Our challenges become our testimonies, says Wilma Crosson

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She believes that there’s great value in sharing your hardships – there’s always someone who can relate.

Wilma Crosson, CIO at Volkswagen Financial Services South Africa (VWFS SA) sits in a very interesting position. She works in two male-dominated industries: the automotive and IT industries. However, she doesn’t see it that way.

“I no longer view it in that way, and that’s because I have walked the journey through my career,” she says. “I was once approached by a woman in the industry who was so despondent, because she felt like in most settings, she stood out like a sore thumb – in the boardroom, for example,” she recalls. And Wilma’s advice was simple: “You need to look at it in a different way. At the end of the day, we are just like-minded peers. You need to be confident and be present,” she said. “You might feel intimidated and hold back, only to realise that you could be the smartest person there.”

In her role as CIO at VWFS SA, Wilma is mainly responsible for the digital transformation of the business, but she wears more hats. “My responsibilities go beyond the ones I have as CIO, and that’s because in smaller organisations, you become a jack of all trades,” she explains. “And when you reach the senior level, as the executive you are representing all spheres of the organisation at any given time. My day and responsibilities can change in an instant, and this is the part I enjoy the most about my role,” she continues.

What does the CIO title really mean?

Wilma agrees that the CIO role has evolved over the years, using the multiple hats CIOs wear as an example. She finds it difficult to pinpoint what being a CIO actually entails. “I have had this debate with various people, and I gave a simple example: if I look back at what I was originally employed for, only 10 percent of what I do today accounts for that, and the other 90 percent has completely evolved,” she says. CIOs are typically focused on “keeping the lights on”, but she believes that the role has evolved and CIOs are outsourcing their business-as-usual activities, to free up their time to concentrate on transforming the business with emerging and newer technologies and processes.

“From a VWFS SA perspective, there are grey lines between the CIO, CDO, COO and LISO roles, only because the size of the organisation allows for this, but the functions are nonetheless needed. It is absolutely important for you to stay relevant and flexible, as you are then able to produce the right results,” she notes.

“In fact, as far back as four years ago, CIOs should have made the transition to a more digital role. Moreover, were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic, there would not have been that quick leap to digital. We would still be doing the business-as-usual activities of keeping the lights on. And not focused on what digital can mean to your business.

“I need to treat the organisation as my own personal business,” she says, adding that VWFS SA is currently undergoing a huge digital transformation journey, and this is where she fits in – focusing on that and leaving the business-as-usual to the experts.

“We are in an era where our customers are more digital, our competitors are more digital and our employees are more digital. To ensure that VWFS SA stays on top, we needed to transform our business to be more digital,” she says. “As part of the digital transformation journey in VWFS SA we are focusing on a few initiatives that ensure the customer journey becomes a more digitalised experience, providing more products on a more digital platform and so much more.”

After completing her accounting qualification and two years of working in the field, Wilma decided to put the number crunching on hold and take a chance on a career in IT. “I quickly realised that accounting wasn’t the end goal, and at the time I wanted out, an opportunity arose with a lady who headed up a division in the IT department,” Wilma says. “I was her end-user and she saw potential in me, and offered to train me.”

She felt it necessary to support her training with an IT qualification, but due to several factors couldn’t complete her studies, however, she kept herself relevant through the years by completing several courses to continuously improve her capabilities.

According to Wilma, while education and self development is quite important, the true calibre of a person should not be measured by academic record solely, or the amount of theory they can regurgitate. “It’s about what you do when the rubber hits the road: thinking on the fly, asking the right questions, coming up with solutions and getting people to think differently, which is something you can’t learn only from a textbook,” she says.

“Most of my learnings also came from good, strong managers who pushed me and grew me to be the best version of myself, which is why supporting women is so important, especially at the rate senior women are leaving their careers in corporate due to the work-life balance becoming too demanding.”

Wilma has had an incredible, successful career and ascended to the top through grit, determination and resilience. However, there’s an even bigger legacy she wants to leave behind. As she looks back at her career, she would like to say that she has made a difference in people’s lives. “I want to use my experiences, the forums that I belong to and started, to influence girls who are starting the STEM journey,” she concludes.

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