Johnson recently completed Havard’s prestigious C-suite level programme.
Johnson Idesoh, CIO at Old Mutual, has recently completed Harvard’s prestigious C-suite level programme. He is among 162 executives who participated in the 202nd session of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management programme, a blended programme that can be completed with a mix of full-time, live online or on-campus learning.
The seasoned operations and technology executive expressed his gratitude for having participated and ultimately being able to complete the programme, saying, “I feel humbled to have been able to participate in the programme that is so diverse in terms of participants and their backgrounds. And of course, I feel happy to have graduated. It is a real sense of achievement.”
He says that his passion for education and continuously upskilling himself was what inspired him to enter the programme. “I believe in lifelong learning, and that this is becoming more and more important in a world that is changing increasingly faster,” he says. “I do feel that it is important for everyone to go through periods of reflection and renewal.”
I was particularly attracted to this programme because of the quality of the faculty and the diverse backgrounds of the participants. “The faculty were world class, and I was not disappointed,” he adds
Johnson reflected on some of the learning areas that were covered in the programme, including leading strategic change and innovation, the leader strategist, cognition, ethics and negotiation, leadership, and corporate responsibility, competing in the age of AI, and courageous leadership. However, three areas stood out the most to him on a personal level and were also the most relevant in the South African context.
“At the macro level, we live in a period of time when the rate of change will never be this slow again – we see and feel it around us – Web 3.0 and the Metaverse, changing consumer expectations across all industries, the geopolitical shifts between the West and the East, and the transition from fossil fuels does mean that change is accelerating,” he notes.
“At the country level – I’d say this for every country in Africa – we have to significantly increase digital access and digital skills. The digital and physical world merge, and we must ensure sections of our population are not left behind, as that will perpetuate low economic growth and high unemployment, which destroys the life chances of our people and the economic health of our country. Our fortunes are all intertwined, so we must all act,” he continues.
At the personal level, Johnson says, “The key takeaway is the focus on purpose; my own purpose as a person, as the CIO at Old Mutual and as Old Mutual. Successful organisations are driven first by purpose, which is in service of their customers. Do this well, and they make decent profits, decently.”
This experience has been of great value, Johnson noted, and he has not wasted any time applying what he learned at Harvard back here at home. “This has already started, we are digitising Old Mutual, and that is not a technology challenge. We can get the technology, but it is a challenge for our human system – both within Old Mutual and with our partners,” he says. “I am already applying learnings on strategic change to this.”
He points out that as a technologist, the course on digital transformation was also invaluable, with examples of pharmaceutical companies who describe themselves as “technology companies who happen to do pharmaceuticals”, and financial service companies with a “finance and technology” strategy.
“While I am always the one who says ‘focus on outcomes’, we must do so using the best technology available to us: this is how we remain our customers’ first choice and remain sustainable. We must also stop thinking about technology as displacing humans: we are entering the period of humans and technology.”
He describes the work required to complete the course as a gruelling uphill battle, where at times he felt overwhelmed, but he persevered, nevertheless. “At times it felt like drinking from a firehose with so much information coming at you,” he says. “Each day involved three or four case studies, each 40 pages long, with preparation and reflection before and after.”
He points out that each case study is based on an actual company and so putting oneself into the case study as an actor, not an audience member, was critical. The engagement with fellow participants from diverse backgrounds was also an enriching experience.
Another valuable part of the programme is an opportunity for executives who occupy similar positions to gain knowledge from each other and apply that knowledge when they return to their respective organisations.
“I was fortunate enough to have engaged with participants from all walks of life, some from corporates (like me), others from not-for-profit organisations, government and even the military,” he notes. “What I learnt is that overwhelmingly, this group of leaders are purpose-driven, ethical, and doing what they believe to be right. In a time when we have such a low opinion of leadership generally and suspicion that corporate leaders especially are driven only by profit, for me this was extremely refreshing and hopeful.”
Johnson's view on work/life integration is that it changes: “It’s different from one person to the next; balance for one person is imbalance for the other,” he says. He suggests accepting that only you can manage this and when you do so, it is actually liberating. “Be disciplined, set boundaries, be clear and communicate your boundaries,” he advises.
“I have found that humans respect this, so prioritise deliberately and once you determine if something is a priority, then ask yourself this question: ‘Why am I uniquely qualified to do this?’ Often, we spend our time on things we are not the best qualified to do,” he notes.
“Finally do something every day that gives you joy – it is good for your wellbeing, and you can’t be the best version of you if you don’t prioritise your own wellbeing,” he concludes.