Themba Baloyi, insurance industry trailblazer

Themba Baloyi has had a busy year under lockdown. The president of the Insurance Institute of South Africa (IISA) has been revolutionising the body by remote. He’s also been hard at work preparing to launch another product that could well equal, or even surpass Discovery Insure, the company he founded, in terms of innovation.

It’s been a busy decade since he first obtained his executive MBA from Henley Business School Africa.

“I remember,” he says, “how a former colleague came up to me at one of the IISA conventions in Sun City, just after I had launched Discovery Insure and said ‘well, you don’t need to worry about getting an MBA anymore’, and I said to him, ‘actually, you don’t understand, this is the very reason I did the work’.”

Baloyi’s MBA wasn’t just about academic theory, but grounded in purposeful, action-orientated learning. He is a great proponent of both.

“We all have ideas,” he says. “We all have to find the time and space to be exposed to them, but what do you do with them? Do we have the courage to follow them through?”

In the last 11 years, Baloyi has shown he has had both the ideas and the courage – as well as the drive - to see them come to fruition. His innovative Discovery Insure, premised on incentives for clients, won him the title African Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018.

He has needed to bring all his innovation and courage to the table when he was elected president of the IISA last year in the middle of the greatest global public health crisis in living memory. The challenges were immediate, due to the pandemic, the election normally through the physical presence of members at an AGM had to be virtual. Then, there was the issue of the annual conference that followed, a highlight of the Insurance Institute year: the virus numbers were still high, but the executive and the board were split down the middle.

Baloyi’s would be the casting vote whether the conference went ahead as usual, despite the COVID 19 risk, as a hybrid; part in person and the balance streamed; or wholly virtual – after already having been postponed the year before because of lockdown.

“I didn’t want to be the casting vote, because for me that signals a failure of leadership. To lead you have to be able to persuade, not by being the loudest voice in the room or representing the biggest shareholder.”

He managed to encourage the team to decide without having to cast his own vote, but the decision to go virtual was not without risks; Baloyi was conscious of the importance of the conference for the members, the need to network – and to relax at a resort, and the danger of stripping away value from an institution whose history dates back to its founding in 1898.

He needn’t have worried.

“The virtual conference exceeded our wildest expectations,” he said. “We had over 600 participants who attended each of the sessions that were held over two days. Often at Sun City, you might have several hundred members that will be at the resort, but not all of them go to all the sessions. Some will be on the golf course, while others will be enjoying the other amenities.

“It showed me how we can use technology to do better as we move on.”

It’s not the only lesson he’s learnt during his time in the chair, he’s learnt the power of collaboration and practiced the art of consensus, leveraging the expertise of his board which comprises luminaries of the industry, including SASRIA head Cedric Masondo.

He made no bones about what his term would be about when he accepted his election as president and chair, he wanted to help evolve the body during his time in office, but he also never intended to sit for the full three years.

Neither of those promises have changed. He intends to step down at the end of his second year, having helped shepherd the IISA into an era where it can be an innovative platform for members; helping to educate them in their field and add value to the entire insurance eco-system, especially when it comes to partnering with other stakeholders and leaders in the sector to break down the silos that exist to the benefit of everyone involved.

He’s also set it a target of growing the membership by at least 10% a year

“The IISA has to be far more than just a ticking boxes for a regulatory purpose,” he says. “We can do better and provide genuine benefits to the members. It’s also about how we engage with regulatory officers, who should not just simply be police officers, but help us design products that really benefit our clients because they are also custodians of sanity in the industry.”

Henley Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley is not surprised by Baloyi’s ongoing success, but he is immensely respectful of his intelligence and drive.

“I met Themba at UCT’s Graduate School of Business almost 20 years ago, where I was programme director of a leadership course he was attending. He stood out immediately in the class by his determination to question and learn, and we connected. I encouraged him to do his MBA and he graduated from Henley. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I’ve been privileged to have him share his dreams with me and be a sounding board.

“He’s an ordinary guy, not born into privilege, with an exceptional passion and commitment. He knows that study, work and discipline are sure roads to success. He has honed and developed his abilities and succeeded as a result. That’s the message for me – I know there are many others like him, intelligent, normal, South Africans, just as implacable in their purpose and as eager for that opportunity, who will succeed if they commit to learning.”

It was that passion and purpose that led Foster-Pedley to design one of his legendary advertising slogans three years ago: ‘Themba has The MBA’.

“We focussed it on Themba because he is everyman. He represents the latent capability of hundreds of thousands of South Africans. If Themba has The MBA - with everything he has derived from it and the success he has created - then imagine what South Africa can achieve with more Thembas and more MBAs.

“He really is proof of Henley’s mission: to build the leaders who will build the businesses that will build Africa – and the good news for all of us is that he isn’t even close to reaching his full potential yet!”

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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