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Five minutes with Sandra Vandermerwe

Sandra Vandermerwe, Extraordinary Professor at Gordon Institute of Business Studies (GIBS), University of Pretoria

Sandra Vandermerwe

What were the biggest challenges and learnings in your career?

A lot of my concepts applied to a world changing fast and events yet to happen, so I had to learn to constantly innovate and adapt my thinking.

As a thought leader you are often too early for the people who really need you.  But to be true to myself I had to learn not to be afraid to push people and with the years I became more confident and it became easier. I always said I am in the ‘strategic discomfort’ business. However, you cannot just tell people they are doing it wrong – you also have to give them an alternative view of the world and way of thinking.

I also learnt that no two enterprises are the same. Like no two customers are the same. There is no such thing as an off-the-shelf solution that fits all.

Mark JenkinsYou started a business at the age of 20 before becoming an internationally respected academic. What did that early experience teach you?

Simple: to keep promises. Never promise what you cannot deliver. I think that sort of integrity has guided my life and made service central to my work. Service must be number one above anything else (however that is defined) – everything else follows.

Sandra VandermerweWhat do you believe is the real goal of business today?

To create impact and wealth, commercially as well as socially. I believe in the future we will see more and more fusion between NGOs and commercial enterprises, as the realisation grows that wealth has to be inclusive and be made to spread. By this I don’t mean making and redistributing profit to poor people. That’s charity. I mean that if business is to tap a new middle class it has to be prepared to help create it. This ‘virtuous cycle’ is the cornerstone of new strategies and it requires different minds and models from the past.

You’re one of our bestselling case authors. What would you say to a newcomer to the case method?

Sandra VandermerweFirst decide on the objective. Then when you have that clear in your mind (and only then) start collecting data and doing research. Otherwise you waste a lot of time and go round in circles. Then write the case like a story because that is how people get engaged, bombarded as they are today with information. Find something about the way the characters think and take decisions – stuff students cannot find on the Internet.

A good case has:

  • Defining moments and decision making points – these should evoke a debate in a class otherwise what’s the point.
  • Learnings – good or bad. If you cannot list the learnings yourself, there won’t be any, and you haven’t written a good case.
  • Data if possible that executives can play with – people love to push the figures – that’s just true universally.
  • A memorable association – one significant thing you want students never to forget about the case and company, and you the instructor!

Sandra VandermerweYour wide-ranging professional activities include teaching, writing books and articles, and providing consultancy services to globally recognised brands. Which has given you the most personal satisfaction during your career?

I guess two things:

  • That moment in a classroom or boardroom where you know you have made a person or even better a group of people see things differently. You really can feel it.
  • Observing my theories/frameworks work in a business setting.

Sandra VandermerweIf you could be transported into another profession for one week, which would you choose, and why?

Veterinary or something related to animal welfare. I love animals and they love me.

Sandra VandermerweHow do you relax?

I watch good movies that make me forget myself and what I have to do next.

Do you have a favourite quote or guiding principle?

Sometimes you have to leap before you think. Then make it work!

Sandra Vandermerwe is Extraordinary Professor at Gordon Institute of Business Studies (GIBS), University of Pretoria, Johannesburg; Associate Fellow at Imperial College Business School, London, UK; and Senior Associate for Deloitte Consulting

Sandra is one of The Case Centre’s bestselling authors. Find out more >

e prof.sandra.vandermerwe@gmail.com

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