Cathy Smith: A Seasoned Leader Transforming Growth

Cathy Smith
Cathy Smith | Managing Director | SAP Africa

Understanding how things orchestrate across an ecosystem lies in understanding the working of technologies, services, and multiple roles that provide combined value to a customer. It is essential to understand these strengths while driving a customer-centric value-based approach. Having a leader who has a holistic view of all parts of the business, who looks at situations end to end, and understands what is required for success, is an advantage. Cathy Smith fills that role for SAP Africa by executing the ever-useful technological knowledge she has attained over the years, working at different organizations.

As a Managing Director, she believes that the industry operates in siloes and takes up challenges from a feature and function point of view rather than looking at the value. Cathy attributes her impact in business to the varied roles she held across the IT industry over the years.

Let us deep dive into the journey of this dynamic leader to understand how she changed the face of SAP Africa.

Evolution as a Learner

Cathy began her career in the insurance industry as an application developer and spent three years in the UK, consolidating her expertise. She held several executive roles for European and global markets, specializing in outsourcing services. In her early days as an applications developer, Cathy was on call 24/7. If a system went down, she had to physically drive there to find a solution as virtual meetings weren’t possible then. As a young mother, she remembers nights driving into town to attend to a system. That was a thorn between personal and work responsibilities. She shares, “Women wear many hats, and it’s a constant juggling act to keep everyone happy. If I look back now, I would not have made as many family sacrifices as I did. I know now that they weren’t necessary and that I could have handled those demands differently, but that knowledge only comes with years of experience.”

Her 23 years spent working for IBM had the amalgamation of several careers because Cathy had the opportunity to work in different parts of the business. The lessons learned from her initial role as a programmer are still relevant as they taught her to listen and understand a customer’s needs. The creative job needed new ways to solve problems by navigating the fast-changing ICT landscape. The period also had some difficult instances like the one Cathy shares, “The ICT industry can be a very tough environment for women. It is male-dominated; established norms – like doing business on the golf course or down at the bar after hours – don’t always fit our values or personal commitments. I’ve had to navigate that dynamic, and, as I grow, I have come to learn that there needs to be a balance.” Cathy also asserts that she has been fortunate to work for organizations that respect diversity and managers who recognized hard work and offered mentorship opportunities, making her a seasoned leader.

From a Manager at Heart to a Managing Director

As the HR Director for Middle East Africa at IBM, Cathy learned about people dynamics and managed different styles and personalities to get the best results. While the job had amazing perks like a corner office and a personal assistant, Cathy felt that she was missing a core element. Her desire to learn took her to a new role in the sales department.

The sales role excited her as the competence to build progressed. Cathy quickly learned the ropes in the sales role and was appointed as the head of the public sector sales team, which she remembers as a fantastic journey. The platform pre-empted her next career moves, including heading the Cisco business for Sub-Saharan Africa and finally as MD for SAP in Africa. Cathy likes to call herself a late bloomer as she wasn’t one of the leaders who shot up the ranks in her twenties; her road to success had many twists and turns. She expresses, “Being MD has allowed me to draw on all my years of experience, from sales and operations to project management and HR. Each of those former roles provided me with the building blocks to be able to take on the overall responsibility for a highly complex organization, to have an end-to-end understanding of how everything fits together and how to make an impact.” Leading an organization also taught her empathy, understanding the behavior, and using flexibility when needed because of the variety of employees in the organization. Cathy developed these skills over time, making her a better leader every day.

Contribution Towards SAP

Speaking about the company, Cathy says, “SAP has outlined a bold goal in terms of our cloud growth by 2025. That ambition, combined with our purpose of helping the world run better and improving people’s lives, continues to define our future. It requires a massive transformation, within our own organization, and for our customers.” She envisions helping the world run better by transforming the organization and the customers. She helped the organization team up with its competitors on some projects, showcasing her collaborative approach. This justifies the purpose of focusing on the goal of customer satisfaction.

SAP mainly uses cloud technologies like machine learning, the Internet of Things, and advanced analytics technologies to make customers’ businesses intelligent. The end-to-end suite of applications empowers the organization to operate profitably, continuously making a difference. Its technology enables customers’ digital transformation for their betterment. Cathy is helping the company transform the organizational structure, ways of working, culture, mindset, and technical aspects.

From an industry point of view, Cathy shares, “I would like the industry to become more purposeful, to use the incredible power that technology holds to make the world a better place for all. This is only possible by having purpose at the core of the business, aligned to your strategy and operations. Too many organizations still think of purpose as the domain of the CSR manager, an add-on to the organization that perhaps gets reviewed once or twice a year. We cannot drive sustainable change with that model or outdated thinking. Each organization must define its purpose and weave it into the organization’s very fabric, whereby it is brought to life every day in engagements with employees, partners, and customers. That is how we can authentically make a significant impact in the societies in which we operate.”

Sharing her valuable advice to budding entrepreneurs, she emphasizes that good ideas can change processes, industries, and even the world. With the right support, aspects like product quality, processes, people, go-to-market, finance, and compliance can be nurtured into a thriving business.