Kerry Cassel is Director and Chief Executive Officer, Mobility Solutions & Head: Innovation and Technology at Motus Holdings Ltd. In addition to being an executive director, Kerry serves on the boards of various subsidiaries of the Group.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
As a child, I don’t think I believed I could do anything. In fact, I was shy and introverted. I was also probably insecure in more ways than one. I was that kid in class who knew the answers to the teachers’ questions but lacked the courage to put up their hand and provide the answers.
I’ve changed a lot over the past couple of decades and the older I’ve got, the happier I’ve become.
You may not have had the courage to raise your hand but you were certain about the answers?
I knew the answers. I think I knew I was a bright kid, as I was very bookish. However, I’m terribly clumsy and I was terrible at sports. So, all the sports events at school were a terrible nightmare for me. I’m very grateful that my children didn’t inherit my sporting abilities. My best moments were always with a book. I remember adults commenting a lot, because when I went out with my parents, I’d often have a book and I’d just sit at the table and read quietly while the adults talked. I think reading also stimulated a lot of my creativity.
Did you have any siblings?
I was an only child and an only grandchild. I spent a lot of my time with adults. I think that impacted me, as I remember my teachers making comments about my vocabulary and how it wasn’t age typical.
Tell us about your education?
I attended an average government school in Johannesburg as my parents didn’t have a lot of money. My father was an engineering draftsman, while my mother was a personal assistant. She was the PA to the Chairman of Deloitte in Johannesburg for many years. When I finished school, I applied to Deloitte for a bursary and they gave me one to study and become a Chartered Accountant (CA). So my career choice was made for me because I couldn’t afford to study anything else.
I needed a little space to breathe, so I chose to study in Pietermaritzburg which was a little far from home. My university years were really good years for me and it was during that period that I came into my own. It was the first time I was forced to think deeply about meaningful things and I got involved in a lot of politically conscious movements. I joined the End Conscription Campaign, at that time, they were still running military conscription in South Africa. Also, I was active in SESCO, which was the student arm of the African National Congress. This was just before the 1994 elections. I was also active on various student committees and was the president of the Commerce Students Council at some stage. That was my first time in a leadership position.
How does your role in political activism impact your management today?
I understand that everyone has a story and not everybody had it as easy as I did. At the same time, I understand that I didn’t have it as easy as many other people did. Most importantly, I understand we all face various challenges in our journeys through life. I think this awareness is important if you want to know how to connect with people, build teams, and get the best out of them.
What did you study at university?
I studied accounting courtesy of Deloitte. I didn’t find it easy, though. In my second year, I was distracted with social activities, student activities, and goodness knows what other things. As a result, I performed poorly academically. I failed some of my subjects so badly that I wasn’t permitted to write their exams. Consequently, I lost a huge portion of my bursary and had to get a student loan. I remember my father taking me to the bank to sign as my surety and giving me a big lecture about how my irresponsibility cost me my bursary and he was not going to pay it off. He didn’t. I finished paying off my student loans when I was around 28 years of age.
After that I got my head straight and cruised through the rest of my time in school. I did my honors the same year I did my first year of articles at Deloitte. It was quite challenging because they work article clocks quite hard. I was working long hours on audit deadlines and then studying my honors at night. However, I managed to pass. During my second year of articles, I wrote my board exam and passed it the first time. Next, I studied for my CMA (Chartered Management Accountant) qualification and passed that the first time, too.
While I had a rocky start, I eventually had a happy ending.
How old were you during this period?
I was around 23 toward the end of my articles. I stayed on as a manager at Deloitte. While I worked there, my biggest audit client was Imperial. Later, Imperial unbundled its motor business and it became Motus. I also carried an extensive educational learning portfolio. I was what Deloitte called a dedicated facilitator.
At some point, Imperial Auto made me an offer. I accepted and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s quite strange because I never would have chosen to study accounting. I also don’t think I would have chosen to work in the auto industry because I don’t really like cars. However, I do love the business of cars.
What would you say to someone who is not sure what they want to do, but has an opportunity to start their career as a CA, given that companies like Deloitte and KPMG still offer bursaries?
I’m glad I studied to be a CA. Being able to understand the story your numbers tell is valuable. Looking at my job today, having a sound accounting and finance experience is crucial for optimum performance. I can look at a set of numbers and tell when something is wrong, which allows me to go back and diagnose the problem.
I don’t think I would know how to manage or lead a business if I don’t have those finance skills. While I don’t work in finance or accounts, and didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, the skills opened a door into business.
How important are finance skills to a CEO? How would you advise people who lack finance skills to get them?
Finance is one of those things I think you have to undergo training for. I don’t think you can pick it up on the job. And even if you do, it will be at a rudimentary level. Many business qualifications, like the MBA, have strong finance components they will impart to people who enroll in them. Also, there are other less demanding finance qualifications that take one to two years and which you can do on a part time basis while you work.
What are the challenges you face as a woman in a top executive role?
Golf is a problem. I can’t play golf, you know. I shouldn’t say it’s associated with gender as a lot of women today have started playing, particularly in financial services. A lot of networking happens around golf events in financial services and a lot of business gets discussed because you spend hours and hours with business associates as you walk around the golf course. If you don’t play, you will miss out on these discussions and networking. And I find that limiting.
Also, I might be generalizing here, but I think many men are uncomfortable with female emotions in the workplace and that can be a disadvantage sometimes.
Finally, having to juggle family commitments is a distinct disadvantage as a female CEO. Many of my peers have stay-at-home wives and don’t have to worry about the shopping, the house, the kids, and so on, while I do. Apart from my work commitments, I have a lot to do as a mom and a wife.
Other female C-level executives we’ve spoken to say it’s difficult to socialize with their male peers due to societal perceptions. How much of a challenge is this within the South African context?
I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge for me particularly. I am comfortable with and have always enjoyed the company of men. In fact, many of my closest friends are men. I like to have a beer with the boys after work. I do feel it’s easier in recent times, because in the financial services sector I operate in, we have more female executives now than ever before. As a result, social activities have mixed attendance. So it’s a non-issue for me.
Also, I don’t feel I get excluded from invites. When the guys go for drinks, breakfast, or even coffee, I often get asked to join. I’m very fortunate with the people I work with, in that we are very close. Most of us have worked together for 15 – 20 years. This is true of my colleagues within the Motus executive and my department. It is not a threatening or politicized environment. Instead, it feels like a safe space where we genuinely care about each other. I don’t think that’s common. I’ve only really worked here since I finished my articles at Deloitte. However, there is a reason why none of us have left. I don’t think many people are lucky enough to have that.
Are there ways to determine if an environment will allow you to climb up the corporate ladder?
I think it’s too complex to know at the beginning of the journey. Besides, organizations change significantly over time. Over the 20 years that I’ve been at Motus, it has changed significantly. I’m fortunate the change worked for me and not against me because when I look back, I perceive all the changes as positive, not negative.
Unfortunately, you can be in a happy place and it’ll suddenly becomes unhappy. If this happens, you have to look at your circle of influence and ask if you can turn things around or if it’s a systemic toxicity that’s creeped in and you can’t influence. If it’s the latter, I believe you should leave immediately. I’ve seen people stay in unhappy work environments for long periods of time. And I can tell for a fact that it drains them of their energy and happiness.
One of the comments we’ve heard is the importance of a supportive spouse for success. What are your views on that?
I agree the spouse is critically important. If my husband got grumpy everytime I came home late from work, we would have had a lot of problems in our marriage. I’m lucky that’s not the case. My husband also did articles at Deloitte because he saw how much fun I was having. He was doing a BSc majoring in paleontology but switched to Accounting. He understands deadlines, overtime, and hard work and has been very supportive of me. Also, he picks up his half of home responsibilities and is always willing to cover for me when I can’t do something.
However, I think it’s more than just the spouse. I have a network of people who support me. For example, I have the most incredible personal assistant who understands me a lot. I’ve moved twice in the last 18 months. In the early days of the first move, I forgot I moved. So, I went to the wrong house. The next day, I told her. The second time I moved, she phoned me after I left work to remind me to go to my new house. She gets me from A to B everyday, which I don’t think is an easy thing. And she’s got a great sense of humor, too. Also, I have a phenomenal housekeeper, who has been with us for 23 years. She’s such a big part of our family that I always say we have two mothers, one father, and six children in our family. Her two girls were born and grew up with us. I have three children and my son’s best friend moved in with us many years ago. So, that’s six children and we jointly care for them. I handle career talks, subject choices, varsity, gardens, and what degree to study. She handles the other stuff. Finally, I am fortunate enough to have an au pair.
Not everybody has the financial resources for all of these. I didn’t at the beginning of my career either. I think people need to be aware of these. I think a lot of women aren’t aware that as they progress, they will have the financial resources to afford additional support. So, they may make decisions at a point in time using their reality at that time. And they set limitations for themselves without understanding that climbing the corporate ladder comes with financial resources that will enable them to build support structures that’ll help them in their careers.
Are there advantages to being a female executive?
Definitely. When I started my career, there weren’t many women in the industry. There were less women in senior positions. So, I was a bit of an abnormality and I stood out. And because I’ve always been a little outspoken, I think people didn’t forget me. I see that as an advantage.
Also, a lot of women, and I’m going to generalize again here, are very intuitive. Women often read people and situations in a deeper way and from a different angle compared to men. I could look at people and intuitively know how they would react to certain things and how meetings would play out. I see that as an advantage and I put it down to being a woman.
Finally, people sometimes underestimated me because I was a woman. Not where I work, but with partners and during negotiations. Tactically, I think that was an advantage, too.
Why do you think there aren’t more women leaders in Corporate Africa?
I think there’s a lot of restrictive cultural views of women in terms of our roles, whether we should work or stay at home. While that probably exists everywhere, it is more prevalent in Africa. Also, juggling work and home is an issue. In many countries, affordable aftercare for children and related things are readily available to more people, but it is less so in African countries. Things like this are why I think there aren’t more women leaders in Corporate Africa, because I see many talented women leave their work when they start having children.
What do you think can be done to help more women move up the corporate ladder?
We need to think about the government’s role and responsibility in the provision of childcare services. If the government is unable to provide these services and facilities, we need to ask what Corporate Africa is doing about it. There are many corporations providing such services, but what more can be done in that space? Further, what kind of flexibility can be granted to people in terms of how, where, and when they work? What are the company policies around maternity and paternity leave?
Also, I think networking is critical. That’s why I like your initiative so much because there aren’t many engaged communities of women networking across businesses.
How do you think you can be supported in your role?
It is important to have sponsors and mentors. I’ve been particularly lucky in my career to have been mentored and supported by some really phenomenal people.
Also, it is incredibly empowering to have leaders you respect encouraging you and telling you that you are capable. I’ve never had to fight to be empowered. My current boss is good at that. During meetings, he’ll make it clear which processes I should be part of and which decisions I should make. That kind of leadership is amazing.
Finally, I think it’s important to pay it forward. I try to do that by providing advice, guidance, and a shoulder to cry on. I try to support women and help them believe they can achieve what they set out to achieve.
I think these things can make a really big difference.