Mary Vilakazi on her key focus areas as she takes the helm at FirstRand

‘I think consistency and continuation of the strategy is really what the team will focus on. Looking after what we have is key,’ the incoming CEO says.

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JIMMY MOYAHA: Yesterday FirstRand put out a statement announcing a couple of leadership changes that they’re looking to make within their various business units within the RMB business, the FNB business, and the FirstRand group at a group level. One of those changes is a historic change, because it’s the first time it has ever happened for FirstRand Group – and that is the appointment of their new CEO, Mary Vilakazi.

Read: Mary Vilakazi gets FirstRand top job

I’m joined on the line by Mary to take a look at that announcement. Ms Vilakazi, good evening. Thanks so much for taking the time. First and foremost, congratulations are in order on making history within the FirstRand group. How do you feel at this moment?

MARY VILAKAZI: Thank you for inviting me onto your show and thank you for the kind words. It’s a big responsibility, a big role I’ll be stepping into. I’m really grateful for the confidence shown in me by the board, entrusting me to lead an already successful institution.

And yes, the key is that I’m humbled and really grateful for the opportunity that’s been presented to me.

JIMMY MOYAHA: Earlier, I mentioned that it was historic, but it’s historic on a number of fronts. Not only are you the first female CEO for the FirstRand group, but you’re also the first black female CEO, and that’s a testament not only to [the group’s] ability to plan effectively when it comes to succession but also to the excellence that you’ve put into your career over the years. You’ve had a lengthy career with a number of corporates, including FNB and the FirstRand Group, before joining the group.

Would you say that this is going to be something that is a career-defining moment for you, and what are you most looking forward to about stepping into this role?

MARY VILAKAZI: I’d separate the two. That’s why I acknowledge the first, and I suppose in my career I’ve had a few firsts, but that actually doesn’t really have an impact on how I think about the role, because I think if that shapes how I think about the leadership I should provide to the organisation and my responsibilities, I would struggle to count the number of places to look back on.

So I think understand that it matters in society because people are looking for role models, and women are still underrepresented in senior positions, and I guess that’s meaningful.

But when it comes to our contributions as professionals, I think we’re all employed for our skills and the value that we can add in organisations, and I think that gender doesn’t really play a role there.

So that’s my philosophy when it comes to work, and so my responsibilities I must fulfil in accordance with the expectations of shareholders, employees and what society expects of us. I guess that’s really what should anchor what I focus on.

JIMMY MOYAHA: In terms of that focus, what would you say has been the key differentiator from FirstRand’s perspective in terms of succession planning? We’ve seen organisations locally, organisations internationally, struggle over the years with all sorts of challenges and those sorts of things. But FNB and the FirstRand Group seem to have the succession planning thing down to quite a science. If we look at just the statement that was put out yesterday, all of the promotions were almost internal, from within the group, within the business. As FirstRand, is that something that you guys actively have been focusing on over the last couple of years?

MARY VILAKAZI: Thank you for that question on succession planning. I’d say there are maybe two reasons why we’re probably able to achieve this outcome. One is our culture and our business philosophy of really making sure that talented people are given responsibilities. We know, from years of value creation and the linkage between people given space to create and build businesses, there have been successful businesses that have grown from the FirstRand stable.

So I guess the level of responsibility and the autonomy given to teams is really part of our DNA. And I guess the outcome of that is that it does produce people with experience, with scars from things that don’t work, and ultimately generating things that can work.

So I think there’s a space definitely for people to build a name for themselves.

And then I guess we don’t measure value or the outcome at high levels. We go quite far down in the organisation to appreciate people’s unique contribution. So that provides a space for visibility to leadership of the talent that’s within the organisation. I’d attribute that mainly to our culture and the way we engage with the businesses and the franchise.

And then the second thing is that there is a concept around time in the role, and we look often to ask if people have been long in a role. Is it time for change?


So even if when the business is doing well, I think if you go back and look at RMB, and if you look at some of what we’ve done internally in FNB, we talk about refreshing seats, or rotation. That allows for people to be given leadership responsibilities, it allows for people to tackle new challenges.

So I guess when you are constantly refreshing the leadership, [that] seeds discussions around succession and planning forward – who’s going to be there? If you move that, what else would this person do?

We do those on a regular basis, and of course, the board is quite diligent as well because I’m thinking about succession, and as part of their key responsibilities I guess then they would have a plan, I suppose, or [be] thinking around executive succession planning – which I haven’t had sight into. I’ve just been delivered the outcome of that process.

But I think largely that should give you a sense that succession planning is deeply embedded into how we operate and how we think about just internal management changes.

JIMMY MOYAHA: If we have to also look at this from a slightly different perspective, from a strategic point of view, you’ve been working closely with Alan Pullinger while he was CEO in terms of the business’s strategy and the overall executive leadership.

I remember when I spoke to Alan a couple of weeks ago around the results from the FirstRand Group, that spoke of a lot of consistency and a lot of reliability and a lot of stability within the FirstRand business.

As the incoming CEO and going forward, would the strategy objectives remain aligned with how the group has been operating? Obviously, you are still to settle into the role and there’s still a lot more that needs to be done with the handover between now and April next year. But would you say that it’s likely that the business’s strategy will continue to remain service-focused and take FirstRand forward in that light?

MARY VILAKAZI: I think your summary and your question are quite correct in the sense that FirstRand is a big organisation. It’s an institution with lots of businesses within our operating businesses and franchises. So [we have] lots of teams who work together on strategies, and they’ve been doing that for many years.

Fortunately, I have been part and parcel of many conversations where the strategies were formulated. So it’s really quite unlikely that, I guess, you end up with a CEO who can come and say ‘Okay, we are going into a dramatically different place’.

So I think one of the key objectives and responsibilities I have is to just steady the ship. I think Alan has handed over a business that’s really in good condition. I must make sure we look after key talent – that’s one of our greatest assets at FirstRand.

We look after customer franchises. I think competition is tough. The macros are not supportive, so looking after what we have is key.

And then the second part is that we’ve identified growth strategies. I think that they’ve been well articulated to our shareholders, and one of the key things we need to focus on is making sure the strategy execution on the identified areas of growth for us [happens]. And yes, I suppose we’ll come up with new management team energy.

Our role really is to come up with and identify areas in which we can add more value so that that will last. But I think consistency and continuation of the strategy is really what the team will focus on.

JIMMY MOYAHA: Well, we wish you all of the very best in your new role, all of the very best in all the new challenges that will come up. And, once again, hearty congratulations to you, ma’am. That’s Mary Vilakazi, who is the incoming CEO of FirstRand Group, set to take office around April 1, 2024.



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