Nine leadership questions for Gugu Mtetwa, Chief Operating Officer, Santam Insurance
Gugu Mtetwa has always enjoyed crunching numbers as much as she enjoys working with people. Her natural inclination as a career choice was therefore towards accountancy. After school she attended the University of Cape Town and studied to become a Chartered Accountant, after being awarded a scholarship by PwC, one of the world’s largest providers of professional services.
After successfully completing her studies, she went on to work for PwC’s insurance division as a trainee. A few years later, at the age of 28, she became a partner. In her last two years with the firm, she was appointed to PwC’s management team and her career took a turn towards the arena of transformation; promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. At this critical juncture Mtetwa began aspiring to become an agent for change and decided that her main priority, within any role, is to make a tangible difference in the lives and livelihoods of people.
After 12 years of service at PwC and a short sabbatical, she joined Vodacom, where she worked for the next 18 months. At this point she became a mother to her first child and decided to dedicate the next four years of her life to full-time parenthood, while also sitting on various listed company boards – one of which was Santam.
When she returned to full-time employment, she joined Allan Gray and headed up their Institutional Clients operations for the South African, Namibia and Bermuda funds – this role exposed her to duties that went beyond numbers, moving her closer towards the realm of operations. Just before COVID hit in 2019, Mtetwa decided to move to Cape Town. She joined Santam in February 2023 as Executive Head of Strategy and Investor Relations. In July 2023 she was appointed to her current role of Group Chief Operating Officer at Santam.
- For how long have you been with Santam as Group COO?
I was appointed to the role on 1 July 2023 and am pleased to report that I recently celebrated 100 days as the Santam Group COO.
- How have your previous roles within Santam and prior to joining Santam prepared you for this current role. Any challenges, highlights, or learnings that come to mind?
I remember starting out as a trainee Chartered Accountant and being advised by one of my partners that I should treat that three-year period as a mini-MBA as I had the opportunity to interact with CFOs of listed companies. It was a time of deep reflection as well as observation and study. I could observe how people worked, their problem-solving skills, and much more. This foundation ultimately shaped my career.
What stands out for me as one of the greatest principles I have learnt to practice, is courage. The late Maya Angelou referred to courage as the one trait that enables you to practice all other virtues. I internalised this philosophy from the get-go, and it served me well, especially because I was among the few women to fulfil prominent roles on multiple boards. Having the courage to shift the needle by advocating for change and promoting diversity and inclusion has since become a focal point of my career.
- What would you say are the top qualities of an effective leader?
I find it essential to acknowledge our shared humanity above all else. Despite the demands of work, the focus on profits, and the pursuit of targets, we must remember that, fundamentally, we are all human beings. This perspective guides my approach in treating everyone, regardless of their title or position, with a recognition of our shared humanity. The concept of ‘lifting as you rise’ is also integral to my leadership philosophy – ensuring that I contribute to enabling others to become leaders and realise their dreams. Therefore I measure my success as a leader by the number of leaders I have enabled.
- What would you say are Santam’s top priority areas for the next year?
Results will always be our priority. But we’re also navigating the dynamics of a relatively new leadership team and executive committee (ExCo). While some ExCo members have longstanding experience, we've also welcomed new executives into the fold. Our primary focus is clear: implement our refreshed strategy to foster business growth and the development of our people.
- As a leading global insurance brand, how do you attract and retain talent? And how can the insurance industry better retain talent and skills?
We have successfully run a graduate program for a number of years now, but recently I posed a question to the team: are we being recognised as the premier training ground for young graduates entering the industry?
As the largest short-term insurer in South Africa, it seems only fitting that we should be the go-to institution for developing actuarial talent. As we continue to invest in this program, our aspiration is clear – to be renowned not only as an employer of choice but as an organisation that actively contributes to the training and development of actuaries and other industry professionals, including CAs.
We are committed to caring for our employees in a holistic way, so our employee value proposition extends beyond the monetary aspect. As an example, our facilities are used to foster culture and inclusion with, for example, gender-neutral bathrooms, lactation rooms, nursing stations with on-site nurses and even a nail bar in some office locations. Our goal is to continue these efforts to enhance our employee value proposition by providing comprehensive care and support to our valued team members.
- How do you see technology playing a much more significant role in insurance product development and distribution in the next few years?
Historically, we have mainly been a broker-led business. Now we are putting additional focus on also maturing our direct channel and engaging directly with clients, especially those under 35 years old. This involves enhancing our digital offerings to meet evolving consumer expectations.
Additionally, our product lineup now includes modular options allowing customers to toggle insurance coverage on and off based on their specific needs, such as insuring a bike or pausing coverage while traveling.
- What would you point out as key areas of concern for the insurance intermediary for the next three to five years?
There seems to be a trend to view insurance as a commodity. This leads consumers to opt for the cheapest option, making it imperative for insurance intermediaries to be able to demonstrate their value. I believe it is crucial to emphasize that insurance is not a one-size-fits-all commodity, and the danger lies in making decisions solely based on cost without receiving proper advice and assessing the value of your insurance.
This approach may result in individuals missing out on accurate coverage tailored to their unique needs, ultimately leading to inadequate protection. I believe this could be a pertinent discussion point, considering the evolving dynamics within the insurance sector.
- If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would encourage myself to be bolder. My advice to my younger self would be to be bold and less afraid of the possibility of failure. It's okay not to be 100% ready; the key is to be courageous and willing to learn. It’s about embracing the journey and the lessons learned along the way.
- What is the one book you would recommend to your audience, and why?
In the context of this conversation, I would recommend ‘Unlimited Power’ by Tony Robbins – a book I read when I was about 15 years old. I remember discovering this book when Tony Robbins was featured on Oprah, and it left a lasting impression on me. The book conveys a powerful message that ultimately, our thoughts, beliefs, and efforts play a crucial role in shaping our reality. This perspective, introduced to me during my formative years, has stayed with me and continues to influence my outlook on life. I firmly believe that we have the ability to become the masters of our destiny.