November 1, 2021
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we travelled to Johannesburg to share the Extra(ordinary) journey of Ziaad Suleman, former Chief Operating Officer of IBM Africa and current Group Chief Commercial Officer of EOH. Success, a term often used and with so many varying barometers, led our discussion on values and value systems which influence our ability to connect with ourselves, before understanding how to truly connect with others. For Ziaad, the goal to always fulfill his best ability and, in doing so, lead a better life for his family included taking steps in the right direction, but not without valuing the relationships and the ethos with which he was raised. The relationships, seizing opportunity, executing successfully with precision, and offering to help others was a path toward fulfilling his own destiny. We discussed the pieces of our puzzles, and how connections with people as we move along our journeys is partly fate and partly choice. It’s what we do with these opportunities and how we develop these relationships to support one another that develops character, and the ability to lead a life of purpose. Ziaad takes us through his tenacious journey, and the humbling moments that helped him define success.
“I was born and raised in South Africa,” Ziaad begins sharing. “My grandparents and my heritage line originate from India on my mother’s side whilst my father’s family are from the Pakistan / Afghanistan border. My parents were born and brought up in South Africa. Ultimately, because of heritage, I found myself staying in South Africa. I come from a small but strongly bonded family. I grew up in a place called Lenasia in the South of Johannesburg, which was an Indian township established because of Apartheid. Apartheid is very well known in many parts of the world. What Apartheid did was it forced different communities into different areas; and because the Indians were not allowed to live wherever they wanted, one of the townships that Indians were allowed to reside was Lenasia. So, I started my initial schooling in Lenasia, and in grade six my parents took the bold and courageous step of sending me to St. John’s College, one of the most respected and prestigious schools, where I completed my elementary school studies.” He continues, “I was fortunate and privileged enough to have been given this opportunity to attend one of the best educational institutions in South Africa. At school, I was a Prefect, played First Team Hockey and was captain of First Team Squash. Whilst it was a gift that I’d never be able to repay, it was not an easy opportunity because my parents battled and sacrificed everything in their lives to give me this super education. As a result of their sacrifice, it gave me the grounding to take advantage of the many opportunities as they arose. Also, because I come from a value centred middle-class background, I understood and appreciated the importance of a good work ethic, discipline, integrity, humility, appreciation, reflection and sacrifice. These, for me, were important life lessons because I could see day in and day out the challenges that my parents and sister went through just to keep things afloat. It was these sacrifices during difficult times that paid for my education, and laid the platform for my growth.”
“My parents came from poor backgrounds. They grew up from backgrounds where they had to walk many, many miles just to get to school. They were not in a position where their parents gave them education, or a material start to life. My dad grew up in a family where his siblings had to look after each other - his mother was unfortunately ill and she passed away at a young age. Those were hardships where my dad, along with his siblings, raised himself. My mom grew up in a family that lived day-by-day through challenge. At one point in her life, she had to stay with her aunts and her uncles who had to take care of her. My grandmother used to teach, and the little money she made from teaching helped her raise her kids. My mom’s father worked in a store as a general salesperson.” He continues, “My dad largely self studied at his own expense. My mom worked as an administrative assistant and did extremely well balancing full-time work and raising her two children. The life challenge and daily sacrifice I witnessed molded my humility. Therefore, when you see those things, you realize that you have a great chance, albeit only one chance, based on their sacrifices, to do well. It’s either you make it work; or you throw away the great opportunity created through the many sacrifices that these people have been through for so many years. For me, I could never take that for granted; and therefore, I had an innate desire to succeed. I witnessed the daily struggles which involved emotional and financial pain, and the difficult days we went through just to have food on the table and decent clothes. These are the hardships that they went through, and this is what drove them to work hard to give me an education and the right values. They improved the position they found themselves in: from their perspective, they wanted to give my sister and I a better start than they had. Ultimately, that’s what they did and for that I have the greatest admiration and gratitude.”
Upon graduating from high school, Ziaad ventured to university and explored opportunities that would encourage him to experience life and take chances. “I studied at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN). I always had an affinity to do Law and I believe that my analytical thinking and solution mindset is a testament to moving in that direction. I completed my Undergraduate B.Proc degree, and thereafter, my Honours in Law (LLB) with Distinction. Because of my high academic achievement, I was granted the opportunity to join Livingston Leandy Inc., one of the top three Legal Firms in KZN. It was during my Articles at Law that I studied my Honours degree, which usually takes two years, but because of my academic achievement in my Undergraduate degree, the University allowed me to complete this degree in just one year. In hindsight, this time saved was a great boost as it allowed me to embrace multiple other opportunities which broadened my experience, network and exposure.”
During this time, an opportunity embraced in parallel to his professional career, was to establish his own independent sports academy, which he operated as a successful business. Here, he merged sports with different business models, and this value proposition ended up supporting many schools in South Africa. He also coached junior KZN Hockey at the KZN Hockey Academy for Elite players. Through this association, he was asked to join the Board of Directors, at the age of nineteen! Ziaad is humbled to share this accomplishment, and continues: “Just a year later, I was elected as the Chairperson of the Board. That was an unbelievable accolade as it demonstrated people’s belief in me, my ability and my maturity at a young age. This opportunity and experience grew me multifold, including teaching me: how to lead people who were a lot older and who had greater experience than myself at that time; and how to harness people’s abilities and their experiences in order to get the best outcomes. As part of this journey, we had a four-Nations hockey tournament which included Pakistan, South Africa, Argentina and Egypt. Here, I found myself at 20 years of age negotiating sponsorship and media rights, delivering the closing speech before thousands of people and live on television, handing out the trophy, and more. All these experiences in your life grow you, and this ultimately gets you to where you end up. A lot happened in that period in my life. Not only in terms of meeting many diverse people, exponential growth, and creating new networks, but it was also an exciting and fun-filled time in my youth. I was involved in things that were meaningful and benefitted society and myself.”
After completing his articles, Ziaad joined a company involved in establishing Local Economic Development Centres. During this time, Ziaad married his wife of twenty-one years and counting, and returned back to Johannesburg. “I had a great opportunity to join and be part of the establishment of the second fixed line telecomm operator in South Africa, then called the SNO (Second Network Operator and now called Liquid Intelligent Technologies). I was one of the first consultant’s and it went extremely well. I learned a lot, working largely in the Telecomm space on the promotional side, the real estate side, and the business modelling side. The delay in the granting of the license shifted me on to my next opportunity. Prior to joining IBM, I worked at a large local ICT company called Business Connexion. Following this, I had the great privilege of joining IBM.” Paul Curtis, who was from the UK on assignment, was stationed in South Africa to run the Legal Department of IBM. He sought a successor, and in Ziaad he discovered just the perfect person. “I joined IBM as a Senior Legal Counsel, and after six months, I was appointed as the Head of Legal and my career grew from there. It was a lot of transactional and advisory work, but it was also very fascinating being a part of a multinational organization where one can engage and collaborate with people from all over the world. My role then grew into overseeing a much wider territory within Africa,” he explains. “Working as a corporate lawyer, your role is extremely important in providing solution-based outcomes and offering advice that progresses the business as a trusted advisor. The key is executing this mandate in a manner that has manageable and acceptable risk. I worked in a number of different business units across different fields, which gave me great exposure to the Board and an opportunity to continue to grow.”
A few years later, Ziaad was promoted to Director and COO at IBM Southern Africa, a newly created role to support the business, which was perfectly suited to his wide-ranging skills. “This new role offered me a much broader horizon and a greater dimension as it elevated my experience and skills. I had the opportunity to touch every aspect of the business. I had a great amount of responsibility across multiple business units. I looked after areas including sales operations, general operations, special transformational projects, investments and strategy, emerging customers, client centre and research lab, customer fulfillment, real estate, procurement and various others”. Ziaad recently joined EOH, one of South Africa’s largest technology companies, to catalyse their commercial go-to market strategy.
Ziaad shares how his journey also offered him opportunities to volunteer and serve on several different boards. “I currently serve as a non-executive director on Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa and support an ICT NPO initiative for good called DIGIT. It’s purely giving back; it’s around citizenship and society and helping other people. Additionally, I serve as the non-executive chairman for Qode which is a company focused on healthcare solutions. For my country, I serve as the chairperson of the Digital Economy for South Africa at BRICS, which is an amazing opportunity due to the international exposure. It’s about working with your counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and China looking at collaboration, synergies and alignment across the various geographies.” Ziaad also serves as the chairperson of the PPGI, which is the Public Private Growth Initiative. “This is a presidential initiative where we solve, co-create, align and find solutions within the digital economy.” Ziaad is pleased to represent his country on this important platform and continues offering insight into his philanthropy with humility. For Ziaad, serving as the chairperson of the board at his daughters’ school adds to him supporting a wider ecosystem.
He continues sharing, “As leaders, one of the fundamental aspects that we always have to focus on is how to become involved and do meaningful, impactful and responsible work in order to leave a place better than when we started. It’s not just one person’s responsibility, it’s every leader’s responsibility in order to try to bring people along with them for the betterment of society. It’s about giving hope and opportunity. It’s about giving a hand up and not a hand down.”
Success for Ziaad isn’t defined by his own accomplishments. He measures his success through his impact on others and the institutions he serves. “Success is how you help people, how you make a meaningful and positive difference by excelling at the tasks entrusted to you, how you refine yourself for the better, whilst continuing to uphold the highest standards of integrity and how, despite power or position, you continue to remain humble and grounded to serve without compromising your core values. This includes how you can relate to younger and older people, and those with greater or less knowledge. It’s about how you contribute to society so that you leave a positive legacy, rather than just simply passing through life without being noticed. It’s about the way you think, your values, your attributes, the way you speak to and deal with people, the way you constructively solve difficult challenges, and the way you compete to achieve objectives set. There’s definitely a destiny out there which requires you to aim to chase the sun. All these aspects are extremely important. Therefore, success for me is doing well at all of these aspects seamlessly and holistically, that is: being a value - add asset whether it be in my role as a father, husband, son or family member; a societal leader; an executive; a friend; a mentor, a sports person, or otherwise… being able to make a positive and lasting impact through one’s presence is a key trait of growth, both for myself and the institutions I serve.”
Level-headed and balanced, Ziaad’s strong belief in who you are and what you do is what leads you to your destiny. Ziaad has no regrets, and his successful journey is a reflection of his affable personality; his intellect and leadership (business and beyond); his sound values, premised on trust and integrity; his tenacity and work ethic; and ultimately, wise decisions that continue to shape his destiny. While upward and onward, Ziaad remains aware of constantly improving, given the dynamic nature of the world and the importance to improve your value proposition, continually and incrementally. He strongly believes that it is these efforts that drive one’s destiny.
Ziaad has shown us a lens of perseverance, which built confidence and led him to perform at the highest level. Ziaad didn’t allow challenges along the way to compromise his success, his core value system, or his positive impact on people, society or business outcomes. His belief in himself, supported by his faith, family, friends and mentors, guided him to his success.
“Be agile and adaptive. Be courageous by stepping out of your comfort zone and take wise, calculated, and rational decisions. Have a growth mindset. Back yourself. Show exactly who you are, what you can do, and HOW you add great value to an organization, and to people’s lives. In return, you reveal your purpose and you will be equally rewarded. As your holistic proposition and your performance in executing successfully yields positive outcomes, more opportunities are created to aggregate further success.”
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO