As a trusted EXCO member, CIO and business unit MD at South Africa’s largest health and safety enterprise, 34-year-old Palesa Gaasenwe epitomises the next generation business leader. Her portfolio is multi-faceted, spanning IT, digital transformation, project management and business leadership, and she manages all these facets with a level of energy that amazes her seniors.
Growing up in the south of Johannesburg, Gaasenwe surprised her business-focused family by opting to study IT instead of business. She completed a BCom Informatics and her Honours in Informatics at UJ, followed by her Masters in Information Systems at UCT. “I finished school just as IT and digitisation was really taking off, and it triggered my interest in how technology could improve business,” she says.
This interest was furthered when, as part of the Standard Bank Graduate Programme, she discovered the breadth of digital applications in business. She honed her project management and communications skills during the two-year programme, and went on to broaden her range of skills as Global Project Manager at Cura Software Solutions, Barclays Africa consulting via AdaptIT, and as Head of PMO at Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).
Her move to SafetySA group in 2019 coincided with the start of the Group’s pivot to a digitally-enabled company. It also coincided with the arrival of her first child, but Gaasenwe is not one to shy away from managing multiple challenges simultaneously.
Part of what attracted her to the SafetySA group opportunity was the potential to help transition such an established company from traditional approaches and to learn about a whole new industry.
Gaasenwe is fast climbing the corporate ladder at Safety SA (NOSA) and is earmarked as a possible successor to the group CEO. The shift from CIO to CEO is not the leap it once was, she says. “Perhaps we are seeing the emergence of the ‘new age’ CIO or CEO. My peers and I thrive on diversity. Our mindset is always that there has to be more – we constantly want to extend our knowledge in new areas. It’s the beginning of a trend we will see in future, of people being open-minded and diverse in what they do because IT and business are so intertwined now.”
Gaasenwe aims to learn all she can about the health and safety sector, expand her understanding of the financial aspects of business management, and embark on her Ph.D. as an entry to academia in the future. Driven to help businesses optimize operations, revenue, and people management, she believes digital technologies and project management skills are key to achieving this. “A want to make businesses as good as they can possibly be, helping transform them using the right tools and technologies,” she says. Part of this mission involves stepping up her knowledge sharing and mentorship of younger entrepreneurs and business professionals in the future.
Grooming for greatness
Safety SA group CEO Karl Campbell headhunted Gaasenwe for the group just over a year ago, having worked with her in a previous company.
“The business is private equity-owned and we have an exit plan with a horizon of around end- 2023/early 2024. As such, a succession plan is important, and we were looking out for strong contenders to take over as group heads in the future. Palesa was top of my list,” he says.
Gaasenwe and a handful of business unit heads within the group are in the running for the group CEO position, says Campbell. But because he has been so impressed with Gaasenwe’s capabilities, he has taken a personal interest in mentoring her and expanding her experience.
“Palesa currently wears two hats – one as group CIO and one as head of our solutions business, MetrixCloud. She has a strong technical background, but in our succession planning, we determined it would be difficult to move her from the CIO role to the CEO role without commercial business experience. As head of MetrixCloud, and as a director and advisor on Isometrix, we have given her one of the most complex portfolios in the group, but also one in which she will gain the necessary experience,” Campbell says.
Campbell, who has worked alongside many talented people over the years, believes Gaasenwe is multi-faceted and destined for great things. “Palesa is unusually well-rounded and I believe she is a unique asset. She’s a natural leader who commands significant respect and has the ability to convince people to buy into her vision and follow her. She’s good at what she does, confident in what she does, and is one of few people I’ve seen who can manage a business unit with very little conflict. She approaches to conflict in a collaborative fashion and comes up with constructive solutions. Her technical expertise, broad experience, and ability to lead diverse teams makes her stand out,” he says.
Palesa Gaasenwe, Safety SA group CIO and managing director, MetrixCloud
Based in: Johannesburg, Safety SA HQ, Midrand