Avis CIO Sello Lehong says technology must keep pace with people’s changing needs

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Sello believes CIOs must lead that journey – especially in a technology-led company.

In the early 1990s, Avis CIO Sello Lehong would travel with his father to boarding school in Limpopo. It was an opportunity for the two to bond and talk, and on one such car trip, a conversation sparked Sello's interest in technology.

Says Sello:

“My father said to me, out of the blue, that computers will become the fibre of our existence, and every aspect of our lives will be touched by them.”

For teenage Sello, that car conversation planted a seed of curiosity, and he started investigating what jobs were possible in IT. He found himself drawn towards software development, and straight after completing high school he knew what he wanted to study: a BSc in Computer Science.

Sello would go on to complete his Honours at the University of Pretoria in 2004; before that, he landed his first job as a programmer at Telkom. His IT experience would subsequently include working for SOEs such as Eskom and the CSIR, and he'd eventually move into the corporate space as digital strategy advisor at Microsoft.

By this time, he had obtained his Master of Business Leadership from UNISA. He then became involved with enterprise logistics and architecture at Barloworld. This would set him on his path to where he is today: CIO at Avis Southern Africa.

According to Sello, the biggest challenge that CIOs face is how to digitally transform and deepen that transformation rapidly and continuously. With large organisations, this comes down to leapfrogging the transformation that you, as CIO, want, while at the same time taking care of embedded legacy technologies. For Sello, CIOs need to be ambidextrous.

“We have to ensure that legacy systems continue to provide the organisation with what it needs. But we also need to experiment with innovative technologies and business models to be ahead of the curve,” he explains.

“If you only focus on legacy without transforming digitally, you are going to be left behind,” he adds. “It’s a balance that needs to happen at the same time; ambidexterity is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

CIOs must now perform a technical and a strategic business role. They also need to guide how technology will impact the day-to-day operations of the business and its competitiveness. But, according to Sello, a business today must have technology at its centre – and all businesses, no matter the industry, are technology-led companies.

“That moves the dial a lot,” says Sello. “For Avis, we are a technology-led mobility company. As the mobility needs of people change, technology will have to keep pace. CIOs must lead that journey.”

Sello predicts that businesses will succeed or fail depending on their ability to rapidly respond technologically to what's going on in the market. “If you can't provide the capabilities that customers need, when they need them, your company won't survive,” he cautions. “You must have a response centred in technology; you fail there, you’ll fail everywhere.”

He emphasises that, along with being technology-first, businesses need to be customer-centric – and digital transformation is propelled by customers’ expectations. He points out that at Avis, 80 percent of customers now prefer a digital contract as opposed to a hard copy.

“Without customers, we don't have a business,” says Sello. “A large percentage of my time is spent focusing on how we can simplify how customers engage with the company, and how the process can be as smooth as possible.”

Avis has also found that many customers don’t want to own a car anymore. Instead, they want access to a mobility service that goes beyond e-hailing, which is why the company has started offering a subscription service that gives people on-demand access to a variety of vehicles.

Sello adds that Avis is not a car rental company; it's a mobility services company. The mobility services space will continue to be disrupted, he says, but it depends on how companies like Avis respond to that disruption.

For Sello, all companies should obsess over their customers and what they need, instead of obsessing over what their competitors are doing.

“The customer is king, and queen. If we focus on them, we’ll always have a business.”

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