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More Than Surviving – Meet Lillian Barnard, Managing Director at Microsoft South Africa

Written by Staff Writer

January 11, 2022

By Fiona Wakelin 

What is your “why” – what drives you?

 I am passionate about driving results through people – developing their gifts and talents, enabling them to become the best versions of themselves.  In the workplace, I see myself as the Chief People Officer first – and with this comes that responsibility to create a culture that enables people to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and be embraced for that individuality – and truly enable a diverse and inclusive workplace.

I also believe in the power of technology – and the critical role it is playing in enabling an inclusive economic recovery.  Digital technologies have the capability to not only transform organisations, but also to solve some pressing societal challenges through innovation and partnership.

 What is your approach to the challenges and what have you learnt that you can share with us.

 I have learned that career paths are not linear – those valleys, detours and obstacles are critical for us to discover how strong we truly are. Over the years, I have developed a list of my personal learnings on what it takes to not only approach, but also overcome hurdles. I have found that hard skills are one thing (and very important), but there are seven soul skills that I have embraced as part of my journey to success:

  • Power
  • Purpose
  • Positive attitude 
  • Clarity
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Communication


What is your take on the trajectory of the ICT sector?

 I am excited about how we have, and continue to make technology more accessible – to help people and businesses throughout the world realise their full potential.   

 I echo the thoughts of our CEO, Satya Nadella, who believes that AI is the defining technology of our times and it sits at the core of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). 

 We are seeing businesses accelerate the digitisation of every part of their operations –  from manufacturing to sales and customer service – to reimagine how they meet customer needs – from curb-side pickup and contactless shopping in retail, to telemedicine in healthcare. 

 The primary catalyst for this progress and disruption is the explosive growth in data, and the emergence of powerful AI and machine learning tools that can reveal correlations and unlock insights in all that data. 

 Across industries, organisations achieving the greatest success are doing more than just implementing existing tech – they are developing their own digital capabilities and proprietary solutions that use data and AI to address the challenges they face and seize new opportunities.

How do you see your role as MD of Microsoft SA contributing to diversity and inclusion, and ensuring a new generation of women in the IT workplace?

Now, in my role as local managing director of a leading global company, I am passionate about paying that mentorship forward to the incoming generation of women in the workplace. I believe it is our responsibility as business leaders to foster an inclusive working environment that enables all employees to do their best work and serve the diverse needs of customers. It’s important that we promote gender equality as a business enabler in our respective organisations, and encourage dialogue and discussion among all employees to empower them to do the same.

I remember taking a moment to absorb and take in the tremendous pride that Microsoft South Africa truly believes in the transformative power of diversity and inclusion. This is evident in the steady progress we’ve made to increase female representation in the company.

But there is still work to be done – at Microsoft, in organisations throughout South Africa and the rest of the world. Building diverse and inclusive employee populations is a long-term commitment which requires a deliberate strategy, and importantly success will not happen overnight.

I have realised that life is a continuous learning journey of self-discovery. My message to women is to seek guidance and mentorship from other leaders, male and female, that you aspire to emulate. Learn from them and teach others around you along the way..

Is Africa prepared for 5IR – and what will this mean for the continent?

As much as we talk about the need for intensive ICT investment into infrastructure and the technology that will support the continent’s engagement in the 4IR, this will not happen without the human infrastructure to support the technology. For Africa to fully realise the opportunities brought about by digital transformation and 4IR, it is vital we have strong ICT skills.

In Harambee’s report on mapping digital and ICT roles, there is a forecasted demand for ~66,000 people in digital and ICT roles in the next year, some of which will be latent demand; with an estimated ~45,000 entry-level jobs; suitable for youth.

We know that there are many technical skills that are scarce locally, but see an opportunity for reskilling current teams, and upskilling young people as the workforce of the future.

 On a more personal note, who are your favourite authors and which books are you currently reading?

 I am an avid reader and I would be hard pressed to decide on my favourite authors, but I can tell you that I love quotes and believe that the right quote, at the right time, can spur you into action.

 I am often drawn to quotes from Maya Angelou and reference her words where I can… The quote that stands out the most is ‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.’

 What are the three things you would like to tell your younger self?

  • Find confidence in your abilities early and make a daily demand on your courage.
  • Be patient.
  • Don’t ever stop learning. 


Do you have a message for organisations out there struggling to survive?

For South African businesses looking to survive, and thrive, now is the time to take the adoption and deployment of digital technologies seriously. Where you can, reskill employees with the skills to thrive in a digital economy.

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