A conversation with Angela Mhlanga, CEO Hollard Partner Solutions

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LM:

My dear Sister, thank you so much for an opportunity to have a conversation about your personal and professional journey.

AM:

Thank you so much Lincoln for providing the platform to offer my thoughts!

LM:

You are the CEO of Hollard Partner Solutions, what does your role entail, what is the nature of your business and your areas of responsibility?

AM:

The role entails leading a business which has turnover of about R5.7bn, in the form of premiums both Short Term and Long-Term Insurance premiums. We partner with companies that share our view regarding the societal benefits of offering insurance solutions to their customers. And we provide insurance solutions based on the partner requirements rather than following a once-size fits all approach. That approach extends from how we structure the commercial arrangement through our cell captive capability, to how we work with the partner to enable them to start offering the solutions to customers, and even right through to growing the insurance business with them. Some of our relationships go back decades, which is testament to Hollard’s competitive advantage when it comes to partnering with other organisations when it comes to insurance-related opportunities.

LM:

You have extensive experience in the Insurance industry, what do you find attractive and

exciting about the Insurance Industry?

AM:

I love this industry. I guess because I deeply believe in the transformational benefits of

insurance. Calamity can strike anyone, any organisation, and even any nation, but through insurance, nations and organisations and people can preserve wealth. Whether it be fires in Khayelitsha or Knysna here at home, or earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, all disasters illustrate the importance of insurance. Haiti is still reeling from the devastation of the earthquakes in 2010, while Japan was able to recover far more swiftly because they have a significantly higher proportion of people with insurance. It is evident that communities/ nations that insure what matters to them are able to preserve their wealth and recover from calamity quicker. This I believe is critical for our country.

LM:

What are the emerging trends in the insurance industry, and is your business ready to respond to such trends?

AM:

The bigger trends relate to the opportunity, so-called ‘Fintech’ (advanced technology applied within the financial services industry, typically in a disruptive manner) creates for insurers to enhance their propositions. Then there are trends such as the improvement of pricing and development of more individually beneficial propositions through the harnessing of Big Data and utilisation of the Internet of Things. The industry is also impacted by climate change (in the form of increasingly dramatic and unpredictable weather events) and impact on urbanisation which has a tremendous impact  . Of course, the potentially dramatic impact of driverless cars (fewer accidents, reduced vehicle ownership) is also something that is occupying our minds.

LM:

There is currently a huge backlash against corporate malfeasance and corruption, and lots of focus on ethics in business. What are the specific compliance, regularity and ethics issues facing your industry and business and how are you dealing with them?

AM:

We form part of the South African ecosystem and we too are impacted by the lack of ethics in business. These issues receive ongoing attention at our Board and senior management level and we have a significant number of deliberate interventions in our business. As you know our industry is highly regulated, and the new Financial Sector Conduct Authority was formed specifically to govern market conduct and how we treat customers throughout their dealings with us. We also remain mindful at all times of competition regulations and the need to avoid anything that might be considered anti-competitive behaviour, especially when engaging with other players within the industry.

LM:

How has the advent of new technologies affected your industry, and how are you responding to these?

AM:

The advent of new technologies has been positive, for example the use of platforms to enable interactions between ecosystems. I see it is as enabling execution in the insurance value chain for the benefit of the customer. So, we have approached these shifts as an opportunity to continuously improve the customer’s experience.

LM:

We have seen the phenomenal growth in Fintechs, do you think you should partner with these players or compete with them?

AM:

As I said earlier, “Fintechs” can help us improve our business, and we have certainly taken the view to partner with them where plausible. However, there is no doubt that our fiercest competitors might well come from that sector, and we are already competing with some of them.

LM:

We have seen big platform players change the face of many industries, does the insurance industry face the same risk from the big platform players?

AM:

I think the big platform players are expert at using big data to create large market places and this will surely impact the insurance industry.

LM:

Saying data is the new oil sounds cliché, but it’s critical to the success of modern business, how is data a competitive advantage in the insurance industry?

AM:

The insurance industry lives on data – we require reliable data to run models for pricing of insurance products, for understanding the experience of the portfolio of risks, and for valuing insurance books when it comes to buying or selling. The data that gets generated through the internet of things for example has huge potential to enhance insight and enable better pricing of products. In the insurance industry, like other industries, we are always on the hunt for active data that illustrates how customers live and make choices to solve the problems they are looking to solve in their lives – this data is harder to find and typically this is where big platform players do well.

LM:

We have seen companies, throughout the world and in South Africa, suffer huge and debilitating data breaches with customer data being either stolen or compromised- how should companies approach data protection?

AM:  

They should approach it with utmost seriousness and rigour. The financial risks are significant, and the brand damage associated with such compromises potentially ruinous.

Part 2

LM:

How do you define leadership, and what is its impact, on those being led?

AM:

The best imagery I have is someone holding a large mirror but instead of it facing them, that person holds it up to others to reflect how great those people are. For me leadership is the ability to evoke the human potential in others to do their best.

LM:

In your career, what did you experience of effective leadership and what was your experience of dysfunctional leadership?

AM:

Effective leadership evokes the human potential, inspiring people to achieve more and do more. I have also experienced dysfunctional leadership, which either focuses primarily on promoting itself at the risk of both the organisation and the people it is intended to lead or leadership that fails to act in the role, creating chaos in its midst because of indecision and the lack of direction and clarity that goes with it.

LM:

How would you describe your own leadership ethos or philosophy?

AM:

I respect leaders that have a good pulse on the market they serve and the people the lead. So, I tend to spend time engaging with people in different industries and reading up on such to get insights and perspectives. I also spend a lot of time with the people I lead, learning from them and engaging them on how we can make a difference through our business.

LM:

How can Organisations create a conducive environment for women to thrive, grow, develop, and succeed?

AM:

Organisations are battling with diversity and inclusion in the work environment in general, but the problem is especially acute when it comes to women. I think we should start by honouring the difference that women, bring instead of being indifferent to it, i.e. we need to acknowledge that women are different and celebrate the good in that. Secondly, we should value the greater role that women play societally, not as a hindrance to business but rather as a competitive enabler to understand customers better and therefore create a competitive edge. This perspective, i.e. valuing women in business as bringers of competitive advantage, will spur us to create work spaces that that attract women work instead of deterring them or forcing them to lessen their contribution.  

LM:

Do you personally think that as a woman leader you have extra responsibility to grow and nurture women, or do you think that expecting that would be an unfair burden on Women leaders?

AM:

Maya Angelou writes in her poem “Our grandmothers” that “I go forth alone and stand as ten thousand” and this is a representation for me that for me to be here many women and men had to pay the way forward.  So, for me the question is how not if, but how do I pay forward the gift bestowed to me? I see it as an honourable role to be part of the many that seek to see women rise as equals with men in all spheres of life to make a difference in our country.

LM:

As a woman Leader, do you think that you have to change the working environment to be more accommodating of a diverse workforce in terms of both gender and race?

AM:

I think when you have experienced hardship or the social ill of work environments that erode the value of workers (which I had during my years in articles and later in some of my corporate life) you evolve to saying, “this will not happen to another under my watch”. So yes, I think I must play an advocacy role for change that enables diversity, transformation and inclusivity in the work force for women and black people.

LM:

What leadership behaviours do we exhibit as leaders that destroy people’s careers, affect the morale of teams and make people leave our organizations?

AM:

I think leadership behaviours that are detrimental happen when leaders don’t take accountability for leading the execution of strategy, which leads to failure to achieve objectives resulting in the blame game -with some innocent people lower down typically paying the price. Leaders sometimes create a culture of fear in environments by making demands that are followed by threats or bullying tactics.  I have also experienced leaders who never acknowledge talent other than themselves and place the organisation at risk of losing great talent.

LM:

We have seen companies such as Steinhoff, Nkonki, KPMG, Bain, SAP, VBS, Gartner etc and many prominent executives being caught in huge scandals, how do we guide the next generation of leaders to avoid these kinds of ethical scandals?

AM:

I think the sad reality is that we are all fallible when it comes to power and wealth.  And this is a plight not only in business but in all spheres. It is because of this that I think the school curriculum should incorporate aspects dealing with ethics to strengthen the character of the very young and that should continue to tertiary education. For those already in leadership positions, I believe that the key lies in strong mentoring and coaching as well as the creation of a culture that instils ethical behaviour.

LM:

What has made you to remain grounded and centered throughout your corporate life?

AM:

Lincoln, I am not sure I am entirely grounded – I think I suffer as much as anyone from the ego that wants to take over. However, I surround myself with people who tell when I am out of line and I pray and ask God to help me become the character he would have of me.

LM:

We have seen both local and foreign business pledge to invest in South Africa, what conditions should government create to attract and retain such investments?

AM:

I think it is important to provide clarity of policies especially around the charters and nationalisation. Further priorities must be the eradication of corruption and service delivery on a more sustainable basis.

LM:

Should business be expected to play a role in socio economic development beyond paying its taxes and its corporate social responsibility efforts?

AM:

I think so. There should be a sustainability concern for all corporates – as the current challenging environment shows, it’s very difficult to outperform a stagnant economy.

LM:

What makes a role model, do you accept that each of us may be role models to others, and what responsibility comes with being a role model?

As soon as you take a leadership position you become a role model, people look to your actions and behaviour. You don’t afford yourself the title – it gets bestowed as a result of the role you play. I think knowing that is the case gives you a responsibility too.

Part 3

LM:

Who is Angela Mhlanga, beyond the corporate title and what defines her core values?

AM:

I am a mother of two children – one of my children has autism. My life journey has been focused on building a relationship with my creator so that I am able to live out His purpose in my life. This defines everything I long for – I believe that God‘s dreams for my life far exceed what I could ever dream of. This shapes my core values and sets the tone for my life.

LM:

Tell us a bit about your early years and what have been your biggest influences?

AM:

I was raised. My parents had a profound impact in my life. Through them I have always known I am truly loved especially by my creator, and with that I have been able to conquer most challenges. My father had great hopes for me and my brothers and set a vision that facilitated a private school education. My mother was the best supporter for my dreams and nurtured me all the way (she still does).  I have 3 brothers who have played pivotal roles as confidants and friends who have always had my best interests at heart.

LM:

You are not only a successful corporate leader, but also a doting Mum, tell us more about how do you balance your hectic schedule and time for your children?

AM: .

I love parenting – to be allowed to shape and impact another life –  that is a massive privilege. While I don’t think I have the balance yet, I do pursue it with intensity. I trade off certain activities to spend more time with my kids and I enjoy their company. Lincoln, as a single mom, I also learnt a long time ago to ask for help – I have about 4 other moms that help support me in raising my children (including my mother).  I have also ensured that, as much as possible, I choose work environments that nurture the importance of family as part of their value system.

LM:

What values do you try and instil in your children?

AM:

Love for God, Love of self and Love for their fellow man. My desire is also that they respect the value of hard work and that they have the courage to live out their purpose.

LM:

Your spirituality and faith have always been your strong anchors, how have you stayed true to these in our current corporate culture?

AM:

I believe that they stand side by side. I think that we are called to serve wherever we are – I happen to be in business and I get to influence so many people as a leader. I would think that it is a wonderful platform for others to experience the power of the God I serve through my works.

LM:

You and I have always discussed the need to remain authentic and true to yourself in a corporate environment, how have you remained so real and authentic?

AM:

By having people like you to keep me in line! Seriously though – I think as I said – my compass is set on becoming the person God has created me to be. I believe deeply that when I seek that out, that my life will manifest to its fullest. So, as I fall and rise in my attempts to stay true, I use that personal vision as my compass – I am still way off!

LM:

What advice would you give to your 17-year-old self?

AM:

Trust in God. You need all of your life time to become who you are meant to become – so enjoy the journey.

LM:

As you look ahead of your life, how would you like to measure your life?

AM:

The most important measure would be through my children – I would hope they have experienced the magnificence and love of my creator through my life with them.

LM:

Thank you so so much, there is not enough time to delve deeper in this conversation, I hope my audience will learn so much from it.

AM:

Lincoln, I have been enriched by your leadership over the years. So, I am most humbled that you asked me to have this conversation with you. Thank you.