Few people are so deeply calculating about their careers from such an early age as Pfungwa Serima has been.
Right from his student days, Serima had things pretty much mapped out. Not where he would work, exactly, but what skills he needed to acquire and which steps to take to triumph in the IT sector.
Even now, as the MD of SAP Africa, he is still hatching plans with a calculating precision that should awe less focused people.
Yet any cool analytical aura is dispelled as he sits in the sun and chats about his life. He’s an engaging storyteller, happy to debate ambitions and Africa, politics and racism, or any other subject that arises, really.
Serima says he always looks beyond colour and respects people for their professional and personal skills. But as a Zimbabwean living in South Africa, he isn’t always treated with the same accord.
“We tend to make a mistake by confusing issues of national interest with being human and treating each other as such. It’s not a militant discussion, it’s a discussion of hearts meeting each other and saying, ‘I can work with this guy and respect this individual’. If you go in and add additional value, and show people you can do more, everything else falls into place. Prove you can do it and life changes.”
Serima was raised in Zimbabwe in the days when the country was pretty well run. “One thing (President Robert) Mugabe did then was to drive education and make sure the quality of education was exceptionally high, regardless of whether you were in a township or a rural area. It was all very competitive so getting a place at university wasn’t easy,” he remembers.
Serima was the seventh child in a middle-class family of seven sons and one daughter. After earning dual degrees in Business Studies and Computer Science, he joined the government as a systems analyst, making a smart career move into management within two years.
“During my first job I also became a part-time lecturer in charge of a full-time computer sciences course at university,” Serima says. He was responsible for the curriculum and setting exams, as well as teaching.
“For me it was a way to make a contribution and to keep in touch with what I’d done in IT. I also wanted to use it for confidence-boosting to be able to stand in front of people and deliver a course. It was arguably one of the best things I ever did to build confidence.”
Serima admits that becoming a lecturer was a calculated move to support his career plans. “One of the things required for consultancy is being able to convince people to make an investment, so it was an important piece in building my foundations.”
He also thoroughly enjoyed it, saying if he were given an opportunity to become a lecturer again, he’d love to do it. Since this is a man who makes his own opportunities, rather than waits for someone to hand them to him, lecturing presumably features somewhere further ahead on his road map.
His time with Zimbabwe’s government was also crucial for his career, giving him the insight as a customer that later made him a more empathetic consultant.
“It was easier for me to become a consultant simply because I understood how a customer thinks. If you want a successful consultant, you must blend them with people who have industry experience.”
The government job required Serima to establish a national social security system, from devising policies to developing IT systems to process payments.
He brought in Accenture to assist, but initially declined an offer to defect to the private sector and join Accenture’s team. Instead, he joined NCR to steep himself in SAP skills, since SAP software was just rolling into Zimbabwe and Serima was keen to jump on board.
After 18 months with NCR, which included SAP training in Germany, Serima finally accepted the offer from Accenture. He emigrated to South Africa in 1998 to become a senior manager in its consulting business.
“I was choosing pieces of the puzzle that helped me in my career,” he says. “My mind was really set in terms of where I wanted my career to go, and Accenture was one of the best systems integration companies, so I looked at the opportunity and embraced it.”
Serima was in his late 30s and CEO of Accenture Technology Solutions when Microsoft approached him to head its Services Group in 2004. Again his brain crunched the pros and cons. Resigning as a CEO to take a seemingly lowlier position made sense, as his ambition was to become the CEO of a global institution. First, he needed to gain more experience.
“The potential was there but it needed to be nursed,” he says. “I felt I had what it takes. Did I see the Microsoft MD’s job coming? The answer is no. Did I see it as an opportunity? Absolutely.”
Then Microsoft SA MD Gordon Frazer returned to the UK, leaving the top job vacant. Foreign companies were under pressure to appoint local black MDs, so that didn’t score heavily in Serima’s favour as a Zimbabwean. But he earned the position anyway.
After only two years, he was on the move again – lured by SAP’s offer of being responsible for all of Africa.
It was the convergence of everything he had done coupled with the chance to do things he still aimed to do.
“It was the fourth quadrant of the puzzle,” he says. “I have always aspired to great things and always felt the need to work for an international institution.I feel very close to this continent, and I think we as Africans, regardless of colour or background, have a contribution to make to Africa. SAP provided that in that I’m doing what I like best: it’s not just about technology, it’s about how you bring it all together to make a difference.”
Serima covers 42 countries, and typically spends two weeks a month visiting them through five regional offices.
He has been married for 15 years and has two sons and two daughters. His eldest son of 23 came from a previous relationship, but lives with Serima.
He believes his children’s generation is the catalyst for racial harmony as they don’t notice what colour their friends are – even if their parents do. When some children bring their parents to his house, the adults are nervous. Until he offers them a drink and they start to chat.
On a grander scale, he points out how rugby fans are now attending matches in Soweto and relishing the shebeens afterwards.
“They’ve never been there, and they ask themselves why they haven’t been before.”
By now Serima is in full flow, enjoying the chance to debate his theories.
“It’s the same when it comes to going into the rest of Africa,” he argues. “South Africans find it very difficult to go to countries north of here for businesses or as individuals. If you say to someone, ‘Let’s go to Lagos or Ethiopia’, they say, ‘Aaaagh, I don’t want to go!’ Those countries are full of expats. The Chinese and Indians are in Africa. The whole of Europe is in Africa. The Americans are in Africa but you don’t see South Africans in Africa.”
Serima wants to be a player across the continent, not a spectator.
“I want to go and look and listen and understand and maybe lose the game on the field, not because I haven’t pitched up. There is a lot of genuine, legitimate business that Africa can offer and if you become part of it, you will make a contribution and you’ll have a viable, meaningful business.”
Now 45, he aims to move into a global role if he stays at SAP.
“I may move if the opportunity presents itself, but I plan to be with SAP for a while. I started a journey that I’d like to see through. I have a plan that I hope my superiors understand.”
He declines to be specific, but it sounds as if he intends to encourage the German company to invest more heavily in Africa. To go further into the continent by targeting oil, gas and financial services companies, and the government sector.
“I’m an evangelist of Africa,” he agrees. “I consider Africa as the last frontier of choice remaining to make a significant difference. If you procrastinate and leave it for another day, the opportunity will be gone.”