Thulani Sibeko is a man with a mission. Arriving at the bank from competitor Nedbank, where he was group executive: marketing, communications and corporate affairs, he says he was drawn in part to work here because of the group’s continental purpose. "What got my attention was the purpose of Africa,” he says. “I have a strong affinity for Africa beyond South Africa."
He is open that he had certain perceptions from an outsider, “partly informed by the competitive lens that I had about Standard Bank,” he says. Although it’s a bit early to say how his views might have changed since joining, “I think one thing that has been reinforced based on observation from outside and the early observations coming in, is that although the bank is a successful organization, there is no sense of complacency. There is a drive to want to do better, a drive to win despite the competitive threats, both from traditional financial services institutions, and non-traditional ones. That is evident in the passion of the teams, the commitment of the leadership team, so that much is energizing and exciting,” he says.
“It’s a wonderful time to be at Standard Bank, purely because of the journey that the group is in. The choices of focusing on client-centricity, digitisation and the universal financial services organisation are particularly relevant,” he comments. “The most exciting for me are client-centricity and digitisation because I truly believe that the successful organisations are only those who intimately understand clients, empathise with clients – and I say empathise because some companies do understand clients, but they find ways of tricking clients into their solutions, and that is very different from understanding clients, and then saying, ‘what will I do that is in the best interests of the client’. So that, for me, excites. The second one for me is a no-brainer – digitisation. Because we live in a digitised world, we can’t opt out of that one,” he adds.
His impression of marketing and the role it plays is clear. “Marketing is a very interesting subject in corporate in that sometimes it’s taken for granted and at other times it’s most valued, but regardless of where it’s at, marketing does basic, simple things. One, marketing is there to make sure that our brand is famous, it is known. Two, I see marketing as responsible to ensure that the public has positive feelings about our brand, and Three, importantly, is that marketing has a role to ensure that not only are we famous, not only are people feeling positive about us, but we do it in such a way that stands out. The more distinctive we are, we make it simpler for customers to choose us. Whenever we drown in the sea of sameness, then we just get lost among others and reduce our chance of being a brand of choice,” he comments.
Thulani believes that those three functions are important in service of the ultimate goal – “to ensure that the business acquires more clients, and for the clients that we have, we retain as many of them and deepen our relationship, which will be evident in the degree of business that they conduct with us.” A foundational belief is that, “we collaborate internally, and compete externally.”
Reputational concerns have never been more prominent for high-profile companies, something Thulani is mindful of. “It is public knowledge that financial service firms have been under the spotlight in recent years, and what is quite interesting is that the public has shifted in how it perceives and expects from financial services companies. We are mindful that as a corporate citizen indeed we are playing our role in impacting society positively. However, in that contribution, we cannot assume that the expectations of the community are in line with what we are contributing. So, there’s a sense that for our reputation to be intact and to be stronger, we have to be conscious of where our societies are. As a group that is international, the contextual expectations will vary from country to country and it is important that we are closely aligned to the mood, to topical things and ensure that we remain relevant,” he comments. He is upbeat about the bank’s contributions. “In our communication, I like the humble approach that we often take as a group, but I would also challenge that there are instances that we need to be more assertive in communicating a lot of good that this group does. We should be careful not to incur a liability for our modesty. This group does a lot of wonderful things.”
It may be surprising to hear that numbers were Thulani’s passion growing up. As an Accounting graduate, it was only when positions for articles at his preferred firm were unavailable in the year that he intended to join, that he stopped to consider what else he might try his hand at. A position in the marketing department at Gillette was where he found his feet, and the rest, as they say, is history. After 16 years in consumer goods looking after multinational brands like Gillette, Oral B, Pantene, Braun, Vicks and Polaroid, and having worked globally in places as diverse as Cape Town, Boston, USA, London, UK and Geneva, Switzerland, he moved into telecoms at Vodacom, financial services at Hollard and most recently at Nedbank.
As he finds his feet, his priorities are clear. “Firstly, my first goal is to understand Standard Bank business and strategy. Secondly, I would like to understand her people, and related to these two I’m keen to understand how we got here. How did we make our successes over time, where did we make mistakes and what aspirations we have for the future? From that informed context, I hope to add my two cents. I’m respectful of the great things that are in the pipeline, I’m excited by the many workstreams that are underway. Equally, I think I owe it to the organization not to just say, ‘it’s great, it cannot get better’, but to say ‘have you also considered…’.”
He is enthused about what lies ahead. “I love the change agenda and will be a champion and an advocate in the areas that I play a part in to ensure that as a group, those streams deliver the success that we all hope for.”