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 / Spring 2013 / Issue 70(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Cynthia Montgomery

I don’t agree with that part of it. I think those skills can be developed later in life. But I do agree that such skills are the key to becoming an architect—or, better yet, a steward—of organizational purpose. As it happens, I’ve been at the boardroom table with Bob Katz, and he has incredible conceptual skills himself. But he also understands that they create value only when they’re intimately linked to action.

I am sometimes asked to help develop the search criteria for an incoming chief executive, and I always underscore the need to marry the ability to conceptualize with the ability to translate those concepts into action. Generally, I’d look for people who have transformed a business—redefined what it was and why it mattered, rebuilt the business model, and delivered. To lead, you need to be able to do more than just clean up operations or coast on an existing path.

And I’ve worked with enough CEOs to know that they need to be able to make meaning for an organization, to connect the efforts of everyone in it with a purpose that really matters to some set of customers.

S+B: What is the future of strategy education?
Thinking about the cultural connections among business leaders as an ecosystem, we want to create an atmosphere where a new type of conversation can be held—not just in a university class or in a management consulting firm engagement, but among leaders in general. We want to set up the kind of conversation that opens the window to new strategic possibilities and allows people to move a company in a new direction.

One of our students, Yegs Ramiah, is an executive at Santam, the largest short-term insurance company in South Africa. Santam operates in a category where there is little differentiation, with high levels of commoditization, rampant price competition, and a race to the bottom that has been threatening the profitability of the industry. Moreover, Santam had been in the game for 95 years; it was perceived as old-school, conservative, and expensive, mainly serving the country’s older white population. To ensure future success, Santam had to tap into the growth market—it had to appeal to people of all races and ages and extend its reach into the growing middle class.

Yegs led a process to redefine the brand positioning and the personality, refresh the logo and the visual identity, and develop an integrated communication and marketing campaign. She realized that in order to challenge accepted norms, Santam would have to redefine the short-term insurance category. She looked for ways to change the conversation about insurance from its being trivial and dispensable, cheap, and a little bit nasty, to its being important and meaningful, with enduring value and substance. This meant inspiring South Africans to take the issues of managing risk and preparing for their future more seriously.

Yegs hired Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley to narrate a new series of ads. In one of them, he stands in a restaurant, with a bartender behind him mixing drinks, moving in and out of the frame. He reminds the audience how easy it is to wear blinders and overlook things that are right in front of you. If you go for the cheapest home insurance, you might miss an important detail. “What if I told you,” he concludes, “that Floyd’s uniform has changed four times while I’ve been talking?” The ad caught on, and people wanted to watch it carefully to see where the bartender’s outfit changed. It won several accolades, including a Silver Clio award as well as a Bronze Lion in Cannes.

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