Sanlam’s Ashley Singh is a business leader with a technology war chest

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Improving your leadership and business skills makes you a well-rounded CIO, he says.

Ashley Singh, chief information officer (CIO) at Sanlam Corporate, knew he wanted to work in IT from the start. “I’ve always been interested in technology, so studying in that field was a no-brainer,” he says.

Ashley recalls that even in high school, studying computers was a privilege: few public schools offered computer studies as a subject, and you had to pull up your socks to get into that class, he says.

Ashley went on to study a BSc in computer science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal after finishing matric, and says he was a hardcore techie from the start, completing every certification available at the time. However, he felt the need to bridge the gap between business and leadership and decided to pursue an MBA and an honours degree in leadership from Stellenbosch University.

“I didn’t want to fall into the technology trap where you do IT for IT’s sake,” he notes. “You also need to be a well-rounded business leader.”

As such, Ashley now considers himself a business leader with a technology war chest – not only as a CIO. He is passionate about continuous learning and currently busy with a Sanlam Agile Leadership course in collaboration with Harvard Business School.

Technology for change

Over and above a love for technology, Ashley has altruistic reasons for getting into the technology sphere. “I fundamentally believe that technology can change the world: it can solve world hunger, promote world peace, and create employment opportunities,” he says. “It excites me to know that my craft and skill set hold that amount of power, but you have to yield and channel that power in the right places, and that’s what I try to achieve at Sanlam Corporate for our members and policyholders, in making their lives better.”

Insurance is often viewed as a grudge purchase upfront, he says, “but in that point of need, when you need to retire or have a health risk – and most recently with Covid-19 – the ability to live with confidence is provided. As insurers we are there to cater for those needs, and the fact that technology plays an important part in that journey makes it even better.”

Leadership fatigue

One of the most significant effects of the Covid-19 pandemic was the halting of the previous two years; as a result, people and businesses wanted to get back on the horse – at full speed this year – but with that came burnout, particularly among employees. However, the leaders are less often discussed in this regard. Ashley offers the following advice to CIOs who may be experiencing burnout.

“Having purpose and clarity of what we want to do is very important,” he says, “not in terms of clarifying the every detail, but looking at it from this perspective: if you have a north star and know what goal you are headed towards, it then becomes about how you prioritise your day, work, and strategy, and if a CIO can have clarity in their north star, that would help tremendously.

“From an employee perspective, teams are experiencing burnout because they don’t have a tap-out like they used to before. We are literally on the clock 24 hours a day, especially with our hybrid models of working, but there is only so much work we can accomplish in a day,” he adds.

According to Ashley, teams are over-filling their cups with work, but the real question is: are we as leaders allowing them to fill their cup with work that is meaningful and adds value to the organisation?” he asks.

“We need to firstly understand what that north star is for ourselves as leaders, and this also applies to our teams as well: to get this clarity in order to prioritise work effectively.”

Solving big problems

Ashley is just as passionate about technology as he is about solving world problems and says that if he were not in IT, he’d be solving these issues through medicine.

“In a different life, I would probably be in the medical field: I believe that there are major advances that can be explored from a medical perspective that can cure things like Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/Aids and create Covid-19 vaccines. Therefore, I would have liked to play a role in the medical field, not as a GP, but as an extreme specialist.”

And as far as choosing the right career in your youth is concerned, it’s not about chasing financial reward, it’s about chasing your passion, and “getting paid to play”, as Ashley puts it. But there’s more: “Never underestimate the effort of hard work, and not cutting corners. Sweat and discipline, particularly for the young and hungry, can unlock many doors – passion, determination and hard work are a formidable combination,” he says.

He also highlights that at senior or executive level, authenticity will always be a winner. “Never copy another leader, but rather chart your own path and develop your own style and be different.”

According to Ashley, CIOs should be prioritising a few things in 2023. Seeing themselves as business leaders in the coming year is one of them, second, paying close attention to the modernisation of technology to unlock business value (e.g., cloud, robotics or AI), managing costs as IT is a huge expense in many organisations, and finally, innovation.

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