Sandi de Souza: On owning your personal development and how the Henley international MBA helped her secure her dream job

Sandi de Souza knew, when she qualified as a chartered accountant in 2004, that she wanted to do an MBA for the broader business knowledge it would bring her. But it was only later in her career, with her eye on a role in the C-suite, that she finally took the plunge. It was a…

Sandi de Souza knew, when she qualified as a chartered accountant in 2004, that she wanted to do an MBA for the broader business knowledge it would bring her. But it was only later in her career, with her eye on a role in the C-suite, that she finally took the plunge. It was a decision that she credits with helping secure her new role as CFO for SAP Sub-Saharan Africa this year.

There’s never a perfect time to do an MBA, there’s always going to be next year. A friend and I had spent plenty of time discussing it over the years, during our treks up Kilimanjaro and to Everest Base Camp. It was the knowledge that we were approaching forty, that made us decide it was now or never. We both completed the MBA in 2020.

I chose Henley Africa because it offered an international qualification. I did a bit of research around the different schools that offer the MBA in South Africa and Henley Africa was one of the ones I know is accredited just about everywhere. In addition, I also liked the idea of a flexible qualification, unlike others which can be all-consuming and tend to cram the programme into a much shorter time frame. Given that I would still be working while I studied, I really needed that flexibility.

One of the highlights for me was the international visit, which in our case was a week-long trip to China. We were given a case study with real life problems at real organisations, and then we had the opportunity to work with those organisations. China is very different from the African business context, but the case study I worked on was in the rural areas and I was able to draw a lot of parallels with Africa from that experience. There were vast areas with poor connectivity and extreme poverty, which I have encountered frequently during my 17-year career working with SAP across sub-Saharan Africa.  Though each region has its nuances and it’s been interesting to see how mindsets differ across regions. I’ve learned that there are a lot of lessons we can learn from each other and best practices we can share.

I’m exceptionally fortunate to be working for an organization like SAP that has given me so many opportunities and been at the forefront of promoting diversity in women in leadership. In our executive team, four of the five members are women. I wouldn’t say there’s a major difference in our leadership style, except for the way in which decisions are made. I think women are naturally inclined to be more inclusive, to listen to different viewpoints. And that’s a change I’ve seen in the past few years as more and more women are brought into leadership.

It is critical to have strong leaders in business who can understand and integrate multiple perspectives and be able to lead their teams through the flux that Africa is experiencing. There are a lot of challenges that other parts of the world may not appreciate, that are particular to Africa. Foreign exchange for example, is not even a consideration in Europe as everyone deals in Euros. There are all these different currencies in Africa and access to the stronger currencies like the US Dollar is a challenge for some.

I consider myself a very collaborative leader. I certainly look for the opinions of others and listen to them and then I try to coach people rather than just tell them this is how it is. I try to encourage them to come up with the conclusion on their own. I’m passionate about developing others and I regularly draw on those aspects of the MBA, related to personal development. I use the Wheel of Life all the time. Also the Henley Star. It doesn’t matter what role you’re in, whether you’re in executive leadership or an individual contributor, understanding your own personal development and being able to work on yourself is crucial to being the best that you can be. It’s all too easy to just sit there and say the company must arrange training for you. That concept of owning your personal development, is absolutely critical for me.

The MBA helps you to consciously think about what you want and to move forward purposefully as opposed to just muddling along intuitively. Nothing taught on the MBA is brand new or rocket science. It was less about the content and more about the process that was the key takeaway for me. For example, the process of using various models to look at things through different lenses. That concept has stuck with me and in everything I do today, I always try to approach things from different perspectives. The process also gave me an ability to understand why I do things in certain ways.  Anyone who has been on a career journey will have developed a natural ability to think about some of these things in a certain way, but you don’t necessarily know why you’re doing them, or what to do next. This is one of the main things I gained from my MBA.

I think the experience of learning from others and engaging with them was also really valuable. I’m still in touch with a few people from my MBA and I think that, for someone who perhaps hasn’t had that experience or that sort of exposure before, the opportunity to mingle and expand one’s network is highly rewarding.

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