Catherine Lesetedi: Passionate About Improving Livelihoods for and with Batswana

Africa's 10 Most Empowering Business Leaders of the Year 2023

Catherine Lesetedi

When it comes to tangible impacts for socio-economic progress, the role of corporate organisations in going “beyond the bottom line” goes almost without saying. Going beyond this is, however, fast becoming status quo at the Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited (BIHL) Group, is a leading insurance and asset management group listed on the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE). Purposing itself towards improving livelihoods, the BIHL Group has built in sustainable progress into its very strategy, and they are working to lead from the proverbial front when it comes to ensuring progress is more than mere lip service.

As its GCEO, Catherine Lesetedi, is steering the Group toward further growth and success, and all with a firm undercurrent of sustainable impact. Catherine belongs to a small yet powerful group of women in financial services who have successfully navigated the male-dominated industry, now very much a leader that both men and women look up to in the corporate space.

Catherine Lesetedi is a two-time winner of the prestigious “Ai100 CEO of the Year” award, and this comes as no surprise to any who have had the privilege of seeing her leadership in action. Many will agree that it is the demonstrative proof of progress that tells the most accurate story of leadership, be it in business performance, or in the calibre and performance of those they lead; on both accounts, Catherine’s ability to lead any business, let alone the largest listed financial services group on Botswana’s domestic bourse,  stands as impressively as it does inspiringly. Indeed, while her career serves as a veritable treasure trove of industry and global awards, these are not Catherine’s proudest or most prized moments. These special nuggets of pride are reserved, for her, for moments of genuine sincerity and impact, knowing someone’s life or day has been transformed in some way, big or small. This is why nothing pleases her more than someone saying, “Thank you; because of what you said two years ago, I’ve been able to grow and achieve this position at work.”

This is the real mark of success, in Catherine’s view. “Such moments are never on a public platform,” she says, “They are private moments, and I cherish them the most.” It speaks to the very culture of what Catherine Lesetedi strives to shape in culture and in legacy, and those who know her personally or professionally will undoubtedly recognise this in her purposeful efforts.

Life Before the Corporate World

Many, many years before she entered the corporate world, the formidable and yet kind character Catherine Lesetedi would come to be known for was forged from a multitude of childhood experiences. As a toddler Catherine contracted polio, and this left her physically disabled. Resolute about not letting this hold her back in any way – physical or otherwise – she had to work extra hard to succeed. Fortunately, her dad, a single parent, never treated her differently from her other siblings. In fact, he only cultivated her determination and resilience further. Because of this, she was able to draw her strength from being “different” and turn this into her veritable superpower.

Young Catherine was an avid reader, treating books as her gateway into new worlds and limitless spaces for learning. During university, she read about women leaders in magazines such as Femina and Cosmopolitan, coming to know of women who were making their presence felt in the corporate world and beyond. “They truly inspired me,” she says. She knew then she wanted to have that kind of impact, and that kind of ability to inspire others.

After finishing university, armed with her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Statistics and Demography, Catherine knew she needed to find the right challenge and the right playing field to fuel her ambition further. “The insurance industry had that dynamic,” she says, and, as the saying goes, “that was that.”

This kindled sense of purpose and direction, combined with her curious, ambitious and determined outlook, helped shape a young child leader into the awe-inspiring person Catherine is today.

Working in Insurance

For some, insurance is considered “a numbers game;” something technical and even dubbed “uncreative.” For Catherine, this could not be further from the truth. It is a means to inspire, empower and impact, no matter what role one holds, and certainly no matter where one is placed.

With this belief in the back of her mind, in 1992, Catherine joined the BIHL Group as a supervisor. At the time, she had no knowledge about the intricacies of the insurance industry. She took the plunge because of her passion and her belief in herself, alive to the idea of cultivating opportunity. “I wanted to succeed and do well,” she says, “For this is how one can then make their mark for self and for others.” Catherine has served in various positions at the BIHL Group, tackling each one with the same mindset and ambition: working to do good, better.

No matter where her career took her, this outlook and way of living and working remain consistent in an ever-changing corporate landscape. She joined AON Botswana in 2004, and two years later, she returned to the BIHL Group as the Head of Corporate and High Value Broker Business at one of its subsidiaries, Botswana Life Insurance Limited (Botswana Life). Catherine was appointed as Botswana Life CEO in 2010. In March of 2016, she was promoted from subsidiary-level to Group CEO of the BIHL Group, effectively Botswana Life’s parent. The second woman and longest serving to occupy this role was not a milestone lost on Catherine or any who watched her journey, but it was notably not her gender that had any bearing on her appointment, but her truly being the best individual for the role. That she has inspired – and continues to inspire – a legion of women and young girls since then is simply the proverbial cherry on top, and a cherry that has since been celebrated further by design.

What does this industry have to offer Catherine? The beauty lies in the very fact that it exists to serve ordinary people. “We manage risks, manage investment and pensions on behalf of clients , and we help provide financial security and peace of mind,” she says. “At a basic level, insurance is about pooling risks, taking a few Pulas from  a cross-section of clients, investing the funds and helping them save for the future. It is about assisting families and individuals to protect their loved ones and creating legacies through products like life cover. It is also about managing risk for employers, financial institutions, and affinity groups. Our Group is committed to financial inclusion and leads the industry through one of its flagship products which targets the unbanked and underbanked,” she notes. It is not, as some might imagine, a simply transactional impact, but a long-term one that stands to change the very fabric of households, industries and communities.

Catherine points out that the insurance industry also serves a bigger purpose. “The premiums and assets we manage serve as a cheaper source of funds and in this regard the Group has significant exposure to government and corporate bonds, local equities and offshore markets and real estate across Botswana and a sizable book of unlisted assets, which is credit extended to private business in the country. This speaks to access and opportunity to in turn create value for others. We have the immense responsibility – which doubles as our passion – of working to help improve people’s livelihoods and contribute to our beautiful country’s economic progress. This is why I remain committed and excited by the work being done by our Group and the insurance industry in general,” she says. “It moves me; it is beyond a role or a job.”

Dealing with Challenges    

Such an industry and such a role are not without challenges, As can be expected Catherine has encountered several of these in her 30+ year career. Many times, she has had to deal with issues of misalignment or plain disagreements. Her approach and her work ethic have always done her well in this regard, with every opportunity a chance to learn and grow too. Sometimes, this means taking an open and mature approach to directly engage and dialogue to get alignment. “On many occasions, I was able to get alignment,” she says. “For one to lead successfully, they must have the courage to have difficult conversations, they are necessary for clarity and alignment and setting the tone”. Sometimes, it means knowing when to step away a little, whether it is a people discussion or a boardroom issue.

Performance is an area ripe with potential issues of conflict and many a tough conversation. Catherine explains that it is not possible to show growth and profit consistently year-on-year without challenges, and she has certainly experienced her fair share during times of economic downturn.

One example of a challenging period was in 2011, when Catherine and her team had to deal with challenges arising from a poorly implemented system that led to a delay in producing financial year-end results. “I was running a business that was a part of the listed company,” she points out. “So, there was a lot of pressure on timely and accurate reporting of financial results.”  She reached out to her Board and that of the parent company and requested more time to deal with the functionality and reporting issues. She banded together with her Executive team – an example of the Strength in Numbers the BIHL Group is very much known for even today – for collective responsibility on the matter. Part of the agreement with the board was to defer payment of Executive annual bonuses until material challenges were addressed. It was a bold move, and one that allowed for more time to remedy the issues at hand, whilst also ensuring greater confidence in her and her team’s commitment to the cause. Catherine vividly recalls how the Board appreciated this gesture of accountability “This was a defining moment in my career as a CEO,” she shared.

Whether gender played any role in this scenario is open to interpretation, but it has likely reared its head in many others. Catherine has probably faced more challenges compared to her male counterparts, whether being spoken over or simply not being heard because of her gender. In fact, her assertiveness has often been labelled aggressive by some, while some men outright questioned whether she even belonged to the c-suite or boardroom. “They doubted my abilities simply because I was a woman,” she says. As a result, she had to work harder to prove herself. “It is not something women should have to go through, as we are equally intelligent and capable,” Catherine says. “For the few men that doubted my abilities, there were many who believed in me, mentored and supported my career and continue to do so – it will be remiss of me not to acknowledge this support; may we have more of these self-assured men in the corporate world!” Of course, staring down the face of a challenge is something Catherine learned early on in life, and even now, remains something she tackles with grace.

This does not mean it does not take its toll at times. This is where balance has always been key – balance between managing the pressures of one’s career, and finding joy in one’s pursuits outside of work. Catherine does this by empowering her team enough to allow herself time to overcome stress through travel and passion projects such as cooking or even decorating her home. “Taking time off is necessary for reflection and creative thinking,” she notes.

Leadership as an Ever-evolving Process: the Role of Group CEO 

Catherine sees leadership as an ever-long journey – always being shaped, influenced and informed as one works to become the kind of leader they want and the kind of leader they can be proud of. It is as much about “the job” as it is the people and the softer side of human interactions. Both are areas Catherine works to finesse daily.

For instance, as the Group CEO, Catherine primarily focuses on strategy. However, networking is another key aspect of her work. She regularly engages with various stakeholders, chief of these being Regulators, partners, brokers, employees and clients. She also sits on several Boards, and represents the Group on Associate Boards too.  “Around 70% of my time at work is spent on strategic discussions,” she says. But discussions mean flexing strong people skills too, and whether it is engagement or technical work, Catherine does not hesitate to roll up her sleeves to work with her team when needed. “They know that they can never get stuck and not tell me because I would dive straight into the problem with them,” she says.

It is this mindset and shared success spirit that sits at the heart of Catherine’s philosophy of leading a team. Employees are the BIHL Group’s greatest asset, in her view. “I love to engage with my colleagues,” she says. “I try to create an environment where everyone feels free to express their views.” This is why investment into culture and team are paramount. Initiatives in this space are plentiful, from townhall discussions inspired by Botswana’s own consultative “Kgotla” concept to the establishment of the Young Leaders Forum (YLF), which comprises employees under the age of 35 years.  The average age of the Group’s employees is much younger than Catherine. So,  she also devotes some of her time to understand what Gen Z wants and aspires to, and the YLF is just one means of doing so. “I often ask myself, “What can I do to benefit others, mostly youth?’” she says. “I’m passionate about lifting our youth up and being a contributor to their journey. They are, after all, our future.” The YLF has already seen tremendous success and is now in its second year. “It has been a gamechanger, enabling young leaders to engage with the Executive team through sharing of ideas and sometimes solving problems.”

Catherine needs very little motivation to do her work, for her work is her passion in many ways, and it shows in how the BIHL Group has evolved under her leadership.

This broad-based insurance services group was established in 1975. Under its umbrella are subsidiaries, Botswana Life and Botswana Insurance Fund Management (Bifm). It also has stakes in Associate Companies, making the portfolio under Catherine’s helm quite substantive. What brings it all together, however, is a singular and overarching purpose of improving livelihoods.

“We have served this purpose very well,” Catherine says. “I think we couldn’t have done it better in the past in some areas; this became most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we benefit from that foresight now.” The Group stood behind its clients and paid well over P2.4 billion in claims in 2021. It remained solvent and profitable and paid dividends at the same time, showing up for shareholders and stakeholders alike. An incredible feat, this is something Catherine remains incredibly proud of about her team.

Under Catherine’s leadership, the Group has also grown in terms of the assets it manages, profitability, and market capital. When she took the reins as GCEO in 2016, the BIHL Group was the fifth largest company by market capitalisation. Today, it is the second largest. A magnificent feat, Catherine is pleased with this progress and truly believes the Group is headed in the right direction, both in terms of financial and wider socio-economic metrics.

“Success is not and should not be just about financial metrics alone,” Catherine says. “It also needs to be measured in terms of different aspects, the social and the environmental impact, building a succession pool etc. Reflecting on my journey so far, I am happy with the progress made. I am also confident there is more to be done, and I am ready for that challenge.”

Shaping the Future of the BIHL Group

Catherine foresees a bright future for the BIHL Group and plans to ensure her efforts now translate into continued growth beyond her tenure as GCEO. The insurance penetration in Botswana, she points out, is still very low, currently at approximately 3%. With the type of infrastructure and expertise the Group possesses, she believes the Group is well positioned to leverage its assets for the next trajectory of growth.  “The wide array of unique products and solutions, diverse distribution channels and a strong ecosystem  will enable increased penetration and improved protection of families and individuals in a better position from a protection perspective.

On the asset management side, the new Retirement Fund Act requires that 50% of pension fund assets be managed locally; this requires a significant amount of funds that are invested in offshore markets be repatriated back home. “It is a significant amount of assets under management, and runs into several billions of Pula,” Catherine says. Through the Group’s asset management company (Bifm), the BIHL Group aims to develop products that will create a “meaningful home” for assets that come to Botswana. “It’s a new and exciting challenge to have and should lead to innovative financial solutions and economic growth. There is a lot of work ahead for my team and I, no doubt!” Catherine says. “But this is how we empower, educate and support our nation. This is how we improve livelihoods. It begins with us, and it begins now. We have a duty to shape a brighter future for those after us.”

Words of Wisdom

This very approach informs Catherine’s advice to her peers and certainly to the youth she hopes are inspired by her journey. “Have self-belief,” she says to tell aspiring leaders. “Your confidence will take you to greater heights. Do not be afraid to experiment, even if it means you might fail,” she adds. “Build your skills, be a contributor, and align your values with those of your organisation. And, most importantly, never stop dreaming!”