Lillian Barnard, a tech enthusiast and seasoned professional has spent over 20 years of her career working her way up the ladder in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, both locally and abroad. And she’s found real success.
In March 2019, Lillian was appointed as the Managing Director, Microsoft South Africa in March, 2019. She became the first woman to hold the position since Microsoft reinvested in South Africa in the early 1990’s. In her words, She said “My experience, combined with my passion and commitment to continuous learning and understanding the technology trends positions me well to be successful in this industry.” In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Lillian spoke about her passion for technology, experiences in top executive positions in the ICT industry, her vision and goals for Microsoft under her leadership. Excerpt.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
From as young as 12 years old, I realise the value of education and the importance of Mathematics. I was crystal clear that I was going to go to University and pursue a degree in Commerce. I was exceptionally fortunate that I was enabled the opportunity to realise this dream, especially in the era in which I grew up.
Recently, you were the first woman appointed as the Managing Director of Microsoft South Africa. How does this make you feel and were you surprised?
I am honoured to be the first woman to hold the position since Microsoft reinvested in the country in the early 1990s. I am extremely passionate about the possibilities of technology and how it can transform the industry, empower society and enable economic growth for South Africa, and Africa.
My first 3 months in role have been filled with excitement. In my first week, I had the opportunity to be part of a momentous occasion where Microsoft launched the opening of the state-of-the-art datacentres as well our multi-million-dollar investment to create economic opportunities for South Africa through the evolved Equity Equivalent Investment Programme (EEIP).
With 20 years’ ICT experience in leadership roles in South Africa and Internationally. What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve encountered, and how did you overcome it?
I was fortunate that early in my career, I was identified as Top Talent, and as result was often placed in roles which I felt required more experience than I could offer at point. There were three key learnings that I had, which enabled to overcome an hurdle I faced.
Firstly, I realised that my diversity of thinking, my tenacity and my passion for what I do are they three things that often enable my success in any task.
Secondly, I realised that confidence in my abilities – and finding this quickly – was going to be important as I progressed in my career, because I always had ambitious goals.
Finally, and this is still true to this, life is going to be a continuous learning journey of self- discovery that you are going to have to embrace.
How has your background prepared you for success in the technology ecosystem?
I have more than 20 years’ experience in the ICT industry, and have held various executive positions with IBM and Vodacom, both locally and abroad, that have enabled me to gain extensive knowledge in sales, operations, business controls, strategy, business transformation and leadership.
This experience, combined with my passion and commitment to continuous learning and understanding the technology trends positions me well to be successful in this industry.
My time as an entrepreneur really taught me the importance of resilience, and to keep focusing on your end goal and not give up until you achieve it.
I have also been fortunate to have a number of strong mentors, through whom I have learnt some key leadership lessons, and in particular the importance of leading through inspiration, constant focus on your people and continuous communication.
Tell us about your philosophy and leadership style?
In South Africa, leaders must make learning a new way of life and have to become intentional about their learning agenda; because the tech industry is ever changing. This will ensure that you keep your skills current and it will ensure that you remain relevant.
In my journey to leadership, I learnt that it is critical to have faith in your capabilities and the confidence to express those capabilities through your authentic voice. My personal mandate is to ensure that through authenticity; I am transparent, honest and effective in communicating plans and goals for the organisation and doing so with clarity.
People has always been at the core of my focus. As a leader you must be transformational in your approach and build a diverse and inclusive workplace. It is fair to say that we all understand diversity, but inclusivity is so important, and this is all about focusing on the needs of every individual, ensuring that the right conditions are in place, so everyone can reach their full potential.
As a global organisation that is committed to finding new ways of empowering people to achieve more, we are constantly evolving and creating change from within, so we can provide the best possible service to our customers.
We obsess over what matters to our customers, becoming more diverse and inclusive in everything we do and create, operating as one company instead of multiple siloed businesses and lastly, to making a difference in the lives of each other, our customers and the world around us.
Our business is anchored in a growth mindset, this inspires us to be curious about our customers — learning all we can about their needs and challenges with a beginner’s mind — and then bringing innovative and practical solutions to meet their needs and surprise and delight them. We believe by applying a growth mindset, we have the ability to change the world; empowering every person and every organisation to achieve more.
What’s the best and worst decision you’ve ever made? And how were you able to turn the bad decision around?
I live with the philosophy that the only risks that we regret are the ones that we have not taken. As such, I focus on ensuring I deliver to best on all the decisions that I have taken, while learning and moving on from the ones that didn’t work out as planned.
What’s the greatest transformation in tech you’ve witnessed in your career and the next big thing in ecosystem?
We are in the midst of a technological revolution, the 4th industrial revolution, and I believe that artificial intelligence(AI) will be the defining technology of this time. Similar to the discovery of electricity or the development of the steam engine, I believe that AI will have the power to fundamentally change people’s lives, transforming industry and transforming society.
When developed at scale, quantum computing will change the world. Imagine a computer that could accurately model the natural world, allowing us to create real and practical solutions to climate change. A computer that could accurately model human biological systems, leading to new and incredible breakthroughs in medicine.
Women in technology are definitely in the minority, how are you encouraging and supporting women to come be part of the ecosystem?
Women are still under represented and having women’s representation in these fields is not only a matter of fairness, but our economies and societies also lose out when we fail to engage half of the world’s brainpower in our engines of innovation.
We need to encourage interest from the early years of development, combat stereotypes, train teachers to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers, develop curricula that are gender-sensitive, and mentor girls and young women to adopt different mind-sets.
I have played a pivotal in re-igniting the South African chapter of Women@Microsoft and spurring a culture that encourages gender equality in the workplace.
At Microsoft, we start early in the pipeline by sparking girls’ interest in technology, for example:
- Our YouthSpark programmes seek to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to learn computer science through unique partnerships with governments, business, and non-profit organisations such as Code.org. Girls represent 52 percent of the total beneficiaries of YouthSpark. Through YouthSpark we spearhead an initiative, DigiGirlz which is aimed at giving middle and high school girls opportunities to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.
- Microsoft started a movement, inspiring girls, as well as the parents, educators and nonprofits who encourage and support them, to #MakeWhatsNext. Not only does this open up opportunities for careers in the technology industry, but in our increasingly digital world, STEM skills also offer a leg up for those wanting to become researchers, consultants, business managers, teachers and many more.
What is your vision and goals for the Microsoft South Africa brand under your leadership?
- I believe that cloud computing presents a big opportunity for Microsoft in SA. Public cloud services are set to triple in the next five years. This is because a lot of businesses are looking to drive innovation from cloud services. The recent opening of the datacentres and EEIP investment talks to the heart of our focus for the next 2 – 3 years.
- I also want to work closely with our partners to make sure we continue to build the requisite skill sets so that South Africa can continue to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution and become an emerging giant in this space. How we will skill our people to prepare them for the job of the future will also be a challenge.
- I want to continue driving the agenda of a more inclusive and diverse workplace by providing equal opportunities for men and women.
- As I mentioned earlier, I am passionate about the possibilities of technology and how it can transform the industry, empower society and enable economic growth for South Africa, and Africa.
- Together with our partner ecosystem, we are focussed on enabling business and Government to harness the opportunity presented by these emerging technologies in an ethical and inclusive manner to ensure that every individual is empowered and benefits from the digital era.
What are you seeing with organisations as Microsoft South Africa that have a social mission?
I believe that companies that have a social mission, aligned to their core business, tend to be more inspiring to their customers, partners and employees. People deeply commit to companies with an authentic higher purpose – and it enables them to be passionate about what they are doing!
It not just about doing good or doing business, it is about doing good business.
Teach us one word in your home language. What’s your favourite local dish and holiday spot in Africa.
In South Africa we are spoilt with our choice of incredible food. But, with the beautiful oceans surrounding, I have to say I love fish!
Her Short Bio:
Lillian Barnard was appointed as the Managing Director of Microsoft South Africa in March 2019. She joined Microsoft in May 2017 as Public Sector Director for South Africa, a role she held for almost two years.
Lillian has more than 20 years’ experience in the ICT industry. She is a seasoned professional with proven capabilities and a strong understanding of local market. Through the various executive positions that Lillian has held, both locally and abroad, she has gained extensive knowledge in sales, operations, business controls, strategy, business transformation and leadership. This experience, combined with her deep industry knowledge, positions her perfectly to strengthen Microsoft’s commitment to South Africa and its wishes to drive its digital transformation ambitions and empower governments, organisations and individuals to achieve more.
She has become renowned for building strong, high-performing teams that consistently deliver on their financial targets, while also bringing innovative digital solutions to her partners and customers. Having led large teams both locally and abroad, she is recognised for strength in developing people and creating an environment where everyone can do their best work.
Lillian is passionate about enabling a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. By drawing on her own experiences, she endeavours to create a culture that enables people to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and be embraced for that individuality. She has been pivotal in re-igniting the South African chapter of Women@Microsoft and spurring a culture that encourages gender equality in the workplace.
Prior to joining Microsoft, Lillian served as Chief Sales Officer for Vodacom’s Enterprise Business for two years. She also headed LillianB Consulting Services where she was an advisor and coach to business leaders. During Lillian’s 15-year career at IBM, she held a number of key leadership positions, including working for 7-years at the IBM European Headquarters in France and Switzerland.
She previously served on the boards of Vodacom South Africa, Mango Airlines and Dad-fund Non-Profit Organization.
Lillian holds a BCom Honours in Business Economics from the University of the Western Cape.