Twenty-five years after joining Deloitte Africa as a trainee, Ruwayda Redfearn has taken up the mantle of CEO, becoming one of the biggest names in the professional services sector on the continent. Her vision is for the firm to be a trusted global partner in Africa and an employer of choice for top talent across the continent, and to continue to make an impact on people, clients and society.
Ruwayda Redfearn believes that a big part of overcoming adversity is seeing the long game. This is where leaders with emotional intelligence excel. Their emotional stability allows them to persevere. Yes, she’s proud to be the first black female CEO of Deloitte Africa. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about what she can do to be useful – to the organisation, to the economy, to society. We asked her what she is going to do with the platform she has been given.
Real leaders don’t run from challenges. It’s an approach to life – and work – that has served Ruwayda well. A staunch Sharks supporter, she grew up in Durban at the tail end of apartheid. Although she was an A achiever at school, she came from humble beginnings and back then bursaries were not available for black students. ‘The one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to become a chartered accountant,’ she says.
Tragedy struck when her father, her greatest supporter, died in a car accident at the start of her matric year. While having to cope with this enormous loss, her mother continued to run the family clothing business, but times were tough.
Thanks to her excellent marks Ruwayda’s university fees were reduced and she completed her undergraduate degree at the then University of Natal. When the local Indian community heard that she could not afford the fees for her honours year, they clubbed together to raise funds. It was an incredible moment for someone who had worked all the way through high school and varsity to help pay for her tuition’
‘I applied at Deloitte to do my articles and I put all my eggs in that one basket,” she says. ‘From the moment I walked in, I knew that was where I wanted to be. There weren’t many women in the building and there were even fewer people of colour, but Vassi Naidoo, who later went on to become CEO, was the regional leader at the time and he was an important role model of mine. I was incredibly excited to be accepted.’
That was in 1997, and she has never looked back. After a New York secondment, she returned to Durban as a manager and was appointed a partner in 2004. She was promoted to lead the audit practice of the KwaZulu-Natal region in 2010, serving some of its most prestigious clients. During this time, Ruwayda also chaired the Global Young Partners’ Advisory Council, reporting to the global CEO.
A stellar career
She was appointed to the Deloitte Southern Africa board and remuneration committee in 2011. In 2012, Ruwayda decided to take up a CFO role at a global commodity trading business for a three-year period, gaining invaluable experience and serving as a board member on a number of the group’s companies.
She returned to Deloitte in 2015 as the Office Managing Partner for the KZN region and managed the risk advisory business for the Eastern Seaboard. Ruwayda was appointed to the Deloitte Africa board in 2016 and has chaired the firm’s remuneration committee as well as serving as a member of the performance, reward, succession and nominations committee. In June this year, Deloitte Africa welcomed her as CEO.
‘It’s the firm’s unique and inclusive culture that has kept me here all these years,’ she says. ‘It changes with the times. Our ability to adapt quickly is what makes it possible for us to realise the true potential of digital transformation, embrace new business models, and implement new ways of working. We have an environment where every single person can become the best version of themselves.
‘I’ve been here for over two decades, and every two to three years, I find myself doing something different – from making career leaps to working with a diverse range of clients from different industries, and different sectors. That, for me, has created such diversity that I have never felt like I’m doing the same thing every day. That’s what is exciting and that’s what keeps me challenged. We have a saying that our blood is always green, and I suppose mine really is.’
A different approach to leading
Emotional intelligence, values-based leadership and a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to ethics are just some of the qualities that Ruwayda brings to the industry.
‘I want to make a significant contribution to society, so being purpose-led is important to me. I believe that Africa’s time is now and if we can bring the collective intellectual property of our 7 000 people in Africa, 415 000 globally, to solve some of the challenges and the problems on the continent, that would be a legacy I could be extremely proud of.’
One of her priorities is to position Deloitte Africa at the forefront of the ESG conversation. Clients need to increase their focus on ESG accounting and reporting standards related to their ESG goals. Another challenge for African companies is that leaders attend conferences like the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, make a number of commitments, and then return to work without developing a plan for how they can execute on their commitments. That’s where Deloitte has a key role to play.
‘Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time,’ Ruwayda says. ‘We are the last generation that has the ability to do something about it or lose the opportunity at great cost to the planet. Again, we can bring our collective IP to the topic of ESG, both in assuring integrated reports and advising on how to reduce carbon emissions and social injustices and contribute to more transparent reporting.’
Forty years ago, she says, different countries had different reporting standards, but many have moved to a consistent international standard for credible financial reporting. That same rigour has to be applied to producing ESG metrics that can be assured. ‘I believe that if it’s not measured, it’s not done. As soon as you start measuring something, you can set targets for what you want to achieve; that’s when the dial starts moving.’
She sees a crisis as a waste unless lessons can be learnt from it. ‘I can’t step back and allow something to happen in front of me; that’s not who I am. I have always run towards the fire. To find solutions, I always surround myself with the best people, whether in my personal life or in my career. I went through a personal health challenge eight years ago and I had to dig deep to overcome it. I approached it like I would a big Deloitte project – I chose the best people, the best team, and the best project managers. I listened to differing opinions and consulted as much as possible. And then I was able to come up with the right solution. That has taught me that resilience is fundamental to overcoming adversity.’
Hearing Gen Z’s concerns
She is inspired by the Gen Zs because they are pragmatic and value direct communication, authenticity and relevance. In talking to accounting students, she has seen an incredible desire to drive change, to ask difficult questions, and to hold leaders accountable.
‘That is a voice that must never be suppressed,’ she says. ‘My advice to young trainees is to use their voice as a force for good. In my last interaction with students, I talked to them about purpose and making an impact. After a round of polite questions, a guy at the back of the auditorium stood up and told me that I had spoken about how wonderful it is to be a CA(SA), but I had not touched on what the profession was struggling with and what contribution I was making’, she says.
‘That opened the floodgates. The very next question was about what the firm is doing to address climate change.’
Like many successful people, outside of her demanding job, Ruwayda loves to read. ‘I was the kid who was told to put my book down and turn off the light at 1 AM. I read everything from trash to science fiction to books about leadership, especially a different type of leadership. Brené Brown is a writer I enjoy. When I put together my new executive team, I bought them all a copy of Dare to lead. She describes the culture of leadership that she wants to create, one built on EQ, empathy, vulnerability and self-care. My other favourites are Maya Angelou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Malcolm Gladwell. I agree with Gladwell that preparation plays a big role in the formation of talent. The “10 000-hour rule” resonates with me and I can see how the key to achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practising for at least 10 000 hours.’
Although she loves to travel, it really is not as glamorous as it’s made out to be for someone in her position. But she loves to learn about different cultures and taste unfamiliar foods. The rhythm and discipline of running offer her an ideal space for meditation and staying sane, and her four-year-old son makes her laugh all the time.
A patriot at heart, Ruwayda is here for the long haul. ‘I choose to stay in South Africa, to be positive but realistic, and to be part of the solution. Every time we think we are at the tipping point we always bounce back. Our continent is filled with amazing resources, especially when it comes to talent. We are on the precipice of digital transformation and there are huge opportunities for young professionals right here.’
See the fire and run towards it anyway
Firefighters are geared to run towards the emergency, towards danger. In the workplace there are metaphorical fires to fight – difficult situations and challenging projects.
Ruwayda’s way is simple:
- Earn a reputation as a problem-solver − Be good at your job but be willing to go above and beyond to help. Choose to succeed and use your skills to help the team overcome their challenges.
Don’t check your job description − Instead, strap on your helmet and volunteer to help the team.
- Make your bias towards action − Spend your energy providing direction and decisions for those who point fingers and wait. By understanding the information, you can absorb it and then act. Ask: ‘Is there something I can do right now that will bring value?’
- Focus on helping other people win − Empower them to get better at solving their own problems. Harnessing and optimising other people’s skills to make them better takes more energy but creates more winners.
A rising tide lifts all boats − By helping others improve, the company improves and everyone wins.