Nine leadership questions for Jeanette Marais, incoming GCEO, Momentum Metropolitan
As the incoming Group CEO of Momentum Metropolitan (effective 1 Aug 2023), Jeanette has a strong track record of building profitable businesses at various financial institutions. As current Group Deputy CEO, she has executive oversight over a portfolio of businesses, including Momentum Investments, Momentum Distribution Services, Consult by Momentum and Momentum Money. She has filled multiple roles within Momentum after starting her career at the company in 1990, such as in actuarial product development, marketing and as part of the team that launched Momentum Administration Services, pioneering investment platforms in South Africa.
Jeanette has also filled executive-level positions at PSG, Stanlib, and Old Mutual before joining Allan Gray in 2009 as co-head of the Retail business, where she was executive director. With an Executive MBA from the International Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a BSc degree from the University of the Free State, Jeanette remains passionate about the upliftment of women and making financial services accessible to all South Africans.
- For how long have you been the GCEO of Momentum Metropolitan?
I joined Momentum Metropolitan as Deputy Group CEO in 2018, and my official start date as Group CEO is 1 August 2023.
- You have been within Momentum Metropolitan since 2018 working close to Hillie Meyer, the outgoing CEO. How did this position prepare you for the role you are about to assume? .... Any challenges, highlights, or learnings?
I also worked closely with Hillie in the 1990s, when I was his Executive Assistant for two years, and we worked closely together on a project to redefine service levels in the Life Insurance industry and turn Momentum into a force to be reckoned with. Hillie is an exceptional leader and everyone who has had the privilege of working with him, will single him out as an inspirational leader without ego. Hillie is best known for his walk-abouts, where he would stroll through the office to just connect with people, sit next to call centre agents and learn from what they are dealing with. Hillie has removed physical barriers in the office, such as walls, doors, and glass dividers, as a symbol of his accessibility. He is one of the most accessible leaders I know – he gets personally involved to resolve employee or client issues.
Although I have worked for different companies since leaving Momentum, coming back to the Group in 2018 felt like coming home. Together with the executive leadership team, I worked closely with Hillie to refocus the strategy and streamline the structure to execute on the strategy. I have learnt from Hillie how positive energy can be unleashed when good leaders are empowered and enabled. I am excited to continue to work with the leadership team to further harness the company’s strong brands and talented people, and to successfully execute our growth plans.
- What would you say are the top qualities for effective leadership?
A quote that has stood out to me during my career is one by businessman Jack Welch that says “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Leaders understand that people are their force multipliers; when they surround themselves with individuals who each harness their full potential, that team can achieve more than they ever imagined possible. Therefore, effective leaders invest in the unique abilities of individuals to foster successful teams with a competitive spirit. They stretch their teams to do better, they’re relentless in driving high standards, but they also cultivate a sense of belonging in their teams. When people have a sense of ownership and love, working towards a common goal comes easily.
Secondly, effective leaders bring their authentic selves to the workplace and their areas of influence – thereby making the biggest and best difference that they possibly can. If you try to fit into a mould designed by or designed for someone else, you will probably not be very influential or successful and you will be wasting your energy on the wrong things. More importantly though, you will not feel fulfilled, nor will you be motivated to achieve your personal success. Bring your own magic to the table!
Lastly, effective leaders are driven by a bigger purpose – it is not about them, it is about the bigger purpose of the team, and in our business, it is ultimately about making our clients’ worlds better.
- What would you say are Momentum Metropolitan’s top priority areas for the next year?
I was there every step of the way when we developed our “Reinvent and Grow” strategy that will still run until 2024. I deeply believe in our current direction and my new role will not derail us from the existing targets we must achieve and the promises we made to the market. The first part of my focus will be to ensure that we keep our promises and deliver on the very specific targets we had set to grow existing channels, establish new channels, accelerate digital growth and focus on product and service leadership.
The second part that would be enabled by this stable strategic foundation, would be to drive the common purpose that binds all our businesses together, namely serving our clients.
- As one of the leading insurers in SA, how do you attract and retain talent?
The pandemic significantly changed the world of work and companies had to adapt quickly. At Momentum Metropolitan we #ThinkHumanFirst, which means we consider each employee as a holistic human being and we harness new and better ways to bring out the best in people. For us, this means a company-wide focus on providing the tools and flexibility, plus digital support, to help employees enhance their productivity and performance while prioritising their wellbeing. This includes helping employees deal with everyday life and juggling both their work and personal lives. We also follow a hybrid model, where not all employees come to the office all of the time – your presence in the office is dictated by what your role or projects require. Lastly, and very importantly, our positive culture creates a place of belonging, where employees form long-lasting and meaningful relationships with each other.
- Technology now plays a bigger part in how business is conducted in the modern world. Do you see this as the case in the insurance industry?
The evolution of various technologies has fundamentally shifted how people live and behave and, as a result, changed their expectations of financial services. This has led to significant opportunities to leverage new technologies for efficiency and to positively change the way in which we provide insurance and serve the day-to-day needs of clients. A recent example of this is our revolutionary new screening innovation and discount mechanism, called LifeReturns®. It’s a first in the life insurance industry and uses available smartphone screening technology for analysing light reflected from facial skin to measure health risk factors used in life insurance underwriting, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen and stress levels – all within a 90-second mobile screening session. Through this innovation, Momentum Life streamlines the underwriting process and enables immediate confirmed discounts on clients’ life insurance premiums, making life insurance easier, more accessible, and more affordable.
Other examples include how clients access advice and products in more flexible and affordable ways, and with easier service paths to information and claims. Additionally, greater opportunities to access and use data enables us to identify and mitigate risks such as fraud, improving the industry for clients and providers. What hasn’t changed, is that insurance is about providing peace of mind and surety, and all innovations that leverage technologies must ultimately serve this key need – technology is the supporting player to our clients’ experience and outcomes.
- What would you point out as key areas of concern for the insurance industry (either life or non-life) in the next three to five years?
I am worried about the financial state of our clients. Due to the current political climate, stagnant economy, loadshedding and high interest rates, South Africans are struggling financially. This impacts their ability to insure and invest and that directly impacts our business. It’s critical that we remain as efficient as possible and provide low-cost or flexible alternatives so that our clients can remain insured and invested. The private sector also plays an important role in positively impacting society through driving sustainable businesses, uplifting society through their CSI initiatives, and working with government to drive positive change.
- If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self-one piece of advice, what would it be?
Start saving for retirement now! Or if you meant career advice, I would say: Roll up your sleeves and showcase your willingness to work hard and stretch yourself continuously. Your qualification will get you a foot in the door, but your grit, perseverance, stamina, positive attitude and your ability to build relationships are what will set you apart. Stand for something, be known for something, stand out from the crowd!
- What is the one book you would recommend to your audience, and why?
The top business book I can recommend is Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game. This book made an impression on me because it showed me that everything is infinite. Striving to become a CEO is a finite goal. Then when you become CEO, the goal posts shift and now you want to be the best-ever CEO. Even if you have these finite goals, everything is still infinite. If you pin all of who you are and your happiness on a finite goal, you’ll never reach it because by the time you get there, the goal posts would have shifted again. I’ve read the book about five times because it encourages me to focus on leaving a legacy. What will I be remembered for? Instead of aiming for becoming CEO, it should be about the state in which I leave the organisation and how people will feel about the contribution I made to their lives. If you pin everything on finite goals, you’ll never reach them. But you can almost reach infinity in growth, in being a decent human being and in being a leader.