Flexible and agile attitude key to working in Africa
Josie Lyon, 47, group legal director for Protea Hotels and vice president and senior counsel for Marriott International in the Middle East & Africa, has worked in emerging markets across the globe. But, for the last 10 years, it is Africa that has been her home.
From her base in Cape Town she manages the legal challenges for the Protea Hotel Group and its holding company, Marriott, as it expands from its solid footprint in the south (South Africa has 80 hotels and Namibia five) into central, eastern and western Africa.
Her role is to navigate the nuances of the continent’s different legal systems, many of which are at different stages of development and maturity. From a zero base she has set up a legal structure within Protea to enable the hotel group to invest and work effectively across the continent while at the same time considering the needs of its US holding company.
This dexterity means she is one of a handful of global lawyers traversing an array of legal systems while at the same time having to be acutely politically and culturally astute.
When Lyon reflects on the biggest challenge in her daily work life she unhesitantly says it is instructing local counsel in different countries especially where systems are not as sophisticated as in a place like South Africa.
“Fortunately many South African law firms now have a presence in Africa making it more efficient and cost effective to work through them.
“Having said that, developing a one-stop shop that provides consistent service quality and pricing and which is truly Pan-Africa, is a big opportunity for someone out there,” she says.
“Language barriers and different attitudes to service do make it very difficult to do business. In the end it is about where best to invest time - one can spend hours trying to get things done and then be misunderstood because of language or rather pay the price and work through the structures you know that have a presence in Africa.”
Despite experience in south-east Asia, China, India and the Middle East, Lyon says South Africa has been the most challenging and fascinating place she has worked.
“It’s not homogenous and certainly not straightforward….within every community there are different groupings. This can be very difficult to understand if you are not South African and it is one of my roles, as a legal practitioner, to understand and be able to explain these nuances to our international partners.”
A core function of her role is Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, an issue she says that international investors sometimes don’t know how to approach or even speak about.
“Even saying something like ‘We need to interview more black women’ startles them. They are not used to tackling the issue so head on or using race-based language whereas in South Africa it is the norm.”
Working in Africa has made Lyon very firm on prioritising and time management and she says she has developed an agility to move from the mundane to a major merger or international investment.
“It is very easy to spend all day on a minor issue - maybe a guest wants to see a hotel’s CCTV footage - and, while it’s important, you can’t allow yourself to get too caught up. What I have learnt (metaphorically speaking) is that low risk can be low value in terms of legal input. You don’t always need to resort to a Ferrari when a scooter will get you from A to B.”
This flies in the face of how she was trained in the UK and when she worked in a London law firm.
“Then is was always the Ferrari but, in Africa, you need to be flexible, you need to use what fits.”
Lyon, who is Welsh and grew up in the coastal market town of Aberystwyth, studied at the University of Exeter before continuing her studies at the Guildford College of Law. She was admitted as a solicitor for England and Wales in 1995.
She joined Marriott International as in-house counsel in Hong Kong in 2001 and, after spells in the company’s offices there, in London and in Mumbai, she and her husband Richard chose to move to Cape Town in 2010. Here she joined Virgin Active Health Clubs as legal director.
When Marriott bought the Protea Hotel group she was well placed to step back into the company she knew so well.
“I mentor law students at the University of Cape Town and always stress to them the importance of never burning bridges. When Marriott arrived in South Africa, I was on good terms with the people I had once worked with, even though I had moved on. This made my return an easy fit.”
Lyon remains an active voice for women’s equality in the workplace - an issue, she says, that needs attention in South Africa.
“In some ways South Africa is 20 years behind in this respect.”
The joy of her job and the constant new territory she is exposed to in Africa has given her adopted country an added sheen.
“I can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t want to live in Cape Town,” she says, “My drive to work (from Constantia to Sea Point via Llandudno) is one of the most beautiful in the world.
There are few places Lyon hasn’t been in Africa for work but, she says, it was a backpacking trip across the continent that she did after university that ignited her love-affair with the continent.
“When I saw the big skies, the light, the bush...its rawness, I knew deep inside me that I would come back.”