One thing that is obvious about Keabetswe Pheko-Moshagane, fondly known as KB to her colleagues, is her passion for being a good steward. She vividly remembers when this drive and motivation was born, which was the moment she held her firstborn son in her arms for the first time. She recalls overwhelming motivation.
A motivation that has stayed with her to this day. A feeling of wanting to do her best and strive to be a good steward and leave things in a better state than that in which she found them. These are the feelings that have continued to motivate KB throughout her professional life, especially in her current role as Managing Director of Absa Bank Botswana.
“Even in my career, I have carried the same mantra: to not only give of myself, but to also demand better for myself, to demand better for my children, to demand better for my company and the people I serve and lead, to demand better for my country,” she says.
“This has been the driving force behind all my achievements to date.” For most of her career, however, KB did not anticipate that she would ever lead a bank. With a background in IT, she spent years working as a consultant in the telecommunications and banking industries in South Africa. A decade ago, she leveraged that tech experience to join Absa as Head of Core Banking Applications – an opportunity that allowed her to return to her native Botswana.
“I was motivated to come home and make a difference in a field I knew I was really good at,” KB tells The CEO Magazine.
“At the time, there was a lot of focus on digitalisation in the banking industry, and although I couldn’t say exactly what my destiny was, I knew for certain that I was meant to plug in my expertise in this area in my home country at that particular time. The rest, as they say, is history.”
KB gradually moved up to Head of IT – a position that also made sense given her previous experience. Her promotions to COO in 2015 and then Managing Director in 2019 came as more of a surprise.
“It was not a normal occurrence for someone with a technology background to be appointed to lead a bank, as the expectation would be to rather appoint someone with a finance background, not the COO,” KB points out. “My appointment to this role not only presented me with opportunities for growth, but it also pushed my potential further.”
Grabbing the opportunity
While KB was thrilled to join a large and reputable financial organisation like Absa, she also had to make sacrifices. She took a significant pay cut and uprooted her family from South Africa. It was a risky move, but lessons instilled in her during her formative years propelled her forward.
“I remember being a curious child who was always searching for ways to do things differently, so it really was not a surprise to my family when I ended up in technology,” she says.
Growing up in a modest household with six sisters, KB recognised early on that “the early bird really does gets the fattest worm” and that to achieve her goals, she had to learn to be prepared for any situation and opportunity.
She saw joining Absa as such an opportunity – one that would allow her to prove her integrity and improve the lives of thousands of its customers. “Our number-one goal each day is to bring possibilities to life,” she enthuses.
“We put our customers at the centre of everything that we do, hence our investment into technology and other platforms and initiatives that make the lives of our customers and our communities better.”
Her arrival could not have been better timed, as the adoption of new technologies is driving tectonic changes in the banking industry. As someone who has been obsessed with technology since she was a child, KB has proven the perfect leader.
My appointment to this role not only presented me with opportunities for growth, but it also pushed my potential further.
“Technology has in essence changed not just the way in which banking is done, but it has also opened up the industry to other players and financial services – often without the regulations and categorisation that comes under the umbrella of ‘banking’ – to the mass market,” she says.
“Technology has changed the financial services industry as a whole, but most importantly it has facilitated ways for people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to formal financial services to be enabled to have access.”
With these events in mind, Absa has adopted the view that innovation and financial inclusion are enablers of growth, and that they should always occur with the aim of changing people’s lives and solving problems.
“We believe that banking should be transparent, relevant, tailored, secure, seamless and deeply integrated into customers’ lives and operations,” KB insists.
“We are thus very proactive in incorporating technology in our business strategy across all its pillars, and ensuring that our services and products are cognisant of the new players in the market – and the gap that they fill for customers.
“This is why we have deliberately made sure to partner and collaborate with entities such as mobile network operators to develop products that will provide convenience for our customers.” As an example, one of Absa’s most notable recent digital developments includes the introduction of chat banking through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger along with Absa’s own online portals.
“We believe that through an interactive, feedback-based approach, we can reduce call centre workload and increase customer engagement,” KB explains.
Over the past few months, Absa has also been rolling out a discounted digital campaign, which encourages those customers who would usually visit a branch to instead access the bank’s financial services through its digital platform.
So far, the promotion has produced a double-digit increase in digital adoption across Absa’s business banking segment, which KB says is proof that the bank is making a real impact on communities.
Throughout its 70 years of operations in Botswana, Absa has honed a competitive edge with three key components. The first component is the aforementioned digital journey. The second is its citizenship agenda.
“At Absa, we believe in leading with purpose. Our role in our community is cemented by the fact that we are not only a performance-driven organisation, but we also encompass positivity, inclusiveness, communication and consistency in how we do business,” KB says.
As an example, she cites Absa’s Hello Money function, which allows users to transfer money to anyone, even the unbanked. Moreover, Absa has run numerous initiatives to deliver positive impacts to the communities it serves. Its Ready to Work initiative offers online education to young people to help them transition from school to the workplace, either as an employee or as an entrepreneur.
The past few months have helped us gain momentum as a business in our goal to truly be a digital bank, a connected bank, a resilient bank.
“It is of the utmost importance that we strive to contribute towards building a more prosperous country through the future of Botswana – our young people,” KB stresses.
The third component of Absa’s competitive edge is what KB calls its Africanacity. Between 1950 and 2018, Absa Bank Botswana was known as Barclays Bank Botswana because of the British bank’s majority stake in the organisation.
But over the past two years, Absa has been reasserting its brand as a bank inspired by the spirit of Africa. “Africanacity means that we always find a way to get things done,” she says. In Botswana, Absa Bank has a popular radio drama known as Madi Majwana – “stories from your pocket” – that broadcasts across the country and teaches listeners financial literacy.
“This program has managed to reach all corners of the country as we continue to embed the use of the different languages that exist in our country,” she beams.
However, even with all of the strides KB and Absa have made towards digitalisation and futureproofing, they have not been able to escape the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Absa Bank Botswana, formerly known as Barclays Bank of Botswana, is a commercial bank in Botswana, licensed by the Bank of Botswana, the country’s central bank and national banking regulator. The bank is a subsidiary of Absa Group, a financial services conglomerate headquartered in South Africa, with subsidiaries in 12 African countries and with assets in excess of €76 billion as of 30 June 2019, as well as 42,000 employees. Absa Bank Botswana has 1,100 employees, 32 branches and 114 ATMs.
She and her team have felt the ripples of a teetering global economy, and they have been forced to work and interact with customers in new, unexpected ways. However, KB remains convinced that every challenge comes with opportunity.
“The past few months have helped us gain momentum as a business in our goal to truly be a digital bank, a connected bank, a resilient bank,” she explains.
“When the pandemic broke out, the easiest thing to do would have been to curl up and hide, but I remain very proud of my team and the people I lead, as they quickly noted what was within our control and what was not, and they came up with a solid plan of how we are going to survive and possibly thrive during this tough season.”
Over the course of her career, KB has consistently observed that solutions appear right around the corner when teams work together. She has learned to foster this teamwork through a participative and inclusive leadership style, which she has developed over the course of many years though trial and error.
“Coming from an IT and programming background, where everything has a black or white answer, I have had to consciously evolve to lead a business such as this bank, where there is much more grey than black and white,” she says. “This helped me to be authentic and transparent, which I believe are the two most important traits of my leadership style at the moment.”
Breaking the glass ceiling
As the first female Motswana citizen to lead Absa Bank Botswana, KB hopes her leadership will signify the shattering of a glass ceiling. “My view is that diversity helps organisations become more successful, both financially and culturally, as it contributes to a diversity of views, which enhances decision-making and helps companies evolve, innovate and be more efficient,” she says.
As of the end of 2020, 76% of Absa’s employees were women, including 60% of its middle management and 50% of the senior leadership level. But just hiring women is not enough. KB seeks to empower them.
“I know that as women, we sometimes doubt ourselves as leaders and want to have all the details available before making decisions, just so we are sure we are making the right decision,” she says.
“But when you lead an organisation as big as I do, there are a lot of instances during the day when you do not have time to go over all the details. I know it is a cliche, but I can confidently say that when you are faced with challenges that seem to not have a clear answer, your gut feeling is there to serve you. Use it. Trust yourself as a leader. Do your best and use what you have.”
Paraphrasing US Vice President Kamala Harris, KB adds, “I might be the first, but I definitely won’t be the last.”