2020’s Community Conversations gave CFOs a space to learn and share

We look back at the value that finance professionals found in gathering online to share and discuss challenges.

South Africa’s business community faced unprecedented challenges this year. CFO South Africa brought executive communities together to share experiences and learn from others in the same position.

Cash flow is king
In terms of financial resilience, CFOs agreed to the simple basic business principle that cash flow is king. Additionally they felt that South African business is headed into uncharted territory, and that resilience is the crucial element that will support leadership and the broader workforce through this time.

There was great awareness of the fact that lockdown and the resulting business fall-out would have a strong emotional impact on all South Africans and people needed to focus on wellness during this time.

Read more: "Cashflow is King" and other lessons from online Covid-19 CFO Community Conversation

Adopting a growth mindset
In another conversation CFOs and their teams shared how they were learning new skills and ways of working during lockdown.

Ten finance professionals gathered online to talk about some of the hardest things they’d had to deal with during Covid-19 and the lessons they had learnt from these challenges.

“I thought I had mastered communication, but it has only been in one manner – face to face,” Allan Gray CFO Claire Soloman said. “I’ve learned that communication is a lot more than that. You need to learn a new set of skills for virtual communication.”

Publicis FD Karen Clarke believes it’s equally important to safeguard your own state of mind. She sometimes has to tell her team that she is not available in order to focus on herself.

Verimark CFO Bryan Groome agreed, saying that he had seen the increased enthusiasm for innovation coming from his team. “Everyone is trying to think of new initiatives, trying to say what can we do differently and thinking about what we can do next,” he said. “I think after lockdown we are going to see a lot of new great ideas being implemented in companies.”

Read more: CFOs and their teams are learning new skills and ways of working during lockdown

The positives of Covid-19
In a conversation where CFOs were invited to consider the good, the bad and the ugly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, then MTN Group CFO Ralph Mupita said:

“The next 12 months are going to be very bumpy and challenging. We need to tighten our belts, put our seatbelts on. There are a lot of unknown unknowns right now, but this will come to an end. Businesses need to be ready for the new ‘normal’, so it’s not enough to focus on risk mitigation, but preparing for the future as well.”

Ted Willcox, the CFO of PepsiCo SSA, highlighted some of the “good” that his organisation had uncovered in the crisis. “One of our aspirations as an organisation is to focus on doing things faster. There can be some red tape in a big group like ours and we’ve managed to cut through that over these times by getting the right people in the virtual room at the right time and moving forward to rapidly close in on decisions.”

Competition Tribunal head of finance Devrani Moonsamy said that proceeding with daily outputs through online meeting platforms, digital signatures and other technology available had allowed the company to completely digitalise. “A good thing is that we will continue to work digitally.”

Niniza Sithole, head of finance, shared services division at Rand Water, agreed that the loss of travel time had opened up new opportunities. “People who haven’t been stuck in traffic are less tired. They can be more creative in their productivity, and devote more hours to the work that they are doing. Covid-19 is forcing us to think outside the box. And not just about your company, but South Africa as a whole.”

Read more: Finance leaders discuss Covid-19 positives during latest CFO Community Conversation

The responsibility to people, not just numbers
In one of the community conversations, CFOs agreed that the first thing leaders should do during a crisis is to look after their staff.

Barloworld CFO Nopasika Lila said, “As we go through change, growth is inevitable. As leaders, we are trained and experienced to manage people and situations in tested environments. So while we have a crisis plan, it may not be tested, ready or appropriate for extraordinary or sudden disruptive situations and emergencies.”

The four key lessons Nopasika highlighted that she believed were essential for leaders and CFOs during these uncertain times were:

1. Demonstrate confidence as a leader
You need to decisively take charge of the situation and make sound and informed decisions. Don’t underestimate the importance of instinct in uncertain waters.

2. Be alert and aware of the business climate and the world around us
As a CFO you are expected to detect the early signs of a crisis, outline the precautionary measures around mitigating and managing risks, ascertain the impact of the crisis on the business and the stakeholders, and ensure business remains sustainable.

3. Show empathy towards the situation
Support your stakeholders emotionally on an ongoing basis. We can also receive a lot of growth from teams if we listen to them.

4. Communication and availability
You have to show up, be present and communicate to all stakeholders and continuously provide reassurance that things are being managed.

Aveng CFO Adrian Macartney added that leaders should be authentic and aware in terms of their team members and the things they were going through. He added that they should communicate extensively and recognise the efforts of individuals and teams, make hard calls and be prepared to change them, be calm and demonstrate control, and look after themselves physically and emotionally.

Read more: CFOs agree that the first thing leaders should do during a crisis is to look after their staff

In another gathering, the conversation centered around the importance of striking a balance between people and profit. Rivasha Maharaj, the CFO of the AFGRI Group, spoke about her experiences since the start of lockdown. She said, “Finding balance is important and this is a time for change. We need to think about business and people differently. This has forced a complete mind change in our managers in terms of trust and respect. Our employees have come to the party like cream on a cake. They produce all their material, they don’t miss their deadlines … I would work from home every day if this is the kind of productivity you get.”

Walter Leonhardt, the financial director of Coca-Cola Beverages SA, said that his management team believes that by caring for their people to the best of their ability, the profitability will follow.

Noloyiso Mhlubulwana, the financial director of Tsebo Facilities Solutions, outlined the importance of different areas of the business working together towards a common goal. "We had to adjust and work closely with HR, in order to support our employees. We've been working with employees, working with clients to keep them motivated during these tough times. We’re trying different things to be supportive to clients and employees and staying on top of that cash flow."

Michael Meiring, the CFO of Nokia, said that while the demand for technology has been increasing, they were aware that they had to be cautious moving into the future. “We trial and weather the storm. As a company, we are maintaining our cost-saving measures as we are committed to our shareholders. It is important for us to be sustainable into the future.”

Read more: CFO Community Conversation looks into striking a balance between people and profit

Ethical leadership
As reports of Covid-19 related finance scandals made headlines in 2020, conversations centred around ethics were extremely important to have. In one of the conversations, leadership and ethics guru Claudelle von Eck shared research and stories of organisations who supposedly embodied an ethical culture but in reality were living a lie.

Claudelle said that when events have played out in South Africa in recent years, admitting fault is not something that the leadership easily does, which creates further reputational damage. “So clearly, if you look at all the role players, everyone in the leadership played a role in the problem.”

Another factor that often contributes to a lack of ethics in the workplace is the lack of communication around ethics to the lower level employees. “We make the assumption that when we use the term ethics everyone understands it the same way,” Claudelle said. “We need to ensure that what we are saying is understood the way we want it to be understood.”

Hatch Africa CFO Craig Sumption said he believed the key was for organisations to ensure they built a robust, mature executive team. “You need to be able to have those tough discussions from time to time, without it being accusatory. In too many organisations, things get swept under the carpet because people don’t want to talk about them. That’s when everyone becomes subtly complicit in the process by not saying what they should, because they’re too scared to say something.”

The attendees agreed that the only way to foster an ethical culture is to ensure that employees felt safe and that they trusted their leadership.

Adcock Ingram CFO Dorette Neethling said that in order to gain that trust, leaders needed to encourage employees to speak up without being victimised afterwards. “If they’re allowed to speak up and raise concerns you create trust that leads to ethical behaviour.”

For DHL Express CFO Craig Henery, one-on-one conversations with all his staff, on an ongoing basis, helped to build that relationship of trust and openness. “If there is an issue or concern they feel comfortable to come to come to you and confide in you.”

Claudelle asserted that leaders need to hold each other accountable. “When you have a big organisation with various divisions you can find that in some of those divisions there is openness, but in another division there is a climate of fear because of the leaders. When leaders from other divisions see this culture of fear develop, they need to put pressure on that leader to change their behaviour or leave the organisation.”

Read more: CFO Community Conversation: Ethical leadership is more than just a lip service

CFOs making a difference in the world around them
One Community Conversation discussed the power of purpose. The attendees shared how they aligned their personal purpose with the purpose of their organisations to help drive growth.

Mars CFO Sam Hopwood said his personal purpose for the South African business was about developing a long-term, sustainable organisation that every associate in South Africa would be proud of. “That for me is twofold, the first is the business KPIs and value creation, the second is talent and people development.”

Sam explained that he had a strong passion and responsibility to ensure that he was growing his team, and building the succession plan for himself and for the rest of the leadership team, so that when he leaves, the business and people will be in a better place than they’ve ever been before.

ETDP Seta CFO Nonhlanhla Mona said that she didn’t know what her purpose was until she came across a phrase by poet Maya Angelou, saying, “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.”
Nonhlanhla explained that she was not a survivalist, but thrives in everything she does – and does it with passion. “I have a lot of compassion, which is why I am attracted to people, people development and mentoring. I believe I do it with a lot of humour and style.”

Deloitte Africa CFO Jen McDonald said that she had taken her organisation’s purpose and applied it to her personal life. “I’m a very big believer of work-life integration, and so it makes sense to me to work for an organisation whose purpose resonates with mine.”

Read more: CFOs discuss the power of bringing their purpose to work