersonal skills combining to create the inclusive, consensus-building, collaborative leadership styles that are now considered essential for business to thrive.

Study participant Connie Jackson, chief executive of St Bartholomew’s & the Royal London Charitable Foundation, sums up effective leadership: “Strong leadership starts with being able to pull together a group of people—who may not have anything in common—and getting them to buy into a vision of themselves as a collective group who can achieve uncommon results.”

A diverse workforce enables a company to better serve increasingly diverse customer bases, and the improved problem-solving provided by bringing together the differing viewpoints and market insights of men and women leads to superior business performance, a recent Gallup study found.

573366The study found that gender-diverse business units in a hospitality company delivered a 19% higher average quarterly net profit than less diverse units.

Harnessing the leadership strengths of women, and developing a diverse customer-facing team, makes good business sense in South Africa’s eco-tourism and game reserve industry, where global marketing and positive perceptions of the country after the 2010 football World Cup are attracting an increasingly diverse range of visitors from Europe and America, as well as African countries, says Rick van Zyl (pronounced “fun sail”), founder of Lalibela, a Big 5 game reserve in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

The all-female management team at Lalibela, says Van Zyl, play a key role in empowering staff, building a strong and cohesive team, and constantly seeking out new ways for guests to experience the African bush. Their innovations range from walking safaris, a wild cat breeding programme and “volun-tourism” experiences introduced by head ranger Kelly Pote to the Afro-fusion safari cuisine that blends indigenous ingredients with South African and Western favourites created by head chef Linda Keevy.

Together with general manager Lee Phillips, the three women manage a 7 500 hectare game reserve home to three lodges, Big 5 game and a workforce of close to 100 people.

“We are probably the only reserve in this area led by an all-woman team, and certainly the only one with a female head ranger,” Van Zyl said.

Phillips, who has a degree in Business Science and swopped the corporate career ladder for a life in the bush, says the female team and their approach to people management and team-building are the key to the reserve’s “secret weapon”.

“The staff here are not invisible robots. They interact and make guests at Lalibela feel at home, like part of the family. Here people really do arrive as guests and leave as friends. The golden thread in our guest book comments reflects that – everyone talks about the great staff, the strong team, the family feeling, the friendship that they experience here.

“Our greatest asset here is the people. They make or break the safari experience, and so we hire very carefully. You can train for skills – we hire on attitude and character,” Phillips said.

Head ranger Pote echoes this, saying that the one-on-one experience delivered by her hand-picked all male team of game rangers is as much what makes Lalibela Game Reserve special as its naturally wild environment free of internal fences and public roads.

She doesn’t have much time for that brawny game ranger stereotype – “it’s about character, attitude and mutual respect amongst our team, not about my gender,” she says.

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