Old Mutual's May Govender places technology and business on an equal footing

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Old Mutual group CIO May Govender’s professional growth is defined by a relentless pursuit of diverse experiences and an insatiable ambition to broaden her horizons. She does this by navigating and mastering change, and focusing on innovation in her field.

From the outset of her impressive career, May Govender’s trajectory was set towards making a substantial impact in the world of IT. She started her career as an IT lecturer, teaching the foundations of IT and coding and went on to become the principal of PC Training and Business College, laying the foundation for a remarkable journey in academia and technology.

After her tenure in education, she made a strategic move to the corporate world in 2003 by working with CS Holdings. During this period, she was exposed to multinational organisations and started to create and actively engage her networks. “I used to train major corporates like British Tobacco, Absa and Transnet on a variety of technology courses like Microsoft products, Lotus Notes, and A+.

In her quest for self-discovery and career alignment, May sought out a multitude of roles, exposing herself to different sectors and corporate environments. She explains: “This was a conscious effort to discern my true passion, strengths, and areas where I could make the most impactful contributions. Each transition represented a valuable learning opportunity, allowing me to explore my interests, refine my skill set, and understand the nuances of different industries.”

The financial services frontier

Embracing a new direction, May joined Standard Bank and entered the intricate landscape of corporate investment banking, where she embarked on the crucial task of overseeing and implementing fundamental financial systems and their core infrastructure, notably within the forex and Swift ecosystem. These implementations were instrumental in enhancing the bank’s operational efficiency and elevating its capabilities in managing international transactions and financial operations.

She then made significant strides at Absa where she assumed a pivotal role in advancing the customer experience. May led the charge in the deployment of cash deposit devices within branches, a transformative initiative that streamlined and modernised the way customers interacted with the bank and reduced the footprint within the branches. This forward-thinking approach not only improved customer service but also underscored her capacity to drive innovation and efficiency within financial institutions.

May’s tenure at Standard Bank, as CIO for data and analytics, stands as a testament to her exceptional abilities in driving transformative initiatives within the organisation. Being selected as one of the 16 individuals earmarked for future executive positions underscored the recognition of her proficiency in effecting substantial change and leading pivotal projects. This acknowledgment propelled her into roles of increasing importance and responsibility.

During this period May decided to pursue an MBA at Henley Business School, which she completed in 2014. It was in an intentional move to expand her skill set and knowledge base beyond the realm of technology, and help propel her business and commercial knowledge in preparation for becoming a CIO that was not just technical focused but understood the business and financial implications of decisions made.

Within the organisation, May was entrusted with critical group functions, including leading the integration systems and transforming a once federated capability to a group capability. Moreover, she was also at the helm of managing the channel stability which spanned across both the physical and digital domains.

Mastering the art of transformation

May was also part of the leadership team that drove the data transformation in the organisation by supporting the build of the data governance, framework and structures, a role that she states that allowed her to gain insights and knowledge on data and analytics that contributed to her success in future roles.

In her reflection on this transformative phase, May emphasises the evolving role of technology within organisations. Her perspective highlights the imperative for businesses to leverage technology in a strategic and innovative manner, propelling them to leapfrog and stay ahead in an increasingly competitive market.

“I firmly believe that setbacks are stepping stones to success, and I impart this resilience-focused perspective to my mentees.”

May was then poached by Tyme Bank.

“With Tyme Bank in the mix, my experience took an interesting turn. I found myself having to build new capabilities like security, payments, and digital channels from scratch. This required me to think about the people, processes and technologies and consider how this will evolve over time and make decisions today that will impact tomorrow,” she explains.

After her short stint at Tyme, she then took on a role as CIO for Payments and found herself needing to initiate payments from scratch. "As a result, I embarked on organising and crafting what I coined ‘regulated payments’ and ‘emerging payments’.”

Emerging payments encompassed facets such as instant money transfers, real-time payments, and value-added services like data and airtime. May explains that essentially, this culminated in a comprehensive portfolio that spanned card and payments within a group capability, arguably one of the most expansive portfolios within the organisation.

“This entailed overseeing issuing cards, collaborating with major players like Mastercard and Visa, managing acquisitions involving POS devices across distribution channels, and overseeing regulated and emerging payments – all under the umbrella of a broader group capability that seamlessly interfaced with various business lines."

The vision

May moved to Old Mutual because she saw it as the next step in her career. “Being a holistic CIO means transcending the traditional boundaries of IT leadership. It involves not only having a mastery of technical intricacies but also possessing the acumen to navigate the intricate world of business operations,” she says.

May’s commitment to this vision underscores her belief in the indispensable role of technology as an enabler and driver of business success. Her vision reflects the recognition that, in today's fast-paced and interconnected world, technical leadership cannot exist in isolation but must be intricately interwoven with a profound understanding of the broader business context.

She wants IT to take its rightful place in the business and says, “When I talk to my colleagues, I emphasise that we're all part of the same organisation. However, my role is distinct – I focus on ensuring the organisation’s technological advancement. I make sure that technology is leveraged effectively to propel the organisation forward. In this capacity, I have an equal say at the decision-making table.”

Her goal is to emphasise that technology is increasingly crucial in enhancing the organisation’s unique offerings. “It’s about driving a fundamental leap forward for the organisation. That's why I advocate for technology not being viewed merely as a service provider, but as an equal partner that advises, guides, and ensures a deep understanding of the business."

Shaping future leaders

May's aspiration is clear – she aims to become the translator between technology and business, a role that requires not only technical proficiency but also the ability to communicate complex technical concepts in a way that resonates with business stakeholders.

“By doing so, I can create a symbiotic relationship between technology and business, where both entities could work in tandem to achieve organisational goals and innovation,” she says.

Throughout her journey, May has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to nurturing and guiding aspiring professionals, sharing her wealth of knowledge and experiences through active engagement in mentorship programmes.

She encourages autonomy and critical thinking in her mentees, instilling in them the confidence to make informed decisions and take ownership of their projects. By emphasising ethical decision-making, she sets a high standard for integrity and professionalism, reinforcing the importance of conducting oneself with principles and values at the forefront.

One of the central tenets of May's mentorship philosophy is embracing challenges and failures as valuable learning experiences.

“By doing so, I try to nurture a mindset of perseverance and determination in them,” she says.

This interview was originally published in the second edition of the 2023 CIO Magazine. Read it here

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