Vanessa Olver, Business Connexion deputy CEO and group executive of its largest division Shared Services with 2,600 employees, is not only one of the country’s leading businesswomen, but was acknowledged as such when nominated as CEO magazine’s ‘South Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business for 2013’.
Her success stems from combining a strong financial acumen with being a people’s person – something which is still highly atypical among chartered accountants.
She qualified as a CA(SA) after completing her articles at Deloitte & Touche in Durban. Olver worked in Chicago and the UK where she held financial management positions with various companies before returning to South Africa. She gained further international experience with Standard Bank’s African network of 16 countries at the time before joining Business Connexion, where she was appointed to the board of directors in August 2009 as chief financial officer. Two years ago she was appointed deputy CEO and with her belief that one should have a change every three years – she now has the CEO’s position firmly in sight.
“If you wish to achieve your full potential in life you cannot remain static. Change is very important – at a minimum by adding to your portfolio,” she says. The key to her success has been planning her career by identifying where she wants to next go in life and being perfectly transparent about it. As an A-type personality she’s been forthright with her superiors as to what she wants to achieve and a willingness to look elsewhere for it if necessary, and so far has achieved her every goal.
“On initially leaving the audit profession my goal was first to be CFO of a company, and then CFO of a listed company. Once I achieved that on joining Business Connexion, I set my sights on a general management position, which is where I sit now,” says Olver.
One unexpected detour, and a challenge she says she feels the least prepared for, Olver is about to go on four months maternity leave. Another element of her success has been to surround herself with highly competent individuals, and she has no doubt she has set up a team capable of smoothly running the division in her absence.
“As a leader, it is very important to surround oneself with a strong team as I could never get to all the 2,600 people reporting in to me. Each team player has a different set of attributes and skills that complement my own. You cannot have a group of like-minded people – it won’t work,” explains Olver.
Surrounding herself with A-team players works for a management team but not for an entire organisation, she says. “You also need solid sets of hands or the work will not get done.”
Her management team is a mix of young, dynamic people with a fresh outlook on life, as well as older, wiser heads to bring some maturity. A spread across the demographics is vital for the same reason, as she also blends race and gender. “In a male dominated ICT industry, such diversity is a challenge though not an impossibility, but it takes time to grow a diverse pipeline of experience.
Long-term succession planning is therefore vital. Fortunately, this is something in my DNA and in all previous positions I have had considerable success in attracting a lot of black CAs and particularly a high proportion of black female CAs. I do not expect operations to be any different.”
Olver attributes this inherent broad-mindedness to her international exposure to cultural diversity. Another leadership quality that comes naturally to her is an ability to inspire and motivate. Due to the sheer size of her division she has had to develop innovative means of getting to all those people.
“We have developed quarterly recognition forums which really motivate because the acknowledgement people and teams receive is fun. Called ‘Success to Significance’ we take 15 top performing people to a dinner and comedy club or movie. Each attendee represents a team to leverage the impact as widely as possible. We try make it as wacky and weird as
possible for maximum impact – people love them and work towards being part of the next one,” says Olver.
What makes Olver an effective leader is that whether an auditor or an ICT executive, she cannot be pigeonholed or matched to the stereotype – in two industries notorious for people being typecast.
“I’m blessed with a very good accounting brain but am at heart a people’s person. I love working with people and do a great deal of mentoring of junior people within Business Connexion. I like to be part of people’s growing experience but am very selective as to who I work with, as one can be easily overrun by the demand. While Business Connexion has a
formal coaching programme, I prefer not to stick to a structure, but share my mentee’s challenges and help them think of how they could address them, or how previous challenges could have been resolved differently. I act as a sounding board.”
Underpinning both Olver’s ambition and willingness to mentor juniors even to the point where one could replace her, is her complete lack of insecurity. “I believe in my own abilities because it is built not upon good luck or fortune but hard work. I can always get another equally challenging job.”
Among the areas of the business that Olver has exerted a significant influence is reputational, and in particular the area of investor relations. As an articulate and financially literate executive, not to mention a rare woman in a man’s world, she has become something of a darling of the media.
“They see me as responsive – someone they can get hold off when they want comment. Furthermore, as our values at Business Connexion include honesty and integrity, they know they will always get the truth from me,” she explains.
Her reputation of approachability and responsiveness is of even greater impact among clients – many of whom are major listed companies. “I flatter myself I have made a contribution to building solid relationships based on honesty, and have contributed to upholding the reputation of this firm. We have built a reputation for credibility, and my personal focus is our top 25 clients, with each of whom I have built a relationship over the past two years.”
Many of these relationships are with CIOs of these clients and Olver is no techie. “To maintain these relationships while fostering an essential culture of innovation I have allowed my team to build their own client solutions. They are given freedom to innovate and to make mistakes – provided they learn from their mistakes and evolve.”
During Olver’s tenure, the company has been responsible for a number of industry firsts, including server innovations, introducing cloud computing to Nigeria and for SMEs in South Africa.
Her tenure has also seen an improvement in the division’s ‘happiness quotient’. “The Barrett survey measures negative energy within the organisation, and during my year in charge this has improved from34% to 26% (measured in the negative) which means happier people and therefore happier clients. This has been achieved through a greater embrace of our corporate value system among staff.”
Her financial expertise is by no means wasted, as Olver employs this to the full on various boards and committees she is a member of, from audit committee through to investment and remuneration committees. On purely financial committees she contributes her accounting and financial knowledge, and on the remuneration committee brings her people-zeal to bear. “It’s important to remember that people are not just statistics, but these are real people whose lives are affected by decisions.”
Like most good managers, Olver adjusts her style of leadership to the circumstances. When direction is needed, she gives it, but when the strategic direction is set she allows team members to take the initiative. “I’m naturally inclined to want to always lead from the front, so it takes an effort to take a back seat.” However, that is frequently necessary in what is a highly technical industry. Being a motivational leader rather than a technocrat did leave many people sceptical as to how successful she would be.
“I learn very quickly, and importantly I’m a good listener. I earned staff respect. More challenging was earning the respect of clients, but the same process paid off of listening and understanding their main points. What has always stood me in good stead is hard work and determination.”
“I find that the higher one gets in the organisational hierarchy the more important it becomes to be a good listener. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career and one that cannot be over-emphasised.”
This is another characteristic not innate to her. Dominant type personalities like to be listened to rather than listen, to be interesting rather than interested, so listening was an important characteristic Olver studied.
Patience is another, but one that the technical environment forced upon her. Naturally impatient, she found that though she’s a fast learner, others were equally impatient for her to get up to speed on technical matters.
“I realised we all function at different speeds in different areas and it is not a reflection of aptitude. This has helped us all blend together as a team as we learned to be patient with each other and pull the entire team along. This introduces checks and balances, because nobody achieves just on their own. We hunt in packs and each team player brings a different set of attributes and skills, whether relationships skills, product or technical skills. Balancing a team means we always bring our A-team along and ensures we never become complacent with long-term customers,” adds Olver.
“I realised that one of the downsides of being impatient with people is jumping to conclusions on certain matters. It has been in my nature to be judgmental and I have invariably been in error when doing so. I have learned to go against my own nature and take more measured responses to people and situations,” she explains.
Olver’s learning curve was steepened by the pressures of a tough first half of the current financial year, when she had to learn patience in the strategic direction set for the firm and in the people around her – when her natural inclination might have been to take decisive action.
“Instead, things came right during the second half, because the reality was we had set the correct strategy and the team I had was a strong one. From this I learned not to be short-sighted but keep an eye on the three-year plan. Tough times are short-lived if you have the correct roadmap – don’t doubt yourself but manage according to the strategy.”
“A personal lesson I also learned is not to try shoulder the burden alone – but to open up to those around me. I used to feel terrible about dumping worries on my teammates until I learned the strength of a team was that the natural optimism of the team uplifts individual members. We have such inherent diversity within the team that it creates a lot of inner strength.”
The biggest pressures facing the South African ICT industry are competition from international players, as well as changes in what clients demand from their suppliers.
“This is no longer a product-based market, but clients want solutions that add value to their own bottom lines. Clients themselves are under pressure and need solutions that address their own business overheads. That’s a tough ask for us – as a skills based industry it’s difficult to cut costs and be innovative enough to continue competing internationally,” adds
Author: Eamonn Ryan