No Transformation Without Creativity

by Natascha Zeljko

Worried about the future? Then you should read this interview with the transformation expert Vuyiswa M'Cwabeni. The Canadian/South African is Innovation & Technology Strategist at SAP and Supervisory Board Member at Wirecard and, what is more, a brilliant analytic mind and out of the box thinker

We are living in challenging times. What are the most important skills to help us to get through this crisis?  

One of the topics is around leadership and what it means to be an effective leader. There are some, who are extremely organized, resilient and have personal excellence and integrity. Others can be strong communicators, detail orientated or pay attention to the results. But what is close to my heart is strategy. I believe that this is by far one of the hardest skills for executives to truly wrap their heads around. This is something, that can’t be taught in school. It’s all about using creativity to prosper in times of uncertainty. I think that there are specific skills which leaders, managers, teams, individuals need. And the first one is learning how to deal with ambiguity and finding creative solutions. In uncertain times, you’re never going to have the full picture. Dealing with ambiguity is something that our chancellor government’s leadership teams are having to learn right now in overdrive. The second one is how you go about decision making and problem solving. There are all kinds of tools, such as scenario planning or variance analysis. But then, there’s also personal experience, like your gut feeling – does it work or not? This is going to stretch many companies. We just have to start getting used to that. This comes down to thinking on our feet and opening our minds. People need to be reading books and interviews like this or talk with experts and other companies tapping into their network. One can learn a great deal by these discussions. And then bring those capabilities back into the organization, because this will pass, we will adapt and move on. It’s a question of what can we learn and take away from this. And there is one thing, however, that hasn’t left us in this crisis – technology.

That’s an interesting point, because technology might be a differentiator compared to other crises we already went through…

All technology skills, such as coding or building applications are currently beneficial. SAP built an application for the German government to repatriate thousands of people, who were abroad just in few days. And of course, data scientists, who are key in a pandemic. They are helping us to control, analyze the spread, mitigate, etc. Lastly, looking at robotics and A.I., it’s clear that these can also be game changers. Robotics might be used for disinfection and testing vitals, especially in the age of social distancing. I think that the last few months reinforced the importance of technology and the role it will play in the future crises. It’s the responsibility of leaders, that whatever we do with technology, we should make it as human as possible.

Speaking of companies. Which ones would you say are in a good position to deal with the current situation?

There are some significant opportunities that are arising in industries as well as companies, that are facing unprecedented growth right now. The most obvious winners are those in the ‘stay at home’ economy. The video conferencing / collaboration providers are amongst the biggest winners in this trend. Cisco WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Linkando, which is a German startup, that my husband and I are heavily engaged in, are all in this collaboration space (Editor’s note: Recently, we published an interview with Vuyiswa’s husband Martin Krill, MD at Hager Unternehmensberatung). It takes me 130 kilometers each way to get to work. How much time do I lose every day when I’m commuting! How much carbon emission I’m putting in the universe! I think this is a huge lesson, personally for me, but also for many other people and it’s one that will not be unlearned quickly. I really think that the video conferencing or virtual communication players are here to stay. Another big winner is the home entertainment. Gaming industry has experienced an explosion. In China, which is very well known for its gaming love, they’ve recorded 222 million downloads from Apple store since February. That’s a 40 percent increase. There’s also Netflix – they will continue to reign supreme in video streaming. And we should also mention e-commerce. In unprecedented levels of unemployment, Amazon is hiring a hundred thousand people in positions across its fulfillment centers and delivery. In the e-commerce space, there’s also growth for companies like Wirecard. We are a payment provider, we’re the backbone. So every time those purchases are coming, it’s going through our platform. All of these online services are experiencing a huge boom. One last big area: the remote services. Let’s take, for example, DocuSign – you can easily send around documents remotely. I also find the tech health sector very thrilling. There’s Teladoc help, a company from the U.S., which connects patients with doctors for virtual appointments, so you don’t have to actually go to the doctor’s office. It’s cheaper, it’s more convenient and it’s a lot safer. The last area in remote services is online education and remote learning.

“There is one thing that hasn’t left us in this crisis – technology”

Which turns out, through Corona, is a weak point in Germany…

For the first three weeks, I really tried to push in my school to support the teachers and bring people to help. My husband and I are actively involved in a video conferencing / collaboration platform start-up here in Germany. There was a complete pushback for the first three weeks, but it did finally start with online courses. To be honest, I never thought I would see this in Germany, but when there is need, people will act. And that’s also a game changer. What happens now to higher education, when people see that maybe we don’t need to spend 30, 40 thousand on getting a degree, it can completely change the economics in this field. This is another big area that really is going to shift dramatically.

You dealt with the topics of innovation and strategy early on. What attracts you to the task the most?

Thinking outside the box. At the beginning, I talked about the strategy and linking it with creativity, and that’s exactly what I like about it. It’s also about working with the organizations and bringing people along. That’s why I’m not in finances. Here, one plus one is two. When we talk about transformation, one plus one starts when you get the blank piece of paper. You can start to recreate that equation, but at the same time you don’t want to stay too far in the clouds. It’s how do you take that big goal, and are able to break it down for the organization to get behind it. That’s what excites me.

We talk a lot about diversity these days. Why is this still going so slow – especially in Germany?

It’s 2020 and one would hope that the business case for diversity is clear for all. Unfortunately – it’s not. It continues to be a significant gap. When I first came to Germany, a black woman, I was looking left and right and I realized, that diversity was just non existent. Real diversity at the scale of what you would see in Canada, in the U.K. or living in Singapore does not exist here. At ninety five percent of the meetings I was the only woman. A great deal still has to be done, starting with early education all the way to universities.  The government also has a role to play. I’m quite lucky, I have a full time nanny, but this is not normal. What do you do, when you are required to travel? The kindergarten is only open until 12:30, it’s simply not possible to function like this. Therefore, education, companies and government really have to work together and make a shift.

“If you were to surround yourself with positive role models, you would learn how to be a positive example for others”

In order to change this, also from a society perspective, we need role models, who will show us that more women in leadership positions are normal. Did you have role models along your way?

Yes. I’ve been influenced by two individuals. She taught me to lead and he taught me how to play the game. They both showed me what was possible. They continue to be present in my life and to support me. Role models are very important, because there’s someone who you can look up to for their actions and what they’ve done. What is more, if you were to surround yourself with positive role models, you would learn how to be a positive example for others. For several years I’ve been a member of the organization ‘working moms’. Together with Rotary, we were working with children in disadvantaged areas, for example in Offenbach. At Realschule/Hauptschule level, we discuss with the kids want they want to do with their lives. I was talking with some young ladies and they were in disbelief that I was in IT. ‘How is that possible?’ ‘But your German is not good.’ ‘You don’t look like this and that.’ It was very hard to explain to them what I do. I met a Muslim girl and her parents didn’t think it was necessary for her to pursue a higher education, because she’s ultimately just going to be married. There was a German girl, who had very good grades, but she was being told that there’s no women in IT and that she would be too lonely. And it really clicked with me, that I had a platform and I could influence someone’s life. I call it my paying forward.

Talking about different culture – you’re from Canada and for many Germans this country is supposed to be the place to be. What is so special about it?

I grew up in Canada, but I’ve now been in Germany for 16 years so maybe I am too far from this. What I will say, is that around 2008 Canada truly was the flagship in terms of modern workplace and the participation of women. And when I arrived in Germany, I compared the role of women in the workplace to women in North America, in maybe 1960’s 1970’s. But if you look at the participation or representation of women in the workplace in Canada in comparison to Germany from 2008 until today, it’s been the opposite. Canadian women have been stepping out of the workplace. There’s been a complete backlash. While German women have been increasing in numbers in the workplace, maybe not as fast as we would like and not on all levels, but it’s been inverse. I see some of my close friends – investment bankers, consultants and they are taking that step out of the workplace.

Interesting. Why is that?

It’s still too early to say, but it is a trend. What I do think is, that one of the key differences when I compare Canada to Europe, especially to Germany, it’s about openness and a certain mindset. Canada is a land of immigrants, it has always been about ‘new’, it’s a completely different mentality. The government in 2018 in Canada built a new agency and its purpose was to connect all the different government entities. They were going to do a completely new IT infrastructure in the Cloud, because they recognized the benefits. Today if you talk about Cloud everyone wants to talk about security. They’re stuck in the discussion and nothing is happening and we’re still as inefficient as possible. It’s this notion of openness, whether it’s trying the new technology and new best practices and learning from mistakes. All of these are still not necessarily earmarks of how the German culture functions. 

You are on the Supervisory Board of Wirecard. What is your specific role?

I’ve now been on the supervisory board for four years. And I am chair for the HR Nomination and Remuneration Committee and also a member of the Risk and Compliance Committee.

I don’t think we will have gender parity until everybody’s cooperating. We are not a special interest group. We represent 52 percent of the population.

2016 was the year when the advisory boards quota was implemented for listed companies. What is your take on this? Should we also have a quota for executive boards?

Yes. It really baffles me why it’s even a discussion. The intention was right to put the quota. Unfortunately, it met reality. We have a legal requirement, which says that on the supervisory board level, 30 percent representation of women is needed. It also requires that companies set targets for women on the executive board and two levels below. We can’t hide what happens at the Supervisory and Management Board. Looking at the supervisory board, we’ve made progress in Germany, as prior to 2016 it was under 20 percent. Now there has been some movement. However, in many cases, companies have done the bare minimum. It also amazes me, that we implemented this zero quota notion. Why even bother then? 70 percent of listed companies have set the target to zero, so they don’t need to do anything. As a consequence, progress in really diversifying your pipelines had been much slower than expected. In Germany, DAX companies have only 9 percent representation. It’s disturbing. I don’t think we will have gender parity until everybody’s cooperating. We are not a special interest group. We represent 52 percent of the population. If we are to restore the balance and make changes in the culture, we need to take such measures. Instead, we’ve been sabotaged with notions of zero quotas. This must be abolished. We must hold companies to a much higher level of accountability and ensure that the two layers underneath the board are creating the pipeline.

How do you tackle this at Wirecard?

When I started at the supervisory board, there were three gentlemen. We came in as two women and we went up to five. Shortly after we hired two more women. Today, we have 50 percent representation. This may change in the future but there is common agreement in the Board on finding more women. My goal is to find the best candidate, regardless of the sex.

What is your perspective for the future? Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the next five to 10 years?

I like the quote from Harvey Mackay: “When you wake up every day, you have two choices. You can either be positive or you can be negative. I choose to be an optimist, because it’s all about a matter of perspective”. The other day – I was serving breakfast – my son asked: “Mama, is the glass half full or half empty?”. And I said that I don’t care, because I have the jar and when it’s done, it’s going to be full again. So, it’s all a matter of perspective. I have a great deal of faith. I am here, because I have luckily had the right role models, I’ve had the right parents. I’ve had the right partner to support me and my God, who’s been willing to bless me, up to this point. And so I can only be an optimist.

This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and Hager Unternehmensberatung. The company, which specializes in executive search, has repeatedly been named one of the best personnel consultancies in Germany by the magazines WirtschaftsWoche and Focus. Hager Unternehmensberatung employs around 110 people and, in addition to its extensive know-how in the field of digitalization, is also considered a specialist in issues relating to diversity and innovation.

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