Cathie Lewis - When you look at business through a sustainability lens, your thought processes, decisions and actions change

Cathie Lewis - When you look at business through a sustainability lens, your thought processes, decisions and actions change
Cathie Lewis - Group Company Secretary at Grindrod Limited

As group company secretary at Grindrod Limited, Cathie heads up governance, which she explains as helping make sure the company does what it's supposed to do, and jokes that her job is to try and save the world.

After completing her legal degree, Cathie lectured in law which she loved, but after five years she decided there had to be something more out there. She went into private practice, and started her articles. "The timing wasn't great," she remembers, "my daughter was only two months old." Nevertheless, she completed her articles and qualified as an attorney and conveyancer, going on to start her own firm.

Undaunted by change, Cathie's next move was into the corporate world, working as head of legal services at a steel company before moving to Durban to join Grindrod. "I have a wonderful job," she says. "It's a great company and I get to influence the agenda and make sure things work. And I meet wonderful people every day."

"Yes, I do sometimes take minutes," she smiles, "but it's so much more than that." It's Cathie's job to make sure that the board meets their legal and regulatory obligations, but she also has wide-ranging responsibilities. In effect, she is part of the company's conscience when it comes to ensuring corporate integrity matters more than short-term profits.

Looking at business holistically

"I've always had an understanding that we need to do better; both as individuals and organisations," she says. "I love my corporate governance role, but sustainability is my greatest motivation." Explaining that while traditionally we have always evaluated business in financial terms, we need to look at any organisation holistically, whether a business, a church organisation, or even your personal life. "You need to consider how you are positioned in the bigger scheme of things," she points out. "How do you impact on your community, your social environ-ment and certainly your natural environment?"

"When you look at business through a sustainability lens, your thought processes, decisions and actions change." Using the example of buying a business, Cathie argues that instead of considering the financial ratios, businesses should consider the value creation in a wider context. "We have a significant unemployment problem in South Africa, and should be considering whether buying that new business has the potential for real social impact, like job creation or opportunities for upskilling staff."

For Cathie, it's not just about your employees or business partners; she strongly advocates considering the impact of decisions on wider communities. "As corporate citizens, we need to acknowledge that no man is an island, and everything in life is about relationships. We need healthy relationships to prosper. And this extends to the natural environment too. We have a responsibility, not just to limit negative impact, but to go further and create a positive impact. And there are companies getting this right.

Our planet has finite resources, so we can't just create a production and consumption economy, we have to use what we have with better impact. Growth in value is not just financial, value needs to be relative to society, people and the environment too."

Cathie says she's inspired by many people, but highlights Angela Merkel as "uber-cool". "She's shown remarkable leadership, faced difficult challenges, and dealt with difficult people, calmly and tenaciously. She's been instrumental in fundamental shifts in the way people think and understand the value of caring for people. She believes that everyone is entitled to a piece of the sun; that you don't discriminate against people just because they look different or speak a different language."

Asked whether she believes women need to act differently to men to succeed in business, she points out that we are inherently different, and need to be true to ourselves. "Don't try to be something you're not. But nothing is impossible just because you're a woman. Yes, sometimes physical strength can be a limitation, but use the strengths you have.

I'm encouraged to see the rise of women in traditionally male roles. And here at Grindrod we actively encourage women to follow the path they want, and we do have women boiler makers and truck drivers."

Build resilience

Cathie is very grateful for what she's achieved so far. "But I know we are all the sum total of the graces of other people. I've had a charmed life, with a happy, secure childhood, wonderful parents and very few concerns, but I do warn my children that life is tough. We need to build their resilience so they can cope when they have to face life's challenges."

And while grateful, she's certainly not satisfied. "We're messing up the environment at such a scale that I suffer from climate change angst. (It's a real thing!) It's messing up people's lives, with a huge impact on agriculture and health, and I aim to make a real contribution. But despite my climate change angst, I'm a positive happy person, and I have a good work-life balance. I love my job and I love to work. But I love to spend time with family and friends, play with my dogs, and swim in the sea too. Or just waste time on the couch."

Try your best

If Cathie could give her younger self advice it would be this: "Don't take yourself too seriously and keep your sense of humour. Relax. If things aren't perfect don't lose sleep; just try your best and if you fail, try again."

http://www.kzntopbusiness.co.za/site/kzn-top-business-woman/Cathie-Lewis/page/10256

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