Be the change - it's there for the taking, says Graham Fehrsen


To embrace change you need to be real, says CFO SA's MD, Graham Fehrsen

Wake up before you get up
I was 12 years old when a school master used a certain phrase on me. He said, “Fehrsen, you need to wake up in the morning before you get up!” And he would say this with the sort of authority and passion that made me stop and question him and the phrase. I was never good with authority or throw-away statements. The short version of this discussion was that I had a real awakening in my pre-teenage years that life required me to be actively conscious if I was going to be successful at anything. The alternative was to wander around half asleep and never take responsibility for my actions.

Later in life I realised that my “wake up” was as much about figuring out what I know or don’t know and doing as much as possible to understand that. Sometimes hindsight helps, but mostly it was about whether I was open to a new perspective that could shape my attitude. 

I’m truly grateful to have worked with and for some very talented and dynamic women in my career, mostly for the subtle, and sometimes less subtle, insights they helped me gain around the real issues women face in the workplace. The immensely powerful #MeToo campaign was huge wake up to many men I have talked to over the last few months. Not because they didn’t see that sexual harassment or assault was problematic but rather that their understanding of what constitutes harassment was reshaped. Perhaps most importantly they realised that the responsibility for the behaviour and attitude of men towards women in the workplace was theirs as individuals. A genuine “Wake up before you get up” scenario.

Who I am will always be more important than what I am 
I’ve written about this idea more than any other, saying over and over that my work exposes me to incredible people. It isn’t that they’re smart CFOs, respected leaders, captains of industry or genuine groundbreakers that leaves an indelible mark on me. It’s that they’re very real – open, honest, transparent, curious and kind. Whether I look at public servants, corporate leaders, inspiring entrepreneurs or the couple of young people that I’ve had the privilege of mentoring over the last few years, the one thing that stands head and shoulders above all else is their ability to navigate change by embracing it – warts and all. And the only way I can see that they do this is by being real. Sadly, I’ve also met a string of people whose titles, egos and self acclaimed success lead in all they do and they neither inspire nor have much longevity with people around them.

I believe this set of ‘magic’ ingredients is what sets the great apart and helps them influence every environment they operate in and leave people around them wanting to make a meaningful contribution.

Talk is cheap
With all the rhetoric we’ve heard in the last year, I believe very strongly that courageous individuals who lead with their actions will help us really shift South Africa. This is why CFO SA decided that in 2018, under the slogan ‘Be the Change’, we would host some of South Africa’s most inspirational and action-oriented business leaders, entrepreneurs and everyday people on stages and around dinner tables. Our hope is to inspire even more people to take small actions to help South Africa become the place so many hope it can be.

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Live in the now
This year ahead holds many unknowns for all of us. Our hopes and fears, some rooted in the past and some ahead of us, tend to paralyse us into a constant loop of thinking and analysing our lives rather than living them. There is nothing wrong with reflecting on the past or imagining a better or different tomorrow, but I find that too much of either of these diminishes the capacity for action and living. That’s why I decided to let go of the things that are beyond my control, try hard to stay in the moment and live in the now.

I was asking one of South Africa’s most respected headhunters how they cope with the pressure of their work and balance a young family, and the response took me a little by surprise. “My thoughts are not my reality and if I come back to the present and live by what is in front of me I am infinitely more successful.” It’s taken some time for that idea to sink in, but the more I practice it, the more it works for me. Try it.

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