Ask Simonetta Giuricich the most useful quality a leader can have and her answer may surprise you: empathy.
While empathy may traditionally have been thought of as a soft skill, Simonetta insists it is her ability to understand the qualities of each of her team members, and her respect for their individual viewpoints, that has helped her progress through her career. After all, she says, this is the basis for trust, which in turn serves as a foundation for a relationship.
Simonetta has put this insight to good use as COO: Foreign Reclaim. However, she’s quick to recognise that while working with people is a science (‘because when you’re handling different personalities, you can’t adopt a cookie-cutter approach’), it must be backed with practical steps, such as the implementation of a solid structure. This not only makes for greater efficiency; it allows each member of the team to show their own strengths, in essence grooming the next generation of leaders.
Simonetta makes a point of remaining open to all viewpoints so that she can pivot where necessary. ‘Great ideas can come from anywhere,’ she says, ‘and sometimes, good ideas can make you feel uncomfortable simply because they present a new way of doing things.’
This is a situation Simonetta has faced personally when team members resisted the new approach she introduced. ‘I had to make it less personal by considering that I had been brought in to do a job and that it’s fine if my way of doing it is not what people are used to.’
This is typical of her grounded approach: ‘We’re very quick to celebrate successes, but it’s equally important own our failures – they’re just as much part of life and business.’
Simonetta is equally pragmatic in her view of what it will take to achieve the SDGs. ‘Most people feel that the goals are so big, there’s no way their contribution will make a difference. Not so.’ She points to VAT IT’s actions in this regard: realising the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on mental wellness, she established a mental health committee. In addition to distributing a regular newsletter containing information about matters related to mental health, the committee addresses any concerns raised by employees. It may be a small step in relation to the objectives of the SDGs, but it has a knock-on effect, Simonetta points out. She maintains that awareness is key: if you understand the importance of an issue, you are able to find ways to apply your skills and, from there, encourage the involvement of your community.
Her involvement in the SDGs started in 2019 when she attended One Young World. ‘I may have been cognisant of the goals and their importance previously but attending One Young World catapulted me straight into it. I became aware of how much we had done, and how much more we need to do,’ Simonetta says.
It was at One Young World that she became aware of the Good Work Foundation, an organisation which ensures that matriculants are workplace ready – important because, as she points out, the office can be a daunting place for someone who has never before worn a suit and tie, even if they were strong performers at school. This inability to fit into corporate culture is often the reason why new entrants to the workplace founder.
Simonetta was quick to identify an opportunity to support the Good Work Foundation. At the time, VAT IT was looking to redefine its operating model to reduce base costs and was considering offshoring certain operations to India as a solution. Simonetta felt that South Africa’s high unemployment rate made this a deplorable notion – instead, she urged the company to partner with the Good Work Foundation to set up a pilot project, with 20 employees working from the foundation’s digital campus in Hazyview. The project helped to bring down rental costs while addressing a host of other issues: ‘Most employees who live far from business centres are disengaged: often, they have to catch up to five taxies just to get to work and they have to leave early so that they can use the same transport to get home.’
The solution is simple, she says: as VAT IT has done, businesses need to take work to communities rather than making people venture into hubs to find it. The spinoff benefits are considerable, as this approach helps to stimulate micro-economies.
Simonetta is especially passionate about this opportunity to create work, encapsulated in SDG 8 (promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all) because a job can change someone’s life. Employment not only contributes to poverty alleviation, but also gives purpose – in a sense, it is the first building block of many which can lead to greater self-esteem, and this can have a positive effect on a number of societal issues, such as gender-based violence and rape.
The success of VAT IT’s pilot project has convinced Simonetta that South Africa has the potential to become a global business services centre, and she is looking to include more NGOs with access to deserving learners in an expanded version of the project. ‘The supply of employees is there – we simply need to get the infrastructure into these remote areas,’ she states. This is an initiative she is pursuing as part of her commitment to the SDG 8 task force established at #FinBiz2030.
Simonetta says that one of the most important lessons she has learnt through her sustainability journey is that you don’t have to be an activist to understand that the world is facing major challenges – but, you also don’t need to avoid those challenges because you’re put off by the magnitude. ‘Each of us is capable of turning that dial and each of us – particularly business – has the responsibility to do so,’ she insists.