Interview with Jeanette Marais, the first female CEO of Momentum Metropolitan

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Interview with Jeanette Marais, the first female CEO of Momentum Metropolitan

Feb 28, 2024 | Interviews

Momentum Metropolitan has appointed Jeanette Marais as Group CEO effective 1 August 2023, making her the first female CEO of a large, listed life insurance and asset management group in South Africa.

Jeanette believes there isn’t just one thing that makes a good leader. Different businesses require different types of leaders and leadership styles at different points in their journeys. The leader Momentum needed four years ago when they brought her back is not the same kind of leader they will need in future.

‘When I walked in four years ago and I shared my dream with the team and what I thought we could achieve, some looked at me and told me I was mad. A year later we had achieved more than those original targets,’ Jeanette says proudly.

‘It wasn’t because we were chasing a target; it’s because everyone on the team bought into our dream of what we could achieve together. Every person knew exactly what their role was in getting us to achieve that goal. Every person should feel that they own a piece of that success. Focus on doing the right things and the profits will follow.’

Sense of responsibility

In none of the companies where Jeanette has worked has there ever been a woman more senior than her, so she has never worked for a female boss. She feels a sense of responsibility to help turn the situation around and therefore tries to ensure that whenever she leaves a company, women will get the opportunities they deserve in senior management.

‘By now, you have probably realised that I’m not a token appointment and similarly I won’t offer anyone a position if I don’t think they have the potential. As a woman, I feel the need to work a little bit harder and be more prepared because 30 years ago a woman was not expected to be in the boardroom. And it is good to have the right attitude. I once walked into a meeting and was asked to pour the tea, which I gladly did – and then I introduced myself. There was no point in embarrassing the gentleman because once he realised his mistake he was embarrassed anyway.

‘I often advise young black professionals that if they walk into an organisation and find that it is totally white, they should not think that “people like me don’t make it in this organisation”. They should think, “what an opportunity this is”. That was my attitude when I started at Momentum. I thought to myself that they are going to need strong women in leadership positions soon and when that time comes, I’m going to be so ready. That is how I got my first break; I was appointed manager at the age of 24. Today, I still feel the responsibility to spearhead change because our executive committee has only two female members.’

Jeanette has no children of her own, but she is a very involved aunt with 11 nephews and nieces. They have started working and are very serious about maintaining a work–life balance. ‘I say that’s okay, but you should know that if you want to be great at something, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and work for it. In South Africa today, for every job that we advertise, we get thousands of applications and all the applicants have a degree. When we create a short list, we compare marks because at that stage your university marks are all we have to compare performance.

Trusting your gut

‘I will not appoint someone who scraped through with 50%. That is simply not good enough. You must show me that you care enough about yourself and your career that you did your best to stand out from the crowd. I need to know that when your boss has a crisis and needs you at 21:00, you’re the person who can be counted on. You need to stand up and stand for something and be somebody.’

Jeanette once met one of the business moguls implicated in a recent case of high-profile corporate fraud in South Africa and he made her skin crawl. Everyone else was filled with admiration, but her gut told her this was someone you shouldn’t do business with. Because intuition like that flows from a collection of experiences but is intangible, it’s hard to take into account for business decision-making. ‘It cannot be entered on a spreadsheet,’ she says.

‘With my gut a million things come together, consciously and subconsciously. For instance, every three years I take a different female student and mentor her. She works with me, and I give her exposure. Michelle often asks me how I know to pick the right candidate, but I always just know.’

Jeanette spends a lot of time on aeroplanes and on her own and therefore reads a lot. She loves fiction by writers such as Joe Nesbo and Patricia Cornwell, where you can never guess who the murderer is. She also indulges in business and leadership books, with her top recommendation in this category being Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game.

She says the book made an impression because it showed her that everything is infinite. She gives the example of striving to become a CEO, which is a finite goal. ‘So, now you’re the CEO but then you suddenly want to be the best CEO ever and there is no such thing. 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 CEO, it should be about the state in which I leave the organisation and how people will feel about me and so on. 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 because those things are not finite.’

Leading with love languages

A book that has really helped Jeanette when it comes to how she thinks about leadership is The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Sure, it’s not a business book (it is a relationship guide for couples), she says, but she says the description of five different ways in which people express love (gifts, acts of service, quality time, physical touch or words of affirmation) has taught her that people communicate in different ways and that they should be managed differently. It is up to her to figure out what personality type they are and how to bring out the best in them.

‘The last book I would recommend is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. It taught me that women can also be at fault. It’s not always because men don’t give us opportunities, but because we don’t lean in, we don’t trust our voices and we don’t stand up.’

After active service, she hopes to continue contributing as a board member. She finds the quality of board members in corporate South Africa to be quite poor. Many are ‘consultants and academics with wonderful things to say but who have never led an organisation’. Consequently, their contribution is quite theoretic but holds little practical value. With her business experience, Jeanette believes she could hold the management of organisations to a high standard of delivery should she be appointed as a non-executive director in her later years.

This article is a brief extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – Secrets for Success from South Africa’s Top Money Makers – available here https://www.takealot.com/the-ceo-x-factor/PLID92980382

 

 

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