Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Mpho Nkeli

October 24, 2022
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Mpho Nkeli

She once summited Mount Kilimanjaro with her 64-year-old mum, but these days Mpho Nkeli, executive chair and director of Search Partners International (SPi)/ AltoPartners South Africa, is more comfortable helping talented professionals scale corporate peaks in search of their dream career.

What was your childhood career dream?

[Laughs] I wanted to be a dentist, an aspiration that caused me to over-floss my teeth as a teenager.

What did you end up studying?

I did my four-year BSc degree in environmental science at the University of Lesotho – purely because all matric maths and science students at that time were advised to go into the sciences. My last formal studying was when I completed my MBA at the GIBS Business School, a 40th birthday gift to myself.

What was your first job?

I worked in a geomorphological lab doing soil tests; it felt like I hadn’t left varsity because I still wore jeans and a white lab coat – boring!! From there, I made the leap to corporate South Africa via marketing and communications and found my niche in HR and transformation.

How did you get into Executive Search - was it by accident or design?

By default, for sure! When I left corporate after 28 years, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want, which was to go back into corporate and turned down eight possible corporate opportunities. When SPi came along in 2015 and offered me a partnership, it was literally the answer to my prayers. I had written a letter to God asking him to find me an opportunity that was exactly right for me, whatever that was, as long as I loved the people I would work with, and they loved me back, and they did not sell drugs!

What motivates you to do what you do?

I simply love listening to the inspiring leadership journeys of the candidates we interview. I love putting smiles on my clients’ faces, and I love finding dream jobs for candidates. I have never met so many interesting people as I have in the last seven years; it’s been easily over a hundred a year.

Did you have a mentor? And if so, what was the best piece of advice they gave you?

I never had a formal mentor, but I have learnt from many people along the way – my seniors, peers and juniors. I have also learned what NOT to do from a few of them. I learn a lot from my current partners at SPi including Stephen Dallamore. Having left the corporate world, I have renewed appreciation for a piece of advice that Peter Moyo, my CEO at Alexander Forbes (where I served as HR director) once gave us. He always maintained that you could rate the culture of the business by how they treat their suppliers. As I am now a supplier with a deep interest in corporate culture, this principle really resonates with me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Perhaps to strive a bit harder for a little more ‘work-life balance’ … And spend more time with the kids.

In addition to chairing SPi, you also sit on the boards of some of South Africa’s biggest public companies. How do you relax and unwind?

I am an avid reader and get enormous satisfaction from tending my vegetable garden and spending time with our 4-year-old grandson. I need quiet, alone time to recharge.

Is there a particular search assignment that really sticks out for you?

I love all my executive assignments, especially non-executive director assignments. What always remains memorable for me is not so much the assignment, but rather how much I got the client to think differently about the assignment or candidate requirements during the process, and how much they enjoyed the search process.

Mpho Nkeli
Executive Chairman & Head: Board Practice AltoPartners Johannesburg