Coming full circle

Read time 11min 10sec

Jacqui Westman wasn't expecting the SMS that came that cold afternoon in July, congratulating her on winning. At the time, she was sitting with her 12-year-old son Jordan in the ICU of Unitas hospital, after he'd had major surgery on his colon. She had no idea she had won. “A colleague sent an SMS to congratulate me and when I realised what it was I couldn't believe it. It was like a saving grace for everything I'd been through this year.”

The award in question - the Microsoft Circle of Excellence - is the highest level of recognition for Microsoft employees worldwide, awarded to only 2% of the company's more than 90 000 employees. It recognises staff members' passion, determination, and leadership, as well as their willingness to go the extra mile.

Westman received the award for the work she had done as senior account manager for Microsoft at one of the largest financial institutions in SA, a role she has filled for two-and-a-half years. Microsoft employees from all over the world are nominated, and winners are selected by an international judging panel. In addition to the Circle of Excellence, Westman won the Downstream Award in the Grow category for helping the bank drive innovation while displacing the competition. For Westman, the COE came at just the right time. “I was overjoyed when I found out about the award- it made it all worth it.”

“It all” encompasses a number of challenges Westman faced this year, chief of which was her son being diagnosed with a rare condition, which resulted in his colon collapsing. He was out of school for most of the time between February and July, undergoing two major operations, the second of which involved removing a third of his colon.

“It was very stressful, with him being so young and not understanding why this was happening, and achieving all these things at Microsoft at the same time,” says Westman, adding that the company has been incredibly supportive throughout the experience.

“At the same time my little girl, who's only nine, qualified for the South African show-jumping championships. So I had to leave her to continue with that on her own while we tried to get Jordan back to health.”

Westman attributes her ability to push on through difficulties to her faith as well as close friends and family. “Without them I would not have made it through this year.

“Also, Microsoft as an organisation has been remarkable in supporting a single parent through this. They trust so much in their employees to deliver and extend a hand so you can achieve as an individual. That trust element is the most important for me because they trusted me through all of this knowing my child was ill, and gave me the support I needed to get the job done.”

Balancing act

Westman's ambitions weren't originally based in the IT world, although it's an industry she is now passionate about.

“I actually wanted to be a vet when I was young - that's where my heart and soul was - but unfortunately we weren't from a wealthy family, so I didn't have the means to study.”

She began her career at Toshiba, as a very 'green' beginner, got into IT sales and loved it. From here, Westman moved to Business Connexion, where she stayed for 10 years. “It gave me one of the best sounding boards in terms of career development and I was selected to take part in their study programme, and completed my mini-MBA.”

Sometimes you have to put your big girl panties on and just get on with it.

Jacqui Westman

Westman went on to Cisco Systems, and while there she was approached by Microsoft to join its financial services team. “For me it was the opportunity of a lifetime because I've always wanted to work for an organisation like Microsoft. They really respect individuals as individuals and the work ethic is above and beyond any I've seen in SA.”

The values of the company proved a natural fit for Westman. “Microsoft has a culture that values integrity above all - to do as you say and say as you do. They hold you accountable for the job you are employed to do and treat you with the maturity and respect that I've seen at few companies in SA - and I say that having been in IT for 10 years. They are a step above the rest.”

Upon joining Microsoft, Westman was signed on to a large financial services deal, a three-year contract that is one of the company's largest in the Middle East and Africa region. Westman believes it was determination and long-term vision that led to her winning the award.

“It was the ability to have a team that was onboard all the way, and could see the end goal in sight no matter which curveballs came our way - and there were many curveballs. But we never gave up. We persevered through it and I think the integrity in the way we dealt with the deal and the way we did business had a lot to do with receiving the award.”

In many ways, a decade-long stint in the IT industry prepared Westman for these challenges, as she learned to constantly push herself beyond self-imposed limitations. “What I enjoy about the technology industry is the fact that it's a continuous adrenalin rush. It pushes you to the extreme of challenging yourself and growing other individuals along with you. You learn about your limitations - as soon as you've achieved something and you think you can't do better, you know you can do better.”

Following her divorce five years ago, Westman also had to learn to juggle personal and professional responsibilities as a single parent. “My day usually starts at about six with getting the kids ready for school, making sure lunches and bags are packed, dropping them off and getting to work at around 7:30 or 8. Then it's really about planning and preparation. Without preparation, I would not have been able to achieve the results I have achieved this year.

“It really has been my biggest winning card. In everything I do, I make sure I am prepared, and if I'm not able to do it I make sure I have a team that is well informed and balanced that can handle it.”

Life lessons

This ability to delegate is something Westman says she's had to learn over the years. “I can be very hot-headed sometimes because I'm very passionate about what I do and I hate losing. But there are ways in which you can win that it ends up being a win-win situation. I've had to learn how to get the balance of winning and keeping relationships intact.”

Being truthful is more important than trying to please everyone around you.

Jacqui Westman

Part of the learning process has been encountering “remarkable people that really want you to succeed”, says Westman. “I've had different mentors in different aspects of my career. Mentors who have taught me to ask questions and to have the confidence to go and knock down those doors; mentors who have helped me stretch myself beyond my own limitations; and mentors who were purely clinical, who helped me differentiate between the factual and non-factual, the objective and subjective. That has been a big help in understanding where individuals are coming from.”

The biggest challenge in her career path, says Westman, was being desperately unhappy and feeling she couldn't approach the situation - and hoping it would get better by itself. “With time you learn that there are ways you can approach someone, and do it with a level head. I think the big thing is finding your voice - your voice, not someone else's.”

She adds that becoming a mother had an impact on the way she did business. “It makes you realise the effect you have on people's lives and I became gentler in my approach in dealing with people. It's given me a sense of patience I never had before.”

Next chapter

Having achieved all this under the age of 40, Westman says the next step is hopefully to manage a global account. “I would also like to grow and mentor people who really want to taste success and who won't give up at the first sign of conflict in a deal - who will achieve no matter what. I've had to do that my whole life. Especially with being a single mom, I've had to think, 'If I give up, what kind of example am I setting for my children? How will it affect them if I throw in the towel at any point? Sometimes you have to put your big girl panties on and just get on with it.”

This sense of delivering 'no matter what' is something Westman loves about the US, where she travelled recently to receive her award. “Every time I travel there I'm like a little girl on Christmas morning. I love the fact that the States has respect for individuals and I love the customer service and politeness we receive when we're there. Nothing is too much effort for a customer - in SA, we have a bit of a challenge receiving the same level of service.”

How does one go about changing that? Westman believes it's down to attitude. “It's a mental state of mind; it's about changing your outlook and not doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You need to look and learn and not think you know everything.”

Dealing with change is something that comes with the territory, says Westman, with new players coming in and out of the IT industry the whole time. “This is also having a major impact on the way people interact with customers in IT. This is good for SA and we need to think how we can innovate for the world out there. We need to realise the global impact is coming and ready ourselves.”

Westman believes there are infinite opportunities for the younger generation to make their mark in this regard. “I would really encourage the youth to embrace technology now and understand how they can leverage it for their future careers. There are many companies offering programmes that nurture youth so they can excel, and there's every opportunity for young people these days to fulfil their dreams.”

She adds that the landscape is changing for women in IT, which is often seen as a male-dominated industry. “I would say to any young woman who wants to pursue a career in IT that the most important thing is the ability to uphold a clean reputation. Keep the respect of your peers and individuals in the industry, because it is a small industry.”

“Secondly, don't ever think that the world is too big for you. I never believed I would win this award, but if you surround yourself with the right people, people who are not always like you, but who challenge you, those are the people who are going to make you grow.”

Westman plans to dedicate the rest of the year to stabilising her children and supporting her daughter's sporting achievements while helping Jordan, who she says is finally on the road to recovery. “My children are what make it all worth it. They know the financial institution I work for backwards and they are very central to me keeping it together. When you see fear in a child's eye and he keeps asking you why this is happening to him, it teaches you to be so brave. Seeing that fear is something no parent ever wants to see.”

Yet, Westman has no regrets, and says she wouldn't change anything about her journey so far. “I've learnt so much through the life I've lived and it's taught me to be the person I am today. It has enabled me to give words of inspiration to people close to me and shown me how much I can give as an individual.”

Her guiding principle, says Westman, has been honesty. ”Being truthful is more important than trying to please everyone around you, because you can never please everyone. And being truthful doesn't mean you have to hurt people - there are ways of delivering information in a kind way.

“It's all about finding your voice.”

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